Photo by Andrea Z. Nusinov

Photo by Andrea Z. Nusinov

This is part three of a three part series.  Philosopher and phan Kenneth Noe (ABD, Southern Illinois University Carbondale) explores Phish’s improvisational music through the concepts of habit, affect, and event.  Don’t forget to read part one and two!

Aesthetic Novelty, Live Performance, and “The Phish Community”

What Phish exemplifies is that variations in repetition are ultimately aesthetic in nature, and can be utilized in the service of creating unique aesthetic experiences in the search for spontaneity. For instance, while we can conceptualize the musical structure of “Run Like an Antelope,” securing the identity of the song across performances, what makes each performance different are aesthetic variations (e.g., a new phrase here, a rhythmic alteration there, a “Fuego” tease, a “Ramble On” quote, the unique occasion in which band member’s musical habits, ideas, and group dynamic come together, etc). These differences compound to create the unique event of that particular aesthetic experience. What is more, the band and the audience feed on these variations, merging each other’s affective responses, creating a rich dynamic. An extraordinarily complex structure of repetition, improvisational habit, musical ideas (in the sense discussed above), and affect among audience and performer thus obtains, where the improvisational habits of the individual performers integrate to generate aesthetic variations, with both the musician’s and audience’s affective responses fueling a variety of possible musical directions at any given moment. It is in the midst of this free form styling that our bodies experience the kinds of intensive excitations that can only come with a sufficient degree of positive uncertainty, suspense, and anticipation.

In an important sense, then, one might argue that Phish repeats in a more authentic manner than do most live acts, since they not only acknowledge the nature of repetition as requiring something novel and different in each instance, but more importantly, the band actively pursues those differences in the live setting. This is not to claim that Phish is somehow better than every other band. The point is that Phish illustrates the importance of novelty in aesthetic experience. Like habit and repetition, the aesthetic concept of the new does not refer to an extreme (e.g., something completely foreign) but rather combines the familiar and the different. Philosophically speaking, the new takes a share in both difference and sameness, since in order to describe something as new, there must not be anything like it that has come before. But there must still be something recognized in it, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to describe it as new in the first place (or perhaps even describe it at all for that matter). For example, each night Phish takes the stage, there is a certain degree of predictability. We don’t anticipate that they are going to break into a host of Radiohead covers. It is reasonable to expect a mix of familiar tunes (“Tweezer,” “You Enjoy Myself,” “Bathtub Gin,” etc) and some newer songs (“Joy,” “Fuego,” etc). Yet what we do anticipate, as far as we can imagine, is an unexpected jam to emerge out of these more or less familiar songs, one that actually affects us as something new, but still as something also minimally recognizable as Phish. If it is too familiar, it won’t really affect us as new; if it is too unfamiliar, it will risk alienating us. In the language of philosophical aesthetics, then, Phish exploits the idea that in order to be affected by an aesthetic presentation, what is given must be sufficiently novel but also recognizable enough to occasion a moment of reflection on the part of the subject.

It is here that we can begin to understand why Phish has generated such a dedicated and loyal fan base, so much so as to be often informally described as “the Phish Community.” The description of “phans” as a community makes a claim much stronger than that of a simple aggregation of individuals who share a common source of entertainment. More deeply, communities imply shared values and principles which unify their subjects in a mutual orientation of life, as well as a common sense of time and place where those values and principles can be embodied (enacted, lived). The claim is that, through a long history of seminal live performances, and a committed search for spontaneity and its unique forms of affect associated with such a project, Phish continually recreates these shared communal spaces, where the values of openness, humility, and an appreciation for aesthetic novelty and the reflective experiences it occasions are embodied.

There are a number of significant historical events which serve as benchmarks or turning points in this “Phishstory” (June ‘94, Funky Fall ’97, Island Tour ’98, the Tahoe Tweezer in 2013), as well as a host of participatory practices by the band and audience, such as outdoor festivals, New Year’s Eve concerts, Halloween performances, and the (once common but now outdated) trading of live concert recordings – all of which solidify this sense of time and place, creating affects of the kind bearing on the formation of communities.

Far from a mere entertainment, then, the Phish experience not only exhibits philosophical linkages between aesthetic notions of habit, musical ideas, novelty, and affect, but also illustrates the principles through which the formation of communities is theorized. The great philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) uses the phrase “higher forms of feeling” in order to distinguish such shared value-embodying affects from mere individual bodily pleasures. In his seminal Critique of the Power of Judgment, Kant argues that claims of beauty and sublimity are given legitimacy by these affects through a shared sense of community governing proper intellectual and practical activity. When I judge something to be beautiful, on Kant’s view, I assert the truth of my claim on the grounds that others in my community share similar values, ultimately in a shared sense of what it means to be human.

More deeply, philosophers after Kant have argued that these kinds of collective affects shape the very formation of communities. In his political philosophy, American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) argues that communities are formed when a collective body, through affective encounters, comes to perceive the indirect consequences of the actions of dominant powers. These affects are wielded in order to challenge structures of social exclusion. Examples of this include the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Suffrage, or the struggle of homosexuals to gain marriage rights – all of which muster and swarm the forces of affect in their struggles for recognition under the banner of democratic equality. Going even further, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) argues more strongly that affects are not simply subjective events but rather exist in the world (albeit in a different way than ordinary objects). Along those lines, one might argue that if communities are real, then their basis (in collective affect) must be equally real. On this view, for instance, when phans collectively experience the irresistible urge to get up and dance, having been affected by some novel aesthetic movement from the band, they share in something real, not merely something subjective.

In short, communities are shaped by affective events in which we are literally moved in the direction of shared unity. Indeed, so much of art consists in the attempt to create affects that move its audience to experience something new, an aesthetic novelty that would occasion a reflective moment wherein we are changed in some way, i.e., brought into a new relation or new way of thinking. Through affect, we not only become members of communities of similar subjects with similar affective capacities, we also discover the bases of the formation of communities. In short, it is affect that unites us – and similarly, as perhaps better known, it is affect that can break us apart.

To conclude, Phish gives us a profound illustration of how aesthetic experience can shape communities, as well as challenge dominant institutional models. As we alluded to earlier, the latter example being “the music industry” which is motivated by a commodification of the art through individual units of sale, mp3 tracks, albums etc. Famously, Phish, through their live events, challenges that commodification model by working to (again) make music, and aesthetic experience more generally, a primarily live phenomenon. By tapping into the creative potentials of habit, repetition, a pluralism of musical styles, the art of improvisation, and a willing audience paradoxically anticipating the creation of the aesthetically new, Phish’s search for spontaneity merges principles of aesthetic form with the immediacy and novelty of feeling.


  1. Pingback: SEARCHING FOR SPONTANEITY, PART 2 | Philosophy School of Phish·

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