Prescriptions for imaginative living in today’s noisy and ever-narrowing world
Our social conversation has gone awry. We have allowed the wrong people to lay claim to substantial amounts of social, political and economic power, leaving many of us to feel left out, left behind or left alone. We need to rethink what it means to listen, to think, to create and to be democratically engaged citizens. But how?
Fifteen Paths is a book of hope. Documenting a year of searching, a disillusioned business professor gave up on old arguments and set out to learn about the power of imagination with iconoclastic visionaries of dissonant rock, punk shamanism, ecstatic dance, poetic rap, fantastical comics, magical clowning and mystical channeling.
The men and women David Weitzner sought out shared life-altering thoughts.
Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth): a romantic spirit bolsters focus and spurs the quest for ideas; Nels Cline (Wilco): the trust of a wordless consensus is more life-affirming than winning an argument; Slava Polunin: rule-breaking unlocks untapped capacity for innovation; Jeff Coffin (Dave Matthews Band): how to change the way we listen; Sunshine Jones (Dubtribe Sound System): what it means to trade fairly; Mike Doughty (Soul Coughing): the secret of creative entrepreneurs; Jill Cunniff (Luscious Jackson): the foundations of a more inclusive business model for creativity; Del the Funky Homosapien: why there is power in laughter; Angelo Moore (Fishbone): curiosity is inseparable from optimism; Mike Mignola (Hellboy): creative minds embrace fairy-tale logic; Sonic Boom (Spacemen 3): we have a responsibility to play in the spaces left open for us; Tzvi Freeman: there is spiritual power in surprising ourselves and God; Dany Lyne: overcome trauma by connecting with elders; Lydia Lunch: we need to recreate ourselves to claim power in oppressive times.
Fifteen Paths concludes that there are no passive observers: this is an indispensable guide on how we can improve civic participation politically, expand inclusiveness in the world of economics, express our hopes and fears in the spiritual realm and build a shared culture of wisdom.
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About the Author
David Weitzner(PhD, MBA)is at heart a philosopher who briefly became a music industry executive and has now spent over a decade as a professor of strategy.David’s research takes a critical stance on decision making in capitalist environments, leading to publication in top academic journals like the Academy of Management Review,Organization Studies and the Journal of Business Ethics.David has presented at a host of international conferences, including Business as an Agent of World Benefit co-sponsored by the U.N. Global Compact. His work has appeared in popular media outlets as diverse as Tablet Magazine, TheForward and Quillette.David lives in Toronto, Ontario, with his wife and three kids.
Read an Excerpt
Be Brave and Romantic
Nearly fifty years ago, sociologist Peter Berger asked whether Western society could still find transcendence in a modern secularized world. And while 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 Rorty 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, 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 describes 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?"
* * *
"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.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fifteen Paths"
Copyright © 2019 David Weitzner.
Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Be Brave to be 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