1993-05-28: Black Mountain

Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community (1972)

by Martin Duberman (1930-)

The Black Mountain College had its origin in the firing of John Andrew Rice from Rollins College in Florida, in 1933. Rice was too iconoclastic for Rollins’s president, who drummed up charges to dismiss him. In the resulting furor, several other faculty quit or were fired, and the notion of forming a new school (during the Depression) along Rice’s ideas was eventually worked out.

The description of Rice at Rollins seemed to be a perfect example of anti-Victorian values. This was clinched in the following:

Rice hated what he called the “top sergeants” in teaching, of whom he took Thomas Arnold of Rugby to be the exemplar: “He was a builder of empire builders, and a destroyer of men, for he forced them into the mold of the immutable past.” Teachers like Arnold, Rice Felt, had a deep distrust of learning, even while using it as a weapon to keep their students in line. Rice disliked, too, what he called the “numerologists” in education, those who measured accomplishment in terms of the hours one sat over a given problem. He believed in the freedom to learn in one’s own way and according to one’s own timetable – and that went for teachers, too.

This paragraph is thrown out as if Arnold was someone we ought to know, and someone relevant to Rice’s situation. In fact, Arnold was one of the four Eminent Victorians (book report) whose biographies were used by Lytton Strachey in the early Twenties to deliberately destroy the Victorian value system; Arnold himself was made headmaster at Rugby in about 1824.

In the second chapter, Duberman mentions that Rice’s organization of Black Mountain’s governing body “was patterned after the governing bodies of Oxford (where Rice had been a Rhodes Scholar) and Cambridge”. This indicates a direct connection between the Bloomsbury and related groups of the Twenties in Cambridge and the Black Mountain group.

It would be interesting to look a little deeper into Rice’s biography and also to the connection between Black Mountain and the Beat movement. Possibly there is a strand of memetic influence, more continuous and direct than I ever suspected.

After describing many of the schisms and splits at BM, Duberman takes up John Wallen’s two-year stint. He uses this as an occasion to raise a set of questions about individual and community, implying that answers to them are, in principle, impossible. I found them to be apropos for a memetic analysis of this interaction, and feel that memetics could answer many of them in any given case.

The following paragraphs are from Duberman’s notes, during preparation of the book (p. 232-233, my numbers in brackets).

        I’ve spent the last week rereading all the material I’ve gathered on Wallen and his two years at Black Mountain. It includes many contemporary documents, like minutes of faculty meetings, “statements to the community,” etc., plus the large number of extended interviews I’ve done over the last four to five years with people who were in the community when Wallen was. I now want to put all that material to one side because I think I’ve digested it pretty well and if I keep it too close at hand, my constant resort to it for checking details is going to inhibit my exploration of the larger questions that Wallen’s stay at Black Mountain has raised for me. His career there as resident “collective visionary” (the phrase is Arthur Penn’s) focuses many of the questions that originally attracted me to a study of the place: [1] Is there a conflict between “individualism” and community? [2] Can an “artist” survive – would he want to survive – the innumerable petty issues and responsibilities that come with communal living? [3] Can one live fully and well with others and at the same time “produce”? [4] What do people need? [5] Do their needs differ? [6] Does everyone, despite his “neurotic” distancing, want closeness, or is the desire for closeness itself a cultural phenomenon? [7] Would most people seek solitude – along with intermittent contact with a few significant others – if the culture didn’t tell them that solitude is the equivalent of disturbance or, alternately, that a capacity for continuous intimacy is the surest gauge of “health”? [8] Are there specific techniques of “group process” that can be utilized for improving communication – thus detoxifying tensions that arise between people of divergent tastes and goals? [9] Does “honesty” aid in working out aggressions – or does it compound them? [10] Why does anyone want to live in a “community” anyway? [11] Why does the impulse continually reassert itself historically – and with special force in the United States? [12] Is the impulse merely negative, as is often claimed – that is, in the nineteenth century, an “escape _from_ industrialization” or today, a retreat _from_ materialism and manipulation? [13] Or do people look to communes to satisfy positive yearnings for contact and sharing? [14] If so (or even if not) what kinds of people develop the impulse? [15] Those whose gifts happen to be in the area of personal relationships rather than, say, in composition, color, mechanics or words? [16] Do communities draw people who want to be “nice” and repulse people who want to be “distinctive”? [17] Can (must?) a community serve only one kind of impulse? [18] Is it incompatible with other “drives” – competition, personal aggrandizement, privacy and variety (the last two not necessarily contradictory, if one assumes, as I do, that people can derive special pleasure from alternating between, or even mixing together, supposed opposites)?

        So many questions, most of them unanswerable given how little anyone knows about human needs – [19] indeed whether they exist, apart from what the culture (itself everchanging) happens to say they are, or should be, at a given moment.

Duberman finds these unanswerable with his resources, but I think that a fair try could be taken at answering some of them by drawing on resources that he didn’t have in 1970.

[1] The short answer is yes. Each human is born into a tension between biological and social nature. Some accept the dictates of their society and some test the limits (or rather all do both, in different degree).

[2] The quoted word “artist” causes trouble with understanding what Duberman is really asking. Assuming he is trying to draw a line, let’s first put everyone on the same side of the line. The petty issues of communal living are part of the social realm without which humans are little different from animals, that is living from moment to moment, with behavior determined by the drives which are strongest at the moment, and little thought for the future. Without the social realm, what is there for an artist to express? Placing a few people on the “artist” side, let’s suppose these are people whose expression can point up some memes or other as worth special attention. Let’s further suppose that the selection of memes has already been made while the artist was fully immersed in the social realm, and that now he is to be freed from the petty issues in order to produce. My guess, and I will accept it as a “position” subject to falsification, is that such an artist’s work would become more and more sterile as she became more remote from the petty issues.

[3] From [2] it follows that one cannot produce without living “fully and well with others” (whatever that means).

[4] People need (in the biological realm) oxygen, water, food, security. In the social realm they need more security, explanations for the way the world (physical and social) works, advice on what to do and how to do it, resources (energy, time, necessity) to develop their own explanations for how the world works, means to express explanations and advice, available role-fillers to help them deal with the problems of living in the world, role-models to help them learn to deal with the problems of living in the world, structure to define how they fit into the world made up of other people. These needs are met by the social organisms called bands, clans, tribes, communities, societies.

[5] Of course everyone has the same basic needs, and everyone differs in the degree of their more complex social needs. Some are satisfied with the opportunity to pursue their biological needs without too much interference. Some “need” to control the behavior and energy of others. Some “need” to influence others less directly, and with less responsibility.

[6] Everyone must interact with others. However, the nature of that interaction during one’s early years can drastically affect the nature of interaction that one can tolerate in later years, leading to those who thrive on closeness and others who crave distance, and a continuum between. This is affected by personal experience with one’s family and neighbors; and that experience is also affected by the values held by one’s society, which influenced those family and neighbors.

[7] The question of preference for or acceptance of solitude is primarily cultural, but also dependent on personal experience. Generally, societies run more smoothly when all individuals participate fully in and accept the society’s culture. This creates a “default” preference for participation and against solitude. However, the evolution of cultures is dependent on processes (invention and evaluation of novel associations) which require solitude for some people some of the time, so there is also a “default” acceptance of solitude. However, the weight of preference must fall against solitude; anyone who craves solitude is working against the current much of the time, which uses energy.

[8] I don’t know what Duberman means by “group process”, but it sounds like something I don’t much value. The study of groups and interaction within them is probably a technical study that could have useful results, but probably has not yet. To be useful, it must take account of the differences between the individuals making up any group, and the memetic content of the group.

[9] The coupling of “honesty” and “aggression” strikes me as a very bad starting point for a meaningful question.

[10] Everyone lives in many communities, that is groups of people who communicate with each other. Every such community can be defined by the memes with which it is concerned, and the problems it addresses. Every such community is also immersed in an immense network of interaction among other communities making up a larger society. Most of the people in a society share a set of memes which is the common culture of the society. For some people at some times, the highest-quality situation is (or might seem to be) a simpler one of fewer communities to be concerned with, and interacting in a more constrained way with the larger society. To this end, “synthetic communities” have been constructed around constrained sets of problems. Natural communities have evolved over millions of years, and contain extremely complex cultures (meme-complexes). It is about as likely that a synthetic community could survive a long time as that a synthetic creature could survive a long time in the biological world. It could happen, but nobody has done it yet.

[11] The impulse to establish synthetic communities is a manifestation of the reflective realm, that is the comparison of memes and the generation of memes about memes. This process reveals to some people a facet of some community that they cannot accept or wish to see changed. The near-impossibility of changing a natural community leads to the withdrawal from it into a new one, specifically constructed on certain (reflective) memes. This impulse could not exist before the reflective realm became effective, around 3000 years ago (though its roots go back 100s of millennia, or more). For instance, the academies of Athens were manifestations of the same impulse, as were Buddhist, Jewish and Christian monasteries. As synthetic communities like these existed alongside natural communities, some of their memes were incorporated into the natural communities, and the need for their existence became less. Of course, many certainly withered away before they could have such an effect.

The reflective realm has captured a greater and greater part of the energy of the social realm over the past three millennia, in an accelerating process. It has resulted in literal revolutions in many parts of the social realm (political, sexual, scientific). It is not surprising therefore that its manifestation in synthetic communities has accelerated and is greatest in those societies, such as the United States, where the reflective realm is strongest.

[12] The impulse is in part negative, an escape from memes in a larger society of communities. It is also in part positive, the creation of a new social structure based on (even if poorly understood and expressed) the reflective memes which resulted from consideration of shortcomings in the original society.

[13] Yearnings for contact and sharing are fundamental (biologically) to human beings, and are part of the genetically derived emotional makeup that made the social realm possible. If some people find that their natural communities are not fulfilling these yearnings, they may construct a synthetic community to better serve them. However, this is only one type of motivation, and I doubt a very common one.

[14, 15] I think these two questions are too particular for me to address now, but don’t require any new considerations to answer in any given case.

[16] A synthetic community is constructed by reflective people, and draws people who learn of its existence and believe that it offers them an environment suitable to achieve (some of) their own goals. Some of these goals might involve the desire to fit harmoniously into a community (be “nice”); some might involve the desire to be a big fish in a small pond. Doubtless the goals are as diverse as those in natural communities.

[17] A community is based on a meme-complex addressing a distinct set of related problems, and serves the impulse to resolve those problems. A single-minded community could not long survive in a world with a multiplicity of problems, so societies of communities exist (and always have). Any viable synthetic community must also contain within it a variety of communities. For example, at Black Mountain, there were communities oriented toward: education policy, visual arts, social sciences, farming and physical plant work, adminsitration, and others. Each individual was a member of some of these, and not a member of some others. Each community had a claim on the loyalty (energy) of its members, and this resulted in conflicts over resources, aside from the “personality clashes”. It seems impossible that a community could serve only a narrow impulse, and still be a viable society. Perhaps a community could serve a narrow impulse if it were integrated into the larger society in such a way that the larger society provided it with support without claiming reciprocal contributions of time and energy. However, this would amount to parasitism, and probably could not last long, once the “host” learned of its existence.

[18] The issue of compatibility, of ideas, attitudes or people, is another case of particulars that I believe can be answerd in any given case, without resort to any new considerations.

[19] Human needs are both biological and social. The biological needs of every human are essentially identical (with some genetic variation). The raw social needs are also essentially identical, insofar as they are the fundamental drives that cause humans to construct and live in social structures. However, millions of years of memetic evolution has generated innumerable variations in the cultures that meet the raw needs, and people are born and raised in particular cultures. The values held by these cultures create additional particular needs that people must satisfy if they are to be productive members of their society.

The key ideas that go into answering these questions are fairly simple. However, they are themselves the result of memetic evolution, and could not have been combined at any arbitrary time in the past. The immediate ones are: reciprocal altruism, the intentional stance, memetic evolution, the division of the world’s diverse phenomena into physical, biological, social and reflective realms.

In describing the shift in emphasis from the visual to literary arts under Olson shortly before it closed, Duberman quotes some of Olson’s associates on his influence. Some of this is interesting for its relevance of the work of a poet (or other artist) in the reflective realm.

from Joel Oppenheimer:

. . . what [the detractors of Olson’s Scholarship] don’t understand is … how the poetic mind operates . . . no poet – whether Pound, Graves or Olson or me – and all of us do to some extent use this method of thinking – none of us claims to be “expert” in the fields we’re discussing. What we are trying to do is find a juxtaposition – and this I learned straight from Charles. He never said it this way, but this is what I learned in the poetry workshop at Black Mountain College: that the one value a poet can have to his society, aside from the ones we know about, like the gadfly and illuminator and so on, is the man who finds the juxtapositions that make sense – for him and possibly for society. So if Charles comes up – or if Pound comes up – with the Federalist period of American history, the Renaissance, and the various dynasties of China, that he’s interested in, and finds between those three certain juxtapositions which are valuable, then he has served his function. His function is not to be a Chinese scholar, or an Italian scholar, or an American historian . . . Charles took some far-out flings there, and I’m sure he was wrong a good percentage of the time. But I also know that he came up with some doozies that were absolutely right . . . .

This notion of juxtaposition is the process that takes place in the mind of everyone as they learn – they juxtapose the most recent associations they receive with those which have been established before. The interconnections between associations have a certain arbitrary nature that depends on the order and context in which they initially form. But with use in other contexts, they form more durable connections with the associations that are most relevant to them. (Of course, a good teacher takes pains to make this later re-formulation as easy as possible.) The process Oppenheimer describes is a more deliberate attempt to search out juxtapositions that can be valuable for his society. It is a conscious process, not the unconscious process that ordinary learning involves, and to the extent that it is conscious is probably less effective. Therefore, wise men have discovered and taught that to be truly creative, one must allow one’s conscious mind to be strongly influenced by the traces of the unconscious process that is constantly making these juxtapositions, creating a mental and physical environment that is conducive to their formation, and to the recognition of them when they do occur.


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