Gods of the Whole Earth

There’s just something about the current MoMA exhibit “Access to Tools: The Whole Earth Catalog” (closing Tuesday!). I’ve written elsewhere about The Whole Earth Catalog and my family, most recently for the forthcoming Frequencies project, where I consider it as a spiritual object.  The MoMA exhibit didn’t take that stance, exactly, but the very experience of visiting “Access to Tools” was for me somewhat of a coming-home.

It’s a humble little showing, in the lower level of MoMA’s education center, next to the restrooms, but this too is suitable to Stewart Brand’s 1960s-70s enterprise. The Whole Earth Catalog sounds monumental, but the series of publications always played merrily with the notion of being authoritative. The name “Whole Earth,” I learned, came from Brand’s original mission, to have the government, NASA, release the pictures of our planet taken from space, pictures that showed the entire planet, together, in stunningly beautiful color. He thought that anyone who saw the picture would have their worldview irrevocably shaken toward unity and against division. The Whole Earth Catalog was never supposed to contain every single thing on the whole earth, but rather to embody this unifying spirit. This was the age of wholeness, whole language, whole grains, and whole foods, in the lower case. Our age is so different, so fractured, that the earnestness of this unifying mission makes me alternately scoff and want to weep.

The Catalogs’ pages are a little dizzying, actually, which is one of the reasons I find them hard to read. In one edition of the Catalog, I found: ads for Jiffy Book Packaging, and Authentic Deer Felt, articles on “How To Start A Nonprofit Corporation, And Why,” “Getting Around in Iran,” complete with handy charts comparing Persian and Arabic numerals, lots of drawings of dragons, some excerpts from Norman Mailer books, and diagrams of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion house.

Brand admits that they had in later editions settled into a standard three-column layout, but still with enough variation to let the reader “choose his own path.” Which must have struck them as a liberating escape from the constructs of traditional media, but strikes me as a exhausting.

The other reason I find The Whole Earth Catalog so hard to read is that I have little interest in Land Use, Nomadics, or Industry. I live in a condo. I have no land. I take the train. I work in book publishing. I hate to admit all this.  For my father, the WEC’s mission of “access to tools” was elevated to near-spiritual heights.  In its pages he saw possibilities, a more practical iteration of the ideas he read in Norman Weiner’s books on cybernetics, and Buckminster Fuller’s ideas of utopia and the end of the world.

And clearly the makers of the Catalog did not disown spiritual interpretations.  In their statement of purpose, which appears in slightly different iterations on the title page of each edition, it opens like this “We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.” The “as” is underlined for emphasis. We are not gods. And the gods are lower-cased. We are not Gods.

We are AS gods, and may as well get good at it.

This might include losing the pride that went before the fall

We are now in the process of taking. Rolling with such a fall

Is our present lesson—learning whatever resilience, ingenuity, basic skills, and etnhused detachment that survival requires.

And learning perhaps to reverence some Gods who are not AS us.


Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden (Grove Press, 2011). An editor of Killing the Buddha, she lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Follow Brook on Twitter: @modmyth