sigma: A Tactical Blueprint
City Lights Journal #2 (1964)
IT IS OUR CONTENTION that, for many years now, a change, which might be usefully regarded as evolutionary, has been taking place in the minds of men; they have been becoming aware of the implications of self-consciousness. And, here and there throughout the world, individuals are more or less purposively concerned with evolving techniques to inspire and sustain self-consciousness in all men.
However imperfect, fragmentary, and inarticulate this new force may presently appear, it is now in the process of becoming conscious of itself in the sense that its individual components are beginning to recognize their involvement and consciously to concern themselves with the technical problems of mutual recognition and, ultimately, of concerted action.
History is that of societies geared to and through their every institution affirmative of the past, which tends, whatever its complexion, to perpetuate itself. Thus there is a natural inertia in history. Conventions, and the institutions which lend them authority, crystallize. Change is resisted, particularly changes in ways of thinking. The change which concerns us here was first explicit in modern science; the same change has been announced for close on a century in modern art. A whole new way of thinking became possible with the 20th century. Just as the substantial, objective world was destroyed by modern science, so all modern art has turned on the conventional object and destroyed it. Modern art is expressive of the evolutionary change we are speaking about; modern science furnishes us with the methods and techniques in terms of which we can postulate and resolve the practical problems of adapting ourselves to history in a new, conscious and creative way.
In looking for a word to designate a possible international association of men who are concerned individually and in concert to articulate an effective strategy and tactics for this cultural revolution (cf. The Invisible Insurrection), it was thought necessary to find one which provoked no obvious responses. We chose the word "sigma." Commonly used in mathematical practice to designate all, the sum, the whole, it seemed to fit very well with our notion that all men must eventually be included.
In general, we prefer to use the word "sigma" with a small letter, as an adjective rather than as a noun, for there already exists a considerable number of individuals and groups whose ends, consciously or not, are near as dammit identical with our own, groups which are already called X and Y and Z and whose members may be somewhat reluctant to subsume their public identities under any other name. If these groups could be persuaded of the significance of linking themselves "adjectivally" to sigma, it would for the present be enough. Moreover, in the foreseeable future, we may very well judge it prudent to maintain multiple legal identities; doing so, we may avoid provoking the more obvious kinds of resistance.
Actually dispersed as we are, and will be until several self-conscious focal-points (sigma-centres) are established, effective communications are vital. All individuals and groups the world over must be contacted and henceforth invited to participate. People must be located and activated: we are confronted with the technical problem of elaborating the ways of gearing the power of all of us individuals to an effective flywheel. This must be solved without requiring anyone to sink his identity in anything noxiously metaphysical.
In "The Invisible Insurrection" we touched on the kind of situation we wish to bring about. We conceived it to be a kind of spontaneous university. But the term "university" has some unfortunate connotations and is, besides, too limited to include the entire complex of vital and infectious human processes we have in mind to detonate, first in England and subsequently throughout the world. The original spontaneous university (or sigma-centre) will be a fountainhead only. We are concerned with cities and civilizations, not with "classrooms" in the conventional sense, nevertheless, we are at the beginning of it all and must commence with certain practical considerations. Our experimental situation, our international conference, must be located so that our "cosmonauts" can either congregate or be in contact.
It is not simply a question of founding yet another publishing house, not another art gallery, nor another theater group, and of sending it on its high-minded way amongst the mammon-engines of its destruction. Such a firm (I am thinking in terms of the West for the moment), if it were successful in sustaining itself within the traditional cultural complex, would "do much good," no doubt. But it is not the publishing industry alone that is in our view out of joint (and has no survival potential); to think almost exclusively in terms of publishing is to think in terms of yesterday's abstractions. A softer bit and more resilient harness won't keep the old nag out of the knackery. Of course sigma will publish. When we have something to publish. And we shall do it effectively, forgetting no technique evolved in yesterday's publishing. (Or we may find it convenient to have this or that published by a traditional publisher.) But it is art too in which we are interested. With the leisure of tomorrow in mind, it is all the grids of expression we are concerned to seize.
That is what we mean when we say that "literature is dead"; not that some people won't write (indeed, perhaps all people will), or even write a novel (although we feel this category has about outlived its usefulness), but the writing of anything in terms of capitalist economy, as an economic act, with reference to economic limits, it is not, in our view, interesting. It is business. It is a jungle talent. We also wish to paint and we also wish to sing. We have to think of a society in which leisure is a fact and in which a man's very survival will depend upon his ability to cope with it. The conventional spectator-creator dichotomy must be broken down. The traditional "audience" must participate.
We might even say we don't know what we wish to do; we wish, rather, continuously to consult with other intelligences on an international and experimental basis. Amongst other things, we believe in the vital importance of pamphlets and pamphleteering, but it is not that we shall bring out 12 (the round dozen!) pamphlets on the 14th of September to "launch" our imprint and proceed to send our private little ball spinning along the well-worn grooves of the cultural pinball-machine: that would be to invite the destruction of the intuition which drives us to articulate. Nor can we limit ourselves, as far as printed matter is concerned, to the traditional media. One interesting "publishing" project, for example, would be to rent an advertisement panel in (say) four of the London Underground stations for a trial period of one year, and to print our weekly (or monthly) magazine poster-size. Obviously, the weekly poster could be placed in other spots as well. A broadsheet, personal size, could be sent to sponsors and subscribers who might value a facsimile collection of the posters. And why stop at London? (Undergrounds of the World Unite!) The editorial job in such a project would be complex but not impractical. Thirty or forty writers sympathetic towards sigma could be solicited in advance. Other conventional projects, which we shall discuss in more detail later, are: advertising space in little magazines, in the personal columns of national newspapers, all manner of labels, matchboxes, etc., toilet paper (for the New Yorker reader who has everything), cigarette cards, the backs of playing cards, etc., Of course, we shall publish books as well: but the greater part of what we shall eventually decide to do will grow out of the conflux of creative ideas and goodwill that is sigma. To begin with, we must make a continuous, international, experimental conference possible; a permanent meeting of minds to articulate and promote the vast cultural change which U.N.E.S.C.O. is prevented by its origins from effecting.
We must say to our sponsors: while we can envisage sigma's flourishing economically in the West, it is not primarily a business organization. We require a protected situation, a place to confer and corporately create. A great deal has already been done. But our strength lies not so much in what has so far been done purposively in our name as in the availibility of other intelligences to our trans-categorical inspiration. All over the world today are little conflagrations of intelligence, little pockets of "situation-making." Some of the first theorists called themselves "Situationnistes." Other individuals and groups who appear to us to have similar attitudes are presently being gathered into a comprehensive index which will serve as the basis for our communications. We have to evolve the mechanisms and techniques for a kind of supercategorical cultural organization. Some of its features we believe to be as follows:
(1) sigma as international index:
The first essential for those whose purpose it is to link mind with mind in a supernatural (transcategorical) process, is some kind of efficient expanding index, an international "who's who." It is a question of taking stock, of surveying the variety of talent and goodwill at our disposal. Who is with us? Who knows he is with us? Our general invitation might read something like this:
We should like to invite you to take part in an international conference about the future of things. The brief introductory statement enclosed (The Invisible Insurrection) should give you an idea of what we are about.
We have chosen the word sigma because as a symbol it is free of bothersome semantic accretions.
Actually dispersed as we are, and will be until several self-conscious focal points are established (in each of which an experimental situation is self-consciously in the process of articulating itself), effective communications are vital.
Now and in the future our centre is everywhere, our circumference nowhere. No one is in control. No one is excluded. A man will know when he is participating without offering him a badge.
We have decided that as far as it is economically possible, you should receive all our future informations. Sigma's publications are in general given away free to those who participate in its activities.
The conference begins now and goes on indefinitely. We are particularly anxious to have your participation soon, as soon as possible.
We are writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, physicists, bio-chemists, philosophers, neurologists, engineers, and whatnots, of every race and nationality. The catalogue of such a reservoir of talent, intelligence, and power, is of itself a spur to our imagination.
(2) sigma as spontaneous university:
We can write off existing universities. These lately illustrious institutions are almost hopelessly geared and sprocketted to the cultural-economic axles of the status quo; they have become a function of the context they came into being to inspire.
Of the American universities, Paul Goodman writes: "Therefore we see the paradox that, with so many centres of possible intellectual criticism and intellectual initiative, there is so much inane conformity, and the universities are little models of the Organized System itself." Secession, the forming of new models: this is the traditional answer, and in our view the only one. So Oxford broke away from the Sorbonne and Cambridge from Oxford, and "the intellectual ferment was most vigorous, the teaching most brilliant, the monopoly of the highest education most complete, almost before a university existed at all" (Hastings Rashdall: The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages.) The bureaucracies of the universities mesh with the bureaucracy of the state, mirror it in little; and the specific disease of bureaucracy is that it tends to spawn more of itself and function as a parasitic organism, inventing "needs" to justify its existence, ultimately suffocating the host it was intended to nurture (cf. the satire of William Burroughs). The universities have become factories for the production of degreed technicians; the various governmental reports on them (particularly the Robbins Report), skating over the thick crust of centuries, call simply for more and more of the same.
The empty chapels of the Cambridge colleges are a significant symbol of the decline of the parent institution. Built originally to house the soul of the community of scholars, they are presently derelict. Quite recently, there was a newspaper report of a prize being offered to the student who wrote the best essay on what should be done with them. It was awarded to the student who suggested that they could be converted to laboratories for science, dining halls and residential quarters for the students, libraries, etc. In short, what was once the vital spiritual centre was to be turned over to material purposes; space is short, and imagination shorter. That something immaterial, something intangible, has been lost, was overlooked. There would have been more hope for Cambridge, certainly more evidence of spirituality, if it had been decided to turn them into brothels.
Meanwhile, those who (rightly or wrongly) are deeply distrustful of the statistical method, clamouring for the abolition of college examinations, tend to overlook the disastrous influence the examination-dominated curriculum has upon the attitudes and habits of the student population at our universities. The competitive system encourages the clever tactician, the glib, the plausible. It is certainly painful and perhaps even dangerous for a student to become deeply interested in his subject, or he is constantly having to get ready to demonstrate his virtuosity; the students at our universities are so busy practising appearances that one seldom meets one who is concerned with the realities. The entire system is a dangerous anarchronism. Secession by vital minds everywhere is the only answer.
The more imaginative university teachers all over the world are well aware of these things. But they can do nothing until they can see a possible alternative. Sigma as spontaneous university is such an alternative. It can only grow out of the combined effort of individuals and groups of individuals working unofficially at supernational level. A large country house, not too far from London (and Edinburgh, and New York, and Paris, etc.), is being sought for the pilot project.
Those who saw the photographs of Lyn Chadwick's personal "museum" in the color supplement of The Sunday Times some months ago, those who know something of the Louisiana Foundation in Denmark, of the "semantic city" at Canissy in France, about the cultural activities in Big Sur, California, about Black Mountain College in North Carolina, about various spontaneous cultural conglomerations in California and New York in the late 'fifties, will have some idea of the vital significance of ambience.
While a great deal of lip-service is paid to the significance of a man's environment (especially during the formative years), our societies push ahead willy-nilly boxing people into honeycomb apartment blocks to meet the immediate requirements of industry. For the moment, there is little we can do about this, but we can take care that the structural features of our sigma-centres are geared to and inspiring of the future as we imagine it can be, rather than the past and present out of which men must evolve. Our experimental sigma-centre must be in all its dimensions a model for the functions of the future rather than of the past. Our architects, arriving at the site with the first group of associates, will design the architecture of the spontaneous university for and around the participants.
The site should not be farther from London than Oxford or Cambridge, for we must be located within striking distance of the metropolis, since many of our undertakings will be in relation to cultural phenomena already established there, and so that those coming from abroad can travel back and forth from the capital without difficulty. Moreover, we have always envisaged our experimental situation as a kind of shadow reality of the future existing side by side with the present "establishment," and the process as one of gradual "in(ex)filtration." If we were to locate ourselves too far away from the centers of power, we should run the risk of being regarded by some of those we are concerned to attract as a group of utopian escapists, spiritual exiles, hellbent for Shangri-La on the bicycle of our frustration. Then, "the original building will stand deep within its own grounds, preferably on a riverbank. It should be large enough for a pilot-group (astronauts of inner space) to situate itself, orgasm and genius, and their tools and dream-machines and amazing apparatus and appurtenances; with outhouses for workshops large as could accommodate light industry, the entire site to allow for spontaneous architecture and eventual town-planning," etc. (cf. The Invisible Insurrection.)
Here our "experimental laboratory" will locate itself, our community-as-art, and begin exploring the possible functions of a society in which leisure is a dominant fact, and universal community, in which the conventional assumptions about reality and the constraints which they imply are no longer operative, in which art and life are no longer divided. The "university," which we suspect will have much in common with Joan Littlewood's "leisuredrome" (if she will forgive my coining a word), will be operated by a "college" of teacher-practioners with no separate administration.
The cultural atrophy endemic in conventional universities must be countered with an entirely new impulse. No pedagogical rearrangements, no further proliferation of staff or equipment or buildings, nor even the mere subtraction of administration of planning will help. What is essential is a new conscious sense of community-as-art-of-living; the experimental situation (laboratory) with its personnel is itself to be regarded as an artifact, a continuous making, a creative process, a community enacting itself in its individual members. Within our hypothetical context, many traditional historical problems will be recognized at once as artificial and contingent; simultaneously we shall realise our ability to outflank them by a new approach; and certain more vital problems which today receive scant attention or none at all, together with others which in a conventional context cannot even be articulated, will be recognized as more appropriate to any possible future of mankind on this planet.
We must choose our original associates widely from amongst the most brilliant creative talents in the arts and sciences.
They will be men and women who understand that one of the most important achievements of the twentieth century is the widespread recognition of the essentially relative nature of all languages, who realise that most of our basic educational techniques have been inherited from a past in which almost all men were ignorant of the limitations inherent in any language. They will be men and women who are alive to the fact that a child's first six years of schooling are still dedicated to providing him with the emotional furniture imposed on his father before him, and that from the beginning he is trained to respond in terms of a neuro-linguistic system utterly inadequate to the real problems with which he will have to contend in the modern world.
Our university must become a community of mind whose vital function is to discover and articulate the functions of tomorrow, an association of free men creating a fertile ambiance for new knowledge and understanding (men who don't jump to the conclusion Kropotkin carried a bomb because he was an anarchist), who will create an independent moral climate in which the best of what is thought and imagined can flourish. The community which is the university must become a living model for society at large.
(3) sigma as international cultural engineering cooperative:
(a) The international pipeline:
When sigma-centres exist near the capitals of many countries, associate artists and scientists traveling abroad will be able to avail themselves of all the facilities of the local centre. They may choose simply to reside there or they may wish to participate. If the visitor is a celebrity, it would probably be to his advantage to do any "interview" work (audio or visual) in the sigma-centre where "angle" and editing can be his own. Sigma will then handle negotiations with local radio and television. The imaginative cultivation of this international pipeline would be a real contribution to international understanding.
(b) Cultural promotion:
This field is too vast to be treated fully here. It includes all the interesting cultural projects, conferences, international newspaper, publishing ventures, film and television projects, etc., which have been and will be suggested by associates during conferences. Many of these ideas, realized efficiently, would make a great deal of money. All this work would contribute to the sigma image.
(c) General cultural agents:
Some of the associates, especially the younger ones who are not previously committed elsewhere, will be glad to be handled by sigma. Obviously, we shall be in a position to recognize new talent long before the more conventional agencies, and, as our primary aim will not be to make money, we shall be able to cultivate a young talent, guarding the young person's integrity.
(d) General cultural consultants:
The enormous pool of talent at our disposal places us in an incomparable position vis-a-vis providing expert counsel on cultural matters. We can advise on everything cultural, from producing a play to building a picture collection. A propos the latter, one of our proposed services is to offer an insurance policy to a buyer against the depreciation in value of any work or art recommended by sigma. It may frequently be advisable, economically or otherwise, for sigma to encourage some established company to undertake this or that cultural project: that is to say, sigma will not necessarily wait passively to be consulted. (Obviously, ideas ripe for commercial exploitation cannot be made public in this context.)
Perhaps the most striking example of the wrong-headed attitude towards art in official places is provided by the recent scuffle to keep the well-known Leonardo cartoon from leaving the United Kingdom. The official attitude has more in common with stamp-collecting than with aesthetics. The famous cartoon could have sold abroad for around one million pounds. For a small fraction of that sum, perfect replicas of it could have been made and distributed to every art gallery in the country. It is small wonder that the man in the street has such a confused attitude towards art. This confusion of value with money has infected everything. The conventional categories distinguishing the arts from each other, tending as they do to perpetuate the profitable institutions which have grown up around them, can for the moment only get in the way of creativity and our understanding of it.
The basic shift in attitude described in the foregoing pages must happen. IT IS HAPPENING. Our problem is to make men conscious of the fact, and to inspire them to participate in it. Man must seize control of his own future: only by doing so can he ever hope to inherit the earth.