Tag Archives: Alfred North Whitehead

Radio Interview about The Dynamics of Transformation 

I did this two-hour radio interview on The Styxxoplix Show in Ft. Wayne, IN, in which we discussed my book The Dynamics of Transformation: Tracing an Emerging World View. It was a fascinating conversation ranging from Aristotle’s four causes and Jean Gebser’s five stages of consciousness to the qualitative nature of time, the exponential acceleration of technology, and the novel world view that seems currently to be emerging.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

An ‘Integrated Affair’: William James, Sigmund Freud, and Analysis vs. Synthesis in Academic Discourse

380px-WilliamJames_JosiahRoyce_ca1910_Harvard

I’ve been having a fascinating conversation with Dr. Andreas Sommer of Cambridge University (http://forbiddenhistories.wordpress.com/) in the comments of my earlier post “Affect and Rationality in William James” about whether Freud’s concept of “the return of the repressed” can viably be marshaled in relation to James’ ideas. I think Dr. Sommer is right that his approach as an historian is probably different from my approach as a philosopher and cultural theorist with a doctorate in English. But I also think he’s perpetuating a fallacy that’s fairly pervasive in contemporary academia, exemplified by the poststructuralist “incredulity towards metanarratives,” imposing an excessively critical analysis of conceptual wholes into their constituent parts. This primarily critical mode seems to miss the proverbial forest for the trees, which I believe is fundamentally counter to the integrative character of James’ philosophy. Indeed, James addresses this very issue extensively in his work. For instance, he writes in Pragmatism:

The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. . . . Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest.  We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid. Pragmatism unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work. . . . New truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions. It marries old opinion to new fact. . . . ‘To be true’ means only to perform this marriage-function. . . . Loosely speaking, and in general, it may be said that all things cohere and adhere to each other somehow, and that the universe exists practically in reticulated or concatenated forms which make of it a continuous or ‘integrated’ affair. . . . Everything makes strongly for the view that our world is incompletely unified teleologically and is still trying to get its unification better organized. (18-54)

The theoretical mode James consistently articulates is one in which diverse, and often contradictory theories, modes of thought, and thinkers can be brought into relation, their “metaphysical disputes” “settled” by the pragmatic “marriage-function,” which strives to unify, integrate, and reconcile seemingly incommensurable entities. This integrative impulse seems eminently applicable to the relation between the ideas of Freud and James himself, who, in the larger cultural context in which they are embedded, are more alike than they are different, not least in that they both spent their lives attempting to understand the same subject: the human mind in relation to the world.

Henri Bergson (with whom James was friends) also addresses the frequent modern academic preference for analysis over synthesis in Creative Evolution (to which James intended to write a laudatory preface for the English edition before he died):

Intellect therefore instinctively selects in a given situation whatever is like something already known; it seeks this out, in order that it may apply its principle that ‘like produces like.’ . . . Like ordinary knowledge, in dealing with things science is concerned only with the aspect of repetition. Though the whole be original, science will always manage to analyze it into elements or aspects which are approximately a reproduction of the past. Science can work only on what is supposed to repeat itself—that is to say, on what is withdrawn, by hypothesis, from the action of real time. Anything that is irreducible and irreversible in the successive moments of a history eludes science. To get a notion of this irreducibility and irreversibility, we must break with scientific habits which are adapted to the fundamental requirements of thought, we must do violence to the mind, go counter to the natural bent of the intellect. But that is just the function of philosophy. (24-25)

The mode of thought that Dr. Sommer is employing in apparently denying the possibility of finding complementary conceptual elements in James and Freud seems to me essentially complicit with the methods of reductive materialist science, which continue implicitly to dominate the humanities despite frequent protestations to the contrary. While I think the kind of critical, historical contextualization Dr. Sommer prefers is valid in its own right, it oversteps its domain of validity when it denies the impulse to produce emergent wholes through the synthesis of different thinkers’ ideas.

This pragmatic approach is concisely expressed by John Stuart Mill (whom James thought would have been a leader of pragmatism had he still been alive) in his essay “Coleridge”:

All students of man and society who possess that first requisite for so difficult a study, a due sense of its difficulties, are aware that the besetting danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking part of the truth for the whole. It might be plausibly maintained that in almost every one of the leading controversies, past or present, in social philosophy, both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied; and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.

Dr. Sommer seems to want to reify the “controversy” between James and Freud as metaphysically fundamental. I agree that Freud and James were very different thinkers, a point I allude to when I write that “James perhaps goes farther than Freud,” particularly in that James affirmed the validity of formal and final causation in addition to material and efficient causation, whereas Freud was a materialist, only affirming the latter two causal modes. However, I believe that critical negation (which Alfred North Whitehead terms “the peak of mentality”) of the possibility of synthesis, as Dr. Sommer seems to call for, should be relegated back to its appropriate place in the scholarly armamentarium, so that we can again begin to see apparently disparate modes of thought as complementary “in what they affirm.” In fact, as James asserts in a footnote to The Varieties of Religious Experience (444), this “inextricably mixed” quality of all kinds of “distinctions” was the predominant mode of thought prior to the seventeenth century. While I agree that critical, analytical, historical contextualization is a vitally necessary and important activity, one that has required the last few centuries for its individuation, this impulse is only half of a dialectical process. As Whitehead (who calls James “that adorable genius”) writes in Adventures of Ideas:

The difference between the two, namely the Hellenic and the Hellenistic types of mentality, may be roughly described as that between speculation and scholarship. For progress, both are necessary.  But, in fact, on the stage of history they are apt to appear as antagonists. Speculation, by entertaining alternative theories, is superficially skeptical, disturbing to established modes of prejudice. But it obtains its urge from a deep ultimate faith, that through and through the nature of things is penetrable by reason. Scholarship, by its strict attention to accepted methodologies, is superficially conservative of belief. But its tone of mind leans towards a fundamental negation. For scholars the reasonable topics in the world are penned in isolated regions, this subject-matter or that subject-matter. (108)

Despite Dr. Sommer’s assertion that “it’s of course fine that you make it your task to synthesize ideas,” he appears to contradict this affirmation in the rest of his response. He seems, along with much of current academia, to take an essentially Hellenistic rather than Hellenic approach to the production of knowledge, almost purely scholarly and analytic rather than speculative and synthetic. While I fully acknowledge the validity of tracing the direct influence on James of less well-remembered figures like Frederic W. H. MyersThéodore Flournoy, and Pierre Janet, I prefer a mode of thought which synthesizes the scholarly and speculative modes, asserting that, because James and Freud were perhaps the two primary psychologists who mediated the founding of psychology as a viable discipline, it is not only our right, but even our duty given a century of perspective, to bring their respective positive content into relation if we hope to generate novel understanding. Rather than a “forced marriage,” as Dr. Sommer terms it, I see this activity as a hieros gamos, a “sacred marriage” of opposites for the conception of discursive transformation via teleological concrescence.

10 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

How Old Were Philosophers When They Published Their First Major Works?

Hegel_portrait_by_Schlesinger_1831

I’ll be turning 35 in January, so I’ve been doing some thinking about age in relation to the trajectory of my career. I’m in the final stages of preparing my first book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll, for publication, and I’m well into my second book, a straight work of philosophy. With these considerations in mind, I decided to look at how old my favorite philosophers (and a few psychologists and a stray scientist and sociologist) were when they published their first major works and some of their best known works thereafter. I haven’t tried to be comprehensive, so please don’t be offended if I’ve left out one of your favorite books or thinkers. Rather, I’ve given a subjectively chosen selection of works merely sufficient to answer my question. To make a long story short, the conclusion I’ve drawn is that we philosophers are doing just fine if we publish our first book by our late forties. Philosophy is clearly not a vocation for those seeking instant gratification.

One caveat: the ages I’ve listed are approximations based solely on the years, not the months, of birth and publication, so there’s essentially a one year margin of error. I could take the time to recheck all the numbers, but you get the idea, and I need to get back to writing my book.

William James

48 – The Principles of Psychology

55 – The Will to Believe

60 – The Varieties of Religious Experience

65 – Pragmatism

67 – A Pluralistic Universe

Henri Bergson

30 – Time and Free Will

37 – Matter and Memory

48 – Creative Evolution

Alfred North Whitehead

49 – Principia Mathematica

64 – Science and the Modern World

68 – Process and Reality

72 – Adventures of Ideas

77 – Modes of Thought

C.G. Jung

37 – Psychology of the Unconscious

46 – Psychological Types

59 – The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

69 – Psychology and Alchemy

77 – Synchronicity

87 – Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Jean Gebser

44 – The Ever-Present Origin

Richard Tarnas

41 – The Passion of the Western Mind

56 – Cosmos and Psyche

G.W.F. Hegel

37 – The Phenomenology of Spirit

42 – The Science of Logic

Thomas Kuhn

35 – The Copernican Revolution

40 – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

James Hillman

34 – Emotion

38 – Suicide and the Soul

49 – Re-Visioning Psychology

Sigmund Freud

44 – The Interpretation of Dreams

48 – The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

57 – Totem and Taboo

74 – Civilization and Its Discontents

83 – Moses and Monotheism

Charles Darwin

50 – On the Origin of Species

62 – The Descent of Man

Max Weber

41 – The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism

21 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

“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.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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]

References:

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

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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

Elvis

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]

References:

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Huffington Post Writer Appears to Engage in Blatant Confirmation Bias and Scientism

Matthew Hutson wrote a blog post for the Huffington Post a few days ago called “Even Top Scientists Believe Everything Was Created By Magic,” that seems unintentionally to deconstruct its own premise, practicing blatant scientism and confirmation bias against teleology in relation to a new psychological study “currently in press at the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General” whose findings, contrary to the interpretation of the psychologists, seems to suggest that teleological thinking is intrinsic to the human mind, thus apparently confirming that final causation is valid in some sense.

By way of a disclaimer, although Hutson’s book, The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, apparently argues that teleological thought is comforting and even beneficial for the living of life (a supposition with which I generally agree), his blog post, to which I’m primarily responding here, seems to assume that final causation can’t possibly be true in any real sense. Without reading his book, it’s unclear if the piece is being ironic and deliberately provocative, but I’ll take him at his word and respond to what he seems to argue in the blog post, which leaves us with the pleasant thought that “one cold fact is unavoidable, particularly in science: Sometimes shit just happens. So watch your step.”

The post suggests that “many countries have done a better job than we have at quashing creationism and intelligent design,” two rather different concepts that Hutson conflates in order to dismiss them, seeming to argue that fundamentalist creationism is the only option if we are to believe in teleology, a vast oversimplification of the issue. In fact there’s no scientific way for anyone to know if “something more” (to use William James’ phrase) than pure materiality exists or not; it’s not empirically provable one way or the other, so Hutson’s unsubtle query, “why are those nonscientific beliefs so persistent?” assumes that scientific knowledge is the only valid knowledge as an article of faith, which merely exchanges one credo for another. Hutson goes on to state that “new research suggests even top scientists are not immune to such magical intuitions,” a seemingly condescending and trivializing way of stating the result of the study, which basically found that even scientists have a hard time avoiding interpreting teleological statements as valid. In the comments to the blog, some have raised the question of if this is merely a problem with the study’s methodology, in which case it wouldn’t say anything at all about teleology but merely about the imprecision of language. However, for the sake of argument, I’ll assume that this is not the case and that the study does in fact offer data genuinely reflective of teleological intuitions. If we employ Occam’s razor that the simplest explanation is usually the best one, rather than suggesting that teleology is an unaccountably persistent superstition, these “tenacious teleological tendencies” (as the study puts it) perhaps suggest that the world is susceptible to interpretations in terms of final causation just as it is susceptible to scientific interpretations based on material and efficient causation. And certainly, that Hutson facilely equates “magic” with “teleology” and “intelligent design” betrays a lack of nuanced understanding concerning the many sophisticated volumes of philosophical discourse exploring the interrelations of these subjects in their various inflections. For one instance of many, Henri Bergson writes in Creative Evolution:

Finalism is not, like mechanism, a doctrine with fixed rigid outlines. It admits of as many inflections as we like. The mechanistic philosophy is to be taken or left; it must be left if the least grain of dust, by straying from the path foreseen by mechanics should show the slightest trace of spontaneity. The doctrine of final causes, on the contrary, will never be definitively refuted. If one form of it be put aside, it will take another. Its principle, which is essentially psychological, is very flexible. It is so extensible, and thereby so comprehensive, that one accepts something of it as soon as one rejects pure mechanism (33).

Hutson seems to assume a priori that teleology is false in any real sense. (note: the subject of his book reveals this apparent assumption possibly to be the product of egregious miscommunication on Hutson’s part in the post, though it’s impossible to tell, which I would contend is a fault of the writer, not the reader.) Although there is no empirical way to prove the supposition that teleology is a silly superstition, both he and the scientists he cites interpret the data according to their implicit and ultimately extra-scientific beliefs. It seems to me that a more straightforward interpretation of the data is that the mind is inherently geared towards teleological thinking because the world is in some sense teleological. Wouldn’t a real empiricist, a “radical empiricist” (as James puts it), examine the evidence without any presuppositions as to the nature of the phenomena and conclude that if final causation can’t be conditioned out of “even the most skeptical and well-educated of us” (which are not, as Hutson seems to suggest, identical qualities), perhaps there’s something to final causation after all? As numerous widely respected philosophers demonstrate in different valences, including James, Bergson, and Alfred North Whitehead, the human mind is evolved from and embedded in the cosmos, so it must share something of the underlying cosmic structure. As Richard Tarnas puts it in The Passion of the Western Mind: “The human mind is ultimately the organ of the world’s own process of self-revelation.” How could it be any other way? We are made of the stuff of the universe, and we have the capacity to know ourselves to varying degrees, so it logically follows that we are the universe coming to know itself. To my mind, although this supposition has often been anathema to the scientistic culture of modernity, the burden of proof should lie with those who seek to deny this seemingly obvious and irrefutable fact.

Ultimately it seems to me that the only insight Hutson has to offer, at least in his post, is that it’s easy to knock down a straw man because he can’t fight back, a phenomenon that we’ve also seen recently in TED’s censorship of talks by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock, which I discuss in an earlier post. As I said before, these kinds of hysterical, knee-jerk reactions to anything that contradicts materialist, scientistic dogmas (as Sheldrake puts it) appear to indicate that the old paradigm, like the church fathers who condemned Copernicus and Galileo and insisted the world was flat, is on its last legs, is backed into a corner, and that a new world view that integrates scientific knowledge, partially true within its domain of validity, with other forms of knowledge based on formal and final causation is in the process of emergence. Even if Hutson believes that teleology, though “irrational” and plain wrong, can act as a beneficial placebo effect (though this is far from clear based on his blog post alone), he’s still apparently recycling the same old scientistic platitudes that keep so many of us from engaging in a real dialogue about the nature of reality just as surely as the dogmas of the medieval church.

41 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized