The song “You Got It” sung by Roy Orbison was temporarily ruined for me by Target. The song’s lyrics beautifully express dedication and a sort of longing devotion, sentiments perfectly suited to Orbison’s iconic voice. The structure of the song corresponds with this emboldened expression of love. Yet Target, in true capitalist fashion, hijacked the song, as is their right as an affluent corporation, and transformed it into an expression of Target’s ability to sell you “anything you want”. The idea should be somewhat disgusting to people, that such a selfless expression of love becomes associated with selling a cheap product, but in my experience not many people take these sorts of things that seriously. Still, I’m disappointed every time the song comes on because though I want to enjoy it for what it is, a connection has formed between Roy Orbison and Target.
The same can be said about the song “Fortunate Son” by CCR. I’ve heard it used numerous times to advertise Fourth of July sales, particularly of used cars. “Some folks were born made to wave the flag. Ohh that red, white, and blue…” “Come in now for our weekend-only Fourth of July Sale and get a used Toyota with no monthly payments for up to a year.” Never mind that Fortunate Son is a criticism of the classist nature of the United States’ Drafting policy during the Vietnam War. Some folks were born to waive the flag, and those people probably want used cars without any protest. Shut up and que the red, white, and blue firework graphics.
Let’s use “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to sell deodorant to Facebook’s insecure teenagers. We’re using “Come Together” to sell the Justice League movie.
I wish I could distill an experience in isolation. It seems our minds form conceptual maps by which a thing is understood in a network of relations. I was listening to Japanese koto music and it impressed itself upon me that I was experiencing the music in relation to stereotypes of Japanese culture. Koto music is, of course, a product of Japanese culture and as such does stand in relation, however it is also a collection of organized sounds, sounds that have nothing to do with a specific culture but are simply sensation. Further, what do I really know about the culture that produced this product? I know the stereotypes of Japan, but I do not know those nuanced and indescribable things which also constitute Japan? I know little of its complex history. Thus it’s possible that by connecting this music with a stereotypical image, I’m even further distanced from experiencing it in the same spirit in which it was authored.
For the longest time, I could not enjoy bossa nova music because I understood it as lobby music, and thus could not distance it from a corporate image. It was the type of music played on the phone when one is put on hold. I did not even connect it with Brazil because it’s Brazilian essence was removed in the form to which I was first exposed. My wife, being Latin American and thus having a more intimate awareness of products of Latin American culture, could not separate bossa nova from Brazil in the same way I cannot separate koto from Japan.
Perhaps the way to break the through the trap is to form new connections that disrupt the old. In listening more closely to bossa nova, it’s relationship to Brazil became obvious and thus part of the system of connections by which I understood it. Further, I started to think of it in connection to an image of relaxed affluence that was also characteristic of popular culture in the United States. The Astrud Gilberto Album (1965) reminds me of the noncommittal musings of The Velvet Underground (1969).
Those things one considers neutral might be the things one learned earliest in life. The things with which one makes connections, as opposed to the things with which a connection must be made in order to be understood. One’s own culture. One’s own language.
The English word “science” in Spanish is “ciencia”. When spoken, the two words sound similar enough. In written form, however, I have a difficult time associating the Spanish word with the concept. Science, to me, is somehow relate to the “S”. The “S” has some personality that has compounded with my concept of science. Some sleek, smooth sexiness, or serene simplicity. Something that slides off the tongue. Flexible and cunning, seductive, a shape-shifter, like Satan has often been described. However, learning the new language is a way of dislodging the concept from the word, for the word is an identifier, whereas the concept is that which is identified. It is somewhat prelinguistic. I’d say some concepts, perhaps not the concept described by the word “science”, are entirely pre-linguistic. (Other, more complex concepts are built up on words, and thus describe language as much as they describe something pre-linguistic.) Learning a new language helps one get in connection with the pre-linguistic.
Logocentrism is a term that describes a certain mode of thinking that gives preference to the word (logo=word, centric=focused). We learn a language, obviously, as part of a given culture, but perhaps less obvious is this education’s visual equivalent. One might describe western culture as either logocentric or vision-centric. Is there a competition between receiving knowledge via spoken word or seen image? Rationalism versus empiricism? What if the languages we are taught are based on or develop modes of thought that equally influence the way we see? Word and image are both abstractions of the physical world, unless they somehow refer to themselves (poetic use of words or a non-representational visual art). A more adequate binary would be between the conceptual and the physical, or the abstracted vs. the particular.
The concept of Buddhism will always feel like a foreign concept. The promotion of Buddhism in the west is the imposition of a foreign concept. Every white man who puts on a kimono and starts chanting a mantra feels like a poser to his peers, like he’s just trying to criticize western society by presenting himself as more enlightened. Zen, for example, arrises in a certain context, the consequence of a certain history. Something zen-like, however, can arise in the west, by a different name. “zen” is a word, what it describes does not inherently belong to Japan, just as chan does not inherently belong to China and Buddhism does not inherently belong to India.
The west has developed ideas comparable to the ideas elaborated on in diverse Buddhist teachings.
Certain thinkers such as Henri Bergson arrived at zen-like conclusions. He did so by developing a philosophy arising out of the concepts of motion and change, by rejecting an idealized, static, geometric construct of the perceived world. In the mid 1500s, Michel de Montaigne began writing his collection of essays, the predecessor to the modern essay. His essays contain personal anecdote as well as philosophical analysis, thus allowing the subjective to influence his method. (The word “essay” itself means “an attempt”). Montaigne’s essay’s are comparable to those of Yoshida Kenkō, a Buddhist monk.
John Cage begins his compilation of writings and talks entitled Silence by reflecting on his practice. In this introduction, he “releases zen from responsibility”, while he admits to being inspired by its ideals. John Cage remains a western composer, however much he pushed the concepts of western composition.
Harold Ramis referred to himself as “Buddish”. “I proselytize (zen) without practicing it.”
I too find myself highly inspired by zen, and Buddhism in general, yet I’d feel myself a fraud if I were to claim any allegiance to some system of thought entitled “zen”. But then again, this doesn’t really matter.