‘We are as Gods.’ The legacy of the Whole Earth Catalog

Steve Jobs said it was like ‘Google in paperback’. Hilary Wainwright reports from an exhibition and conference centred on the Whole Earth Catalog, first published in 1968

October 1, 2013
7 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute.

wholeearthThe Catalog’s back cover

Planet earth pictured from space. The whole earth. ‘We can’t put it together. It is together,’ declared the Whole Earth Catalog. With this image on every cover, the Catalog promised ‘access to tools’ that would enable individuals to realise their power to turn away from big business and government and become the centre of their own universe. In a statement of super-confident individualism, Stewart Brand, the founder of what become a 447-page, A3-sized handbook for the counterculture, declared in the first issue: ‘We are as Gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory – as via government, big business, formal education, church – has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response . . . a realm of intimate, personal power is developing – the power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.’

The first issue was dated ‘Fall 1968’ – the year that the anti-Vietnam war movement was at its height and the demonstrations at the Chicago Democratic Party convention just over. The repercussions of the Free Speech Movement at the University of Berkeley were still being felt. A text in a suggestive exhibition and conference, The Whole Earth: California and the disappearance of the outside, held in Berlin in July, indicates a key moment in the relationship between new left politics and the emerging self-change counterculture. It describes Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and, with Brand, a member of the ‘Merry Pranksters’, speaking at an anti-war rally in Berkeley – symbolising, so hoped the organisers, the convergence of the new left with the growing counterculture. Kesey simply stood up and announced to the audience, ‘You know, you’re not gonna stop this war with this rally, by marching . . . That’s what they do.’ He then pulled out his harmonica and played ‘Home on the Range’. A bit like the pied piper, he helped to inspire one of the biggest waves of commune building in American history.

The Catalog’s influence was immense.. It was one of many features of the Californian counterculture that prepared the way for the web and internet.

These commune builders were the Catalog’s target readership. With its extraordinary range of ‘stuff’, from mushroom-growing and soil-testing kits, through Troy-Bilt roto tillers and Gravely tractors, to mountain bikes, old buses and Pirelli inflatables, alongside all kinds of books to feed the imagination for ‘escape and evasion’ fantasies or curiosity to understand ‘whole systems’, it enabled its one million readers to be at home on the range at the same time as – at least in their imagination – contributing to an alternative to war. And you didn’t necessarily have to pay: ‘Most of the stuff in the Catalog can be borrowed free.’

For all their individual confidence, handy tools and adventurous reading habits, few of the communes survived for more than a year or so. The exhibition recounts stories indicating that in spite of the catalogue’s conceptual leaps, bringing together the cultural and the technical, it had little sense of the problems of creating alternative institutions to resist and overcome inequalities of power. The now well-known shadow of the tyranny of structurelessness fell heavily on the counterculture.

In the Whole Earth world, ‘the disappearance of the outside’ – the subtitle of the exhibition – implied self-organising systems. ‘The flow of energy through a system acts to organise a system,’ as the Catalog put it. The worldview of this unselfconsciously white and male-dominated culture ‘erased difference rather than engaged with it’, as one the curators, Anslem Franke, writes in his essay in the book accompanying the exhibition.

The Catalog’s influence was immense. Two current exhibitions in London, of Richard Rogers and David Bowie, include it among their subjects’ early reading matter. Apple co‑founder Steve Jobs described it in 2005 as ‘one of the bibles of my generation… like Google in paperback’. It was indeed one of many features of the Californian counterculture that prepared the way for the web and internet.

But what the Berlin exhibition and conference explored in an original way was the convergence of the utopian spontaneous harmony of the informationally empowered individual ‘following their own adventures’ – whether in the late 1960s through the Catalog or today through the web – with the ideology of the free market as a self-regulating equilibrium brought about by the invisible workings of the market.

The sociologist and philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato spelt it out: ‘The market and the web, the economy and cyberspace, no longer requiring regulation from an external body. Democracy reincarnated as “market democracy” becomes the political system of the 21st century and humanity as a whole. Market, democracy and technology at last turn the liberal dream into a reality.’

But the timing of the exhibition is significant as the financial crisis continues to remind people of the fatal flaw in the presumption of self-regulated financial markets. As Anslem Franke comments, ‘There is a sense that people are waking up from the dream of self-regulation and spontaneous integration. Our aim is to make cultural resources available when people find themselves in resistance to what is given.’

The exhibition’s resources are certainly plentiful. One such resource, drawn to my attention by Avery Gordon’s eloquent conference contribution, is the work of Herbert Marcuse. This was presented as part of the section of the exhibition entitled ‘The Earth is not whole’.

As Avery Gordon put it: ‘If the view from outer space – untethered and unmarked by the military industrial complex that enabled it – was an iconic image of the northern California “whole earth” counterculture, the view on the ground – (grass)rooted and indelibly marked by that which made you a recognisable outsider or a troublemaker – was the signifier of the third world or internationalist political culture that shadowed it.’

Marcuse argued, first in One Dimensional Man and then in Essay on Liberation, that individual acts of desire and escape would not change without a ‘Great Refusal’. ‘The Great Refusal was certainly cultural, but it was not merely a counterculture,’ says Gordon. ‘The Great Refusal was a demand for another form of life, one “worth living”.’ And it would require new ‘organs for the alternative’.

Marcuse talked about alternatives in a way that showed how seriously and critically he was engaging with the counterculture. Avery Gordon described how, for him, ‘developing “organs for the alternative” involves turning longings for something else – however muted or marginal or extreme – into vital needs, into things that you cannot and will no longer live without. [It] is about learning how to “anticipate” and “demonstrate” the “existential quality of the new form of life” in the very struggles for its realisation, about the “ingression of the future into the present”.’

We have seen this ‘ingression of the future into the present’ in feminism’s emphasis on prefiguration. We are seeing it now as an increasingly insistent feature of the movements that are responding to austerity with alternatives as well as refusal. Moreover as corporations attempt ever more ruthlessly to get out of their crisis by finding new sources of profit, new objects of commodification, we see increasing recognition of the importance of new institutions, rules and protocols to protect and defend the digital as well as the natural and social commons.

A successful exhibition works rather like a multi-media poem: suggestive rather than didactic, stimulating trains of thought and opening new questions. We need a courageous curator at the National Gallery to host this exhibition. It would confront the old institutions now kept standing only by aspic, and feed our imagination to create new ones for a complex and increasingly divided world.

The Whole Earth: California and the disappearance of the outside exhibition and conference was held at the House of World Cultures, Berlin, in June/July 2013


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute.


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