A Dose of Reality Emerges in L.A.
By Peter Catalano 11.28.1991
Ideas: The Ecletic Group Meets to Consider and Discuss What One of its Founders Says is the Only News—Science.
It seems like ages since anyone sat down to write a bare knuckles manifesto challenging our national intelligentsia.
Last spring, however, New York literary agent John Brockman fired a fusillade over the bow with a short monograph he calls "The Emerging Third Culture."
Brockman's essay says that scientists, not the literary Establishment, are the cream of America's brainpower, the thinkers who make the United States "the intellectual seedbed for Europe and Asia."
The Brockman manifesto has quietly circulated here and in Europe.
For 10 years Brockman has been disseminating his ideas in hundreds of free floating symposiums that he facetiously calls the Reality Club.
Friday evening the Reality Club comes to Los Angeles for the first time.
A few weeks ago, 200 invitations went out to a wildly diverse group of writers, publishers, entrepreneurs and scientists, among them: Andra Akers who directs a Los Angeles think tank called International Synergy; Joseph Traub, a computer scientist visiting Caltech this semester; Traub's wife Pamela McCorduck, author of "Machines Who Think"; naturalist Jared Diamond; Paul Krassner, editor of the Realist; James Stigler, an education professor at UCLA, and Jaron Lanier, who runs VPL Research, a virtual reality firm near San Francisco.
This is the first time the club (which is financed by donations to Brockman's nonprofit Edge Foundation) has met on the West Coast since 1981 in San Francisco.
Despite the dearth of meetings in California, Brockman has not sought an East Coast focus, he says. "Last year for the entire year we didn't have one New York meeting. But still it's going strong. We had something going in Santa Fe, Tucson, three meetings in Europe, and a lot of people who happened to be at the meetings were from New York. I intentionally avoided the whole idea of a close-knit Bloomsbury-type clique dominating a single group."
Hosting the Los Angeles event will be Michael Nesmith, the former Monkee and video pioneer. Addressing the meeting will be writer Russell Jacoby speaking on "Liberal Education in a Conservative Age."
The subtext for all of this will be the "emerging third culture" thesis. Brockman credits the term to C.P. Snow, who wrote that there were two cultures among the intelligentsia, the literary intellectuals and the scientists, that somehow the literary faction had usurped the title of intellectual, but that a third culture would emerge and close the gap between the two groups.
Different from Snow's vision of the literary and scientific cultures merging, Brockman's idea is that third culture scientists don't need the literary Establishment. They do their own writing, directly communicating their ideas to the public. They are people like the late physicist Richard Feynman, author of a number of popular books about physics, or anthropologist Stephen Jay Gould, who writes best-selling books about his field for the mainstream reader.
According to Stewart Brand, as quoted in Brockman's manifesto: "Science is the only news. When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics, the same sorry cyclic drama, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness and even the technology is predictable if you know the science. Human nature hasn't changed much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly."
"I'm not trying to ignore the arts," Brockman says. "The Reality Club is filled with artists. And the artists are almost like a weather vane for society, they have their antenna out checking these new ideas and filtering them through their work rendering them visible in different ways and feeding them back. But I haven't seen the same from the literary intellectual crowd.
"In terms of the Reality Club, we have invited many of the major novelists to come and talk and there's nothing, no response. Why? I would imagine that one explanation might be that they are afraid of looking like they're frauds, that they don't know anything.
"I think that the scientists of the third culture have their feet in the starting blocks of a new culture that we all have to know about. And I think it's much more exciting than going back to those white boys who went to Harvard in the 1950s and haven't learned a thing since."
"I'm somewhat skeptical about that as a stance," says Russell Jacoby, the club's speaker here on Friday, proving that even among Reality Clubbers, Brockman does not go uncontested.
"Whether science is news and everything else is dull, I'm skeptical. The world is made up of wars and poverty, love and hate. We can say that's old stuff. What's more boring? On the other hand they are our lives and that makes it interesting and important. I'm less convinced that this can be dismissed. And what does it mean that we've made such great strides in science and science is so exciting and meanwhile the human, the social and political world seem to be sinking into a dung heap?"
"Science may be the only news. I tend to agree with that," says Lynn Margulis, a professor of botany at the University of Massachusetts and regular participant in the Reality Club. "But it is a very different statement from privileging scientists as high priests in our culture. They fall prey to the same type of futile theorizing as literary people."
Such will be the issues that will arise at the Los Angeles soiree. How edifying the answers are will depend on the intellectual chemistry of the guests who arrive at Michael Nesmith's house.
At a Reality Club meeting last August at Brockman's country home in Connecticut, about 20 guests heard an MIT researcher discuss genetic engineering, and a Columbia University professor lecture on the failings of Western science to research the paranormal claims of Eastern religions.
The afternoon concluded with Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barflow expounding on his concern that the federal government ruthlessly tracks down pubescent cyberpunk pranksters. ■
First published by Los Angeles Times November 28, 1991.