Matthew Lampert on Radiohead and philosophy.
As Yorke sings in “The Bends”: “I need to wash myself again to hide all the dirt and pain / ’Cos I’d be scared that there’s nothing underneath.” “Let Down” speaks of “the emptiest of feelings.” And in “Karma Police,” the crescendo finds the narrator exclaiming, “For a minute there I lost myself.” But if the self is “emptied,” where does it “go”? Again, this is where the phenomenological account of alienation is so powerful: scientifically speaking, our thoughts are always in our heads, while the world remains apart and outside. But if you pay attention to your experience of the world, you will notice that on any average day you spend a lot of time not lost “in your head,” as we like to say, but rather absorbed in the world. This empty feeling is closely connected with a dissolution of the self into whatever activities happen to be going on. Heidegger writes that “this ‘absorption in . . .’ has mostly the character of Being-lost in the publicness of the ‘they’”. To be inauthentic is to have “fallen into the ‘world’. ‘Fallenness’ into the ‘world’ means an absorption in Being-with-one-another, in so far as the latter is guided by idle talk, curiosity, and ambiguity.”
But what happens when we “fall into the world”? Isn’t it just to “lose yourself in the moment”? (Note the two meanings of the word “lose” in play here: in getting lost in the moment, we lose—we don’t win—ourselves. Thus Heidegger’s description of authenticity as not just “choosing” yourself, but also “winning” yourself.) “Karma Police” plays nicely on the Hindu and Buddhist reference suggested by the word karma when the narrator speaks of “losing” himself: to be absorbed in the world, to be lost in the moment, is, as my yoga teacher always says, to “exist in the moment.” But what alternatives are there? We can “exist in the past,” of course, as one might say of someone constantly trying to recapture their “glory days.” But we can also exist in the future: we can, as Heidegger says, “project” ourselves. The play on the word “project” here is important, as well: to “project” is to cast-ahead (as a projector does with an image, or I might do with my voice when addressing a crowd); but we project ourselves by setting projects for ourselves, tasks we mean to work on, goals we strive toward. In becoming lost in the moment, we do not project ourselves into the future; both future and past fade away, and we exist only in the “now.” Now never becomes the future or the past; instead, having emptied myself into the present, time stands still: I am held “In Limbo.” Held in limbo in the present, I fall into the world—“I spiral down.” Is the narrator of “In Limbo” not right to warn me, “You’re living in a fantasy world”?