Monthly Archives: June 2013

Bob Dylan’s Transfiguration

dylan motorcycle

Bob Dylan appears to have been undergoing a kind of prolonged death and rebirth initiation throughout the mid-sixties, similar to those experienced by shamans in numerous cultures around the world, which seems to have allowed him to act as a catalyst for the transformation of his culture. According to folksinger David Cohen: “his power, his mystique, just affected people in crazy ways,” many in his audience sensing that “this guy knows, this guy feels, and you want to be with him.” Or as Eric Andersen put it: “He’s got the heaviest vibes I’ve ever felt on anyone,” apparently a common perception by those who knew Dylan. By the mid-sixties, Dylan seems to have developed his intrinsic ability to embody the affective quality of the moment to such a high degree that he became the center of “a magnetic field” for people’s deepest desires and aspirations, similar to Elvis Presley’s role in his cultural moment, but at a more complex order of magnitude.[i]

Concluding the section about his self-naming in Chronicles, Dylan writes:

As far as Bobby Zimmerman goes, I’m going to give this to you right straight and you can check it out. One of the early presidents of the San Bernardino Angels was Bobby Zimmerman, and he was killed in 1964 on the Bass Lake run. The muffler fell off his bike, he made a U-turn to retrieve it in front of the pack and was instantly killed. That person is gone. That was the end of him. [ii]

What Dylan seems to be implying is that the fact that there was another man named Bobby Zimmerman who died in a motorcycle wreck in 1964 (actually 1961, though this discrepancy does not seem negatively to affect Dylan’s point) is a meaningful coincidence (the definition of Jungian synchronicity) that symbolically mirrored and enacted the death of Dylan’s old identity. This is an idea the validity of which it would be impossible for a purely materialist mode of thought to accept, at least outside of a novel or a film, but Dylan believes that the world does indeed work in mysterious ways. The name coincidence combined with the manner of the other Zimmerman’s death, which pre-iterates one of the primary images in Dylan’s mythology, the motorcycle crash of 1966, seems to suggest to Dylan a kind of cosmic orchestration in which events are somehow pulled into his wake of significance.

In his 2012 Rolling Stone interview, Dylan expands on the subject of the two Bobby Zimmermans, declaring: “You know what this is called? It’s called transfiguration. Have you ever heard of it?” “Yes,” the interviewer responds. “Well, you’re looking at somebody,” Dylan declares. “That . . . has been transfigured?” comes the hesitant rejoinder. “Yeah, absolutely,” Dylan asserts:

I’m not like you, am I? I’m not like him, either. I’m not like too many others. I’m only like another person who’s been transfigured. How many people like that or like me do you know? . . . Transfiguration: You can go and learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it’s a real concept. It’s happened throughout the ages. . . . It’s not like something you can dream up and think. It’s not like conjuring up a reality or like reincarnation – or like when you might think you’re somebody from the past but have no proof. It’s not anything to do with the past or the future. So when you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time. I’ve lived through a lot. . . . Transfiguration is what allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. That’s how I can still do what I do and write the songs I sing and just keep on moving. . . . I couldn’t go back and find Bobby in a million years. Neither could you or anybody else on the face of the Earth. He’s gone. If I could, I would go back. I’d like to go back. At this point in time, I would love to go back and find him, put out my hand. And tell him he’s got a friend. But I can’t. He’s gone. He doesn’t exist. . . . I’d always been different than other people, but this book [about the other Bobby Zimmerman, written by Ralph Barger along with Keith and Kent Zimmerman (who bear no immediately apparent relation to either of the Bobby Zimmermans)] told me why. Like certain people are set apart. . . . I didn’t know who I was before I read the Barger book. [iii]

A 71-year-old Dylan, in a simultaneously more open and more cantankerous mood than usual, declares unequivocally that he was fundamentally transformed in his twenties, that he died and was reborn through something like the Christian process of Transfiguration, the recipient of which becomes spiritually exalted, taking on an aspect of divinity, a process that bears a striking similarity to the shamanic initiation elucidated by Mircea Eliade and others. The Transfiguration of Christ, which St. Thomas Aquinas referred to as “the greatest miracle,” is when Jesus shined radiantly upon a mountain (perhaps like the Beatles on the Cavern stage) and became mysteriously connected to the Hebrew prophets Elijah and Moses who appeared beside him. In the New Testament, Paul refers to the believers being “changed into the same image” through “beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord,”[iv] which suggests that the witnessing of the transfigured individual can mediate a similar transformation in those who believe in that Transfiguration, acting as a mirror for the collective. Ultimately, the Transfiguration appears to have been fulfilled in the death and rebirth of Christ, which seems to be a kind of fractal reiteration of the archetypal death and rebirth of the shamanic initiation that Dylan appears to have experienced.

As Dylan asserts, those few who are fundamentally transformed through this kind of process, by various accounts including primal shamans, ancient mythological heroes who traversed the underworld (Osiris, Dionysus, Heracles, Persephone, Orpheus, Psyche, Odysseus, Aeneas, Theseus, Gilgamesh, Odin, and others), figures from the Hebrew Bible (Jacob, Enoch, Elijah, Moses), the New Testament (Mary and Christ), and the Buddha, are reborn as new people, which separates them from the majority of humanity who have not undergone such a transformation. According to Dylan, this Transfiguration is not something that one can “dream up and think” in a hypothetical, conceptual way, but something that one either feels or does not. From Dylan’s perspective, which is very much like that articulated by William James, one cannot choose one’s destiny. Rather, one either knows that one has been transfigured or one does not, and the skepticism of those who have not experienced Transfiguration, either in themselves or in others, has no bearing on the reality of the phenomenon. As it is expressed in several places in the New Testament, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”[v]

Thus, for Dylan, his young self, named Bobby Zimmerman, died during the mid-sixties, culminating in Dylan’s motorcycle crash, which was synchronistically presaged by the death of the other Bobby Zimmerman in a motorcycle crash a few years before, regardless of whether it was 1961 or 1964. However, after the 2012 interview, Rolling Stone was apparently able to determine that the biker Bobby Zimmerman died “within weeks” of Robert Shelton’s 1961 review of Dylan’s show at Gerde’s Folk City in the New York Times, which catapulted Dylan into the limelight, essentially marking the beginning of Dylan’s public career.[vi] In a roundabout way, this chronological mistake in the book from which Dylan took his information only serves to add credence to Dylan’s interpretation, for naratologically speaking, the 1961 date seems even more perfectly orchestrated to confirm Dylan’s conviction of his Transfiguration than 1964. Indeed, the five year period between September 1961 when Dylan was elevated by Shelton’s review and July 1966 when he crashed his motorcycle and went into seclusion is one of the most creative, epochally transformative half-decades that any artist has ever undergone.

Furthermore, by declaring that “it’s not anything to do with the past or the future,” Dylan seems to be evoking something like Bergsonian duration, implying that his Transfiguration is partially constituted in the shift from relating to time as quantitative to understanding that moments with similar archetypal qualities resonate in a qualitative way that seems to exceed linear temporality. Although the two Bobby Zimmermans were materially unconnected, the mode of thought Dylan enacts, which appears coextensive with the generally predominant mode of thought prior to the seventeenth century, sees a closer connection between the young man who would become Dylan and another young man with the same name who had died years before than between Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing and the famous singer Bob Dylan. As Dylan asserts, he can never go back to being Bobby Zimmerman no matter how much he might want to revisit his former self, for this is apparently the price one must pay for Transfiguration: it is impossible to unknow something once it has been deeply experienced. Or as Heraclitus expressed it: “You cannot step into the same river twice.”

According to Dylan, this shift in perspective has been a primary factor in allowing him to do what he has done, “to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it,” for in this mode of thought, the chaotic meaninglessness of pure materialism, consisting of atoms randomly colliding for no reason, can be overcome by embracing a view of life as filled with cosmic significance, though hopefully tempered by intellectual rigor. The material facts do not change in this mode of relation, though the results of approaching the world in this way constitute “that slightest change of tone which yet make all the difference,” as Whitehead puts it. In his narrative of the two Bobby Zimmermans, Dylan seems to imply that something like the order of the world sacrificed another man with the same name as him to literalize the death of one of the most transformative figures in history’s original identity. This type of meaningful coincidence occurs frequently in literature and film, but our culture usually assumes that these instances are merely plot devices invented by the author rather than occurrences containing extra-textual meaning. Although there is no mode of causation that has been broadly accepted in the main streams of late modernity which could explain such a phenomenon, the ancient and well-established principles of formal and final causation offer just such an explanatory mode. From this perspective as articulated by Dylan, both the symbolic and literal deaths of the two Bobby Zimmermans are expressions of a formal cause, the sacrificial death and rebirth of the individually embodied shamanic archetype on a mass scale apparently luring culture towards a final cause, a collective Transfiguration at that moment in the mid-sixties.

[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]


[i] Epstein 134.

[ii] Chronicles 79.

[iii] Rolling Stone 2012. The book Dylan is referring to is: Sonny Barger, Keith Zimmerman, and Kent Zimmerman, Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club (New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2001).

[iv] Holy Bible: King James Version (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1979) 2 Corinthians 3:18.

[v] The King James Bible, Matthew 11:15.

[vi] “Bob Dylan: His Hells Angel Conversion,” The Guardian Music Blog, http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/sep/20/bob-dylan-hells-angel-conversion

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Pirate Radio: British Counterculture and the Hegelian Dialectic

Pirate radio

After the darker novelty of World War II, the postwar era in Britain generally seems to have consisted of a cultural contraction, a retreat into rationalized conformity, a step back from the destructive abyss witnessed by a generation, with the countercultural impulse simmering underground. However, no cultural moment lasts for long, though its effects can be felt long after it is gone. The generally conservative reaction to the horrors of the war, actualized in rationing of food and supplies, which linguistically and archetypally echoes the generally rationalized quality of this era (in Weber’s sense), was itself followed by a seemingly inevitable corrective reaction, embodied in the counterculture, towards freedom, novelty, and the rejection of the privileging of rationality to mediate the reintegration of repressed intuitive, affective, and somatic modes of experience with the predominant modes.

Radio-Caroline-Crew-001

One concrete expression of the impulse towards integrative novelty was the “pirate radio” that sprung up in 1966. As Bob Spitz writes in The Beatles:

Beginning that Easter, a fleet of ‘pirate’ radio ships moored offshore to the east of Essex or Kent, just outside the twelve-mile international-waters limit, and began broadcasting rock ‘n roll on its own terms. Radio Caroline, and later Radio London, showcased the latest records, describing what was fashionable and delivering a new language, sprinkled with words like fab and gear and dig. British kids of every class could agree, in the abstract at least, that music cut through all the bullshit and eloquently expressed all the feelings—frustration, fear, rage, and passion—they’d suppressed for so long (545).

The counterculture’s rebellious attitude, framed in the outlaw image of the “pirate,” generated a new avenue by which the often conservative and repressive forces of British media, controlled largely by the government, could be circumvented. Rather than lobbying, in the conventional manner, for the inclusion of more rock and roll in the BBC’s programs, the counterculture took matters into its own hands and created an alternate medium through which to communicate its emerging world view. This liminal enterprise, just on the edges of the legislative, political, and geographical structures of Britain, served as a venue for the dialectical return of the repressed as G.W.F. Hegel describes it in The Phenomenology of Spirit:

It is the whole which, having traversed its content in time and space, has returned into itself . . . the mediation of its self-othering with itself. . . . It is the doubling which sets up opposition. . . . It is the process of its own becoming, the circle that presupposes its end as its goal, having its end also as its beginning; and only by being worked out to its end, is it actual. . . . But this result is simple immediacy, for it is self-conscious freedom at peace with itself, which has not set the antithesis on one side and left it lying there, but has been reconciled with it. (7, 10, 12)

Interpreted as a semiotic system, the postwar structure of British media literally went outside itself in a process of “self-othering” to look back upon itself in the form of the pirate radio ships, operated primarily by English people, broadcasting back a “doubling” reflection of English culture to itself, which was then synthesized with the “mainland” culture in the form of what came to be known as the counterculture. Thus, the rising counterculture was given a voice through music and the novel language of the hipster cognoscenti that ultimately transformed British culture by being “reconciled with it” in the locus of every young person who participated in the counterculture, eventually to become the next generation enacting the emergent, synthetic “simple immediacy” as the new main stream of British culture. And, as Spitz suggests, the primary factor that the predominant culture had “suppressed for so long,” at least in one of its inflections, was “feelings,” gesturing towards the affective quality of experience that was the “antithesis” to the rationalized quality largely characteristic of postwar Britain.

 

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“That Slightest Change of Tone Which Yet Makes All the Difference”: Science and Bodily Knowledge in Alfred North Whitehead

6-alfred-north-whitehead

Alfred North Whitehead observes in Modes of Thought: “the current philosophic doctrines, mostly derived from Hume, are defective by reason of their neglect of bodily reference” (153), based explicitly on the privileging of science which, as Whitehead subsequently notes, “only deals with half the evidence provided by human experience” (154). Whitehead continues: “if we wish to understand the relation of our personal experience to the activities of nature, the proper procedure is to examine the dependence of our personal experiences upon our personal bodies” (159), for “the whole complexity of mental experience is either derived or modified by such [bodily] functioning. Also our basic feeling is this sense of derivation, which leads to our claim for unity, body and mind” (160). Thus, Whitehead sees the fundamental problems articulated so profoundly by modern philosophy to be resolvable by attention to “our personal bodies.”  By leaving out this whole domain of experience, Whitehead suggests, rational intellect has come to focus primarily on the negative, for as he writes in Process and Reality: “The negative judgment is the peak of mentality” (5).

Furthermore, in Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead observes that humanity “is now in one of its rare moods of shifting its outlook” (99), proclaiming that “transitions to new fruitfulness of understanding are achieved by recurrence to the utmost depths of intuition for the refreshment of imagination” (159). Thus, for Whitehead as for Henri Bergson, intuition appears to mean conscious attention to affective experience.  In Whitehead’s view, when intellect becomes static and locked into a fixed symbolic system as it has in the intellectual privileging of modernity, it is necessary to literally get “out of one’s head” and descend into the “depths” of the body that have been repressed and rendered unconscious since the Cartesian philosophical revolution, exemplified in the cogito’s equation of thought with human being in general. As illustration, Whitehead discusses several other historical moments when a similar static fixation has taken place. As he writes: “Modern scholarship and modern science reproduce the same limitations as dominated the bygone Hellenistic epoch, and the bygone Scholastic epoch. They canalize thought and observation within predetermined limits, based upon inadequate metaphysical assumptions dogmatically assumed” (118). However, though he sees the era of late modernity as bearing some deep similarities to these two older epochs, roughly ancient Rome and medieval Christianity, Whitehead seems to believe that our era has taken the focus on rationality and the concomitant exclusion of bodily reference to its most extreme conclusion. Indeed, as Whitehead contends, the focus solely on intellect denies conscious access to the more fundamental kinds of meaning that rational thought can structure, analyze, and critique, but cannot engender for, as he writes: “Knowledge is always accompanied with accessories of emotion and purpose” (4).

Whitehead demonstrates that the privileging of an intellectual epistemology over other modes is perhaps the primary fallacy of modern thought for, as he puts it: “Each mode of consideration is a sort of searchlight elucidating some of the facts, and retreating the remainder into an omitted background” (43). In Whitehead’s view, intellectual and intuitive ways of knowing reveal different, but equally valid information about experience. And Whitehead, like Bergson and William James, explicitly calls for the integration of these two modes, going so far as to nominate this epistemological synthesis “Wisdom.”  As he writes: “To some extent, to understand is always to exclude a background of intellectual incoherence. But Wisdom is persistent pursuit of the deeper understanding, ever confronting intellectual system with the importance of its omissions” (47). While this kind of “wisdom” as an integration of intellect and intuition is no doubt something that individuals have achieved in our culture, Whitehead seems to believe that intuitive knowledge has generally been excluded from consideration in an academia in which scientific objectivity and rational logic are the implicit ideals, even in the humanities. While in our personal lives we may recognize the efficacy of intuitive modes, Whitehead seems to suggest that as long as these modes are “omitted” from open commerce with our explicit intellectual understanding, our culture will never attain “Wisdom” on a mass scale, but only rational knowledge, an unbalanced situation that seems to have played a large part in producing the ecological, economic, social, and political crises in which we now find ourselves.

Whitehead finds precedent for this more expansive way of thinking in Plato for, as Whitehead writes of the father of philosophy: “In his view, the entertainment of ideas is intrinsically associated with inward ferment, an activity of subjective feeling, which is at once immediate enjoyment, and also an appetition which melts into action. This is Plato’s Eros” (148). However, this acceptance of “subjective feeling” as a valid and indispensable tool in the process of cognition appears often to have been suppressed in our own era. As Whitehead writes in Science and the Modern World:

Each age has its dominant preoccupations; and, during the three centuries in question, the cosmology derived from science has been asserting itself at the expense of older points of view with their origins elsewhere. Men can be provincial in time, as well as in place. We may ask ourselves whether the scientific mentality of the modern world in the immediate past is not a successful example of such provincial limitation (vii).

Thus, according to Whitehead, the broader Platonic cosmology, having evolved through many permutations over the centuries, was effectively repressed by Cartesianism in favor of the pure equation of thought with being so concisely expressed in the cogito. For a view of the world based on the Cartesian dualism of mind and body, subject and object, Whitehead explains that “Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly . . . However you disguise it, this is the practical outcome of the characteristic scientific philosophy which closed the seventeenth century” (54).  In Whitehead’s view, this is not the only way to approach immediate experience, for the world can appear radically different based on different fundamental premises about the nature of reality, particularly when those premises are held for centuries, worked out through countless lives to their inevitable conclusions. As Whitehead explains:

This quiet growth of science has practically recoloured our mentality so that modes of thought which in former times were exceptional are now broadly spread through the educated world. . . . It has altered the metaphysical presuppositions and the imaginative contents of our minds; so that now the old stimuli provoke new response . . . that slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference (2).

We live in a radically different world than that inhabited by people of earlier ages because of the radically different assumptions that we hold and through which we cognize that world by means of collective attention and discourse. In Science and the Modern World, Whitehead critiques the “fundamental duality” of “mind” and “material” instituted by science. As he writes: “In between there lie the concepts of life, organism, function, instantaneous reality, interaction, order of nature, which collectively form the Achilles heel of the whole system” (57). This domain of “instantaneous reality” is apparently coextensive with the Bergsonian durational affectivity of lived experience that has been repressed by the predominance of scientific rationality, but which seems to have been slowly reemerging in the twentieth century through various artistic media such as popular music, painting, dance, and cinema, as well as in depth psychology perhaps more than the main streams of philosophy, excepting those exemplified by James, Bergson, Whitehead, and their conceptual progeny.

Furthermore, Whitehead sees William James as the initiator, much like Descartes, of a qualitatively new mode of thought still in the process of emerging from the previously dominant Cartesian philosophy:

The scientific materialism and the Cartesian Ego were both challenged at the same moment, one by science and the other by philosophy, as represented by William James with his psychological antecedents; and the double challenge marks the end of a period which lasted for about two hundred and fifty years. . . . The reason why I have put Descartes and James in close juxtaposition is now evident. Neither philosopher finished an epoch by a final solution of a problem. Their great merit is of the opposite sort. They each of them open an epoch by their clear formulation of terms in which thought could profitably express itself at particular stages of knowledge, one for the seventeenth century, the other for the twentieth century (143-47).

Thus, Whitehead suggests that while the seventeenth century was a period of transition from the static orthodoxy of medieval scholasticism to the liberating rationality of the Enlightenment, the twentieth century initiated a similar moment of transition from Enlightenment rationalism, which had itself developed into a static orthodoxy, to a new way of approaching experience that integrates the rational capacities developed particularly over the last few centuries with the older capacities that had been developed in premodernity, which Whitehead describes, along with Bergson, as “intuition.”

Ultimately, none of these three philosophers, James, Bergson, and Whitehead, wish to place intuition above intellect, but merely to redress the imbalanced emphasis of these two primary ways of knowing the world. And to be sure, this imbalance did not go unnoticed in modernity, for various strains of literature, Romanticism and its issue in particular, have been vocal in their objections to the privileging of rationality, which Blake, for but one early instance, memorably referred to as “single vision and Newton’s sleep.” To this point, Whitehead writes: “the literature of the nineteenth century, especially its English poetic literature, is a witness to the discord between the aesthetic intuitions of mankind and the mechanism of science” (87). However, despite this literary awareness, the primacy of science as the governing metaphor for the production of knowledge still seems to have come to dominate even the study of literature in the academy, though the deconstructions of the last few decades have amended this imbalance to some extent, and the current widespread interest in affect perhaps suggests that a shift in the modes of thought considered acceptable in academia is now underway. Indeed, as Whitehead presaged this emerging mode of thought, intuition and affect may become ways of knowing the world considered equally valid to scientific calculability and repeatability:

The make-weight which balances the thoroughness of the specialist intellectual training should be of a radically different kind from purely intellectual analytical knowledge . . . This professional training can only touch one side of education. Its centre of gravity lies in the intellect, and its chief tool is the printed book. The centre of gravity of the other side of training should lie in intuition without an analytical divorce from the total environment (198).

Whitehead seems to suggest here that, in order for true knowledge to be attained in the academy, as elsewhere, we must pursue a more complete kind of education in which scientific rationality is balanced and mediated by training in intuitive modes, though what this intuitive education might entail is probably the project of generations to determine. However, one suspects that those schools which have begun to integrate primarily Eastern and indigenous meditative, contemplative, yogic, and shamanic practices with the curriculum more traditional in the West are taking significant strides in this direction, experimenting with activities that may gradually find their way into the curricula of more orthodox institutions of higher learning to produce a more comprehensive kind of knowledge.

References:

Blake, William. “Letter to Thomas Butt.” 22 November, 1802. The Letters of William Blake. Ed.

Geoffrey Keynes. Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2011.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

Whitehead. Alfred North. Modes of Thought. New York: The Free Press, 1968.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: Corrected Edition. Ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: The Free Press, 1985.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

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Elvis Presley, the Beats, Bebop, and the Privileging of Intellect

Elvis 1

The beat poets, as well as the bebop movement in jazz, have much in common with the countercultural phenomenon of rock and roll, largely defining the American cool, “hipster” aesthetic that Elvis Presley came to exemplify. In this indirect sense, the proto-beats and bebop musicians had a profound effect on the culture that produced Presley, though the beat movement is usually marked as beginning in earnest on October 7, 1955, the occasion of Allen Ginsberg’s first reading of “Howl,” more than a year after the release of Presley’s first single, “That’s All Right,” on July 19, 1954. Regardless, neither the beats nor bebop, which had begun in the forties, were on Presley’s radar, so to speak. While the work of Jack Kerouac or Miles Davis allowed high cultural access to the more intuitive and somatic modes that Presley embodied, there does not seem to be a direct link between the literary movement of the beats, the intellectual aesthetic performed musically by bebop, and the music of Elvis Presley. Thus, while acknowledging that the beats and bebop enacted a similar impulse to that of rock and roll, the analysis in my forthcoming book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll, is primarily concerned with the influences and cultural domains that Presley and his milieu themselves saw as their immediate precursors and contemporaries, namely, popular musicians and actors.

MilesDavis_byFrancisWolff

Certainly all of these figures—poets, actors, and different kinds of musicians—were part of a larger movement in culture away from the exclusive privileging of intellect towards intuitive and somatic modes, and these various countercultural expressions (though the term was not coined until Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counterculture in 1969) were ultimately reintegrated with intellect in complex ways, a point explored extensively in my book. However, whereas the beats essentially enacted the trajectory towards affect from the basis of a poetic genre that implicitly privileged verbal intellect even while it pushed against it, and bebop carried jazz, which had been the previously predominant musical incarnation of the repressed epistemologies, towards intellect, Presley and his contemporaries generally embodied a more pure expression of affectivity without immediate reference to intellectual domains. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the original rock and rollers were ultimately reacting to this privileging, and that the further permutations of the genre, particularly those of the Beatles, Dylan, and their contemporaries, would engage with rationality much more intimately than Presley’s milieu. Both the beats and bebop were explicitly in dialogue with the predominant rational mode whereas Presley and the majority of early rock and rollers were not in any significant way. Rather, the privileging of scientific rationality in modern discourse, exemplified in the Cartesian equation of thought with human existence in general, formed the background against which rock and roll was brought into being. Thus, although rock and roll did implicitly gain its significance by contrast to the predominant discursive modes, the genre’s relationship with the intellectually privileging main streams of culture was qualitatively different than the aesthetic modes employed by the beats and bebop.

Ginsberg

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

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Intellect and Intuition in Henri Bergson

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As Bergson writes of the evolution of human intellect in Creative Evolution: “On other paths, divergent from it, other forms of consciousness have been developed, which have not been able to free themselves from external constraints or to regain control over themselves, as the human intellect has done, but which none the less, also express something that is immanent and essential in the evolutionary movement” (Bergson xxii). Bergson sees these “other forms of consciousness” (his French words translated into precisely the same phrase used by William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience) as struggling to become conscious in a modern humanity that has often literally defined humanness as homologous with intellect (as exemplified in the Cartesian cogito). These other modes are the forms of consciousness that we have come to associate almost exclusively with animality, often forgetting, in theory if not always in practice, that beneath our late-developed rational minds, we too are animals, and that animals often have instinctual and somatic capacities that modern humans generally do not possess. And Bergson, like James, gestures toward the integration of intellect and these unconscious, repressed, intuitive modes when he writes: “Suppose these other forms of consciousness brought together and amalgamated with intellect: would not the result be a consciousness as wide as life?” (Bergson xxii). According to Bergson, intellect is a mode of thought that can only analyze and reduce emergent qualities to their constituent parts. As Bergson presents it, intellect alone, with science as its ultimate expression, cannot comprehend the emergence of anything genuinely novel. He shows that the emergence of life itself, or of human consciousness, both radically emergent properties, appear to pure intellect as merely recombinations of existing elements. While this supposition is perhaps partially true from a rationalist and materialist standpoint, it completely misses the internal, subjective, relational meaningfulness characteristic of organismic process.

Furthermore, Bergson shows that this internal quality of process has to do with the conception of time: where science sees time as a linear, static, quantitative medium, Bergson shows that duration, the lived experience of time, can also be conceived as qualitative, each moment possessing a quality particular to it: “Concentrated on that which repeats, solely preoccupied in welding the same to the same, intellect turns away from the vision of time. . . . We do not think real time.  But we live it, because life transcends intellect.” This “inner movement of life,” the “indistinct fringe” surrounding the “bright nucleus” (Bergson 24-25) of that which is comprehensible to egoic consciousness, is only accessible, Bergson suggests, to intuitive forms of engaging experience. Intellect provides access to what is already known, to what has already been described in symbolic systems like language and mathematics, while intuition is a name for the mode of perception that can directly know that which exceeds the current grasp of our language, and which Bergson sees as the duty of philosophy to explore and express verbally.

Until there is language to describe an experience, that experience is not conscious for our culture which, as has often been noted, is profoundly logocentric, privileging the word, particularly in its written form, and repressing anything that does not fit into our current language games. For Bergson, genuine novelty is that which “could not have been foreseen” by intellect, for it is driven by modes of relation to experience that exceed pure intellect involving “the whole of our person” (Bergson 39), our somatic, affective, and intuitive capacities. However, although perhaps seemingly apparent when articulated in this way, it is an insight that has often been lost in the myopic rationalism of modernity for, as Bergson notes: “Our reason, incorrigibly presumptuous, imagines itself possessed, by right of birth or by right of conquest, innate or acquired, of all the essential elements of the knowledge of truth” (Bergson 39). Thus, as James also understood, truth is not something that exists ready-made to be found by intellect.  Rather, truth seems to be a quality of experience that emerges from the negotiation between affective and intellectual epistemologies. As Bergson emphatically sums up this relationship: “There are things that intelligence alone is able to seek, but which, by itself, it will never find. These things instinct alone could find; but it will never seek them” (Bergson 124). Ultimately, Bergson believes that “intelligence” and “instinct” are both indispensable ways of knowing the world and that, although this may seem obvious in practice, particularly in an early twenty-first century context when affect has become a primary academic concern, the academic presuppositions of the last few centuries have explicitly and in many ways rendered intuitive modes as inferior to intellect, a privileging that has been concretized in class distinctions and various institutional hierarchies, not least in the field of education.

However, Bergson sees intelligence and instinct as forming an opposition that must be deconstructed if we are fully to move beyond the deepest implicit prejudices of modernity. For Bergson, “instinct” is the unconscious form of the “inner knowledge” that he traces, while “intuition” is instinct become conscious in what amounts to a kind of phenomenological empiricism that can exceed verbal formulation. Bergson believes that this mode of consciousness is indispensable for the production of genuine novelty in both thought and action as it is the appropriate mode for comprehending the “most intimate secrets of life” (Bergson 135), that which we can feel in the depths of our internal process, but have not yet found the means to express. As he puts it: “By intuition I mean instinct that has become disinterested, self-conscious, capable of reflecting upon its object and of enlarging it indefinitely” (Bergson 145). As Bergson sees it, this repression of intuition in favor of intellect has been a “sacrifice” (Bergson 220) of other ways of relating to experience so that the materialist, mechanistic, intellectual habit of mind could be individuated and developed to its highest degree in science and rationalist philosophy. However, for Bergson as for James, this individuation of intellect has not been an end in itself, but has apparently been leading toward a reintegration of affectivity and rationality in an emergent domain of process.

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The Forging of John Lennon’s Rock and Roll Identity

Lennon Elvis

In his discovery of rock and roll, John Lennon had lifted Elvis Presley to an exalted position, identifying with him, or rather his conception of him, so completely that Lennon in a sense became Presley, integrating the older singer’s performative mode into his own character until it was an indelible part of him. As Lennon’s early best friend, Pete Shotton, describes Lennon’s youthful emulation, “by this time, John thought he was Elvis Presley,” which seems to indicate that Lennon held an image of Presley in his mind and tried to act, think, and be exactly how he imagined his idol, from the way he dressed and moved to the way he spoke and sang. Lennon reenacted Presley’s archetypal narrative, that of the young, liminal outsider who incites a revolutionary upheaval, though on an emergent level of process for, from the beginning, Lennon possessed a certain critical faculty that Presley apparently lacked. However, this lack was probably the precondition for Presley’s exceptional somatic and performative genius constituted in a loose sexuality that Lennon could never hope truly to emulate. Thus, although Lennon idolized Presley, he began to assert his independence at a young age, going as far as to mock Presley’s performance in Love Me Tender in a 1957 scene described by Shotton: “We sat in the cinema in Lime Street and killed ourselves laughing” at Presley, as “John thought he was ridiculous” (Spitz 63). An integral part of Lennon’s initiation into the mysteries of rock and roll was apparently to become critical of his idol, problematizing his exclusive identification of Presley with the genre to which he was devoted. Instinctively, he knew that although Presley had essentially created the genre and thereby brought the intuitive mode that rock and roll embodied into popular consciousness, and he could never be surpassed in this relatively pure domain, Lennon could, on a conceptual level, take the genre farther than Presley could have imagined, largely because Lennon wrote his own songs, but also because he was simply of a more intellectually experimental temperament.

Subsequently, Lennon discovered another embodiment for his aspirations in the form of Little Richard, who allowed Lennon to step outside his exclusive identification with Presley to critique the elements of his idol’s character with which he did not resonate. As in the oedipal relationship between father and son, Lennon symbolically slayed Presley with his ridicule, but only to become him. And if Jonathan Gould is correct that, “in a genre of popular music that was destined to be almost entirely dominated by male stars, it fell to Little Richard to play the Queen to Presley’s King” (Gould 62), then Little Richard’s flamboyant homosexuality offered the potential for a kind of oedipal consummation of Lennon’s love for the genre transcending Presley alone. However, that Little Richard referred to himself as the “King and Queen of Rock and Roll” (Palmer 140) would seem to complicate this oedipal dynamic somewhat. Nevertheless, in order to imagine himself into Presley’s persona, a template through which Lennon could ultimately cultivate his own unique persona, Lennon had finally to empty that persona of mystery through his critique while simultaneously shifting his temporary allegiance to a more “feminine” figure (if we take Richard’s wearing of makeup, his fluttering physical performativity, and his falsetto vocal interjections as a transgressive performance of femininity), thus rendering Presley’s role accessible to himself.

In a similar, though perhaps less oedipal operation, Lennon later claimed that Chuck Berry was “in a different class from the other performers” because “he really wrote his own stuff” (Wenner 168) which, along with Buddy Holly and Little Richard, provided one of the primary models for Lennon’s songwriting persona. Indeed, by the seventies, Berry seems to have replaced Presley and Richard as Lennon’s primary musical allegiance. Thus, through a series of such identifications with idols and the subsequent disenchantment and psychic reconciliation with them, Lennon was able to forge his own identity, appropriating elements of many different figures and combining them within the crucible of his experience into a more encompassing synthesis. And this synthesis was exemplified in the broader aesthetic range of the music created by Lennon who, like most great artists acting as a cultural omnivore, mediated the integration of previously disparate tropes and genres within his persona, from American rock and roll and “girl group” rhythm and blues to skiffle, music hall, and British comedic wit. However, Lennon’s breadth of musical and conceptual scope was purchased at the expense of the narrower depth of nearly pure affective brilliance in which Presley has never been eclipsed. Ultimately, Lennon was able to return to his love for Presley, seeing him in a more balanced way, like the adult child who, after a period of rebellion, builds a more mature relationship with his father.

[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]

References:

Gould, Jonathan. Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America. New York: Harmony Books, 2007.

Palmer, Robert. Rock & Roll: an unruly history. New York: Harmony Books, 1995.

Spitz, Bob. The Beatles: The Biography. New York: Back Bay Books, 2005.

Wenner, Jann. Lennon Remembers. New York: Popular Library, 1971.

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