Reading: 2013

I have been thinking about the ways I blog lately. I have an informal rule about trying not to comment on current affairs. Partly because the things going on now I perceive that an informed view is hard to distinguish from the received view when it is so close to just happening. However, I think some kind of reflection on the past year might be germane. Why? I’ll give two motivations:

 

Motivation I: I was just thinking today about the film Bicentennial Man (dir. C. Columbus). The protagonist’s lives through two centuries in an almost single minded set of goals and it is up to the viewer to notice how much of the world changes around the android. I think a story that is just as interesting as the android’s life, could be told through the world that he lives in and the changes in attitudes and technologies.

 

Motivation II: I told a friend of mine earlier this week about a certain hobby of mine. I like to take pictures in public of things that are ‘telling’ about the state of society today. My favourite example of this photography, was a Barclays’ bank branch that closed near where I live, there was an eviction/repossession notice on the window and above it was a paint-etched message from the original bank which said ‘start a business’. My friend said it reminded him of Cinema verite. I like trying to tell stories through juxtaposition, and usually I take these pictures to make my friends laugh, and think.

 

For me this year reminded me how our social reality is construed by gendered lenses that fits everyone into boxes. This month talk about the ‘person of the year’ has been discussed. I could talk about how Edward Snowden could legitimately be considered as a person of high impact in public discussions, I certainly have read a lot of tech and gadget magazines which raise issues of IP security and cybercrime in a way that would make otherwise apolitical publications very uncomfortable. I could also mention how the election of a Jesuit priest is a particularly momentous moment for me as someone educated by the Jesuits.

 

However, I think that for me, Miley Cyrus is my person of the year. It’s hard to have a certain kind of entertainment media following you all the time. Female celebrities are scrutinised in every way except perhaps what they actually believe and what they think. I mentioned a Miley Cyrus photoshoot as a lightning rod for a discussion of young female sexuality in a book review years ago and I find it notable how later on in her life and career she still finds herself a scapegoat for discussions that are so wide-ranging it’s dizzying. It says a lot to me, when the watercooler discussions I hear are more about ‘twerking’ and ‘selfies’; ‘onesies’ and ‘tweeting’, than ‘NSA’ and ‘Surveillance’; ‘Poverty’ and ‘Krisis’ (civil strife).

 

Public interests and public opinion are objects of our ontology that I have a growing consideration for as important to observe. 2013 is a year where dissidents are silenced around the world, narratives about recent history are being simplified and our newspapers and computer screens showing the news are actually just mirrors to ourselves, and as we gaze into that abyss, a duckface gazes back at us.

Happy New Year

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Two parables: The Comedian (II)

This story is about the curious and well documented incident of comedian Dave Chappelle leaving his successful comedy series in the making of its third season in the mid 2000s. I shall refer to Chappelle hence as ‘The Comedian’.

The Comedian grafted his way in an industry that sought to fit African American comedians through simplified stereotypes and personas. It took a while for Chappelle to make a presence in the entertainment industry and the right forum for his brand of comedy to have support from a television network or film studio, but eventually in the early-mid 2000s, it happened.

The Chappelle show was a very accessible insight into The Comedian’s vision of the world on issues of sexuality, race and politics. Chappelle’s sketches were not patronising and were recognised as breaching beyond ‘black comedy’ into comedy simpliciter. There is a monologue in Vin Diesel’s independent film ‘Multi-Facial’, that his ideal was to be a working actor that was an artist, not working to live. Diesel’s character makes a point that being committed to acting as an art form meant that some of the ‘greats’ of acting wouldn’t do advertisments. ‘You’re never gonna see (sic) Pacino do like potato chips or Denzel doing doughnuts’!, Diesel’s character says. Ironically Al Pacino appeared in a UK ad campaign for Sky Broadband this year.

Chappelle’s comedy sketches were both edgy and commercially viable. Chappelle support from other comedians such as Charlie Murphy and Paul Mooney (whose racial observations cut very deep). They say that DVD sales of the show had an unprecedented record high for a television show which led to much anticipation about his third season.

There came a point where the commercial success of the show was its undoing. The subtlety of The Comedian’s racial humour and the edginess of his socio-political observations were undermined by the commercially catchy one liners such as ‘I’m rich, Bitch!’ or ‘I’m Rick James, Bitch’, in my life, the line ‘cocaine’s a’helluva drug’ formed a backbone of in-jokes and references among my friends in 2006. The Comedian began to feel that the success of his show undermined his comedy, and was being interpreted in simplistic ways. Instead of challenging racism, the popularity of his humour (and its constant repetition) undermined this message and subversion became subverted. As a result to this, The Comedian left the show and was ‘missing’ for a short while leading people to speculate about his whereabouts. Some comedians speak of an informal ‘blacklisting’ of The Comedian since bailing on a $50mill contract. The Comedian still performs today, but not to audiences and the media outlets that he used to.

I think of this story as a way to understand the ways in which Adorno approaches culture. The Comedian’s story is one of a relationship with commercial success, having a social critique and the potential of social critique having a cultural impact. Does The Comedian’s account show, via negativa, that Adorno was right? That counterculture will eventually be subverted to the culture machine, unless it is all embracing of the negative. Through these everyday parables I would like to try and show the scope of what is at stake with the selected philosophical issues I’ve addressed over the past few years.

Two parables: The Frustrated Scientist (I)

Lately I heard of two stories, one is a testimony of a career scientist, and another is a narrative from pop culture of the last decade. I thought re-telling these accounts as parables might make more sense of what I try to do in this blog. For most of the posts of this decade I have focussed on (inter alia) two issues: one is on the nature and scope of scientific method, explored through a largely Kantian lense, and the other concerns the potential for promoting dissident or critical thought through the media of art.

I refer to these stories as parables, for want of a better term. A parable usually has a moral to the story. However I feel that these are parables in which I cannot determine what the moral is, or perhaps the moral of these stories are open ended. I thought these parables would be an accessible introduction to the way in which I frame my reading of Adorno and Kant, and illuminate through a concrete pair of examples why these seemingly abstract and textual issues are of interest to me.

The frustrated scientist

Let me tell you a story about a Frustrated Scientist. FS Is in her late 20s, just out of grad school after finishing her doctoral thesis in the UK and within weeks of her viva examination has begun a postdoc placement at a university in Northern America. FS is working in Canada because of an unstable and competitive scientific and academic jobs market, domestically and internationally. FS was taught in her PhD training that specialisation would be key to her employability and marketability in the research jobs market. Some of FS’s friends have left academia altogether due to the instability of the postdocs market, the obscurity and lack of applicability of their area of specialism (AOS) and the general lack of opportunity and career progress in science and academia at large.

Within days of beginning work in Canada, FS has found problems from the get-go. The datasets that she has to work on relating to her postdoc AOS project have numerous methodological problems; she is given a task to process the data and report findings for an upcoming joint paper, but reports explicitly to her colleagues (project partners and project leader) that the data is basically unanalysable and unusable for a variety of technical reasons. The colleague (lets call him ‘Other Postdoc’) who was responsible for the experiment and collation of the raw data maintains that their work was coherent and done well, and takes the point that FS has made personally and as an affront to him. Project leader listens to these objections but has no input or contribution to these specific issues, but stresses that the research group must have results about the data written down for the upcoming joint paper and it is FS’s responsibility.

FS is in an impossible situation. FS cannot do much due to funding issues about repeating the experiment, FS thinks that the data shows that the experiment is unrepeatable and poorly operationalised for any worthwhile and publishable data to come out. FS is forced to make some stretched out conclusions based on the data, and not publish the raw data it is based on in the paper. The paper is published and forms part of a career portfolio of papers that FS will need to list on her dossier that future institutions will look at when she applies for future jobs. FS is worried about the jobs market, her employability and making a place in an industry that is fraught with personal politics and methodological nightmares. On top of this FS has pressures from funders and her project lead, who are in a distinct power relationship of dominion over her and her career, and pointing out flaws in their research is not in the spirit of having a reputable output of ‘high impact research’.

Moral of the story

So here comes the ‘parable’ bit. What does FS’s story tell us about the role of scientific method or scientific norms in actual scientific practice. With all the discussion I’ve had in previous years about the role of things like parsimony, systematicity, mathematicisation or other such abstract normative items, where is the method in actual science? The obvious conclusion might be that there is no place for this kind of high minded idealist talk of scientific method and scientific values, or even of scientific knowledge, when we are faced with concrete social circumstances where scientific research is much like any other part of the professional industrial world: it’s about hitting targets, reaching audiences and maximising profitability and brand presence. Where is the method? Where is the committment to truth and clarity? I’ll just leave these as open questions.

In my next post I will consider my second parable, of the Comedian.

‘Because, Pusheen’ – on the cute internet cat

Over the past maybe couple months, I have been increasingly a fan of an internet phenomenon called Pusheen the Cat. I discovered Pusheen through Facebook chat and it was so incredibly cute that I surrendered a sense of seriousness about things to adore a fat kitty doing various things like riding a bike or reaching for a cupcake. I then discovered that Pusheen is a wider phenomenon than emojis, Pusheen has her own Tumblr, which is described in the metadata: ‘Miow! I am Pusheen the Cat. This is my blog’.

It is so incredibly adorable that I can only express its cuteness in Pusheen pictures.

Why am I writing a post about Pusheen? I suppose the reactions from it kind of had certain morals for me.

The surprise of its cuteness

A well known adege says: the internet is for cats. There is something directly appealing about the frivolous and the cute. I use Feedly to aggregate all of my news feeds and I use categories (schema) to sort through them. I have various ones to distinguish between philosophy feeds (such as philosophy/culture, philosophy/journals, philosophy/academic or philosophy/feminism) and I like to read on an extreme variety of feeds. Anything from Depressive black metal bands to secularism in the UK, and in between that very heavy sandwich I put a little bit of comedy into feedly. I love the website ‘pictureisunrelated’ for the ‘wtf’-reaction that I get from the pictures, and I quite enjoy sharing them with other people.

Communicability

I love looking at Pusheen because it is something cute that I can communicate about and share with others. There are lots of things that I accept that not everyone (and in many cases, probably no-one) shares an interest with me regarding. I’ve shared Pusheen and Pusheen accessories with various friends. One new friend of mine I have a particularly strong bond with about Pusheen, we communicate our feelings through Facebook stickers of Pusheen.

Cuteness and gender lines

It’s not very male to talk about cuteness. I have a friend who is so proud that he won’t accept that he likes Pusheen, and so when I send him Pusheen images he says how ridiculous they are and then says: have you got any more? Reflecting on Pusheen shows me how differently gendered views of certain objects are, such as Pusheen sleeping on a bear. I wonder to myself if this male recitence about cuteness is a different way of seeing the world, or a barrier of appreciation. I share my appreciation with Pusheen with friends of various genders, and I must admit I notice a marked differential response along gendered lines.

because, internet’ : Teaching me about comedy

I love things that are funny, I like to see why things are funny. Non-sequiturs such as in the ‘pictureisunrelated’ bamboozle people who have no preconception of what to expect, perhaps in the parlance of this age, we have a reaction of surprise to absurdity which encapsulates Kant’s view of, although in more contemporary terms, it can be summed up by the term: lolwat.

I like the way that Pusheen portrays an antrhopomorphic persona while also being obviously a cat. Pusheen portrays a child like mentality and one focussed on base needs like the desire to sleep and eat, so much so that it is to a fault. Perhaps it is that character flaw of Pusheen that we see in ourselves, or that we find amusing about human nature. Pusheen displays akrasia on a regular basis, in her most recent post, “Santa Claws”, Pusheen parodies the Christmas cultural figure but reverses our expectations by using the big sack to steal cookies instead of deliver gifts to (presumably) children. At this story we laugh, because of the supplanted expectation we have of Santa.

Perhaps there is no justification or reason to the things that appeal to us, perhaps I simply like Pusheen, because Pusheen.

Reading ‘Queer Philosophy’: The Philosopher as public intellectual

I am currently reviewing ‘Queer Philosophy’ (eds. Halwani et. al). One of the issues in the anthology concerns the role of Philosophers as public intellectuals. The prima facie view of  public intellectuals is that they usually assume a platform where they address an audience much larger than the audience for which their professional and publication background would normally mandate. So you would have specialists on very specific and seemingly irrelevant issues speak broadly about some generalised topic. Or is that really the case?

 

There are cultural issues at hand, as Halwani points out how in the USA, intellectuals are not seen as esteemed as say, France. It almost seems as if people in public gain greater social and authenticity capital if they are non-specialists or outright ignorant about an issue. One really needs to look at Anglophone politicians to see this is the case.

 

Cynicism aside, ‘Queer Philosophy’ contains some discussion on the (philosopher-)public intellectual. Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Moral Expertise?’ is a superb essay (anything she writes is superb, really) that invokes a distinction between a legitimate and illegitimate case of using a philosopher in a court of law. Engaging with the public means playing the game of short pithy soundbites. In a secular society, intellectuals have no more moral authority than anyone else, and the force of what a public intellectual puts forward should be considered by the merits of its premises.

 

How ideal this might sound, or how obvious this might sound? However the reality of it is that in the public sphere we all-too-often play with stereotypes and shorthand assumptions that just comes from a person’s name or position. Say the name Dawkins for example and people automatically get some kind of reaction or bugbear. Likewise, statements of the form ‘I believe’ does not have a place in the sphere of public reason. Taking beliefs and convictions as primitives is no form of argumentation at all, even if people attempt to derive premises or corroloraries or scholia as additionals.

 

Nussbaum gives bad examples of using philosophy in public debate (specifically in a court of law), and gives good examples. Linda Martin Alcoff poses that being a philosopher and public intellectual can involve portraying scholarship closed off to the general world, such as say, journal articles and treatises and conference papers; alternatively, Alcoff gives an example of where being a philosopher and public intellectual can advance original research and original insights on an issue that doesn’t come from journals but through an awareness of a public issue. Perhaps an example of this is the way in which feminist philosophers (and it should be said academic philosophy to an increasing participation) are challenging the conditions that make being an academic difficult for historically underpriviledged groups, this includes women but also minorities of various kinds such as those with disabilities.

 

Alcoff addresses the pitfalls of being a public intellectual in terms of one’s professional career, citing the examples of Cornel West and Noam Chomsky. Another view was to be negative, now this is negative in the Adorno sense. Where our worry about affirmations and making positive claims which could be appropriated, diluted and modified by others. Alcoff gives the example of the symbolism of the Che Guevara T-Shirt being utterly and cynically drained of any revolutionary fervour. The fear of being appropriated and misrepresented is very real when it comes to public intellectuals, especially when they are dead. I have come across the revisionism and perverting of Kant scholarship and German Philosophy at large during the Nazi period where something like the influence of a Scottish David Hume on Kantian Metaphysics is unthinkably offensive to the nationalist Nazi mentality.

 

There are many benefits and pitfalls to the different models of being a public intellectual. One can be a negative philosopher like Adorno, but how much of an impact did Adorno really have in his own time? Not much compared to say Sartre or Bonhoffer when it came to social critique. Alcoff’s example of Foucault’s activism is very powerful, to me that seems to be public intellectual work at its best. Foucault’s public activism on imprisonment led to a research programme and a mass of influence in a wide variety of areas in the social sciences, humanities and philosophy at large. There is indeed a space for original as opposed to derivative work in engaging with the public.

 

These essays in the ‘Queer Philosophy’ anthology were particularly notable to me, because they were so general, and should ideally be read by anyone with an interest in the public intellectual, and that doesn’t just include philosophers, or academics at large. I am particularly drawn by the suggestion that original work can happen through public engagement as a forum, the reality of academic writing is that something like Baumgarten’s Metaphysica will be read by a lot less people than Kant’s essay on the enlightenment, and more public responses and work has come from the latter, even when so much effort went into the former.

Remembering Paul Walker

I woke up today with a whatsapp text message, and from a different friend, a link to a news story: both relating to the event of actor Paul Walker’s unfortunate death. I don’t normally feel much about people in the entertainment industry but for a lot of fans of action films, this death has come to hit particularly hard.

 

This has been the year for when my friends and I have gotten into the Fast and the Furious (F&F) franchise. I remember cynically saying how the introduction of Dwayne Johnson was a bizarre way of revitalising a set of films that went on for too many sequels, by the time I finished watching F&F6 I knew two things: I MUST watch the sequel F&F7 (it was evident there was going to be a sequel – both in terms of the post-credits scene and the success of F&F6), and the other thing was: I’m going to watch this twice.

 

The film may not be cinematic gold like say, Empire Strikes Back or the Wizard of Oz, but for me there were personal moments for the film. There were comedic moments where watching with friends we bonded over the unbelievable and physically impossible stunts and set pieces. I saw the film twice in the cinema and the first time was with my friend who was writing up his Doctoral thesis and needed some time away from writing up for some comic relief; the second time was with my more ‘bro’ type friends. We laughed at the rapport between Walker’s ‘O’Connor’ and Diesel’s ‘Toretto’ characters, with lines like ‘I always preferred American Muscle’ (a reference to a type of car and obvious homo erotic undertone).

 

I have another fond memory of watching F&F2 with another friend of mine, it was a night when we were watching all action films, and when we made the bad decision of ordering fish and chips as well as a seperate chinese takeaway simultaneously. We laughed uncontrollably at the troll physics stunt at the end of F&F2 performed by Walker’s ‘O’Connor’.

 

There are many things painful about his death. The F&F films have given me a lot of joy in recent months, and its created a lot of bonding and humour among many of my friends, with some of the phrases in the films repeated in our common parlance (‘you’re going down, Torretto!’, or ‘why do I smell baby oil?’). The film made a lot of money and its kneejerk brand of action is made in a way that knows its audience. The way in which Walker died casts a shadow on what his film character represented and did. It makes the disclaimer at the end of F&F6 all the more poignant: that the stunts should not be replicated.

 

I feel very sad about Walker’s death, and my thoughts are with the friends and family. Those Fast and Furious films have given a lot of happiness to people around the world, and made the studios a lot of money. It should also be said that Walker’s last whereabouts were at a fundraiser for the victims of the Philippine Typhoon Haiyan, reflecting his real-life philanthropy. As a fan of the F&F films, I’ll remember him with fondness, and will continue to constantly re-watch the films. I had a plan to watch Fast 5 and 6 over Christmas Day. I think that I definitely will now.

 

Michael