Brandon Polite is an assistant professor at Knox College. He specializes in aesthetics and the philosophy of music, with an emphasis on musical representation and musical experience, and has also published on torture in Shakespeare and comedian Louis C.K.’s existentialist tendencies.
What excites you about philosophy?
What excites me most about philosophy is the sense of mutual discovery you get when talking through a text or position with students or colleagues and you find something in it that you hadn’t noticed before. It most often takes the give-and-take and improvisational nature of conversation with interested others, as opposed to solitary reflection, to reveal dimensions of a text or position that neither party was initially aware of. This is why I try to lecture as little as possible in my classes. Since I expect my students to be open to new ways of thinking about a given topic, they should be able to expect the same sort of epistemic humility from me. As a result, I let their interests in the texts and ideas guide our discussions. The excitement I feel in those moments in the classroom comes not only from the discovery itself, but also from recognizing how easily it could not have happened: had I tried to keep us “on track” rather than allowing a student’s weird-seeming tangent to develop; or had I tried to give the students “the right answer” rather than allowing them to stumble toward what ended up being a more fruitful way of addressing the issue; and so on. I imagine that this sort of excitement is similar to what members of a jazz combo feel when they’re improvising together and, fully aware of the million ways they could fail, are producing new and remarkable musical forms.
What is your favorite thing that you’ve written?
Right now I’m working on the issue of how listening with others affects our aesthetic experiences of music. There is a good deal of work within philosophical literature on the nature of musical experience. But almost all of it treats listening to music as a solitary experience. There may be others around the individual listener who has been the traditional focus of philosophical attention, but the sense in which she is listening to the music together with them and thereby sharing an aesthetic experience has, with just a couple notable exceptions, merited little consideration. But the experiences of music I treasure most are those in which I feel the boundaries between myself and others blur, as we pump our fists, bang our heads, and sing along with the band we came to see. I’ve already published one paper related to this topic. What I’m working on now builds upon my insights in that one.
Name a trait, skill or characteristic that you have that others may not know about.
I play guitar. My first year as an undergraduate, I was in a band fronted by Vir Das, who has just gained some acclaim Stateside because he’s the first comedian from India to get his own Netflix special. We played an eclectic set of rock songs, ranging from Bryan Adams and Collective Soul to Jimi Hendrix and Rage Against the Machine. Actually, that was our entire set list…and we only ever played one gig. I later fronted a grunge cover band, called Chuck Norris: The Band…which also only played one gig. My trait, then, is that I lack the follow-through to become a rock star.
When did you last sing to yourself, or to someone else?
I sing and play guitar to my three-year-old and nine-month-old sons almost every day. My wife and I have shared our obsession with David Bowie with the older one. This was after a lengthy Clash phase, which started when he was around 18 months old. There’s nothing that brings me more joy than hearing him randomly singing:
Ashes to ashes
Funk to funky
We know Major Tom’s a junkie.
I’m sure his brother will be joining us soon enough – although right now he seems to prefer when I play him more punk-sounding riffs.
Which super power would you like to have?
Teleportation (flying’s for the birds).
Find out more about Brandon here.
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