A Metamodern Ironically Sincere Interpretation of Taylor Swift’s Transgressive & Cross-Cultural Theology of Karma
In her recent anthology Midnights, philosopher-poet T. A. Swift explores a variety of familiar existential themes from novel standpoints. While the breadth of this work provides a multiplicity of avenues for rich scholarly analysis and critique, I believe her piece on karma presents many of the most groundbreaking and insightful ideas of the entire collection. In this piece, Swift effortlessly fuses Eastern and Western spiritual sensibilities, leading to something far beyond a base syncretism, but rather she presents an existentially viable spiritual standpoint that is simultaneously grounded in a sort of Dharmic naturalism while also fully embodying a personalism proper to Abrahamic religiosity.
In traditional Buddhist and Hindu understandings, karma (literally, “action”) takes the form of an impersonal law of nature, with both the good and the bad deeds of one’s life having the ability to percolate out through existence, leading to various spiritual consequences for the one who performs the actions. As opposed to an Abrahamic religious model, where this moral dimension of life is mediated by a personalistic God who, by force of will, judges an individual soul for their ethical conduct, the Dharmic model by contrast seems naturalized and immanent. Karma is inherently bound up in the chains of causation of the mundane world, and while one’s karma is deeply implicated in the quest for liberation, no external, supernatural being is posited as a final arbiter of karma for determining one’s spiritual destiny.
Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead summarizes the distinction between the “Eastern Asiatic” and “Semitic” forms of religiosity as such, stating that the former emphasizes a “concept of an impersonal order to while the world conforms. This order is the self-ordering of the world; it is not the world obeying an imposed rule” (Religion in the Making, Cambridge University Press, 1927, 56–57). Here one finds a highly immanentized approach to the sacred and Ultimate Reality. On the other hand, the Semitic orientation focuses on a “concept of a definite personal individual entity, whose existence is the one ultimate metaphysical fact, absolute and underivative, and who decreed and ordered the derivative existence which we call the actual world” (ibid. 57). In these religions, transcendence rather than immanence is the key concept.
In “Karma,” Swift boldly collapses this historical binary by experimentally personalizing the concept of karma, leading to a rather novel religious sensibility perhaps uniquely suited to our cosmopolitan and spiritually pluralistic contemporary world. The refrain of this exploration begins with a statement that immediately shows Swift’s transgressively personalistic approach to this central Dharmic idea, with her plainly stating “karma is my boyfriend.”
Here it is already fully clear that Swift will be embarking on the boundary-crossing task of infusing Abrahamic personalism into the notion of karma. However, the choice of a romantic metaphor reveals more than just this basic orientation; rather Swift is working to crystalize an image of karma that is not merely personal, but even erotic. The relationship between the spiritual aspirant and karma is not an orientation to some distant, personal god, but one that is immediate and visceral, with overtones of individual care and concern which are often lost in the upper echelons of pure transcendental theism.
However, Swift does not want to lose the sense of power and control that the theistic model provides, so she follows this by directly and plainly stating “karma is a god.” With this combination of divinity and personalistic love, Swift has imported some of the primary features of Abrahamic theology into this Dharmic ethical and soteriological concept. Here, there is a sense that one is at the mercy of karma, with it’s deep power to determine fate, but considering the initial presentation of karma as a lover, the impact is not fear of this metaphysical force but rather a groundedness in faith and a willful submission.
The challenge now is to not collapse the concept of karma into a mere transposition of traditional Western theology under a Dharmic name, but Swift preempts this concern in her next line where she states that “karma is the breeze in my hair on the weekend.” Swift succeeds in re-immanentizing karma through the naturalistic image of wind through one’s hair. Having begun with the more theistic and personalistic images, however, the affect is more than sheer immanence. The loving and powerful karmic force deeply permeates existence, and its working in the world can be experienced by the faithful through even mundane experiences such as the wind rustling one’s hair. This goes to reinforce the non-duality between karma’s transcendent power and its immanence with the interconnected actuality of all existence while also continuing the personalistic motif through presenting itself in an intimate way within subjective experience.
Next, Swift asserts that “karma is a relaxing thought,” further emphasizing the above point that she seeks to present the relationship with karma in a mood that foregrounds an ease and naturalness, even amidst its transcendent power.
Having established this constellation of images that present karma in a uniquely personalistic light, Swift now shifts to a more existential key. In contrast to her own experience of tranquility in the relationship with karma, she notes that others may not share this experience and may in fact even be in a position of envy regarding her disposition. This suggests that there are various spiritual stations, ultimately colored by how one experiences the relationship with karma — as a transcendent force that inflicts its will on one’s life, or as a beneficence permeating existence in which one may place their faith.
Swift explores these themes in more depth in a later digression in the piece, with lines such as “karma is the thunder,” “karma’s on your sent like a bounty hunter; karma’s gonna track you down,” and “sweet like justice, karma is a queen.” Here we have what are referred to in Islamic parlance as an exploration of Divine Names of Majesty (Asma’ Jalaliyyah) — those aspects of Ultimate Reality which appear as tremendous, harsh, and exacting on the human plane. In Swift’s immanentized personalistic theology, the omnipresence of karma in the actual world may also be experienced as oppressive and suffocating, a divine power coming to exact justice as opposed to a lover acting out of concern for his beloved. Here we find an interesting fusion of the ontological fact of interconnection and the chains of causation that stem from the reality, and faith in the compassionate and transfiguring power of karma as god and lover. Ultimately, all human subjects are experiencing one and the same karmic law, but how they come to see the way their karma creates causal ripples that will eventually reflect back upon them, with full moral force, determines whether they find refuge or suffering in this situation. Through this synthesis, Swift provides a way out from traditional theological debates over whether salvation is ultimately grounded in works or faith.
Swift further elaborates many of the above-mentioned features of her exegesis of karma throughout the rest of the piece, but these mainly serve to amplify her existing points through the inclusion of additional images and metaphors, having already established the main features of her position.
While her work is primarily in a visionary key rather than providing careful analysis of all the topics introduced, Swift nonetheless presents a fresh and evocative alternative for the contemporary spiritual aspirant. Through her creative East-West synthesis, the concept of karma emerges transfigured, able to carry deeper religious sentiments familiar to Western audiences, all the while without losing its immanent and naturalistic thrust. Swift’s work represents an important contribution in speculative interreligious theologies and deserves further study by scholars as they explore the implications of her exegesis in different areas.
The above reflection can be placed in a tradition of academic work epitomized by the so-called “Sokal Affair”—where an essay tries to take on the appearance of deep and insightful scholarship by appropriating jargon and forms of discourse insular to particular disciplines while actually saying nothing meaningful or of significance underneath this academic veneer. Historically, the publication of these types of pieces has been used as an argument to discredit disciplines, particularly in the humanities, insisting that if peer-reviewed journals are incapable of distinguishing this meaningless and hallow work from genuine scholarship, their methodologies and premises must be inherently flawed. There is actually more complexity to these issues than this “gotcha!” move would like to let on, but it also raises the question of whether it is in fact possible to produce “meaningless” or “insignificant” scholarship if one is sufficiently careful in how one appropriates academic vernacular, style, and rhetoric so as to “fool” reviewers into seeing something in the work.
Similarly, Sam Harris concludes his book The End of Faith (2004) with an experimental application of mystical hermeneutics to a recipe he found in a cookbook titled A Taste of Hawaii. With this, he is attempting to show the shallowness of mystical thought, since if it can be effectively applied to something as mundane and lacking in traditional symbolism as a recipe for “wok-seared fish and shrimp cakes with ogo-tomato relish,” how may one effectively discriminate between authentic and inauthentic mystical thought?
Harris does a good job reading mysticism into the recipe as one would expect from an effective rhetorician familiar with Buddhist contemplative and hermeneutical traditions. What Harris and Sokal-type authors fail to consider, however, is that life and our perceptions of it may indeed be brimming with meanings—meanings that are not merely discovered through the application of “authentic” methods, but rather meanings which are co-constructed in the intersection between human perception, our linguistic conceptual schemes, and the real qualities of entities with whom we enter into relation. Even if the human authors of these types of intentionally superfluous mystical or academic analyses do not intend to bring any real insight into being, they may nonetheless succeed in doing so.
The difference between a Sokal paper and a work of “genuine” scholarship or Sam Harris’ mystical shrimp cakes is not authorial intent or some fundamental ontological/epistemic rift but merely the fact that there is large intersubjective buy-in which allows such material to find continual life in the inventio of additional meanings and insights. To be sure, many would find mysticism couched within the conceptual field of a particular traditional religion much more intuitively compelling than Harris’ project, but even this has much to do with the fact that people find themselves within particular semantic fields or partaking in a certain dasein where a particular constellation of pre-existing elements allow for a felt sense of liveliness and dynamism in the analysis. Harris’ project (and many a sincere attempt at novel mystical exploration) fail not because their content is fundamentally distinct from that of traditional spirituality or because they are applying incorrect methods, but largely because they have failed to bring together a sufficiently wide set of entities into the fold of their analysis to provide the sense of ecological autonomy to the material discussed—the feeling that the material is teeming with more to discover due to the sheer multitude of possible connections with many disparate domains of life. This is one of the chief sources for the sense of “Moreness” or connection with something “Greater” that is part and parcel of compelling religious experience.
In this piece on Taylor Swift’s interesting use of karma in her lyricism, I am not trying to claim that these deep inter-religious metaphysical perspectives pre-exist in her songwriting, but I am also not doing the classical Sokal-style move and trying to say sweet nothings in the key of comparative theology. Taylor’s song has genuinely compelling lyrical content, and there is really some fruitful material here for analysis. But of course I am saying more than her song is conveying, but this more enlists her lyricism along with a wide variety of concepts from both Dharmic and Abrahamic religions and numerous frameworks from philosophy and theology to piece together a tapestry of insights that many my find compelling. For those largely unfamiliar with the polyvalent meanings of terms like karma or personalistic, and who are not well-acquainted with various streams of discourse in comparative religion, this piece is likely indistinguishable from work in the tradition of Sokal, just like those unfamiliar with mystical discourses may see little distinction between Harris’ shrimp cakes and the ecstatic pronouncements of a Meister Eckhart or an Ibn ‘Arabi. But this is because such people are outside the communities of discourse which would give them the tools to perceive how many ripe connections exist in this former material—a perception the prompts excitement and eagerness to engage further.
Treading in the boundary by enlisting the help of wholly secular and base material as a crucial participant in the development of novel and engaged theological reflections is one of the ways that Metamodern ironic-sincerity offers new possibilities for re-spiritualizing one’s experience of the contemporary world. Taylor Swift has probably never heard of process theology or the philosophy of the Kyoto School—some of my major influences in the above piece—but if creative and skilled philosophers can craft deeply integrative connections between material in popular culture and the niche discourses of high-level theology, an affinity can be created nonetheless. An affinity which has the potential to break the walls of much-too-insular communities of academic discourse while also injecting a much needed element of lightheartedness and playfulness into material that is simultaneously teeming with spiritual and existential insights.
May the products of popular culture continue to serve as rich sources of reflection for the Metamodern philosopher-sage!