The following is an interview of Jason Del Gandio (phish.net user @JasonDG) about his article, “Pulsating with Love and Light.” The interview is part of an AMA series celebrating the publication of the “Phish and Philosophy” special issue of the Public Philosophy Journal, edited by Stephanie Jenkins and Charlie Dirksen. Jason will also be answering your questions in the comments throughout the week. The next post will feature Kristine Warrenburg Rome, so please submit your questions now.
Tell us about yourself. Who are you? When was your first show? Why do you come back?
Hi, everyone! I am a college professor at Temple University in Philadelphia focusing on the theory and practice of social justice. My first show was back in 1993 (7/25, Waterloo Village). Not to sound cliché, but the collective vibe is what keeps me coming back. Besides live music, I also love traveling, stimulating conversation, the bustle of cities and the tranquility of nature, and I am passionate about changing the world for the better.
Why did you decide to write this essay? What do you want your readers to take away from it?
I saw this as an opportunity to connect my ideas about the vibe with the Phish experience, and hopefully share those ideas with a receptive audience. I am hoping that the essay gives people a language for articulating and understanding something we all talk about, but rarely define or explain.
You said the essay reflects your personal Phish experience. What’s your favorite encounter with the vibe?
I grew up in a household where the vibe was a common word. Then in my late teens I started going to concerts, clubs, raves, underground parties, etc. It’s there that the vibe stood out as real, tangible, experiential. One notable Phish vibe is 4/15/94, Beacon Theater. Without exaggeration, it was otherworldly. My 20-year-old mind asked: What is it, how might we explain it, and can it help change the world?
Have you written about the vibe elsewhere? For other audiences?
I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the vibe back in 2002. I then worked on it sporadically over the years. The Phish essay was my transition back to the vibe. I recently launched a new project called the 20MinVibe. It’s an online educational space for learning about the vibe. It’s still developing, but it’s up and running. See: www.20minvibe.com and feel free to connect on social media! IG 20_minvibe and FB 20minvibe.
Do you think that Trey was able to get the vibe from the audience remotely during The Beacon Jams?
Yes, but I think it’s different. Proximity of bodies intensifies the vibe—making it thicker, deeper, richer, more intense. Sitting in our living rooms spread across the country lightens the collective vibe. It becomes more ether than body. It’s more dispersed and diffuse. But you’d have to ask Trey about his own experience!
You describe the vibe as something that is ubiquitous throughout society, and yet, it is a cornerstone of Phish culture. What is unique about the Phish vibe, from your perspective? Or rather, what can we discover about the vibe through Phish that we wouldn’t through another band?
Unlike some bands, Phish leads with the vibe, so it’s easier to notice and experience. I think this is influenced by their improvisational expertise. Being in the moment is helpful for experiencing the vibe. The psychological clutter is reduced and different kinds of knowing and experiencing can surface. A muddied magnifying glass doesn’t work. But cleaning it allows the light to shine through. You then see something different, something more.
I loved the emphasis on attending to the vibe and bodily emanation in your paper. This strikes me as having political implications for how we think about what constitutes knowledge. Can you say more about what we can glean or know by way of attending to what otherwise seems ever-present or too ephemeral to capture?
Here, politics means something different. It’s not about Democrats and Republicans, but about how we live, how we exist. The vibe is a way of knowing that undermines the Western paradigm’s approach to reason and truth. Rather than seeking knowledge about the exterior world, the vibe is about knowing how we relate in the moment. We then orient to each other differently. Rather than following a prescribed set of actions and behaviors (wake, eat, work, sleep), we live emergently. How would global humanity live and exist if we all acted spontaneously, in the moment, like an improvisational jam without beginning or end? I pose this as a guiding ideal, not as an either/or dichotomy between predetermined and spontaneous action. But I think we can agree that vibing with each other in the moment is not valued within the current system of society.
Do you think the vibe *emerges from* all our physical attributes (facial expressions, movements, sounds uttered, clothes worn, etc.)? Do you think the vibe *is constituted by* our physical attributes? Or are you positing that there is something extra, beyond our physical attributes? Perhaps emerging from them, but not constituted by them? In other words, is the vibe akin to the temperature of a room, which emerges from and is constituted by the movement of the molecules in the room? Or is the vibe perhaps more akin to consciousness? We don't yet know whether consciousness is emergent (brain processes produce consciousness) or fundamental (consciousness produces reality). I suppose one view could be that the vibe is a form of collective consciousness, or that it emerges from individuals' conscious experiences.
I read this question as, Where does the vibe come from? And in all honesty, I don’t know. LOL. It’s like astronomers trying to understand the origin of the universe. The Big Bang is a theory, and it is perhaps the best theory we have right now. More discussion and discoveries will allow us to tweak or change that theory. This is how human knowledge advances. But we are finite creatures standing in wonder of the world. Same is true with the vibe. Having said that, my own bias is this: We are vibrating creatures that emerge from the vibe, contribute to the vibe, and eventually emerge back into the vibe. But we can also ask, What is the vibe? Is it physical or metaphysical, material or immaterial, scientific or science fiction, all of the above or none of the above, or something else entirely? (Sidenote: I developed a self-paced, online course about this. See What is the Vibe? An Introduction.)
What is your position on Cartesian dualism? Does the vibe exist in the physical realm, the mental realm, or both? Or is the vibe somewhere else? Something more?
I’ve also been fascinated by Rene Descartes (the 17th century French philosopher). Great thinker and writer. But I disagree with his mind/body dualism, and I begin from a different starting place: The mind is the body thinking about itself. This framework allows me to think about the vibe as “bodily emanation.” The body radiates or emits a tangible energy that can be approached as a form of communication, as a way of knowing, and as an existential guide for moving through the world. This helps us to think about the vibe in a more concrete way. But someone might ask about ghosts, spirits, or nonphysical phenomena that “give off a vibe.” For argument's sake, let’s just assume these are real. The concept of “bodily emanation” now asks us to think differently about bodies. Alive bodies, dead bodies, spirit bodies, ghost bodies, etc. Each of these examples has its own body, but each is a different kind of body. And each body emanates a different kind of vibe.
Is bodily emanation like the concept of double sensation in Merleau-Ponty? Is one concept better at explaining the collective vibe of the Phish scene?
Note to the non-academic Phans reading this: We’re about to get scholar nerdy!!! By double sensation, do you mean something like the experience of touching and being touched? And/or that we are in and of the very world that we are experiencing? Either way, I don’t think either concept (of double sensation or bodily emanation) is better or worse. Instead, each is trying to explain something different. I’ve read a lot of phenomenology (a branch of philosophy) and a lot of Merleau-Ponty (the mid-20th century French philosopher). Neither Merleau-Ponty nor other major phenomenologists are talking about the vibe. If we reduce the vibe to a metaphor for something else (like emotion or collective experience), then sure, they’re talking about “the vibe.” But I address the vibe as an actual phenomenon distinct from other forms of experience. And in this case, then yes, we are in and of the very vibe that we are experiencing—we emanate it and feel it, move it and are moved by it, simultaneously. But the vibe is different from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s synesthesia, or Edmund Husserl’s lifeworld, or Martin Heidegger’s Being.
You described the dark side of the vibe. What is your vibe ethics? If the vibe can be used to rip-off fans, can it also be channeled for good? Or is the vibe a neutral concept?
I think of the vibe, in and of itself, as neutral. Think of hitting a bongo. The sound vibrates out into the world. It’s just sound. But a seasoned percussionist knows how to manipulate the bongo into distinct songs. Some dancey, others mellow. Perhaps happy or sad. Fast or slow. The same is true with the vibe. In terms of ethics, that depends. I might give off a defensive vibe to safeguard myself. I might give off a vibe of support and care for someone I love. But at a metaphysical level, we could talk about good forces and evil forces emanating out into the entire universe, both seen and unseen. But that’s a heady convo that seems outside the scope of this interview!
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To our readers: I am wondering if others have any experiences of the "vibe" that they would like to share?
Jason: When trying to think of my own example to share, I noticed that I was having difficulty distinguishing the vibe from IT or the sublime. Do you have any recommendations for parsing this out, as these are-- if I understand you correctly-- types of vibes?
In terms of questions for the readers: (1) I often wonder how other people define or explain the vibe? (2) Any shows that readers have vibed with the most, and why? And (3) why do some shows have a better vibe then others?
In terms of the question posed above: Experiencing the grand Phish "IT" is a multi-modal experience, of which the vibe is one part of. There is an emotional experience (think of Phish playing your favorite song). There is a psychological experience (think of following the flow or being in the zone (see Mihály Csíkszentmihályi)). There is the excitement of the physical senses. There is the imagination (where does your mind go during a jam?). There is inner peace and tranquility. And there's the individual experience; the experience of being with your close friends; and the collective experience of 20,000 people. Somewhere in this mix is the vibe. And of course, the vibe reflects as well as contributes to each of these experiences.
Now, your question might also be, How do we better attune to the specificity of the vibe experience? This is always hard for me to answer, as I do not think there is one "method" to feel the vibe. Instead, it's about learning to distinguish between one kind of experience and another kind of experience. Just as there are different kinds of emotion (happiness, sadness, grief, anger), there are also different kinds of vibes. And emotion and the vibe are different, too. For me, emotion is more internal, while the vibe is more external. Emotion is an internal reaction to a state of affairs. The vibe is the exchange of energy between bodies.
Next time you're at a show, or just listening on your phone, try to notice the difference between the emotional and the vibrational. How are they different? How do you experience each? What are their distinguishing qualities?
(And note that music, and all sound, is a *physical* vibration. But that is not exactly the same kind of vibe we are talking about here.)
Hope this helps!
For flow, see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)
To address your questions for the readers:
(1) I would define the vibe as "simply" the sum total of everything happening around you that affects your state of mind. This would include -- but not be limited to -- interpersonal actions; sounds; sights; smells; weather; anything external that affects your sense of safety, freedom, belonging, etc.
Importantly, by "sum total" I'm saying that all these constituent parts together constitute the vibe. That is where the vibe comes from, and what it is. I don't think of the vibe as something extra that exists as a distinct entity unto itself. I disagree with the idea that the vibe is "an actual phenomenon distinct from other forms of experience". I would say it's the sum of various experiences, nothing more. That seems the most parsimonious explanation. Why do you think we need to posit something extra?
(2) I'm interpreting "vibed with" as meaning "(a) were affected by the vibe, and (b) resonated harmoniously with the vibe, such that one's own actions contributed to that same vibe". This is perhaps an unsatisfying answer, but I feel like most shows rank about equally on this regard. I try to approach shows with an open mind, rolling with whatever Phish serves up. So I rarely have the experience of NOT vibing with a show. That said, it has happened. Generally those times are when I've got too much distracting me inside my mind. So I'd say the biggest factor for me in terms of vibing with a show is my mental state heading into the show, personally.
(3) In terms of the quality of the vibe, we can separate two main factors: Phish's performance, and everything else. We all have our opinions about what makes for a better Phish performance. No need to rehash those here. In terms of the other factors, what makes for a better vibe: happy people, safety, freedom, a feeling of unity (e.g. we all got rained on), a special setting (e.g. the Gorge), people helping each other out / being generous, a fun lot scene, serendipity (e.g. running into an old friend), etc. etc.
In response to your question, "Why do you think we need to posit something extra?" I guess I have two quick responses.
(1) Vibe is short for vibration. And vibration implies some energy or frequency moving through space between two or more points. Hence, I understand the vibe as an actual phenomenon moving from and to, or between, bodies (or from one body to the next).
(2) Just as sight and sound are distinct sensory perceptions, so too is the vibe. Sight and sound (and the other physical senses) overlap and intertwine, but each is distinct. In terms of human experience, there are multiple modes or registers of experience. The psyche, our emotions, subconscious and conscious, the imagination, logical thought, the creative/artistic, etc. The vibe, too, is its own mode or register of experience. If we lump it all together as one thing, then it becomes hard to understand how each works. If everything is "the vibe," then the vibe is no-thing (nothing).
"Next time you're at a show, or just listening on your phone, try to notice the difference between the emotional and the vibrational. How are they different? How do you experience each? What are their distinguishing qualities?
Hope this helps!"
Yes, it does! Thank you so much for your helpful explanation. I especially love the homework assignment. I find the emotions comparison especially illuminating! This makes me wonder about a vibe taxonomy, so I will be paying attention during my upcoming listening experiences. One recent example: a topic of conversation this past weekend was about how the NYE runs have a unique kind of vibe that distinguishes them from other shows, even concerts held at MSG.