Monday, November 05, 2007

Philosophy requires highly disciplined, systematic, abstract conceptualization, a skill that does not come easily to most people

From the issue dated October 12, 2007 Looking Up From the Gutter:
Philosophy and Popular Culture By STEPHEN T. ASMA
Philosophy has never had a good relationship with popular culture. The two domains seem like different planets, each with an atmosphere toxic to the other. Thales (625?-?547 BC), the first philosopher, is famous for being so out of touch with the mundane world that he once fell down a well because he was distracted by deep thought. Philosophy broods, analyzes, and tends toward the antisocial; pop culture celebrates, wallows, and tends toward the communal. Philosophy is for cynics, and pop culture is for bimbos.
But the recent trend in publishing, dominated by Open Court and Blackwell, has tried to undo those old stereotypes. Perhaps its chief architect, or hardest worker, is William Irwin, an associate professor of philosophy at King's College, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Irwin was the series editor of Open Court's "Popular Culture and Philosophy" from 2003 to 2007, generating more than 20 titles, including The Sopranos and Philosophy, Harry Potter and Philosophy, and The Beatles and Philosophy. Open Court's series originated when the press's editorial director, David Ramsay Steele, decided to follow up on the success of the one-off Seinfeld and Philosophy. The Open Court series is currently being edited by George Reisch, an instructor at Northwestern University's School of Continuing Studies, and the ever-busy William Irwin has moved on to Blackwell, where he's put seven new titles on the docket for 2007 alone in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series.
Philosophers, who devote much of their attention to remote texts, are seen by many as irretrievably elitist. But elitism isn't always bad. Professional sprinters, for example, are an elite group, too, but nobody holds it against them.
If it were only cultural bias that shaped philosophy, then it would seem high time to overthrow the old hegemons Kant, Aristotle, Hegel, and their ilk, and open the doors to Buffy, Bart, and Neo. In fact, an entire branch of cultural studies is devoted to destroying the old hierarchies of high culture over pop culture. The original impetus for that movement (typified in the Birmingham School, 1968-2002) was a laudable attempt to rescue working-class culture from infra dig academic obscurity. Good scholarship was, and still is, done under the assumption that, say, the blues (to pick a random example) is as important for academic study as chamber music. Unfortunately, postmodern cultural studies, in typical melodramatic fashion, wants the humanities to throw out all criteria of "high" and "low" (after all, wasn't Shakespeare low and then high?), but finds itself with no alternative for assessing quality or value in art, film, or literature.
My relativist undergraduates feel empowered by a leveling theory that puts their favorite rock band on equal footing with Bach and Mozart; but watch how quickly a qualitative hierarchy races back when, in the interests of consistency, you suggest that their favorite band must be no better than the Backstreet Boys (or that their favorite bohemian film is no better than, only different from, Police Academy 5). The old dichotomies between elite and popular, and high and low, may indeed be vexed by unjustifiable privileges, but without a new language of merit for the arts, the postmodernists are forced to live in a flattened landscape where Barry Manilow and Beetho-ven are equals. In principle, the postmodernists are happy to do so, because anything else would be hegemonic propaganda. In practice, however, their hearts are as autocratic as yours and mine (and they frequently elevate their own favorites with praise of "keepin' it real").
You might think that the young Turk philosophers at Blackwell and Open Court would relish the cultural-studies marriage of academe and popular culture — but you'd be wrong. Philosophers who are writing about the Beatles and South Park and so on are choosing shows and music that seem particularly suggestive of intellectual sophistication. The writers, who are often already established philosophers, tend to be fans of the particular show or band, and they are writing for other fans who may sense the intellectual dimension but not fully grasp it...
In the end, I suspect that, despite these excellent new efforts, philosophy will remain intractable and estranged from popular culture. It will remain so not because it is biased or willfully elite, but because it is in an extremely self-reflexive relationship with its own history, and it requires highly disciplined, systematic, abstract conceptualization, a skill that does not come easily to most people.
One can barely make a move within the oldest academic discipline without understanding its past. People who don't know its vast literature feel excluded from the import of any particular philosopher or problem. That kind of exclusion can be remedied by doing the requisite study — by catching up, so to speak, on a body of knowledge. But philosophy is more than just a body of knowledge; it is an ability to examine the structures of thought itself. Simon Blackburn calls that "conceptual engineering," in order to distinguish it from regular empirical investigation. The requirement makes philosophy unpopular in the same sense that higher mathematics is unpopular.
Despite the hurdles of making philosophy popular (and pop culture more philosophical), there is still plenty of room to make it more enjoyable. And here the new publishing trend is definitely resonating with the next generation of philosophers. Old-school philosophers may see pop culture as a gutter, but I believe it was Oscar Wilde (or was it Chrissie Hynde, of the Pretenders?) who said, "We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."
Stephen T. Asma is a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago. His books include Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums (Oxford University Press, 2001). Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 54, Issue 7, Page B14

No comments:

Post a Comment