Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Houstonian Philosophy: Seeking Wisdom in Pop Music

Deep philosophical insight taken from Whitney Houston’s How Will I Know

There’s a boy I know, he’s the one I dream of

At the start of the song, Whitney introduces us to the Cartesian dilemma. She is contrasting knowledge with the dream state. As the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi pondered a dream, he could not be sure if he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or if he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man. The song, at its core, is an epistemological exploration. It also foreshadows a Kafkaesque metamorphosis, but perhaps a transformation into a butterfly instead of an Ungeziefer.

Looks into my eyes, takes me to the clouds above

Esse est percipi. By being perceived by another, realization was found. Ms. Houston is also evoking the notion of the Observer Effect, whereby the mere act of observing an act changes the phenomenon being perceived. By relating this experience to a transcendental effect may either be an epiphenomenon, by which she cannot relay the experience back to its first cause; or, she is invoking an application of the Heisenberg Principle, perhaps going so far as to say she exists in two places, akin to Young’s double-slit experiment. There are, in fact, “more thing in heaven and earth than are dreamed up” in our philosophies, insofar as Whitney Houston is concerned.

Ooh I lose control, can’t seem to get enough

Like much of her verse, this is a clever nod to the importance of mastering one’s passions. The Chariot Allegory of Plato demonstrates to all those seeking the Good that a balance must be found between reason and appetite. When this balance is not achieved, one may achieve a kind of gluttony of vice. Such a nod is also reminiscent of Achilles, who lacked such mastering “the accursed rage, which brought pain to thousands of the Achaeans,” or Helen, who compelled others to such debasement, whose “face launched a thousand ships. And burnt the topless towers of Ilium.”

When I wake from dreaming, tell me is it really love

This is a reflection of the comparative mythology of Joseph Campbell, where she is obviously a poor actor in the monomyth of Sleeping Beauty, waiting for her prince to wake her from her slumber. She also seems to be dealing with the somewhat taboo of incest, because not only is her “love” the waking agent, but is the one imposing the definition of love upon the “beloved.” This stems from a Nietzschean slave morality or Freud’s Electra Complex.


How will I know (dont trust your feelings)
How will I know
How will I know (love can be deceiving)
How will I know
How will I know if he really loves me

The Greek Chorus come into play, employing a theatrical convention to introduce the citizens of the polis and what might be termed “communal” or “common” folk wisdom, a layover from Puritanical or Victorian social mores. Whitney Houston must now try to reconcile, via Hegelian synthesis, internal predilections all the while navigating external prohibitions and superstitions.

I say a prayer with every heart beat

As Benedick would say, “there’s a double meaning in that.” The beating is not merely the repetitious beating of a living heart, but a prayer to be released from this Sisyphean struggle of seeking and not obtaining knowledge or control over passions. There are no atheists in foxholes, and the last refuge of a sinner’s flagellations of the world is to face God in prayer. This seeming “skyhook” turn may also be a sleight against God, for it’s well known that drug users can often feel their own heartbeat due to increased bloodflow to the circulatory system: therefore, Marxian rejection of religion as being the “opiate of the masses” may also be in play here.

I fall in love whenever we meet

The darkest part of the song occurs here, describing her plight as a fall, or descent into the unknown. God, the “Hound of Heaven” is now on her coattails, and she now has encountered Kierkegaard’s abyss. This of course requires a leap, but a leap into what? Now she is “condemned to be free” depicting a profound and deep-seated spiritual condition of insecurity and despair in the individual. By “meeting” this person, she also must confront her “being-in-the-world” and must choose for others. This emotion has the dual demand of facing her choice being alone in the universe, and immediately acknowledging there is no subject-object division: there is no “Other.”

I’m asking you what you know about these things

Finally, we see a turn towards the light. She is now, however imperfectly, seeking wisdom. She realizes she must ask another, perhaps employing a Socratic dialectic to achieve knowledge. Now Whitney Houston has found wisdom by “admitting she is not wise” and put herself under the tutelage of someone with a superior soul.

How will I know if he’s thinking of me

Feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir would be most disappointed with this turn of events. Not only has Houston turned to the old Patristic values of authoritarian, top-down hierarchy, but willfully accepts the role as object in relationship to the man. Now she has become defined by his “thinking” of her, taking on a secondary, dependent role. She also implies that she is now “mysterious” so as to merit a demanding degree of thought to the man. Is she now to make him meals, bear his children and give up on her dreams of a career?

I try to phone but I’m too shy (can’t speak)

Phone technology is a simple metaphor for our desire to contact the gods. Now that we have no oracles to consult, we must invent objects that will transfer messages from the immortal ones. Of course, anytime we approach divinity, it often brings a terror, causing physical manifestations such as muteness. The phone is also a modern technology, therefore this is a commentary on futurism and how much science has progressed, we are shy and silent to know both the future of science and ourselves. Dare she stick her tongue out at the Crystal Ediface? Finally, this mimics the blush of Thrasymachus. She has been reckless until now, but has, after encountering wisdom, found the ability to blush and find humility.

Falling in love is all bitter sweet

This love is strong why do I feel weak

Nearing the climax of her journey, she sees the paradox of her intellectual travails. Does she want to be sugar or taste sugar? Does she want to be strong and independent, or submissive and supportive? She has a kind of Taoist enlightening: she has found herself emptied, and this the source of her fullness. She goes about looking for her beloved, examining doubt, questioning the crowds, seeking wisdom of a sage, and finds truth in the non-action (wu wei) of self. Like Dorothy, she finds there is no place like home, that is, the home of her Atman.

Oh, wake me, I’m shaking, wish I had you near me now
Said there’s no mistaking, what I feel is really love

At last, the epiphany has been found and knowledge of self and the world has been found. Full circle, like Descartes she knows what she feels is love just as Rene Descartes knew that he doubts. Shaking, she knows she must deal with the reality of returning to the Cave, apart from the nearness she had to the Form that brought self-realization. She says, “wake me” for now she must return to the Cave, but not with the slumber of soul she once had, but must fight against the dimness of the Cave. But, she can hold one thing for sure: she has seen the Good and “there’s no mistaking” after the fact. Like Edna Pontellier, her shaking is a shaking off the chains of oppression.

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