Philosophy of Phish: Chalkdust without the Torture

Photo by Andrea Z. Nusinov

Photo by Andrea Z. Nusinov

Cross-posted at The Phish from Vermont on

What happens when your classroom is a concert? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure, but I look forward to finding out with you. This summer, I’ll be going on tour with Phish to teach a college course about Phish and philosophy.

As a phan, you might be asking, “What does philosophy have to do with Phish?” I also suspect you want to experience Phish live and not let abstract thoughts get in the way. And you especially don’t want any homework while on tour.

Fair enough. But would you believe me if I told you that as a phan, you probably already participate in philosophical activities at concerts and in online forums like this one? The Philosophy School of Phish class and movieemerged out of my conversations with phriends across the country and discussions in the crowd at concerts. I became convinced that Phish and their phans engage with philosophical ideas through music in a way that has helped me become a better philosopher. And, if my personal experience is any indication, I think many phans might be interested in learning about philosophy in the context of their favorite band.

Did you know Trey was a philosophy major in college? Many of the Phish songs phans know and love were born while he was studying some of the world’s greatest thinkers. Phans have identified artistic works, such as C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, George Lucas’ Star Wars, and Lewis Carroll’sAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as potential sources of inspiration for Trey’s senior thesis The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday (commonly known asGamehendge). I’d like to also include texts in social and political philosophy that explore the nature of politics, power, evil, and knowledge. Gamehendge, after all, is a political allegory about dictatorship (Wilson), rebellion (Rutherford the Brave), and pursuit of truth (Helping Friendly Book). In his thesis, Trey compares Icculus’ “simple tale with a moral” to “the stories of all great philosophers.”

What, then, is the philosophy of Phish? There’s no single answer to this question, nor should there be. This is because each Phish show is a unique event and there are many different kinds of philosophy. I’d also like to let you answer that question for yourself. At the end of this post, you can find information about how you can join the conversation. But first, here are some examples that show just how intimate the connection between Phish and Philosophy actually is.

Ontology: What is music?

In philosophy, the study of the nature of music is called “ontology,” which is a technical term for the study of being. Phish’s live performances regularly challenge us to reconsider the traditional definitions between music, sound, and noise. Many people assume that the difference between music and mere noise is obvious, but Phish’s use of everyday objects as instruments breaks open that distinction. Until you witnessed a Fishman vacuum solo, you probably didn’t think an Electrolux could be a used as a musical instrument. If Phish can make music with vacuumsmegaphones, and drills, how do we know what counts as music anymore?

Phish’s experimentation with the boundaries of music is not limited to the occasional stunt, but rather is woven into the history and rituals of the band. Is the silence in the song “Divided Sky” a part of the music itself? Or is it just a break in the music? When phans chant between guitar riffs at the opening of the song “Wilson,” is it music? If so, does that make phans part of the band? Given that the light shows at concerts are such a central component of the “Phish experience,” is CK5 a member of the band? If so, what is his role in making music? Does a lighting rig count as an instrument?

Affect: Why does music move us?

Phish’s music moves us, literally. We follow them from city to city, year after year. At concerts, we dance our bodies through the full range of human emotion from joy to sorrow and from laughter to terror. In our homes and workplaces, Phish’s concert recordings provide rhythm, ritual, and significance to everyday events.

Do you remember your first show and the sense of awe surrounding that experience? Is there a song you love that you’ve been chasing on tour for years? Do you have a special Phish playlist that you use to motivate yourself to study, get out of bed, or workout? What show do you play when you feel alienated and depressed and you need to reconnect?

Whatever your answers to these questions may be, I imagine you will have strong feelings about them. This power that Phish’s music holds to provoke strong emotional responses and bodily movements is an example of what philosophers and other theorists call “affect.” Affect is similar, but not limited to, what we commonly refer to as emotions; it is a broader term that encompasses embodied responses, feelings, desires, and unconscious tendencies. Do you have a hard time sitting still listening to your favorite shows? Can you not help yourself but to dance? The force that catalyzes your dancing is affect!

Phish’s late night festival sets play with this affective power of music by pushing phans into sensory extremes and dizzying, other-worldly states. The famous Tower Jam at the decommissioned Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine on August 3, 2003 is a great example. Under the cover of darkness in the early morning hours, Phish staged a heavily rumored, yet unannounced, “set” on top of the abandoned air control tower. With smoke pouring off the top of the tower, acrobats dancing in the air, and sheets hanging off the walls, the boys from Vermont delivered an hour-long, experimental jam. Free from the structure of song, Phish travelled through mysterious dreamlands and led us with them. More recently, the Storage Jamat Superball IX- played inside a storage unit art exhibit- was orchestrated to draw phans outside of themselves. As the band members redefined the sound of Phish through rotation jamming and a surround sound setup, they also confronted concertgoers with a new experience of phandom. Bombarded with dissonant music from different directions, with silhouettes as the only the visuals of the band, we were disoriented from our familiar Phish environments. Did it really happen? Or was the Festival was just an alternate reality created through music, as Trey told us in his Forbin’s narration?

Philosophy: What’s the use?

If the Phish community is already doing philosophy, what does the study of philosophy bring to phans? Philosophy offers unique questions, practices, and skills to help us come to new understandings of Phish, their music, and our community. This summer, I will be collaborating with scholars and phans to facilitate dialogue and create educational content. To learn more, visit thePhilosophy School of Phish website for Philosophy “From the Road” blog posts and updates. You can also follow me on Twitter @scjenkins and “like” the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook. Join us online and share with your friends!

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