Still Curious S2E7 - Nathanology

Nathan Dufour Oglesby00:00

Long before there was writing, there was literature. In any civilization of which we have record, the way that you remembered stuff was to put it into a song. And if you didn't put it into a song, it's almost like it wasn't real yet. It wasn't the official version until it takes on those rhythmic characteristics that make it repeatable. When you have a song that tells you how stuff goes, it has a certain rhythm to it, you remember it, it sticks in your mind.

Danu Poyner00:27

You're listening to the Still Curious Podcast with me, Danu Poyner.

My guest today is Nathan Dufour Oglesby, also known as 'Nathanology', who is a philosopher and rapper, that is, a philoso-rapper, based in Brooklyn, New York, who uses the forms of hip hop and folk music to produce didactic YouTube songs and TikTok videos that explore concepts drawn from philosophy, history and the physical sciences.

In today's episode, we discuss Nathan's creative process, musical influences and the kinds of responses some of his videos can get.

Nathan Dufour Oglesby01:00

It's divisive in some ways. There's a lot of people who are like, "I'm all about this!" And there's a lot of people who are like, "this is too much internet for today"

Danu Poyner01:07

We go into the use of philosophy and etymology and why it's useful to look at the history of words and ideas.

Nathan Dufour Oglesby01:13

Like finding out the history of a person, you find out what their traumas are and their experiences are, and it makes it a lot easier to embrace those parts of it that deserve embrace and dismiss and dissolve those parts of it that are overdue for dissolution.

Danu Poyner01:27

And we talk about Nathan's experiences with institutionalized education, both as a student and a teacher, and how he reconciles that with his desire to be an artist.

Nathan Dufour Oglesby01:36

My plan A has always been to succeed as an artist and or writer. It's all I've ever cared about, it's always mattered more to me than happiness, you know? The teaching was supposed to be temporary while I got the art off the ground. But I really loved the teaching and I could sense that I was really good at it. So it turned out that the solution was a synthesis. It's not about being authoritative, it's about the joy of losing the self in being a conduit for something that transcends you.

Danu Poyner02:00

Talking to Nathan was an absolute joy, so much so that after this conversation, in fact, we worked together on a song about something close to both our hearts, the relationship between education and school. So stick around for that at the end of the podcast, but until then enjoy the discussion. It's Nathan Dufour Oglesby coming up after the music on today's episode of the Still Curious Podcast.

Main Episode

Hi, Nathan, welcome to the podcast. How are you?

Nathan Dufour Oglesby02:52

I'm doing well. Thanks for having me.

Danu Poyner02:53

Such a pleasure to have you here. I have so much to ask you about, we have zero chance of getting through everything, but I'm just going to dive in and we'll see where it goes. So you described yourself as a poet, producer and professor, or sometimes as an academic artist and activist, I like the use of alliteration there, who's built a distinctively didactic approach to hip hop, using the form to explore concepts drawn from philosophy, history, and physical sciences. You're also one half of Nate & Hila where you're both eco rappers who take a musical approach to environmental activism.

That is an intriguing mix. What's the most important thing for someone to understand about what you do?

Nathan Dufour Oglesby03:31

That is a great question. Also a nice summary.

If I could boil it all down, I guess, it's that I am making songs about ideas and that's originally how ideas were expressed. To reframe that, I tend to think of myself as trying to embody a tradition that is very old, which is the shaman, the tradition of the ancient griot, which is still a thing in west Africa, the ancient Bard, the person who makes songs about the things that the community has to think about.

We have a schism now between the educational sphere and the entertainment sphere, and I view them as one thing.

I was trying to make that more succinct. I think I made a less succinct, but

Danu Poyner04:11

Well, it's an interesting answer. I think it's the kind of thing that comes up after you've had time to reflect on it. It's a very well-packaged answer. Is that how you've always looked at it or was it something more primal in you when you started?

Nathan Dufour Oglesby04:24

That's a really good question also. It's certainly been in my mind for a long time. I got into hip hop when I was in high school. And before that I'd been into folk music and stuff probably when I was in like middle school. So pretty early on in the development of my adult psyche.

I was fascinated by musics that were formally simple and direct and ideologically complex and rich and didactic in some way. The role of dense and extended information transmission that can be played by a song or by a singer or a rapper or whatever just always fascinated me. I was really into Bob Dylan. I was really into Public Enemy. Both of which were things that were not popping off in my own time, but weren't so far back that I couldn't access the sort of, ethos of it. And I was just so fascinated with that kind of music. If I was doing analyze myself from a psychological perspective and we all adopt things that it's like, we can create a niche in which we feel like we can thrive.

I also love a lot of hip hop that is more traditional in a sense, or maybe more what people would readily associate with hip hop, the celebration of the self for the celebration of bravado or a battle rap and things like that also really appreciate those forms.

Maybe I just felt like I could be more convincing if I was the teacher rapper from a like evolutionary perspective.

Danu Poyner05:41

Yeah. Okay. I was going to ask you about your musical influences, but I think you just gave me a nice summary there. I liked the phrase teacher rapper. Is that something you use often?

Nathan Dufour Oglesby05:51

You know, I haven't, I mean, it's a variation on terms that I have used before, but it seems good right now, it feels good. Knowing what your podcast is about and being familiar with it. I have that emotion right now where I'm so excited to pack so much, expression of self from a theoretical perspective into each sentence that it's making it even more difficult, like when you've been like excited to go to the dance for months, and now you're like nervous in your suits, that's how I feel right now.

Danu Poyner06:14

well, maybe we should talk a little bit then about what the content you're actually producing is about and what it's like. Maybe you could walk me through the process of making a song and a video, how you choose the topic, how it gets onto the content platform.

Nathan Dufour Oglesby06:30

Yeah. I guess there's various different ways. It's been an evolving process, but here's how it goes right now. I will either come up with an idea for something that I feel could use some elucidation, whether it's a philosophical idea, like an idea from the history of ideas, I'll do a lot of stuff about ancient philosophy.

And how it may be relates to today or ecological topics. Like what do we do about plastic pollution or, people should know about composting. It could be something very tangible, like the latter or a very ideological, like the former. And then versify it basically, I try to provide a verse introduction to a given idea and in doing so, gently, but, rigorously insert my own ideas about that thing.

There's no such thing as a neutral introduction to anything, but I also don't want it to come off as being surely neutral either. I have my own interest in these things, and then I try to make the song introduce the idea as a thesis and then provide a possible antithesis to it, like a possible objection, and then synthesize it in some way.

Probably the song of mine that's spread around the most is an introduction to critical theory. The reason I wanted to do that one was just, it's just something that came up a lot in life, the culture of critique, which is related to phenomena that we experience right now in internet discourse and stuff like that.

And what it is and what it has its roots in. It's a term that I feel like I heard people talking about this idea often, but they didn't know what to call it. It's like, oh, there's a word for that. Maybe you don't know it if you're not steeped in that particular little sphere of academia or the humanities, here's what it is.

Now. You can recognize it and make your own decisions about it, and then try and map onto it, how it affects what's going on right now, and possible objections to it. And to meet those objections in some way.

Music Clip08:12

The theory is a clear and objective description of that, which exists. How it is, how it isn't by history or science or some defined as so theory goes, if you hold the opinion, that truth is so easily known and envisioned. But what of quote truth is, you know, it is hidden by myths. You've been told that you don't know you're living.

And what if the powers that be control, how the truth get. And even how science and history are written and even the means of theorizing is conditioned by the interest of those in the power position. theory is what Neve criticism. And this is called critical theory. It's meant to. To sit down with the ship.

And call out the system. What system is it? It's capitalism.

Greg now. They tell me that says bad.

Danu Poyner08:55

It's interesting you mentioned the critical theory video. That's certainly how I came to find out about you. Someone shared it with me and I thought, I've never seen someone talking about these things in this lucid and succinct way, let alone in this kind of form and I was just really intrigued.

Nathan Dufour Oglesby09:10

Yeah. It was quite surprising to me when that song spread around for two reasons. One, because it was almost a year after I'd released it. It didn't really go anywhere. And then I converted it to vertical for tick tock. Tick tock has really been proven to be the gateway now for expanding audience, but then also, Evolving my process in such a way where I'm getting suggestions from the audience and having that shape what my next moves are in terms of what I want to discuss.

It becomes very clear in some ways when people's comments are like, oh, can you please talk about this? Like that critical theory video, probably just because of the name led to people being like, oh, could you do one on critical race theory? Because people, they hear that phrase obviously.

And then they think of critical race theory since that's so much in the news.

Danu Poyner09:49

Who is the audience? Are you setting out to build for a particular type of person or are you letting that come to you, how does it work?

Nathan Dufour Oglesby09:57

I have several ways of thinking about that. I love your questions. I like your podcast Danu. I'm a very happy to be here.

But yeah, the audience, that's a good question. I think in the most general sense, what I keep arriving at in many ways is that the only way you can avoid being disingenuous in your creativity,

or as a teacher, just in general, when you're addressing a thought is you have to be addressing yourself as if you didn't know the thing you were about to say in that moment. Obviously you make some guesses about how much this alternate version of you knows or doesn't know, but as an artist and as an instructor, this is what I learned, address yourself as you would want to be addressed, aesthetically scratch every little itch and just make it feel right for you.

And then I'll make it feel right for another, which brings up a whole larger set of questions about, how we relate to one another and even phenomenological questions about our interaction with reality, but we'll bracket those off for a second, but that's the sort of broad thing that I've arrived at.

Make introduction songs to various topics that I would enjoy listening to. And that would make me feel like, okay, I get it now. I understand. On a more specific level, I'm learning that my audience is the same people that I was teaching in college up until a few years ago I just stopped teaching recently and I'd been teaching at City College and Hunter College, which are both within the city university of New York system in New York city and teaching undergrads. I started out doing that when I was not much older than them. I'm 34 now. And I started teaching when I was around 24 or something.

So a lot of students were my same age or just a little younger, just a little older and I really was connecting with that audience at that time as a teacher. And I feel like it's still the same people who are mostly commenting and reacting to stuff. Again, it's like a mirror of myself when I was in high school.

I was a very poor student. Not because I wasn't interested in the information because I rejected the institutional modality that I found myself in and the teachers that I connected with and some of the most important people in my life were the teachers that were like, okay. I recognize that your intellectual commitment here is sincere and vivid and vigorous.

And we're going to reward that. Those are the people that I feel like I'm addressing. Honestly, those are the people that are reaching out to me. Since I quit teaching in the formal institutional sense, there's many things I miss about it, but I have found that I have just as many questions to answer as I did back when I was lecturing in that forum.

And the difference is this I've subtracted the element where there's questions about when such and such do, or what's going to be on the test, which was always my least favorite kind of question. Now it's like folks being like, Hey, what do you mean by that? Or what should I read now?

And then I find myself doing the same kind of commenting and questioning on other people's stuff. If they're being creative educators on social media and stuff.

Danu Poyner12:28

Wow. That's so interesting. I think assessment is more than anything else the thing that derails the promise of education and creates a big distraction. As soon as you take that out of the mix, you can go back to a more curiosity based conversation.

Nathan Dufour Oglesby12:42

totally. I feel like there should be a book or a list someplace of things that modern civilization takes for granted that are way younger and less necessary than we assume. Near the top of that list, I would say, institutionalized education, mandatory education and mandatory assessment as things that we just tend to think, oh, this must have been going on forever and not realizing that it's a relatively recent addition to the process of education.

Very tied up with other developments in industry, in economics. It's just a modern thing that we really should re-examine whether we need it or not.

Danu Poyner13:19

You mentioned that a lot of the content that you're making, has something to do with the history of ideas. I really liked the phrase history of ideas, because I think it's not something that always occurs to people that ideas have a history and that all of the practices that we live out are embedded in social and historical context.

It's really powerful to name those things and do a genealogy of them as it were. Is that something that you're consciously doing? Cause you're doing that and also you have a lot to do with etymology in your videos and the history of words. That's also very important.

Isn't it?

Nathan Dufour Oglesby13:53

Yeah, I think that there's not a very hard line to draw between philosophy And the history of philosophy or between generating novel ideas and examining their history. It's almost like a therapeutic exercise, not in the sense of making you feel good, but in the sense of a psychoanalytic exercise, where you're taking an inventory of the ideas, that condition, our current reality, and trying to find out what their origins are.

And the other thing about an idea. When you find out the history of ideas,

like finding out the history of a person, you find out what their traumas are and their experiences are, and it makes it a lot easier to embrace those parts of it that deserve embrace and dismiss and dissolve those parts of it that are overdue for dissolution.

You learn about what makes somebody have a chip on their shoulder, and then you can understand them and then you help them take that chip off their shoulder or whatever. It's similar with ideas, whether that's a socio-economic idea like Marxism capitalism, critical theory, critical race theory, where no matter where you stand on it, you in fact will have, a nuanced and multi-lateral relationship with it if you, in proportion, as you research it and find out about it.

Danu Poyner14:57

By putting these things on the table, it means that you can have a say in what happens next, rather than these things be something that happened to you. Recover that participatory sense in the society. That's one of the powerful things about doing that kind of work.

Nathan Dufour Oglesby15:12

Absolutely. And Yeah.

I think, there's a popular assumption, at least in American culture. I don't know how it expresses itself in different places in the world, but in my little niche, I find that there is a popular attitude that projects on people in general, a very low capacity for nuance and a very low degree of interest in nuance. It's one of the most principle modern myths that everybody wants to be on a certain side and wants to have just the surface understanding of things.

But I don't think that's actually true. For instance, in the shows that we watch. Everybody has the capacity, as has been amply evidenced, to follow the intricacies of a really complex Netflix show or something like that, or a show that has 17 seasons and to know all the little nuances of character that are involved there and to appreciate the subtlety that goes into it, it's an extraordinary achievement creatively

and, in terms of audience retention. People do have that capacity. It's just that most of our modes of information transmission encourage extremely redacted and, therefore, opposition generating modes of discourse. It doesn't have to be that way though. It can change.

Danu Poyner16:17

Absolutely. One of my favorite quotes that I have actually stuck on my wall is a Gloria Steinem quote, where she says ordinary people are smart and smart people are ordinary.

Nathan Dufour Oglesby16:29

That's beautiful.

Danu Poyner16:30

it's beautiful, isn't it? We underestimate the capacity that ordinary people have for dealing with complexity and nuance. One of the best books that really changed my mind about the stuff is a piece of research that was done in Australia, Ordinary People's Politics, and they just did in-depth interviews with a whole bunch of people from different walks of life, about what they thought about politics.

And it's so nuanced. It's the understanding of the issues of the day and being able to parse the media commentary of it and tell what bullshit the politicians are saying, but also understand where different people are coming from. It's just so sophisticated. Then you realize, of course it is because I talk to ordinary people all the time and that's what they're like.

Nathan Dufour Oglesby17:11

Both. are operative. Yeah. It's very true. It's also true to be fair that, from my own perspective, I can say a statement like I just said, and agree with the one that you just said. And then I can also have other moments where I'm truly astonished at the idiocy, but even that, speaking of etymologies idiot is one of my favorite etymologies because it comes from this Greek root 'idios' 'idion'.

An adjective that means one's own belonging to one's self. In its original context it came to me in the meaning, it has not because of somebody's lack of intelligence, but rather one who holds oneself aloof from the matrix of political and social concerns that belong to the Polis to the city.

If you're being just on your own, as in idiosyncratic, and we tend to think of it as stupid, like you can't keep up, but there's more of an elective type of thing that the word implies, that it's somebody who is remaining for whatever reason, locked in or stuck in their own bubble.

Not a lack of capacity. In that sense, there is a tremendous amount of idiocy, but it's not like some sort of incurable, lack of intelligence. It's not a gap in there neurological fiber. It's whatever blockages internally or externally are preventing people from understanding one another, that's what idiocy consistent, which is also important.

Danu Poyner18:22

I love that. I hadn't considered that. Do people latch onto your etymological readings? I see you had a piece in the BBC about the etymology of the word meta when Facebook changed its name, was the response to that like?

Nathan Dufour Oglesby18:36

It was mostly a bunch of people who'd misunderstood the article quite a lot. It was strange. People were mad. They were like, oh, Mehta also means such and such in this other language. Why didn't you mention that. There was a number of misunderstandings where I think I needed to be maybe more clear about what I was saying.

Etymology, in its origin is a gesture that comes from the analysis originally of Indo-European languages specifically, which has its own language family. So there may be things that have the sound of Metta in other languages and they just don't happen to be related, but a lot of people felt that it was wrong, that I left those things out, but that was not the point of the article, which meant that they missed the point of your article.

But maybe that was my own failure in the first place.

Danu Poyner19:13

No, I think that's one of the things that makes me so fascinated about what you're doing, because it's so weird, really. It's not something that people come across very often and you're sort of inviting to be misunderstood by the vast majority of people. I think, except for the small amount of people who latch onto it, that's just the impression I have.

I don't know whether that's the reality that you're living.

Nathan Dufour Oglesby19:34

Yeah, it's like an ongoing dialectical process. I know that the audience can grow, one cause it is growing and two, I just have this faith that as I become more and more comfortable with what I'm doing, I will refine more and more what's important and what's less important and be able to connect with more and more people by virtue of doing that.

I also see that evidenced by other people. Are you familiar with Philosophy Tube?

Abby happy something is her name. I forget the name of the woman who runs it. But she created this channel that's been going for years and it's got millions of subscribers and introduces philosophical ideas in a rather theatrical way with a good deal of performativity involved in it.

In other respects, it's very simple, but there's like costuming and conceptual ideas and stuff. And you know, that works. I've confidence that if I can keep on refining and keep on producing at an adequate rate, that same thing will happen because people do like to know where words come from.

They put an extraordinary amount of faith in it because people do have a mystical side to them too. And they really want to attach their understanding of things to the ancients in some way, for better and for worse. But the responses to those are funny sometimes. There was one I did on the word government, which again was a request, somebody to ask me to do it and somebody else just went to town on the comments that I had left off

the suffix meant, which is true. Meant mentum is just, uh, now making suffix in Latin. And so we have a lot of meant words and they were like, no, that comes from mental, which it does not. Although mental also comes from Latin because the government is trying to control our minds. There was like this conspiratorial

Danu Poyner21:05

that they're trying to control their minds and they put it right

Nathan Dufour Oglesby21:09

and they put it right there in the end and they fooled you too.

So Yeah. sometimes there's controversial responses.

Danu Poyner21:16

Well, it strikes me that you. Trying to very consciously create a new kind of category of thing, but also continue an old tradition that's well established, as you say. How do you think about that?

Nathan Dufour Oglesby21:29

Hmm. To restate the way in which I feel like I'm doing something old, I just mean that the earliest philosophers in any given tradition, whether it's the quote unquote Western tradition, the one that begins in Asia minor and then exists in Greek and Rican Roman worlds, and then spreads to Europe, was originally performative in the sense that these people were poets and had a artistic way of getting their ideas across and the same is true for other traditions.

So the idea of transmitting philosophical knowledge artistically is as old as art and philosophy itself, wherever we have record, not just in the west. In that sense, it's ancient. In the new sense though, while that's the case. And so I'm constantly invoking the image of the performative sophist or the Bard or whatever.

I also want to be careful not to mash that onto the modern moment, because everything is different and new always, and we should always be involved in a process of realizing the ways in which we're repeating what's come before, but also realizing the ways in which what we're doing is incomparable and radically novel at any given moment.

So it's not to lock it into a category that it isn't. I think another way that the interplay is different is that, in a lot of my writing, I've explored analogies between the historical conditions of ancient philosophy and those of the modern world vis-a-vis the internet where you have a lot of people competing in a marketplace of ideas.

I do think those analogies hold, but I also think they always need to be taken with a grain of salt because in many ways we are dealing with something that's radically new. I guess both need to be kept in mind.

Danu Poyner22:59

How did you come to choose the video as a medium that would be a good format for developing and transmitting your ideas?

Nathan Dufour Oglesby23:07

that's a good question too. I kind of stumbled into it. Never aspired to be a video artist per se. Except when I was very young, I always imagined I would make movies, but then I certainly forgot about it in the course of most of my adult development.

And then it was definitely around the pandemic that I started making a lot of them and making them an earnest because the performance opportunities dried up completely and. It became the main sort of occupation. I was doing it a little bit before then, but I just very much realized that that was the mode of transmission.

It's a very total art form. There's a word in German. It's a very long word that Wagner had for why he liked opera. Do you know the word that I'm

Danu Poyner23:46


Is it gesamtkunstwerk or something

Nathan Dufour Oglesby23:49

That's what it is. Yeah. It's gezamtkunstwerk. It's that type of form. I think of that sometimes. It engages all of the senses. My goal with the video, cause I do a lot of kinetic texts and you're seeing me they're rapping and performing and using animations and stuff like that, there used to be a show called schoolhouse rock here in the states, like Sesame street and stuff where they have these educational videos that really engage the whole psyche of the young person, but I want to make these for adults.

But then another way that I think of it is that it's literally with the music and everything, it is the shape of the thought itself, the way that the words move to just completely engage. In that probably my main influence, again this wasn't a conscious choice but it's just how things develop,

um, deeply influenced by William Blake when I was younger and Blake, we remember him as a poet and that's perhaps was his most distinct gift. However, he thought of himself as principally a visual artist and he made these illuminated books where he would make engravings and then print his own little books. His poems were meant to be viewed as these art books essentially, and read and sung in that context and experience in that context. And he made it all himself. He was like a one man factory and he really never succeeded during his life. So whenever I'm worried, like, oh, I haven't blown up yet.

It's like, wow. out for Blake. mean,

Danu Poyner25:01

well, I did not know that about William Blake. That's so interesting.

Nathan Dufour Oglesby25:04

yeah. The books are very beautiful they are really something.

Danu Poyner25:07

Okay. One of the things I always ask everyone who comes on here is, did you have a plan a for life and what was it and what happened?

Nathan Dufour Oglesby25:16

Hmm. That's also an interesting question.

My plan a has always been to succeed as an artist and or writer. It's all I've ever cared about.

That's been the altar on which I've sacrificed everything in terms of life.