A conflicted disdain for comics

I am reminded of Chris Bateman’s general view that mainstream kinds of games effectively enforce singular ways of thinking and the blockbuster game is pernicious to the extent that it basically builds on already established formats as gaming media. This can be highlighted by the ubiquity of very similar first person shooters where over the years, certain features are continually added but the genre largely remains the same: multi player death matches, or similar. This kind of view mirrors what I addressed in what I called ‘Musical Conservatism’ (albeit about music, and not games) in a previous post.

 

I am thinking along these lines about comics and even the comicbook film which seems to be so popular these days. I’ll pin my colours to the mast: I love Marvel comics and although I predominantly follow Marvel comics, I did recently voluminously read DC’s ‘Before Watchmen’ series. In recent weeks, Alan Moore wrote about his dissatisfaction with the immature preoccupation with comic book characters and the mythologies of the supertext universes of Marvel (inter alia). Marvel’s ‘cinematic universe’ has been a subject of much hype in my personal circles and yet, even though I would definitely see a film about a tree man that only says ‘I AM GROOT’ and I’d probably enjoy it; I do feel a bit that poetic license is stretched too much with a super-soldier who was frozen from the second world war.

 

Perhaps every era needs its mythologies. But I also think that mythologies and the deities that exist within them can cease to be relevant, or that their applicability can be seen to have limitations. I often joke that Magneto’s current age must be between 70s to 90s, given the history that Marvel’s mainstream canon universe (earth-616) wishes to give him. I’d be thoroughly impressed at any senior person to wear that red outfit and still have bulging abdominal muscles and ripped arms, as he’s constantly depicted in the comics today.

 

It may be the case that our mythologies are getting a little bit stuffy, and holding back our attention away from other stories that could be told. Other accounts or exemplars of heroes that might be more representative, perhaps inclusive. Marvel does have an improving record of making female protagonists and beginning to introduce same-sex romantic plotlines without making too much of a big deal about it being same-sex. The relationship in X-Men Legacy between Northstar and his partner is refreshingly mundane!

 

Alan Moore pointed out that the fixation on the superhero reflects a sense of immaturity on the part of the reader. It’s certainly true that many comics hardly aim to be high art. I do wonder however, if a moment might happen, similar to the TV show Happy Days, when the Fonz leaps over a shark in an episode reflects the fact that a threshold of interesting stories has been reached, and a new medium or a new mythology is needed. I think about this because as someone who grew up admiring the Earth 616 universe of Marvel (and notably the Age of Apocalypse ‘Earth-215’) world, if the generation of comic book movies will decline just as it peaks, like, to put a crude metaphor, what the French call a ‘little death’.

This month I am currently reading: Chaos Ethics

Earlier this month I kindly recieved a draft of Chris Bateman‘s forthcoming title, Chaos Ethics. The publication date is forthcoming. Chaos Ethics completes a trilogy of titles put out by Bateman which starts with Imaginary Games (2011) and last year’s Mythology of Evolution (2012). Like Mythology before it, Bateman combines an unusual combination of sources from philosophers such as Kant to those notable cultural staples of Dungeons and Dragons and Cyberpunk to create a picture of morality, the title of which is a reference to Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics. I am as impressed at the references at the end of the book as I am to the book itself, as they form an interesting cocktail of ideas.

 

You can find out about the forthcoming title from Chris here.

 

Michael

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)

1984 , read in 2009 (thoughts and reflections)

I read 1984 in the space of 3-4 days. This is a surprise for me. Often, books that I really like and get into (which happens to me about once every 5 years) are read very quickly. I read multiple books simultaneously over the months and weeks: I’m still reading Twilight (I’m on p18x), I’m still reading a book on modal logic and non-classical logical systems (excellent to read on the tube, may I add), and I’m slowly wading through Aquinas. For some reason, perhaps its availability on my bookshelf, and the few articles I saw on the book, I was reminded of Orwell’s original work and wanted to revisit it.

I had read 1984 when I was about 13, at the same time that I had a very sinister english teacher. This offending english teacher had a cold grey face and bordered on sadistic; she would treat us in very demeaning and harsh ways at some times while appearing entirely casual and jovial at the next, one was always at a worry as to how she would react. She was a teacher who assumed too much her class. We were asked to read 1984 as a background reading task, at an age and level where ‘background reading’ didn’t exist in our vocabulary. I read 1984 when I was thirteen, and i barely understood it. All I remembered about it as a bit about how the world was depicted, and the sex scenes.

Reading it now, I have a much more vivid imagination of the book. I imagine London when I read 1984. The proles exist today, as they always have, and I suppose, as they always will. I understood the manner of the people. I understood the annoyances and ugliness of the reality that it shows. I particularly resonated to the description of the razor blade situation: namely, that in the futuristic world of 1984; razorblades and other necessary conveniences like electrical or housing maintenance are so scarce that improvisation is a must. I shall list some of my considerations of the book in a list format:

1. Winston Smith represents the human spirit, this is explicitly said in the torture scene. The human spirit is the siprit of rebellion against obvious repression, the subversion of conformity when it needs and rightly needs to be oppressed, and the curiousity of one’s sense of place in the world, whether of history or their biography. In numerous occaisions, Smith defies the party line, by writing his thoughts in a diary, and by having thoughts at all; he goes against the doctrines that are unquestionable by society. The moral of the story is that the human spirit is mutable. Despite objecting against the party, every person, like the human spirit in general, has its limitation. Every person has their ‘room 101’, the point at which all debate or objection or will power is to be thrwarted in a sense of fear and self-preservation. The story of 1984 is the failure of the human spirit. Winston refused to be a martyr and accept certain death as an enemy of a party, but instead, it is uncertain if he ends up being killed by the party, but it is certain, that his spirit is killed when he defects to the party and his romantic love.

2. Re-writing history does make me think a bit. There are many people who question the figures about the deaths after world war 2.  A certain story about historical events are given and accepted. While it is in the space of historical debate and scholarship to question history and our interpretation of history, there is an almost unbearable prejudice and normative impulse to leave some issues as unquestionable. People who question the 9/11 attacks or interpret it in a way different to the ‘official story’, or the ‘six million’ figure of the holocaust, are labelled as eccentric at best or somehow deviously immoral at the worst. There are some aspects or tidbits of history or our political sentiment that are almost like INGSOC’s party line. I have no position about questioning historical figures, although the social acceptance of positive discrimination and ‘diversity’ policies  to the extent of undermining meritocracy and the status of elite (viz meritocracy) institutions are abhorrent.

3. Doublespeak. Although not as obvious as in 1984, i remember back in the late 90s how I heard two things: hospitals and experiences in the NHS are terrible, and, hospitals are getting increasnigly better, more hospitals are being built, targets are being met and exceeded, and more money is being put into hospitals. Healthcare was doublespeak. Contradictory to the point of being completely obscrue as to what the clear and balanced truth was. I suspect that a similar ‘doublespeak’ will happen with higher education in the near future.

4. Ministries. The government ministries, whenever I hear the names of them, make me laugh out loud. There is a ministry for sport and a ministry for culture. I suspect that the culture secretary is a philistine fool, and I suspect that the sport secretary is pyhsically unfit. Although this is a personal insult more than an argument; a serious point must be made as to the kind of extent such a ministry can genuinely help rather than hinder the object of their ministry. How much, for instance, can a ministry of sport help either an individual sport, or sport as a whole. There are some sports which are so established not to be really addressed by a government (except when it goes wrong). Football has a national and international federation where conduct is managed and there is some sucess to the bureaucracy of this organisation, insofar as football is a beloved pasttime. A similar case may be said of Rugby, and to a lesser extent, Cricket.

It is a fair point to make that sports that do not have commercial help do need governmental support. Athletes must maintain ‘amateur’ status in order to compete for international competitions like the olympics, and finding financial support will always be difficult. However, to have a ministry of sport by definition is to establish a notion of an ‘establishment’ of sports. To focus on olympic sports is to ignore underground or emerging sports. A similar point can be made of culture. Do we support avant garde movements that are too new to be known whether they will succeed or be fruitful? or, does the place of a government ministry place unhealthy support towards certain kinds of perspectives on art, culture and archictecture (consider the unhelpful case of Prince Charles on debates concerning modern archictecture).

5. How should we interpret this book? There are many people who consider ‘Orwellian’ as an adjective for the current political and social climate. I don’t think that is very accurate, for the fascistic control of the government and the overt nature of the ‘thought police’ is too far away from how control is established. As a side point, I wonder how Foucault would have thought of 1984. Perhaps he did indeed read it. I should check out if he did know of it. Foucauldian is perhaps a more apt depiction of the degrees of control over conduct than Orwellian. The discourses of the mid-20th centruy had advanced with the end of Stalinism. A next step of reading 1984, if one is trying to apprehend our notion of the current age, should be complimented by reading Foucault.

Michael

The domestication of science fiction

Science fiction is one of my favourite literary genres, beside treatises’ and other kinds of classical literature. In some ways I like science fiction for the wrong reasons. You may be wondering, what kind of ‘wrong reasons’ could there be?

Science fiction is a genre that, in its origins, was genuinely challenging and thought provoking. Now, I wonder sometimes if science fiction is actually a ‘genre’, or is something that most people are willing to accept within part of a story. Or, in the context of film, drama and gaming, is just another part of the furniture that no one shall come to question. This latter aspect leads to the sterility of the genre.

Has science fiction been around for long enough so as to establish itself as part of a pantheon of literary classics? What counts as science fiction? Another component of the sterility of science fiction is the uncritical acceptance of space opera, flying spacecraft and technological superiority. People are so exposed to certain kinds of science fiction idiom that we do not often see it as anything else. It is, as if, science fiction has become another branch of cocaygne fantasy.

Consider aspects of science fiction which, while we consider gritty, reflect not only our own social condition, but the general ambience of the human condition: The Time Machine is perhaps a cliche case; social stratification. A book that I had recently read was Harry Harrison’s Deathworld, where a stratification operated as two parts of a complete organism, within the context of issues concerning the issue of the ‘scarcity gap’. Do we have enough resources to fulfill the needs and wants of all people? If not, how do our attitudes change to the recognition of this fact? (or in our case, how do our attitudes not change).

Living in space should be uncomfortable and ugly, where the water should constantly be acknolwedged as recycled piss, realising this makes science fiction a fucutre less glamorous. A common meme of future times is the flying car, some authors ironically point to the fact that technology either has not or cannot reach such a level despite the reader’s expectation. Good science fiction ought to take us out of what is our comfort zone of literary, social and scientific expectation. Thinking outside the box, and unfamiliar ideas are brought to the fore as a response to social and ecological problems.

Sinistre*

Looking for Spinoza: Damasio’s exploration of feeling, and Spinoza

I’ve been casually delving into Damasio’s work: Looking for Spinoza. It’s a very interesting work; one thing is that it has those paragraph appraisals that most bestsellers have; but I find these days  that some of the people I actually recognise, or have read before; Langton’s Kantian Humility, for instance, has Strawson, Guyer and Lewis complimenting her. When you get one of the greatest living Kant scholars and two of the heavy hitting philosophers of the 20thC (one of which is also a Kant scholar); your career is set.

Anyway, enough about Kant. Damasio’s work, sofar, doesn’t seem to be a work of Spinoza scholarship, but it may as well be. Damasio has been praised by Scruton (an all round philosophy busybody, wrote a good book on sex), and Nadler, who is a pretty good Spinoza scholar.

Damasio is a neurologist, neuroscientist, and general science writer.  Damasio is also a profoundly insightful human being, something that doesn’t normally pair off well with people who work in cognitive science.

I tend to have little respect for cognitive science (due to Kantian prejudices); but Damasio is a man who may put my faith back. Damasio’s work is a dual narrative; a personal exploration of the man, Spinoza; and musings on his research on the brain which sheds light on what it means to experience emotions, to feel, and, how these things relate to Spinoza’s psychology of human flourishing.

I’ve picked up a few things off Damasio; firstly, Damasio makes a distinction between emotions and  feeling. Emotions are the physical phenomena that we talk of in the brain, and feeling is the mental state that we use our everyday language to refer to. So, emotions are like those electrical impulses and whatnot, feelings are things like anger, fear and so on.

This leads to a second observation; Damasio is already advancing an interesting theory of mind, where there is a supervenience relation between the mental and the physical. This may even lean towards (and possibly unintentionally) towards
Spinoza’s notion of mind; where it is the idea of the physical object.

Spinoza’s supervenience relata is something I wish I could say I understood. Spinoza talked of a higher order of things about the physical, that is, the mental and intellectual realm, and above that, is God, for God is the idea of ideas. Spinoza’s conception of mind is a little bit more complex than the one aspect I am pointing out; but all that aside, we may refer to this relation of mental to the physical as a dual aspect theory (my old Master refuses to call it ‘parallelism’).

One thing I found particularly interesting was Damasio’s interest in Spinoza, the man, rather than his philosophy work exclusively. Spinoza was a man of a quiet life; but attracted the most important men of his era to visit him in his lodging which was owned by an artisan. Spinoza lived, for his latter years, in the most humble of residences, yet, was graced by audiences by Leibniz (who you should know a little about), Harry Oldenberg, who was president of the Royal Society, and Christiaan Huygens; whom was not only a student of Descartes, but was key in advancing physics and astrophysics.

Spinoza was a man of a very difficult and complex origin; he was “Jewish and not”, “Dutch, but not quite”, and “Portugese but not really”. How multicultural is that! Spinoza is ethnically Portugese, from a Sephardic Jew background, but due to the inquisition, his parent generation was expelled because they refused to convert to Christianity; so the Sephardic Jews were based in the Netherlands, he was Dutch by virtue of his nationality, but not ethnicity, and Jewish by his culture. Spinoza’s life is characterised by three different identities; the ethnicity he never really came to know, the culture which came to excommunicate him, and the nationality which he came to participate, but also came to oppose him.

Spinoza’s life is characterised by many kinds of social expulsion; in virtue of being Jewish, his status of his parent generation was referred to as “marrano“, which I hear is a bad word, but its meaning changes, Spinoza’s Jewish community came to exclude him due to his conception of God, and the Dutch state authorities of the  time rejected his political writings because he supported freedom of expression, in terms of religious ‘heresy’ and critique of the state.

Spinoza’s three names, if you are interested are: Bento, Baruch, and Benedictus,  Portugese, Hebrew, and Latin, respectively; and they all mean the same cognate word, albeit with different cultural bearings; they all mean “blessed”.

From my own reading of Spinoza’s life; I’ve found a very rich intellectual background. Unlike Kant, who had a very very academic university background (quite boring and standard…); Spinoza had the standard Rabbinic education, reading the Talmund, Torah, and learning of Jewish Law; he also came to learn Latin; and read the ancient philosophers, which was somewhat more standard of the philosophy education of the time. What was somewhat nonstandard of the time, but standard of the great philosophers of the time (note the distinction I invoked); he read contemporary philosophers who were moving out of the university  syllabus of Aristotle and Aquinas, to Descartes, Hobbes, and so on. This was very nonstandard, but very important.

I think a Kant moral can be relevant here too, Kant’s biggest influence was Hume (which I am too quick to forget), Kant’s background that was standard of the time was an education in the metaphysical system of Leibniz and Wolff; a dogmatic rationalist system, if Kant were not to revolutionise rationalism by a reading of Empiricist Hume, and were he not to have come across the sentimentalist tradition of Britain (or in particular, Scotland); he would not have been the great philosopher he was. Today.

It seems very important for cross-fertilisation to occur. Descartes brought physics to philosophy, Spinoza brought geometric method to metaphysics, Kant brought British philosophy to what became the continental or post-Kantian tradition, and Damasio is bringing Neuroscience to philosophy of mind.

Michael