U2 and Philosophy: How to Decipher an Atomic Band
US: Dec 2006
Is there anything Bono can’t do? He fronts the biggest and most enduring rock band in history, but has also established himself as a credible crusader against poverty and global warming. So long, Sting. As James Traub wrote in a 2005 New York Times Magazine profile, Bono is simply “the most politically effective figure in the recent history of popular culture.”
Now the New York Times has made Bono one of their own. At this writing he has penned four op-ed pieces, and they are getting better and better, because Bono’s getting philosophical. The occasion? Obama’s Nobel prize, news of which made Bono flash back to his infamous on-mic remark—along the lines of “you’re f-ing kidding!”—when he received a Golden Globe award in 2004 for a song he tossed together and handed off to a soundtrack producer. “One imagines President Obama did the same when he heard about his Nobel,” Bono wrote. “And not out of excitement.”
President Obama must have thought: either there’s been a mistake, or Norway’s committee just gave America’s Obamaphobes another talking point to sandwich between ads on the Fox network. Both theories were popular in what Bono aptly called these “not-so United States.” The Fox Nation blog lit up with words like “Norwegian socialists” and “secret invasion immanent” while cooler, less xenophobic heads wondered if the Nobel Committee had forgotten that Obama had just started his presidency. But both theories are not helpful, Bono suggested. There are many more things in heaven and earth than are understood in America’s—and especially Rupert Murdoch’s—philosophy.
The real significance of Obama’s Nobel, Bono explained, lies far away, in Europe and even in third world nations that have never ceased to embrace “the idea of America” that they see Obama resuscitating and embracing: “In dangerous, clangorous times, the idea of America rings like a bell,” Bono wrote.
It hits a high note and sustains it without wearing on your nerves. (If only we all could.) This was the melody line of the Marshall Plan and it’s resonating again. Why? Because the world sees that America might just hold the keys to solving the three greatest threats we face on this planet: extreme poverty, extreme ideology and extreme climate change. The world senses that America, with renewed global support, might be better placed to defeat this axis of extremism with a new model of foreign policy.” (“Rebranding America”, New York Times, 17 October 2009)
So its apparently understood that “the virtual Obama” that represents these hopes about what America can do, and has done in the past “is the real Obama”. And America’s homegrown philosophy—the pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey—would have to agree. The meaning of an idea, concept, or a person lay not in bloodless abstractions or stipulated definitions, pragmatists say, but in the ways the idea is used by real people in real life. The Nobel committee didn’t bless mere hopes on Obama’s worldwide celebrity; they understood that “in the farthest corners of the globe” where these threats are most urgent, “the president’s words are more than a pop song people want to hear on the radio.They are lifelines.”
This idea of place and the ways it supports our experience and understanding of life and events lay at the core of U2’s philosophical significance, says Jeff Malpas in U2 and Philosophy: How to Decipher an Atomic Band (Open Court, 2006). Once you ask “what does it mean to be at home, to have a sense of place?” you take a step toward understanding where Bono is coming from in this op-ed and the deeper artistic motivations in the band’s music—from the desert imagery throughout The Joshua Tree to the titles All that You Can’t Leave Behind and the recent No Line on the Horizon .
An Album of Doubt
In a famous passage from the 1848 Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels speak of the enormous changes that modernity had already brought with it by the middle of the 19th century:
...uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. The need of a constantly expanding market ... chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.
In the 20th century, Heidegger also talks about the dislocation and disturbance that is characteristic of modernity. But he presents such dislocation and displacement specifically in terms of a homelessness that does not consist in any lack of housing, but in an inability properly to dwell, and he regards such homelessness as deeply problematic—as a form of destitution. (See for example his essays in the volume Poetry, Language, Thought, Harper and Row, 1971) While notions of “place”, “home”, and “belonging” may appear to be out of kilter with the modern experience of the world, still those notions continue to play an important part in human life and thought— we still need, in some sense, to belong, to have a sense of place, to have a sense of home. Bono commented in Richard Kearney’s Across the Frontiers: Ireland in the 1990s that “I didn’t know I was Irish until I went to America” (p. 187), but in similar fashion, one might say that one never knows what it is to belong until the fact of such belonging comes into question.
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1992, Bono commented that the opening track of The Joshua Tree itself was “an anthem of doubt more than faith”—a comment that is surely true not only of the opening track, but of the album as a whole and the restless, often driving feel of the album. But it also reflects an uncertainty about the relation to home and to place that the album evokes. In none of the places to which The Joshua Tree takes its listeners is there any surety, any safety, any final dwelling place—from some of those places, in fact, the only option is flight, and all of those places are characterized by loss.
One might conclude that The Joshua Tree simply represents the true state of the contemporary world, or, as Marx and Engels put it, our “real conditions of life”—that there are no places in which one can belong, and ‘home’ is indeed a mistaken, or even outmoded, ideal. If that were so, however, The Joshua Tree should project something other than the sense of search and journey that pervades the album—one does not search for what one already knows cannot be found. And the album’s famous second track would make no sense at all. Nor would its sense of uncertainty coupled with a commitment: “You know I believe it / But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
In Search of Identity and Belonging
The sense of search and of journey that belongs to The Joshua Tree does, of course, have strong spiritual, and more specifically Christian, connotations. But it would be a mistake to take the images of search and journey, of place, home, and belonging that emerge here as merely the medium for a straightforwardly religious message. Apart from the way in which U2 have attempted to distinguish the spiritual from the religious, what’s at issue in talk of the “spiritual”, and to some extent even in talk of the religious, is a matter of who and what we are, and where and to whom we properly belong. It’s no accident, then, that images of search and journey, of place and home, loom so large even in spiritual and religious discourse.
The search for faith, and for God, is also a search for identity and belonging. This is particularly important for U2, who come out of a cultural and social background that is so much imbued with a sense of the religious and the spiritual as important frames within which questions of identity and belonging are to be pursued.
Whether we talk in terms of identity and place or of God and spirit, however, it’s still our own existence and the meaning of that existence that is primarily at issue. Since our human existence is always worked out in and through specific places, and the very content of our lives is drawn from those places, questions of God and spirit (if we chose to frame matters in those terms) must also be directly tied to questions of the proper spaces and places of our lives and our relation to those places.
So we return to the question whether the sense of search that pervades The Joshua Tree is simply misguided or mistaken. Is there really any point to such searching in the contemporary world—can it arise out of anything other than blindness or self-deception? Just as Marx and Engels declared the loss of any sense of solidity or certainty in the modern world, so a little later in the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the “death” of God.
The two claims are not unrelated—not only do Marx and Engels themselves refer to the way in which “all that is holy is profaned”, but the advent of modernity seems to constitute the loss of any fixed point, whether understood in terms of God, place, home, or almost any other concept, around which human lives can be oriented and secured. For this reason, Heidegger can talk both about the homelessness of modernity and the flight of the gods as equally characteristic of the modern age. Yet although, in the twenty-first century, it may be thought almost commonplace to view the world as a thoroughly secularized, globalized space of constantly shifting economic, social, and cultural “formations”, it may also be presumptuous to conclude that therefore the ideas of place, home, and belonging—and perhaps also of God and spirit—have lost all relevance and significance. It may well be that those changes have not altered the basic character and needs of human beings as such.
The sense of search, and of uncertainty, that remains in the songs of The Joshua Tree, and that continues to underpin U2’s music even now, may point to the real character of human life, always articulated in and through its concrete locatedness. We do not make our lives out of abstract ideals, universal declarations, or globalized “connectivity”. We make them out of the people, places, landscapes, and things with whom we are actively engaged, and that call forth our attention, our care, our concern. In this latter respect, it is especially significant that the articulation of particular political and social concerns that may be seen to be present in The Joshua Tree—whether it be famine in Ethiopia, American foreign policy in El Salvador, drug-taking and urban decay in Dublin, or human rights in Chile—is always expressed through the evocation of a certain “physical,” and not merely “emotional” place.
As The Edge once described the album’s music, it brings you “somewhere physical as opposed to an emotional place—a real location” (in the dvd Classic Albums: U2’s The Joshua Tree). It is “cinematic music” that connects the listener with the concreteness of that place, enabling us to feel and respond through a connectedness that is, in a certain sense, “physical”—a sense of “being there.”