For any jam band lovers out there (for some reason, the term has always made me think of “ham”; I guess it’s the French jambon that comes to mind), here’s a set of clips that remind us that the genre peaked about forty years ago. (H/t to Gary Sauer-Thompson at Conversations.) It’s actually from 38 years ago, but I think the version of “Dark Star” that’s on “Live Dead” is much better — less flat and more dynamic, graced by a more central Jerry Garcia and much more mellifluous keyboard than the clunky one here. But I guess it was just that kind of August day this time around. For those who think it all sounds like a far-too-endless stew of mushy and blandly flavored noodling — and whose suspicions are confirmed in the listless version of “El Paso” this turns into part-way through the fourth clip — there is a moment in the Live Dead version that demonstrates it really doesn’t have to be that way at all. (This 1969 version comes closer to the Live Dead version, though I can only see Part 1 online, so it’s missing the moment in question. But taken as a long moment, it’s all still a pretty good one…)

Tom Verlaine used to lament that Television’s “Marquee Moon” was often compared to the Grateful Dead. This 2005 concert version displays both the reasons why it was (especially if you like the Dead) and why it shouldn’t have been (if you don’t) — though at around the 3-minute mark of this second part they show that they still can’t duplicate what happened in that studio in 1977. (Compare, for instance, with the 9-minute mark of the original.) But they do their best to recover.

All of which brings me to relationalism, ecology, earth jazz, and the summer solstice. (Warning: this gets long and complicated, and if you’re not interested in the objects-relations debate, you might just want to skip through most of it. Just don’t miss the Miles Davis clip at the bottom.)

If there’s a musical demonstration of relationalism, and by extension (as Skholiast points out) of ecology, it’s the kind of improvised music that the Dead are supposed to have excelled at (and occasionally did). The universe gives rise to many wondrous entities in its long history of spontaneity, relational responsiveness, habit-formation, and form-building. The habits start as rhythms, melodic chirps that turn into territorial refrains and calls, and that gradually maneuvre their way into verse patterns, melodies, harmonies, polyrhythms. Distinct songs develop for particular purposes and gradually get freed from those purposes, taken up into improvisational routines and performances, some of which crystallize into larger-scale architectonics, but only ever temporarily.


That’s not meant to suggest a teleology whereby the classical traditions (European, Indian, et al.) are more “highly evolved” than others, though they may be more “distantly evolved,” in the sense that they are more professionalized, specialized, and further extracted from any integral relationship with the rhythms of everyday human labor. That professional distance is something that rock, like blues and jazz, has historically rebelled against, thereby maintaining a kind of broader ecology of musical creativity.

In their references to music and to the ethology of Jakob von Uexkull, Deleuze and Guattari are penetrating guides into this musical-ecological-philosophical territory. But one of the better popular accounts of ecology as a kind of “earth jazz” is Evan Eisenberg’s The Ecology of Eden, which I’ve quoted from before. Evan writes:

All life plays variations on the same few chord changes. Each taxon improvises, following certain rules but obeying no predetermined destiny. Each responds to the riffing, comping, noodling, and vamping of those around it. Life makes itself up as it goes along. [...]

How do you collaborate with Gaia if you don’t know exactly how she works, or what she wants? You do it, I think, by playing Earth Jazz. You improvise. You are flexible and responsive. You work on a small scale, and are ready to change direction at the drop of a hat. You encourage diversity, giving each player — human or nonhuman — as much room as possible to stretch out.

That’s as good a summary of adaptive management — one of the key ideas of recent complex-systems-influenced ecological management theory — as any.

Eisenberg’s Earth Jazz is about process and relationality. An objectologist would reply that “Dark Star” is still “Dark Star,” “El Paso” is still “El Paso” and not “Morning Dew” (which it almost transmogrified into, according to the Deadheads on YouTube), and Television is still Television and not the Grateful Dead. And they would be right. But each of them could be traced to their origins, to the processes that gave rise to them, crystallized them, and carried those crystallizations forward temporally and spatially.

This is something that’s relevant to Skholiast’s very insightful meditation on Buddhism, objects, and eternity, which captures a few of the key points in the philosophical debate between process-relational and substantialist (objectological) accounts of the world. His defense of the idea of “eternity” is particularly daring.

Skholiast writes:

The “eternal objects” of the sort I have in mind are the aspect of any object, the “side” if you like, that faces away from us in time. Within time, things come into being and pass away; they are determined by the churning or flow of a fractal interdependent causality. But eternally, in what one might not hesitate to call the World Soul, things are themselves, alone with the alone. In a metaphysics that remains to be articulated, they are the modern or postmodern analogues of the logoi of the Stoics and of Maximus Confessor. They might be, in the spirit of the original occasionalists, the ideas of each thing in the mind of God.

Why might one want to revive such an out-of-fashion philosophy, whether Stoic or Platonist or Patristic, even with a cheering section like Levinas and Patocka? Because such a philosophy underlies the western aspirations of spiritual attainment; no less than Buddhism no less than Nietzsche, the great ancient philosophers strove to articulate an ontology that would make sense of and (even more importantly) make possible the spiritual dimensions of human experience. I am on record as frankly seeking a route to legitimate “re-enchantment” of the world, a “second naïvete” in Ricouer’s phrase, that can be upheld in our age. Like Amod, I am a little suspicious of modern Western Buddhist attempts to forge this out of interdependence alone. Interdependence, by itself, gives us only the wheel of birth and death. Buddhism claims to articulate the way to “stop the wheel,” by truly understanding it; a way that involves the cessation of desire. But by this very token it is hard to understand how to understand the desirability of this cessation. The religions of the book offer a very different account of desire; and their theologies all presuppose Platonism (though they may also put it through the looking-glass).

The eternal object is, as it were, precisely the face of the object in the sense Levinas uses the term. In The Man who was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton (Zizek’s favorite Catholic thinker, it always seems), the protagonist attains a kind of epiphany, as though he sees into

…the mystery of the world. When I see the horrible back, I am sure the noble face is but a mask. When I see the face but for an instant, I know the back is only a jest. Bad is so bad, that we cannot but think good an accident; good is so good, that we feel certain that evil could be explained. …Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front——

[. . .] One might say, for shorthand: objects have souls.

The Chesterton quote is great, and I like Skholiast’s appealing connection between this Levinasian/Chestertonian idea and Graham Harman’s and Levi Bryant’s perpetually withdrawing objects. I would even acknowledge that some people may have ever “only known the back of the world”; but the “some” is intended to suggest that front and back are not so clearly delineable, that a lot depends on how we know things at all, and that that how is a variable we can learn to play with.

Earth Jazz, of the relationalist sort, does not presume to ever know the others with whom and with which it plays along. But it recognizes that play we must, whether this means muddling forward (like the Dead do through much of that version of “Dark Star”) or attaining plateaus and peaks (like Deleuze & Guattari urge us to, and Television manages toward the end of “Marquee Moon”) that settle into further and different plateaus, never retracing their steps but always finding rhythms to lock into for a while, and then to release into another set. If anything, Earth Jazz recognizes that objects have souls — this is the pagan precondition of living in the world with soul that I would hope objectologists and relationists share — but it perceives those objects as players, relational processes, whose souls work their way into the playing, and which continue to develop (soulfully) in and through the playing.

Where Skholiast calls for an idea of “eternity” as the source of those impulses that would ground our “aspirations of spiritual attainment” and spark us in the right directions (toward liberation, as Buddhists would have it, of all sentient beings, as Mahayanists would), I think it’s possible to be a bit more relational in our concept of this “eternity.” We tend to get caught in conceptual constructs — constructs that imprison us, and from which Buddhism, like other mystical and liberationist philosophies, aims to free us. This getting-caught-up-ness tends to play along with other tendencies that are there in the realm of virtual availability — such as tendencies toward hierarchy, sociopathy, controlled pillage, and the like. Improvisations degenerate, their elements getting whipped into commercial formulas, national anthems, martial hymns. I would characterize these tendencies as sets of habit patterns that have encrusted themselves into a few of the layers surrounding our particular forms of human possibility.

The early Buddhism of the Pali canon sought individual liberation from the karmic wheel, while the later Mahayanists, especially in their East Asian incarnations (along with Dzogchen and a few other Indo-Tibetan developments), found liberation not so much from as through the jeweled net of Indra — that is, in seeing through reality to its underlying nature. Some version of the “two truths” doctrine — that there is a relative truth and an absolute truth and that these co-exist — is helpful in seeing how it is that what binds us can also be what frees us, and that the difference lies in our approach to it. The elements are still the same: it is the spirit we bring to them that determines whether we succeed in improvising along with others well or not (and for Earth Jazz, the others include the floral, faunal, bacterial, and so on). (And that this goes against what some of the original Buddhist arhats were doing is immaterial to what it means for our efforts today.)

Mahayana Buddhism, in my understanding of it, is based on the leap of faith that if you deconstruct the self, and therefore the world of experience that constitutes it, you will naturally be released into a greater sympathy and empathy with all sentient beings. Those who succeed in this task take it on themselves to help others do that. The point is not to liberate ourselves from the nature of things, but to liberate ourselves from the tendency we have of getting caught up in them — which means to liberate ourselves and others to be our buddha-nature, which is the un-caught-up enjoyment of the nature of things themselves. This leap of faith is grounded in a long tradition of practice, in which, for the most part, it has worked (but that outside that tradition may not always work, as I argued here).

What helps to make it work is a world in which we can recognize the patterns that connect us with the other things that flow and move around us: like the sun’s movement back and forth, reaching its peak sometime tonight or tomorrow (the solstice occurs at 7:28 EDT Monday a.m.), and the movements of the plants, animals, and others we share this earth with. Human communities have, for periods of time, managed to develop reasonable accommodations with the other things we get entangled with. We have done this by improvising our way, using the technical and cultural means at our disposal (including story, image, dramatic performance, text, media), into rhythms and movements alongside those other players.

I’m not convinced that we need to posit an eternity, or Whitehead’s “eternal objects” (at least not quite as eternal as he sometimes makes them), to remind us of these things. I think there is enough of eternity — as a set of patterns and rhythms in the folds of the universe that work reasonably well when they work, which is at least much of the time. Sometimes, of course, some of those patterns get broken: disasters happen, civilizations collapse, asteroids smash into planets, worlds end, and when they do we lose all bearings, and depression — individual, collective, cosmic — ensues. In those moments it seems trite to assert an “eternity” (or a god) that will help us out. We will perish and that’s just life (or death).

But even with oil gushing out of the Gulf at the rate it is, compounding all the other crises we’ve set into motion on this planet recently, the richness of the world is such that we can find and “tap into” that non-eternal eternity, those patterns that connect, through the kinds of practices that tweak us back into alignment with them.

I like Skholiast’s articulation of how “eternally, in what one might not hesitate to call the World Soul, things are themselves, alone with the alone.” I’m just not convinced that the World Soul needs to be eternal (as opposed to transcendent of the current moment, i.e., the current set of perceptions we’ve imprisoned ourselves within), or that things are “alone with the alone.” That’s the part of object-oriented philosophy — the turning away of things into something that never encounters another thing — that I don’t really know what to do with. Of course I will never encounter the fullness of most other things, but that doesn’t mean that there’s a side to them that will never encounter anything whatsoever. If there was, we’d need to posit a transcendent realm that is absolutely separate from everything there is in this world.

Instead of that kind of Eternity, I’ll take a Virtuality, where the unmanifest and unactualized continues to churn, while remaining intimately interfolded with the manifest and actualized, a Virtuality that is not separate but is simply not present in the same way that the empirical world of things, objects, and distinctions is. It’s a patterned Virtuality, though there are many patterns to choose from in it, some of which lock us into the prisons of our constructs and others of which help us break out of those constructs. And there are ways to sense the flow of at least some of those patterns (the more liberation-attuning ones), say, through tales of Milarepa or Avalokiteshvara, ceremonies of the sun’s (or Son’s) going away and returning, or hopes for real democracy and a liberated commons for (and with) all.

So if there’s something like an eternity, I suspect it’s not the back sides of all the objects of the universe so much as it is these kinds of tendencies — patterns and flows structured into the unfolding universe, some of which may have been there all along (what was there before the Big Bang, after all? and isn’t that Bang part of a larger cycle in which certain habits might have gotten preserved?), and some of which have emerged along the way.

On that note, what kind of turbulent African/urban-North-American/ Einsteinian cosmic geography might this earth jazz have emerged from? And during what kind of solsticial turn?

That’s my quick take on things for a summer solstice. May all beings be well and grow in cognizance of the rhythms that flow between us all.

(Coming from a retreat with Shinzen Young yesterday, followed by a solstice ceremony with local Druids and pagans, helped nudge my thoughts in these directions. Many thanks to them for the inspiration.)

This version edited on June 20, 11:30 pm.

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