The Quest for Authenticity: Mystical Transcendence in Pop Culture

I was asked the following question on Quora:

What are some mystic perspectives on pop culture?

Here’s my answer:

There are many mystic perspectives in pop culture — drone-based music, mystical lyrics, surrealist art, the whole Jedi religion. So here I’d like to draw analogies between mystical thinking and pop culture criticism.

Many mystics seek some elusive higher state: liberation, nirvana, moksha, satori, theosis, and so on. A common feature of descriptions of such states is that they transcend the bounds of language, and specifically the dualistic thinking that seems to go hand-in-hand with language: good and evil, self and other, present and absent.

You can actually discern similar quests for transcendence within pop culture. Many artists working within a genre eventually feel constrained by it: they then attempt to transcend their confines in some way. They become aware of the stifling quality of categorization schemes. In effect, they want to rediscover what Jacques Lacan calls the Real: “what resists symbolization absolutely.”

For example, in certain genres of rock music (especially punk and its progeny), noise takes on an almost transcendental quality. Whenever a particular sort of distortion becomes tame and domesticated, certain rock musicians will seek out new forms of noise. The music journalist Simon Reynolds describes this very well:

“Noise is about fascination, the antithesis of meaning. If music is a language, communicating moods and feelings, then noise is like an eruption within the material out of which language is shaped. We are arrested, fascinated, by a convulsion of sound to which we are unable to assign a meaning. We are mesmerized by the materiality of music. This is why noise and horror go hand in hand-because madness and violence are senseless and arbitrary (violence is the refusal to argue), and the only response is wordless-to scream.

“The problem is that, as with any drug or intoxicant, tolerance builds up rapidly.”

[…]

“In their voices, you can hear a surplus of form over content, of genotext over phenotext, semiotic over symbolic, Barthes’s “grain” (the resistance of the body to the voice) over technique. Of “telling” over “story”.

“Both “strategies” are alike in one thing-they demand from the listener an immobility-one stunned, the other spellbound. Unlike the soulboys or decent songwriters, resistance does not take the form of becoming a subject, but through becoming an object. Refusing (at least in the domain of leisure) to deploy power over the self; to escape, for a few blissful moments, the network of meaning and concern.”

Doesn’t this sound like some kind of mystical quest?

Noise is just one example of an attribute that people attach mystical meaning to. The quest for noise is a specific example of a wider quest in the arts: the quest for authenticity.


Once upon a time, pop music had no aspirations of being Great Art. It was seen as just another branch of show business. But as entertainment became a more central part of people’s lives in the 20th century, pop music (and pop culture more generally) began to be taken seriously by cultural and economic elites. And this means a lot of writing and talking about the virtues and vices of particular forms.

Even though many pop culture fans didn’t really like the self-seriousness of, say, classical music critics, many ended up becoming mirror images of the people they were trying to knock of the pedestal. So the innovations of jazz became ossified in ‘trad jazz’, and the wildness of rock and roll was put in the safe zoo of ‘classic rock’.

This borrowing of a classical sensibility — believing that culture might be more than just a momentary thrill, and instead a revelation of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness — may also have been a response to the economic reality of pop culture. Most people feel uncomfortable with the “pop” in “pop culture”. Is everything popular is necessarily good? And if not, as most people believe, how do we decide what to consume? Pop culture critics have been tying themselves up in knots over such questions for decades.

At one extreme you have Marxists like Theodor W. Adorno who saw pop culture as little more than a tool for creating subservient and stupid masses. At the other extreme, you have sundry “poptimists who believe that anything on the pop charts must be good because it is produced by and/or aimed at minorities, teenagers, women and other groups neglected by the great man theories of aesthetics.

Between these two extremes — which might align in the religious world with gnosticism (the world is an evil illusion) and pantheism (everything in the world is divine) — you have space for debating the particularities of a culture product, rather than the vague sociology of who produces it and who consumes it.

The poptimist reformation occurred in the early years of the 21st century. The pop-protestants were disgusted by the indulgences of the catholic church of “rockism”. Rockists, according to the poptimist narrative, valorize qualities such as musical virtuosity (often seen as symbolic of aggressive masculinity), complex lyrics, and ‘seriousness’. Poptimists decided to invert this system, valuing artifice, catchiness, queerness, girlishness, and teenage notions of love/sex. As you might expect, poptimism rapidly became as self-righteous and insufferable as rockism. [1]


A mystic might laugh at the absurdity of such binaries, and instead just focus on the sensual experience of actually listening to music. Or she might ask if the music transports her, or moves her to compassion towards fellow beings.

Silent listening doesn’t fill up space in a music review, so ultimately the more verbose among us return to ”dancing about architecture”. Obsessive music academics and journalists (and now, bloggers, tumblr users, twitterers, redditors, and Quorans!) therefore try to come up with criteria for why some piece of music makes you a better person, or gives you access to cosmic consciousness, or makes you… cool. [2]


So authenticity becomes the ‘mystical’ goal for both musicians and listeners. Different genres just have different notions for what counts as authentic. In an old genre it might be adherence to tradition. In the avant-garde it might be ‘creativity’ and ‘boundary-breaking’. And for the mainstream it is usually just giving the people what they want.

If you think about it, each of these musical sensibilities has multiple equivalents in the world of religion and spirituality. Every genre is a denomination. Ask yourself who the ‘Amish of rock’ are, or the ‘sufis of soul’.


I’ve written here about music, but you can use this kind of analogy to talk about any form of pop culture. You can have fun asking questions like these:

  • Who is the St Francis of cinema?
  • How can a painter convey nirvana?
  • What is a Taoist approach to science fiction?
  • Which computer games might Alan Watts play?

Notes

[1] Armed with this analogy, you can start to see aesthetics as the last stand of theology. :)

Is Poptimism Now As Blinkered As The Rockism It Replaced?

The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism

[2] You’ll discern this kind of hand-wringing about authenticity even in musical genres that seem to place irony and insincerity at the forefront, like ‘vaporwave’. I recommend watching this video to see how far the rabbithole of pop cultural anxiety goes:

Vaporwave: A Brief History

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The Tao that can be expressed

[This is an essay I wrote in 2008, on an old blog.]

The following is the first part of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching — it’s my favourite piece of eastern philosophy. I’ve quoted it many times, ever since I started blogging, but I’ve never really written about my take on it.

“The Tao that can be expressed
Is not the Tao of the Absolute.
The name that can be named
Is not the name of the Absolute.

The nameless originated Heaven and Earth.
The named is the Mother of All Things.

Thus, without expectation,
One will always perceive the subtlety;
And, with expectation,
One will always perceive the boundary.”

There are many translations, each offering strikingly different interpretations of the basic Chinese text. This is my favourite version. I keep returning to the last stanza about expectation. I think it is one of the best clues about the ways we can respond to life’s challenges. Another translation renders it as follows: “Ever desireless, one can see the mystery. Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.”

What does it mean to live with expectation? I think it means to be ambitious, aggressive, competitive, and goal-oriented. These impulses —  the passions and desires —  are important, because goals cannot be achieved without them. However, with expectation, we always come up against boundaries. Walls. Obstructions. We fail. We are stymied. We see things as black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. We enter into the game of life, and all its ups and downs become manifest. The life of expectation is the life of yang — it is “hot, fire, restless, hard, dry, excitement, non-substantial, rapidity, and corresponds to the day.” One could even go so far as so say that the West’s great successes can be attributed to it’s relentless ambition.

What does it mean to live without expectation? It is that calm, desireless state that we frequently associate with eastern philosophies. The Buddha recognized that desire is the root cause of evil, so he advocated the elimination of desire, rather than any attempt to satiate it (as most people do). Proceeding without expectation, we perceive the subtlety — the nuance. Looking at things without a goal in mind, we are free to view them from a variety of angles, appreciating the mysterious complexity: the dynamic interplay between countless shades of grey. This is the territory of yin — “soft, slow, substantial, water, cold, conserving, tranquil, gentle, and corresponds to the night.”

The great difficulty in life can be expressed as the problem of when to proceed with expectation, and when to lean back and perceive the subtlety. In a sense, this problem is about dealing with free will. Let’s jump into some examples.

Just before the Mahabharata’s great battle, Arjuna finds himself in a quandary: how can he fight his own flesh and blood? His friends and his teachers? A Kshatriya suddenly starts seeing the subtlety, so Krishna  attempts to bring Arjuna back into the field of action — there is a time for doubt and contemplation, but now Arjuna needed to execute his duty.  His dharma. A warrior needs to see things as black and white, or he will drive himself mad.

Hamlet’s primary dilemma can also be seen in this light.

To be, or not to be, that is the Question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the minde to suffer
The Slings and Arrowes of outragious Fortune,
Or to take Armes against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them[.]

Should he sit back and suffer the slings and arrows of his terrible fate, or get off his ass and do something about it? Should he commit the sin of killing his treacherous uncle in order to avenge his father’s murder? Despite supernatural intervention, Hamlet takes a verbose four acts to finally work up the courage to do the deed. And as Fortinbras and Horatio survey the carnage, we’re still left wondering — should Hamlet have unleashed all this death and destruction?

Science requires proceeding with expectation. If we ask nothing of the world, we are at the mercy of mysterious and capricious forces of nature. If we examine the origins of these forces, some of the mystery clears up, an many new things become manifest. [If you’re know a little about quantum mechanics, you will quickly see why some physicists like eastern mysticism. But I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.]

The reason I’m picky about the translations of the Tao Te Ching is that most translators make a virtue out of living with subtlety, belittling the boundaries. I prefer the value-neutral version. Both yin and yang and needed to make the world go round. However, the primary thrust of Taoism is to live without expectation, always perceiving the subtleties. This is probably why I gravitate to this philosophy, whose exemplary element is water. Water humbles itself by sinking to the lowest places, and there finds calm and stillness. Yet water can break rock when it has to. Even if I recognize my passive, watery side, I often find myself expecting things. I have my hang-ups. My judgemental tendencies. My competitive streak lies dormant most of the time, but I’m pretty sure it’s not dead.

There are interesting knots one can tie oneself into while examining cryptic verses such as these. The next part of the section goes as follows:

The source of these two is identical, Yet their names are different.
Together they are called profound.
Profound and mysterious, the gateway to the Collective Subtlety.”

So is the fundamental subtlety the recognition that yin and yang spring from the same source and must needs coexist? Or is the fundamental boundary our very quest for consistency, unity, and a common source for all knowledge? Do we not expectantly seek out subtlety? The author humbly preempts even these attempts at cleverness, warning us that “The Tao that can be expressed / Is not the Tao of the Absolute”.

Profound and mysterious, this Tao is. And of course, the rest is silence.

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Is there any such thing as “nothing”?

Perhaps we have to start by asking what a “thing” is.

Let’s try the following definition: a thing has the attribute of location in space and time. Further, we might conclude that in order to locate something, we must have a sense of its extent in space and time: its boundaries.

This definition of “thing” is handy because we can “try it on for size”. An apple is a thing: it has a location and a boundary. An electron is a thing, albeit with a more fuzzy location and boundary. Even certain abstractions can count as things under this definition, like the United States, or a hurricane, or a sports team.

But eventually we must come to concepts. Are they things? I don’t really know. Dragons are not things in the real world. But what about the concept of dragons? Is that a thing? I suppose you could say that a person’s concept of dragons is located somewhere between their ears.

But what about the fact that we tend to speak of the concept of dragons? We don’t merely talk about your concept of dragons and my concept of dragons, but also a kind of depersonalized and generalized concept. Where is the general concept of dragons located? It’s not in any one person’s head. But if it is in many peoples’ heads, then does that mean that it’s location is spread out among all people who have heard of dragons?

If we run with this idea, then it seems as if the world of concepts — often but not always constructed and accessed via language — constitutes a kind of virtual world with its own “physics”. One might call it the memosphere or the noosphere. If reality is the land of fact, this parallel realm is the land of fancy. The noosphere is the sphere of consciousness — not just one consciousness, but a space emerging from the interaction of all separate consciousnesses.

The noosphere seems to grow out of the “thingiverse” of physical matter, and maintains close relations with it. Plants and animals, rocks and rivers, celestial bodies — they all have their counterparts in the domain of ideas. And we draw invisible links between representations of things with the help of connective tissue: language, mathematics, science, art.

But the realm of collective consciousness also contains vast regions that have an unstable relationship with the things in reality. The noosphere contains fairies, angels, demons, werewolves, and little green men. It contains Heaven and Hell, Faerie, Utopia, Dystopia, Heterotopia, Narnia, and every other magical land accessible via furniture. It contains countless “counterparts” of our Selves: funhouse-mirror-reflections. Perhaps most importantly, it contains our ideals and idols: the abstractions that seem to beckon us.

“Nothing” is an inhabitant of the noosphere. Whatever else it is, it is a concept. As geographers or the imaginary, our task is to identify the region that this strange creature resides in: the civilized plains of sensible knowledge, where all concepts are neatly linked by rational roadways, or the shadowy jungle of fiction and phantasm. In other words, does “nothing” point to anything?

“Nothing” emerges as a placeholder. It shows up when we contemplate possibilities: the could haves, should haves, would haves, may haves, might bes, and maybes. The counterfactuals.

Do possibilities dwell in the “civilized” regions of the noosphere, or are they just across the border, in some buffer zone keeping the jungle at bay?

When we point to nothing, we are pointing to a place in time and space (or idea-space) where there could be something, but there is currently nothing. There is nothing in my teacup — but there could have been tea in there earlier, and could be more at some future time. The emptiness of space is a lot like the emptiness in my teacup: it could contain planets or spaceships or Lovecraftian horrors, but currently it does not.

Where did the universe come from? If you mention some thing, then the question is not truly answered, because one can always ask, where did that come from? So instead, you might say the universe came from “nothing”. All explanations have to stop somewhere. So nothing seems like the right word to place in the sentence “The universe emerged from X”.

The alternative is to say the universe always existed. But our cosmologists tell us everything we see seems to have expanded outwards from a very dense point: we are invited to consider that point as a starting point, rather than an inflection point in an endless oscillation.

The void is sometimes defined as formless potential. Potential is deeply connected to the idea of what is possible but not (yet) actual. If the universe began with a void, then in a sense it was pregnant with all this.

Is this void real? We can’t say, because the idea that the universe has a beginning is not something we can test. Our physical theories can waggle their eyebrows and point suggestively in one direction or the other, but we cannot travel back in time to settle the matter.

But perhaps there is another approach to the void. Creation is not complete — the universe is constantly being made and remade, and we are a part of the process. Where do we come from? If we arose on this planet, there must have been a potential for our emergence all along. We can trace this potential back through evolutionary history, chemistry and physics. We find ourselves confronting the idea that our presence ultimately derives from our absence: even if the universe is eternal, our own existence is not, and so we know that we start from nothing and become something. This is also true of individual people: before a sperm merges with an egg, what was there of you? Nothing. We might also say the same about our ideas, concepts and mental states. To trace them backwards is to follow a family tree that ultimately ends in nothingness.

So is nothing a thing, or a placeholder? I have no idea: but it seems as if a place for it emerges whenever we look closely at things.

____

This first appeared as a Quora answer.

 

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Is the mind a machine?

My latest 3QD essay explores the “mind as machine” metaphor, and metaphors in general.

Putting the “cog” in “cognitive”: on the “mind as machine” metaphor

Here’s an excerpt:

People who study the mind and brain often confront the limits of metaphor. In the essay ‘Brain Metaphor and Brain Theory‘, the vision scientist John Daugman draws our attention to the fact that thinkers throughout history have used the latest material technology as a model for the mind and body. In the Katha Upanishad (which Daugman doesn’t mention), the body is a chariot and the mind is the reins. For the pre-Socratic Greeks, hydraulic metaphors for the psyche were popular: imbalances in the four humors produced particular moods and dispositions. By the 18th and 19th centuries, mechanical metaphors predominated in western thinking: the mind worked like clockwork. The machine metaphor has remained with us in some form or the other since the industrial revolution: for many contemporary scientists and philosophers, the only debate seems to be about what sort of machine the mind really is. Is it an electrical circuit? A cybernetic feedback device? A computing machine that manipulates abstract symbols? Some thinkers so convinced that the mind is a computer that they invite us to abandon the notion that the idea is a metaphor. Daugman quotes the cogntive scientist Zenon Pylyshyn, who claimed that “there is no reason why computation ought to be treated merely as a metaphor for cognition, as opposed to the literal nature of cognition”.

Daugman reacts to this Whiggish attitude with a confession of incredulity that many of us can relate to: “who among us finds any recognizable strand of their personhood or of their experience of others and of the world and its passions, to be significantly illuminated by, or distilled in, the metaphor of computation?.” He concludes his essay with the suggestion that “[w]e should remember than the enthusiastically embraced metaphors of each “new era” can become, like their predecessors, as much the prisonhouse of thought as they at first appeared to represent its liberation.”

Read the rest at 3 Quarks Daily:

Putting the “cog” in “cognitive”: on the “mind as machine” metaphor

___

Here’s a list of my 3QD essays.

 

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Ways of Knowing

Here is an excerpt from my latest 3QD essay:

“To attempt an understanding of understanding, I think it might make sense to situate our verbal forms of knowledge-generation in the wider world of knowing: a world that includes the forms that we share with animals and even plants. To this end, I’ve come up with a taxonomy of understanding, which, for reasons that should become apparent eventually, I will organize in a ring. At the very outset I must stress that in humans these ways of knowing are very rarely employed in isolation. Moreover, they are not fixed faculties: they influence each other and gradually modify each other. Finally, I must stress that this ‘systematization’ is a work in progress. With these caveats in mind, I’d like to treat each of the ways of knowing in order, starting at the bottom and working my way around in a clockwise direction.”

Read the rest at 3 Quarks Daily: Ways of Knowing

(I’ve collected links to all my 3QD essays here.)

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The “Streetlight Effect”: a metaphor for knowledge and ignorance

Here’s the beginning of my latest 3QD piece:

There is a story that I think anyone interested in human knowledge ought to know. It comes in many forms. Here is one version, incarnated as a joke: ‘A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is.”‘muttjeff01

A parable featuring the Seljuk Sufi mystic Nasrudin Hodja may be the earliest form of the story: ‘Someone saw Nasrudin searching for something on the ground. “What have you lost, Mulla?” he asked. “My key,” said the Mulla. So they both went down on their knees and looked for it. After a time the other man asked: “Where exactly did you drop it?” “In my own house.” “Then why are you looking here?” “There is more light here than inside my own house.”‘ The Indologist Wendy Doniger quotes this parable in her book The Hindus: An Alternative History, as a way to prepare the reader for the disappointing realization that the “available light” on Hinduism — the hymns, the histories, the archaeological remains — tends to illuminate the perspectives of dominant groups, relegating to the shadows the viewpoints of women, lower castes, and other marginalized groups.

Noam Chomsky has a characteristically dry and precise version of the story: “Science is a bit like the joke about the drunk who is looking under a lamppost for a key that he has lost on the other side of the street, because that’s where the light is. It has no other choice.”

So historians, mystics, scientists and drunks have something in common: they all tend to seek the truth where the process of seeking is easy, rather than where truth is. Responses to this problem vary. The mystic is most likely trying to remind the listener of how limited human knowledge is, and how often we look for solutions in precisely the wrong places. The humanities professor Doniger uses the problem as a justification for reading between the lines: using the available light to speculate about what may lie in the darkness. And the cognitive scientist Chomsky seems to be using the problem to justify why scientists answer questions that are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the questions they originally set out to answer.

I’m a scientist, a history buff, and also a bit of a mystic, so I tend to combine all three perspectives on the “available light” problem, also known as the “streetlight effect“.

Read the rest at 3 Quarks Daily.

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What do we mean by “Nature”? And what do we mean by “Human Nature”?

Here’s the intro to my latest 3QD essay:

I’ve always had a problem with the word ‘nature’. It seems to serve as a label for multiple, mutually inconsistent notions. This in itself is not a reason to dislike a word — we seem to have little problem with most words that have multiple meanings. (Surely “right” as in “right versus wrong”, is easy to separate from “right” as in “right versus left”? Surely it isn’t semantic confusion that causes left-handed people and leftists to be accused of being wrong, and even unnatural?) What seems to make the concept of “naturalness” especially problematic is the way it is used to justify particular situations or courses of action.

So what are the multiple senses of the concept of nature? I think we can discern at least three, which can be best described in terms of dichotomies. We have:

  1. Nature versus the Supernatural
  2. Nature versus Nurture
  3. Nature versus Culture

Let’s examine them one by one, and then see what they imply for ‘human nature’.

3quarksdaily: What do we mean by “Nature”? And what do we mean by “Human Nature”?

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