Things that have kept me busy lately (Early 2013)

I have an apology from Sinistre, he can’t post this week’s blog as its not finished yet.

Sinistre told me that he was writing a blog on ‘geri-action’ movies and was doing a ‘triple review’ of the films ‘Bullet to the Head’, ‘Die Hard 5’ and ‘The Last Stand’ However he has missed the deadline for which it should have been ready, which means I have to give a placeholder blog post on an impromptu short notice basis.

Perhaps I will update you on my life at the moment. I find it so cliche and generic to say that I’ve been busy. The Jesuits used to say always keep busy, but don’t look like you are busy. Unfortunately I am failing to look like I am not busy. I’ve been involved with Transition Town Tooting’s Community Garden project, in particular with a project to network and connect with other community green projects. This has been interesting and I have completed my first visit to Sutton Community Farm. I also created and run the social media for Tooting Community Garden. I am effectively a blogger for Tooting Community Garden as well as Noumenal Realm.

I have also taken up a blogging post with yet another collaboration. As well as working, having job interviews and constantly applying for jobs (CV available on request!), I have also taught myself how to play the Ocarina, and I bought a keyboard instrument called a ‘Melodica’. I have also started a musical collaboration with a few school friends of mine, and through them I am rediscovering my joy of performing as an ensemble musician, plus I am being introduced to appreciate Jazz from one of my ensemble buddies.

I am also really tired all the time because as a little bit of a lifestyle change which has slowly taken part over the past couple of years but really intensified in more recent months, I am doing a lot of weight training and fitness classes. I know I am surprised too! I think it goes hand in hand with being a fan of comics and nerdy stuff like action films and RPGs that I want to ‘level up’ my fitness in real life. I’ve been using a lot of my spoons lately, but I’d also like to think that I’m having a life where I’m making an impact on other people and enriching my local community, as well as having a bit of fun and a laugh along the way.

As real life stuff has gotten in the way I have had less space to blog about dark and philosophical topics. It’s funny that lately many of my good friends have been busy with other real life things as well which has been a barrier to keeping in regular contact, but each time I’ve heard from them they often start with the phrase ‘maybe its just me getting older but…’.

I was hoping that Antisophie and the gang would pick up the slack, but they seem busy too!I hope that by updating you on my personal life I can highlight how it has given me less time to run Noumenal Realm, as well as keep up the regular posting schedule.

Hopefully normal blogging will resume next week

Michael

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Antisophie’s Words: using ‘man’ as a prefix, -porn as an adjective

As part of an ongoing series I have been thinking about words that I hear in everyday speech and writing, and I think about how they have a specific location in our contemporary context, both in terms of being located in the English langauge, and being as signifiers of things in our time and that I hope one day will look like a bit of a commentary of our society (and its decline). I’ve talked about unnecessary words in the past, so….

Using ‘man’ as a prefix (or, the man-portmanteau)

(advisory: mention of eating disorders)

For some reason I found the show Will and Grace on tv the other day. I remember thinking how edgy it used to be with all the gay culture allusions and how edgy it was with all the double-entendres. But then I realised when I watched it I was an impressionable teenaged girl and many things seemed edgy when they actually weren’t. I remember recently watching this particular episode where the character Jack appeared to be sad about a relationship breakup, and said something to the effect that he was a manorexic. I then felt very icky about how I used to like the show and how deeply troubling it was to make a gag like that.

I often hear uses of the word -man used in a portmanteau fashion. A portmanteau is is a combination of words that don’t conventionally go together. Usually this is as a way of trying to show some significance of the newness of a combination, or it may be affectionate, or it is an ad-hoc way of trying to explicate what one means. Some portmanteaus however have gained common currency and are recognised beyond an ad hoc usage, like ‘chillax’.

The man-portmanteau (see what I did there?) is often used as a diminutive variation of an already existent word, or something that triest to make a phenomenon more masculine. ‘Manorexic’ is sometimes used in a demeaning way to look at anorexia, sometimes it is used in a non-serious way and in a growing usage acknowledging male eating disorders, it is sometimes used in a serious way. Other examples of using a man-prefix/man-portmanteau include:

  • Man cave
  • Man flu
  • Mancession
  • Man bag
  • Mankini
  • Manscaping
  • Man-child

The use of these prefixes seem to communicate quite different things. Something like man-scaping, mankini or man- bag tries to communicate something that is by the distinction of having association with maleness, unusual. Other terms like man cave and mancession have very specific meanings. Man cave is usually associated with a cultural symbol of a boorish anti-domestic type or indulgent. Mancession refers to the way that economic conditions have influenced male dating behaviour and its effect on women looking for men. Much of these prefixed terms seem to communicate different aspects of masculinity: vain, boorish, immature or lackadaisical. I am ambivalent however as to whether these ascriptions are wholly negative.

Porn as an adjective

I’m trying to think a little bit systematically. I’ve heard the term ‘porn’ used as a descriptor and it makes me reflect one what pornography signifies if it is to be linked in a suffix way to other words. Examples of what I mean are:

  • Property porn – the phenomena of admiring property ownership and the upward mobility associated with it
  • Inspirational porn – A term used by Ouch Podcast presenter Liz Carr to describe the Paralympics and its irrelevance to the lives of many disabled people in the UK
  • Food porn – the subject of many tumblrs, Pinterest boards and television shows valorising glamorous food

Michael once made the point that a Kantian perspective would deny that gastronomy could be a thing of art, because we eat it. In doing so we have an interested perspective about its consumption. It is relevant to our appetitive interests to crave foods, even the unhealthy kinds. However the idea of food porn seems apt to me, because it is (fitting to the analogy of pornography) skirting between the respectability of being artistic in some ways, to just appealing to our craving of it. The aspiration of food is also a distinctly class-based issue and one of the modern signifiers of class, cultural capital and what Veblen would call a pecuniary interest. The use of porn to describe food seems very apt to me.

Thinking about property porn and inspirational porn. I think there is something deeply political about making them analogous to pornography. Pornography generally portrays a world that doesn’t really exist, but represents fantasies that most people can’t have access to. In a world where wages don’t get to make ends meet and a gamut of other forms of economic instability, the presence of programmes valorising home ownership and a ‘quality of life’ in living in an x bedroom house with water features and close to the city reflects lots of deeply held and I think covertly socially stratified based attitudes. With ‘inspirational porn’ to describe the paralympics, I think the point was to point out how elite athletes who happen to be disabled is a bit of an irrelevance to the reality of many disabled people, who are living in increasingly intolerable conditions with the introduction of things like the PIP its exceptionally stringent conditions. We see the ugly side of aspiration: we must aspire but we cannot have. We are told what we ought to have and how we ought to behave, but with little possibility of fulfilling it. That is a sick society and reminds me of how Marx described religion: as a spiritual gin. Of course, spiritual gin is a bit of an obscure reference, where one syllable will do: porn.

 

Antisophie

On opposition to Gay Marriage (and a Kantian thought)

It’s 8am, I’m very tired at the start of the day. I am still recovering from the two prongs of having worked late and went to sleep later. I got up only to check emails on my phone. I saw a message following an ongoing email discussion about the recent news of the legalisation of Gay Marriage and I suddenly had a surge of intellectual thought. I shouted out “AUGUSTINE!” and then thought to myself: this is a victory for Kantian philosophy. Okay, so many that bit most people won’t understand, I don’t think most people understand the things I shout out in public anyway. However, I thought I’d venture to explain myself further. A single word expresses about 1600 years of literature.

The orientation of my thoughts are around a certain story of current affairs, namely, the legalisation of same-partner marriage in England and Wales (but not Northern Ireland, and not yet Scotland). I find several things objectionable all at once, and I thought I’d go through them systematically.

Bad arguments

I think one of the things that I thought notable was the television coverage summarising the issue. One view was an old Conservative MP whose background of edcuational and cultural priviledge gave him the wisdom of the following proclamation: marriage is between a man and a woman, it has been so historically for years and should continue to be so.

That’s not really a reason, or an argument. It’s an old man stating his view in the guise of a discussion of implementing a legal measure. I think that’s what Aristotle called demos kratos. I found an interesting piece from the New Humanist from Jason Wakefield effectively debunking what are thinly veiled layers of anti-gay bigotry. Arguing from the premise of tradition or the status quo is bad for democracy, is bad for rational argument and insulting to the idea of progress. I do think however, there has been a good rational case following the likes of Mark Vernon to be wary about imputing the historic standards of marriage as an institution to what is effectively a newly emerging acceptance of wider sexual difference. Of course acceptance of difference (overcoming bisexual erasure, transgender issues and non-monogamy) is a battle of many fronts, of which same-sex marriage is one particular front.

For the purposes of this post I shall not go into those issues in particular. Instead, I shall consider some of the appeals of the kinds of attitudes that would be inclined to reject homosexual marriage and I shall take these into more philosophical consideration.

‘Marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman’ – essentialism

I hold this claim to be an essentialist appeal to the meaning of the term. By essentialist I would take it to mean a broadly Kripkean view that there is a certain ‘this-ness’, or natural kind appeal. This kind of appeal would assert that there is a point at which the object of marriage has been (excuse the pun) Christened in a brute way, as say me pointing to a glass of water and saying: THIS is water.

There are two kinds of ways of replying to this essentialist appeal. The first way is through permutation, and the second is to reject that it is essentialist. Let’s consider permutation. If we followed the thought experiment that christening some object and claiming some ‘this-ness’ to the criterial nature of the thing, as if we just point to something and say: THIS is marriage (like say, pointing to a couple arguing; buying furniture at Ikea on a saturday afternoon; appearing as a legally recognised couple in the eyes of the law etc). We can say that the ‘this-ness’ of what it means to be a couple (or coupledom) will still hold even in different conditions.

Permutation of a condition like, say, the recognised gender of either party in a marriage may still preserve many of the aspects of putative coupledom. Perhaps the essence of a marriage is in something else than its gendered membership: things like having arguments about what colour to paint the spare room; whether to take on parental responsibilities; buying furniture from sofa-world or being in love with each other. We can turn this case on its head and say, if we look at putative cases of opposite-sex marriages and find some element missing (like say: a married couple not having parental commitments/buying furniture together/being in love), would we still essentially call it a marriage? I will leave that question open. The kripkean essentialist account, as I understand it, can reasonably account for permutation. The seeds of a watermelon grown on mars that tastes salty and takes a square shape, is still a watermelon according to this essentialist view. Absurd maybe, but I don’t think the argument against same-sex marriage can take essentialist appeals as a rational option.

‘Marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman’ – social construction

An alternative view to the thesis that marriage is traditionally supposed to be between a man and a woman is to look at social construction, essentially (excuse the pun) a contrasting ontological perspective. Namely that of social construction. There is an overwhelmingly good case to consider the historicities of institution of marriage. To see marriage as a tradition is correct, but to quote Eddie Murphy’s character in Coming to America, it is also tradition that times must, and do change, my friend. To canonise history is a mistake, to canonise tradition as fixed is also an insult to our understanding of social construction, and perhaps to make an embarrassing ontological mistake. This is a bad reason to make an appeal against gay marriage, not least because it raises more questions than it would purport to answering an issue.

Historical reflections I: Natural Law (Thomism)

Some Catholics may be familiar with this kind of view. Natural law is the basis of many Catechistic principles. Natural law is a notion which has a large basis in Aquinas that through Reason we can see the work of God, and through His nature we can see his will, which in turn informs our moral understanding.

This issue is important from a perspective of faith, because there are many ethical issues that are not addressed in Scripture, and so another recourse is needed to create a religious persepctive. Natural Law appeals to lookings at purported facts of nature and imputing that seeing the teleology (or design/intention) of the natural world suggests God’s will. Perhaps a neat caricature of this view is the Flanders and Swann line: “If the Juju had meant us not to eat people, he wouldn’t have made us of meat!”.

Natural law has an interesting set of applications, this is not to speak of whether it is agreeable or disagreeable. Natural law has a philosophical utility in the kinds of conclusions it makes under the assumption of telos: for example: because humans and other animals have incisors, we are supposed to eat meat. Because of the female reproductive system, only procreation between a man and a woman is permitted. However this kind of view is so strong it would be against a whole lot of things: cybernetic implants and other post-humanist implantations to extend human ability and human life; vegetarianism is immoral. Not least a whole gamut of other philosophical problems: the naturalistic fallacy (which is a whole big issue in itself); the problem of interpreting God’s nature correctly (another big theology issue); the role of socialisation being undermined as ‘human nature’ is overemphasised, and perhaps most intuitively, the desiderata of an ordinary moral theory is to preserve certain things like: murder is wrong or the wrongness of sexual violence. . Natural law would seemingly have the same kinds of problems that sociobiology would have in taking an ambivalent acceptance to the these cases of nature. Not least to say that same sex relations actually happen in non-human mammals as part of a social ritual. Wouldn’t it then be considered natural? (or within nature’s repetoire?). Let’s go back to natural theology later.

Historical reflections II – Separate but Equal

The appeal of separate but equal has been a justification for a variety of contexts. When I googled the phrase earlier, it referenced a misquotation to the attitudes of the Jim Crow era in the USA. The rationality is that many hold there already to be an institution (the civil partnership) for same sex couples, which fulfills the function of marriage. However, it is the point it doesn’t, and to introduce a tier system which essentially is on the basis of sexuality is to establish a level of segregation that forms a barrier to equality.

I think that this rational strategy could be established more, and this may pose an interesting avenue for non-homophobic opposition to gay marriage. However, there is something prima facie suspicious when we introduce an idea of tiers about legally recognised relationships, and the fear that civil partnerships (which heterosexual couples are legally allowed to have) reflect both an aysmmetry (thus suggesting a tiered aspect) or a perception among some of the public that civil partnerships are marriage-lite’’. Which is essentially the fear that Mark Vernon expressed.

Historical reflections III – biblical references

Ah, now if we are taking a Christian perspective, we could appeal to the scriptures. Particularly 1 Timothy, and Romans. These are the writings of St. Paul, who is generally accepted as a scriptural ground for opposition to homosexuality. Then of course there is Leviticus 18 in the ‘Old Testament’/Jewish Scriptures. But then again, if we read into it, Leviticus also forbids tattoos! I do wonder sometimes when I watch the God channel on freeview digital television if some of these cool looking evangelicals who hold to the literalness of scripture know about Leviticus.

Without even taking to account the fact that in a secular environment, this statement of belief is not admissible in a public discussion on the level of Government. We could challenge the canon of the Bible itself. To do this we must consider the historical organisation of the library that is the Bible. Why are the synoptic gospels canonical over others, or do we have any reason to doubt their historicity?

Closing: The victory of Kant’s moral religion

I consider the issue of gay marriage a victory for the broadly Kantian project, of elminating the cultus from religion, from separating ritual from value. The Kantian perspective on religion (which has lots of details) was deeply influential in beginning the historical Jesus project of research, commonly associated with what is called liberal theology.

One way we can see the issue of gay marriage in England and Wales, is to see it as undermining aspects of doctrinal Christianity. Slowly and slowly we are finding moral communion and consensus towards the acceptance of same-sex partnerships through a non-religious and public conversation. We are moving away from the likes of scriptural justification for the basis of our ethical values and moving towards public reason – perhaps.

Lately I have been reading Bart D. Ehrman’s ‘Jesus, Interrupted’, we might review this book at a later time, but one of the overarching theses of the book is the point that there are good grounds to doubt the literalness of the way that the books of the New Testament have been established. The organisation of the books of the Bible are a result of disputes in Early Christianity during the late-antique period, and following Kant’s perspective on philosophical anthropology (an issue I based my MA dissertation on), there are grounds on which we can sympathise with other moralities from different cultural origins, on the basis of their historical basis. Strip away culture and historicities, and we can find a better basis of our ethical values.

How about, say, the formula of humanity: to perceive rational beings as ends in themselves. Human agency as the basis of our respect towards others by virtue of being human, or by virtue of being a moral agent (I take these two to be interchangeable for now). I think its fair to say that those who may be opposed to their views are entitled to practice their cultural heritage within reason, and this measure should not be seen as an affront to their beliefs. I also think that this kind of discussion is the kind of thing that is another feather to the bow of liberal theology, and the subsequent way in which it undermines many of the precepts of fundamentalist and literalist belief.

In closing. I thought it was odd that I didn’t have a philosophical opinion about this issue, but then I realised I did have a dog in this fight. Trust me to show the relevance of Kantian philosophy in any social issue.

Michael (in conversation with Destre)

On Writing Accessibly (thoughts from book reviewing)

At the moment I am in the process of reading two books as part of writing a review for them. I’m reviewing the anthology ‘Philosophy in Children’s Literature’ by Lexington Books, and ‘The Mythology of Evolution’ by by Zer0 Books (written by Noumenal Realm favourite blogger Chris Bateman). One of the things I usually think about when writing a book review is a thing that is the complete opposite of how I write in my blog: accessibility to your audience. One book succeeds at this consistently, while the other is problematic about this.
 
I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’ve been asked to do some freelance proofreading and editing work lately, and this varies a bit to when undergraduates ask me to look over their essays. Sometimes the comments and criticisms I have a deeply technical affairs (like ‘the meaning of is’), while others are very general and come up time and again when I do book reviews.

The cardinal rule is to know your audience and write to their level of understanding. I am a massive hypocrite when I say this because on this blog many of my posts presume that my readership has read such-and-such an essay or such-and-such an historical text. I find the freedom of moderating my own blog is that I want to talk at my level, because I spend my real life emphasising how to be accessible and how to write and speak accessibly, when what’s going on in my head presumes a background in music, or philosophy, or comic books, or whatever. I personally don’t write usually for an audience all the time. Sometimes I write to make notes of my thinking. I am however very honoured at how many people around the world have come to visit and read Noumenal Realm posts, and I’m surprised at how often my posts are translated!

Let me give two different examples of writing accessibly about a technical issue. Firstly, in reading Chris Bateman’s ‘Mythology of Evolution’, which I have yet to complete, and secondly, a book that I am currently reviewing: ‘Philosophy in Children’s Literature’ (ed. P. Costello).

Bateman disseminating science

When reading through Bateman’s Mythology, I have found that he draws from a large array of sources, from technical issues in scientific journals, to generalist perspectives on biology, to the philosophy of science and philosophy of biology! In particular, Bateman explains a thesis in the issue of levels of selection in a way that was so clear, that the philosopher who he’s citing (who also happened to be a former lecturer of mine) couldn’t explain it clearer and simpler terms than Bateman. In fairness, the philosopher in question was very keen on using a lot of logic and game theoretic notations (preserving anonymity fail).

Bateman writes as if taking his thesis as a train journey and the simplicity and accessibility of his language is sure to keep an audience on the rails. Good writing tries to put a discussion in as simple terms as possible. Of course if one is writing for a more specialist audience this is not so much an issue. But there are some instances where technically oriented writing is not desirable, such as if we are bringing together areas of specialism where the experts don’t read each other and may be fluent in one set of terminology but not others. It’s one thing to talk biology (microbiology and pathology papers are the worst when it comes to readability!), and its’ another to talk philosophy, but communicating the two for a general audience is a masochistic task of accessibility.  

Continental philosophy jargon and children’s literature – a marriage made in the 7th layer of hell

I’ve finished a book that I am trying to develop an opinion about, for a book review. My overall opinion is that many of the articles are a genuine contribution to philosophy, while others are a very poor attempt at accessible writing. I’m sure many of you may be familiar with the genre of philosophy titles like ‘Philosophy and Metallica’ or ‘Philosophy and Twilight’ that have come out from the editorial mind of William Irwin. I think that there is a potential for connecting everyday cultural artefacts with philosophy, but if you do so, one must realise that there would be a targeted audience. I’m sure that less philosophers will read ‘Philosophy and Metallica’ than say Metallica fans.

‘Philosophy in Children’s Literature’ reflects a trend of philosophical literature that addresses issues in aesthetics, as well as ethics and critical theory in relation to children’s literature. I imagine that if there was such a thing as literary criticism for children’s books, it would surely welcome this kind of thinking. The anthology made me realise how exceptionally wide the scope of thinking is for philosophy in children’s literature.

When thinking of a wide scope, there is more of an onus to write accessibly for the printed word. There are some articles which do very well at this in the book. Some articles such as Court Lewis’ The Cricket in Time’s Square examines the philosophical ideas underpinning the story and then the story. Then there are obscurantist, inaccessible and horrid-to-read articles like The Giving Tree, Women and the Great Society (Milena Radeva), and Lovingly Impolite (Lindsay Lerman) which do no favours for accessibility. Although part of this I maintain is because of the impenetrable and ugly writing styles of the philosophers whom they cite, such as Derrida and Agamben, who make philosophy sound like word games and apply puzzlingly pretentious equivocations. If you are going to reference a ‘continental’ philosopher, it would do one favours to try and re-pack what they say in accessible English.

Writing in a difficult way alienates one’s audience. Although sometimes this is seen as a purposeful thing such as the case of Nietzsche, or maybe even Schopenhauer, who force people to know their intellectual background in order to understand them. There were a few good articles in the anthology and it is good to emphasise this with the bad. The idea of philosophising about Children’s literature is very appealing. It was unfortunate for me that the piece on Frog and Toad was a bit difficult to read, because I love Frog and Toad.

The exception to accessible writing

I do believe that there is an exception to the desideratum of accessible writing, and that is when one is deep in terminology that it is impossible to explain in lay terms. Or where the intended audience is definitely not the lay-person. One thing that I’ve noticed lately are certain people who shall remain nameless who consider themselves experts about certain issues only to find that they haven’t read very much literature on an issue and suddenly find themselves that using accessible language is imprecise, irrelevant and unhelpful to the advances of how an issue is in the present state of the art. This is what I call the ‘out of Kansas amateur’.  

I think that the intricacies of 20th Century music involving very fancy methods and technical terms would be an example of something that is a challenge to explain explicitly with accessibility. The philosophy of Kant often uses a certain syntactical structure which involves long sentences, and lots of lists and details as part of a system. This systematic thinking also leads to a very dry sort of language being employed. Sometimes accessibility is over-rated. But then again in these situations, it is being written for an audience.

There are many instances where a writer has to write for their audience, but for a select number of things. The content is important enough to challenge a reader to take a journey and grow in order to be able to understand the text.

Michael (following conversations with Sinistre)