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Fifteen Paths

To the memory of my grandfather Moshe Yechiel Rosen,
who saw the worst of humanity but emerged from the
dissonance as an exemplar of dignity and love.

Contents

Introduction

Chapter 1

Be Brave and Romantic

Chapter 2

Reach a Wordless Consensus

Chapter 3

Break Rules Out of Respect

Chapter 4

Change the Way You Listen

Chapter 5

Trade Fairly

Chapter 6

Educate for the Future

Chapter 7

Eat at a Table

Chapter 8

Laugh at Yourself and Everything that Seems Important

Chapter 9

Be Curious

Chapter 10

Try Fairy-Tale Logic

Chapter 11

Play the Spaces

Chapter 12

Surprise Yourself — and Your God

Chapter 13

Seek Out Elders

Chapter 14

Re-create Yourself

Afterword

Don’t Be a Detached Observer

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Copyright

Introduction

At least one thing is becoming clearer as we round out the second decade of the third millennium: well-meaning societies have allowed the wrong people to lay claim to substantial amounts of power. You want proof? In the last few political cycles, how many populist and nationalist leaders comfortable using strategies that exploit bigotry and prejudice to advance themselves have been elected? How many entertainment industry stewards have finally been exposed by the #MeToo campaign, after decades of engaging in horrific abuse? How many senior executives at tech companies that dominate both the stock market and much of our lives harbor unabashedly monopolistic ambitions and a complete disregard for privacy rights? And let’s not even start counting the molestation scandals at religious institutions or abuses of power at the hands of police. The fact that these bad behaviors are coming to light with greater frequency offers a beacon of hope that things will get better. But the more immediate takeaway is that even in an age of information, good people who should know better have been complicit in ceding excessive amounts of social, political and economic power to bad ones.

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering how this happened. I’m less curious about why those who acquire power tend to be horrible (research in psychology has found that at a certain point, the acquisition of power leads to empirically verifiable brain damage1), and more curious about the good folks who fail to resist. Is it because people are struggling to make sense of the contemporary world, perhaps more so than in decades past? Is it because so many of us just don’t understand how societies and cultures with so much promise have come to such a demoralizing social place? Isn’t it weird that “citizen” has become a dirty word in some segments of society, and that while our social networks may be vast, our circles of trust are ever shrinking?

I believe that the antidote to crippling uncertainty and confusion is wisdom. One important source of wisdom is the ability to keep a conversation going, but conversation is in a state of decline, supplanted by online diatribes. When honest folks lose the ability to understand and respect intellectual differences, they are unlikely to be able to make sense of a complicated world. So how can we tune out the noise that prevents us from staying in dialogue with each other, particularly when we have opposing world-views? The short answer is to turn on our imaginative faculties and turn off, or at least temporarily mute, our argumentative ones. Moral progress is driven by imagination — hearing and telling stories that increase our sensitivity not winning rational arguments. As a culture, we have historically put our trust in the imaginative expressions of artists to offer leadership in the task of extending societal sympathies. Art offers paths of transcendence and hope, a filling of the gaps in moral progress that allows our political class to follow.

The long answer to the question is the point of this book. I wanted to talk directly with the people who give me hope. I set out to spend a full year seeking the counsel of my heroes, appreciating their art, engaging them in conversation and working with them to chart some useful paths forward. The fruits of our exchanges are shared here so that others can pick up our conversations and move them forward. Tackling such an important topic with any degree of competence could not possibly be a solo journey — it requires the thinking of a wide and diverse assortment of imaginative participants. I needed the artists to start the conversations, and I need the readers to keep it going.

A few major themes emerge from this year of conversation: As dialogue across political, social, economic, religious or ideological divides become mired in identity politics and fake news, we need to rethink what it means to listen. As corporate scandal after scandal goes unanswered, with fewer people benefiting from our economic system, we need to reevaluate the predatory form of capitalism that dominates our markets. As monopolistic tech companies try to position themselves as the new gatekeepers to social meaning, and screens become our mystical pathways, even those without mystical inclinations need to rethink spirituality. The artists that I was lucky enough to sit down with have much to offer on these topics, and many of these conversations challenged my own worldviews and assumptions. Even if you are not familiar with any individual artist or their work, even if you are not interested in the genres they create in, even if you don’t care for rock or rap or comics, I am confident that you can still learn a lot from their words. Let them help you tune out the noise that is preventing you from turning on the full potential of your imagination.

Most of us, most of the time, do our best to use our physical, mental and emotional tools to craft purposeful lives. When things go right, we confidently find harmony between what we think and hope should be and what actually is. We observe, we imagine, we aspire and, most importantly, we carry on.

Until something cracks. In the aftershocks of those moments, the “is” of our observations and the “ought” of our imagination no longer coalesce. We stumble to make sense of our lived experiences. We are thrown off by the sudden disappearance of the stability, born of a coherent sense of self and a seeming alignment in our internal assessment of the relationship between purpose and possibility, which had enabled us to find meaning up until the rupture. When we encounter a disruptive experience in our emerging narrative of sense-making, many of us withdraw from the uncertain outside world into the familiar confines of our inner mental space, where we can control our own reality. And in the technological age, we have tools of social media that allow us to withdraw from the reality of a social world without even realizing that we have done so.

Disruption does not need to be catastrophic for us to justify a social withdrawal. Even when we imagine a future that looks welcomingly bright, conflict can arise in our mental models, causing a halt in our forward progress. When we find a disagreement between the mind and the heart, for example, we may feel unbalanced and immobilized. Eventually, though, we make a choice. Living means taking action — even when we need more time to think, or wish we had more options. Living means finding a way to accept the bumps of conflict and move on.

Far more unsettling, however, and difficult to overcome, are those history-making events that leave a wake of disruptive instability in the social narratives of a diverse group of folks. As 2016 drew to a close, I happened to be in New York City on election night, having made a pilgrimage with other nerds eager to witness the local live debut of the somewhat mythical alternative rock band Temple of the Dog. This night would tragically take on even more significance in light of lead singer Chris Cornell’s untimely passing a few months later. There will have been only eight live shows in the history of this tremendous band. While their music brought so much light to their audiences, Cornell sadly could not shake off the darkness.

Many of the fans gathered that night at Madison Square Garden came of age during the grunge era of the early 1990s. We had traveled from all over to come together and honor a time when popular culture was dominated by alternative rock, Hilary Clinton was living in the White House and Donald Trump was the Howard Stern regular who never seemed to be in on the joke. Despite being older, grayer and preferring the comfort of seats over the tumult of a mosh pit, the observers were aging better than the culture itself. Nostalgia had never seemed so understandable . . .

Our hotel, as chance would have it, was directly next door to Trump HQ, and we found ourselves trapped in the security perimeter, making the familiar streets of NYC seem a strange fortress of exclusion. It was an appropriate place to take in the unfolding political reality. Illiberal citizens will talk of alternative facts (on the right) or intersectional power (on the left) in closed echo chambers. Opposing sides no longer make sense to the other. One side demands intellect and expertise be rejected as products of fake news, while the other insists that personal privilege be checked at the altar of identity politics. In the face of such impossible rules of engagement, curiosity is stunted. Formerly open spaces are now made “safe,” but at what cost?

Can we still hope for the free expression necessary for learning, intellectual growth and human enlightenment when both the right and the left seek to censor and silence voices that make them uncomfortable? Not unless we rethink listening and how we engage in the political realm. Can we still defend an inclusive type of capitalism when greed and narcissism are rewarded with the highest office? Not unless we rethink why a predatory form of capitalism has come to dominance and how we engage in the economic realm. Can we still believe in a non-fundamentalist, welcoming approach to religion as having a part to play in civic discourse when sacred texts are used to limit the rights of those who choose to live differently than these texts prescribe? Not unless we rethink spirituality and how we engage in the philosophical realm.

Recent polls suggest that only a little over half of American millennials hold a favorable view of capitalism.2 The young see things with fresh eyes, allowing for insights that perhaps those of us who have been socialized within the system for so long can no longer discern. If our preferred economic system can only be salvaged by re-engineering the mindsets of nearly half of the next generation, is something not terribly wrong with our plan? If Donald Trump, a boorish child of privilege and caricature of the capitalist pig, is elected President of the United States by a constituency that regrets nothing in their choice, is it not time for radical change?

Forty percent of American millennials believe in restricting speech.3 That’s an astonishing number. The common sense of the masses is no longer aligning with the wisdom of old. To a certain extent, this a good thing. The noted economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote about the importance of “creative destruction.”4 A healthy business enterprise is not trying to retain existing structures, it is trying to be the first to destroy them and bring on whatever is to be next. In this thinking, companies that do not seek to continually re-invent the business landscape will find themselves powerless in the face of the innovators. Try as they might to keep up through imitation, merely copying the industry leaders as a form of adaptation will result in a very short corporate life-span. Digital photography could not rise without destroying the film industry. Streaming companies necessarily had to seek to destroy video rental stores. Ride-sharing services are trying to destroy the taxi industry.

Creative destruction in the marketplace of ideas should be as welcomed as creative destruction in the marketplace of things. In light of the repeated cycles of global financial crises, capitalism as we know it is finally being questioned by those on the inside. This is progress. But rethinking the social good of free speech is regressive. Anti-fascists using the tools of fascism is regressive. And for those who celebrate regressive behavior as an antidote to the perceived ills of progressivism, like supporting Trump in a haste to make America “great again,” there is a pressing need to reflect on the values that we in Western society have deliberately left behind and why we did so.

I admit that as a citizen of the West I am inclined to focus on the Western experience, but much of the pain I am describing is being felt across the globe. While we focus, for example, on Russia’s alleged political interference in the American presidential elections, Russian acquaintances remind me of the hopelessness they feel as Putin silences his opponents and slows their prospects for a freer society. Colleagues from Hong Kong remind me of the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, and the hopelessness they feel about their efforts to attain a democratic identity in the face of integration into Greater China. Friends from the Middle East remind me of how the promise of the Arab Spring has turned into more war in their home countries and not less. There is a global wave of discontent with the direction of the social conversation as it is currently being laid out by diverse classes of governing elites.

I was fortunate enough to converse with Richard Rorty, the actually great American pragmatist, on the beautiful Hawaiian island of Oahu two years before he died. He once wrote that despite his certain skepticism, going through the therapeutic process can be useful. Rorty believed that through therapeutic reflection, along with maturity, we could comfortably seek out redescriptions of our past and selves that better serve the living present. He believed that therapy might help us realize the danger in being committed to the idea of a “true self,” as the self is provisional, made up of changing values and beliefs acquired through social interactions. This benefit is also without a doubt the most unsettling part of therapy — giving up on the notion of a permanent self. In a later chapter, Dany Lyne will call the temporary parts of our selves the “architects of survival.” They are to be respected, but ultimately sent off as we partake in the surprising and ever-changing journey of life. The difficult question is, how much of who we used to be can be cast aside while still retaining a coherent, or at least useful, sense of self?

There is compelling evidence that conversation — as an art, a skill, a teaching tool, a pastime, a worthwhile undertaking — is in a state of rapid decline. MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle regretfully reports that millennials and younger people who grew up deprived of their parents’ conversational attention are finding comfort in social media.5 This early retreat from a shared familial conversation means youngsters don’t learn emotional intelligence in the manner of generations past, or perhaps don’t learn it at all. And there is evidence that this cognitive deviation is not limited to certain age groups. Amongst his other surprising successes, Donald Trump became the first person to harness the power of Twitter in his ascent to the highest public office — a format that limits the breadth of expression but expands its reach to millions of receivers. Trump unleashed a great call to those whose emotional growth may be stunted, and whose rage can be electronically connected to and incited.

Turkle discovered in the early 1990s that as folks started living more of their lives on screens, there was an initial feeling of empowerment: for the first time in history, ordinary people could widely project narratives of their own creation. The mediation by computer screens brought new ways for people to think about relationships, sexuality, politics and identity. Turkle wrote that “a decentered self that exists in many worlds, plays many roles at the same time.”6 Real life becomes just one window amongst the many mediated by our screens. Could she have even imagined the windows offered by Logan Paul, a YouTube sensation who, for the entertainment of Western teens, went to the Aokigahara Forest in Japan to film and mock the lost souls who committed suicide there?

Turkle cautions us to slow the pace of these radical changes in behavior. The more she found youngsters using screens to make sense of their lives, the more she felt the viability of a manageable social future might be in doubt. Looking at current realities, we’ve become excellent at broadcasting, but receiving has perhaps become a lost skill. In the digital age, information is abundant, but wisdom is in short supply.

When I imagine a child growing up in an environment where the reclusive act of texting has come to replace the boisterous din of parental banter, I think of the fetus/star child from Stanley Kubrick’s hauntingly prophetic masterpiece 2001. Written with Arthur C. Clarke, 2001 is still widely regarded as one of the most important films of all time. In his book on the making of the film, Piers Bizony expounds7 on the insight that one of the main reasons why so much of 2001 accurately predicted how we are in fact living with technology today is because the filmmakers were in a race with NASA — the film had to significantly outpace the emerging technology or else Kubrick’s vision would appear outdated. So they needed to understand which technological tools were coming to market and how their usage might evolve. The prophecy was born of a reasonable hypothesis of the next steps NASA and private enterprise partnerships were likely to take.

Yet it is not their predictions of the technology itself that holds my imagination. It is their predictions of what happens to humanity as a consequence of these newly acquired tools. I think of the star child, floating absolutely alone through the vastness of space, untethered to any maternal cord, eyes wide open, staring not at the viewer of the film, but through and beyond them. Maybe the star child represents the next evolutionary stage for humanity? Soon after he saw the film in 1968, the late Pulitzer Prize–winning film critic Roger Ebert discussed the brilliance in Kubrick’s vision with a message that resounds and invites pause a half century later:

[Kubrick] shows us becoming a toolmaker in order to control our natural environment, and he shows us finally using our tools to venture out into space. At the end, he shows man drawn beyond his tools so that we exist in the universe itself with the same natural ease we once enjoyed on Earth . . . man undergoes a transformation as important as when he became a tool-user. He becomes a natural being again, having used his tools for hundreds of thousands of years to pull himself up by the bootstraps. Now he no longer needs them. He has transcended his own nature, as that original ape did, and now he is no longer a “man.”8

Does this accurately describe the current digital explorations of modern cybernauts? Will the digital tool-makers be reborn in cyberspace, as the techno-boosters hope, into something greater than mere humans? There is no doubt that the unfolding digital present is proving to be quite evolutionary in regard to how we construct our social reality. Texting is replacing talking. Teams and workspaces are more often than not virtual. And most curious to those of a certain age, a social invitation now requires a dimensional qualifier. The urbane denizens setting the trends of contemporary civilization are radically differentiating themselves from all other organic life via a somewhat frantic and unthinking mass transference into digital space. Where Kubrick’s prophetic vision falls short is in his presumption that humanity would use their advanced digital tools in the exploration of the natural world. Instead, we’re retreating from the organic world altogether.

What still strikes me about the closing image of 2001 is the loneliness in the eyes of the star child. Yes, there was a knowing peace in the star child’s glimmer as he turned to face the audience, but to the younger me it was a chilling gaze. Our techno tools are addictive — not by accident, but by design. How can we not be horrified that leading social media companies have behavioral neuroscientists and psychologists on staff, not to cure the mental diseases of addiction, anxiety and depression, but to encourage their manifestation?9

It is not the vastness of an ever-expanding universe that interests the majority of our leading creative minds, but the potential of a shrinking retreat. Closed borders. Closed conversations. Closed systems. It is not the discussions of those who have lived bigger lives, physically traversed a greater span of our planet’s terrain or seen more firsthand that interests a good chunk of our fellow citizens, but the retreat to a narrow world that they can both create and control. Perhaps they will view me as the lonely star child, floating through a physical space detached from the digital tether of hive connectedness. The very human act of looking upwards into the vastness of space can both remind us of the loneliness in the human condition and inspire a motivating sense of awe, wonder and the limitless possibilities of human endeavor. It is perhaps fitting that in the early months of 2017 scientists discovered a number of previously unknown planets potentially able to support life and within a distance from Earth that is theoretically possible to traverse over a lifetime — and few people cared.

Those of us who still believe in the enduring value of unfettered free expression, an inclusive type of capitalism, a non-fundamentalist, welcoming approach to religion or other ideas that were once taken seriously by thought leaders need to rethink their paradigms and reclaim social power. We need to find hope amidst the dissonance, a word of Latin origin that means “not agreeing in sound.” Psychologist Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance suggests dissonance leads to psychological discomfort, motivating sane and rational beings to try to reduce it.10 Most often, these efforts lead to consciously avoiding information that would likely increase dissonance. But that won’t work in times of social upheaval. We need to encounter the dissonance head-on and unafraid, with the intention of transforming that which makes us uncomfortable into something hopeful.

New ideas that make us uncomfortable are an opportunity to question assumptions. Even those who prefer cold rationality over emotional heat should not turn away or reject these feelings . . . Strengthening the mind requires spending some time sitting in these awkward feelings, soaking in the sensations and trying to gain a clearer understanding of that discomfort’s powers.

A safe way to embrace dissonance is through conversation. In this book, you will be exposed to an impressive variety of imaginative, iconoclastic and prophetic artists and conversations that explore the many difficult but empowering paths to wisdom in the information age. Richard Rorty defines wisdom as the ability to keep a conversation going.11 Is there wisdom to be found in listening to people we disagree with or whose opinion makes us uncomfortable that is more life-affirming than crafting the safe space of an echo chamber? Is wisdom, as opposed to identity, still a virtue that can help heal the contemporary malaise?

We are surrounded by information and cynical of efforts to transfer wisdom of the past to our always buzzing contemporary hive mind. But are we generating new paths to wisdom, or are we simply collecting information? Author and artist Douglas Coupland worries that when we know that all the information that exists in the world can be accessed instantly by the tiny devices in our pockets, world-weariness creates a disincentive for doing so.12 Our lackadaisical attitude towards seeking wisdom is made more worrisome by corporations increasingly infringing on personal space. As author and technology critic Franklin Foer eloquently warns, companies like Google, Facebook and Apple “aspire to encompass all of existence . . . More than any previous coterie of corporations, the tech monopolies aspire to mold humanity into their desired image of it.”13 Is this what we as a society want? To have every aspect of our individual life dominated by corporations? Do we even remember what it means to trade fairly? Love of innovation means finding new ways to engage in business, politics and culture, and where innovators seek to not only further enrich themselves but to improve the society in which they are active. Innovation should be tied to a sense of moral agency and a vision for social change. Innovation should be a value-creation process dedicated to finding new ways to meet social needs. And innovators need to convince the public that their vision for society is just.

The conversations that form the core of this book present fifteen ways forward. This book sets out to test ideas with the imaginative, romantic, iconoclastic visionaries who can reshape our thinking. What links these seemingly disparate individuals is their sense of wonder that powers imaginative expressions — whether it be through dissonant rock, punk shamanism, ecstatic dance, poetic rap, fantastical comics, magical clowning or mystical channeling — that can help us tune out noise, turn on our imaginations and discover new paths to the heart of wisdom.


1    Useem, J. (2017, July/August). Power causes brain damage: How leaders lose mental capacities — most notably for reading other people — that were essential to their rise. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/07/power-causes-brain-damage/528711/

2    Smith, N. (2018, July 12). If you love capitalism, worry about small business. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-07-12/small-businesses-and-startups-lose-to-market-dominating-giants

3    Rampell, C. (2017, September 18). A chilling study shows how hostile college students are toward free speech. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-chilling-study-shows-how-hostile-college-students-are-toward-free-speech/2017/09/18/cbb1a234-9ca8-11e7-9083-fbfddf6804c2_story.html

4    Schumpeter, J. A. (1975). Capitalism, socialism and democracy. New York: Harper.

5    Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming conversation: The power of talk in a digital age. New York: Penguin Press.

6    Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

7    Bizony, P. (2014). The making of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.Frankfurt: Taschen.

8    Ebert, R. (1968, April 21). 2001 — The monolith and the message. Roger Ebert’s Journal. https://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/2001-the-monolith-and-the-message

9    Dillard-Wright, D. (2018, January 4). Technology designed for addiction. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/boundless/201801/technology-designed-addiction

10    Festinger, L. (1962). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

11    Rorty, R. (2009). Philosophy and the mirror of nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

12    Coupland, D. (2010). Player one: What is to become of us. Toronto: House of Anansi.

13    Foer, F. (2017). World without mind. New York: Penguin.

Chapter 1

Be Brave and Romantic

Nearly fifty years ago, sociologist Peter Berger asked14 whether Western society could still find transcendence in a modern secularized world. And while15 he did not single out experiencing art as a secular path to transcendence, he did list hope, play and humor as possible paths — all elements of artistic expressions. Some of the artists we will meet rage, while others laugh. Some will offer order, while others deconstruct. All of them have spent a lifetime refining their imagination by engaging in experimental creative activity and immersing themselves in creative environments. It is their voices, often speaking from the margins, that we must listen to and learn from so that we can improve our own imaginative faculties.

In our pre-secular past, the path to transcendence was heralded by prophets. Has America known prophets? I think Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr. may qualify, rabbi and preacher, white and Black, marching together in Selma over fifty years ago. Do we still have prophets of that caliber? Let’s ask a different question first: what are the qualities we should expect to find in a contemporary American prophet? Before we can know if worthy prophets still exist, we need to know what characteristics we should be looking for. In seeking to answer that question, Richard Rorty16 decided that today’s prophets would be patriotic, religious and romantic . . . and therefore very unlikely to find a welcoming audience in modern America!

Our first path to wisdom is inspired by the last of these prophetic characteristics: the often-maligned romantic spirit. The romantic instinct is missing in the mainstream political and intellectual voices that dominate our contemporary cultural landscape. This is a shame, because romanticism was the essential calling card of the ancient prophets and poets . . . but it has been devalued. As the public conversation fills with arguments rooted in alternative facts and lacking in sense, individuals seeking wisdom need to embrace their romantic instincts.

Let me share a personal story. As a know-it-all undergraduate student in philosophy, I would spend hours arguing with a professor who was also a rabbi and member of a fundamentalist Hasidic sect. I could understand the backwards appeal of fundamentalist cultural isolationism to those who didn’t know better, but how could this esteemed scholar live a life that was so antithetical to rational inquiry? Our back-and-forth on identity and purpose went on for years. Until one day, we were sitting at his dining room table, having consumed copious amounts of vodka, and he stared straight into my eyes and said, “You will never know the incredible joy I feel in being a Hasid of my rebbe. Your intellect will never allow you to feel what I feel.” And with that he poured us another shot, and we never debated the issue again. Because he was right. My drive to overanalyze and hyper-rationalize prevented me from seeing the positive possibilities in his choice to make himself completely vulnerable to his teacher. He had chosen a romantic path to wisdom, and while I recognized the wisdom in him, which is why he was my teacher, until that moment I simply could not see the necessary connection between what he was and how he came to be.

To pull back from spectacle and baseness and present deep emotion requires vulnerability, which is the major risk of committing to a romantic pursuit. Too many of us are scared of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, often with good reason. People are cruel; people judge; people exploit. We protect ourselves with our own judgments and rationalizations. We think our paths to knowledge are the only ones worth taking. So the opening path to get beyond knowledge and information and actually seek wisdom is twofold: Be brave to be romantic.

Courage is the emotional strength that allows us to accomplish our goals in the face of opposition,17 including traits like integrity, authenticity and perseverance. Being real means being brave. Being brave means being vulnerable. Being vulnerable lets us build more durable relationships. This may shock a generation who has matured on social media, but authenticity involves the long and hard work of developing an honest reputation, and not simply worrying about our “brand.” Perseverance means rejecting the shortcuts offered by public relations deceptions, and instead working hard to show the world the distinctive character that we have developed.

A romantic spirit can bolster our focus during tumultuous times. It spurs the quest for ideas, which encourages commitment to a project even when there is uncertainty around the outcome. The romantic instinct creates a shared sense of trust that allows for radical exploration and the hope of creating something transformational. A romantic spirit can be the foundation of trust and hope in times of discord and fear. Romanticism can be the driver of innovation in uncertain environments.

In fleshing out what it might mean to be romantic, Heschel describes18 prophets as poetic, iconoclastic and unwilling to tolerate human mediocrity. It’s also how I would describe my heroes. Lee Ranaldo emerged from the no wave scene of 1970s New York City, honing his voice and craft over decades while maturing into the elder statesman of alternative culture that he is today. In our radically disruptive age, the ability to be comfortable with dissonance is a valuable currency. Lee was the guitarist and cofounder of the seminal alternative rock band Sonic Youth, but his creative vibrancy has only increased over the past few decades as he continues to express himself as a musician, poet, writer and visual artist.

Though far too modest to ever self-identify as such, Lee has all the hallmarks of a contemporary prophet: a true artist, using words, music and performance to stimulate the emotional and imaginative faculties of his audience; a post-punk iconoclast and elder statesman of alternative rock challenging the revered; and one of the kindest and most humble individuals one is ever likely to encounter. The goal of talking with Lee is to learn what we can from someone who has spent a lifetime immersed in sonic dissonance. A society in flux can still thrive, as long as we can listen to each other, and on occasion, listen to those who are outside our community. Dissonance need not be a conversation stopper, provided that a few safeguards are securely in place.

In my mind, the most important of these safeguards are innovative subcultures. A healthy society must include constellations of small subcultures that carry on distinct conversations that empower its members. Lee Ranaldo, both with and without Sonic Youth, has been at the forefront of creative subcultures, as an inspiring leader and active participant, for over four decades. For those unfamiliar with his former band, I defer to his compatriot Lydia Lunch — another personal hero whom we will encounter in our closing chapter — and her description of Sonic Youth as “the aural equivalent of an interplanetary detonation, which reconfigures sound into a blistering emotional maelstrom.” Sonic Youth were a group whose musical explorations defied categorization, veterans of the post-punk scene of ’80s New York and the alternative-rock breakthrough of the ’90s. They directly inspired and introduced to the world bands who would more explicitly shape pop culture, like Nirvana.

The first Sonic Youth album (cassette, actually) I ever bought changed how I think about the world, and as a piece of art is no less impactful today. We all have songs or stories that inexplicably stick with us over the course of our lives, offering emotional resonance that does not wane even as the context of our enjoying the songs or stories may change radically. For nearly twenty-five years, the Lee-penned Sonic Youth song “Wish Fulfillment” has elicited the most powerful emotions in me not tied to a particular place, time or associative experience as pop songs may, but through the immersion in its three and a half minutes of dissonant envelopment.

Heschel had a thought on the topic of musical expressions versus argumentative expressions worth bringing up here. He realized that “listening to great music is a shattering experience, throwing the soul into an encounter with an aspect of reality to which the mind can never relate itself adequately . . . the shattering experience of music has been the challenge to my thinking on ultimate issues. I spend my life working with thoughts. And one problem that gives me no rest is: do these thoughts ever rise to the heights reached by authentic music?”19

~

“Wish Fulfillment” offers the soul-shattering experience that defies analytical explanation. The song opens with twin guitars: one playing a gorgeous melody, each note methodically picked and clear; the other offering a howling screech of feedback and distortion. The feedback stops for a moment, leaving just the melody, and Lee sings plaintively, “I see your wishes on the wall,” when again there is a burst of sustained distortion, “and that’s all right with me.” As a listener, you don’t know where to focus your attention, the melody in the foreground or the sonic blasts in the background. The song’s narrator sees the “wishes” of the person he is addressing, her innermost fantasies of being in a magazine, being validated as a celebrity of sorts.

The strength of a musical expression is that an audience, in this case a listener, gets drawn in to the narrative of the desire to be famous more completely than if, say, the audience were a reader of an argumentative article exploring the same topic. The song was written in an era that preceded social media and selfies and is timelessly framed as an observation of a typical human emotion, a frailty that has the power to endure through changes in media, format and reach. Whether published on glossy paper, or lit up on screens through social media, the core of the wish to be seen, to be admired, remains the same. And so the message at the core of the track still resonates powerfully today. This type of wish is now easier to fulfill and as a consequence represents a more dangerously seductive frailty.

The narrator of the song assures the dreamer of approval and safety. As each lyrical phrase is punctuated by a double hit from the rhythm section, there’s a haunting calmness that is barely contained in Lee’s voice as he sings, “Your life and my life they don’t touch at all, and that’s no way to be/ We’ve never seemed so far.” The feedback begins to sound more pained and wounded. Perhaps the safety is not there, perhaps her fantasies negate the possibilities of a meaningful relationship. Then, the true ferocity of the band is unleashed as he screams, “What’s real?/ What is true?/ I ain’t turning my back on you!” and all the power of their distorted, alternatively tuned instruments are brought to the fore, and the narrator, as a powerful figure, is drawing the intended recipient of his words back in to a safe and assured space, no longer as soft-spoken poet but as passionate defender.

Lee: There are a couple of particular people I had in mind when I was writing “Wish Fulfillment.” That song is a very important song to me — I don’t really feel like the recorded version that Sonic Youth made really fully captured it. There are actually a couple of demo versions which are a little more gentle — which is more to me the way the song is. But yeah, it did go back and forth between this dissonant thing and these romantic, heartfelt images. It was partly about getting caught up in the world of magazines and glossy culture — and it was kind of addressing someone who seemed to think that culture was THE culture. And was aspiring towards that reflection — the reflection you get when other people see you on a glossy magazine. And I guess just being aware of the fact that aspiration is not what is really going to be fulfilling in the end. Just trying to look at that — without being particularly critical as much as being observant.

There, in essence, is the power of art today: offering a perspective that is not explicitly critical, but reflects the observations of someone who may be a bit wiser than us. For those of us peering into a social world that seems far more confusing than ever before, exposure to the imagination of artists like Lee can be therapeutic. Listening to songs like “Wish Fulfillment” has the potential to expand the moral senses of an audience, and not just due to the story being told. The music itself has a unique soul-shattering power.

Lee and I met up before he was to perform a solo acoustic show at the appropriately named Great Hall, originally constructed as a state-of-the-art YMCA in 1890, and now a regal venue whose stage he would first grace exactly 100 years after its construction during Sonic Youth’s second appearance in Toronto. My fondest memories of Sonic Youth are when they brought their dissonant sounds to majestic concert halls like the Masonic Temple and the legendary Massey Hall, venues whose historic importance would lend an added weight of significance to the proceedings. And even without a band or the wall of distortion, seeing Lee perform onstage with nothing more than a rug beneath his feet, a guitar in hand and some chimes within reach is no less powerful. If anything, the ferocity of his stage presence seems even more all-consuming in the company of acoustic instrumentation and a cavernous hall that naturally amplifies his sounds.

Dissonance can lead to a state of psychological discomfort. So sane and rational people are likely to try to reduce the dissonance, or so the dominant thinking goes. Lee continues to explore dissonance in a myriad of artistic endeavors. What can he share with those of us who have not been as brave and find ourselves disoriented? In our conversation, I asked him to talk about his lived experience as an artist. In the current political climate, trying to perceive what it means to be part of meaningful social conversation has become a near impossible exercise. We don’t really know how to listen anymore, or how to tune out the noise. Maybe Lee can help show us how to turn on our imagination.

Lee: I guess the easiest way to explain that is that I don’t make a huge distinction between consonance and dissonance. I think a lot of people use dissonance in a negative context, and to me it’s all part of music. For instance, when Sonic Youth was first starting out people were like, “Oh these guys are noise merchants,” or whatever, and to us, it was never about making noise. It was about using the dissonant qualities of some sounds in opposition to beautiful sounds or consonant sounds. You’re trying to play something that’s either beautiful or on the reverse side that’s supposed to be a little aggressive or a little bit discordant. I think if I was thinking about the fact, in the way you phrased it — “you’ve been dealing your whole life with dissonance” — it sounds a little depressing in a way.

But the dissonance that Lee and Sonic Youth were exploring was not depressing. Lee has written that Sonic Youth were interested in integrating pop structures with noise. That is a very different imaginative endeavor than the projects of, say, French philosopher Jacques Derrida or American Beat writer William S. Burroughs, who also were experimenting with dissonance in their artistic media. Rather than deconstruction, which is what Derrida, Burroughs and others were doing, Sonic Youth were looking for integration. And that is an especially compelling message for those navigating the contemporary socio-political landscape. On the right, we find the desire to tear down the institutions that have supported American democracy since its founding a very un-conservative undertaking justified by the view that these institutions — academia, the free press, an independent judiciary . . . even the FBI and CIA (because of the so-called Deep State) — are irreparably corrupted. On the left, there is an equally passionate desire to dismantle the institutions behind the established social order, which they view as corrupt from the start, like the so-called military-industrial complex, although the vision of what to replace it with is not yet clear. Both sides are privileging deconstruction at the expense of integration, which is why our political culture is in crisis. The message I get from Lee is that, as an artist, integration is the far more fruitful path.

Lee: I think, in part, that we were children of the time when it was all part of the sonic palette. When Stravinsky premiered Rite of Spring in the teens — 1913 or whatever it was — it wasn’t part of the vocabulary and people reacted very badly. I think these days it’s much more accepted. When Sonic Youth started out it wasn’t like that, and we were considered “noise-icians.” We happily wear that tag, but ever since then society has been a lot more accepting, and now people are using stuff that sounds beautiful alongside stuff that sounds a little discordant or dissonant. This integration makes the dissonance less offensive, less distinctive . . . it’s just another color on the painter’s palette.

Stravinsky is a wonderful reference. Riots broke out in May 1913 when the composer put on the premiere performance of his Rite of Spring ballet. The audience was appalled by the level of dissonance in the piece, with a reviewer who was present at the ballet complaining that “the music always goes to the note next to the one you expect.”20 This infuriated the crowd, leading to the surprisingly violent reactions. Why did hearing the note next to the one expected have such a strong impact? Cognitive researcher Daniel Levitin explains the effects of tonal dissonance this way: two notes can sound dissonant together if the sequence doesn’t conform to what we expect or are used to hearing.21 So for example, babies prefer the predictably soothing sounds of the consonant melodies heard in lullabies. The ability to appreciate noisy dissonance — like the music of Sonic Youth or Stravinsky — comes later in life. Of course, the thought of a contemporary audience covering their ears and losing their minds should Stravinsky be played is laughable. As a society, we evidently have the ability to evolve our thresholds of tolerance for tonal dissonance. So why not cognitive dissonance?

Dissonance can be integrated so that it is simply another color on the palette of sense-making. We need to refine our listening skills in the same way that many of us have refined our visual perception. We are not thrown off-balance when encountering a surprising color. We laugh at Stravinsky’s first audience, who violently reacted to unexpected sounds. But why are we so much more sensitive to unexpected words or ideas? It is not uncommon on university campuses today to find controversial speakers being violently shut down by self-identified progressive students. In many ways, we have not evolved that much from Stravinsky’s crowd, but the potential is certainly there. We as a society need to figure out how to facilitate the development of better listening, because it is not yet a natural or comfortable state for most people.

In Lee’s artistic endeavors, there is a deep desire to keep a particular type of conversation going. In addition to creating dissonant sounds as a “noise-ician,” he writes poetry, publishing some of these as gorgeous, hand-bound volumes, treating the book itself as a piece of art, as books once were. He plays stripped-down acoustic concerts, like on the night we spoke, hearkening back to a once-vibrant coffeehouse culture and the powerful protest songs that shaped a revolution. There is a distinct romanticism in the conversation he leads as an artist, which one does not hear in the elites. I wonder if this why we are at this current cultural crossroads. We’re not hearing enough bravely vulnerable romantic voices. Our elites may tweet, but they don’t write poetry.

On the surface, it may seem a cheesy observation, but maybe what our society really needs is more poetry. And, by the way, I am making this suggestion at a troubling time in our culture, as editors at a century-old American progressive weekly are in fact apologizing in real-time for the radical poetry they published hours earlier!22 When the public conversation is filled with senseless arguments of alternative facts, a call to return to the poets is actually radical and disruptive. But can the contemporary artist/poet step up to the social megaphone and lead our conversation? It seems that both the left and the right have no interest in creating a space for experimental poetry, and even progressive gatekeepers have lost the will to fight for an authentically disruptive disruption. Writing for the New York Times, a former poetry editor of the Nation points out that over her thirty-five year tenure they never once apologized for a poem they published. She believes that that “the proper thing to do would have been to reprint the poem together with readers’ opinions. That would have been in keeping with the expectations of a free press.”23

Lee: Mainstream culture is so bent on the lowest common denominator. I guess I can’t see the stuff I’m doing or the stuff Sonic Youth has done as in any way being welcomed into that world — it’s such a different place. What’s interesting about romanticism, because there’s an awful lot of cheesy romanticism on TV or in movies, is that it is not true romanticism . . . I find that a healthy dose of romanticism is a good way to keep on track. I think for some people they would say that’s a bit of a dirty word — like it sounds “too cutesy” or “too Hallmark-y” or something like that — but I have no problem with the idea of romanticism. In a way, if you are trying to live an artistic life you are on some level involved in a romantic pursuit from the word go — you don’t have a straight job, ...

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