How the slogan "The Third Culture" has become a runaway success on the arts & letters pages

[ Mon. Nov. 20. 2000 ]
Manifestos have to exaggerate. It is no surprise, then, that FAZ co-publisher Frank Schirrmacher reported six months ago that he would turn the arts & letters pages of his paper into the central organ of the "Third Culture." He sells the shift as an epoch-making "post-education" for the sleeping European intelligentsia content to be "clumsy or stubborn," mired in "identity crises, loss of purpose, despair, and occidental melancholy," incapable even of coming to grips with a word processing program, while young American natural scientists write the "program of the future."

What Schirrmacher calls the "Third Culture" is the brand name of the nearly 60-year-old New York literary agent John Brockman. In order to understand what Brockman is promoting one must go back to John F. Kennedy. Kennedy saw America's new frontier in science and technology. Everything seemed possible, and Kennedy's goal was to send a man to the moon within a decade. JFK was, however, not the prophet of a new age, but represented old dreams of the flexibility and managability of society, matter and consciousness. In Behind Freedom and Dignity, the most influential scientific work of that year, B.F. Skinner proposed the idea of the programmability of people. Emblematic of the end of these illusions was Kennedy's murder, carried out by a solitary gunman with a cheap gun purchased through mailorder.

John Brockman was caught up in the visions of the sixties. Until then he had been a left-leaning student for whom magazines like Encounter and intellectuals like Hannah Arendt and Stephen Spender were most interesting. Today he says that these "reactionary literary people" stole the title of honor, "intellectual," from natural scientists like Einstain and Heisenberg. If one is to believe Brockman, his revelation took place in 1964, when he realized that "Warhol, Nam June Paik, Rauschenberg, Cage, all of the artists," in whose proximity the 20-year-old attempted to further his artistic career, read Norbert Wiener and Marshall MacLuhan, and instead of Eichmann in Jerusalem, discussed cybernetics and the end of the Gutenberg Galaxy.

Others identify the transformation before 1965, when Brockman developed an advertising campaign for the tampon "Scott's Confidets" and overnight became one of the most sought-after advertising people in America. In 1968 the world-famous rock group The Monkees hired him to publicize their film Head. Brockman had his own head printed on a poster and plastered it all over New York. At this time he became friends with the activist Abbie Hoffman (the spitting image of Dieter Kunzelmann), whom the media-savvy Brockman advised in his dramatization of revolt without engaging or compromising himself. When, at the beginning of the seventies, he sold a proposal for a book by LSD-pioneer and dolphin expert John Lilly, "it was clear to him that he was a literary agent," says Stuart Brand, whose Whole Earth Software Catalog became a bestseller in 1983.

Once the market for computer books was saturated, Brockman turned to scientific non-fiction. Among his more than 400 authors, the personnel of the "Third Culture," belong respected scientists such as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), physiologist Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel), physicist Murray Gell-Mann (The Quark and the Jaguar), computer expert David Gelernter (The Muse in the Machine), astrophysicist Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe), but also Michael Drosnin (The Bible Code), Rupert Sheldrake (Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home), and Frank Tipler, who postulates a Physics of Immortality.

The multi-talented Brockman has, while being a multimillionaire, maintained a likable pose of sixties-era rebelliousness that becomes apparent, for example, in his interview with Der Spiegel. When asked how humanists and scientists can communicate with one another, he answers, "Blow up all your statues. These monuments in Berlin or Munich say only, 'Behave yourself. Live in the past.' Who will be wild and visionary enough to bring forth new ideas?" (Later he tones down his recommendation, saying instead "Tear down all the statues!")

Brockman himself is honorable enough to attribute the origin of his slogan: In 1959 the writer C.P. Snow complained of the falling-out of the educated in the "two cultures" — humanists and natural scientists — and suggested in 1963 that this divide could be bridged by a "third culture" in which humanists and natural scientists exchange ideas. "I have borrowed Snow's argument," says Brockman, "but by this I do not mean the third culture that he prophesized." According to Brockman the "literary types" have failed at the task. Now "the natural scientists communicate directly with the public."

The problem with this is that they carry over every positivistic self-image that C.P. Snow diagnosed as dangerous. According to this image, natural science is a pure story of success, progress from darkness into light, from thesis A to argument B to improved thesis C, from superstition to rational knowledge of the real. Philosophy on the epistomological stage and politics on the empirical are left only to complement the claims of the leading culture of the natural sciences. But science isolated from the humanities knows nothing of its own dependence on the zeitgeist and its own self-created mythos.

In any case, "Schirrmacher's third culture is not my third culture," said Brockman after he met the FAZ editor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. In fact, after his manifesto received criticism in his own house, Schirrmacher changed his argument. Now the reason for his occupation with the natural sciences was not — as for Brockman — the desire to speculate over the riddles of the world, but rather the danger that results from technology. The prophetic tone, however, remains: "What has fallen onto our shoulders is to make socially understandable that which science has discovered." This, however, does not reach far enough.

Why does science always confuse its methods — the reduction to simple principles — with the workings of nature, its models with reality, its philosophical questions with answers? Why does it believe, after its global prophecies are repeatedly proved false — fictional — although they seem to be true, that the world should react to them? What the Arts & Letters pages can and must bring to the discussion are the historic and philosophical dimensions, without which even science does not know what it is doing. 


To: Mr. Weimar, Editor in Chief, Die Welt 
From: John Brockman


Dear Sir:

In his article "Brockman's World: How the advertising slogan of the 'Third Culture' makes careers in the Feuilleton", Alan Posener attributes the following quote to me regarding Frank Schirrmacher of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

"Schirrmacher's third culture is not my culture."

Mr. Posener takes this quote out of context, leaving it open for the reader to believe that I may be critical of Mr. Schirrmacher's efforts.

This is not the case. Mr. Schirrmacher is advancing the third culture idea by bringing new perspectives into play from his own background and experience. The fact that there are many ways to approach the third culture idea, and that there is no central canon of truth, is evidence of the strength of the concept.

I am very much in favor of Mr. Schirrmacher's initiative and consider it a remarkable accomplishment that due to his efforts there is serious debate among German thinkers today concerning this set of ideas.


John Brockman

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