In “The Empathic Civilization” Jeremy Rifkin suggests that we live in a “participatory world” shaped by our physical (embodied) interactions and relationships. He suggests that the civilization is experiencing a transformation from the Cartesian Age of Reason (I think therefore I am) into an Age of Empathy (I participate, therefore I am). Empathy is the means by which we are able to “participate” in one another’s lives through the continuous flow of embodied engagement with others. Embodied experience and embodied engagement are “the means by which we understand and make our common reality.”
How often do we stop to think of the tremendous possibility inherent in even the most inconsequential interactions we have with others? The quality of connection we achieve in any effort to communicate depends on how aware we are of the unique horizon of possibility that exists between “I” and “Thou.” Truly connected communication implies a sort of mirroring that takes place between one and the other within that horizon. Most of the time we volley our words back and forth without really being aware that “we” collaboratively shape the reality that emerges between us. Too often we respond reactively in an attempt to defend opinions rather than taking a “participatory” stance by acknowledging that there is always an opportunity to modify ideas or gain a completely new insight.
Our culture is shaped by language. Even though we are centuries beyond Descartes and the doctrine of separation of mind and body, our language and the ways in which we use it are still very much rooted in Cartesian logic. Herein lies the problem. Language shapes our institutions. Therefore our institutions foster environments that support disembodied relationship.
Language that functions purely in the realm of logic is “disembodied” in the Cartesian sense. Think of the duality we often feel trying to convey the highly nuanced information generated by our somatic intelligence- everything that happens in us from our chins southward. How often have we conveyed messages to others completely at odds with what we thought we wanted to express before we put it into words? All of that information translated through tone, pace, volume, gesture and facial expression sends a separate message of emotional intentionality. The duality of logic and intentionality in language can frequently lead to very mixed messages.
It is this inherent separation between logic and emotion in spoken language that can so easily subvert our capacity to connect empathically. For Rifkin, “the act of thinking combines sensations, feelings, emotions, and abstract reasoning in an embodied way. I participate, therefore I am- a far cry from Descarte’s detached autonomous mind that thinks from above and afar and is not sullied by the physicality of experience.”
Jazz is a musical language that bridges the dichotomy between logic and intentionality. As a collaborative language of improvisation it offers insight into how we can recognize and begin to transform some of the barriers to empathic connection built into our institutions and, specifically, into the way we conduct business with each other.
Jazz and business have something deeply in common. Success for both means sustainably satisfying a specific market in real time. This makes jazz an art form quite different from painting, cinema or literature. Van Gogh was not expected to create his works in front of live audiences, nor does Woody Allen produce films without the luxury of sets, retakes and editing. You don’t go to a poetry reading to hear a poet spontaneously create at the specific time and place of the reading. But that is precisely what a jazz ensemble is expected to do night after night after night- and in collaboration with one another.
Jazz like business is an art that carries a value proposition- to be successful it must “swing.” Jazz “works” when it swings. But just as success in business is not easily achieved, there’s no guarantee that an ensemble will swing each time they perform.
There are hundreds of books that try to explain what swing is in the musical sense. As a jazz bassist for over three decades the one thing I can say about swing is that it is an embodied connection of both the intellect and the emotions.To swing you have to listen to the “other” more than you listen to yourself- and not just intellectually. You have to be passionately curious about the sound, feeling and rhythmic expression of each of the others you’re working with- you have to “mirror” their experience. Swing is, in a sense, a feedback loop. To swing is to sustain a mirroring of the “others” experience through your own expression such that the “others” will then mirror that expression as well. The net effect is that we experience an expansion of our own capabilities, sensations and perceptions beyond what we are capable of as individuals. Swing is first an embodied connection with the others you are performing with and then an embodied connection with the market- the audience.
The language and the dynamics of jazz can help us bridge the dichotomy that exists between logical and emotive expression in our spoken language. As Rifkin points out “empathic extension- the ability to recognize one’s self in the other and the other in one’s self- is the core premise of democracy. The more empathic the culture, the more democratic its values and governing institutions.”
When Jazz swings it reflects the core dynamics of a democratic society. Jazz is a unique art form that points beyond the realm of art to the possibility of a new dimension of empathy in our society.
In my next entry I will discuss in more detail the parallels between the language of jazz and the language we use in everyday life and business.