Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast, Part 3: “Nomenclature”

This is the third installation in my attempt to gain insight on the relationship of Andrew Bird’s songs in “Noble Beast” to the concepts of Wellsian scientism vs. Pascalian anthropology. (Please see previous “parts” for definitions and explanations regarding this endeavor.) In this song it is perhaps less confusing and more appropriate to consider the two concepts in tension with each other as being scientism and theism.

Nomenclature” by Andrew Bird

Just think of the lives you could swap with your own
While you’re selling your coats, you’re sewing your own
You know it’s not the easy way

Sometimes we’ve got to pay to play
With finger paints and macramé
It’s time we asked the see and say
Could you bring a different nomenclature?

Now the colors have bled to gray
To ones that don’t exist in nature

A nomenclature is washing away, washing away
A nomenclature is washing away, washing away
But did it carry you away, carry you all the way?

Did it carry you away, carry you all the way?
Nomenclature’s washing away, oh it’s washing us all away
Nomenclature’s washing away, oh it’s washing us all away

2009 Fat Possum Records

The song begins by saying that something that we do is “not the easy way”. Something that we do has results that are not “easy” (profitable or good). We are somehow “swapping” our life  to get other “lives” by “selling our coats” while we are “sewing our own.” It seems that Andrew Bird is saying we have an essential life or identity that we exchange for other “lives.” We get rid of what provides protection to our life  (our coat) while ironically we are busy preserving our life (sewing). It seems that this something we do is somewhat schizophrenic and not promoting our own “self interest.”

That we are doing something not in our own interest continues in the next verse, where if we want to “play” we will have to “pay.” What exactly are we playing? He says “with finger paints and macrame.” The fingerpaint may imply that it is childish. Both terms seem to imply that it is creative and expressive. This may imply that our practice is inherent in our nature and expresses that nature. Bird then says that due to the “danger” from this practice it is now “time to ask the see and say…could you bring a different nomenclature?” Again the note of “childishness” is present in the reference to the popular educational toy. The question he says we need to ask it (Could you bring a different nomenclature?) seems to imply that in our seeking for knowledge we need to seek a different way of classification. This shows that what the song seems to be about is the science called “epistemology” which in the vernacular means “how do we know what we know?”

I think Andrew Bird is questioning our method of knowing, our “nomenclature”. He seems to be saying that the desire to know, and the method of “labeling” are intrinsic to and expressive of our nature. In a sense it is also a creative enterprise, as we create our “understanding” of things. Thus “epistemology” is a creative enterprise in which we create our understanding of things by thinking that we truly “know” them. But Bird seems to be questioning our accepted epistemology, and says we need a different “nomenclature.”

I am way out of my realm of knowledge here, and epistemology is a subject that has spilled as much or more ink than any other “science” of humankind. It is one of the essential questions of philosophy. But since I am here in the middle of trying to “know” what this song is about, and I can’t ask Plato, Descartes, Kant or Kierkegaard, I am left to my own devices. So I will Andrew Bird’s advice and simply “soldier on.”

So where to begin? Perhaps at the beginning of our individualistic quest for knowledge. As children we always ask what? And then we ask why? “Nomenclature” is essentially occupied with the first question, “what?” As we grow we “learn”more and more about “what” everything is. What this process entails is essentially “learning” what labels have been given to things by those “already in the know.” If we traced this labeling back far enough I suppose that we would find Adam naming all the animals as God paraded them before him. (But note that Adam did not name himself.) Naming, or “nomenclature” is intrinsic to our nature and it seems that we have been given the gift of language to assist in that process.

But problems can arise if our “nomenclature” goes awry. I think it goes awry when we use it to ask the question “why” and when we use it to ask the question “what” in relationship to our own self because that always implies the question “why?”. How then can we find the answers to these questions? Do we need to find them? Why do we want to find them? I think the two methods of knowledge we are concerned with, namely scientism and theism, provide two very different ways that humankind has dealt with these questions. It also seems likely that Andrew Bird, in this song at least, seems to be lamenting that scientism has been our modern method of “nomenclature.” It is important to note that in my discussion I take it as evident, that he is lamenting “nomenclature” in relation to “knowing man.”

I say this firstly, because he says that it is time to ask of our traditional educational source, “the see and say”, for a “different” nomenclature. He then says that our “color” labels have all “bled to gray, to one’s that don’t exist in nature.” This seems to imply that the labels we have given things do not really correspond to what actually exists in nature. This is the real problem with epistemology, that of the extent to which our knowledge, which we achieve through our “science” of classification, actually corresponds to the reality of the “observed” subject. Andrew Bird seems to be lamenting that our nomenclature has resulted in a false knowledge of reality.

He then basically ends the song with the chorus that has phrases that could mean two very different things. He says “A nomenclature is washing away…” which could mean,

First, a nomenclature could be doing something, namely “washing away…washing us all away” (it is washing us away), or

Second, a nomenclature could itself be “washing away” (it is being washed away).

(The reader may want to read the chorus again several times to see how in different parts it could mean either of these two senses)

There seems to me to be this bit of ambivalence in the chorus. It seems that Andrew Bird is saying that several things are happening simultaneously. The old paradigm of nomenclature is disappearing, but it has in the past and continues in the present to wash us away by overpowering us.

Therefore the question for us becomes whether we have been or are being washed away by the old nomenclature, or are recognizing its shortcomings and thus awaiting the passing away of the old paradigm in hopes for “a different nomenclature.” The vital question then is how our old nomenclature “washes us away”, makes us “pay to play”, is not “the easy way”,  “swaps our life” for other so called “lives”, and is against our self-interest. The answer is given in short by saying that the “colors” of the old nomenclature have “bled to gray” by failing to provide the true knowledge of what we are in nature.

Now here is perhaps the tricky part. What was the old nomenclature for Western Civilization? Before the rise of modernism it was mainly the biblical theism. With the advent of modernism and scientism it was challenged and seemingly replaced by scientism. Now, with the advent of postmodernism, we seem to be at another crisis in nomenclature as the challenge has deepened in our current “culture wars”. The tricky part is that it is conceivable that Andrew Bird could be cognizant of the fact that since the rise of modern science the old nomenclature has been scientism. It is also conceivable that Andrew Bird, is like Richard Dawkins and is regrettably seeing that the old nomenclature is still theism which continues to have some influence.

So what criteria could help to solve the question of the identity of the old nomenclature? The first clue could simply be in the use of the word “nomenclature” which usually signifies a scientific endeavor. Therefore the word itself would be showing that our scientific endeavor to label everything, including ourselves, is “washing us all away.” Remember this “nomenclature” is science gone awry by seeking to label ourselves as “what?” in order to answer the question “why?”, and is therefore no longer pure science, but has become “scientism.”

A second clue could be to ask which is harmful, scientism or theism? Which one dehumanizes us by “washing us away”, making us “pay to play”, is not “the easy way”,  “swaps our life” for other so called “lives”, and is against our self-interest? Of course the proponents of each side will say the other side is the dehumanizer. We need then to set out the choices of which dehumanizes man?

1) The scientism that labels man as merely a result of inanimate nature and therefore posits no God or “higher” meaning to human life?

2) The  theism that accepts God’s label of man as his personal creation and therefore posits a “higher” meaning to human life?

A third clue could be to consider that the view that we can “scientifically” label ourselves correctly, is based in an exalted supposition of our abilities, which is a manifestation of an extreme “hubris.” Therefore the pride of man that is evident in scientism could ironically dehumanize man (unless pride is thought to be a good thing). Of course atheism is often painted by its adherents as the only “humble and courageous” view that is willing to face the stark reality of meaninglessness. But again, it is only by the self-conceit of his brilliance that he has achieved this “lofty” view of his humility. We also again need to remember that scientism is in view here, since science only deals with the truths of nature, and cannot “as science” properly deal with the truths of what is beyond nature.

A fourth clue could be to ask which nomenclature actually provides a true correspondence with nature? for whatever provides a true correspondence will be the “new” nomenclature that is needed to replace the old failed nomenclature that named “colors…that don’t exist in nature.” We now need to ask if there is an implicit Pascalian anthropology involved in the crisis of the song. For if the old nomenclature has failed because it essentially dehumanizes humankind, how would we know that fact except for an implicit Pascalian knowledge? In other words, what is making us suspicious, or even aware of a failure of the nomenclature that dehumanizes us? It seems that this awareness must be some intrinsic instinct that human life has meaning, and which also is a “belief” that science cannot rightly address and scientism cannot deny. It actually expresses one of Pascal’s most well known and characteristic statements which says

The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. Pascal, Blaise  Pensées #277

Because of all these “clues” it seems again likely, as was the case in my analysis of the song “Oh No”, that if there is not an explicit Pascalian anthropology in evidence here, there is at least an implicit evidence for it. And perhaps yet another evidence that “Noble Beast” could also be a Pascalian reference.

To summarize, the song “Nomenclature” appears to be an extremely witty critique of the childish reliance of modern man on the technological pre-programmed answers of the old nomenclature of scientism, because it does not correctly classify man as he intuitively and even rationally knows himself to be.

It’s time we asked the see and say
Could you bring a different nomenclature?

And the question we need to ask ourselves, and each other, is found in Andrew Bird’s chiastic chorus:

A nomenclature is washing away, washing away
A nomenclature is washing away, washing away
But did it carry you away, carry you all the way?

Did it carry you away, carry you all the way?
Nomenclature’s washing away, oh it’s washing us all away
Nomenclature’s washing away, oh it’s washing us all away

“The Heart Has Its Reasons” by Odilon Redon, c. 1887

Excerpts from Emil Brunner on the problems of “Nomenclature”

“In point of fact the men of the Renaissance, that is, the leading minds in the art, philosophy and science of that day, were filled with the proud conciousness that they had either discovered man, or that they were about to do so…

…a knowledge of reality which was empirical, free from all presuppositions, non-metaphysical and non-theological…

 …Only this knowledge affected the zoon homo sapiens rather than the humanus, that is, it did not touch the essential element in human nature…

…All ’empirical’ research is definitely limited when it touches man, for the following reasons: because, whether he is aware of it or not, man is always aspiring after something beyond himself, or perhaps it would be truer to say that he is ‘apprehended’ by a world beyond himself; because, further, man, in contradistinction from all ‘other animals,’ is the ‘animal’ who has ideas, who seeks Beauty, truth, Goodness, Justice, or the Holy – or else he flees from them – because man has mind and conscience; and, finally, because man is aware of, or at least dreams of, the Infinite, the Perfect, the Absolute. The more that this fact is forgotten by anthropology the more meaningless and misleading will be its results.” (Man in Revolt, 1937, 58-59)

Written by BMC  March 11. 2012

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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