>A Memoir of Bison Butchering and Psychedelic Aesthetics

November 28, 2010 § Leave a comment


Magic is sometimes said to be just this dazzling fusion of the human world with the thing world too, although the work is more likely to be involved with theater and incantation. (158)

– Michael Taussig, What Color is the Sacred?

But no matter how loudly we clamor for magic in our lives, we are really afraid of pursuing an existence entirely under its influence and sign. (9)

– Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and its Double

In November 2010, the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art launched a program called “Art Meets Beast,” a celebration of bison. The program ran three days. On the first day there were back-to-back lectures on cave paintings and Buffalo Bill. The second day was a live bison butchering, performed by the owner and the butcher of a local specialty grocery store. I was asked to accompany them with ambient guitar music. On the third day, a bison dinner was presented by some of the city’s top chefs, to whom the butchered bison had been distributed the night before. This public and secular event resounded with echoes of archaic religious practices of ritual sacrifice and Native American themes about buffalo consumption as it related to tribal economy. To some it was cliché, to others disgusting. The following discusses the event within a larger framework of aesthetic and religious history.

Leaving the butchering with a cooler full of meat, one chef exclaimed, “this is a chef’s wet dream.” I am not a chef, but I am intrigued by the vulgarity of the chef’s metaphor. Creatively, it works well. The chef’s artistic potency is in the transformation and dissemination of raw material into sustenance. Having a chance to go through the butchering process and then make something of it was a kind of “coming of age” challenge for this chef – a chance to prove himself. The event put the chefs’ art on display for a public audience different than a restaurant crowd who, though they are in public, experience food according to dishes they order as individuals.

Museum director, Adam Lerner, said in his introduction to the butchering, “What we do when we look at paintings in a museum is not much different than what we do when we eat.” Private or public, we take a kind of communion. Consumption is a culturally participatory act. “Art Meets Beast” was a consciousness-raising exhibition, taking the mundane and presenting it as theatre so the audience might be more aware of the ways they participate in and produce culture.

But the “success” of the program partly relied on elevating the material to a psychical level by raising the curtain on the production and preparation of meat and asking the audience to ask questions and engage in the process of butchering. Rather than having the audience remain seated, the butchers encouraged the audience to gather closely and interrupt them with questions. One audience member asked the butcher if he felt any connection to the dead animal as he worked, did he picture in his mind’s eye the whole animal as he dismembered it? “I see meat,” Jimmy the butcher said. The focus on material became a theme.

From the chef’s image of the dream which produces creatively potent material, to butcher’s matter-of-fact statement, to kidding around with my music being the “vegetarian” option, there was an overall tone emanating from the butchers: there is nothing mysterious about this work. They were confronting a perceived audience expectation of blood and gore. During the butchering, Peter the grocer mentioned the lack of smell in the room. The large piece of meat hanging from a hook in the center of a room was complete thing-ness – the epitome of the objectification. But I also noticed lots of people taking pictures of the meat with their cell phones. Something about the event seemed conducive to meaning making and documentation. A local artist, a vegetarian, videoed the whole event, and there were professional photographers and journalists as well. Could it be that the emphasis on the lack of mystification somehow produced the tendency to mystify? Jimmy the butcher’s literalism left it up to the audience to produce the allegorical, the analogical, and the anagogical. The chef’s excitement produced itself in the vulgar, the common, the popular.

In What Color is the Sacred? anthropologist Michael Taussig discusses the often vulgar content of work songs around the world. He tells of tribesman in a vat beating indigo plants to produce dye for the west – the color of official uniforms in Europe since Napoleon’s army – mysteriously turning their insides and tongues blue, saying, “it seems that obscene songs are often associated, perhaps the world over, with collective labor” (157). Taussig also cites the work of Laura Bohannan, who, studying groups in Nigeria in the 1950s, claimed, “Men were frightened to get too close to the women weeding together, singing their lusty songs. Many years before, Evans Prichard had tried to analyze the close connection between obscenity and work, both skilled and unskilled, collective and individual, in a wide variety of African societies.” This leads Taussig to speculate:

We should here understand obscenity as not only transgression of sexual boundaries or rules of pollution, defined in terms of the more obvious erotic zones, but as transgression of bodily propriety more generally understood – by which I mean the sexual body of the world, including of course, the human in the body within that body. We need also to bear in mind that to transgress is not only to lift a taboo temporarily, but is also to feel its weight, charged with
the conflictual and exciting currents societies muster when taboos are put to the test.

“Art Meets Beast” put taboos concerning the visibility of food production to the test, and I was surprised at the amount of moral ambiguity and discomfort it brought up for people. Some friends of mine, who would normally come to hear my musical performances, refused to come to this one. Some simply couldn’t stomach it. One friend, actually an NEA recipient, thought it was a bourgeois attempt to perform non-bourgeois-ness. Yet others thought the program was not authentic enough because they were not publicly slaughtering the buffalo, leaving the audience to only participate in the fruit of the “unseen sin.” In any case, part of the strategy of a program like “Art Meets Beast” was successful in its ability to affect non-audience members as well as audience members. I asked Sarah Baie, director of programs, during my walkthrough a week before the event if she thought there might be protestors. “That would be awesome,” she replied.

“Art Meets Beast” exemplifies a trend in museum culture which resonates with religion during the last fifty years. At least since the sixties, progressive curators have attempted to deinstitutionalize museums and festivals, making exhibitions more audience-participatory and blurring the distinction between subject and object. To take a rather popular example, Jon Berger, in Ways of Seeing, cited public surveys where people associated museums more closely with churches than other civic locations.

The majority take it as axiomatic that the museums are full of holy relics which refer to a mystery which excludes them: the mystery of unaccountable wealth. Or, to put this another way, they believe that original masterpieces belong to the preserve (both materially and spiritually) of the very rich. (24)

Berger argues via Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that mass production demystifies the aura and authenticity of the “original.” This was a populist approach in reaction – but not necessarily an opposition – to modern art and Brechtian alienation. Art museums simply needed to have public outreach plans.

The phenomena resound popular culture as well. Feeling alienated from abstract art, as well as class stratification, the larger “secular” public would rather go to rock concerts. Rock performances, especially in the sixties, present themselves with a kind of austerity that codes them as public, working class, and every-day. Indeed, part of 1960s psychedelic aesthetics exists in its self-presentation as democratic and ingestible. Can’t get God from religion? In The Psychedelic Experience, Leary, Alpert and Metzner argued, “A psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness,” and although drugs are not necessary for such an experience LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and DMT have the democratic importance of “making such an experience available to anyone” (11). Trying to get an unwilling Paul Tillich to do an LSD test at Harvard in 1962, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert arrogantly told him the experience would rival his background from a small German town with its roots in medieval Christianity (Lattin, Harvard 78). The psychedelic movement sought to realize and manifest the psyche; thus, the vulgar masses are to participate in the changing landscape, in a way, of moving America closer to the elect status of the city on the hill, yet a massive city on the hill. At the same time, the movement sought to erase or ignore personal and familial backgrounds. “She’s leaving home,” sang Paul McCartney. And Jack Nicholson’s character tells a runaway played by Susan Strasberg in the low-budget movie, Psyche Out!, in the San Francisco scene she doesn’t have to explain herself to anyone. The emphasis on travel and wandering from On the Road to Easy Rider paints a picture of de-territorialized youth in search for an essence or spirit, usually named America.

In Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music, Phil Auslander discusses the performed austerity of psychedelic costumes – however flamboyant they may seem at first. Auslander admits that many performers in the late sixties were clearly costumed, but the costumes tended to be proletarian (Canned Heat, Electric Flag) or something one would wear on the street. Discussing the Monterey Pop Festival he says, “All of the styles visible onstage, including elements of cowboy fashion and the penchant for big furry hats exhibited by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas and David Crosby of the Byrds, were also visible in the audience.” Participatory culture blends the distinction between performer and audience, subject and object, sacred and profane. Museums, like institutionalized religions, must try to adapt to participatory culture or die, as popular Christian writers like Bishop Spong have argued.

There are many ways to explain the phenomena. One could argue that this is the result of postmodernism and the collapse of the European universal or instrumental rationality, influenced by globalization, deinstitutionalization, or de-territorialization. Depending on one’s conception (itself a necessary limiting) of identity, or the chora of consciousness, combined with one’s sense of history, the causes will be determined in a variety of ways, and discussions based purely on causes miss the point. The status quo conception that all identity is constructed seems to be an evidencing of neo-liberalism’s reliance on consumer identity to see itself as able to perpetually acquire a better version of itself through the production of desire as merely lack. In any case, accompanying neo-liberalism has been the secularization of religiosity. Especially present since the psychedelic aesthetics in the 1960s, the secularization of religiosity creates an ever more “spiritual” and less “religious” behavior. Yet this movement toward an ever-more personal relationship with the divine is itself a kind of deterritorialization. I understand this through Max Weber, the early critical theorist, and some of his influences.

Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argues in his final chapter that a Protestant, and particularly Puritan mode of being, “favored the development of a rational bourgeois economic life; it was the most important part, and above all the only consistent influence in the development of that life. It stood at the cradle of the modern economic man” (117). From this he argues that one of the most fundamental aspects of “the spirit of modern capitalism” and modern culture is “rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling, [which] was born – that is what this discussion has sought to demonstrate – from the spirit of Christian asceticism” (122-123). He ends his book, not with a precise definition of “spirit,” but by lamenting “the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order,” saying, “this order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born in this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt” (123). The technical rationality, or to use the term of his critical theorist descendants, instrumental reason, out-reasons the modern rational subject.

The subject, alienated from reason itself, seeks validation for humanity in irrationality. Eliade, in The Sacred and the Profane, lamented modern man’s alienation from the sacred, claiming that secular and non-religious behaviors continue to exhibit a reminiscence of regard for the sacred, even when it is unconscious. He uses the example of churches as holy ground, respected by even the non-religious. Despite professional ambivalence about Eliade’s work, one can still see this in the moral ambiguity surrounding people’s reactions to the bison butchering. Those who displayed discomfort also displayed a kind of social politeness which revealed Victorian-like values. Eliade’s work was contemporary with Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception and Huston Smith’s Religions of Man. Huxley in particular looks back to William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience where he describes the appeal of alcohol (and other stimulants) in their “power to stimulate mystical faculties” (James 387). The search for Soma, the mystical entheogen, accompanied a favoring of the irrational as a human fight against technological reason. Along with this came the emphasis on myths. Eliade relates this to time:

The sacred time periodically reactualized in pre-Christian religions(especially in the archaic religions) is a mythical time, that is, a primordialtime, not to be found in the historical past, an original time, in the sensethat it came into existence all at once, that it was not preceded by another time, because no time could exist before the appearance of the reality narrated in the myth. (72)

Even Heidegger, as he becomes more interested in poetics and anxious about technology exhibits a kind of mystical quality, especially in his work on Holderlin. But it is Heidegger’s students in the 1960s who really echo the turn toward irrationality. In Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, he cites the following passage by Maurice Blanchot as he describes the Great Refusal against one-dimensional society.

What we refuse is not without value or importance. Precisely because of that, the refusal is necessary. There is a reason which we no longer accept,there is an appearance of wisdom that horrifies us, there is a plea for agreement and conciliation we will no longer heed. A break has occurred. (Blanchot in Marcuse 256)

This “break,” however one names it, marks a shift toward an irrational refutation of technological rationality and accompanies a shift toward more personalized and affective pronouncements of faith. Don Lattin argues in Shopping for Faith (1998), “As denominational doctrine becomes less relevant to many Americans, the experiential elements of religion will become more important” (18). With the mythic and the sacred comes a transcendence of the mundane and alienated. The move toward irrationality – or perhaps merely anti-rationality – acted as one part of what Deleuze and Gauttari have called deterritorialization. One of the “theorems of deterritorialization is that there are at least two terms, and that “each of the two terms reterritorializes the other. Reterritorialization must not be confused with a return to a primitive or older territoriality” (174). What I am calling “a move toward irrationality” is therefore not the opposite of rationality; it is more a reaction formation which reterritorializes a view. Embracing the ambiguity of the “irrational,” people reacting to technological rationality re-imagine metaphysics – an outdated concept since the beginning of the twentieth century – within this world.

We see this in Lacan’s reterritorializing of Freud and Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics as first philosophy, both of which operate with a less stable notion of subjectivity – one where the subject is situated by something outside it.[1] For them, a subject-less subject or a subject as object to itself is indeterminate, not because subjectivity is determined by each individual through the kind of desire as lack which consumerism creates, but because the individual is a hovering phantasm. Situating perhaps happens only in death of the body, as in Heidegger’s notion of Care (Sorge). Meat is situated. Yet desire, in the Levinasian (and Lacanian) sense, “is more than lack.” As the audience members celebrated and mystified the situated bison in “Art Meets Beast,” they exhibited – albeit within the “genteel” constraints of their culture – an attempt to amplify the event’s meaning. In this sense, the artistic event created by the museum staff and the butchers created an experiential atmosphere. Although Marcuse’s Great Refusal itself became one-dimensional as counterculture worked well with lack-based consumer desire, it is possible to see in the audience members of “Art Meets Beast” capturing their experience with images a desire for more than the presence of the event allowed.

There was little religion in the event, and at no point did “Art Meets Beast” transcend into a Dionysian fuck-fest, despite the event’s nod to ancient rituals of sacrifice, breaking of taboo and communion. Again, the lesson of the butchers seemed to be, “nothing mysterious here.” Although occasional jokes produced laughter from the audience members, the atmosphere was strikingly casual. Even the cliché of using the entire animal was stripped of its mystery. As Jimmy the butcher through bits of fat into a large trashcan, Peter the grosser lectured that none of the animal goes to waste, why it is necessary to teach people useful ways to prepare and cut different kinds of meat and why some pieces are more expensive than others.

The emphasis on demystification of the process increased the audience’s sense of the value of the art as craft. They were delighted and taught. However, what remains significant about the event is the secularity of the event itself and the unsuccessful literalism of the butchers; for they signify a cultural trend toward diluted notions of spirituality which nevertheless continue to operate in the cultural imaginary. It is in this dilution, this widening of consciousness with a lack of meaning (another product of psychedelic aesthetics) that the creation of an environment conducive to trauma and monstrosity occurs. As Carl Raschke has summarized in Event Horizon,

The real is that which we have within ourselves, which sustains and reproduces “objects” of desire, and which “overflows” – like Nietzsche’s Übermensch, or “overman” – all linguistic and conceptual structures, or what Lacan dubs the symbolic order. The real is the “exception” to the rules of the symbolic order. This exception does not reside in act of predication or (in
a Hegelian sense) of “determination”. It is located in the moment of signification.

The audience members who sought to document their experience also sought to intentionally signify and make real their experience of the event. But because according to Lacanian and Levinasian notions of desire as more than lack, it is not something we have conscious control over. This does not mean, however, that we cannot try to understand it, or that in that attempt to understand nothing good comes. It seems that what writers like Carl Raschke and the discipline Religious Studies has to offer, over and above psychoanalysis, is the freedom to psychoanalyze at the level of cultural groups, large and small. Speculative though it may be, theory is by its nature speculative; we should see the limits and the ethical pitfalls of generalizing about culture, but not give up the dialogical usefulness of discussing cultural themes. Part of this means understanding how people make meaning, not just in a linguistic or semiotic sense, but in the way they express it according to their more local knowledge, and comparing that knowledge to their cosmologies.

As globalization continues to secularize and deinstitutionalize the world, it also deterritorializes it and reterritorrializes notions of boundaries on all sorts of levels, geographic being the most simple. The notion of chora, originally used by Plato in terms of regional boundaries becomes blurred with identity boundaries. It is a kind of chora, in the sense that Lacan, Kristeva, and Derrida use the term, as a hazy boundary between the conscious and the unconscious. As James DiCenso summarizes, “The chora represents a psychical condition referred to retrospectively but never known as a subjective position as such ‘in which the linguistic sign is not yet articulated as the absence of an object and as the distinction between the real and the symbolic’” (71). One may find more popular examples of this concept in Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage or with his concept of the “global village.” One may also find this in Walter Mignolo’s term, border gnosis. The insulated and “secret” knowledge of the autochthonous subject has more self determination than deterritorialized person. The autochthonous person grounds him or herself in tradition, is rooted, has meaning. This is a “healthy” response to the deterritorialization that globalization brings, as one can see with 9/11. Roy has argued that the bulk of terrorists fighting for groups like Al Qaeda have been displaced by border violence and lost their homes or homelands. Unbound to nation states, they can use abstract notions of identity to perform radical acts.

Roy has also noted that New Age philosophy has played a part in what he calls neo-fundamentalism. Discussing how New Age “brotherhoods,” Sufism and Gurdjieff (a major influence on Timothy Leary) can sometimes create ideal candidates for extremist groups, Roy notes,

Proselytizing works all the more effectively when the brotherhoods find a language in common with Western New Age cults or post-modern spiritualism (for example, the Haqqaniyya has been relayed in the West by Gurdjieff’s disciples). A neo-brotherhood targets an individual who no longer has roots in a primary community and lives in a purely non-spiritual environment. (222-23)

While I am not suggesting that all New Age groups are breeders of terrorists, I do think that there is a significant link between deterritorialization, globalization, and the development of affective and personal relationships with the divine. Rather than laboring through esoteric discussions of post-modernism, one may thematize the situation and worldview in terms of historical worldviews, which especially changed in the 1960s. To use a more amicable example, consider the increase of membership in the Society of Friends (Quakers) during the 1960s, as draft-dodgers sought religious affiliations to claim conscientious objector status. Liberal Quakers in their twenties and thirties will claim that Pete Seeger’s song collection Rise up Singing is more of a bible to them than the Old and New Testaments. Avoiding the term postmodern, which is too polyvalent to be of use here, I often use the term “psychedelic” to refer to the cultural changes occurring in the late fifties and sixties.

Psychedelic aesthetics saturate current American society to the extent that they are hardly visible. Yoga studios are common and generally secular with orientalism embedded in décor and “exotic” names – I sometimes go to one called Samadhi. While mind-body health can be traced to 19th century strains of New Thought, the 1960s remain in American cultural memory a time of experimentation. Baby boomers constantly remind those outside their generation about the uniqueness of the time. It is truly difficult to understand America today without mythologies of the 1960s, conservative or liberal. As Thomas Frank noted in 1998 in The Conquest of Cool, “advertising across the product-category spectrum calls upon consumers to break the rules and find themselves” (4). Donald Lopez, in Prisoners of Shangri-la, has made remarks about the Dalai Lama’s theosophical universalism in Prisoners of Shangri-La, discussing in particular the large Kalachakra ceremonies initiating people into the religion. According to Lopez’s account of the religion, “world peace” is to be restored by enlightened Buddhists in the year 2425 in the mythical land of Shambhala (206). Such a vision is quite similar to Puritans seeking to establish a New Jerusalem. Similarly, Olivier Roy has argued in Globalized Islam that the same forces of globalized secularism which produced neo-fundamentalism in discussions of “Islam” post 9/11 are the same forces which have produce conservative Christian fundamentalists with their intensified interest in affective and personal relationships with God. John Caputo, in The Weakness of God, has turned even evangelicals on to Derridean and postmodern thought while arguing for an uninstitutionalized reading of God.

Faith has become more subjective and based on charismatic gnosis which, like the counterculture in the 1960s, challenged traditionally authoritative institutions. Neo-fundamentalism has roots in New Age thought and strategies of the 1960s; neo-fundamentalism is therefore largely “psychedelic” – even if the political goals of groups remain different. George Lakoff, a linguist and cognitive scientist at UC Berkeley, has talked extensively concerning the ways contemporary politicians, both liberal and conservative, use mythic identity constructions to sell candidates and their agendas. Cowboys seem pastoral, down-to-earth, heroic, unconcerned with the fine-print. A charismatic believe is subject to the scrutiny of the individual’s belief system. Enlightenment institutions, such as the University system, founded on objective data and repeated experimentation, have no authority here. Inherent in all of this thought is the dissemination of individually-oriented, mystical experiences and deep concerns about citizenship and dynamic approaches to identity. I believe it is necessary to ground an understanding of the intellectual and educational challenges secular, affective, and charismatic religiosity pose to Enlightenment-rooted institutions as these institutions have become decentralized and deterritorialized. Am I more committed to Enlightenment rationality than I thought?

“Art Meets Beast” is significant here in that its experiential focus exhibits an underlying psychedelic aesthetic. There was nothing “trippy” or far out about the presentation, but the designers sought to expand the consciousnesses of the audience members concerning meat and cultural production. Their hope was to spark a connection among the audience that made them tune-in to cultural participation. Remember, the Great Refusal has been left long behind. Revolution itself plays the game. But insofar as “Art Meets Beast” celebrated a bison, it celebrated the locality of the west. It presented Denver’s version of fine art, insulating a community. Adam Lerner claimed “the bison is the art of cow,” just as bison burgers cost a bit more than regular hamburgers. In a way, it is the triteness, the whimsical treatment of the “bourgeois” event peppered with a local flavor that makes “Art Meets Beast” interesting, just as its lack of religious significance is notable for Religious Studies. This is partly because the Art world deals in the production and distribution of symbols, and cultural symbols are especially necessary in understanding religion.

Pierre Bourdieu, another surveyor of art museum culture, has argued that in liberal societies art is the inversion of the economy. He also claims that the value of art cannot necessarily be determined by the sum of its productive parts. The butchers at “Art Meets Beast” alone are merely an infomercial. For Bourdieu, one must look at the entire “field” of symbolic capital in cultural production. Yet for Bourdieu, examining the field of cultural production and the rules of its “game” also demystifies it. He suggests viewing artistic presentation like magic.
As Marcel Mauss observed, the problem with magic is not so much to know what are the specific properties of the magician, or even of the magical operations of the and representations, but rather to discover the bases of collective belief or, more precisely, the collective misrecognition, collectively produced and maintained, which is the source and power the magician appropriates. (81)

Discussing the mystery of the artist’s “signature,” then, one must understand the role of the curator, the role of advertising and the press, the funders and their willingness to believe in the event. Yet even this is not so mysterious for Bourdieu. He says,
The source of ‘creative’ power, the ineffable mana or charisma celebrated by the tradition, need not be sought anywhere other than in the field, i.e. in the system of objective relations which constitute it, in the struggles of which it is the site and in the specific form of energy or capital which is generated there.

Perhaps it is the complex social web which generates the mystical aura as a necessary simplification. Thus, “the work of art, i.e. of the artist, is no exception to the law of the conservation of social energy.” And so, “Art Meets Beast,” in order to rise above mere infomercial status needed more than the butcher and the grocer to lecture, the event needed something else, something that wouldn’t be too “intrusive” ambient music. And that is where my musical work came in.
But before I discuss my approach to the musical performance, I want to articulate its religious significance. Since the Romantic period, and especially in liberal democratic countries, the social status of the artist has often been conflated with that of the prophet and mystic. By discussing the religious overtones, I risk being lumped into a longstanding Romantic cliché. While I am not unaffected by that tradition, there is much more to it; namely, artistic failure, another product of liberalism. Bourgeois failure is present in European criticism, art, and literature as the disappearing subject. Bourdieu’s lectures on Flaubert in The Field of Cultural Production, Blanchot on Kafka in The Space of Literature, evidence this. So does Adorno’s Minima Moralia: “what is decisive is the absorption of biological destruction by conscious social will. Only a humanity to whom death has become as indifferent as its members, that has itself died, can inflict it administratively on innumerable people. Rilke’s prayer for ‘one’s own death’ is a piteous attempt to conceal the fact that nowadays people merely snuff out” (233). Adorno is showing his critical theory roots here, as he echoes Max Weber’s warning at the end of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. But the “snuffing out,” the administrative killing of even though bison, was so beneath the consciousness of the butchers of “Art Meets Beast,” it proves Adorno’s point on a broader scale.
In one sense, the vacancy of religious significance in “Art Meets Beast” reveals its own place in religious history. There was no mysterious artist giving his “signature” in Bourdieu’s sense. The artist as a willing subject has been disseminated at least since Andy Warhol had assistants making his prints for him while he talked to cameras. The artist, like the European subject, is disappearing, and this does have religious significance.
The western concept of action, inherited from the Greeks, is a gesture producing meaning, inherently violent in being’s grasping of the world through reason and language (logos). In a secular or Godless world meaning is perceived as purely “constructed.” The society who kills God is responsible for its own meaning. This gesture demands justice in the witnessing of its own birth, for the one who kills one’s father creates himself. As meaning-maker, the person of action, like Zeus replaces God as time (Chronos). Modernity claimed the “death of god,” but closely following was the “death of humanism.” These phrases show action annihilating the author of the action, resulting in the death of the subject; we all become others, authors. In becoming master creator, assuming God’s throne, the human continues to follow the traces of the God who recedes from the world in the Old Testament. The Reformation, the birth of capitalism, the rise of institutions, the rise of liberalism – these narratives work in varying degrees as the story of an individual who either disappears or becomes an object. But they ignore the exposure of being and they forget spirit, just as modern science favors the verifiable. This has become the western conception through its own hubris.
The hero, the king, like Shakespeare’s Richard II, once witnessed in death or as scapegoat, becomes secularized. As Richard says, “Throw away respect, / Tradition, form and ceremonious duty, / For you have mistook me all this while. / I live with bread, like you, feel want, / Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus, / How can you say to me I am a king?” (3.2. 173-177). Modernism is the departure of God, the death of the Sun King, the dissemination into state institutions, and finally into a populace. Timothy Leary sought to democratize the mystical. Suicide bombers are the epitome of the modern subject canceling itself out. Killing with their own hands, they are most authentic. And sacrifice is the right word for the action. For sacrifices disseminate the real to community through their monstrosity. The tragic hero is sacrificed.
And it seems to be something humans need, sacrifice. But in a society where nothing is sacred, where there is no need for sacrifice, the reality of the need explodes in horrible ways. Perhaps religion, violent as it is, arose out of the attempt to control violence.
In my music, especially in a context such as “Art Meets Beast,” where I am essentially background music, I tend to think of myself as channeling culture. A kind of “mysticism” informs this conception, but it’s as much historical as it is personal. Henry Bergson, in The Creative Mind, celebrates this aspect of William James’ philosophy, which was itself derived from his father’s Spiritualism:
According to James, we bathe in an atmosphere traversed by great spiritual currents. If many of us resist, others allow themselves to be carried along. And there are certain souls which open wide to the beneficent breeze. Those are mystical souls. (212)

At many Quaker meetings, people worship in silence. They wait to feel inner light before speaking; they wait for a call. The skeptic will notice that somehow the same few people feel the light almost every meeting, and that lots more people feel the light when the atmosphere is charged with politics or the need for social action, especially at more liberal meetings. But the idea of the meeting’s silence also implies the meeting’s ability to absorb as a collective the things that might appear as “off” or even flat out annoying. At meetings I attended a few years ago, I often wondered what annoyed me so much about some people, and it helped me consider my own hang-ups. And yet more than once, someone across the room whom I didn’t know would speak a message that felt profound. One may certainly call Quakerism a “modern” religion in its egalitarian and personalized sensibilities in relation to the divine. I don’t care to analyze that here – that is, I know what works for me. But as I consider the relationship between my spirituality and my artistic work, I often come up against the problem of intentionality. One of the first principles of R. P. Poulan’s classic, Graces of Interior Prayer, is that one cannot will a mystical experience; it must come from outside (114).
Levinas’s desire as more than lack and Lacan’s imaginary speak to this in that the mystical experience would be the intrusion of the real, the precisely unsignifiable. So what does the role of intention play, either in religious experience, theory, or performance? Is it futile to intend? The attitude of intending is that this we must try. Simone Weil claims that
The act of creation is not an act of power. It is an abdication. Through this act a kingdom was established other than the kingdom of God. The reality of this world is constituted by the mechanism of matter and the autonomy of rational creatures. It is a kingdom from which God has withdrawn. God, having renounced being its king, can only enter as a beggar. (123)
John D. Caputo has echoed this sentiment in The Weakness of God, saying God disrupts the order of human power. But, simultaneously, to deliberately stand outside society is a method or attitude of exposing one’s self to the possibility of a grace that is impossible – for grace does not appear to be an act in time or human intention – in hopes for an answer to earthly trauma or an exit to God, or wherever God “went.” In any case, my theory musically is to perform through a labor of creation repetitiously so as to forget my will through process. Action cannot be determined by a being which grasps alone, but a being whose labor is abdication.
Behind the butchers’ talking and the audience’s questions, I used electronic s to record fragments of Native American (Pawnee and Alabama) songs about buffalos along with fragments of songs like “Where the Buffalos Roam” to convey a sense of regional and historical dimension. I particularly chose “Where the Buffalo Roam” because it would be recognizable. I distorted the songs with textures of percussive noises I made by hitting the strings of my guitar repeatedly with a metal bar and recording loops. I also distorted the original melodies by speeding them up or slowing them down so they were unrecognizable, and by turning them backwards. All of this made for a wide texture of sparkling confusion. I would then watch the people and the butchers, mimicking their acts of cutting, clapping, or chatter on my strings. As the event progressed I slowly brought in the evensong hymn, “Abide with Me,” written by William H. Monk in 1861. It suited the historical aspects and the time of day, but I mostly chose it for its lyrical content, especially its first two forms:
Abide with me: fast falls the eventide; The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide: When other helpers fail, and comforts flee; Help of the helpless, O abide with me. Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; Earth’s joys grow dim, it’s glories pass away: Change and decay in all around I see; O thou who changest not abide with me. (72)

Knowing that few people in the audience would recognize the hymn to begin with, let alone the words, I attempted to create a texture at the level of culture dominant to those in the audience and to this part of the country.
And so, my attempt at “Art Meets Beast” was to try to give spiritual significance to the secular act. A ritual sacrifice restores a kind of order to the universe, but it must be recognized as such. As Carl Raschke has written in Fire and Roses, connecting sacrifice to Freud’s Oedipal complex, “Both sacrifice and Oedipal tension are founded on the necessity of ‘giving up’ something that is alluring and precious to fulfill a higher obligation” (152). No one but the buffalo was giving up anything at “Art Meets Beast.” But Raschke points to Freud’s use of Robertson Smith writing on sacrifice. For Smith,

identified a totem animal with the victim of the cult sacrifice. He argued that a “totem feast,” in which the sacred animal of the clan was butchered and eaten, was the basis for sacrificial procedures. The animal was a “god,” insofar as it appropriated the collective identity of the clan. It was holy and inviolable – that is, “taboo”; it could not be killed or consumed without terrible penalties. Yet, on prescribed ceremonial occasions, it was actually enjoined of clan
members to infringe the taboo and share in a corporate meal of the animal’s flesh.(153)

Bison were nearly extinct in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century due to massive slayings for sport. As bison have been slowly integrated into food commerce, in the west they signify all aspects – genocides included – of the “winning of the west.” A holy animal whose albino births inspire Native American revolts, the bison is as close as we come to a sacred beast that may be slaughtered and eaten as ritual. Yet Raschke also notes that “the sacrifice of the god was the recapitulation historically of, as well as the mythological token of the Oedipal wish for, the murder of God” (156). Rehearsing deconstruction and the death of God, Raschke says philosophy (which I am using here synonymously with theory, or the presentation of the view) “must be a thinking of the body to its very eschatology,” yet also coinciding with “the parousia. It must be a thinking of the body as transfigured. The transfiguration of the body is prefigured in the mobilization and pure movement and unity of the soma through eros to its clarifying representation in the ‘next’ dimension” (170). While my music did not “clarify the representation in the next dimension,” I do believe that artistically considering work – and I would say the same of theory because for me they are connected – as a kind of abdication is not an avoidance of responsibility but a making way for a kind of parousia – because the abdication must be eventually remembered. Textural and ambient music is transfigurative. As much as work in this context may be considered a disavowal or disinheritance or even forgetting, it is also a recognition that work flees, and that one recognizes Spirit by imposing measure. In improvised music, time, as duree in Bergson’s sense, is measured in my body as the event of my life and whatever sustains it imposes measure. Theory after postmodernism must be a kind of opening to a parousia, not because Christians wait for Christ, but because the self is not its own; it is overflowed with the infinite and the imaginary, and closed off or isolated it cancels itself out in a theatre of violence it cannot even witness.

Works Cited
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[1] It is not the purpose of this essay to delineate how these thinkers extend Descartes’ cogito, but it is important to note that, especially for Levinas, his retaining of a Cartesian subject has much to do with his refutation of Heidegger and that he keeps a discussion of the subject largely to show how phenomenology fails, and that in that failure is where one can logically determine the preconscious relationship to the Other which would prioritize ethics over ontology.

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