>A Memoir of Bison Butchering and Psychedelic Aesthetics
November 28, 2010 § Leave a comment
– 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. (158)
“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. 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. (33)
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.
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.
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.
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)
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