About a month ago, I decided to cut a thirty-page theoretical appendix out of my forthcoming book (tentatively titled How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll). It’s adapted from my doctoral dissertation in English, which I’m defending in April, so the book has already been through quite a few revisions. When I started getting serious about my dissertation in 2009, I initially wanted to write a purely theoretical work, as my interests had shifted markedly away from literature and towards the hermeneutic modes employed to interpret narrative. My then advisor quickly disabused me of that notion, patiently explaining that although the boundaries between disciplines have become fairly permeable in recent years, English is not Philosophy. Although I went through a period of intense discipline envy, even auditing a class on Hegel, I soon realized that the kind of philosophy I’m interested in is not generally taught in philosophy departments, which tend more towards analytic philosophy. English is one of the primary academic havens for continental philosophy and, of particular interest to me, the streams of thought constellated around William James, Henri Bergson, and Alfred North Whitehead: pragmatism, vitalism, and process philosophy.
At the same time that I was engaging with these issues, I was also the singer, songwriter, and guitar player in a roots rock band called The Morning Pages, which managed to play on some pretty prestigious stages in New York, from the Mercury Lounge and Pianos to Bob Dylan and Tom Petty tribute nights at the Bowery Ballroom (where I sang alongside members of the Strokes and the Black Keys, Sean Lennon, Nora Jones, and many others). Having determined that writing a purely theoretical dissertation in English, even at the rather progressive Graduate Center was stretching the disciplinary boundaries beyond all recognition, I sought out advice from my advisor. When she suggested that I write on music (knowing I was a musician), I was initially resistant as I had always assiduously avoided music criticism, not wanting to mix my art with my intellectual pursuits. However, after a few days ruminating over her suggestion, it became obvious that she was right. My two primary interests have always been philosophy and rock and roll, so if I was going to spend years writing a dissertation (other than the purely philosophical work I still intend to write), the intersection of these two subjects is the only topic I could viably have chosen.
And I’m glad I did. Although the process of writing and revising has at times been incredibly difficult, it has also been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Spending day after day sitting in front of my computer, articulating my thoughts about music in prose, and dealing with sometimes harsh criticisms from my advisors has forged me into a far stronger writer and thinker than I ever could have been otherwise. I won’t claim that I’ve never fantasized about throwing in the towel and getting a “real job,” learning to build houses or going to law school, but these were never genuine possibilities for me. I knew that in order to become the kind of thinker and writer I felt myself being teleologically drawn towards, I would have to undergo this long, sometimes arduous initiation into academia, which I have come to understand as something very like the secular priesthood of modernity.
About a year ago, I had reached an impasse with my former advisor. It had simply become clear that, although we shared a similar theoretical perspective, she simply didn’t care enough about rock and roll to direct a dissertation on the subject. But the upshot is that just as it became obvious that we could no longer work together, my current advisor, Marc Dolan, who I had only known as a cultural critic of film and television, unexpectedly announced that he was publishing a book called Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It struck me as a rather unlikely coincidence that the perfect advisor would emerge just at the moment I needed him. Under Marc’s supervision, I’ve forged my dissertation into a coherent whole, a scholarly work with popular potential.
About three weeks ago, I was going about my business, revising my book eight or nine hours a day, training for a half-marathon, picking my three-year-old son up from school, spending time with my family and a few close friends, and playing with my band once a week, when I got a horrible stomach ache. I had just eaten a lunch of extremely spicy tuna salad (made with Siracha) and avocado, so I assumed I had gotten food poisoning. I lay down and put on a sci-fi movie to distract myself, waiting for the pain to pass. It didn’t pass, but actually kept getting worse, the worst I’d ever felt. I’d never called an ambulance before, but I figured there’s a first time for everything. My wife ended up driving me to the hospital, where my doctor friend happened to be working in the emergency department, so they got me right in a room and gave me intravenous pain medication, which initially made me shiver convulsively (because it was cold, like ice in my veins, as they say) and then impelled me to hold forth expansively for several hours on a wide range of philosophical subjects as my wife patiently listened. At two that morning, the young surgeon removed my appendix by cutting three small holes in my belly and seeing his way around with a tiny camera fed onto a large HD screen, a procedure they call a laparoscopic appendectomy. (Incidentally, there seems to be some consensus now that the appendix does in fact play a useful role, basically boosting the immune system, though not an essential one).
The next few days were extremely unpleasant, and I won’t bore you with the details, but while I was recovering, I decided to read Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern. I’d been meaning to read Latour for a few years, but I’d been so deeply immersed in reading music criticism and biographies for my dissertation that I hadn’t had much time for contemporary philosophy, though I always made time for James and Whitehead. As I read Latour’s book on my phone from a prone position, I texted extensive notes to myself detailing my reactions to his ideas in relation to Richard Tarnas’ The Passion of the Western Mind, which also deals with intellectual history, and which was also published in 1991. Perhaps I needed something difficult and controversial to take my mind off my infirmity, but I seem to have rather effortlessly written a short essay critiquing Latour’s book, which I found both fascinating and infuriating. Initially, I intended to post the piece to a listserve to which I subscribe, but as the piece grew, I decided it was simply too long for that forum. Next, I considered submitting it to an academic journal, but then I decided that I would have to do a lot more research on the dialogue around Latour that would take me away from the primary work of my book.
I had long resisted blogs. Even though I use Facebook and Instagram regularly, I had been harboring a barely conscious disdain for blogs as avenues of communication for people with no “real” outlet to talk narcissistically about themselves (as if Facebook isn’t susceptible to a similar criticism). While this is true in some cases, as I thought about it, I realized that I often read excellent blog posts linked from various news sites or shared by friends on Facebook, but I hadn’t really stopped to think about what differentiates an article in an established publication from a blog, and, for that matter, what differentiates a good blog from a bad one. I knew of a few friends I respected who blogged, so I decided to give it a try. Certainly the fact that I had written a piece with no easily definable outlet led me in this direction, though I had written those kinds of pieces before, many of them still lingering in the obscurity of my laptop’s hard drive. But, ultimately, I think the factor that made me decide to start a blog (and to join Twitter, which I had similarly resisted: @GrantMaxwell if you care to follow) was my operation.
The transformative encounter with mortality is an old trope, perhaps even a cliché, but one that it is not possible to comprehend the full force of until one has undergone it. As with marriage, having children, or earning a degree, having the experience of my body temporarily ceasing to function optimally as it had for more than three decades produced in me what Whitehead calls “that slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference” (if you’ve read my other posts, you’ll notice this is one of my favorite quotes). Until I went through that completely out-of-the-blue “smack-down” from life, as it seemed to me, I had perhaps overly idealistically believed that if I wrote a really good book, it would be recognized without having to stoop to what I felt to be the drudgery in which successful writers usually engage. Now, however, while I still feel that writing books is the most important thing for a writer of books to focus on, I have come to understand that it is also important to “establish an online presence,” as they say, not cynically to hawk one’s wares on the side of the “internet superhighway” as we used to call it in the good old days, but to establish an intellectual community that is simply broader and more heterogeneous than it is possible to build by more conventional means in grad school and at conferences. Just in the last two weeks or so that I’ve been writing blog posts, I’ve reconnected with old colleagues and established some new and interesting lines of dialogue and debate.
If you’re at all familiar with the work of C.G. Jung, James Hillman, or Richard Tarnas, you’ll know that these three thinkers (and many others) see a great deal of value in the concept of formal causation, the idea that there are underlying formal or archetypal potentialities for meaning that can manifest in materially unconnected ways. Jung called this “acausal connecting principle” “synchronicity,” though as I argue in an article on Jung and Whitehead published by Archai: the Journal of Archetypal Cosmology, synchronicity is only “acausal” if we limit causality to the material and efficient varieties, which is what we generally think of when we speak of causation in the modern world. Furthermore, as these thinkers all argue, time is qualitative so that each moment has a particular constellation of archetypes that deeply inform and color what takes place in that moment. Bergson calls this qualitative aspect of temporality “duration.” Whereas science generally works on the assumption that time is linear, static, and quantitative, which is a necessary approach if experimental repeatability is to be considered a valid source of scientific proof, the other modes of thought based on formal and final causation understand that the world looks and feels very different to us at different moments, and that events seem to cluster temporally around certain archetypal nodes of potential meaning, which is the basis for the discipline of archetypal cosmology, largely initiated with the publication of Tarnas’ Cosmos and Psyche in 2006.
For me, the fact that I decided to cut the theoretical appendix from my book less than a week before my biological appendix was cut from my body is a strikingly meaningful coincidence that indicates that I am cutting out the inessential on several levels of significance. I was deeply attached to my theoretical appendix, which had started out as an introduction, because it was the summation of some primary insights I had gleaned from some of my favorite theorists, and I was resistant to cutting it down at all. But as a number of my mentors suggested in different valences, the transition from being a student, a doctoral candidate, to being a doctor of philosophy, is largely constituted in the shift from relying primarily on the work of others in the production of one’s work to feeling secure enough in one’s own intellectual authority to employ quotes and concepts from one’s influences at strategic points without allowing this explicit bricolage to overwhelm one’s own voice.
Just as with the threshold performed by my encounter with mortality, which can be understood intellectually in advance, but must be gone through to produce an affective transformation in one’s body, crossing the threshold from candidate to doctor seems to constitute a similar sort of shift that cannot be truly understood until one has undergone it. It appears to me that academic committees understand, whether implicitly or explicitly, that they cannot allow a candidate to cross this most important of academic thresholds until the candidate knows on a visceral level that he or she is an expert in his or her field, which is not something that can be feigned. It is not enough to be intellectually gifted or verbally articulate or performatively skilled, though these are all essential qualities. What the doctoral process does, more than anything else, is grant one the confidence justifiably to believe that one knows as much or more about one’s specific subject than almost anyone else in the world, which seems to me a worthy thing. I have many problems with academia, but I have come to feel, perhaps because I must having given a decade to this endeavor, that the process of doctoral study forges one as a writer and a thinker in a way that nothing else can.
It is almost exactly one month until my dissertation defense, and it feels like my entire being over the last decade has been increasingly concentrated and focused on that impending moment. I don’t expect receiving the “terminal degree” radically to transform me or my life, as the transformation has already largely taken place over these last years, but I do expect it to mediate a slight but highly significant affective shift which will mark the beginning of my next temporal phase. I’ll let you know how it looks from the other side.