1998 : WHAT QUESTIONS ARE YOU ASKING YOURSELF?

Dedicated to the Memory of James Lee Byars 
1932-1997

Introduction

By John Brockman

Everything has been explained. There is nothing left to consider. The explanation can no longer be treated as a definition. The question: a description. The answer: not explanation, but a description and knowing how to consider it. Asking or telling: there isn't any difference.

The final elegance: assuming, asking the question. No answers. No explanations. "Why do you demand explanations? If they are given, you will once more be facing a terminus. They cannot get you any further than you are at present."[1] The solution: not an explanation: a description and knowing how to consider it.

Experience a minute. Experience an hour. Can you experience a minute and an hour together, simultaneously, at the same time? This is an important question to ask.

No explanation, no solution, but consideration of the question. "Every proposition proposing a fact must in its complete analysis propose the general character of the universe required for the fact."[2] The description, the proposition: not a definition, but a commission. "Understanding a commission means: knowing what one has got to do."[3]

Any new style, any new life, any new world, is but a god where gods are no longer valid. "The god that one so finds is but a word born of words, and returns to the word. For the reply we make to ourselves is assuredly never anything other than the question itself."4

"Our kind of innovation consists not in the answers, but in the true novelty of the questions themselves; in the statement of problems, not in their solutions."5 What is important is not "to illustrate a truth—or even an interrogation—known in advance, but to bring to the world certain interrogations . . . not yet known as such to themselves."6

A total synthesis of all human knowledge will not result in fantastic amounts of data, or in huge libraries filled with books. There's no value any more in amount, in quantity, in explanation. For a total synthesis of human knowledge, use the interrogative. Ask the most subtle sensibilities in the world what questions they are asking themselves.

— from By the Late John Brockman, 1969

~~

In Edge 19, I presented a eulogy to honor my friend and collaborator of sorts, the artist James Lee Byars, who died in Egypt last May.

I met Byars in 1969 when he sought me out after the publication of my first book, By the Late John Brockman. We were both in the art world, we shared an interest in language, in the uses of the interrogative, in avoiding the anesthesiology of wisdom, and in "the Steins"—Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein, and Frankenstein. In 1971, our dialogue, in part, informed the creation by James Lee of "The World Question Center".

I wrote the following about his project at the time of his death:

"James Lee inspired the idea that led to the Reality Club (and subsequently to Edge), and is responsible for the motto of the club. He believed that to arrive at an axiology of societal knowledge it was pure folly to go to a Widener Library and read 6 million volumes of books. (In this regard he kept only four books at a time in a box in his minimally furnished room, replacing books as he read them.) This led to his creation of the World Question Center in which he planned to gather the 100 most brilliant minds in the world together in a room, lock them behind closed doors, and have them ask each other the questions they were asking themselves.

The expected result, in theory, was to be a synthesis of all thought. But between idea and execution are many pitfalls. James Lee identified his 100 most brilliant minds (a few of them have graced the pages of this Site), called each of them, and asked what questions they were asking themselves. The result: 70 people hung up on him."

That was in 1971. New technologies equal new perceptions. The Internet and email now allow for a serious implementation of Jimmy Lee's grand design and I am pleased to note that among the contributors are Freeman Dyson and Murray Gell-Mann, two names on his 1971 list of "the 100 most brilliant minds in the world."

For the first anniversary edition of Edge I asked a number of the third culture thinkers to use the interrogative. I have asked "the most subtle sensibilities in the world what questions they are asking themselves."

I am pleased to present The World Question Center.

-JB

[Note: A selection from The World Question Center ran in the New York Times (Tuesday, December 30th) and on the New York Times on the Web

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It's ever more delectable that the Edge Foundation— the network of prominent scientists and intellectuals founded by literary agent John Brockman in New York — has worked against the reciprocal ignorance of literary cultures and sciences of each other. Successfully. If you take the algorithms developed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, which measure the value of links, Edge's website ranks seven on a global scale of ten. The New York Times ranks nine, eBay at eight. — Sueddeutche Zeitung


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THE ATLANTIC
January 8, 1998

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