Keith Richards, Life, or, A Stoner's Insight Into Materialism

I'm not going to review Life by Keith Richards, rather, I want to make note of a passage that reveals a sound anthropological insight into the nature of the sacred. After a couple hundred pages devoted to heroin addiction (if you're a guitarist or a fan of the Stones, there's not that much of interest, but if you want a travelogue of chemical addiction and self-destruction, this book was written for you) Richards lays out his insights into religion, and it is a good one:

"I've never found heaven, for example, a particularly interesting place to go. In fact, I take the view that God, in his infinite wisdom, didn't bother to spring for two joints -- heaven and hell. They're the same place, but heaven is when you get everything you want and you meet Mummy and Daddy and your best friends and you all have a hug and a kiss and play your harps. Hell is the same place -- no fire and brimstone -- but they just all pass by and don't see you. There's nothing, no recognition. You're waving, 'It's me, your father,' but you're invisible. You're on a cloud, you've got your harp, but you can't play with nobody because they don't see you. That's hell" (p. 431).

God, clouds, and harps aside, the salient points are these: (a) the imaginary domain known as heaven and hell form a polar unity, they are, in other words, two sides of the same coin -- we could even think of heaven as a positive hell and, conversely, hell as a negative heaven; (b) 'heaven' is identified with mutual recognition, i.e., a person is enmeshed in a network of meaningful relations with family and friends whereas 'hell' is the life of the isolated ego, unrecognized by others.

Richards picked up on something that plagues Americans probably more than any other group: isolation and substantive disconnect while living amidst the multitude. In this book you see how heroin and other drugs function as props or supports for the drifting, buffeted ego but there are many pathological ('negative') ways for the under-socialized self to attempt a reconnect with real others or some imaginary Other: kooky politics, narcissistic self-reflection, hatred, destructiveness, and, for our interests, manic shopping and commodity/product sickness. Of course, these are all dead ends and counter-productive, but that's the point.

Right here we should notice the connection between an addiction to, say, heroin and, for example, manic buying and selling of goods. Both are forms of coping for the threatened self. Of course, one form is 'criminal' and the other is socially approved. But we should not be fooled; as an obscure German philosopher with a British name (Leonard Nelson) once pointed out: the good (pure, heaven, etc.) is the evil (bad, hell, etc.) we choose to ignore. Interesting. Again, the polar identity of good and evil, heaven and hell.

In one model the threatened self can choose to withdraw from society, entrenching and reflecting on itself -- more or less a stoic attempt to duplicate the self in thought. In another model, the self can attempt to duplicate itself in the form of external objects and goods. In short, two modes: one ideal the other material. For now, we'll just focus on the self's attempt at material replication with a reference to a weird thing I've seen online: the commemorative present, namely, the guitar a person buys to celebrate some significant moment or event.

I try to stay away from guitar-related message boards but, alas, they are rich veins of material. Anyway, I don't go to many of them but the few that I do frequent are also frequented by a guy that strikes me as a real good case study. He is notorious for his hysterical defense of a certain guitar brand. Any negative or critical remark towards this brand will instantly provoke a severe, knee-jerk reaction. By now the guy probably has carpal tunnel syndrome defending the realm. I'm sure you've seen guys just like this. What's up with the rigidity and crazy reaction? Well, let's just focus on this one case and see what it tells us.

First, let's note that anything a person says about a guitar company or a guitar (or any other object) poses zero objective threats to a company or those that own their guitars. Take the problem to the extreme: Joe said Gibson is shit and then Gibson collapses. Joe must have magical words to destroy a multination firm. Oh, man, if Marxists only had this power. Pretty funny. If criticism or negative comments elicit a reaction then, if it is not rooted in objective threats, must be based on subjective threats.

A person who feels upset or under attack when their favorite guitar comes under attack has invested (extended) his or her emotional energy not just into the guitar but the name of the guitar and the name of the firm. Kinda tribal. Kinda premodern. Let's continue with this.

I also noticed that this character had bought "commemorative" guitars to celebrate major events in his life. Hey, we had something really good happen so I bought this guitar to commemorate the event. Cue the Twilight Zone music. That's just weird. Guy needs a guitar to commemorate important events? Makes little rational sense. However, when you frame it within the simple theoretical model we laid out at the beginning it makes a lot of 'sense.'

Let's go back and assume that he's basically suffering from a worse than normal case of materialism -- he may have friends and family but, for whatever reason, dealing with inanimate objects (things) is easier than dealing with people. It's so bad that real people are even pale substitutes for objects so he has to mark every person or living event with a thing to go with it -- people and events get accessorized. People and events are not 'real' or real enough without a non-living material object attached to it. So, to keep it short and simple, the material realm of objects (guitars and the names of guitars) become abnormally charged with emotional energy because they are the stand-ins for others. Of course, his is literally the hell that Richards describes: the self surrounded by a bunch of things that do not and cannot 'know' you or recognize you (think of the literal meaning of re-cognize).

Here, the twin model of stoic reflection and materialism blend: the self attempts to comprehend or re-cognize itself as it is reflected back from the collection of goods and things that the self has organized in his or her world. Guitars (or any other material object) can function as a psychological mirror. Projecting moral energy onto and defending material props is key to this person's emotional well-being. Why? Because when you dismiss his Gibson (or whatever) you have, in his mind, dismissed him as a person. His self is enmeshed within the things that he owns. Self = stuff. Stuff = self. And like his self, others are identical with their stuff. The world is just a bunch of things relating to other things.

Of course, this is a pale substitute for substantive relations, it's a dead end, and results in continuous outbursts of reaction and antagonistic relations with real people. Can't get along with real people but can get along with things. People that cannot be converted into thing-like objects (instrumentalized) are ignored, rejected, or attacked. It's hell. But that's the kind of hell capitalism engenders. We are taught to value things such that we reduce people to things (treating real people as instruments to be manipulated) and elevating things to the status of live, moral entities (making the means the ends themselves).

It's no coincidence that two of the most popular websites for guitarists and recordists both have "Gear" in the name and where the means to ends are treated as the ends themselves, virtually deified, where every day is just one more hellish day, where nuts and kooks defend their brands.

Welcome to hell, Buddy, I thought I recognized you.