By Steven Levy, Summer 1987
JOHN BROCKMAN is a New York City literary agent and author. His books include By the Late John Brockman (Macmillan, 1969), 37 (Holt, Reinhart, 1970), and Afterwords (Doubleday/Anchor Books, 1973)—cult books of the seventies, known for cryptic musings in areas ranging from cybernetics to post-modernism. (One typical page from a Brockman book has only the words: "Nobody knows and you can't find out. ") He has been Whole Earth's literary agent since 1979.
But Brockman also has a much less well-known distinction—he is founder of the Reality Club, a unique forum for challenging ideas such as those featured in this issue. John thought he could best explain the group in interview format, so as a fellow Reality Club member and WER contributor, I got together with him on a cold February night at the Knickerbocker Restaurant in Greenwich Village. There, my tape recorder sat beside his steak dinner and my plate of pasta and recorded the following conversation.
Well, not exactly. Reality seldom is so simple. What actually occurred was that the tape was transcribed and later edited and amended by John, J. Baldwin and myself in a spirit of accuracy and coherence.
Steven Levy: I think we'd better begin by explaining what the Reality Club is.
John Brockman: The motto of the Reality Club is "to arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they're asking themselves." We hold free for-all meetings once or twice a month, usually in New York. The evening consists of a talk or presentation by a speaker of about one hour to Reality Club members. The talk is followed by lively and often impolite discussion. We charge the speakers to represent an idea of reality by describing their creative work, life, and the questions they're asking themselves. We also want them to share with us the boundaries of their knowledge and experience.
SL: Who are these people?
JB: We have a simple criterion for choosing speakers. We look for people whose exceptional creative work has expanded our notion of who and what we are. In addition to the 14 contributors in this issue of Whole Earth Review, the 75 speakers have included psychologist Rollo May, zen master Richard Baker-Roshi, Abbie Hoffman, poet Michael McClure, essayist Annie Dillard, poet Gerd Stern, energy experts Amory and Hunter Lovins, Ellen Burstyn, Betty Friedan, computer scientist Edward Feigenbaum, plant physiologist Rupert Sheldrake, physicist Fritjof Capra, religious historian Elaine Pagels, anthropologist-shaman Michael Harner, director Richard Foreman, gerontologist Roy Walford, sociologist Sherry Turkle, and Stewart Brand.
SL: How did the Reality Club get started? What led to this thing happening?
JB: James Lee Byars, the conceptual artist, and I used to spend a part of every day walking in Central Park. He had a very interesting theory that reality was something you took off the tongue. I was intrigued with the idea that the words of the world are the life of the world. And that nature is not created, nature is said. Reality is a process of decreation. It's what people say it is. The world, the world that we know, is not necessarily out there, it's invention—human invention—an invention created by a finite number of people throughout history. I thought it would be interesting to track such people living today and find out what they're thinking about.
SL: When did you come up with the idea of meetings?
JB: In the mid-'60s, Dick Higgins of the Something Else Press invited me to a series of weekly meetings with the composer John Cage. Cage was interested in meeting young people in New York. The evenings had no particular agenda, it was simply Cage leading a discussion. Everyone in the room was erudite, filled with intellectual hunger, intellectual desire. Most of them went on to brilliant careers.
The sessions were held at Higgins' town house in the Chelsea area of New York. Cage would throw out some ideas and the talk would go around the room. Cage had an idea, which is mentioned in one of his books, that there's one mind—the one we all share. An idea could bounce back and forth across the room without ownership and yet have a life of its own and an evolution in and of itself.
Soon after, I began assembling my own evenings of avant garde artists, writers, sculptors, and poets to meet in an unscheduled, haphazard way at my apartment. No agenda, except to be in the presence of each other's intelligence.
Simultaneously, I was grappling with certain issues and ideas which were changing my own way of thinking. I was turned on to J. Z. Young by McLuhan. Young's idea was that man creates tools and then molds himself in their image. To me, this indicated that reality is manmade. The universe is an invention, a metaphor.
SL: It's rare to have a forum to consider these topics, unless you're in a university setting or something.
JB: Right. I find that in New York, there are very few opportunities to sit down with people and discuss ideas in a rigorous manner. Most interactions are either social or business, and it's a rare occasion and special treat to be able to sit down with people who are your equals and seriously discuss what you've been thinking about. It's funny you mention academia because my vision for the club—which I finally semi-formalized in 1981 to the point of calling it The Reality Club—came as a reaction to that. I remember I was on a long car trip with Katinka Matson, and I described to her what I thought was a witty idea for a club for the bright people I knew—most of whom were unable to get in any kind of club, fraternity or sorority in school because of their brains. This club would have its own club jacket, motto, and exclusive membership. And the name, of course, was a pun. Anyone who has read my books understands that my goal was to pose a challenge to contemporary ideas of language, thought, and reality. But the joke was on me. People took it very seriously, and still do. People like you, Steven. Facts smirk.
SL: How do you become a member of the Reality Club?
JB: If you give a talk, you're a member.
SL: How do you pick who talks?
JB: Finding the speakers is a word-of-mouth enterprise. Quite often it simply comes down to people who interest me. Or a member will call or talk to me during a meeting and suggest someone they are interested in hearing. There is no selection committee.
Very few of our speakers are bestselling authors or famous in the mass culture. It's my feeling that once someone achieves such status, often he or she is no longer worth listening to. I'm much more eager to hear ideas that have not been generally exposed. I am particularly drawn to people who can tell me I'm wrong. Most individuals, by the time they're 30, know almost as much as they're ever going to know, and the most important thing that they can get from another person is a sense of awkwardness, confusion, and contradiction. How do you live on the edge of the most sophisticated awareness that exists? Play the fool.
SL: Do you remember any specific occasions when someone in the Reality Club pulled the intellectual rug out from under you?
JB: Many occasions. I recall a talk given by Paul Ryan, our resident cyberneticist and a former Passionist monk. Even now, I still have no idea what the hell he is talking about, but listening to him, verbally assaulting his positions and in turn being decimated by his gentle and Jesuitical intellectual Tai Chi, ranks as one of my life's memorable experiences.
Another evening, I attempted to ask Lynn Margulis what's the point of talking about events which supposedly happened three billion years ago, i.e. how can the human mind even comprehend the idea of three billion years. As I recall, that was the last word I got in.
It's also not uncommon for a speaker to leave a meeting feeling like chopped liver, although the spirit of the meetings is good-natured and fun. One speaker who had been working on a paper for two years met with a hostile barrage of highly critical and yet well founded comments. He had put his life into his new theories, and I wondered how he would handle the negative response. The next day he called to tell me that the evening was a very useful experience as he had been working in intellectual isolation and was grateful for the opportunity to test his ideas out on a peer group. People with a deep knowledge of his field had wanted to set him right.
I think it's good that a speaker can't get away with loose claims. Maybe a challenging question will come from someone who knows an alternative theory that really threatens what the speaker had to say. On the other hand, someone might come up with a great idea totally out of left field that only someone outside the speaker's field could come up with. I think that's a really interesting dynamic.
SL: Do you have to work at keeping membership interdisciplinary?
JB: I work very hard at it, so much so that about a year ago, I diagnosed myself as having an advanced case of "founder's disease." Heinz Pagels stepped in and has provided us with the Council Room of the New York Academy of Sciences as a meeting place. Heinz hosts the evenings. The results have been energizing. Heinz has brought in some new blood.
SL: Alternatively, sometimes there's a problem in keeping people out of the Reality Club. I'm talking about the no-spouse rule.
JB: Our meetings are not social gatherings. No spouses, dates, children or friends. This guarantees our speakers an opportunity to present their ideas to a group of creative peers.
SL: Some people might read this and ask, "What kind of an elitist gang is this?" Is the Reality Club elitist?
JB: The Reality Club encourages people who can take the materials of the culture in the arts, literature, and science and put them together in their own way. We live in a mass-produced culture where most people, even many established cultural arbiters, limit themselves to second hand ideas, thoughts, opinions. The way this culture is going, most Americans are the mental equivalent of shopping malls. I believe that a tiny minority of people in the world do the signicant thinking for everyone else. We are elitist if that is construed as a group of people who create their own reality and not an ersatz reality. Our members are out there doing it rather than talking about and analyzing the people who are doing it.
SL: I notice there are never any tape recorders at the Reality Club, even though, in the couple years I've been going, I've heard some amazing people and sometimes wondered, "Why isn't this being preserved?" Not only the presentations, but sometimes the great discussions coming afterward.
JB: A number of the members feel that they'd be inhibited by having tape recorders present or the press in attendance. The Reality Club is a place where they can let their hair down, have some fun. As a matter of fact, you are one of the few journalist members. Just try writing about the Club and see what happens to your reality. It's understood that no one is going to write about details of specific meetings.
SL: If privacy is such a concern here, why have you decided to do a "Reality Club" issue of Whole Earth Review?
JB : That's a good question. We have not sought any publicity and yet a lot of people have been raising questions about the club, and media people have been calling and expressing interest in doing articles. And it occurred to me that if the word were to get out to the public about our activities, I'd rather have the channel be an audience that appreciates the ideas represented. So when the invitation from Whole Earth Review came, I decided to accept.
SL: How would you tell people to go about making their, own Reality Club?
JB: You mean franchising? That is a very Whole Earth Review kind of question.
SL: When people get out of college, a lot of them don't discuss ideas any more, though they might like to.
JB: The idea of having a Reality Club in every little town is not feasible. The Reality Club is not for everybody. I remember 15 years ago, talking with Gregory Bateson who was at that point lending his name and presence to organizations that had no real interest in or understanding of his epistemological endeavors. He pointed out that in the United States there was no university with a department of epistemology and there was no place for someone to make a living as an epistemologist. About that time, I flew to California just to sit and talk with him. He was giving a weekend seminar at John Lilly's place. About 20 people gathered to hear him for a full day in beautiful, sunny California weather. By 2:00 in the afternoon, half of them were lying down asleep. I mean sound asleep. They weren't interested. The number of people who desire to explore the epistemological rhythmics of human thought is relatively small.
SL: How do you get people to ask the questions that they're asking themselves rather than give canned presentations? Sometimes people will give what is obviously not the question they're asking themselves but questions they feel they've already answered. Those, to me, are the least successful presentations.
JB: In communications theory, information is not defined as data or input but rather as "a difference that makes a difference." It's this level I hope the speakers will achieve. You know the evening is a failure when instead of piercing questions and critiques, the speaker gets only polite smiles and accolades. I want speakers who are willing to take their ideas into the bull rings.
SL: For a while you were talking about plans for a Reality Club library. What happened to that?
JB: I want to find a permanent home in New York City for the Reality Club and an appropriate library. The Reality Club is not incorporated, has no budget, has no dues, has no speaker payments. It runs on pin money. Usually my pin money. But I believe in change, especially if it means I can retire as chief donor. We are open to the possibility of funding from a foundation or philanthropist.
SL: So what can we expect from reading this issue of Whole Earth Review?
JB: The articles presented in this issue are representative of Reality Club talks. All the contributors have spoken before the Club and in some cases the articles are adaptations of the talks. They explore the edges of thought in different disciplines.
SL: Do you think one day the Reality Club will be a legend like the Algonquin, the Apostles, the Bloomsbury Group or the Club?
JB: Nobody knows and you can't find out. The Reality Club is different from these groups, but offers the same quality of intellectual adventure. I am happy to report that the mind is alive and well on East 63rd Street. ■
First published by the Whole Earth Review, Summer 1987.