The Rumpus Interview with Jonathon Keats


Part author, part philosopher, and part artist, Jonathon Keats claims the title “experimental philosopher.” Fitted in among the six million things he works on every day, he wrote You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future that’s both mythology, biography and interrogation—what can we take from Fuller’s concept of comprehensive anticipatory design? What is meaningful for all the current crises we seem to have found ourselves in today?

Keats and I sat down to chat at Murray’s Bagels while he was in Manhattan. Because we spoke for an hour, this interview has been edited for length. Some of what made it to the page includes musings on technology, climate change, and cameras with a 100-year exposure time. And yes, Buckminster Fuller, too.


The Rumpus: I actually didn’t know much about Buckminster Fuller before reading this book, and I was struck by how accessible it was for someone who didn’t know very much.

Jonathon Keats: Good.

Rumpus: But this is also a very famous person. I’m sure a lot of your readers do know a lot. How do you strike that balance when you’re writing about that famous person? How do you approach revealing enough information to be accessible without being repetitive for people in the know?

Keats: I think that surprisingly few people right now know much about Fuller beyond the few really iconic points. He invented the geodesic dome and he coined the term “spaceship earth” and that’s pretty much the extent of what people who even have heard of him know. And I’m struck by how many people have not heard of him at all.

Keats_YouBelongToTheUniverse.coverOn the other hand, you have those who have been living and breathing Buckminster Fuller ever since he converted them to his cult and to be honest, I’m really not interested in that audience at all. I think that they’re going to die out soon enough. They have, more or less I think, killed all vitality that Fuller’s ideas had because they essentially tried to turn those ideas into a belief system that has no flexibility in the world today.

To me, the reason to write about Fuller is because I think that he has ideas that are incredibly pertinent. First of all, his identification of the problems that are all that much more pertinent, all that much more pressing in the world today than in his own lifetime from sustainability in terms of the environment to income inequality. All sorts of problems and the interconnectedness between them that he was able to perceive sometimes rightly, often wrongly, always interestingly and also the fact that he was looking at solutions often that were not feasible in his own time but potentially could be applied today.

The interesting thing writing about Fuller is really to attempt to resurrect all of that and to do so for a new generation that has not grown up with him. I didn’t grow up with him. I never met him. I was once close to meeting him as a child at a ski resort one summer. He died in 1983. Only in 1999 or so, 2000, when I was working as an editor at San Francisco Magazine, did I really come back around to that name because Stanford University had just acquired the archive.

I became really absorbed but again I was at that point—and I still remain today—an outsider who has no interest in becoming an insider, let alone in what that insider perspective on him has come to be and come to represent. Writing a book about him in the sense of deciding how much to—how much biographically to gloss over and how much I can leave out is relatively easy as it is because the true believers already know everything. They know a lot of things that are not true and they know a lot of things that I thought were (and seems there’s very good evidence not to believe) and therefore, my starting point was I think to tell his myth because that’s what grabbed me. I was totally taken in and totally taken by that myth starting in 1999, rather carelessly writing about this archive and starting to read his self-representation, misrepresentation, whatever you want to call it.

Just getting totally absorbed in that and therefore when I came back around to him and found that much of it was made up, I realized that nevertheless, it really was crucial, crucial for how he understood himself, I believe, and certainly crucial for how anyone else ever engaged in his ideas and therefore as a starting point, how can we engage in his ideas today, but with a remove of knowing that it is a myth and being able to navigate it in that sort of level, at that level of reading him as a story.

Rumpus: So about that myth: how did you deal with doubt in your research process? I feel like there’s so much myth and a lot of it is self-made.

Keats: My previous book was about art forgery. So I have a starting point of writing—I have written previously about con men. I’m not especially interested in the job of the historian or journalist of trying to figure out what was true and what was not.

It really was not so much of a problem for me. I was interested first of all in trying to capture this myth that was always changing and to create some sort of a master story, some version of the myth that resonated with me, since I could have taken more or less any detail that I wanted or the opposite and try to put that down on the page in a way that I could express from that outset for myself and for our readers what it was that was so magical about Fuller’s way of putting together the world.

Then after that, I think it was impossible not to come upon a lot of confabulation simply because any good scholarship that has been done since his death has really delved in that. Just enough of that to be able to give the reader a sense of skepticism that all—it seemed like all that was necessary. I don’t really care. But what I do care about is what was happening within the realm of automobiles at the time that he invented his Dymaxion car because that is really relevant.

I think that in order to be able to understand what that car was and what it meant in its own time, and in order to be able to try to extrapolate what we can make of that invention today, it’s essential to say what was being made at that time. Fuller said that everything at the time was basically a horse and buggy in the form of an automobile and it had that boxiness and basically aeronautics hadn’t been invented.

So absolutely, ludicrously incorrect. And he started talking about it far enough afterwards, an audience that was far enough from when they—when the air flow and the Zephyr and these cars in the time period that were made by mainstream automakers. It was far enough in the future, far enough after that point that nobody really bothered to fact-check. It’s not to call him a liar but it is to say it wasn’t—his breakthrough was not aerodynamics nor was his breakthrough making a car like a bird or a fish. First of all, there were other auto manufacturers that were confabulating as much as he was, making claims about how cars resembled this or that aspect of nature.

It was, on the other hand, the way in which that car fit into this whole very roundabout way of attempting to solve the problem of what—the problem that he perceived as being the cause of his daughter’s death and meningitis. I mean how you get from your daughter dying from meningitis to making a car with three wheels and saying that it’s like a bird and a fish. That really is amazing because then you start to back into it and to realize that the important part has to do with—so the car has this ground taxing mechanism for a flying car that he couldn’t build because he couldn’t figure out how to have inflatable wings, which was necessary because he felt that houses needed to be everywhere and mobile because they needed to be built in factories in order for them to be truly hygienic and true dwelling machines and also it would be a way of breaking free of the gridlock of the city.

Once you start backing into all of that, then you see this incredibly intricate, totally wrong-headed way to do things, but nevertheless has a lot of merit to it for the fact that he’s recognizing much larger patterns, seeking much larger patterns and seeking much larger ways of trying to solve for the problem of unhygienic conditions in slums. They really were unhygienic. Whether his family was living in the slum is debatable but they were unhygienic. That needed to be addressed. He was attempting to address it. The three-wheeled car ultimately didn’t get him anywhere and it’s a good thing that it failed but the way of thinking about how do we resurface society as a whole? That is that first flash of the sort of genius that Fuller represents.

ForgedRumpus: So that sort of intricate but wrongheaded thinking actually reminds me of something you said about sort of bringing Fuller into the present day audience and all of those things combined sort of lead me to the tech industry’s idea disruption and how that might fall into intricate, wrongheaded and also genius. I would think Fuller would have fit into this culture of disruption and disruptive technology.

Keats: I think that Fuller certainly would have found a way in which to be funded by Google in a way that he was funded by the Marine Corps and everybody else. He would have remained obstinately his own creature. What I think is really interesting is to look at the culture of disruption and of world-changing in terms of what Fuller was doing and to draw the contrast more than the similarity.

I think that in the first place, why we can get excited about Fuller right now, why it’s plausible that people might—why my publisher would publish this book about it long after he’s dead and irrelevant by many standards has to do with the fact that he was in a sense coming up with this job for himself that is the job that we now refer to when we speak about world change.

We clearly recognize the need for something that is what he represents and therefore it becomes really useful and really interesting to look at the ways in which world changing today totally misses everything that was valuable. So where Google and Fuller overlap are in the potential for putting together disparate technologies in ways that can lead to something that might be a larger solution to a larger problem.

Take the self-driving car and the smartphone and put those together and think about how to manage a smart grid because suddenly you have all of this data coming from those two mechanisms that allow for a much higher level of allocating energy much more efficiently.

That’s a very Fuller sort of way of thinking. However, that thinking is being done by a corporation that has as its only reason to be in the world is to serve the shareholder, is to maximize profitability. So Fuller was an independent operator coming up with these madcap ways of combining things with absolutely no strings attached and the fact that world changing now is happening within the corporation by and large, and that disruption is ironically what corporations do. All of that is to some extent validating what Fuller was after. But on the other hand, if we take that to be evidence that Fuller is alive and well, then we’re deluding ourselves.

I think what we need to do is we need to seek some other way in which to do what is potentially good work by Google. Google has made the world a better place in some ways. I would argue that search has made the world a better place. It has done so for reasons that arbitrarily could completely change that—not arbitrarily at all but to completely change how that plays out based upon the needs of profitability. So it’s totally unreliable and it has many layers nested underneath that of many ulterior motives nested underneath it. What we need to do is we need to say, how can—how can we operate independently in terms of putting together these various technologies in order to be able to make the world a better place?

Rumpus: If you could see one piece of Fuller’s technology adopted, and you could ensure that it would have like instant adoption, what would it be?

Keats: I would certainly never want to inflict anything on the world exactly as he envisioned it because there is a technocratic worldview that I find horrific. I do not think that technology is our salvation. I don’t have a cell phone. I am not a Luddite. I select my technology based on what I need and I also don’t take up what I don’t feel that I need. I think that as a society as well, we need to be smart about what technologies we take up and how construe progress.

Fuller’s idea of progress is a very 1950s organization man out of the military sort of idea of progress. So as a result, you have something like: we’ve got bad weather in New York City; let’s put a dome over it. And so I don’t want to put a dome over Manhattan and I hope that nobody who ends up reading the book wants to do so as a result. I would say that what the value of talking about and thinking about a dome over Manhattan is that Fuller has identified a scale of action I think is actually really compelling.

Control Alt DeleteAt this point in history, the desperate need for building a sustainable society and for managing energy usage makes for a really—of vast importance that we need to place on where we live and how we live in those places. So you have the insanity that is geo-engineering which is a case in which you say the planet is heating up. Let’s spray some aerosol and cool it down.

I think that what we need to do is we need to think about what scale makes sense for dealing with our need to live within a habitable zone and to do so without using air conditioning and heating in the way that is so incredibly expensive to the environment.

Doing so in terms of the individual house, especially the suburban model, is catastrophic. The city is better because the city has an economy of needs and once you’re talking about a city, maybe you can start talking about how you manage the climate of that city as a whole. Not by putting a dome over it but by more passive means that can potentially be put together in creative ways.

Architects in urban planning are talking about this but they’re not talking about it yet I don’t think at that level that Fuller is talking about when he talked about putting a dome over Manhattan, which is to say an attempt at integrating all of these different technologies in a way that makes for a city that, without having an actual dome, thermodynamically manages the heat flow for that urban environment and therefore makes it so that it is a highly efficient machine for a living or a dwelling machine as he would have preferred in terms of thermodynamically optimizing it.

Rumpus: So speaking of managing climate on a city level, I find a lot of hopeful talk about the future and about climate and about the way the world is going in this book. And global climate change is legitimately my worst fear. So I want to know how you keep the hope even in the face of all this potential destruction, even in the face of all these really terrifying possibilities. How do you keep the hope in here?

Keats: It’s very interesting. Since I live part of the year in Italy, I live in a society in which I’m the optimistic American relative to the people who I’m around there. And that has actually brought to my attention the fact that I do have some sort of optimism and has made me think about it enough that I can attempt an answer.

I don’t think that I am hopeful because I have some data that you don’t, that I am going to share with you and going to convince you on that basis. I think that I feel that I have no choice but to operate under the illusion, which may be a delusion, that we can somehow get past the destruction that we have brought and that we are causing today.

It is an operational hope or optimism. That is to say that despair does not seem to be in any way potentially to be productive.

Rumpus: No choice but hope.

Keats: So it isn’t a matter of hope. It’s a matter of—between the options of trying nothing and trying something, let’s try something but let’s also be very thoughtful about what that something is. Let’s not be optimistic in the irreversibly irresponsible way that tends to happen with the crazies of geo-engineering. But let’s talk about what sorts of changes we can make.

Rumpus: We’ve been talking a lot about the future. What’s the future for you? What’s next on your plate?

Keats: I call myself an experimental philosopher which is as ambiguous a term as comprehensive anticipatory design scientist. I don’t really know what that job entails. I studied philosophy in school, became disgruntled by the fact that it was a way to have a very interesting conversation with very few people about very few things in very narrow terms and yet still believed (and still believe today) that there was something that I was getting myself involved in when I said I wanted to study philosophy.

I set my life since then attempting to figure out how to do that, basically how to have a sort of public discourse in which anything and everything are open to conversation and in which the thought experiment is a means by which to posit all manner of different realities, potential futures.

As a result of this, my work is very eclectic. I write books that range from writing fiction, writing fable where I am very directly trying to imagine alternate worlds, to writing about Fuller who was the ultimate world man creating all sorts of alternate worlds and believing that they were imminent to my own work of—for instance, a project that I’ve been working on for some year and a half, two years now that continues to evolve has been what I call Deep Time Photography.

I invented a camera that has an exposure time of one hundred years and the camera works in the simplest possible terms, because anything more complicated is more likely to break down in one way or another. It’s a pinhole camera that lets in very low light and instead of exposing film, which is going to spoil within a matter of days or weeks, I’m using ordinary black paper.

Paper will fade. In this case, what’s happening is that light is passing through the pinhole, projected on to the black paper and fading an image into the paper of whatever the camera is looking out on. If it were a quick exposure, you would have an image of a person or of a building. But what’s happening here is that you’re placing the camera somewhere in a city, in this case in Berlin, and you’re allowing over a very long period for an image to build, to fade into that paper.

What you’re seeing is change over that time. Imagine that a building gets torn down and the skyscraper goes up. You end up with a double image of the ghost of that building and much more bold in that image, the skyscraper. So it becomes a record that can be excavated. I made a hundred and then made them available to the people of Berlin by way of a deposit of ten euros. You would take a camera, hide it somewhere. When you die, you leave in your will to a child to go and retrieve it, bring it back, get the ten-euro deposit in return and then there’s an exhibition of these hundred images or however many of them have come about.

Pathology of LiesBut they’re hidden. I don’t know where they are. No one knows where they are, except for the person who hides them. So I see them as surveillance cameras that are in the hands of those not yet born, that they are looking out on—in this case, looking out on Berlin as a city and serving as a way in which we are able to watch ourselves from the vantage of those not yet born, from the perspective of those who will inherit the decisions that we make and therefore that we end up in this reflexive position of making decisions about the city based on an understanding of ourselves within time that is not just based on our immediate experience but is beyond anything that we can biologically imagine.

That relationship in time and the way in which we can see the world and relate to the world differently and interact with the world differently as a result of these hidden cameras became something that then naturally one wants to expand upon.

A hundred years. Well, naturally go to a multiple of ten to a thousand years. It’s like Fuller who starts building domes and then he’s like—he wants a dome over Manhattan. So the next stage has been creating a millennium camera and that’s a bit more of a challenging proposition because a lot more can happen in a thousand years. Like corrosion, for instance.

In this case, a pinhole is an aperture punctured through twenty-four-carat gold and black paper is probably not going to survive. So I’m using a renaissance oil painting technique that has five hundred years of stability proven, painting directly on to the back of a camera made out of copper, a metal that we know the stability of.

I’ve now built two of these and placed one of them looking out on the Tempe skyline built into the Arizona State University Art Museum and another one at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College. As a result of that, it sort of turned into something where I am thinking about it as a much larger, more global project of how to make it so that everywhere, people participate in—at the century level in a personal way and at the level of the millennium in the way of having one of these centennials in a city or out in what we might call a natural landscape.

We are not evolved really very well to be able to understand or to be able to work with and grapple with technologies that we have. So the idea of the camera is basically to build this technology that allows us to—by virtue of the fact that we know that we’re being watched from our future—to see ourselves from the vantage of those in the far future, to reflect back on ourselves from that point of view and therefore to see what we do through this lens of deep time and to understand the interactivity of the century camera and the presence of the millennium camera.

The next stage has been to try to come up with a century camera that’s even cheaper and easier. That is basically a—made of cardboard and here I want the UN involved. I want to get UNESCO involved in making this a birthright. Basically printing a box—a cardboard box. You cut it out, glue it together. Most of them won’t survive because cardboard in the rain, you know what happens to it.

But you have enough of them out there that some of them will and you start having this every—after 100 years—every day. There are cameras going out in the world, cameras coming in, and they’re all taking these images and they’re basically just fading into the black paper the simplest means possible and getting everybody involved in this, making decisions about what’s important to them. What do they want to look at? What do they want the future people to look at in terms of what has changed and how do they want to relate to those generations through making that choice, to have that simultaneous with putting in these cameras that have these millennium-long exposure?

Rumpus: As a person who also likes to work on a lot of different things at once, how do you, on a practical level, decide what to work on, on a day-to-day basis?

Keats: I work on everything all at once, which is maybe the worst way to go about it. But I think that actually it works really well in terms of the serendipitous connections between all of these many different projects and these many different realms.

Serendipity looks a lot like creativity, at least at a distance, and if I can tap into these ways in which one thing resembles another, well, we’re back around to Fuller again. Back around to the recognition of patterns, which may be true or may not be. But nevertheless, have enough of a semblance that they’re worth exploring. That, to me, is where my work begins.

It’s essential for me to be working on a nonfiction sort of research project simultaneous with multiple projects that are in different realms of art practice or not. I don’t know whether what I do is art. But making things out in the world and having as many conversations as possible. So that first of all feeds into what I do and secondly, it is emblematic of what I hope to achieve through what I do. That is to say all those conversations that are a result of it are the sorts of conversations that I think are the ultimate, most valuable by-product of what I’m doing.

I would say that by being irresponsibly disorganized, by saying yes to everything and then seeing how it all works out, that I end up in some place closer to where I had imagined I would be, before I started to study philosophy, than I would ever be had I followed through in any sort of responsible way, and become the professor of philosophy that I shudder to think I might potentially have become.

Ali Osworth is the Geekery Editor for Autostraddle, the largest website by and for queer women, the Managing Editor for Scholar & Feminist Online, an online journal by the Barnard Center for Research on Women, and is currently teaching at The New School. She’s working on a book about game designers and moral outrage. More from this author →