How you sell soul to a soulless people who sold their soul

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March 17, 2011

This year I made a resolution to work through all of Kierkegaard’s writings.  I am now about halfway through his Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses and have come across his reflections on the soul, namely how to gain and preserve your soul in patience.

The soul is a basic contradiction in life formed both temporarily and eternally.  As such it is in play between three positions; God, the world and the self.  One has a soul but must also gain and preserve their soul.  What I want to reflect on is the notion of ‘losing’ your soul.  Here Kierkegaard hovers over the famous gospel inquiry into what it might benefit someone to gain the world and lose their soul.  Kierkegaard begins with the opposite saying that we begin life already in possession of the entire world, that is, immersed and embedded without distinction.  This, however, ultimately means that the world possesses us.  To gain one’s entire soul then means to lose all of the world..

And so Kierkegaard upholds the old adage that the most important thing is to ‘gain one’s soul’.  He qualifies that this is not the same as ‘saving’ or ‘seizing’ one’s soul.  The implications of this for me are quite simple.  It forms the conviction that material distribution can never restore that which is human (soulful).  This is important because if material distribution is primary then the poor are truly worthless and powerless until distribution occurs.  Materialism must become less and soulfullness must become more (so materialism is then also put into play . . . because it becomes less).  I think soul in this context is important to distinguish from something like ‘spirituality’ as it is used in pop culture.  Soul can more readily draw on the traditions of those outside of ‘worldly’ power who have been able to find power there.

This reflection reminded me of an album that certainly has to be in the running for best or worst title, How you sell soul to a soulless people who sold their soul (2007) by Public Enemy.  What I appreciate about this album is its internal critique; its justified questioning of the project of hip-hop (and of course beyond . . . as hip-hop is now fully incorporated into the larger project of modern capitalism).  On the title track the lyrics are direct, much like Kierkegaard’s religious authorship,

Either you stand for something
Or fall for anything
You can get all the money cars jewelry and things
And still have nothing
Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places
Between gettin’ high on the price tags
And smilin’ faces
Thinkin’ you need
Rings and things, rims and timbs
That ain’t rap that’s bein’ slaves again

The question is matter of having ears to hear and not learning new information; it is instead a re-call (a ‘throw-back’ as Chuck calls himself).  Kierkegaard places an qualitative difference between a patience that seeks to know one’s soul and the patience that seeks to gain one’s soul.  On track 2 ‘Black is back’ Chuck D explicitly tries to leverage ‘blackness’ (as soul?) against the project of hip-hop.

Full blown
Rap, rock and roll
Whatever happened to solid gold?
Ain’t like it can’t and won’t get sold
Sold by the same cats
Stole yo soul
Back on a track
That don’t sound too old
What’s goin on? I don’t know it’s trouble
Back in black to bust that bubble

The message is simple.  Your soul is more valuable than things.  From ‘Can you hear me now’

I may not got no flow
but I ain’t pimped by no negro
Backed by some
cracka wit
his ass by the door
therefore
I can never be poor
cause my mind , body, and soul
cannot be sold
priceless

The final track of HYSSTOASPWSTS provides an interesting engagement with Kierkegaard as well.  The final track is called ‘How to sell soul? (Time is god refrain)’.  This plays out with a final plea to ‘rise out of the ashes of slavery’ in which ‘time is a very important element in this journey’ in fact ‘time dictates the agenda here’ as we are ‘wasting time on nonsense’. 

What is important here is that Chuck D does not seem to make the Kierkegaardian move into an expansive notion of the eternal in which patience continues to establish true ‘selves’.  Rather Chuck D simply calls us to ‘use our time wisely’.  The end of the song hovers over the repeated refrain time is god and then shifts to the repeated refrain soul power to conclude.  The final contrast seems to play out between immanent resources  and transcendent realities/possibilities/actualities.  Can time is god be read in any other way than as an immanent posture?  The problem I see with this view is the extent to which it may deflate the refrain of soul power.  Is soul power in the end confused with knowledge (‘enough said we got feed our heads’).  It is at least a little more nuanced than that ‘when you love something you develop the mental capacity to reach the thing that you love.’  Love is prior.  Is soul also prior?  Chuck D walks a fine line between the Kierkegaardian distinction of gaining knowledge of your soul and gaining your soul.  Musically the refrain of soul power is that which ends and begins the album.  It is perhaps something inaccessibly larger which when engaged demands a certain immanent understanding and practice sustained by a sort of unlimited ‘priceless’ resource.  The album then can be read as a chiasm.

soul – love – knowledge – soul – knowledge – love – soul

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