On fans, phans, mystery, and informational density.

by waxbanks

Went to an interdisciplinary graduate conference on music at Harvard today, to root for Jake Cohen (@smoothatonalsnd), who was presenting on Mike Hamad’s @phishmaps project. Jake and Mike were my partners at our panel in NYC earlier this month. As the wise men say: we are everywhere!

Jake knocked it out of the park, of course. God willing, some of those soul-scorched affectless grey-sweatered academics will buy my book.

I gotta say, I was surprised by Jake’s talk — while his paper contained some nitty-gritty musicological material, it was largely concerned with fans’ relationships to Mike’s maps, and the question of why such dense infographics are so popular with an audience that, by its own account, has little idea what the maps themselves mean. In other words, Jake was veering toward fan studies — my old haunts, back when I was old — which are rough waters, and crowded these days.

I’d like to dilate on one point raised by the talk and Q&A.

The mystery at the center of everything

I often joke about Phish fandom as a ‘mystery cult’ or initiatory secret society, but you should know that I’m more serious about that analogy then I seem. At the heart of Phish fandom is an essentially mysterious shared private ecstatic esoteric experience, which is bound tightly to a specific place and time but which lives on as exoteric historical record (‘the tapes’). Phish fans are very good at distinguishing between, say, improvisatory episodes — but very few of us are up on the analytical langauge with which musicologists, or even musicians, would characterize those episodes. So when a tight groove coalesces in the middle of an abstract ambient passage, folks in the crowd might go crazy, and can richly describe how the moment feels…but if later that night you asked them why, they’d likely have no idea. No language for capturing that content.

So why are the same fans who confess to not knowing what the hell Mike’s analytical schematics ‘mean’ so excited to buy prints for their wall?

At the talk I asked Jake if there was an analogy to be made between Mike’s maps and religious artworks — which can be understood by scholars of religion as theological arguments but which have value for normal human beings as evocations of something ineffable, something maybe only loosely connected to those artworks’ ostensible ‘content.’ Think of a Bosch painting, which ‘articulates a worldview’ that no one gives a shit about and which is popular (and valuable) because it’s a grotesque ‘visionary’ fantasia. Think of Dante’s Commedia, nearly unreadable when burdened with Historical Significance but everlasting in its depiction of, among other things, one of the all-time great dungeon crawls. Think of Milton’s Satan, once the subject of theological speculation but remembered and valued for poetic reasons.

Think too of Lost or Star Wars fan speculation — pseudoanalysis most valuable for the parallel world it creates, which touches on the original filmic texts but stands or falls as imaginative creation. (Don’t be fooled by the gendered baggage these terms carry: most fan ‘analysis’ is fanfic patterned after actual analysis.)

Think, for that matter, of Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, or Auerbach’s Mimesis, or Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism: critical works which are widely read not because of their relationships to their subject texts but because they create their own imaginative worlds, so that Campbell becomes a tool for screenwriters, Frye is advice to roleplaying gamers, Auerbach’s formal analysis becomes an autobiographical paean to the resilience of the human imagination within the great wave of history.

These are hugely information-dense critical/analytical texts in their way(s), but the audiences that treasure them do so because of their powers of imaginative evocation. Not Italian politics of the 14th century but a vision of Heaven; not a formal analysis of myth but an exhortation to imaginative independence; not a timeline of a nonsensical TV ‘mythology’ but a story in its own time.

Mike’s maps are plenty informative — listen as you look and their depth is revealed. They’re really impressive work. But as Jake suggested, their deeper value is in the way they evoke the (let’s say) energetic content of Phish’s improvisation. The improvisatory character of the maps, the way they jumble space and time…

My hypothesis here, coming back to the topic of fan studies again, is that cultural formations which center on a mystery — as trivial as ‘What will happen next on this TV show?’ or as consequential as ‘What does it mean that Jesus died “and was resurrected?”‘ — will tend to generate these info-rich peripheral/derivative fan-texts, which emerge from a desire to engage with content (Milton’s desire to explain the ways of God to man) but which attain poetic autonomy and end up circulating among fans/initiates for the latter reason. They remain dense with information, they serve an enormously valuable purpose down the line for historians of their moment, but their lossy transmission directly to fans, that purely affective link, is where the real action is.

Scholars/critics — and cynics — tend to fixate myopically on Churches as something like embodied arguments, and so miss the real story, which is Faiths as cultural motive forces. Faith can only be realized in action, in transit. It is not a destination, it’s a pathway, a segue (see, we’re getting back to Phish now). From the outside, on the map, the middle of the path is no place at all…

…but for the initiate, the seeker, the opposite is true. The path itself, the inquiry, the act of transformation, the logic by which experiences generate one another, the arc of desire rather than its satisfaction — c’mon, I wrote a whole book about this! — these are the Deep Places. For us, they are the Thing Itself. Between tension and release is a state of blissful anticipation. (Here we go again: the erotics of listening.)

And so you miss the show and get the tapes the next morning instead, listen to the music, argue (insanely) about its comparative value; but fundamentally, what happened on the night is a mystery, and if that mystery comes out of an experience’s ambivalence rather than ambiguity (i.e. if its implications are open-ended, instead of being closed off like a multiple-choice question; this is the difference between complexity and complication, between The X-Files and Lost) then the culture that coalesces around it will tend to throw off commentaries that take the shape of analysis but which are meant, at their deepest level, to generate a parallel mystery. To provoke us to wonder.

I suspect that’s the answer to the big question I asked above. We value Mike’s work because something in it resonates with our sense of the beauty of the music that the maps are maps of. It gives us the feeling of what Lovecraft called ‘adventurous expectancy.’

It recalls for us, in its own language, with its own music, the mystery itself.