Transition: From Walled-in with Thoreau to Take-off with Buckminster Fuller

“We can never get enough of nature,” Thoreau says (297), yet we will soon have turned the entire planet into garbage. But, as Slavoj Žižek has said, we must learn to love garbage, for it reflects our imperfections (Examined Life, at 1:04:40). “I desire to speak somewhere without bounds,” Thoreau says, in the Walden chapter titled “Conclusion” (303). He was aware of the pun. In “The Ponds” chapter, he says, “I detect the paver. If the name was not derived from that of some English locality, – Saffron Walden, for instance – one might suppose that it was called, originally, Walled-in Pond” (173).

“The universe is wider than our views of it,” Thoreau says (299), yet he’s limited to worldwide travel in wooden boats. But he’s aware of the limitation, and the ambiguity of his predicament: “The other side of the globe is but the home of our correspondent. Our voyaging is only great-circle sailing” (299). Travel, for vacation or business, amounts to the same thing, for we cannot vacate ourselves, but must bring us with us on any trip. Thus Thoreau proposes that we travel to “whole new continents and worlds within [us], opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought,” for “there are continents and seas in the moral world” (300). And why should we make such a trip? “How worn and dusty the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world” (302). He “will pass an invisible boundary” (303). How will he pay for the trip? “Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul” (308).

“What is the most important thing we can be thinking about?,” Buckminster Fuller asked his grandson on the way to LAX (8). Thoreau comments, as if riding in the backseat of the car, “My neighbors tell me of their adventures with famous gentlemen and ladies, what notabilities they met at the dinner-table; but I am no more interested in such things than in the contents of the Daily Times. The interest and the conversation are about costume and manners chiefly; but a goose is a goose, dress it as you will” (308).

And a planet is a planet, Fuller might have responded, and how will we address it? “What are men celebrating?,” Thoreau asks (308). Thoreau was not a specialist, and he celebrates, in Walden, his non-specialist skills, the ability to cross over the boundaries of disciplines. This is why there are so many ways of looking at Walden, and why Thoreau (like Fuller) was an inventor – his vision was not walled-in by the format of a specialized discipline. Buckminster Fuller was also a non-specialist who avoided the traps of specialization and categories (because, as we will see Fuller explain, specialization leads to extinction). And specialization leads to artificial categorical definitions of all kinds that place claims on individual lives: “This ‘sovereign’ – meaning top-weapons enforced – ‘national’ claim upon humans born in various lands leads to ever more severely specialized servitude and highly personalized identity classification,” Fuller says. “As a consequence of the slavish ‘categoryitis,’ the scientifically illogical, and as we shall see, often meaningless questions ‘Where do you live?’ ‘What are you?’ ‘What religion?’ ‘What race?’ What nationality?’ are all thought of today as logical questions,” yet, Fuller says, “These questions are absurd” (p. 31). The specialist is the go-to man, yet Fuller says, “All universities have been progressively organized for ever finer specialization. Society assumes that specialization is natural, inevitable, and desirable” (25), dangerous assumptions, for, as Fuller says, “society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking” (24).

Thoreau was a comprehensive thinker, but he only glimpsed, in his criticism of the railroad, the damage that was to occur, or how worldwide poverty would belie his dictum, “Love your life, poor as it is” (307). He would have been appalled at the costs we’ve incurred, the lack of generalist and comprehensive thinking. Thoreau’s Walden was published in 1854, Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in 1969. The juxtaposition of the two works (though published 115 years apart) creates a dialog between Thoreau and Fuller, a conversation that might suggest answers to where we’ve been, where we might have gone, where we appear to be headed, and where we still might have the possibility to go.

Fuller, R. Buckminster. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. First published, 1969. New edition, Baden/Switzerland: Lars Muller Publishers, 2008/2011 [Edited with Introduction by Jaime Snyder].

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

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