Waking the Dead

[Crossposted from ePluribus Media Journal]

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 image—vapid, 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 world—and 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 continuum—we 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 band—and sustain success over decades—could be expected to do no less. Without some sort of real grounding—and not just in the notes—The 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 listening—live, 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 actions—which 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.