Monthly Archives: May 2013

Affect and Rationality in William James


William James writes in his Varieties of Religious Experience: “Each emotion obeys a logic of its own, and makes deductions which no other logic can draw. Piety and charity live in a different universe from worldly lusts and fears, and form another centre of energy altogether” (Varieties 298). James suggests that affective knowing, the focus on emotional or bodily information for the interpretation of experience, seems to illuminate domains that are inaccessible to the usual connotations of the word “logic,” as opposed to the more expansive derivation of the “Logos” of Greek philosophy in which sense James appears to be employing the term. As he describes it, being “inside” certain affective modes, including those accompanying rationality, constructs bodily experience of the world in radically different ways, forming different energetic centers that fundamentally color one’s perception of the world. Indeed, as James writes in Pragmatism: “The philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means.  It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos” (Pragmatism 1). James contends that bodily experience is prior to any theoretical system that one may hold. As he makes clear, affective intuition determines the type of philosophy that one is drawn to, though because of the pervasive repression of feeling modes in favor of rational thought in modernity, this knowledge is often unconsciously acted out as if we are driven primarily by rational considerations.

James suggests that educated people in the modern West often think that we believe things for rational reasons when, in fact, we almost always use rationality as an instrument for justifying what we feel for, as he writes, “our passions or our mystical intuitions fix our beliefs beforehand.” He continues, philosophy “finds arguments for our conviction, for indeed it has to find them. It amplifies and defines our faith, and dignifies it and lends it words and plausibility. It hardly ever engenders it; it cannot now secure it” (Varieties 391-92). Although this view might appear anti-intellectual at first glance, to even undercut the very basis of reason, this does not appear to be James’ intention.  Rather, James demonstrates that intellectual rationality is but one way of knowing the world applicable to certain domains of experience more than others, and that, for complex historical reasons, the West has, for the last few centuries, pervasively and systematically privileged “logical reason” over what he terms “feeling” and “intuition.” As James notes: “Until the seventeenth century this mode of thought prevailed” (Varieties 443-44), particularly until the widespread acceptance of the Cartesian equation of thought with human being in general as codified in the cogito: “I think, therefore I am.” However, before Descartes and the epochal shift in philosophy that he enacted and represented, “such distinctions . . . between the impersonal and the personal aspects of existence, were hardly suspected or conceived” (Varieties 443-44). Thus, James suggests that the domains accessible to intellect and affect were not yet individuated in premodernity as they are in the experience of late modernity, visible in the radical Kantian separation of subject and object, which assumes that one can never directly perceive the world outside of oneself, so the only way to obtain real knowledge is through mathematics, formal logic, and empirical testing.

Contrary to this Cartesian-Kantian conclusion, the foundation on which the privileging of scientific rationality rests, James contends that intellectual rationality is but one valid and productive way of constructing experience and, thus, of knowing the world. This approach refocuses attention on bodily experience which, as James suggests, can provide just as much real information as rationality, though of a radically different kind. However, while modernity has often constructed these two epistemological domains as fundamentally discontinuous and incommensurable, James posits that, just as they were combined in premodernity in a generally naïve, unconscious way, it seems that the way to attain a more complete understanding of lived experience lies in the intentional integration of these experiential domains. And this integration appears to be constituted primarily in a consciousness of where one’s attention is directed, and of which mode one emphasizes at any given moment. James writes:

Now however fixed these elements of reality may be, we still have a certain freedom in our dealing with them. Take our sensations. That they are is undoubtedly beyond our control; but which we attend to, note, and make emphatic in our conclusions depends on our own interests; and, according as we lay the emphasis here or there, quite different formulations of truth result. We read the same facts differently (Pragmatism 94-5).

Ultimately, James sees freedom not as a triumph of rationality over mute feeling as the case has often been constructed in modernity, but as the freedom to emphasize whichever domains of process one finds most appropriate to illuminate one’s experience at any particular moment. Thus, by becoming conscious of repressed bodily knowledge, one becomes more able to participate in the “formulation” of “truth” than if one is conscious only of one’s verbal, conceptual rationality, but unconsciously driven by one’s neuroses: the non-verbal affective and intuitive modes of engagement returning as compensatory Freudian symptoms. “Experience, as we know,” James writes, “has ways of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulas” (Pragmatism 86), a statement that bears a strong resemblance to Freud’s description of the process through which neurotic symptoms are produced. However, James perhaps goes farther than Freud to see these symptoms as impelling the psyche towards greater integration rather than simply cathexis, which Freud describes as leading to regression, anti-cathexis, or sublimation, none of which seem to have the potential for the psychic conciliation that James implies. According to James, by paying attention to intimate bodily feelings and not just to rational logic, one can apparently participate in what James would later term a “radical empiricism.” James writes:

Our acts, our turning-places, where we seem to ourselves to make ourselves and grow, are the parts of the world to which we are closest, the parts of which our knowledge is the most intimate and complete. Why should we not take them at their face-value?  Why may they not be the actual turning-places and growing-places which they seem to be, of the world—why not the workshop of being, where we catch fact in the making, so that nowhere may the world grow in any other kind of way than this? (Pragmatism 111).

In James’ view, attention to intimate experience is the primary locus for the growth and transformation, not only of the individual, but of the world, for the deepest premises that we hold about the nature of reality fundamentally condition the type of meaning that we can elicit from immediate experience. In turn, the meaning that we cull from the raw data of our senses determines what kind of world we collectively co-create.


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Affect and Rationality in Max Weber


In his Protestant Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism, Max Weber traces the development of the rationalized quality characteristic of Western free market capitalism through the subtle permutations of the main Protestant denominations, which he presents as an ascendancy within that relatively late-emerging religious stream of the modes characteristic of science and technology. Through the long mediating process of this compromise formation between the old enemies, science and religion, the rational mode of thought, constituted in “a conceptual simplification and ordering” (27), was ingrained into the predominant sectors of Western culture with the pervasive and unparalleled intimacy that religion can provide. Tracing this “rationalization process” (26) through the complex interactions of the main lines of Protestantism, Weber finds a growing tension between what he describes as “the unrestrained vitality of instinctive action” in Lutheranism and a “constant self-examination and thus . . . systematic regimentation of one’s own life” (86) in Calvinism. Furthermore, Weber sees the latter, rational mode as having come to dominate Western capitalist societies on all levels of organization, down to those societies’ “fundamental attitude” (26-27), even as this “systematic regimentation” of life progressively decoupled itself from the religious communities and practices in which it had long incubated.

Whereas medieval Catholicism and earlier forms of religious dispensation generally appear to have approached the world in a prerational mode, or at least a mode that saw rationality as secondary to more intuitive ways of approaching experience, the nearly simultaneous birth of Protestantism and science beginning in the sixteenth century ultimately led, through the many labyrinthine discursive and material trajectories of the intervening centuries, to the implicit privileging of rationality in many domains of experience, from the most public to the most private, an insight that Weber articulated for modern Western society at the beginning of the twentieth century. As Weber understood, the dual practices of science and capitalism had so pervaded Western culture by this point that it had become difficult to see the world through any other lens than these, or at least to articulate these other ways of constructing reality in the predominant cultural discourse.

Furthermore, Weber describes this ascendancy of rationalism as concomitant with the repression and othering of instinctual animality, with “the religious ‘state of grace’ as a status that separates man from the depravity of the creaturely” (Weber 104). As Weber presents it, through the process of Protestant religious practice, the modern West forged a new relationship to the world as embodied in the relation to what they considered the divine in all its polyvalence, though the temporary result of this trajectory was the secular, rationalized, technological capitalism that has largely characterized late modern experience, effectively repressing attention to and awareness of instinctual, intuitive, affective physicality as vulgar, sinful, and even inhuman. Thus, through centuries of focus on a rational God who pervaded all areas of life, a focus that ultimately seems to have produced the Nietzschean “death of God” just a few decades before Weber’s foundational text was published, the rationalized “spirit of capitalism” became the “god” implicitly worshipped in the West, even as the Christian religion continued to transform itself, becoming a vocal minority in contrast to the increasingly predominant secular culture, particularly in the religion’s “fundamentalist” permutations. This “whole new kind of human being, that in practice absorbed this whole process of development” of the “modern conduct of life” (Weber 316-17), living in the rationalized world prominently decried by religious fundamentalists at the conservative extreme as well as a stream of thought running from the Romantics and the Idealists through the existentialists and the beats to the sixties counterculture at the progressive end of the spectrum, appears to have been the precondition for the reemergence of older forms of engagement with experience that the rational mode had effectively superseded by the mid-twentieth century.

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Bob Dylan’s Archaic Mode of Thought

Dylan Shadow

Whereas the beats, exemplified by Jack Kerouac, seemed to Bob Dylan to be obsessed with liberating themselves from the constraints of the prevailing order, Dylan apparently found this liberation to be a necessary, but ultimately incomplete endeavor, a mere rejection of what modernity had become without offering a viable alternative. Rather, Dylan was drawn to old songs, stories, and modes of thought that preceded his immediate context, for Dylan saw the way out of the current stalemate that the beats decried not in a rejection of the past, but in a more complete embrace of tradition, an “archaic revival” of a history so deep and mysterious that it seemed radically novel in the current historical context. For Dylan, having immersed himself in profoundly different ways of seeing the world characteristic of earlier times, generally constellated around mythic “enchantment” (as opposed to the “disenchantment” characteristic of modernity posited by Weber), the folk songs that encapsulated these modes of experience really did seem to evoke a “parallel universe,” as he writes in Chronicles, “a reality of a more brilliant dimension.” Indeed, the “principles and values” that folk music portrayed were literally “archaic” because, in folk’s general focus on liminal figures from American frontiers, the “outlaw women, super thugs, demon lovers and gospel truths,” and the “Stagger Lees, Pretty Pollys and John Henrys,” Dylan found a window into predominantly premodern epistemologies, persisting well into modernity in the forgotten borderlands and rural routes of America.

It was a mythologically oriented “invisible world” whose “archetypes” seemed more real to Dylan than the scientific knowledge of distant cities and universities. Whereas for Dylan, the late modern subject was alienated from his (for it was always “he” that was referred to) labor, his culture, and even his body, the archetypal denizens of folk songs were “filled with natural knowing and inner wisdom,” precisely evocative of the epistemologies so effectively repressed by the predominance of rationality in postwar America. Indeed, while the individual in late modernity seemed small and peripheral, merely a commodified and insured sack of flesh and bone with a list of marketable skills and a net worth, the figures in folk songs seemed to Dylan to defy this reductive view of human nature by their participation in the “full spectrum” of “life magnified” through these other modes of being in the world, “each demanding a degree of respect.” Whereas in the late modern visions of the existentialists and the beats, the world seemed vacated of meaning, the folk tradition was the repository of a mode of thought in which the world was an epic place of profound significance inhabited by larger-than-life characters. Dylan, not just academically interested in this mode, seems to have lived his life in the light of the mysterious world view that he describes, though mitigated somewhat by the intellectual self-consciousness forged in modernity that had not yet been fully individuated in premodernity. As Dylan puts it: “I was beginning to feel like a character from within these songs, even beginning to think like one,” though always with the self-awareness of one who seeks out this premodern mode as a reaction to his culture rather than being born into it without access to mediating rationality.

But certainly, as Dylan notes, at that moment in the early sixties, “there wasn’t enough” of this archaic way of thinking available in the main streams of culture. The mode of consciousness exemplified in folk music had been buried so effectively, expunged from collective awareness by the predominance of pure reason in the central nodes of American culture’s discursive networks, that it was a titanic labor archaeologically to unearth the evidence of this repressed way of relating to experience. To be sure, the older mode was there to be found, but “it was out of date, had no proper connection to the actualities, the trends of the time,” for the American ideal had long been reconstellated around an entirely different center of gravity focused on paradoxically individualistic conformity, with scientific repeatability and the efficiency of the machine as the governing metaphors. The repressed modes were “a huge story” because, as William James and Alfred North Whitehead explicitly suggest, they had been the primary mediators of human experience prior to the seventeenth century, as the modes of thought characteristic of science had not yet been systematically differentiated from archetypal and teleological cognizance based on formal and final causation. However, it is a testament to the adaptability of the human mind that, only a few hundred years after the Enlightenment, the mode of constructing experience that had defined human culture for so long “was hard to come across.” Dylan discovered that these were modes of explanation that could account for the vital, animate, meaning-infused quality of human experience in the animal body. If these forms of consciousness had no connection to the “trends of the time,” at least those predominant in the main streams of culture, then Dylan would just have to start new trends and, in order to perform this epochal role, he found it necessary to cut himself off from the sovereign discursive milieu so that he “had little in common with anyone not like-minded.” Dylan’s intuitive revulsion at explaining himself to journalists and other gatekeepers of the principal cultural hierarchies seems to stem directly from this need to maintain consciously the new mode that was constituted in the integration of an archaic mode with the critical awareness more characteristic of his time. Ultimately, Dylan was an artist, not a philosopher, and he did not have the time or energy both to concretize his world-transforming visions and explain them to skeptics, which is probably one of the reasons why so many books have been written about him: The musical and mythological narrative he created is profound and can bear the weight of such explanation.

[This is a (slightly modified) excerpt from my book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll]


Bob Dylan, Chronicles (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005) 235-6, 240.


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Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Alan Freed, and the Authentic Origins of Rock and Roll


Bill Haley & His Comets recorded “Rock Around the Clock” three months before Elvis Presley recorded “That’s All Right” in July 1954, though the song did not attain widespread success until the following year, after Presley’s first record had exploded into popular consciousness, at least in southeastern regional markets. Haley certainly did a great deal to popularize the genre, though to my ears, as well as to those of many critics, Haley’s music is not truly rock and roll, but a sort of bridge or compromise formation between jazzy, rhythm & blues-inflected country music and the rock and roll that would find its first complete expression in “That’s All Right.” As Haley himself put it: “We take a lot of care with lyrics because we don’t want to offend anybody. The music is the main thing, and it’s just as easy to write acceptable words.” However, aside from the transgressive suggestiveness of the songs Presley would sing, Presley’s first record possesses a manic energy and a dangerous intensity that Haley’s music lacks, qualities that ultimately defined the emerging genre. All of the structural elements were present to make Haley’s music technically identifiable as rock and roll—the more pronounced backbeat, the instrumental and vocal inflections derived simultaneously from country, blues, and jazz, and the simple inclusion of the verb “rock” in the lyrics—but the spark that would set the fire blazing was struck by Presley. Indeed, this is an exemplary instance of the radically different conclusions that can result from the modes of interpretation associated with rationality and affectivity: although Haley’s song might be considered the first rock and roll record by a rational accounting, it is Presley’s song that remains the epochal initiatory act as it expresses not only the confluence of genres that Haley’s song synthesizes, but also the affective tone and attitude of the new genre that Haley did not possess, and which Presley epitomized.

Bluntly stated, Bill Haley was not very cool, a quality which forms the heart of the genre, for American cool is definable as affective authenticity in contradistinction to the more affected performativity exhibited by Haley, which was characteristic of the pre-rock and roll era in which he had one foot firmly planted. Indeed, the juxtaposition of “affectivity” and “affectedness” is striking, for while “affect” implies the authentic bodily feelings that produce one’s activity, the quality of being “affected” indicates a more passive and inauthentic submission to culturally preconditioned roles and modes of engagement. Thus, the transition marked by the subtle difference between Haley’s and Presley’s performativities can be seen as an emblematic enactment of the profound shift from the mandates of rationalized culture determining one’s identity, to allowing one’s persona to result from one’s intrinsic felt experience. This difference is primarily constituted in attention to the conceptual mores of society being the dominant motivating factor for the rational mode, as opposed to attention focused on the dictates of one’s bodily economy being the primary motive force in the affective mode. If Haley was standing in the doorway to the reemerging bodily mode, Presley leapt through with abandon into the new realm that he did so much to liberate. This subtle but crucial difference delineated the liminal cusp between “real” and “fake,” between authenticity and its lack.

Similarly, the Moondog Coronation Ball in Cleveland in 1952, produced by disc jockey Alan Freed who popularized the term “rock and roll,” was claimed by him to have been the “first rock and roll concert.” Although the term “rock and roll” had been in use since the forties, and Freed had been using it on his radio show since 1951, the performers who actually played at the Moondog event, like Paul “Huckleback” Williams and Tiny Grimes, both African Americans, were jazzy rhythm and blues musicians, both men having previous connections with Charlie Parker, for instance. Listening to their music, it sounds close to the rock and roll that would emerge a few years later, but not quite, an occasion of Alfred North Whitehead’s “slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference.” As Robert Palmer expresses it, by the mid-fifties, “Rock and roll had become, in practice, a somewhat different musical proposition from rhythm and blues. The beat tended to become heavier and more emphatic; blues- and gospel-derived melodic usages expanded to embrace more elements of pop songcraft; jazz content was minimized.” As with Haley, though to a lesser extent, many of the elements were present at the Moondog Coronation Ball that would define the emergent form. However, also as with Haley’s music, the music of Williams and Grimes presents as relatively affected, perhaps due in part to the structural elements delineated by Palmer, but also perhaps due to a relative lack of the willfully concentrated authenticity that Presley reintroduced into mainstream popular music, appropriating this crucial element for the creation of the new genre from James Dean and Marlon Brando as much as from the musicians by whom he was influenced. Listening to their music and witnessing their visual performativity, it is clear that Williams and Grimes were still essentially in the jazz age, while Presley, a few years later, emerged fully formed as the prime exemplar of what would become the rock era. While Presley’s contribution is often summarized as synthesizing black and white musical modes, it seems that Presley’s synthesis of the performativity characteristic of his musical precursors with that of the two actors mentioned above is nearly as significant a factor in Presley’s production of rock and roll. Thus, rather than claiming the Moondog Coronation Ball as the “first rock and roll concert,” it might be more accurate to say that the collective desire for the phenomenon of rock and roll was evinced in the Moondog Coronation Ball, but that it was a container waiting for something to fill it, as the new music did not truly emerge until Presley’s moment of inspiration more than two years later in 1954.

[This is a (slightly modified) excerpt from my book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll]


Haley quote: Charlie Gillett, The Sound of the City, 25-26.

Whitehead quote: Science and the Modern World, 2.

Palmer quote: Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, 83.


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