Mothers Day always gets me thinking about The Mothers, or more properly The Mothers of Invention, that Frank Zappa-led ensemble from the 1960s LA music scene. There’s a song on the album We’re Only In It For The Money called “Absolutely Free” and the lyrics encourage us to ‘discorporate’ which means ‘to leave your body’. Throughout this short but remarkable* piece the lyrics satirize hippies, flower power, the counter-culture, and other popular American phenomena of the time (1967). This was regular grist for Zappa’s mill. At the same time, the song encourages personal freedom with a heartfelt and passionate plea to ‘escape from the weight of your corporate logo’ that resonates thematically with other songs on the same record like “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance” and “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?”. (FZ thinks it’s your mind.)
Like all great Zappa creations this song is both beautiful and obnoxious. He refuses to fulfill your expectations of what a pop song should be, both tantalizing you with exquisite music and annoying you with noise and interruptions. Zappa, no matter how serious the topic, could not stop being funny, and never let a matter get too weighty without inserting jokes or other goofiness. Personal freedom was probably the sum total of the man’s artistic manifesto, and meant more to him than most anything else, yet “Absolutely Free” is stuffed with snide remarks and silliness to go along with the rich aural landscape. With typical Zappa aplomb the song parodies psychedelic music while incorporating elements of that style. It’s a spacey, groovy piece about going your own way and doing your own thing. To Zappa that meant not conforming, and since it was hip to be a non-conformist then, he relished the irony.
But I want to go back to ‘discorporate’ as I’ve been thinking about the human/machine interface and other possible futures of the race. We’ve become accustomed to many advances that have replaced our body parts or functions and kept us alive. Things like insulin pumps and pacemakers and dialysis and titanium hips and whatnot. We have chemicals we can inject or ingest that help us live by regulating or improving our aging or diseased body systems. What we seem to worry about as a people is if there is a tipping point, where we become too much the cyborg and lose that indefinable humanity we find so precious.
If somehow we could indeed leave our bodies, that is discorporate, where would we go and would we still be us? Sci-fi shows are rife with disembodied consciousnesses stuck in some supercomputer somewhere hoping some unwitting humanoids stumble along and they can download themselves into fresh bodies as easy as changing clothes. Can you suck the essence of a person out of them and store them in a high-tech jar and then pump them back into flesh? And if so, does that mean our humanity is independent of our physical being?
I think that’s a lot of rot. Sure, you can give me a new heart or kidney or both, chop off and replace my limbs, and re-plumb my guts, that is, really make me over, but I’m still me. My consciousness, whatever that is, certainly has some sense of independence from my bodily self, my corpus. But can I exist outside of that? Can I dis- my corporeal realm? Seems like one of those believe-it-when-you-see-it notions to me. Whatever the mind is, at least some of it is physio-chemical and bio-physical, and those processes have to continue for me to have the sense of mental identity I have now. Some believe the mind is entirely a result of anatomy and physiology, some think it emerges from that complexity of tissues that make up the brain, others think the brain is merely a receptacle for mind, part of a larger consciousness that our organ has access to and participates in. Me, I don’t give a shit. Clearly my mind results from my brain being fed and watered; how much I’ll leave to the heavy thinkers.
As much as my mind is capable of sending me on journeys outside of my body, I can’t discorporate. Not literally. I like to think the song is not meant to be literal either. The admonishment to discorporate is about cutting loose. Our minds are products of our society and we are trained and conditioned to see reality in certain ways. Freedom is mostly mental. Sure, we all want to go wherever we want and do whatever we want but that’s only part of the idea of freedom. The key part is seeing and feeling freely and creating the world in your mind on your own without constraint. I believe that when we dream and then when we waken we are re-making the world in our heads. We do this each day and when the alarm rings or the sun streams through the window or the bladder screams for relief the real world intrudes on our creation. This feedback re-shapes our world view and we negotiate throughout the day with our vision of the world and the world’s response to it. Seems like the freer and more flexible our mind is, the better job we’ll do in this negotiation. We’ll compromise some of the time and admit defeat some of the time but the more robust our system then the more likely what we imagine will be concordant with our reality.
Does that seem like a working definition of mental health?
Anyway, I’m not sure absolutely free is attainable, and I’m suspicious of absolutes. Hey, there’s a place to start!
*You really have to listen to it if you don’t know it.