Philosophy in Pop

There is this thing about lefty theory and activism that has always bothered me: implicit, even explicit, contempt for the very people with whom those theorists and activists consider themselves in solidarity. I would say the same, if not more, about academics. Don’t get me wrong. I love my people. But I’ve always been confused by the simultaneous claim to be working toward knowledge of the world, understanding it in all its texture and contours, and seeing everyday culture as empty or shallow or unengaged with the very same existential, metaphysical, and ethical questions. Sure, our books are harder to read. That’s an aesthetic difference, and most philosophy books never imagine(d) mass consumption (Derrida’s critique of Levinas a best-seller?). Yet, those books aren’t just about books. Books are about attuning, re-attuning, or de-attuning (or a mixture of the three) our relation to the world. And all of those are a response to something in the world.

Over the summer, I started a cultural theory blog. The easiest approach to such a writing space would have been to write-down, so to speak, a bit of my research, and so try to make it all a bit more digestible. John’s philosophy work at a lower reading level! But I didn’t want to do that. Instead, I wanted to hold myself to a claim I’ve always made about my beloved profession: if philosophy is concerned with the nature of things, then one needn’t put philosophy in the world. Philosophy is already there, in everything, brilliant and shining in our most sublime objects (a Joyce novel, a Giacometti sculpture) and our most mundane (a television show, a sporting event). If philosophy is already there, then philosophizing about an object is more akin to being a close reader than a skilled user of a tool.

Are popular cultural objects already philosophical? Really?

Now, there is real precedent in philosophy for this sort of engagement with popular cultural objects. You’ve probably seen them. The books about, say, The Simpsons and Philosophy. Or Seinfeld or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Always with "and philosophy." I enjoy those books and even contributed to one of them on the Grateful Dead (even though I’ve never been a huge fan). But I think most of those collections only repeat the very things that so bother me about my people when they bring theory to popular cultural objects. Essay after essay lays a big theory from philosophy over a thin examination of a television character or hit album. In that writing strategy, I tend to see a certain, if unintentional, contempt for the objects discussed, even as a fan of that object takes the considerable time and energy to write up thoughts on those objects. It’s as if the writer is thinking "character X isn’t interesting in herself, but Aristotle’s massive theory of virtue and its legacy can easily make her a good example of the theory, about which I would have written anyway, but this is a book about Seinfeld, so there you go…" What about the object itself?

Again, are popular cultural objects already philosophical? Really?

I see an analogy here with how so many of us on the left talk about poor and working people. I’ve heard so many times, and even asked it aloud myself: "how can those people vote against their own interests?" (We academics often like to imagine ourselves proletariat, but we live pretty well.) You know the question, the one from which we hope to understand how the Republicans get struggling folks to vote for the rich people’s party. And so keep winning. A lot is built into this question, of course, namely an assumption that we already understand the true interests of another, all evidence to the contrary. The assumption that abortion and death penalty (indulge my memory of when Democrats actually opposed capital punishment) aren’t real interests, even interests held well-above tax policy and ideas about wealth distribution, is a bit peculiar, but also repeatedly contested in conversation, editorial pages, and elections.

So, maybe they are real interests. And, to move across the analogy, maybe those objects one thinks empty or shallow or unengaged speak philosophically. Maybe one’s inability so hear that philosophical voice in the common and everyday is more of a case of lackadaisical reading than an honest assessment of the world. Or maybe it is that those objects say the wrong things. Or say the wrong things in the wrong sort of language. Those are aesthetic choices, though, a bland assertion of preference. Philosophy – or theorizing in general – ought to know better than that!

What do I really mean here? Well, if philosophy is about the pursuit of wisdom about those matters of highest significance, then I’m proposing that we see popular cultural objects as particular – even peculiar – arguments about those matters. Arguments through visual, aural, and other languages. We have to be good readers, though, so we have to come to understand the often complex grammar of those languages. It means consuming with an interest – and one of those interests just might be (gasp! surely not…) our own pleasure in front of these objects. I LOVE that show!

I’ll end with an example. At my cultural theory blog, I wrote about each and every episode of the summer reality television show So You Think You Can Dance? I love the show. In fact, I never loved it more than when I was writing about it. In the end, the show was a long discourse about how the body comes to bear and express beauty, how culturally specific expressions are tied to rigid conceptions of sexuality and even nationality, and, ultimately, about how difficult it is to negotiate the relation between enjoyment and art (they aren’t always the same thing). The show was a complex philosophical meditation and staging of ideas. There was a lot to learn and reflect upon. I’m not saying we dump Augustine, Kant, and Foucault. I LOVE those guys! But I am saying that the sources of thinking aren’t that far from the sources of popular cultural objects. The sources of popular cultural objects are really just the same as the sources of exclusive, hardover-only release by Routledge or Zone Books braniac culture. You know, those two sources of most things we consider worthy of our consideration: the world and the human person.

–John Drabinski, Professor of Philosophy, Hampshire College

Author: John Drabinski

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