Rush’s Turn Under the Academic Microscope

Not that they’re competing, but the Rolling Stones always come out on top of Rush in popular comparisons. The band that’s been around longer? The Stones. The band that’s sold more albums? The Stones. The band that more people say they love? The Stones. The band that symbolizes an era? The Stones.

But there’s one matter on which Rush tops the Stones (not counting the size of its cult following), and that’s its turn under the microscope in the Popular Culture and Philosophy series by Open Court Press. The series debuted in 2000 with the book Seinfeld and Philosophy to take a serious look at why a popular act becomes a cultural trope and hits such a nerve with people. And now, 11 years later, Open Court has come out with its fifty-seventh title, Rush and Philosophy.

The next band to be looked at after Rush? The Rolling Stones.

The book, edited by musicology academic Durrell Bowman and educator Jim Berti, is the tenth in the series to put a rock band or other musical act under the philosophical microscope. Bob Dylan was the first, followed by The Beatles, Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, Jimmy Buffet, and Led Zeppelin.

Rush has always been something of an outsider in the world of rock, if the world of rock is defined by what Rolling Stone (the magazine) likes. Music critics over the years have traced the band’s banishment from the mainstream to everything from Neil’s lyrics (not left-of-center enough) to Neil’s drumming (too many drums, too many fills) to Geddy’s singing. But through the years, the band has grown its audience, and today it stands as one of rock’s most enduring acts and, by the standards of musicians, one of the most admired rock bands.

And with the release of this book along with the release last year of Rush, Rock Music and the Middle Class (University of Indiana Press), by Chris McDonald (who also contributes an essay to this book), the band might also be getting a little cool, at least among academics.

The editors of Rush and Philosophy invited academics to look at the band’s work through the filters of their respective specialties. So you have McDonald, an ethnomusicologist, looking at the band’s work through the lens of humanism, and you have Todd Suomela, a doctoral student in information technology and communication at the University of Tennessee, looking at it through philosophy of mind. Neil Florek, a philosophy professor at Purdue University, runs the band’s work through a classical moral philosophy lens, and Mitch Earleywine, a professor of clinical psychology, does the same through the cognitive-behavioral wing of his profession.

There are 21 essays in all, although not all of them adhere rigidly to this structure. Southern Illinois University philosophy professor Randall Auxier, for example, opens the book with a tale of the band’s role in his first wild night out as a teenager. Throughout his genuinely funny story, he weaves in some serious philosophy about the role of art in general, and Rush in particular, as a virtual reproduction of some aspect of our lived experience. So, you get something out of the piece, but you have a fun time, too.

Jim Berti, co-editor of the book, takes a similarly autobiographical approach to talk about the role of the band in how he works through challenges in his life. There’s less philosophy in Berti’s essay than in the others, but his piece fits in nicely with the piece by Mitch Earleywine on the band’s role as a cipher for ideas in the cognitive-behavioral school of clinical psychology.

Does all this philosophizing work? For the most part, yes. Liz Stillwaggon Swan, a post-doctoral student of history at Oregon State University, does a great job using “Hemispheres” to illustrate the debate in the branch of philosophy known as philosophy of mind about whether all mental thoughts can be reduced to measurable physical states. But her conclusion seems a bit pat, at least to this reader. And Suomela’s piece on a different kind of mind-body dualism, which looks at whether we can attest to the validity of reality outside our minds, similarly does a good job using Rush’s work to illustrate the issue. But the conclusion leaves us wanting more. That’s not the worst way to leave a reader, because it means you’ve succeeded in drawing the reader in—and when you’re talking about things like solipsism and minds in vats, that’s something.

Other pieces are satisfying throughout. Florek does a great job pulling samples from Rush’s music throughout its different phases to show the development of a coherent ethical philosophy in the band’s music. I especially like the way he divides the ethical message into a pre- and post-tragic phase, with the cutoff being the mid-1990s, when Neil was hit with a series of personal tragedies and the band took its well-deserved and much-needed hiatus.

And a piece by Steven Horwitz, an economics professor at St. Lawrence University in New York, makes a convincing case that the band’s linkage, at least in its early years, to libertarianism is way overdone. What the band really stands for, consistently throughout it’s many phases, is individualism.

At its core, the Philosophy and Popular Culture series is intended to make philosophy accessible and also relevant by using its different strands to look at hot cultural tropes like The Simpsons. You want the philosophy to be real, but you also want to keep it simple. That’s not an easy trick to pull off, but Rush and Philosophy comes pretty close to succeeding. More importantly, the book shows just how much substance underwrites the band’s music—and that it can top the Rolling Stones in at least one thing, even if it still isn’t considered cool enough for the editors of Rolling Stone magazine.—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault

Rush and Philosophy
Open Court Press (May 10, 2011)
Durrell Bowman and Jim Berti, editors
$14.56 on Amazon

Want to read more about the book? Detailed reviews of eight of the book’s essays follow:

Read Q&A with co-editor Durrell Bowman.

 Read the ninth: “Rush Music: Spontaneous as a Baroque Jam Session”

 Read the eighth: “Plato: ‘Rush Non in Forma Petra Musica'”

Read the seventh: “The Trees: More Than Meets the Eye?”

Read the sixth: “Rush’s Rosier Shade of Reality.”

Read the fifth: “Rush’s Table of Virtues.”

Read the fourth:  “The ‘Rand’omness of Rush’s Libertarianism.”

Read the third: “Is Rush Helping Humanism Out-maneuver Religion?”

 Read the second:  “It’s Just Chemistry: Rush Try to Make Sense of Reality.”

 Read the first: “Philosophy of Mind has a Headache; Cygnus has Aspirin.”

~ by rvkeeper on June 13, 2011.

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