Back in America / Poetism Part 6: Can you experience? Michael Leon Thomas on Whitehead and Pharoah Sanders

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Episode notes

The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the straggling woodbine, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive. The dim roar of London was like the bourdon note of a distant organ.

 

These lines, from the opening pages of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, emphasize unseen background noises as constituting an environment. The bees, working through the grass, create the biological condition of possibility for nature and the world, especially in their unseen state. And, so too, does the roar of London create the background chatter that allows the plot of the novel to take off. In this week’s installment of Poetism, we’d like to ask a similar question about our own age: what is the background noise that has made all this––society, labor, world–– possible?

 

Michael Leon Thomas, a professor of philosophy at Susquehanna University, joins Josh in the studio to tackle the vicissitudes and interisies of Alfred North Whitehead’s conception of philosophy alongside Pharoah Sanders’ 1973 album Izipho Zam, particularly the 28-minute titular track which closes the album. For Whitehead, a worldview is always in the process of emerging, and our language needs to follow suit. A reformed logician, Whitehead balks against a wholly systematic view of philosophy, suggesting that it is in the gaps, silences, and wetness of philosophy that something happens.

 

And to figure out what this something might be, we turn to Pharoah Sanders’ enigmatic, if expansive, composition which traverses through various languages, instruments, and cosmologies. The bandleader himself cannot be heard until the last third of the track, creating and leaving space (a society?) in which music creation can happen. In other words, it’s a slow reconditioning process.

 

Along the way, Michael and I talk about why he’s decided to spend his life with philosophy, how experience feeds into our listening habits, the postcolony of American, and why philosophy might have more in common with poetry than one might assume.

 

To read more about Michael’s work on music, check out an interview in Aesthetics with Birds.

 

Here is the 2016 Pharoah Sanders performance mentioned in the episode.

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For Poetism, stay tuned for next week’s episode on Brigit Pegeen Kelly and the Cocteau Twins with Scott Stevens