Experience and Experiencing
by Allegra Fuller Snyder
Click the yellow arrows above to read other essays on Buckminster Fuller.
[An excerpt from "Bucky's 100", a forthcoming book]
When I was asked to contribute to this volume I wondered where I would start.
Writing about one's father is a challenging, almost overwhelming, task --
particularly if one has not confronted that presence in writing before.
I have written about many other subjects, but not about Bucky.
My father was a warm, concerned and sharing father. As focused as he was
on his own work he nevertheless included me in his experiences and experiencing.
I remember with great clarity when I was about four years old. I was sick
in bed and he was taking care of me. He sat down on the bed beside me, with
his pencil in hand, and told me, through wonderful free-hand drawings, a
Goldilocks story. I was Goldilocks and with his pencil he transported me,
not to the Bear's house, but to universe, to help me understand something
of Einstein's Theory of Relativity. What he was telling me was neither remote
nor abstract. I was in a newly perceived universe. I was experiencing my
father's thoughts and he was experiencing his own thinking as he communicated
with me. It was exciting. We were sharing something together and I felt
very warm and close to him in that experience. Something of this episode
was later remembered in a book called Tetrascroll.
I shared very participatorily in the emergence of the Dymaxion
Car, visiting the plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut as his vision came
to life, riding with him as he tested first the chassis, and then the whole
car and its many marvels. I was then six or seven. After "Nine Chains to the Moon"
I was an active part of the first seeding
of Synergetic Geometry. I was now about twelve. I loved numbers and patterns
of numbers and was a witness as these numbers began to take on shape and
form, a three-dimensional geometry. He asked me to work alongside him on
As I review all of these experiences, as I review my life in its relation
to my father, there emerges a central core, something that was a key to
so much else. I begin to perceive something that I learned very fundamentally
from my father, which was essential in his own work and became a seed which
flowered into much of my own life and work. To tell you about that core
I have to tell you something about myself.
I have pioneered a field called Dance Ethnology. A dance ethnologist is
one who is concerned with studying the process of dance in culture. My work
calls for a comprehensive perspective which seeks out that pattern of human
behavior called dance and asks what its functions are in world societies.
This field of investigation has been the major focus of my work and life
for the last thirty plus years. Before that, almost since the beginning
of my own life, well over sixty years ago, dance has been a central part
of my life, and has involved me in many ways, which included, as dancer,
choreographer, dance filmmaker, but was ultimately so much more.
I came to dance, as every child does, because it was one of those natural,
first, non-verbal responses to life -- after walking, almost always comes
dancing. What, perhaps, made my experience different from that of most children,
however, was that as I, then, "grew up" and entered school, this experience
was not negated, nor was I told that I should now be a good girl and just
sit still and listen to what others told me. I went to an extraordinary
school in New York called Dalton School
, a school founded on the educational
thinking of a woman named Helen Parkhurst. Miss Parkhurst, in turn, had
evolved a part of her work on the principle of John Dewey's "learning by
doing." Through Dalton I came to know dance as a way of knowing, a way of
knowing as indispensable and critical as any other way of knowing. This
sense of dance as a way of knowing has remained central to me in my concerns
Let me tell you very briefly about this educational process. In the third
grade we spent the year focused on the origins of man. We came to the dinosaur
age and I did a dance, or rather I experienced and communicated through
movement, about dinosaurs and how some got stuck in the La Brea tar pits.
A dance of my making explored what it felt like to get more and more sucked
into a sticky, black, substance from which there was no possible escape.
That moment of history, and all that it implied and contained, is as actively
in my body and mind now, as when I came to understand something about it
at seven or eight years of age. Then there was a dance about the solar system,
as we continued forward in our exploration of universe. The following years
we were submersed first in the history of Egypt, then Greece in the fifth
grade, and the medieval period, through medieval China and India as well
as Europe, in our sixth year. All these studies were brought to a culmination
and integration by, an "experiencing", a performance, of which
dance was a critical part. My understanding of these moments in history,
and of ideas that were vital to them, were, and are, imbedded in my viscera.
This was a form of self-education, of which Bucky spoke so often, for experiential
learning is self generated, and propelled, particularly in a supportive
My father had carefully sort out Dalton and, though it was a private school
and quite expensive, he found a way to borrow on, or barter, his work so
I could attend that school and learn through that process. Providing this
kind of education for me was hard for him financially but he saw in this
curriculum something of the "progressively co-ordinated apprehension
and comprehension of universe" that he felt "the mind was spontaneously
prone to deal with." This he felt was the essence of education.
It is the relation between the mind, which Bucky has often talked about,
and experience or experiencing, that I found to be a key which unlocks his
work and inspired my own. I believe inherently Bucky's concept of mind has,
at its base, mind processing through experience. One of the most vivid images
I have of my father are his fingertips. I can see him sitting, with his eyes
closed, searching deeply into his mind/experience, with his fingertips barely
tapping together, or his hands reaching out in one of those broad and animated
gestures so common in later years when he lectured. His fingertips were
exploring the universe around him. His fingertips were his antennas to experience.
No idea that he processed in his mind was ever processed without that link
to experience, was ever abstracted. The largest concepts, his generalized
principals, were a summarization and culmination of what he called "special
case" experience. Many times his fingertips seemed to suggest that he was
tuning in to, was in touch with, that special case experience.
What is so important to recognize is that this was physical experience.
My father was a very physical person. He used to pride himself that he was
quite an athlete. It was a knee injury, in his last year at Milton Academy
or just before he entered his first year at Harvard, that may have very
well shifted the directions of his life, for when he thought of going to
Harvard it was with great visions of playing football and hockey and "making
the team." He didn't because of his knee, and his energies shifted
elsewhere, at first mostly towards other forms of physical pleasure, parties
and such...and for that he was dismissed from Harvard.
He was sent to work as an apprentice millwright in a cotton mill in Sherbrooke,
Quebec, Canada. He loved it. It was tangible as well as physical work. He
was transformed by the experience. He was accepted back again in Harvard
but he had learned too much from that experience. Once back at Harvard he
felt that all he was asked to do was memorize, not validate through experience.
He rebelled and again he was dismissed. The commencement of World War I
followed immediately this second dismissal. He went to Annapolis. In the
Navy he discovered again the "hands on", and the physical. The direct sensorial
understanding and application embodied in his Navy experiences were for
my father a turning point. It set a course that very critically affected
the rest of his life.
My father was a walker. When he was courting my mother, who lived in Brooklyn
Heights, my father would walk down from the mid-thirties in New York City,
where he lived with his mother, across the Brooklyn Bridge and into Brooklyn
Heights, about a ten mile walk, to see my mother, and home again. He once
told me about walking an extraordinary number of miles, perhaps a hundred,
to see my mother, during one of his weekend leaves from the Navy, just after
they were married. This was his best thinking time. His thinking was connected
to his body. It was an integration of his body and his mind. This is what
dance is as I have come to understand it. He intuitively made this connection
too, so he had no difficulty in understanding and supporting my interest
in dance. And I felt no great separation between my own essential interests
and what lay at the core of his work.
It is the sense of the physicalization of idea that I see as so important
in understanding and accessing my father's work. It is the sense of physicalization
that propels synergetics and sets the criteria in his demand for "modeling
universe." I don't think one can really confront Bucky's work without turning
to the resource of one's own experiences and the wiliness to use those experiences
as a basis for understanding. Understanding is an experiential word, particularly
used in this context, with its sense of the necessity of actually "standing"
physically "under" an idea and experientially supporting the concept.
Over the years I have discovered dance to be what I have called a kinesthetic-conceptualization.
I find this essential to the process of knowing. It is a process acknowledged
by many peoples, in many cultures. "Learning the way for Native Americans
meant going directly to the source. The People voyaged with their entire
bodies, and with all their senses, including language and thought, in order
to find the answers to questions and to aid in their understanding of themselves
and their world." This is a quote a book called The Sacred published
by Navajo Community College. This is essentially what dance is all about
but also I find it completely consistent with my father's thought process
By experiencing I mean involving one's whole self, not being present at,
or observing, something, but "doing" that thing. I remember how
my father always loved to wash dishes. I had a perfectly good dishwasher,
a piece of excellent technology, but he preferred to get his hands wet,
to rinse, soap and stack the dishes in just the right way. (Technology,
from my father's point of view, was always be an extension and enrichment
of experience not a substitute for experience.)
He loved our island in Maine because it was a physically involving place.
We have no fresh water, except cistern-caught rain and well water, which
has to be drawn or pumped and then hauled; kerosene and candles for light,
a fire in the hearth for heat. Each of these basic requirements involves
physical action to produce the needed results...And then, of course, there
was sailing, which he loved, where the dialog between nature and human action
is so dynamic.
At the heart of each one of these actions, was the sense of the "special
case" that would lead to a generalized principle. Any experience would
become a "special case," the doorway to larger comprehensivity.
When you were around him you were aware how sensitive he was to the smallest
experience. His focus could zero in on a pebble on the beach, a twig or
flower along a path. Each became the stepping stone to the largest whole.
"The human brain apprehends and stores each sense reported bit
of information regarding each special case experience. Only special case
experiences are recallable from the memory bank."
Apprehended, a word Bucky used a great deal, suggests the "fingertip" experience.
Remember, Bucky said, "Questions...must be answered only in terms of
experience...Hearsaids, beliefs, axioms, superstitions, guesses, opinions
were and are all excluded as (my) answer resources."
Bucky didn't use the word feeling often but he quotes this wonderful e.e.
cummings thought at the beginning of his book "Critical Path." I believe what
cummings meant by feel and feeling relates to Bucky's experience and experiencing.
"A lot of people think or believe or know they feel (experience)
-- but that's thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling (experiencing).
Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human
being can be taught to feel (experience). Why? Because whenever you
think or you believe or you know, you're a lot of other people: but the
moment you feel (experience), you're nobody-but-yourself.
To be nobody-but-yourself -- in a world which is doing its best, night and
day, to make you everybody else -- means to fight the hardest battle which
any human being can fight; and never stop fighting."
That was the scenario of Bucky's life -- to fight the hardest battle which
any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.
Intuition, imagination, all relate to and are a part of experience. Let
me turn for a moment to Bucky's own words on these matters. (What follows
are drawn from E.J. Applewhite's wonderful Synergetics Dictionary.)
- Intuition is practically physical, the kind of supersensitivity that a child has.
- Imagination. Image-ination involves rearranging the "furniture" of remembered
experience as retrieved from the brain bank.
Speaking with an audience he would say, "All that I can really give
you I must always identify by experience." One of his great gifts as
a speaker was the fact that he made you experience his ideas and carried
you along with the connection between your experience and his experience.
"Information is experience. Experience is information."
He then goes on to really explore the essence of experience.
- Thinking is inherently exclusive. Experience, which comes before thinking,
is inherently inclusive. Experience is complex consciousness of being, of
self, co-existing with all the non-self.
- Re-experienced consciousness is re-cognition. Recognitions generate identifications.
Re-cognition of within self rhythms, of heart beatings or other identities,
generate a matrix continuum of time consciousness upon which, like blank
music lines, are superimposed all the observances by self of the non-self
- Experience is inherently discontinuous and islanded and each special experience
represents a complex of generalized principles operative in special or limited
size modulated realization.
- Experience is finite; it can be stored, studied, directed; it can be turned,
with conscious effort to human advantage. (This means that) evolution pivots
on the conscious, selective use of cumulative human experience.
- Universe is the coordinate integral of all experience."
Where or how does experience continue to be a part of the picture when,
as Bucky pointed out,
"At the dawning of the twentieth century, without
warning to humanity, the physical technology of Earthians' affairs was shifted
over from a brain-sensed reality into a reality apprehended only by instruments."
His response is that invisibility can be "understood and coped with
only by experience-educated mind."
Let me turn again, for a moment, to my own work in hopes of clarifying this
very important point. It is my observation that dance is most significant
in societies that are least literate, where they have had no need for a
tool to document the spoken word, and it is least significant in societies,
such as our own, where literacy, rather than knowledge and understanding,
is set up as the criteria of education and cultivation. Since I have learned
a very great deal from understanding dance, what does this tell me? The
written word was and is an extraordinary technological tool but it was the
first step in the separation of knowledge from experience. It extended knowledge,
in time and space, but away from self, and made invisible, and often forgotten,
the source of knowledge, the reason for knowledge. There are trade-offs
in the process of literacy which I think are very important to examine.
Literacy allows detachment, lack of involvement, sometimes, and most important
of all, irresponsibility to the essential understanding and retention knowledge.
Physical-conceptualization is deeper and more lasting as a learning process,
and the individual is propelled into a sense of responsibility by that process,
that, I think, is why Bucky said invisibility can be "understood and
coped with only by experience-educated mind."
From my perception of reality, and orientation to life, all of the above
suggests that in order to really understand Bucky's work, you must, in essence,
be a dancer yourself. You must understand your body and experience as a
way of knowing. In a functional way the ideas need to be embodied in your
own thinking /experiencing. Bucky was at his most essential Buckyness when
he burst into his wonderful clogging dance. Bucky was a dancer in the way
I understand dance, as a way of knowing, and his understanding of universe
was through his dancing in his mind.