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Monday, 10 December 2012

Someone Keeps Moving My Chair

There are several rock and pop artists who have been hailed by critics as ‘great’ lyricists.  Dylan is often quoted, as are Costello, Morrissey and one or two others.  Talented as these writers may be, I’d suggest that none of them can match the genius of John Flansburgh and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants.  A deeply intellectual and philosophical strand runs through their work and, in their many splendid releases since their formation in 1982, they have tackled most of the big issues of the day with songs like ‘Why did you grow a beard?’, ‘Bastard wants to hit me’, ‘I am a grocery bag’ and ‘Where do they make balloons?’
Like many great writers, such is the clarity of their vision that they can encapsulate complex notions in ostensibly simple lines. My own favourite couplet is from the magnificent 'Someone keeps moving my chair', where they somehow, within two brief lines, manage to distill the existential crisis of urban alienated post-industrial liberal atheist humankind:

"Do you mind if we balance this glass of milk
where your visiting friend accidentally was killed?"

On first reading, the lyric might appear to suggest that anything is permitted, appealing to our sense of the absurd; but -if not read in a frivolous sense- it can be interpreted either as an outburst of relief or of joy, or perhaps even as a bitter acknowledgment of a metaphysical fact.  The fact -or to be more accurate, the ‘fact’- is actually a tenuous certainty of the absence of God, represented in this case by the 'glass of milk'.  In that sense, the balancing of this ‘glass of milk’ somehow gives a meaning to our lives that far surpasses mere existential joy in the ability to behave as truly free beings, that is, without fear of consequence or judgement.  Echoing Kant, Flansburgh and Linnell argue that moral principles are simply the products of reason.  The incorporation, therefore, of the consequences for ‘balancing’ this ‘glass of milk’ into their moral deliberations would be deeply flawed, since it would deny the necessity of practical maxims in governing the working of the will. They ask the question ‘Do you mind if we balance this glass of milk?’ when they already know the answer.  
But, in order to 'balance' our hypothetical glass with impunity, we must first have accepted John Stuart Mill’s qualitative account of happiness, wherein utility is to be conceived in relation to humanity as a “progressive being", one possessed of, and capable of exercising, truly rational capacities.  And yet, in this technological age, these rational capacities incapacitate us through the dilemma of almost limitless choice.  If the choice was just about the ‘glass of milk’, it would not be hard to make; but there is, of course, no real choice worth making.  The 'glass of milk' does not, in fact, liberate us; it binds us.  In the absence of ‘God’, it does not authorize our actions.  Yes, the song seems to suggest, we are permitted to balance our 'glass of milk', but what has become of our 'visiting friend'?


  1. A highly articulate philosophical argument, but do you think you might be looking at this a bit too deeply?

    TMBG consider karma and reincarnation as well:
    "I returned a bag of groceries
    Accidentally taken off the shelf
    Before the expiration date.
    I came back as a bag of groceries
    Accidentally taken off the shelf
    Before the date stamped on myself"

  2. You may be right. And the guys have even covered that topic. Well ... kind of:

    "Every jumbled pile of person has a thinking part that wonders
    What the part that isn't thinking isn't thinking of"