Mind Matters

A Coltrane Situation & Cornel West

Hello fellow sentient beings,

During a 1966 concert given at Temple University, the incomparable saxophonist John Coltrane did something strange.

During the middle of a song - though the ossifying word “song” doesn’t do justice to the amorphous musical exploration of feeling that was happening - Coltrane set his saxophone down on the ground, and began beating his chest while chanting into the mic.

Rashied Ali, on drums, asked: “What’s happenin’ ‘Trane?”

Coltrane: “I’m just givin’ the people all that I can, and now the horn’s gettin’ in the way.”

Here’s Cornel West recounting the story (from 1:14:37 - 1:15:00):

For a moment, dwell on the modes of consciousness at play in that situation. How might it feel, when the only way you feel capable of giving yourself to an audience, of giving everything that you have, is by setting your instrument aside and beating on your chest?

There’s an obvious absence of any self-consciousness. Could you do something like that if you were nervous about how others might perceive you? I couldn’t. It’s a full exploration of what kinds of feeling can be constructed inside any given moment, what kinds of connective, emotive channels can be forged inside of a communal situation.

What are the farther, stranger reaches of how we can relate to, and connect with, one another?

This invokes a strange but groovy parallel with the Situationist International (1957-1972), a group of European social revolutionaries advancing a psychological critique of capitalist consciousness.

Their primary mode of revolt was the participatory act of ‘constructing situations’. Prominent member of the group, Guy Debord, writes:

“Our central idea is the construction of situations, that is to say, the concrete construction of momentary ambiences of life and their transformation into a superior passional quality.”

Sounds like Coltrane’s moment, no?

Debord continues that life inside capitalism is a series of moments drained of vitality, that capitalist modernity is a progression of situations emptied of passion, drained by the dictates of capital.

For Debord, as capital renders human lives subservient to its ideology, its raison d’être of sheer accumulation, that most human element, the “passional quality”, is lost:

“A person’s life is a succession of fortuitous situations, and even if none of them is exactly the same as another the immense majority of them are so undifferentiated and so dull that they give a definite impression of sameness. As a result, the rare intensely engaging situations found in life only serve to strictly confine and limit that life. We must try to construct situations, that is to say, collective ambiences, ensembles of impressions determining the quality of a moment.”

I felt this myself - this kind of cardinal moment of such a different passional texture than the usual - on a recent trip to the Monastic Academy in Vermont. As part of their daily schedule, we gathered at 4am, still in the gentle stillness of night, and sat on our meditation cushions in a semi-circle.

Before getting into meditation, we chanted the Heart Sutra for 20-or-so minutes.

GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA

The resident teacher there studied in Japan for years, and learned Tibetan throat chanting, or overtone singing. If you’ve never heard this, it’s flummoxing.

While we chanted, the teacher’s throat singing set a deep, transfixing baseline. Our pace quickened as the drum beats sped. After a while, I forgot I was chanting. It became automatic, the words were not words but sounds, moods, and self-consciousness, that omnipresent organizer of experience, unraveled.

I can’t do more to describe what it felt like, other than emphasize the contrast of what it felt like to exist in that constructed situation and the usual way it feels like to be me.

While these kinds of intentionally created moments cannot constitute an entire sociopolitical strategy of reform, they do provide the juice, the glimmers of conviviality, and the evidences of neural diversity that suggest different ways of experiencing life are possible. They can show us how we aren’t living, and suggest how we might.

I’m most drawn to sociopolitical, economic visions that derive sustenance from these kinds of moments, these diversified textures of being that suggest moments can feel like so much more than what many experience inside today’s constructed world.


Cornel West’s Sermon

In that vein, here’s another quick clip of Cornel West. What he’s doing is unlike any other philosopher I’ve heard speak. He creates situations. He makes you feel something electric, whereas most philosophy makes you feel tired.

This opening spiel from 13:50 - 18:35 is more energizing than the music I used to listen to while warming up for soccer games. Especially the last minute or so:


Tyler Cowen’s Refined Neoliberalism

Folks in my filter bubble like to say neoliberalism is dead, but I’m not sure. Tyler Cowen is one of the most visible, followed, and interesting economists in the digital space today. He has a massive audience, a phenomenal podcast, and a thoroughly neoliberal ideology (I think).

He represents a hybridized neoliberalism adjusted for 21st century sensibilities. Like neoliberals of old, he believes growth (adjusted to account for environmental protection, a government supply of public goods, and a “valuation of leisure time”, whatever that means in practice) is our best proxy for progress, and doesn’t like anything that comes at the cost of potential growth.

In an article published with Cato Institute (a publishing choice that reflects his ideological commitments), he writes:

Plenty of progressives would agree with Cowen that certain kinds of growth, adjusted to account for certain things, is still our best proxy for progress. If we can have growth that regenerates rather than depletes the biosphere, equitably and democratically benefits all members of the economy, and generates public goods that give’s everyone access to basic necessities, great (this is, of course, a matter of serious debate).

But the very methods that progressives suggest we need to direct growth (various forms of progressive taxes and public sector involvement) are what neoliberals reject because they threaten growth. If public sector is bad, and taxes on capital/wealthy sectors of economy are bad, we have a limited toolbox to direct growth towards more socially desirable outcomes.

There’s also plenty of evidence that the neoliberal agenda of lowering taxes on capital to boost investment, and therefore growth for all, doesn’t work. Then again, as is the nature of data, I’m sure there’s conflicting evidence. You can construct data-driven logics for any ideology.

Like Nathan Heller writes in his New Yorker piece on UBI:

"Economics is at heart a narrative art, a frame across which data points are woven into stories about how the world should work."

The elemental units of economics are not data points, but narratives. Ideas about how the world should work and visions for how we might live form the basis of economics, upon which data points are pasted like bedazzle gems. I wrote about this as Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of pre-analytic vision in a previous newsletter.

There’s actually an interesting scuffle on Twitter between Cowen and Glen Weyl of Radical Xchange.


Adam Smith, The Communist, Pt. 1

This is a topic for next newsletter, but I’m reading Gustav Peeble’s essay on Adam Smith and the social construction of scarcity, Peter Frase’s Four Futures, and ol’ Smith himself, and getting some really juicy ideas.

For now, they’re collecting in this thread. Chime in!


Write of Passage Fellowship

I’m excited to share that I’ve been accepted into the Write of Passage Fellowship program.

I’ll be writing a 15,000 word essay on, idk, everything. It’s ostensibly about UBI, but I’m using UBI as a way to organize the broader discourse around where we might go from here - socioeconomically - and how we might get there.

Here’s my topic description:

“The many warring perspectives on Universal Basic Income (UBI) are direct veins into the heart of the larger socioeconomic discourse on progress and 21st century capitalism: where do we go from here, and how might we get there? 

The points of contention on UBI - about the role of markets in society, the existence and prospects of poverty amidst plenty, and the role of economics in the human evolution from coercion towards freedom - consolidate these long-standing disputes into a single, 21st century policy debate.

I’ll use two questions as guides through this terrain: 

  1. What is the point(s) of UBI?

  2. Is UBI the best way to achieve its goals?

Organizing the scattered motivations for UBI will proxy the diverse perspectives on what our most pressing problems are, and evaluating UBI against alternative policy proposals will create a cartography of visions for how we might best navigate our socioeconomic position and prospects, so that we might bring the full force of our collective imagination and skill to bear upon the possibilities of the moment.”

More to come on this front, but I’m excited to put together an in-depth, polished piece that’ll collect a bunch of threads I’ve been following over the past 5 years.


That’ll Do

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Carry on!
~ Oshan