Thursday, October 4, 1990

Putting Descartes Before the Horse —James Burke, The Paper, Oct, 1990


By Maureen Hurley (The PAPER, Oct. 1990)

Popular television commentator and author James Burke will make a rare northern California appearance at Sonoma State University, Friday, Oct. 5. Burke, who lives in London, is one of Great Britian’s formost commentators on science and technology. He is presently circumnavigating the globe shooting footage for an upcoming BBC television documentary series. But he will briefly touch down in Rohnert Park for a dinner/reception fundraiser for a PBS KRCB/Channel 22; this lecture promises to give us a lively glimpse of his newest creation entitled, Goodbye Descartes: Information and Change, which focuses on ecological issues including the rainforest and the ozone layer.

Affectionately dubbed as one of the most lively and ereudite “talking heads” in television history, the 54-year-old Burke is better known to PBS viewers as the host of the internationally acclaimed award-winning BBC documentary series (and companion books), The Day the Universe Changed, and Connections. “His shows are aired in over thirty countries, and continue to be some of the most popular programs on television world-wide,” says KRCB Special Events Coordinator and Auction Manager, Terry Hochmuth.

During Burke’s tenure as BBC’s chief reporter for the Apollo missions to the moon, he developed the some of the ideas that led to the popular television series, for which he received the Royal Television Society Gold Medal in 1974; the previous year he received the Silver Medal.

In his book, The Day the Universe Changed, Burke writes: “Thought, in the form of critical doubt, was the only tool that the scientist could trust.” In 1637, the philosopher Descartes stated the only thing certain was thought itself. His famous dictum: “I think, therefore I am” (cogito, ergo, sum) marked the beginnings of the scientific revolution and of modern thought. God and the church was no longer central to man’s existence. According to Burke, when Descartes applied his “Cartesian doubt” to the behavior of the universe, it became “a cold, empty, mechanical place.”

When Burke, the Oxford educated scholar visited SSU last year, the event sold-out; over 2,000 spellbound listeners crowded onto the sagging gym bleachers to listen to the witty author, educator, and master storyteller untangle and weave unlikely ideas and connections: how the popularity of underwear in the twelvth century led to the invention of the printing press, and how the mill waterwheel evolved into the computer (with an unlikely immigrant stop at Ellis Island, New York).

Burke launched into a delightful diatribe which included the role of Irish grandmothers for the development of divergent thinking skills; to how science and technology have changed the deep structure of our lives by “altering society’s perceptions.” Our brains forge associative pathways which explore new and complex relationships between data and ideas. “Take these words: oil, Arab, sand, castle, night, day, sun, daughter—this is why we write poetry,” said Burke. “It’s a trick of putting things together in new combinations that leads to new ideas.”

Burke stated the mechanism for change is not always smooth: models shift when unexpected change occurs. Burke asked: “Why does change happen at all? Today, we live according to the latest version of how the universe functions. Should we move to a more flexible model? Suppose we could recognize there is no pattern to the universe? How should we prepare for change?” Accidents of time, circumstance, and place gave birth to ideas, inventions, and coincidences that led to technological achievements (or disasters) of the modern world. Said Burke, the gathering of knowledge should include the study of structure itself.

“A generalist straddles disciplines,” said Burke. “The key task for the future is not more new things. The problem is second-guessing the social effects of change. In the ‘50s, who’d have thought deodorant would make holes in the ozone layer?” Burke envisions a more contextual model: we need to make sure tomorrow’s world is better than today’s. He said, “We ordinary human beings have the power. Science and technology should enrich our intellectual lives, not just our material lives.”

Tickets available at SSU Box Office (664-2382), Bass outlets, and at the door. KRCB/Channel 22 fundraiser will feature gourmet Italian cuisine; proceeds to support local public television. Call 585-8522 for reservations.

(This is one of the few articles where I have the electronic draft. Most went missing, or were grossly corrupted, the finished article is always different. I liked to keep two copies, the draft I turned in, and the finished piece, which I corrected, so that I learned what the copy editor, Leisel, wanted. She was absolutely brilliant—and would explain why she made the changes. I learned so much from her. Nick also brilliantly edited my pieces. When the Paper was sold, Jim Carroll became editor, I learned a lot about the bones of writing from these folks. I knew nothing about writing when I began this process. I am forever endebted to them. —MH 10/9/2016)

Food for Though, Joan Marler, KPFA, Marija Gimbutas, The Paper, Oct 4, 1990


Hunger is a primary motivator, whether it’s corporeal or intellectual, and if you listen hard enough, you can hear corn grow. Radio personality Joan Marler stumbled into the art of the interview because as a dancer and an artist, she felt isolated. “I was frustrated I couldn’t see what I had accomplished. As I worked on stained glass in my studio and listened to KPFA, I found I was mute.” Eight years ago, she asked herself what the most challenging position she could put herself into “to see if I could think straight.” Food for thought. The answer came in loud and clear on the airwaves. Marler volunteered at KPFA fm in Berkeley, and eventually became a producer of interviews, lectures and documentaries for public radio.

Joan Marler lives with her husband Dan Smith, and daughter Sorrel, in an octagonal handmade house, and several studios tucked under the oaks in the Sebastopol hills. A fifth generation Californian, she grew up in Fort Bragg, Mendocino. “As a child, I was literally starving, until the first artists moved to Mendocino in the ‘60s. I remember the beginning of my life, the invitation into my creative life. There was a storefront window with musical instruments. All I did was see the outside of the door and it was as if I was hit with a thunderbolt.” She was 13. “It’s important for me to work in a variety of fields simultaneously,” said Marler--and she does--in dance, the visual arts, interviewing, writing, and editing.

Her latest food-for-thought weekly edition, program which began in June, “Brainstorm,” a which airs Tuesdays from noon to 1 p.m., covers a broad spectrum of the universe. Marler, who was KPFA’s former poetry editor, described it as a series of lectures, interviews and live pieces that focus on ideas, philosophy, mythology, women’s spirituality, humanities, the arts and sciences.”

Asking: “What are the sources of our hidden impulses,” she delves into repressed material, “uncovering the hidden assumptions that create the blueprint for our individual, and collective lives and attitudes, bringing them into consciousness.” 

She explained, “I drive down to Berkeley to broadcast a show, and my voice comes back to the community via the radio.” Programming on KPFA affects whole communities of listeners, it’s a circulation of ideas. She likens ideas to food. “As a child I was starving for information. I’ve gained tremendous experience through this work. I’m concentrating nutrients and transmitting them to others.” 

Marler has interviewed and produced lectures by many notable luminaries including the late Joseph Campbell, Phil Cousineau, Alan Watts, psychologist Carl Rogers, Riane Eisler, who wrote “The Chalice and the Blade,” and Marija Gimbutas, whose book, “The Language of the Goddess” has challenged the concept of patriarchal belief systems.

A motivating factor in Marler’s work is the exploration of women’s spirituality, and how it relates to the modern world. On Oct. 6th, she will host a special 12 hour women’s spirituality marathon, focusing on the inseparability of politics and spirituality, on KPFA fm. Marler wrote an essay entitled, “Women’s Spirituality” for the KPFA “Folio,” “This listening to the deepest interior voice, past all rigid systems and laws, is at the heart of women’s spirituality. Beyond this, there is no organized theology, no dogma, no centralized system of worship or practice, no governing spiritual body or leader. Instead, there is a multiplicity of traditional and evolving forms of ritual, celebration, and sacred inquiry, practiced alone and in community with others, found in every culture in the world.”

“As the Chinese saying goes, ‘If we do not change the direction in which we are going, we are bound to head up where we are headed.’ The necessity of examining the myths by which we are operating, which gives rise to our attitudes and actions, has never been greater. Women’s spirituality, therefore, is not a form of escapism, but is a practice of clarity and inner alignment by which individual integrity and responsibility for ourselves, our communities, and the planet are being fostered. In this view, the spiritual and the political are profoundly intertwined,” wrote Marler.

She dragged a large box across the floor of her studio, and showed me the results of two year’s worth of hard work, a 500 page book she’d edited: “The Civilization of the Goddess: Neolithic Europe before the Patriarchy.” This manuscript is a companion volume to the groundbreaking book, “The Language of the Goddess” by Lithuanian anthro-mythologist, Dr. Marija Gimbutas. The professor of European archaeology at UCLA is author of 20 books and over 200 articles concerning European prehistory, mythology and the origins of the Indo-Europeans.

In “Women of Power,” Marler wrote: “The significance of Marija’s work on the Goddess cultures of Europe... (and) pioneering scholarship has influenced an entire generation of artists, mythologists, archaeologists, and feminist writers.... Marija contends that old Europe, which was peaceful, art-loving, matrilineal, and egalitarian in social structure, was overrun by patriarchal horsemen from the Eurasian steppes who brought the technologies of war. This was a collision of two entirely different world-views, one which celebrated life in the form of the Goddess, and the other which worshipped power through domination.”

“Doing interviews for KPFA brought me to Maria’s work from that of Campbell’s,” said Marler, who has written for many national magazines including “Yoga Journal,” and “New Age Journal.” Her interview of Joseph Campbell was one of three indepth magazine articles on the great mythologist to be published in his lifetime.

Marler’s most consistent interest is that of mythology, and of “matristic” cultures. “Matristic” is a word coined by Marija Gimbutas. Marler explains that the word matriarchal implies the opposite of patriarchal, which is another division. Marler noted that Gimbutas’s work profoundly influenced mythologist Joseph Campbell’s later work. She said “Marija’s work updated his work and brought it into focus. 

In an interview, Marler asked Gimbutas; I know that Joseph Campbell drew a great deal from your work; in fact he spoke of you often in your public lectures. Gimbutas replied: I heard indirectly that he was mentioning my name, and this was such a pleasant surprise. When he received the manuscript of my last work, called the “Language of the Goddess,” he responded with such warmth and enthusiasm... He wrote a foreword to my book which I appreciate very much. Joseph Campbell made mythology alive.” 

Marler recounted the manuscript for Gimbutas’s latest book was carried to Lithuania, chapter by chapter, and translated into Lithuanian, though it’s not yet published in the states. Gimbutas’s family is considered to be the keeper of information on Lithuanian culture supressed under Soviet rule. Marler’s next project is to write a biography of Marija Gimbutas.

(And now for some missing text—damned ASCII code. I guess I should be grateful I've salvaged this much, but what a mess!!!)

...and editing.

The multi-talented Marler has been teaching folk and ethnic dance for 15 years through SRJC, using the aesthetics gleaned from Marija’s work. She described the ancient dances as formulas for the evocation of certain states of communal and individual experiences. I first met Marler as she led a spiral dance at the memorial ceremony for her father-in-law, and poet-activist, the late Ralph Smith. As the spiral wove in and out of the garden, we were transported beyond the framework of late afternoon, fall verging on winter, to something more ancient and primal. We dropped the isolated barriers of our 20th century trappings, and, for a few moments, we came together as a tribe.

“I love dancing with my students, making the ancient formulas together so a field of vitality is set up, we’re connected with the earth and communicating. Dance is primary, transcendent; it’s the physical embodiment. The ancient formulaes are exacting; dance cuts across time and space.” Marler commented that when her daughter Sorrel was learning to walk, she fell down and got up again. “It’s not one but two movements.” How we are living inside our bodies is important as well. She added, communal experience is so alien to our culture. “Through music and dance we have to learn how to move together to a rhythm beyond the cerebral. To get students to blend with each other, it’s important to learn to move in communal manner. In my dance classes it all converges: the study of myth, sociology and literature--all these things are combined in the process of teaching and performance.” Her dance teacher Don Frye focused on how to receive the impulse from the earth and transform it--spiritual food manifested physically. Marler also studied with a Balkan dance teacher, Dick Crum, and with Jana Nierenberger.

Marler received her degree in modern dance at Mills College in Oakland, and traveled to Japan. In New York, she read “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” gave everything away, bought a tent, and taught dance in Mendocino. A self-professed student of Campbells for 20 years, Marler explained, “I use Campbell’s text as a basis for my classes. What I’m about is finding the sacred ground. What is the path to the sacred, the ground of your own being?” She said students must find it within themselves. Again, Marler left Mendocino to study ballet, and ended up marrying her former sweetheart, Dan, in Sonoma County, and began teaching folk dance and modern dance instead.

She discussed the importance of the natural beauty of the physical world and the balance between intense work and environment. “I feel bonded to northern California. This is my garden of choice. The primary connections with nature are my first teachers. Our human expression is to give voice to our connection with nature, to celebrate being alive is a part of nature,” this, in contrast to the concept of exile in the West.

A self-proscribed member of the global community, Marler has traveled to most of the continents, and after a visit to China in January, she noted, “It’s a privilege the access we have to the media. We need to have continued access to knowledge. As a radio programmer, I’m in charge to do this. I don’t think I can take anything for granted, especially after waht happened in China,” said Marler, referring to the role of the media--especially the crucial role of the fax machine during the Tiannenmen Square massacre. Marler said she honors the privileges afforded by this culture, and of living on the western edge of the continent “where Oriental cultures and the pioneer spirit merge. There is always a new, internal frontier before us,” she explained. “The job of the artist is to continually rediscover the moment. We’re all part of the interconnected mystery. That’s what the dance, visual arts and intellectual arts are all about. You can only find balance by letting go of the paradox.”

We sat in the garden under a great oak tree, where the cat patiently waited on the path for someone to pet him. “Creativity is the essence of it all, and that means being courageous, discovering uncharted territories. Creative, not imitative,” she mused. “It means seeing through your own eyes, being as fully present in the moment as possible, and challenging old assumptions.” She pointed to her abundent garden by way of example: “This process of turning over the ground, what we know to be true; what is alive, worth keeping, is a vital composting. There’s noting we can hold onto anyway.” And with that, she handed me a yellow squash, as gleaming as the sun. The scent of apples perfumed the air with promise. I recalled some lines from one of her poems, “Women’s Spirituality”: “Breathing/ Taking the slow inward trek/ past the inevitable shattering/ where the listening can begin// Listening/ inside the incessant howl/ (so quiet and still)// What is Born and what is Dying/ circles in this place.”