Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Think About Your Blue Blood

Last night I saw the new documentary Examined Life. What most people don't realize is that the movie, which consists entirely of conversations with some of the luminaries of contemporary philosophy, is actually an extended commentary on the Rolling Stones' album Let It Bleed (1969). I discovered this quite by accident. When the movie let out it was getting close to midnight but I felt like having a cup of tea so I stopped into a cafe where they happened to be in the middle of playing "Midnight Rambler." In the film, the philosopher Avital Ronnell paraphrased Jacques Derrida at length to explain how we must maintain a buffer of mis-understanding and un-knowing with our fellow humans, because as soon as we think we understand another person completely completely, we are making a presumption—and it is always a dangerous presumption, as it gives us the power to discount and discredit them. "As soon as you feel you know the Other, you want to kill the Other," as she put it.

At first that sounded like a lot of philosophical jargon. Then I realized it was really just an extended post-structuralist meditation on the song I was hearing in the cafe:
Did you hear about the Midnight Rambler,
The one you never seen before?...
And if you ever catch the Midnight Rambler,

I'll stick my knife right down your throat.
The Midnight Rambler is a reflection, par excellence, of the Other, because you've never seen him, and everything you presume to know about him is mediated. And as soon as you know him —and he knows you—you're dead.

I noticed that many of the philosophers in the film talked a lot about human interdependency and how important it is, and how we can’t really live independently, despite what we’d like to think sometimes. Yes, I thought as I watched the film. I agree. We need one another. But do I need Avital Ronnell, Peter Singer, Judith Butler, Martha Nussbaum and Kwame Anthony Appiah to tell me this? Aren’t there more complicated philosophical questions they could untangle—nettling topics I haven’t even thought of?

Then again, interdependence also turns out to be a major theme of the Rolling Stones' album, so maybe it was unavoidable. It’s clear as soon as you hear the man-woman harmonies of the first track, “Gimme Shelter.” Then there's "Live with Me." And of course the title track asserts "we all need someone we can bleed on," and offers that "if you want it, you can bleed on me." So you could even say that the importance of human interdependence is in fact the central theme of the album.

One of the film's most powerful moments came during the conversation between Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor, who described living with arthrogryposis, a muscular disease that forces her to use a wheelchair. "Growing up, while I could still walk," she said, "people used to say I walked like a monkey...I guess this really illustrates one of the reasons people feel uncomfortable around the disabled." Here she paused, and you could tell her thoughts had considerable emotional force behind them. "We force people to confront the limits of being human."

Taylor was no doubt thinking—perhaps unconsciously—of Mick Jagger’s most forced vocal line of the album:
I’m a monkeeeeeeeeey. Man.
There you have it—confronting the challenges of human animality, in just four words.

At first, the film’s title perplexed me. What could Socrates’ maxim—“the unexamined life is not worth living”—have to do with the Rolling Stones? But then I realized it was just another reading of the phrase “let it bleed.” After all, you have to let it bleed if you want to examine life. Bleed, and you’re forced to take a hard look at what allows you to live. Let life bleed, examine it.

The most impressive oral performance of the film belonged to Cornel West: “I’m a blues man. Blues is personal catastrophe lyrically expressed. The blues starts with the heap of fragments that is history—the heaps upon heaps—and creates elegance from that. It is not predicated on a fall from a state of unity, as with Romanticism, and so it does not get hung up on that disunity; rather, the blues begins from a moment of dissonance. That’s the stink of life, the decay—what I call the funk.” Wow, I thought, he’s drawing together all these tropes from African-American music, Walter Benjamin, the Christian reading of the Bible—but what exactly is he getting at?

Then it hit me: all of Let it Bleed is based on the blues. In fact, so is all of the Rolling Stones’ music. So West was just leveraging his prodigious philosophical knowledge in order to remind us that we need to understand the blues, so that......so that what? Given that the Rolling Stones are one of the most successful pop groups of the last fifty years, it’s safe to say that people of all ages and nationalities—people with wildly different ideologies—enjoy their music. In other words, people understand (probably unconsciously) the blues’ foundation of dissonance and decay despite the systems of thought and consumption imposed on them. They don’t need philosophy—West’s or someone else’s—to understand it. Indeed, this beginning with fragmentation and dissonance that West is talking about seems to be a basic factor of life in the second half of the 20th century.

So maybe West should have been addressing a different problem: the fact that the Rolling Stones have forgotten their own blues. They are putting their old songs under glass cases even as they deny the decay of their bodies. Ignoring Socrates’ imperative, they are no longer preparing for death in their art.

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