Various readers may know mathematician/UCSC professor Ralph Abraham through his pioneering efforts in chaos theory, his association with the late Terence McKenna and/or his comments in the movie DMT: The Spirit Molecule. Ralph’s latest book, “Hip Santa Cruz,” examines the roots of local hip culture—a subject that he also explores at length on his website, ralph-abraham.org.
Local Santa Cruz: By the time I got to Santa Cruz, it was already weird. As far as I can tell, this place has always been some kind of magnet for counterculture. Maybe you can give me a broader perspective on how it got to be this way?
Ralph Abraham: Well, that’s one of the mysteries. There’s an answer to that question, but I don’t know what it is. In my view, there was this… I call it a miracle: this fantastical transformation of culture. It happened worldwide and was similar to, let’s say, new periods of art history—like, you have the classical, baroque, the advent of abstract expressionism in the early 20th century and so on. These are cultural shifts that happen suddenly and inexplicably, where influences that were around all the time suddenly took hold on a critical number of minds, and some new manifestation occurred, either in the arts, in science, in mathematics, clothing, styles and so on. Santa Cruz was one of the earlier locations of the worldwide shift in the early 1960s. It also kind of ended just a few years later, leaving a residue of new ideas that continued to grow—for example, the homebirth movement, the women’s movement, gay liberation and so on. It was like a domino effect, where transformation after transformation followed as ripples outward from that first huge event in the 1960s.
So, somehow there were unique features of Santa Cruz, including geographical, climate and cultural history that made it attractive. [For instance,] when lesbian liberation began, Santa Cruz became a huge magnet for lesbian people from all over the United States. Why was that? I mean, there were other centers, but somehow Santa Cruz has a kind of magnetism which is transcultural and has been operating maybe since Santa Cruz was founded, attracting a certain kind of creative people who feel lonely in the Midwest or the Southeast or something. I came to Santa Cruz for the company of more people who’d had a psychedelic experience and felt positively about it.
But U.C. Santa Cruz is certainly a factor. When it started up in the 1960s, it was almost unique in the world for its libertarian approach to education: no grades, make up your education and so on. And even to this day… I know, because I’m still teaching there every year, and I see that we have students who are special. They’re not a majority or anything, but there is this fringe, adequately numerous, to maintain a special interest on the campus.
“Hip Santa Cruz” focuses on certain locations as hubs of countercultural activity here in Santa Cruz. Can you tell me a little about the main sites that the book zeroes in on and why you chose to emphasize them?
In my professional work, I’m interested in what we call complex dynamical systems—social networks, for example, where you have nodes that might be people, institutions, churches or whatever that are linked to each other through some kind of communication channel, one-way or bidirectional: for example, some people that belong to this church and also to that school, so it creates a link between those two nodes. In a dynamical network, the number of nodes is changing through accretion or losses, and the strength of the bonds, the links between the different nodes, also changing as time goes on. I study them primarily through computer simulation and computer graphic visualization. Many other people do also; it’s sort of a hot topic now.
Viewing the history of Santa Cruz through this perspective, there are certain institutions which at any given time are hubs; they’re nodes, like the other nodes, but they have more links connected to them than other nodes. They’re crucial nodes in the network. In the 1960s in Santa Cruz, there were just a few of them. Maybe there are more that I don’t know about—there were a lot of communes that I never visited, but I heard of them, and some of these communes were also important hubs in a social network. But these that I knew about were the most connected, the most influential nodes: the Hip Pocket Bookstore, The Barn, The 25th Century Ensemble and The Catalyst. There are a few others mentioned in the book, [but] each of these four were created intentionally by an individual who wanted to contribute to a major cultural transformation. I knew the people involved, and so that’s why I interviewed them as my primary subjects for the website and later for the book.
Why do you feel this book is important to the present time?
My interest is, especially for a broader audience, especially younger people, to just know that a major social transformation is possible. This is like Bernie and our revolution. In case you think human population on planet Earth is going in a bad direction—we wish there could be a transformation, but you might be pessimistic, because nobody knows how to start a major social transformation. We want a revolution; we don’t know how to do it. Like occupy the world!
So, the thing is, there have always been these social miracles—cultural, historical transformations, sudden changes, just at the time when they’re urgently needed, and nobody knows why they happen. Right now we need one, but maybe it’s impossible. The thing is, one happened in living memory in the 1960s. People are still alive who remember it. History can be rewritten to erase this; many people would like to do that. For example, the suppression of psychedelics—marijuana is illegal in so many countries. The reason is that the status quo is trying hard to maintain itself. The educational system, including the major universities—they’re all aimed at preserving the standard culture. They want to resist major transformations, or even gradual changes.
So, I’ve worked hard and devoted a lot of my resources to creating this book, just because I want people to know that this kind of thing is possible and even could be precipitated by a small number of people trying to make a change intentionally. It’s not done by occupying buildings or exploding bombs; it’s done more through the arts and creative work with beautiful music, paintings and ideas of a better way to live, and people with the courage to experiment with the new ideas and evolve them experimentally, like progress in science, so that progress in social styles is evolving instead of being stuck in one place because of the controlled curriculum in the schools, for example, and the influence of religion and all these rules.
At the most basic level, it’s a revolution in consciousness. It starts with a shift in perception.
Exactly. A change of consciousness then leads to other changes, and finally there might be choices that could be made on a global scale: choices like the environmental movement or hostility to toxins in the atmosphere and in the ocean. New sensitivities, new ideas are resisted by the corporate interests, big business, governments and so on, but are appreciated by young people.