The Facemelter (May 2014)

Through a friend of a friend, I was introduced to a promotions group who organises a pretty diverse and awesome set of gigs. I recently visited their monthly Facemelter. Perhaps the most unusual coincidence about Chaos Theory, who organised Facemelter was that an unrelated friend from school has played with them, and I have already unwittingly been aware of their work through his jazz ensemble.


Facemelter had a nice and cheerful set of metal bands this month. Facemelter is their rock/metal/post-rock type month and the three bands that played (as well as their accompanying audiences) reflected a nice amount of diversity.


The first band, Darkeye was the old school kind of wizard metal that I love. First bands have a hard time getting a crowd together at the front but these guys didn’t live up to that curse. As the band started up they had a friendly greeting and thanked everyone for coming and then it went deep into the noise as soon as the song began. Luckily I brought my ear protection. The highlights of Darkeye were the dirty bass lines that was the real drive to the riffs and rhythms.


The second band, Invocation had a pretty neat sound. Wouldn’t have thought anything heavy and loud could come from Milton Keynes. I talked to one of the friends of the band between sets who was telling me about some of the rock scene there. I was particularly impressed at the technical drumming and quite harmonically interesting riffs. The set itself was very diverse and showed different shades of the band, there was even one song that might be considered ballad like. By contrast Invocation later had songs where the Bassist jumped to the floor with the audience pumping out that sound!


The final band, Karybdis, had some nicely designed shirts in their merch list and really knew how to bring an audience. I was taken aback by how intense the audience got. There was a good old wall of death through the set and even the meanest looking folk there were nice enough to pick up the couple of guys who fell down. I think it’s fair to say that people lost their shit at the last band and it really made for a good final set. I would quite like to see Karybdis perform again sometime.


After the gig I got some badges of the various bands. I look forward to seeing more of the Chaos Theory promoted events, especially their jazz and experimental work. I want to thank Kunal Singhal and David Johnson or being so nice and for getting me on the guest list of this event. I blame myself for going to a metal gig wearing brogues, however.


Ed: check out Chaos Theory on @chaos_theory_


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.

Review: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

This review contains spoilers. You have been warned.

Following the release of the Christopher Nolan Film: The Dark Knight Rises (DKR) I think most people are aware of the tragic events in Colorado in one premiere screening. What happened was hard to comprehend in a moral sense, as it reflects a very disturbing moral sentiment on the part of the perpetrator. Sensitive reviewers have acknowledged that this was a very sad event and threatens the percieved safety of what should be an enjoyable experience in civil life, namely, going to the movies.

It is also within good taste to acknowledge univocally that the Colorado shooting was morally abhorrent. Christopher Nolan commented on the shooting with absolute condemnation, as someone who considers the cinema a safe space and an important cultural venue. There is a lingering sense of discomfort about the event, however, especially because James Holmes declared himself as a Joker-style copycat.

When I saw DKR with Antisophie, she told me how her thoughts led back to The Dark Knight film of 2008, and DKR essentially improved her appreciation of The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight has since become a cultural artefact of our times. Villains and Heroes are completely confused in Nolan’s world. Government departments are corrupt while a criminally violent vigilante holds the protagonist role, but by his own recognition is performing a task that has no moral legitimacy compared to say, the police or the legal system.

I wish to address a few aspects of the film, and avoid repeating good points from other reviews. Firstly I wish to address the soundtrack. Following, wish to address the theme of ‘Truth and Lies’. I shall then consider how the representation of Batman is subverted by the Nolan Brothers and forms a kind of critique about the very idea of such a character. Finally I wish to consider the social dimensions of the film as a closing reflection.


Perhaps one of the most interesting aesthetic things I enjoyed about the film was its soundtrack. In my view there hasn’t been a film soundtrack this good since Inception, and that was also a collaboration between Hans Zimmer (composer) and Christopher Nolan. If there are two things that I found especially powerful about the soundtrack it would be the use of leitmotif and the nature of the ‘Bane’ theme.

Leitmotif, as Michael is very eager to talk about, is the use of a melodic line to represent a feeling or character that is consistent in (say) an opera. Leitmotif is said by some to be pinnacle of programme music and thematic works, because of the unity that they try to stress. After watching DKR, I was inspired to watch Batman Begins and Dark Knight again, and I realised throughout Batman Begins (particularly in the origin scenes of Batman) there were melodic motifs subtly used that were referenced in DKR, the resonance of this is that there is a sense of birth and rebirth (eternal recurrence?) to Bruce Wayne’s character. In becoming Batman and training under the League of Shadows, Wayne had to face his sense of fear. When Wayne was placed in the prison pit by Bane seriously injured, he also had to face a rebirth, by embracing his fear of death. This was, I believe, the allusion that was trying to be achieved by the use of melodic phrases in DKR that borrowed from Batman Begins.

Coming on to the Bane theme. I thought that was particularly moving how the chant was used as a rhythmic frame, as opposed to using a melody line as the basis of a theme. Rhythm has a very powerful place in music, and European art music does not use it in as many interesting ways as other musical traditions compared to say, Bhangra. The use of a rhythmic cell rather than a melodic one makes for a very powerful soundtrack, and its one that will stick in my mind for a long time.

Truth and Lies

One moral dimension of the film was the moral role of truth telling. Perhaps this could be construed as a Kantian moral about the absolute good of maintaining the institution of being truthful. Throughout the film there are lies, or withheld truths kept in the 8 years between the Dark Knight and DKR in the series timeline. The climate has changed fundamentally due to two actions, one is that the behaviour of Harvey Dent murdering police officers is explained by Batman allegedly doing the deed, in order to keep the prosecution case against organised criminals (which was the slightly complicated plot of Dark Knight).

The other aspect of this is that Batman/Bruce Wayne had to accept false responsibility for this. As a result of his faith destroyed in Harvey Dent, and perhaps the death of his beloved Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne decides to retire from being Batman. Another crucial truth is withheld. Bruce Wayne believed that if he ever were to relinquish his Batman identity he could have a relationship with Dawes. What was not revealed to him was that Dawes ultimately chose to accept Dent’s marriage proposal, just before she died. Alfred withheld this information as a way to spare him from a painful truth.

Lying has consequences, and it shows the way that morality and ethics pulls apart. For most putative conceptions, morality is about ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’, or ‘Goodness’ and ‘Bad’ in terms of perhaps decisions or effects. Ethics by contrast, may be said to pertain to character. Michael told me in an editorial email that he believed the meanings were reversed for these terms but I still hold to this distinction. For Jim Gordon, the cost of lying to Gotham about Harvey Dent destroyed his family relationship (Gordon, as you may remember, also faked his death as well). The cost of peace comes at the coin of his character and moral legitimacy.

Alfred’s withholding of the truth has also had an effect on his character. By withholding the truth about Dawes, Alfred thought that he would spare Wayne from unnecessary pain by letting him believe that he could have made a relationship with Dawes, but he realises that the consequences of not telling his employer is that it made a hermit out of him, who believed that there was ‘nothing out there anymore’ in the world, causing an inward retreat. There is something distinctly philosophical about this theme of the film, moral/ethical decisions can have an impact on the character of a person, some decisions which may cause less harm may be destructive on one’s character. Posed in this way, DKR may sound more like an elongated moral parable by Plato’s Socrates on a discourse on truth-telling.

Batman turned on its head

I think that DKR represents a critique of previous Batman representations, and the idea of Bruce Wayne/Batman in general. It has been commented how Bruce Wayne lives in extreme wealth in lieu of a gamut of social woes while he dedicates himself to what may be seen as street level crime. Wayne retreats in his economic luxury while the ills of the world do not lay in organised crime, but unemployment and those other things that the real world contains. Batman Begins acknowledges a period of ‘depression’ which created mass unemployment and suggestibly fertilised a period of corruption and organised crime. One thing that brought Wayne out of retirement is that he chose to ignore the social problems of the world, represented by John Blake pointing out that Wayne’s charitable funds have been allocated away from an orphanage which he used to support.

Batman recognises the limitations of what a vigilante can do throughout the series of films. There are other shortcomings which are acknowledged about the Batman character, one notable thing is that Bruce Wayne tends to have a soft spot for women, at the expense of keeping his secret identity! This is the case certainly for many of the other Batman films where Wayne has a romantic interest. In short, he just can’t help telling the woman he likes that he’s a superhero! I think one flaw of the character is that he’s too trusting of ‘nurturing’ female types. I thought it was absurd how Wayne gave all of his assets to Miranda Tate, a woman that he met only a few times before essentially giving her ultimate control of Wayne Enterprises. This of course was his folly, as Tate ended up being the main villain of the film! Batman is definitely a flawed character, both in terms of what he represents and how futile his ventures are to real social problems, and in terms of how the character is often represented in films. Kevn Conroy’s animated Batman by contrast hardly has such a weakness for women or rather, not so easily he reveals his real identity!

Social themes

I have remarked that poverty was one aspect of the Nolan world in the Batman films. Other socially poignant issues are also alluded to but not well developed throughout the films. A brief suggestion towards the importance of renewable energy mainly is a foil for a plot device, which is almost so brief it makes me think it is a unnecessary aspect of the film with so much else going on. There is a general sense of malaise created by the dark camera filters and the way that a sense of paranoia or moral panic is created in the films, from Batman as a vigilante, to the way in which copycat Bat-men appear as a form of dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Selina Kyle’s character points to the injustice of mass wealth distribution with the very poor said to be working in the sewers (as it turns out to be for Bane), and that this inequality cannot last forever without a violent form of revolution. There is an ambiguity to the film in that the issues addressed do not go one way or another to these perennial thoughts. I think every society has had an issue with wealth inequalities or the scarcity gap between what we need and what we have (and subsequently, what we need but cannot have).

I would like to reference a contrasting example of the superhero narrative in relation to social themes. At the moment, Marvel Comics have an ‘Avengers Vs. X Men’ serial, which involves 5 of the X-Men receiving a powerful cosmic power called the Phoenix, which gives them near absolute power. The fear of the Avengers is that this power will be corrupting and destructive. The X-Men who received this power have decided to try and solve world problems by sealing the San Andreas Fault, attempting to create a good harvest yield around the world to sustain a growing population Cyclops, Namor, Colossus, Emma Frost and Magik attempt to ‘save’ the world through dealing with fundamental human problems of survival and attempt to create a form of Pax Romana, or as they call it Pax Utopia. I think something like the X-Men represent a useful commentary on the utility of superheroes against the issues that form the backdrop of their world. Exactly what is the Batman character changing, or what exactly can one individual do to make a difference? The conclusion of DKR involves a play between not just Batman, but collaborators such as the Police, Jim Gordon and Lucius Fox all having a small part to save the city. Although Batman ultimately saves the day through a single action, Nolan shows that a single actor cannot do all the change, but it comes from collaboration. Perhaps this is a salient moral to add to the superhero mythos.