Confessions of an Ivy League Dropout


Category: Poiesis

Thirteen reasons why listening to live music is better than meditation

“… poets aren’t afraid to exchange visions. And music can blur the boundary between the real and the imaginary. It can get you to an exalted place. That’s what draws me to it.”   Iarla Ó Lionáird

Let me begin with an example.

I am at a performance by the Irish band The Gloaming at a glitzy university arts center, a cello-shaped confection of wood, metal, and glass.  The concert hall is packed, the lights dim, the five musicians seated on stools in a crescent arrangement, two with rather unassuming fiddles, another with an acoustic guitar, another (the vocalist) at some sort of wooden apparatus, and the last behind a grand piano.  My eye is drawn to the two fiddlers, one of them, the bespectacled Martin Hayes, with a high forehead and an impressive shock of curls; the other, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, a relatively young man who gave me the impression of being dressed in a woolen suit.  That is, I know it was a suit, but his “Irishness” lingers in my memory as woolen. I’m pretty sure he was clean-shaven, but memory bequeaths him a beard, too.

I want to make the vocalist, Iarla Ó Lionáird (whose work with Peter Gabriel has brought me much delight), the focus.  I want to force the pianist and the guitarist into the center, too.  Gradually, though, I listen to the two fiddles.  They enter into subtle and surprising conversations with one another, finishing each other’s thoughts, as it were, while the piano and guitar (on the outer ends) punctuate that conversation with rhythmic under-murmurs and unexpected ideas.  At times, Iarla Ó Leonard stands up and sings clear, melancholy gaelic melodies. He visits the music, enters it, takes it into new dimensions, but refrains from placing himself at the lyric center.

The audience is deeply silent.  As I sit and listen, I sense the way these five musicians are in time with one another, how their bodies are more than just performing what they have practiced.  All the practice, far from making them mechanical, seems to have set them free.  It must have taken decades for each musician to train his body to perform this way, growing the necessary neural connections and spontaneous reflexes, but what I sense most is how profoundly they are listening to one another.

This music is a forgetting of person in patternless pattern.  We call this patternless pattern “culture” or “tradition” – we turn the bristling manifold into an abstract shape or discrete object – but its intelligence exceeds our “instrumentalist” preconceptions. Its essence is listening.  As the sound as a whole streams together, perhaps we gain an inkling of David Bohm’s “implicate order,” the way the world is folded in intelligence.

What gives the audience such a deep experience is that the musicians themselves are involved, absorbed, in this stream: no body, no instrument, only attention.  That sounds romantic, but these guys are minimalists who resist the lyric pull.  At times, the two fiddles enter a dialogue so prolonged, articulate, and unexpected, with an occasional grounding note from the guitar, that one is startled into a sense of participatory listening.  At other times, the lead fiddle plunges, for what feels like ten minutes or more, into a wildly intricate and repetitive reel, which grows ever more intense.

On the surface, one may be captivated by how Martin Hayes moves the bow with such nuance and speed without making a mistake.  That minor mystery challenges one to listen more attentively.  Is he making mistakes?  Why repeat the same pattern?  What does this make us feel?  At some point, it becomes crystal clear that the musician isn’t simply repeating the same pattern over an over.  He’s listening with great intensity.  The sound from a micromolecular millisecond earlier is already burned away by the intensity of that listening.

There is no repetition, only attention, cognition, ever more single-pointedly absorbed in timeless heterogeneity.  The musician’s brain is passionately awake and alive to reality (not, in Henri Bergson’s terms, to “the actual” but to “the virtual,” or to what Deleuze – in Difference and Repetition – calls intensivity, “a life,” immanence) with a quality of attention inseparable from the silence in the room.  That primordial silence, that yogic sound of voidness, grows into a shared experience with every mind-body present.  This traditional Irish music group is playing the most contemporary trance music imaginable.  Fifteen hundred years ago, the musicians who first played these reels, in tavern or hall, were also listening to it: that suchness.

This is an aesthetic experience, but it’s clearly not limited to “art.”  It’s a cognitive attunement that works across bodies and brains.  If one wishes to be conservative, one can argue that this an attunement of the brain to its own capacity for intense attention.  From this point of view, the experience of heightened reality has to do with aesthetic energies within the brain, a marvelously orchestrated processing of information that somehow adds up to affective human experience.

Less conservatively, one can argue that this an attunement to an aesthetic quality of non-humanly-circumscribed experience itself.  Put differently, with heightened attention comes a different or more subtle experience of reality. Today, the intellectual scene remains divided on this point. For some, it is only valid to speak of the former: the experience of experience.  For others, it is also valid to speak of the latter: the experience of reality.

At any rate, the state of attention, as an aesthetic experience, appears to be shareable. Art, in the sense of technique and composition, does seem to facilitate this experience of attention.  Indeed, as I have been suggesting the listening, or the attention, is the crux of musical experience, both for the musician and the auditor.  However, what’s aesthetic here is not the art, per se.  Rather, it is an experience of sentient attention which involves many concurrent qualities:

(1) the quieting of mental chatter or of discursive processes

(2) the phenomenological experience of ‘silence’

(3) enhanced sensitivity to sensory experience

(4) neurophenomenological experience of lucid alertness

(5) a reduction of self-referential thinking

(6) a sense of bodily calm and interconnectedness

(7) an increased sense of physical and emotional well-being

(8) a sense of expansive possibility, release from limitation

(9) a relaxation of ontological anxiety into trust

(10) a sense of experiential meaning

(11) a relaxation of the line between matter, energy, and mind

(12) a sense of something active, unconstructed, unfabricated

(13) a sense of active non-personal non-identificatory intelligence

Almost needless to say, these are qualities of meditative experience.  In poetics, this quality is sometimes associated with poiesis, or with an un-weaving faculty of creative semiosis that tends to decodify or dereify rather than reinforce conceptions, bringing us closer to heterogeneous processual experience.  Poiesis, in this sense, stands in contrast to logos; poetry stands in contrast to prose (e.g., the various social and hard sciences).  One might describe poetry as zoo-centric rather than logocentric, in that it unbinds our discursive identifications, our anthropocentric foreclosures, bringing us closer to the threshold of active “nonhuman” life.

Art heightens our experience of the world not by lifting us ‘higher’ or adding a transcendent metaphysical quality but by subtracting the circumference.  The circle or membrane (that maintains our sense of “I”) winks out.


They shut me up in Prose: a brief history of the western mind

How can we begin to approach the aesthetic as a convergence zone (the “fold”) of the concerns of various disciplines, from neurophenomenology to ecophilosophy to literary studies?  This has been my fascination for some time now, but a recent weekend at the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies in Boston made it all the more relevant.  Listening to scholars and scientists across the disciplines struggle to bridge the gap between subjective experience and objective fact, it occurred to me that one of our deepest biases or orthodoxies, at least in the west, is the notion that the mind (which the twenty first century tends to equate with the brain) structure and mediates, if not produces, our experience.  This may seem like quite a credible bias, but it has hidden ethical and experiential effects. Not only does this bias (invisible to us and hard to cognize) seal us off from a sense of porous interconnectedness – the very sort of inter-implication that various art forms, such as poetry, render visible again by undoing the sanitizations of language and image (forms of normative representation, ‘narratives’ of personhood) – but it also seals intelligence and awareness within the cranium.  That is, this rational bias has a purpose: it guarantees us that we are not contemporaneous and consubstantial with an unlimited (limitlessly heterogeneous) field of intelligence.  Can any question matter more than the question of why we remain prone not to question (sometimes for our whole lives) a limited experience?

Literary scholars such as Nancy Yousef and Tilottama Rajan speak, cogently, of the rise in the long eighteenth century (the Enlightenment) of epistemic sanitizations that in fact operate as intersubjective limits.  A new wave of interest in Spinoza since the 1990s, in tandem with the shift from the “linguistic turn” to the “affective turn” (and to the rise of “new materialism(s),” has signalled an intense questioning of our various ‘centrisms’ (anthro-euro-logo). Perhaps we are sick of epistemic violence, of ‘power’. We do, after all, live in a moment when for the first time in the history of our species we have come face to face with the fact that our belief in the “I” or the self-interested rational center is not only ecocidal but suicidal: it’s a severe addiction so sick that, unless we change it, we cannot survive it. Still, it remains very difficult even to think about an intelligence without an “I.”

Since the seventeenth century, Spinoza (who studied Descartes only to propose an alternative philosophy of mind) has presented a serious challenge to this dominant epistemology.  For Spinoza, the mind and body (as presently constituted) limit our experience of the infinite qualities of substance.  (It remains unclear to me how, for Spinoza, we came to be so constituted).  To understand that better, I look to William Blake, who very likely felt Spinoza’s influence.

For Blake, we become bound in self-interested rationality in each moment out of a fear of existence.  Hence, “infinity” is a mere step away and not at the end of a long process.  Every moment opens out of “time” into what Blake calls “eternity,” which is not an absolute or a totality but, quite the contrary, the flux of the nonrepresentational.  In Blake’s mythopoiesis, the giant four-fold primordial human, Albion, is a dynamic composition of Urthona (imagination), Luvah (emotion), Urizen (reason), and Tharmas (sensation).  These concentric spheres all transect an egg-like structure (the “mundane egg” that prefigures the cranium?) composed of Adam (linked to imagination) and Satan (linked to reason).  Trouble arises when Urizen “falls” from eternity.  That is, for Blake, the true “fall” is not the fall of “impure” bodily desires out of innocence and heaven, but the fall of reason, which cannot see its own condition.  It believes that it exists in a heaven of pure laws and codes, which the fallible flesh is incapable of obeying.  In fact, that heaven is hell, and Urizen a self-tormented inflictor of torment. One of the key motifs in Blake and Dickinson is precisely that bliss or paradise is not lost.  It is an ever-present cognitive potential, the most simple form of centerless or non-instrumental attention.  Only, the cold rigid center of reason casts bliss out.


As Roderick Tweedy writes in his fascinating book, The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor, and the Myth of Creation:

“The history of this is written in Paradise Lost,” observed Blake, “& the Governor or Reason is call’d Messiah” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 5).  It was the genius of Blake to counter this interpretation and to expose that in fact precisely the opposite took place: that it was reason that was cast out of eternity (the right hemisphere reality), and that Reason… emerged to present itself as the true “Creator” of linear time, the only “God” of the human brain.  Blake radically reinterprets Paradise Lost as an externalized account of the historical and psychological struggle between the rationalistic and the emotional, the bodily and imaginative, for control of the human body. According to this reading, Milton’s text shows the expulsion of supposedly “demonic” and irrational, intuitive bodily energies from a controlling and ordered heaven.  But, Blake observes, this is history merely being written by the victor.  The “Devil’s account” is that it was Reason which fell from a previously existing imaginative consciousness of reality, and in seizing control of the human psyche the “Reasoning Power” both “usurps” its place and also eclipses this anterior state of being and perception, which it then suppresses into “subconscious” or bodily life.  (43-4)

For Spinoza, as for Blake, good and evil do not pertain.  For Blake there is only “truth” and “error” – though error (gross cognition) is a tendency toward reification and preconception that we must continually thrown off, even as truth (subtle cognition, nonconceptual attention) is eternal, or primordially unobscured.  For Spinoza, there is no good or bad only more and less adequate ideas of infinite substance.  Ethics (“virtue,” “joy”) is none other than an increasing capacity to be affected by an increasing number of bodies (‘body’ not as object but as microporous process-relation).

In brief, to this counter-cultural mode (which Gilles Deleuze called counter-philosophy, and Cornel West has called counter-epistemology, and which I like to call counter-cognition) aesthesis is delimited only by a mind-body that exists in the “sorrow” of limited identity.  (Blake, in his characteristically acidic style, called this epistemic sanitization “Satan” or “hell”).

A process-relational rather than correlationist or image-oriented approach to reality presses us toward poiesis, an experience of what Kant called “purposiveness-without-purpose,” or of an intelligence or creativity without qualifications.  The fashionable term “vitality” (“vitalist materialism”) still seems to cleave to the tacit bias that proscribes intelligence.  Our deepest bias is that intelligence or awareness must be a product of the human brain.  Intelligence cannot infuse the universe.  We’re in trouble if it does.  Our acts of violence against ‘domesticated’ animals (cows, chickens, pigs) and against ‘wild’ or ‘undomesticated’ sentiences would seem even more shocking than they already do.  What if, in our every thought an action, we are not in relation to a mindless and meaningless universe, but in relation to an intelligence – one that is ours yet one we cannot own?  Perhaps it is not a comfortable thought, but perhaps it is also a basis for optimism about an ethical potential founded not on dogmatic codes but on a profound sense of relationship to intelligence.  What if we can discover our ethical potential in the unbinding of concepts and codes that foreclose experience?  What if we can experience this active intelligence in the micromolecular aural experience of immanence?

Isn’t that just why we shifted, two to six thousand years ago, from an animistic-pantheistic indigenous world-view to a more or less anthropocentric, logocentric world view?  A pantheist world-view makes violence toward the interconnectedness of nature and of non-citizens (all-our-relations) problematic.  It makes power and property look insane.  Both Blake and Dickinson famously speculated that either he/she was insane or the majority of people were:

Much Madness is divinest Sense-
To a discerning Eye-
Much Sense – the starkest Madness-
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail-
Assent- and you are sane-
Demur- you’re straightway dangerous-
And handled with a Chain-

What Dickinson makes clear here is that “divinest Sense,” or sensitive attention that registers not just vital process-relations but immanent intelligence, is labeled “mad” by the world.  Ironically, such an awareness of unqualified intelligence might be understood as religious experience without dogma (in that sense, a kind of scientific attention, a clear observation without bias).  For Blake, real art and real religious experience are dismissed as mad precisely because they challenged our deep-seated bias against an intelligent universe, a bias that is, in its deepest sense, a ban or curb on our own experience of embodied awareness, a psychological defense.  Normative aesthetics (what Blake calls “bad art” and “bad science”) protects this normative (and, rightly understood, insane and violent) epistemology:

To cast aside from Poetry, all that is not Inspiration

That it no longer shall dare to mock with aspersions of Madness

Cast on the Inspired, by the tame high finisher of paltry Blots,

Indefinite, or paltry Rhymes; or paltry Harmonies.

Who creeps into State Government like a caterpillar to destroy

To cast off the idiot Questioner who is always questioning,

But never capable of answering…

Who publishes doubt & calls it knowledge; whose Science is Despair…

…he talks of Benevolence & Virtue

And those who act with Benevolence & Virtue, they murder time on time…

Who pretend to Poetry that they may destroy Imagination…”

Blake, Milton, Plate 41, 7-23

Dickinson’s “discerning eye” is, for Blake, the mind that looks through not with the eye: mindful attention without discursive constructions.  This sort of poetic attention does not draw any limit on what it sees.  It operates without the bias against the nonhuman, nonlocal, unbounded, non-appropriable nature of intelligence.  It is without the bindings that limit our compassion.

Again, though, our deepest bias tells us that no such intelligence exists.  We dismiss it as beyond our experience or as superstitious – and of course, ironically, it is beyond our experience because that’s what biases do: foreclose experience. Part of the reason self-interested thought rejects this “mad” perception is that compassion is a ‘threat’ to self-interest, or to psychological security in limited identifications.   “Much Sense” (rational normative common sense) really is, for these poets, “the starkest Madness” because, as Blake suggests, it leaves us in a condition of “indefiniteness” or “doubt” – a state of alienated identity that perceives the universe as meaningless and cold.

The madness of normative sense, however, is very vigilant about the aesthetic or “divine” sense that might undo its totalitarian regime.  Keenly aware that our bodies are institutionally cauterized, our radical poets have promoted the quiet liberation of the senses, at their own risk.  To challenge orthodoxy is to incur retribution, even if later one will be canonized (as Hazlitt noted about Keats). Keats, like Blake and Dickinson, travelled that road where the aesthetic leads to death, or to the cessation of “gross cognition” (to borrow from Indo-Tibetan philosophy). But doing so led him to an early grave.

From this point of view, aesthetic phenomenologists like Blake and Dickinson have to be very careful in society.  Blake himself not only underwent a harrowing sedition trial, but suffered the agony of having his art dismissed (in the rare instances when he put up public exhibitions) as insane by the establishment.  Dickinson, likewise, avoided publishing, and kept to her flowers (and anonymous sexual relations). What Dickinson tells us about the dangers of demurring was not a joke in her day, and is not a joke in ours:

‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail-
Assent- and you are sane-
Demur- you’re straightway dangerous-
And handled with a Chain-

Ironically, we tend to read Blake and Dickinson as lyric poets, precisely to categorize their poetry, isolate them in an area of semi-ecstatic solitude as makers of deeply interior ‘songs of themselves’. Yet in so many ways they speak, as Deleuze does, of “extra-being” – that is, not of the subject but of the pre-personal (literally in the sense of prior to persons).  They bring into sharp relief art’s potential to liberate our attention from forms of sanitized preconception (the narrative of the person). What these poets hold out for us is the possibility of a poetic rather than prosaic (an open rather than closed, right-brained rather than left-brained) attention.  They show us that one of the reasons we “publish doubt” and hope to find a mechanistic and materialist explanation for intelligence is that we require, for our psychological protection, an experiential limit to our own minds.  Fortunately for us, both these poets are ultimately counter-epistemological humorists.  They have no reason for despair.  They teach us to laugh:

They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me “still”   –
Still! Could themself have peeped –
And seen my Brain – go round –
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason – in the Pound –
Himself has but to will
And easy as a Star
Look down opon Captivity –
And laugh – No more have I –