The ‘Philosophy of Life’ as philosophy (or, in praise of Alain de Botton)

A few years ago I would have taken a low opinion of the idea of a popular philosopher diluting insights for a middle class time poor audience who want deep insights at little effort and dismissive of the general genre of ‘Popular Philosophy’. Then I read a few of the ‘pop philosophy’ books. I think having a varied diet means, to paraphrase Dwayne Johnson as Luke Hobbs: having your dessert first, and then the veggies.

 

I would consider Popular Philosophy (and most literature for that matter) as a dessert. But having those veggies and salads are just as important. For every dozen popular non fiction books I’ve read this year, I’ve gone ahead 1/6th through a single volume of Gibbon.

 

De Botton should be praised for his literary efforts. There is a distinct degree to which he dilutes heavy insights from literary and philosophical figures in a way that is most appeasing to the White Middle Class faux-intelligentsia (or as Veblen referred to them: the Leisure class [or as Furrygrrl [[I bet you are looking her up]]) sometimes refers to as the ‘leisure of the theory class’]) to make them look clever for their bookshelves containing books that are ‘better than the film version’. But critiquing his audience is hardly a critique of his body of work.

 

What de Botton has taught me which is immensely valuable is something that Nussbaum wrote in Love’s Knowledge, or that Eileen John writes in her papers on Aesthetics and Literature: there is moral insight to be had in literature. By reading novels exploring character (de Botton favours Stendhal and Proust), we expand our own inner world and that in turn deepens our moral character.

 

Another aspect that I have enjoyed from Consolations of Philosophy and Status Anxiety, is how de Botton makes everyday life seem philosophical. De Botton is hardly original in his views or combining the idea that literature-is-philosophical and the-everyday-is-philosophical. But you don’t have to read papers in contemporary philosophical aesthetics, or have to read John Cottingham’s recent Heythrop-era work to gain that insight.

 

De Botton makes me want to read Montaigne properly. Montaigne’s work is about his musings on the every day, but he makes his very unique problems very universal. I have been captivated by the idea of how particular situations in life, loves and relationships while are not directly the same or relevant to other people’s lives, are deeply relatable in some fundamental way. We do not need to know what it’s like to have kidney stones, to find sympathy in Montaigne’s woes, or even to find insight in our own lives. Perhaps in that way we are going back to what Cottingham refers to as the ‘Philosophy of Life’.

 

What I enjoy about de Botton is the immanent nature and grounded aspect of what he portrays in the world. Avoiding metaphysics or theoretical philosophy, he focusses on the mundane as psychologically insightful. This is hardly systematic philosophy, but it does certainly have a valuable place.

Sinistre

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Reading: Bart D. Ehrman (or, In Praise of the Historical Jesus programme)

I’ve lately been reading quite a few of the books by Bart D. Ehrman. Ehrman has the same story to set up most of his books, which are mostly about the same subject matter: the historicity of the Christian Bible. Like a bad Vonnegut novel, it starts off with the identical origin story. Ehrman grew up in a not particularly religious household, and then became evangelised as a teenager. Ehrman then went to religious colleges and was warned about ‘secular’ institutions which have course on bible study.

 

Eventually Ehrman widens his academic horizons and discovers philosophy and literature. Ehrman becomes the bible scholar but finds that his initial evangelical pretentions to the inerrance of the bible are predicated on premises such as: the book that we read today (i.e. what we can buy from bookshops, churches or online etc) has a long historical narrative as to how it came to be.

 

Ehrman explores the histories of early Christianity and finds a story of how certain narratives won in historical disputes and the result of that is the Christianity that we understand today. As someone reading Gibbon I can definitely recall the disputes of the likes of the Arians and the Donatists, how questions of Christology, Soteriology and Mariology (not the study of an Italian plumber) reveal deep schisms of belief between people and was hardly a dry scholarly issue at the time. The history of Late Antiquity is the story of how our Christianity of today came to be.

 

Let’s take a bit of a step back. I like Ehrman’s work, even though I haven’t read many of the commentators he’s referring to. I’m currently pacing through DF Strauss’s Life of Jesus Critically Examined at the moment. I find this fasincation with the Historical Jesus utterly fascinating for a few reasons. One is that it shows the success of Kant’s programme on religion. If we are to take the idea of moral religion seriously we have to then consider the historicity of the character of Jesus.

 

There’s a divide in the so-called apologetics of today where people try to use hokey rational arguments which don’t convince someone with a background in philosophy, and other arguments on the vein of William Lane Craig or William Alston or Malcolm Platinga which applies some pretty heavy metaphysics (which is always very attractive to me) to give arguments for the existence of God. Then there’s the other side of apologetics: claim that Jesus was an Historical figure.

 

Back in the turn of the 20th Century this tradition might have been called ‘Liberal Theology’ or ‘Protestant Theology’. I find it astounding that Atheist/sceptics have finally caught up with 19th Century Theology in the form of Bart D. Erhman. Many of the atheists of the 2000s had arguments which were no better than Hume in the 18th Century. When it comes to critique of religion, I always thought that the powerful arguments came from Kant, who came from within the spiritual and exegetical tradition to critique the articles of Christian faith. It is one thing to convince someone who has no background or interest in understanding a religion or any religion, but it takes another to see the logical extensions of what it means to have faith and see where it leads. Kant I take it, follows the latter route in his moral philosophy. It is often said that the liberal protestant tradition has come from Kant’s programmatic statements in the Religion within the bounds of Mere Reason work. I find the argumentative strategy in Ehrman’s book refreshing, as if atheism has their own ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants’ of their own. As it happens, with the controversies and immense criticisms going towards people like Sam Harris and Bill Maher (on contemporary political issues) or Richard Dawkins (on his, perhaps one should refer to them as ‘social opinions’); perhaps we need a protestant movement within atheist intellectual circles to distance ourselves from their doctrines.

 

Destre returns from the mists to write this post

 

Watching: Blacula

Recently I had the amazing opportunity to watch the film Blacula, as part of Eureka Video’s ‘Masters of Cinema’ series. I have been informed about the ‘Masters of Cinema DVD/Blu Ray series for a while and I find the choices of films particularly interesting, exploring films which have merit from a cinematic point of view significantly varies from what we might consider as the popular opinions of the public on cinema.

 

Blacula was a film that I heard about a few years ago, and I thought just by the name and discovering it was part of the blaxploitation genre, was comedic and not serious. How wrong I was, although there are comedic elements, much of the humour comes from being distant from the 1970s and observing how things have changed. Which leads me to my main consideration of the film.

 

Blacula is a story of an ‘African Prince’, Mamualde. Mamualde has impressed many of the 18th Century intellects of the time and has gained a deserved modicum of respectability. Mamualde, visiting one ‘Count Dracula’ (many of the tropes and lores of vampires are assumed familiar by the audience) who acknowledges the cultural capital and sophistication (i..e. Eurocentric things of value) but ultimately rebuffs and rejects Mamualde’s calls for an end to the slave trade.

 

Dracula entirely unconvinced or unwilling to seriously consider this, traps Mamualde in a tomb after transforming the prince into one of his own kind. Mamualde is given the additional indignity of being buried in a sarcophagus with his wife. Skip 200 years and the Prince now Christened ‘Blacula’ is discovered by a pair of gay antique dealers (one white, one black). It is established and much is made upon that these dealers are both homosexual and presumably partners.

 

Perhaps watching this film in 2014, in an age where we ‘call out’ microaggressions, injustices and the way that our culture of yesteryear was less sensitive to our own time, is the blatant and ubiquitous homophobia of the Blacula world. I am convinced that the homophobia is purposeful as a metaphor to the way that racism against the Black American was ubiquitous in the decades leading to the 1970s.

 

In one scene, a police officer seeking out the antiquities dealers asserted that ‘they all look alike’, making a generalisation about homosexuals that would be familiar to any person of colour who grew up in a white majority and unfavourable society. The way in which many black characters were in varied professions is quite progressive as a part of the story, such as the female cab driver (who refers to Blacula as ‘boy!’) and the coroner/funeral director who described the police pathologist (Thalmus Rusala/Dr. Gordon Thomas) looking into Blacula’s killings as ‘…the rudest nigger I’ve ever seen in my life!’. These are notable black-on-black racial slurs while conversely the white police chief while suspicious of the pathologist’s pet theory does ultimately trust Dr. Thomas professionally as competent at his job.

 

There’s something that I dare say aspirational about Blacula, in the way that the world depicted gives a sense of distinction to many of the black characters who are all doing a job who happen to get drawn into the Vampiric killings. The real thing to make an audience of today think is the homophobia rampant and even presented as comedic. If we can see one form of oppression, we can surely be sympathetic to another. That, I think, is one of the salient messages of Blacula.

 

Blacula: The Complete Collection is released in the UK from the 27th October 2014 as part of Eureka Classics: Masters of Cinema.

 

In praise of BoJack Horseman

In a recent post I wrote about Nostalgia television. I recently discovered a bit of advertising about a Netflix-only tv show called BoJack Horseman, which rings quite poignantly to what I wrote. Bojack Horseman is a show about a fictional television show in the 1990s which had the status of a long running and popular show, yet its stars had careers of differing success afterwards, and the director (spoiler ahead) suffered a career death after his sexuality was discovered and professional associations with him became toxic.

 

The protagonist, BoJack Horseman (whom I have a passing physical resemblance to), is a character who relives his life through continuously watching his show. There’s a certain amount of social commentary in the show, which interestingly reflects the  marketing of the show.

 

The show explores life in Hollywood as well as the very trend-setting nature of trying to find the next best thing. At one point in the season, the ‘D’ letter in the Hollywood sign is stolen and henceforth is referred to as Hollywoo. Likewise we see certain ridiculous trends mentioned and discussed and eventually become part of the furniture of life in LA.

 

The show was advertised heavily on Netflix (which I’m using to watch a lot of Highlander, much like Bojack watches his own ‘Horsin around’), and I am very impressed at how the whole season was released at once. I watched it in about 4-5 days and I quite like the model of releasing television (is it called television if I saw it mostly on my computer and tablet?) shows. It is kind of like the zeitgeist that Bojack Horseman captures as a show.

 

In one episode the ghostwriter character’s biography project is compared to a ‘journalist’ writing an article for Buzzfeed, and Buzzfeed is thoroughly trashed. There was much comparison between the 1990s and 2010s implicit in the show, and I love how television shows try to have their finger on the button of what it is to be in the 2010s.

 

When I was watching BoJack in between episodes of Highlander, I thought to myself, Bojack Horseman is a character reminiscent of his past career, the common phrase of the show is an onlooker saying ‘weren’t you on that show Horsin’ around??’, which often leads to a one night stand or confrontation, or both! In an age obsessed with both disposable trends and celebrities we are bound to leave characters as scarred as Bojack around.

 

Although perhaps unfair to say he is anything like BoJack. When I watch those 1990s episodes of Highlander I think of how some of the zeitgeist is captured of that time. In one episode an author is looking for an actor for an 18th century highland Scotsman, to which, Duncan Mcleod replies: why don’t you try Mel Gibson? It took me a moment to realise why that was funny as it was around 1995 when the film Braveheart came out.

 

I do sometimes wonder, as I love the Highlander show so much, what has happened to the actors. I know that Adrian Paul has had a lot of love from fans since the show ended and has continued to be known as Duncan McLeod from Highlander, even when the Highlander Francise did not have such a positive enduring reputation. One of the consequences of having nostalgia TV is that actors can be so heavily defined by their past work that their appearance has a certain kind of aura (in the Benjamin sense) as we cherish more of our memnories of that past show. A similar example of such fame comes from Matt LeBlanc’s character in Episodes, who plays a version of himself after his success as ‘Joey from Friends’.

 

Bojack is a character haunted by his success and as the show progresses, displays a sense of depth and redemption that the celebrity culture that made and destroyed him would not allow him to have on their terms. I loved the honesty of the show as well as the confrontation of his own demons. Here’s to you Bojack, you fictional anthropomorphic horse.

 

Watching Michael Bay’s Transformers films

I am quite a fan of the film critic Mark Kermode. One of the things I enjoy about his criticism is the way in which Kermode places a film in a context of the state of the industry or how it may fit into our culture. Kermode is well known for hating Michael Bay’s films. Recently, Bay’s ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’ came out in the UK and it is part of the cultural milleu (along with all the Marvel films) that represents how as I facetiously tweeted: Nerds are here to stay.

 

I’d still like Transformers and comics even if these films didn’t come out. Although now that these kinds of films have come out I have no curiousity of ‘what if’. After seeing Vin Diesel jump over a bridge to save Michelle Rodriguez in Furious 6 last year, I think anything’s possible in cinema. Including the continued success of the action film.

 

I have an admission to make, although I wouldn’t call the latest Transformers film ‘good’ in any stretch of the word, I would probably still go and see a Transformers 5 and 6. I’m reminded of the Richard Dawson character in The Running Man who describes his show as: we give them what they want.

 

There are sometimes films where instead of a director prescribing a view and asking an audience to assent to it, the film appeals to a base nature that covers bases which are sufficiently general: sexuality, action, crude humour or an opportunity to plus action figures and novelty t-shirts after watching the film to highlight where your cultural sensibilities lay. I’ve often said: if you can summarise your views on a t-shirt slogan then your sentiments are utterly pecuniary and hardly engaging to the wider project of a critical perspective to the world – try putting that on a t-shirt.

 

The success of Michael Bay’s films remind me much of the success of the Canadian band Nickelback. Many people love to hate them, but also they are highly successful and it is a testament to having a finger on the pulse.

 

I think the project of criticism should be about how people may see culture decades and centuries from now, and who will be remembered in a larger pantheon of culture to be mentioned alongside say, Riefenstahl or Hitchcock. The reality of course is that there is a lot of culture that is very immanentist (or, ‘of the now’) and successfully reproduces and transmit that way, if we were to think in say, mimetic terms.

 

When I watched the film I took the character of Optimus Prime seriously. I considered how his character is different to the first three films. Prime kills other robots with inpugnity yet initially said how he would not harm humans (and by implication, sentient life in general). One could interpret this in two ways: an abandonment of the idea of what Optimus Prime represents as a character in favour of a film which is a naked vehicle (excuse the pun) to get bums on seats in cinemas, boost DVD sales and sell £70 transforming truck action figures. The other view is that if we took Bay’s Transformer worlds seriously it has become a darker place and so dark that even the most iconic and idealised of heroes has become more of an anti-hero. I am kind of committed to both notions of Optimus.

 

Earlier this month, comedian John Oliver in his US programme said that the problem with FIFA is that despite all its problems (and he makes a long list), he is still very excited about the 2014 World Cup, that Football has such a ubiquitous place in culture that we ignore the criticisms of the institutions around it. Michael Bay’s films are likewise. Bay’s films represent all that is potentially and in actuality wrong with 3D films (I do think there are good ways to do 3D). There are obvious creepy male gaze overtones and racialisation of robots which seems complicit in continuing the lazy and damaging tropes underlying stereotyping. There’s a bit in Pain and Gain which I have pondered on for a while, where a priest makes sexual advances to Dwayne Johnson’s ‘Paul’ character. Pain and Gain is based on (as absurd as it seems) a true story, with certain flourishes and changes to the plot. The homoerotic priest character is placed there simply to be ‘funny’ in the way that he uses the a biblical passage (Matthew 11:28) to make a sexual suggestion. It is added in a way as if to say: this bit is obviously supposed to be funny. If we laugh to this kind of scene, or the gag in which the two robots who speak in ebonics say they cannot read is similarly funny because it tags along to a boring trope; then Michael Bay reflects what is worst about us as a culture. If that is the case, then we truly do live in the world of The Running Man.

 

And like John Oliver said about Fifa: despite all of the problematic things about his films, I’m still looking forward to Transformers 5, I must say I enjoy the fact that I can fall asleep during a film and wake up not having missed any part of the plot – because there literally is no plot.

On Hans Jonas’ Environmental Philosophy

A couple of months ago I was reading a book called ‘Hans Jonas’ Ethic of Responsibility’ by Theresa Morris. I was not initially familiar with the work of Jonas but I came to find that Jonas was a highly influential figure in Germany and had the unique distinction of being an intellectual who had public significance.

 

When I was reading through the work I was thinking of objections and issues with Jonas’ overall thesis; Morris wrote the book in a very neat way that anticipated a lot of criticisms, such as the is-ought distinction (I was not convinced of the response but that’s another issue), and the fact that Jonas builds on previous philosophies such as Kant and Spinoza as well as the problems that they had.

 

When I think about Jonas’s overall thesis I find it forgettable. There’s a sense in which it is basically a hodgepodge of Kant and Phenomenology; Spinozist monism and moral responsibility. I understand the project that there is a need for a convincing set of ideas to frame our sense of responsibility towards the fact that consumption of various products given the developed world’s standard of living cannot be sustained for the current population if it were rolled out for everyone, or our infrastructures from using the internet to having a power grid releases a byproduct that does have an harmful impact on the planet.

 

I felt that the book hardly gave what we call in ethics a motivational reason. I think also that it may not be within our internal motivational set to be convinced of the ethics of say, using a car or eating meat. I wonder if these factors are motivationally external, that being, non-internal to our motivational set.

 

I also wonder on another front, when reading the book and reflecting on it, whether it is the assumptions that we make as everyday moral agents that perpetuate an attitude that maintains the ecological status quo. For example, if it is our sense of looking at the individual as our moral agency, instead of say, groups of people, humanity-at-large, or our governments. One discussion that was quite poignant was who counts as responsible in this ecological issue. Jonas seemed to be at the view that it was solely humanity. While I am inclined to agree, I may temper the warning that denying the agency or ethical commitment to non-persons is part of the problem that creates the status quo. We eat animals that we do not consider as people, we disregard our similarities of say, producing offspring or mating because they do not have communicable speech or technology.

 

There was an extent to which Jonas’s philosophy didn’t seem relevant when the starting point was in the western philosophical tradition. Even as someone whose starting point is the western philosophical tradition, I cannot find it easy to be convinced why say, plane travel is immoral, if we start off from moralistic or metaphysical first principles. It’s just not convincing, even if the ‘arguments’ are sound. In a sense I give a concession to the rhetorical politician who often argues from motivating reasons and the kneejerk reactions of our gut feeling as a basis for moral decision making.

 

I thought about this book as a parallel with various conversations I’ve had with recent friend, Dave Darby, who poised the question to me of how people are not shocked that they are eating and consuming their way into oblivion and are doing nothing about it. My answer to that was: they aren’t convinced by your narrative and until they are they won’t act. In that sense, the problem  with Jonas’s environmental philosophy is not particularly a unique one

Watching: Boss

I am drawn to cultural things that try to express some point about the society that we live in. I am especially drawn to things which really capture a sense of zeitgeist about them. I am for example, quite the fan of the recent Game of Thrones series. Perhaps a lesser known and unfortunately cancelled show that especially has recently caught my eye.

 

Boss was a television series starring Kelsey Grammer as a fictitious Chicago Mayor in a post 2008 GFC world of recession, rising national and federal debt and the difficulties of living for the citizenship. The particularly cynical look at how politicians are obviously janus faced is particularly resonant in an age where a vast voting public have little confidence in their political governance.

 

Kelsey Grammer’s Tom Kane is a character I cannot get my head around. As are many of the other characters involved. There are political alliances, compromises and complex personal relationships in the realpolitik of local government. I am particularly a fan of the lone Sentinel journalist who stands for integrity and cutting out all of the bullshit of both the media and the way that politicians use spin, or ‘chump bait’ to the frustration of Sam Miller.

 

As a personal side point I didn’t know very much about Kelsey Grammer (except for him being Beast, and Frasier Crane). I discovered that Grammer is a notable conservative and his producer involvement in Boss included a bit of creative direction. I am thoroughly impressed at how the show does not particularly have any obvious messages but focusses on the micro-interactions and nitty gritty of a democracy, or supposed-democracy.

 

I wonder to myself whether this will be one of the TV series that expresses the 2010s and what the zeitgeist of our age will be.