One of these days, perhaps, there will come a writer of opinions less humdrum than those of Dr. (Alfred Russel) Wallace, and less in awe of the learned and oﬃcial world . . . who will argue, like a new Bernard Mandeville, that man is but a degenerate monkey, with a paranoic talent for self-satisfaction, no matter what scrapes he may get himself into, calling them ‘civilization,’ and who, in place of the unerring instincts of other races, has an unhappy faculty for occupying himself with words and abstractions, and for going wrong in a hundred ways before he is driven, willy-nilly, into the right one. (CN 3: 17–18, 1901).
“Music is Rhythm, Rhythm is Life.” This maxim, uttered by former Motown drummer Bill “Sticks” Nicks to my class and me a few years back, opens a portal to what being human involves. Most accounts of what it means to be human make cognitive capacities, language and reflective thinking, the be-all and end-all of human distinction. But think about it: how many animals do you know who beat rhythm for aesthetic enjoyment and social communion?
In this essay I reflect upon moments from musical experiences, primarily from blues music, to illustrate the place of the spontaneous gesture and ensemble improvisation in interaction, in and out of the music.
Keywords: Musical experiences; gesture; improvisation
In dreams we feel like fish in water. Occasionally we surface from a dream and skim an eye over the world on shore, but we again descend with yearning haste, for it is only in the depths that we feel good. During these brief sorties we notice on dry land a strange creature, more sluggish than ourselves, accustomed to breathing in a manner different from our own, and glued to the land with all its weight, deprived of the passion we inhabit like our own bodies. For here below, passion and the body are indistinguishable, they are one and the same thing. That creature out there, that too is us, but a million years from now, and between it and us, aside from the years, lies a terrible calamity that has befallen it, because that creature out there has separated the body from passion
… (Milorad Pavic, Dictionary of the Khazars)
Drawing from Peircean semiotics, from the Greek conception of phronesis, and from considerations of bodily awareness as a basis of reasonableness, I attempt to show how the living gesture touches our deepest signifying nature, the self, and public life. Gestural bodily awareness, more than knowledge, connects us with the very conditions out of which the human body evolved into its present condition and remains a vital resource in the face of a devitalizing, rationalistic consumption culture. It may be precisely these deep-rooted abilities for what I term “self-originated experience” that can ultimately offset automatism.
Much has been written about the various strategies that marketers use to target variously situated consumers in contemporary society. The more sophisticated of these strategies rest upon the notion that each consumer, as a self, represents a site of contestation over the very definition of his/her selfhood. Whereas the marketers’ objective is to create selling messages designed to colonize each and every self in accordance with the desires of their corporate clients, such messages may be at odds with the development of a healthy, uncorporatized self.
Marketers use widely varied demographic and psychographic (lifestyle) techniques to group consumers into narrowly defined and purportedly unique market segments. Celebrants of advertising and consumer culture tend to argue that the sphere of consumption offers consumers untold liberating possibilities for constructing identities and projecting unique, highly personalized images of self (Firat & Venkatesh, 1995). We contend that all of these purportedly unique constructions of selfhood are nothing more than permutations of what we call the consumer-incorporated self, a self compromised by marketing ideology and brand affiliations in which consumption practices displace self-autonomy.
Unsurprisingly, the myriad strategies that marketers have developed for reaching different consumers typically derive from the predominant model of the self found in college-level textbooks on marketing management. Across the pages of these touchstones of marketing wisdom unfolds the template for the consumer-incorporated self, an idealized model of self that renders the consumer in largely behaviorist and cognitivist terms, subject to manipulation. Sprinkling marketing theory with influences culled from motivational psychology and neoclassical economics, this dehumanizing notion of self reduces the consumer to a combination of rational calculator and passive recipient of marketer manipulation.
The conceit that either mind is reducible to matter or that mind is utterly ethereal is rooted in a mind-versus-matter dichotomy that can be characterized as the modern error, a fatally flawed fallacy rooted in the philosophy and culture of nominalism. A Peircean semiotic outlook, applied to an understanding of social life, provides a new and full-bodied understanding of semiosis as the bridge between mind and matter, and human biology and culture. I begin by first delineating the false divide and showing Charles Sanders Peirce’s alternative to it, then explore the implications of a semiotic approach to mind as transaction, then consider the self-transcending nature of the human body-mind. Finally I outline my ecological, biosemiotic account of mind, which reveals that, indeed, mind matters, and in ways that unexpectedly resemble the forms of animism that characterized the hunting-gathering foragers through whom we anatomically modern humans emerged.
Charles Peirce claimed that logically “every true universal, every continuum, is a living and conscious being.” Such a claim is precisely what hunter-gatherers believe: a world-view depicted as animism. Suppose animism represents a sophisticated world-view, ineradicably embodied in our physical bodies, and that Peirce’s philosophy points toward a new kind of civilization, inclusive of what I term animate mind. We are wired to marvel in nature, and this reverencing attunement does not require a concept of God. Marveling in nature proves to be not only a motive source of human evolution, but key to continued development.
“Our intelligence cannot wall itself up alive, like a pupa in its chrysalis. It must at any cost keep on speaking terms with the universe that engendered it.”
Modern sci/tech has achieved precision, but the cost has tended to be the cutting away as unreal the body of the fountain of life, not only the outer biosphere of animate earth, but also the wild self, our biosemiotic essence, our capacities for empathic sensing, for poetic imagination, for full passionate awareness. Is it possible to keep the baby but change the bathwater, not throw them both out? The baby is our hunter-gatherer neotenous body-mind, the bathwater is the self-enclosures of consciousness that began with civilizational consciousness, that narrowed in the Judeo-Greco-Christian-Islamic bottleneck, and that strangulated in the modern mythic machine view of a tick-tock universe associated with science and technology. Why should we remain locked in this mental matrix, when reality is so much more?