Monthly Archives: March 2012

A More Whiteheadian Merleau-Ponty

I’m in the process of reviewing an excellent book, Nature and Logos: A Whiteheadian Key to Merleau-Ponty’s Fundamental Thought, by William Hamrick and Jan van der Veken.  It’s so thorough in its research and references, you can get a lot out of the book even if you don’t pay attention to the overall argument that the authors are presenting.  If you do pay attention to that overall argument, you’ll find a clear and constructive articulation of Merleau-Ponty’s “fundamental thought,” that is, his “new ontology,” which he was developing in the years before his untimely death at the age of 53. 

A lot of books talk about Merleau-Ponty’s new ontology and speculate about what his unfinished ontology would look like if he would have had a chance to finish it.  What’s interesting about Nature and Logos is that it supplements that new ontology with a Whiteheadian key, building on Merleau-Ponty’s similarity to and explicit interest in Whitehead’s philosophy of Nature as process.  To support the connection between Merleau-Ponty and process philosophy, the book draws attention to the influence of the evolutionary philosophies of Schelling and Bergson for Merleau-Ponty’s concepts of Nature, time, space, consciousness, body, perception, humanity, etc.  There’s also a chapter on the Stoic logos endiathetos, which parallels Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of Nature as a sensible logos.

The only thing I’ve been disappointed in is the lack of Whitehead in the book.  There’s a good amount of Whitehead in there, good in quality and quantity, but the title made me think that there would be a lot more.  Two names in the title, Merleau-Ponty and Whitehead, yet the Whitehead references are far fewer than the Merleau-Ponty references.  Overall, it’s a book about Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the flesh, and Whitehead along with Stoicism, Schelling, and Bergson are shown to be keys to that ontology.  Nature and Logos has prepared the ground for the development of an even more Whiteheadian Merleau-Ponty and, hopefully, a more phenomenological process philosophy.

Tool, Rock, and the Dionysian Future of Music

In Ecce Homo, Friedrich Nietzsche declares his “tremendous hope” for “a Dionysian future of music,” in which music would free itself from moralizing and rationalizing tendencies and creatively affirm the boundary-dissolving experiences that accompany states of ecstasy.  In the twentieth century, many forms of popular music have contributed to the fulfillment of Nietzsche’s Dionysian hope.  I’m interested in adapting the poststructuralist method of “pop analysis” developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to consider how Dionysian religious impulses are at work in the genre of rock music, with specific attention to the music of Tool, a contemporary American rock band comprised of a vocalist, drummer, guitarist, and bassist.  Tool’s music connects with religious elements of personal transformation, ritual ecstasy, and esotericism while also harboring a critique of authoritarian religious beliefs and institutions. 

A full analysis must wait.  In the meantime, an outline will suffice.  There are at least three main points to discuss: 1) Nietzsche’s critique of Western music and his proposal for a more Dionysian music, 2) the Dionysian religiosity of popular music, and 3) the religious elements present in the lyrical, instrumental, and performative dimensions Tool’s music.   

1. Nietzsche’s critique of Western music can be understood as a critique of logocentrism, according to which music is subordinate to the clear boundaries drawn by rationality and discourse.  This logocentrism is evident in Plato, including his Republic, where the ideal city is described as one in which songs should be arranged in a hierarchy that subordinates their harmony and rhythm to their verbal element, their logos.  This logocentric subordination of rhythm and instrumental harmony also occurs in Christian religious music (e.g., plainchant and liturgical music), where logos is Christ.  In a modern secular context, one can notice this subordination of music to logos in Rousseau’s essay “On the Origin of Languages,” according to which music arises out of imitations of language, not experiences of sound or hearing. 

For Nietzsche, the logocentric domination of music is a life-negating habit that should be overcome by a life-affirming sense of music, a Dionysian music wherein the intense and boundary-dissolving power of rhythm and sound is encountered as a wellspring of creative enchantment.  Moreover, by invoking Dionysus, Nietzsche indicates that this life-affirming music occasions ecstatic states not unlike those experienced by participants in ancient Dionysian rituals.

2. Many forms of twentieth-century music contributed to overcoming logocentrism (e.g., Schoenberg’s atonal pieces, Cage’s aleatory and silent compositions), however the music that has been most Dionysian emerged not in classical or art music but in popular music.  As the pop analysis developed by Deleuze and Guattari suggests, becoming heterogeneous and minoritarian is the only way to effectively escape the master signifiers and major identities that dominate music, and that is precisely what pop music and pop culture accomplish.  Whether rock, country, or hip-hop, popular music spreads through mainstream culture in the horizontal networks of subcultural and countercultural trends, thus engaging while also subverting the standards and authorities that mark the proper boundaries of music as a “fine” or “high” art. 

Lyrics in popular music use local dialects and diverse idioms that transgress proper grammar.  The rhythms and melodies are extremely repetitive, designed not to express a clear development of musical motifs but to provoke uninhibited dancing, community building, sexual activity, and ecstatic states.  The live performances of popular music are very loud, and the behavior of audience members includes acts that are not welcome at a classical music venue (e.g., enthusiastic screaming, singing along with the performers, nudity, and drug use).  In short, the lyrical, instrumental, and performative dimensions of popular music enact Dionysian modes of becoming that escape the logocentrism of Western music.  This is particularly apparent in the music of Tool.

3.  Tool was founded in the 1990s and is still performing and releasing new music.  Tool fits in the genre of rock, but is also closely connected to metal, punk, and progressive genres.  Their lyrics express critiques of religion, as in songs like “Opiate” and “Eulogy,” which satirize religious claims to authority or leadership and the weakness of those who follow that leadership.  Amidst the critique of religion, the lyrics also express commitments to personal transformation and the realization of the divine potential of humanity, specifically using images and symbols from esoteric traditions of hermeticism, alchemy, astrology, and ritual magic.  Some language is more explicitly religious, for instance, singing of embodied existence as a “holy gift” (“Parabola”) in which one can realize one’s “divinity and still be a human” (“Lateralus”). 

The Dionysian character of the lyrics shows up forcefully in the use of profanity in the lyrics, the use of screaming in the vocal melody, and multiple allusions to drug intoxication, disorder, transgressive sexual acts, and death-rebirth experiences.  Furthermore, the lyrics are not the dominant part of the music.  The rhythms and instrumental harmonies of the guitar, bass, and drums are not mixed into the background but are just as prominent as the vocals.  The distorted and electronically altered sounds of the guitar and bass contribute much emotional and chaotic intensity to the music. 

The beats played by the drums frequently make use of polyrhythms, wherein multiple meters occur simultaneously.  Not incidentally, polyrhythms are a defining trait of the ritual music of African diaspora traditions, where the mixture of meters corresponds to the mixture of divinity and humanity that occurs in the spirit possession states that the music occasions.  Tool’s drummer makes conscious use of polyrhythms, and he uses hermetic correspondences to arrange his drum set.  The Dionysian religiosity of Tool’s music is apparent at the live performances, where the stage is often decorated with the psychedelic artworks of the visionary painter, Alex Grey, and audience members encounter drug use, nudity, dancing, moshing, and various boundary-dissolving states of consciousness. 

In short, Tool’s music fulfills Nietzsche’s Dionysian hope and thereby engages in a wildly experiential version of what John Caputo calls “religion without religion,” with lyrics, harmonies, and rhythms enacting a creative dissolution of boundaries while overcoming the life-negating logocentrism and authoritarianism of Western music and religion.

Psychedelic Apocalypticism

Psychedelic drugs play a significant role in many religious traditions, including ancient and indigenous religions as well as new religious movements, such as those of New Age communities and forms of Earth-based spirituality.  Due to some widespread sociopolitical biases that became prominent during the 1960s, psychedelics are understudied in religious studies and other fields of academic research.  Insufficient attention has been given to the impacts of psychedelics on ritual innovation, community building, artistic expression, moral development, and other aspects of religion.  I would like to redress this gap in religious studies research.  To begin, I want to think about the end, elucidating the role of psychedelic drugs in contemporary expressions of apocalypticism.  More than including a marginalized topic into religious studies, my aim is to indicate how psychedelic apocalypticism provides unique resources for generating creative and peaceful responses to apocalyptic events and expectations.  For now, consider the following three sections: 1) a brief description of psychedelics and their religious implications, 2) a categorization of psychedelic apocalypticism in terms of a “counter-apocalypse,” which overcomes the either/or boundaries that typically mark apocalyptic and anti-apocalyptic perspectives, and 3) a consideration of apocalyptic experiences that occur during the altered states of consciousness occasioned by psychedelics. 

1. Psychedelics are a class of psychoactive or “soul-manifesting” (psyche-delic) drugs that can be described as non-specific catalysts, having no specific effects apart from intensifying the contents of the user’s consciousness.  The effects of these drugs are exuberant amplifications of the mindset and the immediate setting in which the drugs are taken.  Although some terms proposed for these controversial drugs connote something pathological (e.g., “psychotomimetic,” psychosis mimicking) or unreal (e.g., “hallucinogenic”), another term is more religious: “entheogen,” which indicates that these substances generate experiences of indwelling divinity (entheos).  “Psychedelic” is the term most commonly used in contemporary research, as indicated by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which is the largest research and educational organization dedicated to studying these drugs. 

Prior to and despite the formation of prejudices against psychedelics, the religious implications of these drugs have been discussed throughout the twentieth century, with numerous artists, scholars, and scientists (including the inventor of LSD, Albert Hofmann) describing their psychedelic experiences in religious terms, often while also articulating critiques of religion.  The religious use of psychedelics grew substantially in the second half of the twentieth century, particularly through the proliferation of New Age communities committed to personal and social transformation, Earth-based spiritualities working to recuperate traditional and indigenous religious practices, and various syncretic religions that encourage ecstatic states of consciousness. 

2. Although psychedelic religiosity is widespread, the illegality of psychedelic drugs makes it difficult to obtain specific information about their direct influence on the apocalypticism of religious movements.  Nonetheless, some basic characteristics of psychedelic apocalypticism can be obtained by focusing on the prominent proponents of psychedelics in recent decades (e.g., Daniel Pinchbeck, Christopher Bache, Ralph Metzner, Erik Davis, etc.).  Of particular significance is the work of Terence Mckenna, who drew on his own psychedelic experiences and on connections between Mayan prophecies and other apocalyptic timelines (including his own, Timewave Zero) to theorize that human history is approaching an endpoint—December 21, 2012, which will result in a global transformation of consciousness, opening up human existence to degrees of complexity and novelty unimaginable within linear time and space. 

Drawing on the typology of apocalypse articulated in Catherine Keller’s constructive theology, I argue that Mckenna’s work is an exemplary expression of a counter-apocalyptic script in psychedelic religiosity.  Seeking compassionate and ecologically sustainable transformation, Mckenna’s counter-apocalypse stands in contrast to the either/or morality that characterizes apocalypse, wherein “our” salvation depends upon the violent destruction of some “others” who exhibit too much sin or too little faith.  It also stands in contrast to the anti-apocalypticism of secularists, for whom a peaceful and just future of civilization depends upon the elimination of apocalypticism and other “superstitions” from society.  Rejecting the secularism of anti-apocalypse, psychedelic counter-apocalypticism participates in religious symbols and practices of hope and vigilance for a novel event to break through the horizons of contemporary civilization, and insofar as those symbols and practices enact a compassionate mutuality and interconnectedness, they overcome the violent either/or morality that typically defines apocalypse.  In short, psychedelic religiosity maintains a religious hope for the transformative arrival of a novel future while also eschewing either/or morality.  This resonates with the apocalyptic tone that Jacques Derrida calls an “apocalypse without apocalypse.”

3. Psychedelic counter-apocalypse does not simply involve beliefs and theories about the end of the world.  It involves the use of psychedelic drugs to occasion apocalyptic experiences here and now, as a way to prepare for the coming apocalyptic event.  With the proper dosage, supportive setting, and open mindset, the psychedelic experience can occasion a personal apocalypse or micro-apocalypse, which is structurally similar to apocalypse on a collective scale.  In other words, psychedelic experience can bring consciousness to a disclosure of its own limit or end, and such a disclosure bears characteristics that are isomorphic to apocalypse, including 1) an experience of annihilation (even one’s own) followed by rebirth, and 2) a revelation of that which is uncanny or wholly other, in excess of one’s horizon of meaning. 

Arguably, encounters with death, the uncanny, and other challenging phenomena that accompany transformative events can be managed more effectively on a collective scale if one practices responding to similar phenomena in personal experiences.  Furthermore, insofar as the catalytic effects of psychedelics include experiences of boundary-dissolution between self and other, psychedelics facilitate an experiential sense of interconnectedness that is not typical of most apocalyptic trends, which involve rigid and exclusionary boundaries.  In short, psychedelics provide experiential tools for facilitating peaceful, just, and loving counter-apocalyptic visions at personal and collective levels. 

Whether the end of history will take place on December 21, 2012 or any determinate date is not the ultimate point of the counter-apocalyptic visions of psychedelic religiosity.  Those visions are part of ongoing practices for transforming oneself and the world, becoming more intense and more complex by continually welcoming into the present the otherness and novelty of the coming unknown.