Written by Aaron Barlow
Saturday, 19 January 2008
A Review of The Grateful Dead and Philosophy: Getting High Minded
About Love and Haight, edited by Steven Gimbel (Chicago: Open Court, 2007).
Appropriately enough, I learned about The Grateful Dead and
Philosophy: Getting High Minded About Love and Haight not through any
academic conference or high-minded scholarly journal but through
Daily Kos, the premier liberal group blog... a place of popular
discourse well beyond the academy. Editor Steven Gimbel, aside from
being a Philosophy professor at Gettysburg College, is a dedicated
Kossack. Following the philosophical lead of The Grateful Dead, he
wants to move his work beyond library walls and book covers, just as
the Dead did, opening their work, providing accessibility beyond
concert halls and album jackets.
Part of a series called "Popular Culture and Philosophy" that covers
everything from Seinfeld to Star Wars, this volume contains 19 essays
by a motley group of academics who seem prouder of their histories as
Deadheads than of their academic credentials, impressive though the
latter are. All of them are trying the tricky task of writing
inclusively on an academic topic for, yes, even though this volume is
tied to the Dead, the discussions on philosophy are serious, not
ironic or simplistic. As Gimbel writes:
When you put the words "philosophy" and "Grateful Dead" in the same
sentence, you run the risk of invoking precisely that sort of
imagevapid, silly statements that collapse into the triviality of
something you'd find in a fortune cooking when you take the time to
think about it with a sober mind. (xvii)
But trivial this book is not. As Gimbel goes on to say, some of those
Deadheads who argued all topics into the wee hours while listening to
traded tapes of Dead shows went on to study philosophy seriously.
This volume is the result.
The first essay, "Keep Your Day Job? Tie Dyes, Veggie Burritos, and
Adam Smith in the Parking Lot" by Gimbel and Brendan Cushing-Daniels,
explores the brisk marketplace that surrounded just about every Dead
show, even as early as the mid-1970s. What statement about capitalism
was made? About the larger corporate culture? As background, they write:
Capitalism began as a far out left-wing notion, as an economics of
liberation. In European societies which were agriculture-based with
long-standing monarchies, where the property was owned and controlled
by a few nobles, but worked by serfs and generation after generation
there was not even the possibility of economic, social, or political
mobility, the idea that just anyone could make money, and lots of it,
was quite radical. (4)
One of the greatest contributions a scholar can make is to provide
context for the events of our worldand everything does reflect the
past and the broader world, whether those involved know it or not.
Someone selling a home-made tie-tied tee-shirt may have thought they
were simply trying to pick up a couple of extra bucks to put some
food in the stomach and provide a ticket for the next show. But they
were involved in a much larger continuumwe all are.
One of the most unfortunate aspects of the ivory tower is that it
concentrates knowledge that should be available to all of us. But
there are cracks in the walls, letting some actually useful knowledge
escape into the broader public discourse. Socrates may have said that
the unexamined life is not worth living, but he might have wanted to
add that the examination means nothing without context. And it is
books like this one that attempt to provide that for all of us, not
simply for fellow academics.
In "Buddhism Through the Eyes of the Dead," Paul Gass writes:
We cling to a sense of self-identity and believe there is a permanent
self or soul that persists not only through this life but through our
many reincarnations. But, ultimately, there is nothing there to cling
to, and this becomes the root of our suffering. We detect this
disjointedness between perception and reality and feel an uneasiness
because things are misaligned. (130)
This is no problem just for philosophers, but for all of us, and its
implications temper our personal belief systems, whatever they may
be. That The Grateful Dead can be used to crystallize discussion
should not be surprising: A band with such a wide range of music and
that cared enough about its lyrics to the extent of having
songwriters as, essentially, part of the bandand sustain success
over decadescould be expected to do no less. Without some sort of
real groundingand not just in the notesThe Grateful Dead would be
as forgotten as The 1910 Fruitgum Company.
But the Dead are not forgotten, remaining with us through the music,
yes, but also through memories of the experience of listeninglive,
and through cassette tapes that often surpassed the band's recorded
albums in quality.
There's something else that makes The Grateful Dead last where The
1910 Fruitgum Company does not: Judgment of quality. This is a
complicated topic for philosophers, as Mary MacLeod shows in "You
Don't Need Space," but significant to the rest of us, too, whether we
want it to be or not:
Unless you're a music critic or an art critic, aesthetic judgments
may not matter much to you, but moral judgments do, so before you
relegate Realism to the trash, you may want to consider recycling.
With music, Subjectivism doesn't leave much of a bad taste in your
mouth, but with ethics, it does. We don't think that action choices
are simply a matter of personal preference. Rather, we think moral
errors are possible. There may be no errors in musical taste, but we
think people can be wrong in their judgments about the moral status
of actionswhich kinds are morally right and which kinds wrong. (196-197)
The point is that there is no way of leaving things 'as a matter of
taste' without making implied statements about ethical issues, too.
Even if you posit a dividing line, you are stuck with defending both
the existence of the line and its particular placement.
The book ends, appropriately, with an essay entitled "Death Don't
Have No Mercy: On the Metaphysics of Loss and Why We Should Be
Grateful for Death" by Ian Duckles and Eric M. Rubenstein. It ends with this:
Though it may be mere coincidence, we can nevertheless see an
important respect in which the name "Grateful Dead" makes sense. If
we weren't mortal, if we didn't someday die, we wouldn't have the
freedom and control over our lives and our values that an authentic
confrontation with death provides. Thus, we should be grateful for
death, or, at the very least, grateful for our mortality. Without it,
we wouldn't be what we are, and we wouldn't be capable of doing the
things we can. (238)
There are lessons from any cultural phenomenon as powerful and
long-lasting as The Grateful Dead. There certainly are. All it needs
is the looking to find them. The value of this book is that it opens
the exploration to everyone, not simply to scholars hiding away in
ivied halls. It is a volume that most any Deadhead will want,
something to pull down and browse at three in the morning while "St.
Stephen" plays in the background. But it can be of use to others as
well. Not only can it open up an 'alien' subculture, but can lead to
new personal explorations, Dead or no Dead.
About the Author: Aaron Barlow teaches English at New York City
College of Technology (CUNY) in Brooklyn. He is the author of The
Rise of the Blogosphere.