The following post is an interview with Stephanie Jenkins (phishnet: askesis) about her introduction to and perspective on the “Phish and Philosophy” special issue of the Public Philosophy Journal that she co-edited with Charlie Dirksen. The interview is part of an AMA series celebrating its publication. Stephanie will also be answering your questions in the comments throughout the week. The next post will feature Christina Allaback, so submit your questions now.
Tell us about yourself. Who are you? When was your first show? Why do you come back?
I’m Stephanie Jenkins and I’m an associate professor in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion at Oregon State University. I am one of the co-editors of the special issue of the Public Philosophy Journal devoted to Phish, along with Charlie Dirksen. My first show was 2/24/2003 at Continental Airlines Arena. That show debuted three B.B. King songs at the end of the first set, with him making a guest appearance on guitar. I come back because I was saved by rock and roll. Phish is healing for me; it’s also my temple, where I go to pray. Dancing at a Phish show reconvenes, reconnects, and recharges my mind, body, and spirit.
Why did you decide to create this special issue? What do you want readers to take away from it?
Phish and philosophy exist in a symbiotic relationship. What do I mean by this? 1) The fanbase is philosophically oriented. Phish concerts are one of the few places I go where being a professional philosopher is a conversation starter instead of a conversation stopper. We love reflection, debate, and idea-exploration. 2) The band is also philosophically oriented. Trey studied philosophy in college. Gamehendge is infused with themes from political and moral philosophy; Icculus himself is a philosopher. Phish’s lyrics, performances, and gags explore metaphysical and existential ideas.
I’ve been exploring ways to nurture this relationship in my professional teaching and research. It began as an online course, nicknamed the Philosophy School of Phish, in 2014. That year, I did the full summer tour, hosting meetups along the way. This snowballed into additional public philosophy events, such as a Magnaball Alumni Blues meetup, Phanart tables, the 2018 Gorge Colloquium, Vegas Phanart Exhibit, and more. The Public Philosophy Journal provided a chance for a different kind of dialogue: peer-reviewed essays that would count as “research” from the perspective of university administrators. I wanted to create this opportunity for Phish scholars to highlight the important scholarship that they are doing. We’ve created something new together! I also am proud of the rigorous philosophical dialogue that happens in the Phish community outside of the usual academic channels and I wanted to present our scene as a potential model for public philosophy scholarship to my colleagues. I hope readers position themselves in the dialogues in this special issue, find concepts that help make sense of their Phish experience, and bring forth their own ideas and questions to the conversations. I dream that as a community we can deploy the critical tools of moral and political philosophy that are used in the special issue to work through some of the challenges our community is facing.
How difficult was it to get your journal on board to do an all Phish issue?
The Public Philosophy Journal was supportive of the special issue from its inception. The issue is a pilot project that started as a Philosophy School of Phish and Be More Now proposal at a Public Philosophy Journal/ Public Philosophy Network workshop. It shifted into its current form and the editorial team was enthusiastic because the project was in line with the PPJ’s mission. The hard part was the work leading up to the proof of concept. The Phish course and public philosophy events (2014 tour, Artist Interview Project, Magnaball Alumni Blues, Gorge Colloquium, Vegas Exhibit, etc.) on which everything is based—these were the proof of concept for the journal-- were all done out of my regular teaching load and against pre-tenure professional advice; they didn’t count towards the traditional activities that would earn this desired status and, in fact, took time and status away from it. So, in the end, the difficulties were existential and practical.
All the work you do with your students is awesome. The classes, the concerts, the trips, etc. How do you negotiate your Phandom with your institutional roles and responsibilities? As a fellow professor, I am not sure I could handle seeing Phish with my students!
Thank you! When I first created the Phish class, one of the reasons I designed it as an online course was so that I could assign field trips without being physically responsible for student attendance. Even then, I would still run into students at shows. Once, the ticket lottery even assigned me a seat next to a student at MPP!
After a number of years teaching the course online and hosting public events, I felt I had enough experience interacting with students to try a field trip. I had several conversations with OSU’s Risk Management Office to work out a plan for maintaining appropriate, clear boundaries. But the reality is that students are adults and faculty aren’t camp counselors. I think the students appreciate how unique and special the opportunity to go to a concert for credit is, so they take their responsibilities seriously.
On the first field trip, I was a walking panic attack. One of the strategies we used was to have another OSU colleague—Natalie Dollar—on site. She could field questions and problems from the students if they were uncomfortable approaching me, for whatever reason. But more importantly, for me, she was a colleague with tenure (at the time of the field trip, I was still an assistant professor). I could not have done the field trip without her safety net.
You’re right to point out the conflict between institutional and personal roles. I felt that tension. All weekend, I violated many of the traditional norms of the student/teacher relationship. We danced together. They had my cell phone number; I answered texts in the middle of the night. They saw me cry hysterically, enthralled in a jam. They met some of my friends outside of work. In the end, I learned an important lesson that the boundaries of the professor “box” that I had inherited were too rigid; relaxing them allowed my students to see me as a person, not just as a Professor, which may have been one of the most important lessons they took with them on the fieldtrip: it’s possible to be a successful professional while having fun and merging your profession with your passions.
You write that your approach to "Phish and Philosophy" moves beyond the Socratic paradigm. But I think of Socrates as doing philosophy in public—having discussions and debates with people in open society. And of course, he was put to death for corrupting the youth of Athens. Given this context, why/how do you see yourself moving beyond the Socratic paradigm?
Well, to start, I hope to not be executed! And while corrupting the youth and believing in false gods were Socrates’ official charges, I suspect that it didn’t help that his philosophical method required him to be irritating all the time. He was known for approaching people in public and initiating philosophical conversations such as the nature of justice, piety, virtue, and knowledge. Asserting his own ignorance and using a method of critical questioning, he would reveal his interlocutors’ stances as untenable. The gadfly represents his method with the famous image from Plato’s Apology. In the dialogue, before his conviction, Socrates compares himself to a gadfly—sent by god—to awaken the state, which he says is like a lazy yet noble horse. The annoyance of the gadfly’s bite—Socrates’ critical questioning—awakens Athenian citizens’ powers of reasoning.
In the gadfly model, the philosophical process is negative, question-oriented, and unidirectional. I view my method as moving beyond these three points. First, and most importantly for me, I think it is important to recognize that philosophical awakening does not always require annoyance, rebuke, or other gadfly-like pain. Awareness can result from playful, cooperative, and pleasurable experiences. Experiencing the transcendence of a sublime “IT” jam at a Phish concert has been an importance space of philosophical exploration for me, for example. This is one reason why I felt it was important to bring students on the field trips: so we could do philosophy together on site in a way that would not be possible elsewhere. In some contexts, you’ll get better results with jams and dancing than “bites.” This relates to my second point: the Socratic Method, which much of public philosophy models, relies on critical questioning. I prefer to design critical experiences for my students and colleagues that will lead them to think, act, and live differently.
Finally, as a gadfly sent by god to arouse the state, the Socratic model is one-sided; he reveals his interlocutors’ ignorance, while he remains the wisest man in Athens (because he knows his own ignorance). In my interactions with fans, colleagues, and students, I am regularly transformed; I gain new ideas, I change my projects, I revise my methods, and more.
Do you see yourself as a Phish-and-Philosophy activist? I ask because you are bringing both to wider audiences and you are organizing a lot behind the scenes.
Wow, that’s a fascinating question. To be honest, until you asked the question, I thought of myself as more of a facilitator than an activist in my Phish work. (I consider my activist work to be more in line with my feminist and disability studies work.) That is because I don’t view myself as bringing philosophy to a community where it didn’t exist prior to my presence, but rather creating forums for philosophical dialogue, providing conceptual tools, and identifying and channeling existing debates within the community where it was already active.
Doing philosophy, in my view, is part of what it means to be a human. It’s also part of what it means to be a phan. We engage in philosophical debates every time we step into a concert venue or argue about a show review on Phish.net. Which jam was the “best” jam of the night? What is the meaning of IT? Is it acceptable to tarp or to save space for multiple friends on the GA floor? These are questions of music ontology, ethics, and aesthetics. I didn’t invent them; I simply have the luxury of devoting my professional life to teaching and studying some of the historical thinkers who have grappled with relevant concepts. I’m passionate about sharing them. So, if I regard myself as a Phish-and-Philosophy-activist, it is in the sense that I hope to help other fans discover that they are philosophers, they have been doing philosophy already, and there are resources available if they want to improve their philosophical skills.
What lies ahead for Phish Scholarship?
There are two forthcoming book projects in Phish Studies, that I am aware of:
The future of Phish Scholarship is up to the scholars themselves. Each article in this special issue contains multiple potential directions for future articles. I hope they will pursue them. In other words, in terms of the future of Phish Studies, you decide what it contains!
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