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Eminem:Lil Wayne :: Theism:Atheism

Although I would normally not stick to pulling philosophical concepts out of Eminem, I couldn’t resist this one: a modern ‘parody’ of the atheist/theist debate. In the song ‘Talkin’ 2 Myself” Eminem gives a brief bio of his recovery, specifically in relation to his oscillation in popularity as a rapper. Of particular interest in this case is his reference to Lil Wayne, Kanye and TI, that is, competitors in the relevant business of rapping. As Eminem singles them out in the song he alludes to his hatred and jealously towards those who were ‘spittin’ and ‘buzzin’ when he wasn’t.

What I was going through growing pains / Hatred was flowing through my veins / On the verge of going insane / I almost made a song dissin’ Lil Wayne / It’s like I was jealous of him cause the attention he was getting’ / I felt horrible about myself, he was spittin’ and I wasn’t / Anyone who was buzzin’ back then coulda got it / Almost went at Kanye too

Again, in a verse latter on in the song, Eminem admits to the striking absurdity of going after other rappers simply because they were ostensibly better: “Are you stupid? You gon’ start dissin’ people for no reason? / Especially when you can’t even write a decent punchline even.” Elsewhere Eminem also refers to the unflattering presentation of himself for being an ‘egomaniac’ in this way. It simply ran contrary to the very style he affirmed. On the other side, Eminem comes to his sense and acknowledges the necessary condition of other rappers as the possibility for his own work. That is to say, he is only as good as he is insofar as he is pushed by other singers to continually improve. In this precise sense, he has more in common with other rappers than he admitted to earlier: they are more friends than enemies.

I’m back with a vengeance homie Weezy keep ya head up / TI keep ya head up, Kanye keep ya head up / Don’t let up, just keep slayin’ ‘em / Rest in Peace To DJ AM ‘cause I know what it’s like / I struggle with this shit every single day

In short, the resurgence of Eminem’s popularity was provoked by his perceived competition with other contemporary rappers. However, in the end, he admits to his own dependence on said singers who did him a favor by ‘spittin’ and ‘buzzin’ all the while Eminem was ‘recovering’. To simply ‘diss’ them after all that would be self-defeating.

On this basis, Eminem’s relation to other rappers is not far-field from the recent interaction between atheists and theists. We take our jumping off point with a quote from “God is Dead” and I Don’t Feel so Good Myself:

…the weaknesses of the arguments for the resurgent atheism are less to be taken seriously than to provoke theological self-criticism. Why have our accounts of who God is not produced a more interesting reaction? If we are to have an atheist the caliber of Nietzsche rather than Dawkins, we will have to do better with our reasons for faith (p. xv)

According to this view atheism is only as good as it is provoked by theism. Or again, to return to the previous example, the caliber of Eminem is only as good as his ‘interesting reaction’ to Kanye or Lil Wayne. In this way, it seems, theism is nothing by itself, nor is atheism anything without theism. Rather, they require each other. This is just as absurd as the ‘rigorously intellectual’ claim that God and the Devil need each other in order to produce the best of all possible worlds, implicitly assumed in the theodicy argument of ‘soul shapping’. According to this view, the trials that persons suffer under is required for discipleship, that is, so that their souls might be purified. If nothing ever went wrong in the world we would have no way of choosing the right attitude and becoming sanctified, i.e., holy. So the story goes. The point is that in the last resort God and Satan co-manage the ways of the world to give people the choice of how they want to respond. I’ll let the reader decide the persuasiveness of this argument.

No doubt, it seems entirely plausible and convincing that Eminem is only as skilled as his competition lets him be. This is more or less how all crafts and trades work; the passing down and tweaking of an established tradition. It appears less mandatory for religion on the hand. Is Nietzsche really as good as theism, in particular, moved him? It is entirely possible but this account seems overly reductionistic.

Eminem’s threshold of intensity

In a somewhat fortuitous and nerdy connection, the first time I heard Eminem’s latest album immediately what came to mind was Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of a plateau. Eminem is the prince of intensity, that is, he sustains intense levels of energy or a plateau that neither collapse nor climax. In the translator’s foreword to A Thousand Plateaus Brian Massumi’s offers a preliminary definition regarding the notion of a plateau:

In Deleuze and Guattari, a plateau is reached when circumstances combine to bring an activity to a pitch of intensity that is not automatically dissipated in a climax. The heightening of energies is sustained long enough to leave a kind of aferimage of its dynamism that can be reactivated or injected into other activities, creating a fabric of intensive states between which any number of connecting routes could exist (p. xiv)

Eminem’s experimental dynamic music subsists at a level that neither swerves beyond all identifiable limits of uncontrolled chaos nor into a register of smothering rhythm. Instead, he maintains a functioning system between the two extremes of a stable, consistent strata and an unstructured flow. Eminem’s music is, therefore, paradoxical: the condition of possibility for his unique lyricism is the fundamental both / and of pure chaos and pure order. To fall to either side of the delicate balance would undermine his success. In their isolation, to use the language of Deleuze and Guattari, unstructured flow would be the ‘cancerous body’, obstructed flow the ‘fascist body’.

Eminem raps at the edge of chaos: his rap is “is both complete, ordered, and incomplete and chaotic” (Jeffrey Bell, Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos, p. 10). In this sense, his songs are ‘chaosmic’: simultaneously excessive and contained. As Bell says, in another context, chaos and cosmos must be kept in precarious equilibrium: “Neither chaos nor cosmos should be realized to the exclusion of the other. A functioning system would collapse under either of the two possibilities – pure chaos would destroy just as readily as pure cosmos, for to function a system needs order and predictability (cosmos), but to be able to adapt to novel, unforeseen situations a system needs to experiment with untried, uncommon methods (chaos). Both chaos and cosmos are necessary…” (p. 36).

For Deleuze and Guattari, this non-actualized undifferentiated force always subsists virtually within all dynamic systems but is not identifiable as such. Instead, it is only every accessible as filtered, sustained and contained in a given actualized stable state. Moreover, “stable, identifiable states and systems presuppose, as a condition of possibility, dynamic, virtual systems” (p. 173). That is to say, unrestrained force continues to inhere in an identifiable system as its circulating life-blood even after it has stabilized in a concrete, determinate form. Identifiable systems, therefore, are always at risk of collapsing into chaos if the force becomes unrestrained past its threshold of order. Or, to go to the other extreme, systems are threatened by death when the flows are blocked—the equivalent of bleeding an organism dry. It goes without saying: all living systems are in flux by nature.

Although I believe any song of Eminem’s would have suited for our purposes, Eminem’s rap in ‘No Love’ is explicitly at the threshold of intensity in the same manner that Massumi identifies at work in Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of dynamic systems. If Eminem had pushed the lyrics closer together the unity would seemingly have been lost. Similarly, if they had been spread apart he would likely cease to be interesting or significant (he might as well be ‘dead’). Eminem sings as though he’s about to derail. State otherwise, he’s at the edge of chaos. I’d like to see how far he could ‘deterritorialize’ the flows, that is, how close he could get to the limit of absolute chaos while still maintaining some semblance of structure. Experimental jazz improvisation certainly adopts a similar strategy of chaosmos, I just happen not to have as many examples at-hand.

I actually tried to see what I could do to ‘nomad-ize’ Eminem with Final-Cut Pro, but given my limited knowledge of the program (which is none) my deterritorializing efforts were frustrated. I had attempted to simply cut out the choruses, instrumental fillers and other ‘extraneous’ movements to get to Eminem in his ‘purity’. Although, upon further reflection, I think this approach is fairly crude, viz. it presupposes that everything surrounding Eminem’s lyrics is supplemental, inessential and prosthetic. If I were to try the process again I would have to rethink my strategy. Suggestions are certainly welcome.

For those more interested in chaos theory, here is an excellent post.