Monday, September 17, 2007 • 6:30 AM Comments (5)

Philosophy in Pop

posted by John Drabinski

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

Comments (5)
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Hmmmm. Abortion and the death penalty as cultural objects or even languages (or parts of speech?) that require a deeper more engaged reading in order to be understood as valid when considering the reasons why people vote Republican based on those "issues." That's a tough one. There is definitely a chasm between me, or my analytical brain, and the belief that abortion must at all costs be stopped and that capital punishment is just. It's really, really hard not to "read" a popular American response to those issues as manipulated by a base rhetoric. And thus the implied contempt of those I consider to be influenced by rhetoric that, for whatever reason, doesn't touch me.
Posted by Hayley on 9.17.07 at 6:07
Hayley, I share your visceral reaction, for sure. I guess my point on that side of the analogy is really just this: people have deep reasons for their choices and it is a fantasy to think otherwise. That is not to say that those choices must be respected or valued or anything else. It is only to say that those choices come from somewhere. And to disagree is to argue about the meaning and legitimacy of that "somewhere" from which the choices and values come. I guess I understand, whatever my profound disagreement, how one can say that abortion is a more important issue than economic (re)distribution. If you think a fetus is a human, then that's a pretty harrowing experience - each and every abortion. The analogy, which I suggested rather than demonstrated, is simply this: popular cultural objects also make philosophical arguments. Philosophy is already there. The objects come from somewhere and advance a set of values in an intelligible fashion. So, the key is learning how to read that intelligibility, just as the key to political dispute is learning how to read the values articulated as the basis of, say, the far right. The problem with the far right and popular culture - from the perspective of many on the far left (me included) and academia - is that they say things we might not want them to say. And rather than address those things we hear that we don't want to hear and don't want folks to believe with analysis and philosophical engagement, both the far right and popular cultural objects are written-off as shallow, meaningless, or just brainwashed. What would it mean to take pop culture seriously as a form of philosophizing, of theorizing? I'd just say it already is philosophy and theory, so we're just talking about how to look at and "read" those parts of our culture. And so engage it seriously. Thanks for your response!
Posted by John on 9.18.07 at 9:25
This reminds of the old joke, "How many legs would a cow have if you called its tail a leg?" The answer: four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one. And calling a popular culture object a "philosophical argument" doesn't make it one either. That's not to say there aren't some really interesting points being made here about academia and popular culture. There are. But I think they can be made without pulling our tails. I mean legs.
Posted by Idiosocrates on 9.19.07 at 10:58
Do you include religion in popular culture?
Posted by John E. Hill on 9.19.07 at 13:02
Idiosocrates, popular cultural objects make claims about desire, embodiment, knowledge, politics, morality, beauty - all the big issues in philosophy. Largely such objects work as performatives, declaring truth in the declaration itself, but most performatives have a chain of grounds and warrants if one sits with the objects. I don't think this is inventing anything. I think it is about learning to read these objects, nearly all of which are produced by sophisticated folks (an old friend wrote for Melrose Place - a Ph.D. in Rhetoric from UC-Berkeley, as an anecdotal case). John E. Hill, I think religion bridges the two. On the one hand, religion has become a popular cultural object, especially with the emergence of televangelism. On the other hand, it is concerned with an elaboration of the holy in relation to the human person, which is somewhere really quite abstract and private. So, I'm on both sides there. But both bear much of philosophical interest.
Posted by John on 9.20.07 at 15:06
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