Defying the Laws of Form at the AUM Conference


By Carole Levine
Reprinted with permission from The Realist Archive Project

March 18

It is a god-kissed Sunday and I’m driving south of Highway One, from San Francisco to Big Sur, to the South Coast Center of Esalen Institute, the matriarch of the Human Potential Movement, the spawning ground of gurus.
Alan Watts, the leading popularizer of Zen Buddhism in this country, and John Lilly, a leading proponent of interspecies communication, have invited 24 people to a meeting of the American University of Masters, or, as it shall be known hence, the AUM conference. I have not been invited, as I am in no way a Master, but curiosity, a long-standing if aloof love affair with John Lilly and the coattails of one the confrerees propel me down the highway.
I know that the original idea of the conference, as conceived by Lilly and Watts, was to provide an opportunity for some the top minds in the country to meet and share their top minds. Since its inception, however, John has become quite keen on the works of G. Spencer Brown, alias James Keys. (He has published one book under each name).
Brown is an English philosopher/logician. He has written a fas­cinating and difficult book, Laws of Form, which I have twice tried to wade through. The book has been described as the discovery of the form of laws. The closest I come to an understanding of the theories it sets forth is through Heinz Von Foerster's review in The Last Whole Earth Catalog.
Von Foerster writes: ". . .the first constructive proposition in this book is the injunction: 'Draw a distinction.' and exhortation to perform the primordial act. After this practically everything else follows smoothly: a rigorous foundation of arithmetic, of al­gebra, of logic, of a calculus of indications, intentions and desires; a rigorous development of laws of form may they be of lo­gical relations of descriptions of the universe by physicists and cosmologists or of functions of the nervous system which gener­ates descriptions of the universe of which it is itself a part." That, as I have said. is the closest I come to understanding Laws of Form.
I know, too, that John has persuaded a reluctant James to come from England to the United States in order to teach Laws of Form to the American University of Masters. It is his first trip to this country and from the original month that he had planned to spend here James assured presence has dwindled to two days. I speculate that he is terrified by the rumors of nude bathing in the sulphur baths at Esalen and intimidated by the attending gaggle of gurus which reads like a Who's Who of the Human Potential Movement.
I dawdle down the California coast, enjoying the sun, the water, the sun on the water, a peanut butter & jelly ice cream cone in Santa Cruz, my favorite Standard station in Monterey, and, by the setting sun, Big Sur itself.
I arrive at Esalen in time for dinner. The redwood lodge is glowing with candlelight and crowded with people. In addition to the AUM conference there are about thirty others who have just ar­rived to attend the week-long workshops offered by the Institute. Everyone looks a bit apprehensive and in their nervousness the AUMies can't be differentiated from the workshoppers. Only the Esalen staff, easy and graceful amongst themselves, are dis­tinguishable from all the others.
I sit at a table with Stewart Brand. founder of The Whole Earth Catalog and a participant in the conference. There are two others at the far end of the table, who, after a few polite jabs at conversation (“Is this your first time here?”) turn out to be Les and Sally Marks from Massapeguq, Long Island, about to embark on a week of encounter and gestalt.
Heinz von Foerster, another participant, recognizes Stewart and sits down with us. I watch Alan Watts scanning the lodge and with a look of relief he recognizes Heinz. He, too, sits down with us. Gregory Bateson, anthropologist and invitee, sees Alan, and with him, our table is full.
The conversation quickly becomes loud and esoteric and I sneak a glimpse at the Marks who look as if they are about to flee back to Massapequa. With a second's flashback, I remember my first time at Esalen. and in a small burst of compassion. I tell them who the others are and all, or as much, as I know about the AUM conference.
We all gorge, out of total nervousness, on chicken screaming in sour cream sauce, rice, salad and chocolate pudding. Stewart Brand, who says he rarely drinks coffee, downs three cups.
Eight-thirty: The AUM group assembles in a meeting room at South Coast Center. The room is cozy, a fire struggles in the fireplace. There is a small kitchen off the meeting room and I hear a 38-cup percolator doing a samba, a sound that comes back like a leitmotif through the entire conference.
I look around. There are fifteen of us. Most everyone is sitting on the floor, leaning and lounging around big stuffed pillows. Two women are sitting in the corner near the only available light in the room. They are doing patchwork.
I note in red magic marker on my brain that of the four women who have been invited to participate, three are Mrs. Watts. Mrs. Taupin and the future Mrs. Lilly. The other three women who have been invited to attend are like myself, shabby hangers-on, or worse still, wives and the conference secretary.
There are fifteen of us. Not everyone is here. Alan does a quick count, steps outside the door and produces an admirable vocal imitation of blowing through his conch shell, the conch shell gizmo being his usual method of announcing the beginning of a meeting. The sound actually takes me back twenty years: camp bugle call to evening activity.
The meeting finally starts at 9:00. Alan, in his own inimitable. eloquent and ceremonious style (I'm convinced he makes a pro­foundly religious rite out of swatting mosquitoes) welcomes us, modestly remarks on the quantity of wisdom collected in the room and tells us a bit about James Keys and Laws of Form.
"It is an investigation of the logical unconscious."
Stewart, boggled by the phrase, asks. "Do we have a black­board?"
Alan answers. "Oh. we will have to have one," and dismisses him as if he were a heckler. But Alan's train of thought has been sufficiently derailed and he calls the meeting to an uneventful end with the suggestion that we mingle and get to know one another.
I get to know Karl Pribram, a neurophysiologist from Stan­ford. and ten minutes later I get a stunning and inadvertant smack in the face by Bruce Badenoch who is making large, grandelo­quent gestures while getting to know Baba Ram Dass. I leave the room and walk the mile to Esalen, right down the middle of the white line on Highway One. I climb into a hot sulphur bath and try to wash off all the words.

March 19

G. Spencer Brown has arrived. He looks as if he died yesterday. He is drawn, tired and obviously terrified. He looks no one in the eye. and at breakfast I know that he is answering my questions because the top of his head is pointed squarely in my direction.
I imagine two eyes, a nose and a mouth sketched on his pate and the effect of this face to "face" conversation is peculiarly pleas­ant. In fact, with very little effort.I can even get his "mouth to “smile” at me, and every once in a while I effect a knowing “wink.”
Ten a.m. — I listen attentively to Brown’s lecture, determined to be as smart as everyone else. but the only things I can make sense of are the following disjointed fragments:

  1. Laws of Form is the algebra of logic.

  2. Logic is an interpretation of mathematics.

  3. A number is a measure of space and relationships.

  4. A distinction is defined by one state as opposed to another.

  5. States of the first distinction have no shape. They are merely being states.

  6. Time is what there would be if there could be oscillation be­tween states.

  7. The measure of time is change.

  8. A ruler defines space and a clock defines time.

  9. Mathematics are an illustration of what cannot be said.

  10. When one starts at the beginning there is nothing to learn. Only to unlearn.

G. Spencer Brown stands in front of a blackboard addressing a room crowded with people from either the top of his head or the underside of his jaw. He is obviously a brilliant and self-con­scious mystic. He has written a treatise on the hidden assump­tions between math and logic extended into the universe.
I begin to wonder about the hidden assumptions between math and logic extended into the universe, I begin to wonder about the hidden assumptions behind G. Spencer Brown extending into the world. He appears to be talking about "oneness" and "unity" from behind a locked door. I feel a strong urge to hug him. I con­trol the urge.

March 20

Ten a.m. — Brown gives his final lecture. He asks if there are any questions. I hesitantly raise my hand and ask him if he will talk about the application of Laws of Form to human relationships. He says he doesn't have time, thanks us all, and leaves.
The door closes and a heated discussion erupts. Charlie Tart, who has conducted extensive research into ESP, presents the is­sue: Shall we continue to allow smoking in the room, and if so, what adequate measures can be taken for better ventilation?
It is finally decided by the smokers (led by Alan Watts, who is continually puffing on his pipe like the Little Train Who Could) that they will definitely not yield to the "new puritanism" of the non-smokers, but will agree to sit on one side of the room and try to aim their smoke through the front door while the back door is to remain open not less, but no more than 4 to 7 inches, thus pro­viding the necessary ventilation without chilling everyone in the room..
Passion dissipated, the group goes on to discuss exactly how the rest of the conference should shape itself now that Spencer Brown has left. It is decided that each participating Master will chair a half-day session and discuss what Laws of Form means to him in terms of his own work.
There's a lot of giggling and chatter going on. A tension valve has been eased. The teacher has gone home early. Class is free to romp and play and write dirty words on the blackboard. The first piece of graffiti to appear:

I have thunk
I cannot am.
—Brendan O'Regan. Stanford Research Institute

Eight-thirty — John Lilly, the Master of Meta-Programs, takes over the evening session. He says he is mainly interested in what others are thinking, and turns the meeting back to the group. Like a linguistic ping-pong match, the verbal ball bounces around the room until Alan Watts picks it up and begins to volley with him­self.
He gives an excellent, simplified monologue on Laws of Form. punctuated with many "so; however; therefores" and a shower of quotes from the Bible. the Koran and Tao Teh Ching. and then quickly lobs the ball to Doug Kelley, a mathematician from the National Safety Council in Chicago.
Doug stands in front of the blackboard, the Book in one hand, chalk in the other and demonstrates how equations work, and the difference between mathematical and algebraic equations, a dif­ference which still escapes me.
Desperation creeps through my chest. Everyone else in the room appears to be following but me. One refrain revolves in my brain in time to the samba coming from the kitchen: "What the hell am I doing in this room."

March 21

Ten a.m. — Gregory Bateson, a six-foot-five sun-flower of a man, originator of the Double-Bind theory, leads the morning meeting. He relates the Brownian system to Batesonian life, and the morning takes off into a fascinating and confusing discussion of the differences between tautologies, contradictions and para­doxes.
A tautology, we agree, under all circumstances is true, and liter­ally says nothing. A contradiction, on the other hand, is always false. A paradox, according to Bates, is a "contradiction in which you take sides."
The tautological aspects of the conference are beginning to overwhelm me, so I go back to my room, get stoned and pass an hour or goggling at John Lilly's enormous motorhome (license plate DOLFIN) complete with radar range and quadra­phonic sound.
I come back to the room as Heinz Von Foerster from the University of Illinois undertakes his chairmanship of the meeting. He begins his address by complimenting the "brilliant men and charming ladies. Brown made monologic a complete and closed system in a world used to dialogic. If you like complete and closed systems you're comfortable with Brown. Most of us aren't." My inner voices screech in dismay. Oh. no. Heinz. That is not the source of my discomfort. I’m itchy with the rash of words that keep breaking out like a bad case of hives. Words being used, misused and abused. There appear to be as many dialects as people in the room and I’m as frustrated with the many motives with which words are being spoken.
Although everyone is speaking English, I’m in a foreign land. I decide that words are meaningless. What is truly important is context, and there is not common context at this conference.
Two p.m. — Richard Alpert, Baba Ram Dass, sits in front of the room, eyes closed, legs in a first-rate lotus position. He meditates to clear himself. The room is hushed. Even the ladies doing patchwork in the far corner still their fingers and all eyes are riveted on Ram Dass.
I try to stifle a sneeze and it comes forth with all the desperation and noise of a stifled sneeze. All eyes swing as one in my direction. I feel guilty. I even look guilty. All eyes, satisfied, swing back to Ram Dass.
The gist of Ram Dass, a gist I’ve heard a hundred times before and will lovingly hear a hundred times more: Intellectuals have a hard time surrendering. They must give up seeing “it” to being “it.” A mild censure. “Intellectuals get caught in astral exquisitries. They get blissed out on on ideas and words.”
Echoes of G. Spencer Brown: “It is the intllectual block which most of us come up against at the points where, to experience the world clearly, we must abandon existence to truth, truth to indication, indication to form, and form to void….”

March 22

Ten a.m. — Will Schutz, author of Joy, the man who introduced the word “encounter” to the culture, the social arbiter of Big Sur, comes to the morning meeting ablaze in a yellow jogging suit. He announces that he is having a cocktail party and all are welcome. He just wants to know who drinks and who smokes and what do we smoke and what do we drink.
The meeting begins. Words are bandied about again. Everything seems to reduce itself to a language problem, even Laws of Form. The group begins to argue: Can Laws of Form and its abstract concepts be translated into the representations we call words? When we talk about the universe beyond distinctions, don’t we need distinctions to talk about it?
Everyone is beginning to feel gluey and irritable. Besides, the sun in shining after three days of rain. Kurt von Meier interrupts all the conversations that are running concurrently. Kurt is an expert on the amanita muscaria, the magic mushroom. His baby daughter is named Amanita, a measure of regard for both.
In gentle, muscaria-loaded tones, he reminds us that we have traveled far from the original course set down “for us by the Master” (in this case Master G. Spencer Brown) and requests that we return to the book and go through it page by page for a literal rendering.
Several people in the room remind him that the present debate is concerned with the impossibility of his request. To emphasize the difficulty, Alan Watts, in a spout of spontaneity, says: “It’s like trying to fuck a plastic woman.” Mrs. Watts says, “Oh, Alan! You always say that!”
Another voice: “It’s like trying to know how an entree will taste by merely reading the recipe!” Someone else goes one step further and compares Laws of Form to a musical composition which defied literal rendering.
Heinz stills the mounting tension by suggesting that we treat Laws of Form as exactly that - a musical composition. He bursts forth in mellow tones and sings the first two axioms, the Law of Calling and the Law of Crossing. His rendition is met with loud applause and a suggestion for the formation of the Laws of Form Chorale. After all, a solo is all right for simple arithmetic, but a chorale is needed for algebra. And we break for lunch.
Two-thirty p.m. - I convince my friend to take the afternoon off and we go up into the mountains which are gloriously quiet. We lay out in a field of purple and yellow wildflowers. The conference, with all its abstract loftiness, is making me damned uncomfortable, so I talk about personal things, using my experience as reference point, trying to ground and quiet myself. We make love in the flowers.

March 23

Another ghastly perfect sunshine day. lt seems a heresy to sit in­doors listening to attempts to describe exactly what is happening with vividness out-doors.
I remember a footnote on the invitation to the Conference: "Do not search for the truth; only cease to cherish opinions."
I decide, for the time being, to give up all my opinions and after ten minutes, I tiptoe to the door and play hookey for the rest of the. day.

March 24

Ten a.m. — Refreshed and revitalized from a day in the sun. I return to the meeting room. Stewart Brand, dressed in black monk's robes, leads us through the morning maze. He talks about new games and game theory which is his present interest.
At one point, Heinz attacks him with a styrofoam sword-shaped weapon called a "boffer." Stewart picks up another “bof­fer" and they have a bloodless duel. A new game called "boffing." The energy and interest level in the room suddenly soars. Stewart finished, John Lilly steps to the blackboard.
John has to his credits, membership in the Arica Training, a school of the sufi tradition. Arica claims to have developed a structure which produces as an end-goal "total integration of mind, body and spirit." The yardstick of success appears to be at­tainment of various levels of satori numbered 4, 8, 24, 12, 6, 3. and — the numbers stop there.
John takes us through the various states describing the terri­tory as well as the map, corresponding each level to the levels of Brownian distinction.
Kurt Von Meier never speaks on Saturday. This being Satur­day he writes his presentation on the blackboard in a random manner until the blackboard is completely covered. Looking at the presentation. I see a patchwork of words like peace, one. love etc.
The morning goes quickly.
Eight p.m. — John Brockman, author of The Late John Brock­man and editor of Real Time sums up. He steps to the blackboard and writes across the top: "Reality is…" He then invites everyone to fill in the blank. There have been dozens of realities floating through the smoke-filled room. This is the big chance. One by one we step forward to write our statements:
Reality is the difference between a crocodile
Reality is what lies between me and my woman
Reality is unawkward self-consciousness
At least reality is
Reality is Ytilaer spelled backwards
We explode with laughter as the day before the conference is to end, we all make manifest the difficulty that has plagued the group from the beginning.

March 25

The Laws of Form Chorale makes its debut at a Sunday morning service led by Alan Watts. The Chorale is composed of two flutes, a violin and one human voice. Most of the people who live and work at Esalen are there. They’ve been speculating all week as to what's been going on at South Coast Center Now they know.
The service ends and the Esalen people disperse to the hot baths, to soak their bodies and lay out in the sun. The AUM people mill around on the deck taking snapshots of each other, trading addresses, making tentative dates for lunch "sometime soon." The AU M conference is over.
P.S. I missed Will's party but I hear it was a perfect success. Lots to drink and smoke. Lots of pretty Big Sur masseuses and worldly intellectuals eyeing each other with mutual interest and disdain. As one woman put it, "We each thought we knew where it was at, and neither of us was sure."


The Realist
April, 1973