The mechanics of wonder and the experience economy
I attended a seminar on wonder at the Centre for Medical Humanities in Durham last week. This post comes from our discussions there. Thanks to all the participants and to Martyn Evans for a great day.
Although religion is no longer a major force in most people’s lives, with only 15% of British people going to church regularly, we still long for transcendent experiences, for experiences of wonder, awe and ecstasy.
We simply want the emotional experience without any ethical, doctrinal or metaphysical commitments demanded of us. Above all, we insist that such experiences leave our autonomy intact - we don’t want to be sucked in to any ‘cult’, we don’t want to obey any ‘leader’, and we certainly don’t want to kneel to any God.
We desire what Ian Kidd called ‘shallow’ experiences of wonder, which don’t demand that we change our selves, as opposed to ‘deep’ experiences of wonder, which do.
This is a paradox of modern rationalist liberalism - we exist in societies in which self-control is a core virtue, in which we are terrified of appearing out-of-control to other people. Ecstatic experiences, once a central part of human existence, have come to seem embarrassing and even psychotic.
And yet we also long for such experiences. We simply want them on our own terms. We want to be in control of how we lose control, like a sophisticated consumer at an S&M convention.
There is now a growing ‘experience economy’. As James Wallman writes in his book Stuffocation, consumers are becoming less ‘stuff-focused’, less obsessed with buying things, and more interested in buying experiences.
You can see this emerge in the 1990s, for example in Alex Garland’s The Beach (1996), in which the hero declares:
For mine is a generation that circles the globe and searches for something we haven't tried before. So never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite and never outstay the welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience. And if it hurts, you know what? It's probably worth it.
Like Alex Garland’s hero, we travel the world hungry for new experiences, from ghost-hunting to ayahuasca tourism. We can go to Peru to hire the shaman, or stay in Hackney and the shaman comes to us. 0800 S-H-A-M-A-N. Press 3 for ecstasy.
There is also experience journalism. Its father is Hunter S. Thompson and its flag-bearer is Vice Magazine. Everything comes down to the experience of the journalist. They don’t just interview a celebrity. They interview a celebrity while on acid. They don’t just report on Lebanon. They go paint-balling with Hezbollah.
Techniques of ecstasy
Because of the growing experience economy, there is a desperate search to discover the formulas for ecstasy and wonder. You see that most obviously in drugs, in the search for new chemical formulas to achieve altered states of consciousness.
But you also see it in the arts, with artists searching for new ways to create powerful emotional reactions in their bored and wearied audiences. Hence theatre becomes ‘immersive theatre’, cinema becomes ‘secret cinema’, restaurants become ‘experience restaurants’.
Artists are constantly searching for what Mircea Eliade called the ‘techniques of ecstasy’ - we could also call it the ‘mechanics of wonder’.
Take the evolution of rhythm and blues, rock & roll, and soul in the 50s and 60s. Artists like Ray Charles and Elvis Presley took the ecstatic tropes and techniques of Pentecostal worship - the screams, the hollers, the shaking, the call-and-response, the build-up, the drop - and secularized them. They brought them to a mass audience, including many white middle-class kids who did not go to church - certainly not that kind of church.
Other artists soon followed in their footsteps, eagerly studying each other’s songs for clues as to how to get the audience going. We hear how the musicians at Stax Records, for example, would sit in the studio’s record store, ‘figuring out what was the hit part of a song, pulling that hit part out and developing a whole new sound from it’.
They’d also imitate their performance styles - the Rolling Stones go on tour with Ike and Tina Turner, and Mick Jagger intently studies Tina’s dancing. Soon he’s copying her whirling dervish dance, which she in turn took from Pentecostal church preachers. He also steals moves from Little Richard, James Brown and others. He studies how to create the maximum emotional effect through gesture.
Playing with promises and expectations
Soul music searches for the ‘hook’, the technique of ecstasy. Likewise, rave music searches for the ‘drop’, the way to build up a crowd to a crescendo and then release them into a frenzy. There is a mechanical skill to this, like working out how far to stretch a rubber band before letting it go.
This is the mechanics of transcendence. You set up expectations, and then fulfill the promise. Neuroscientists have found our most intense moment of pleasure in a song is often just before the hook or the drop - it's our anticipation or expectation of release. As a team of neuroscientists in Montreal put it in a paper in Nature Neuroscience:
The anticipatory phase, set off by temporal cues signaling that a potentially pleasurable auditory sequence is coming, can trigger expectations of euphoric emotional states and create a sense of wanting and reward prediction. This reward is entirely abstract and may involve such factors as suspended expectations and a sense of resolution. Indeed, composers and performers frequently take advantage of such phenomena, and manipulate emotional arousal by violating expectations in certain ways or by delaying the predicted outcome (for example, by inserting unexpected notes or slowing tempo) before the resolution to heighten the motivation for completion.
Sometimes, the longer you delay the fulfillment, the greater the pay-off. The musicologist Leonard Meyer explored this in his book Emotion and Meaning in Music, where he showed how Beethoven flirted with the audience's expectation of order and resolution, sometimes leaving chord sequences unresolved until the end of pieces. Wagner delays the fulfillment of ecstasy in Tristan and Isolde until the fifth act, leaving the audience weak with delayed gratification.
Or you mess with the audience’s expectations, which creates an emotional shock, even a rage, until the new formula becomes predictable and expected. Think of the discordant chord at the end of Strauss’ Salome, for example, and the outrage it created (it's 8 minutes 54 seconds in on this clip):
Lou Reed, David Bowie and the Pixies gave pop music new life in the 60s, 70s and 90s by creating songs that both confirmed and defied our expectations of pop - they jar us with the discordant, and then reassure us with the melodic. The Pixies’ 'Dead' is the great example of this - harsh, discordant and then suddenly breaking into conventional melody at 1 minute 17 seconds in.
New technology creates new avenues for experiences of ecstasy and wonder - the knowledge of 12th century masons enabled the architectural wonder of Gothic churches, the development of the electric guitar in the 50s enables rock and roll, the development of the synth enables disco and rave, the development of 3D technology enables a renaissance in ‘wonderful’ films like Gravity and Avatar.
But what is new and intense rapidly becomes hackneyed and cliched through repetition. The consumer audience become wearied and unresponsive, like a rubber band that has been stretched and released too often, like a mattress that has been bounced on until the springs break.
There is an inherent capitalist tendency to exhaust any successful formula for wonder: Cirque du Soleil finds a successful approach, so it is rolled out until its eventually running shows at almost every major casino in Las Vegas. Vegas is the ultimate experience economy. It wearies the palette, finally benumbing it.
Contemporary religion can also become part of the experience economy. A priest once said: ‘What happens when the Holy Spirit doesn’t turn up? There is a temptation to fake it.’ Churches come to rely on well-oiled techniques of ecstasy to give their congregation the experiences they desire and pay for, while the faithful start to ‘shop around’ for the best church experience.
Likewise, humanist alternatives can end up providing experiences for the bored metropolitan consumer. They ‘curate’ exquisitely tailored experiences for the discerning metropolitan - with talks, poetry, music, perhaps a bit of philanthropy, food and cocktails for an ‘exclusive crowd of bright and beautiful people’.
Can we go beyond this? If so we’d need to allow ourselves to be changed by these experiences. We’d also need to be willing to sacrifice some of our autonomy, and to make commitments to something beyond the self - whether that be God, a cause, or other people. It also means being prepared to show up when we’re not in the mood, when we’re not feeling bright and beautiful, when we’re feeling weak and ugly.
Our own emotional experiences can’t be the focus - that is the emotivist solution to the loss of religious faith, the solution of GE Moore, Walter Pater and others, and it doesn’t work. If you make your emotional reactions the goal or meaning of life, you end up forcing them, squeezing them, over-monitoring them, and rapidly feel wearied and numb.
The experiences of wonder and ecstasy shouldn’t be the end, but rather an occasional and often unreliable guide towards an end beyond the self. That's what Rumi is getting at when he writes:
Tear down this house
A hundred new houses can be built
from the transparent yellow carnelian buried beneath
and the only way to get to that
is to do the work of demolishing and then
digging under the foundation...
You have a lease, and you've set up a little shop,
where you barely make a living sewing patches
on torn clothing. Yet only a few feet underneath
are two veins pure red and bright gold carnelian.
Take the pickaxe and pry the foundation.
You've got to quit this seamstress work.
What does the patch-sewing mean you ask? Eating
and drinking. The heavy cloak of the body
is always getting torn. You patch it with food
and other restless ego satisfactions. Rip up
One board from the shop floor and look deep into
the basement. You'll see two glints in the dirt.