Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Frayed Anthems: When Creativity Scandalized America

April 2 of last year was a dark day for The Star-Spangled Banner. That week the internet buzzed with so many outraged voices that you’d almost think the flag was burned. But the only thing that was burned was The Fray’s sloppy rendition of the American national anthem into the ears of thousands of listeners in New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome just before last year’s NCAA National Championship.

Aside from what seemed like a breakdown of communication between the two guitar players involving the (unconventional and extremely dissonant) voicing of a IV chord, The Fray’s take on the anthem is actually not too bad as far as being musically interesting goes. But it brought out the ugly in the clamor of voices online. Several reporters included this version in the ranks of the worst renditions of the national anthem ever. One colorfully described it as “a version that made you want to curl up in the corner and drunk text an ex.” In the words of another reporter, “The Denver rock band tried to rework the 198-year-old song into a modern hipster version and failed in every respect.”

Ouch. The next day, the embarrassed guitarist Joe King tweeted an apology to fans of The Fray: “My fingers froze last night. If anyone wants to join me I'll be at the loser bar tonight." So why is everyone so up in arms about one strangely placed accidental? It seems that somehow The Fray hit a nerve and messed with something that was off-limits. What’s the big deal? It’s just a song…right?

Maybe it’s just that their performance followed the reverent and proud presentation of the flag by the US Marine Corps, and the tone was all wrong. I guess the anthem is supposed to be about national pride, not about cool music. But it’s more than that too. It just didn’t sound like the national anthem: “If you weren’t listening to the lyrics,” one reporter complains, “you'd have never known the band was singing our national anthem." I find this criticism is surprisingly insightful. It seems to me that The Fray’s failure was not musical as much as it was a more fundamental failure to recognize what “The Star-Spangled Banner” is. To try to push the envelope musically and try new things on a song with so much symbolic significance might spring from fuzziness about what roles music plays in public generally.

If all musical performance is performed for its artistic value, then maybe The Fray got it right (though I’m not sure I can get over the ugliness of that strange accidental Joe King added every time the IV chord came around). Try new and interesting things, even if they’re dissonant and strange. Break conventions (even if it’s not on purpose)! Unexpected chords are okay; it’s just part of the creative process. Musical performance is about the artistic expression of the performer or the value of the music itself as an art “object.”

But clearly, art is not what people think music is really for all the time.

A national anthem isn’t just a song; it’s the sound and a story of identity. When you play with that, you mess with something about who and what people think they are, not just with a song they like. It seems to me that this kind of “low art” (and I want to use this term carefully) music is one of the access points that helps us understand how communities work in our culture. Not all music is meant to be a groundbreaking artistic innovation. “Low art” music can tap into something deep about the way we think about ourselves and about the communities we participate in. Both the music itself and the lyrics contribute to our personal sense of identity and a shared identity of our community (or communities). Somehow singing the national anthem or a hymn or a choral piece together with others uniquely allows us to enter a world where people can share in a sense of identity by coming into contact with what you might call a mythology that defines something about that community.

The father of sociology Émile Durkheim, describes mythologies as deeply connected to the life of a community, a series of stories that reflect its sense of identity (Pragmatism and Sociology, 87). These stories might be either historical or fictional, but the important thing is that they express what it means to be a part of the community. So the term mythology is relevant to our communities (and not just religious ones) today; communities of all kinds have origin stories of how they came to be and why they continue to exist. And sometimes communities are formed through individuals finding others with similar kinds of life stories and struggles, preferences and tastes, crystallizing into a coherent mythological identity.

So maybe The Fray stumbled over something mythological, a song central to American national identity, and mistook it for an opportunity for musical creativity.

After the April 2 performance, the Fray’s other guitarist Dave Welsh, reflecting on the NCAA National Championship’s musical mishap, tweeted, “Upon thinking about it, doing the National Anthem is a bit like choosing between Jif and Skippy. You just can't please everyone. -dw." Speaking practically, he’s right. But in this case, maybe it’s not a matter of appeasing aesthetic expectations; maybe it’s a matter of acknowledging the solidarity in song between people who share a common identity.

Matthew E. Johnson is currently a junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, serving as the research assistant for the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Spiritual Mistake of Star Wars and the Political Failure of Modern Culture

Episode 1 of Ground Motive's Popular Mythology Series.

Stories--including popular myths, movies, and fiction--have a surprisingly powerful impact on how we shape and understand our lives. In light of this, Ground Motive is launching a new series of blog posts called "Popular Mythology: What the Stories We Tell Say about Who We Are." These posts will air over the course of the summer amid our usual posts. Our first post in the series, by ICS Junior Member PhD candidate Joseph Kirby, addresses moral questions raised in one of the more enduring stories to have come out in the last 35 years: George Lucas' Star Wars.

by Joseph Kirby

With the evil Emperor defeated, Darth Vader redeemed, the virtuous Republic apparently on the road to restoration, it appears that the conclusion of Return of the Jedi represents a great triumph. Understanding why this supposed “success” is actually a failure will help shed light on the deep spiritual and political mistake at the root of modern Western culture.

Let us recall the pivotal encounter. Luke, empowered by rage, has just defeated his father Darth Vader. However, when the Emperor slides over to invite him to join the Dark-Side, Luke regains his senses, throws away his Light-Saber, and firmly proclaims that he will never turn. The Emperor, enraged, starts shooting Luke with purple electricity. Writhing in pain, Luke reaches out to Vader: “Father, please, help me.” Vader looks at Luke, then at the Emperor, then at Luke again. Finally, moved by his son’s torment, he picks up the Emperor and tosses him down a shaft into the heart of the Death Star. The Emperor disappears in a cloud of blue light.

The very logic of the Star Wars universe condemns this ending. Vader and Luke have only managed to “defeat” the Emperor by giving in to their passions, Luke to pain and Vader to anger and love. But defeating the incarnation of passion through passion solves nothing. Luke and Vader simply become new Lords of the Sith, with the only difference between this result and Vader’s invitation at the end of the previous movie – “Join me and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son” – being that Luke has become master and Vader remains apprentice. Politically the lesson is even more egregious: compassion at the sight of the suffering of others should be transformed into hatred of those who inflict suffering, who should be killed. This is the error that continues to wreak so much havoc in our culture: the idea that there is some single ultimate source of evil that can be isolated and destroyed once and for all. We see the same mistake in The Wizard of Oz: once the Wicked Witch is killed, her minions suddenly start smiling, as though the only thing making them cruel was fear of some external power, as though once this external power was removed everyone would immediately revert back to the simple kind hearted beings they really are inside.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

How to Be Boring: Faking Philosophy

When I tell someone I meet for the first time that I’m studying philosophy I usually get one of three responses. In some (rare) cases, they will light up and want to talk philosophy or bounce ideas off of me. More often, I will get a polite nod and some follow up questions. But surprisingly often, I get responses like “Wow. I would never want to do that!” or just blank stares that say more poignantly than words ever could, “What’s wrong with you?”

What’s strange to me about this is that everyone does philosophy, whether they decide to call it by that name or not. Every day, people think a lot about what it means to be who they are, what is the best way to deal with others, and what kinds of things are important to know about. These are exactly some of the big questions that philosophy attempts to tackle. But maybe even more importantly, every generation and every community carries a wealth of unquestioned assumptions about the world that fund our motivations and behavior in ways we are often unaware of. Philosophy allows us to take a step back and evaluate these assumptions and values we find in our cultural inheritance. So whether you are thinking about what’s important in life or coasting on the intellectual momentum of your culture, you’re doing philosophy.

So if everyone’s doing it, why the stigma against philosophers?

Some might say that philosophy is boring and too hard to read. Or maybe philosophy is just a bunch of people throwing terms that have nothing to do with real life back and forth at each other. Unfortunately, sometimes these come close to the truth.

I think at the core of the problem is that philosophers are sometimes just not very good communicators.

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in academic conversation and forget that the words mean nothing to someone outside of that world. But on the other hand, I wonder how far philosophy would be able to get if it constantly had to stop and translate into everyday non-philosophical terms. Sometimes terms can serve as shortcuts that allow us to talk about several complex systems all at once. But the problem comes when we use these “shortcuts” as the only supposedly untranslatable way of talking about things.

For example, Martin Heidegger creates a whole vocabulary of terms that he puts to use in his excavation of what it means to be human in a fundamental way. No other set of terms is sufficient for the task he wants to accomplish simply because it has never been done before. While Heidegger’s project is admirable and incredibly important for the forward movement of philosophy, I can’t help but wonder how necessary all the jargon is.

I find that in my own philosophical studies, I can throw around big words all day, but until I actually understand what I’m talking about and what’s at stake, I can’t explain it without propping up my explanation with philosophical shortcut terms. But once I get to the point where I really understand an idea, it’s much easier to explain it in a way that’s tailored to the listener because I can approach it with greater creativity.

It’s a little like learning to drive. I can take a class and learn what a turn signal is for and how to use the pedals, but until I get behind the wheel, I don’t really know what driving is like. Once you get real experience on the road, you can describe what it’s like to drive in creative ways because you really understand the experience. But you can’t really teach someone to drive unless you’ve driven yourself; the best you can do is throw around second-hand things you know and terms like “u-turn” and “peel out.” It’s the same in philosophy. You can string together philosophical terms and throw around jargon, but that doesn’t mean that you understand the ideas they are meant to communicate. On the other hand, you can make a u-turn without knowing the word for it, and maybe you can think about Heidegger’s ideas without knowing what Dasein is.

It’s no wonder that philosophy sounds boring to most people. All the philosophy a lot of people hear is a muddle of big words and a throwaway quote from Nietzsche rudely taken out of context: “God is dead.”

So maybe it is the task of the philosophers to take academia into real life, translating philosophy into something understandable and interesting, without compromising its integrity. This task requires an enormous amount of work and creativity on the part of academic philosophy; for translation to be possible, academics can’t hide behind shortcut terms nor can they just create new vocabularies.

It is a great tragedy when philosophy falls by the wayside because it’s too boring, and if our ideas are untranslatable and incoherent, it might just be our fault. We cannot let too much jargon drain the vitality from our philosophy.

*   *   *

How translatable are philosophical ideas really? To what extent can we talk about Heidegger (for example) in plain English without having to use his terms? Are there nuances that are untranslatable or ideas that break down when we apply different terms to them? Does philosophy benefit from this type of creativity, or is translation a burden that constricts its movement?

Matthew E. Johnson is currently a junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, serving as the research assistant for the CPRSE.

(Image 1 by Duncan Green via http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/; image 2 public domain via http://rlbert00.hubpages.com/hub/Towns-with-Humorous-Names-4)

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Ethics and the Theory of Everything

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"From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present, and with each crime and every kindness, we birth our future."
    - Somni 451 in Cloud Atlas (2012 film).

July of 2012 saw one of the most publicized breakthroughs in particle physics since the splitting of the atom. This was likely because the name “the God particle” was attributed to the newly discovered Higgs boson, causing a stir among the religiously and scientifically minded alike. The name stuck because of the way this particle “goes out and touches every other particle and gives them their property, which is their mass” (see http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2013/03/14/f-god-particle-higgs-boson-why-matters.html). The Higgs boson was theorized 49 years ago by physicist Peter Higgs, who proposed the necessity of this particle to the functioning of a complete Standard Model in modern physics (Cho 2012, 1524). In the wake of this groundbreaking discovery, the data is still being interpreted, but it looks like the Peter Higgs was right.

In order for the Standard Model to move towards the elusive “theory of everything,” it has to take four fundamental forces into account for objects on length scales of both nanometers and light years: electromagnetic force, weak force, strong force, and gravity. Up until this point, all but gravity were well accounted for in the Standard Model (Cho 2012, 1524). But because of this hole in the model (and other difficulties), quantum mechanics explains the behavior of subatomic particles but is incompatible with the theory of general relativity, which accounts for gravity’s effect on larger bodies (Laughlin and Pines 1999, 28). Now physicists perhaps can begin talk about gravity on the level of subatomic particles in a way that was only guesswork prior to this discovery.

Though most physicists hold to the pursuit of a “theory of everything” with a grain of salt, not assuming that it will be available in the near future (if it is even a possibility), the goal of modern science nevertheless is to move toward increasingly accurate mathematical depictions of the universe, and in the words of Stephen Hawking, “Ultimately, we would hope to find a complete, consistent, unified theory that would include all these partial theories as approximations and that did not need to be adjusted to fit the facts by picking the values of arbitrary numbers in the theory,” which would lead to the possibility of “a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence” (Hawking 2005, 117-118).

Echoing this sentiment, particle physics continues to reverse engineer the universe, traveling further back in time and deeper into the microstructures of the universe. With each new discovery, we come closer to understanding the most fundamental pieces that make up the fabric of the universe and closer to the moment of its birth. Discoveries such as the Higgs boson most recently and the discovery of quark-gluon plasma, which is supposed to have existed 10 microseconds after the Big Bang (see CERN’s February 2000 press release: http://press.web.cern.ch/press-releases/2000/02/new-state-matter-created-cern) bring us closer to feeling as though the universe is laid bare before our eyes.

Hannah Arendt has this idea that the science of our time is primarily concerned with processes, with how things came to be as they are rather than what is out there. “This shift in emphasis is almost a matter of course,” Arendt goes on to explain, “if one assumes that man can know only what he has made himself, insofar as this assumption in turn implies that I ‘know’ a thing whenever I understand how it has come into being” (Between Past and Future, 57). So for Arendt, our science is only valid if it can be reproduced in an experiment; this means that we can only speculate about the true nature of the universe until we hold in our hands the power to create it.

What we need to remember, Arendt says, that when we act, when we start processes, scientific or otherwise, and we can never predict the outcomes (Between Past and Future, 85); as much as we think we know about how things unfold, we can never really know what they will become when all the creases flatten out.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Hannah Arendt grapples with the fact that something so unthinkable as the Holocaust or Hiroshima actually happened. Arendt says that we have this ability act in a way that starts new things that have never been seen before, terrible and horrific, but maybe beautiful things too. Something as unprecedented as the Holocaust or splitting the atom could never have been prepared for before they happened. Only in hindsight do we see how they emerged.

For Arendt, our present moment is not contained within our past, and our future is not the simple continuation of a cause and effect trajectory. We have the ability to act in new ways that are not dictated by the past or by the future, creating a world that could not have existed without our interference (The Human Condition, 231). This means we also have an enormous responsibility to contribute to the birthing of our shared future. The moment we give up the unprecedented uniqueness of our historical situation is the moment we give up our sense of responsibility to our world and, as Arendt cautions, allow for the possibility of the unthinkable.

I want to be clear, though; modern physics is clearly not incompatible with ethical responsibility. The search for a unified theory of everything is not typically used as a static claim about the nature of the universe and the predetermined nature of the future. The field of modern physics changes at breakneck speed, moving toward better and better ways of describing the behavior of what exists, but despite our most elegant equations and sharpest observations, the universe shatters our confidence that we might have the future figured out. Last year’s discovery of the Higgs boson leaves us marveling at the complexity of the universe, and as comprehensive and substantiated our mathematical models of the universe might be, they do not answer all our questions.

So in all our speculation and calculation about the nature of the universe, our ethical responsibility means that we cannot lose sight of the reality that we are all active participants involved in building our shared future.

Now how do we begin?

Matthew E.  Johnson is currently a junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, serving as the research assistant for the CPRSE.

(Image via http://education.theage.com.au/cmspage.php?intid=135&intversion=391. A visual depiction of a particle collision.)