Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Philosophy in a Postmodernist Culture.

I. "Philosophy is the smile on a cereal box."

I was doing some research on Paul Weiss, when I came accross a site that offers quotes from great philosophers and invites consumers to place them on t-shirts so as to "wear their philosophies" -- for a mere $15.95, plus tax.

This is a perfect illustration of what anyone who cares about philosophy today is struggling against. It isn't just neighborhood guys tucking philosophy books into their coats, as I once did (so that no one would see that I was reading Bertrand Russell's History of Philosophy), who are affected by this trivializing and commercializing of important personal intellectual experiences. This cultural mood affects everybody.

I want women out there to know that -- in addition to seeing my body, which is made to provide women with sexual bliss -- they should take the time to notice that I also have a mind. Wait, according to the Churchlands, I don't have a mind. I only have a "brain." No, I definitely have a mind and body. I know this because I dreamt of Carmen Electra last night. We were together in an alternate reality that resembled Manhattan's Upper West Side, where we had bagels at H.&H., right before renting some movies to take home to our cozy little apartment. When I woke up, I was starving -- among other things. (Yes, you can write "dreamt.")

Much the same intellectual deflation is happening to religion, by the way, which is trapped between militant scientism and an accompanying, all-American "non-threatening" atheism -- an atheism that is now instilled in young people at elite schools along with the need to be "neutral" about all things in order to sound smart. Religious worship is identified with ignorance or childhood matters to be discarded in adult life.

Anybody concerned with our incredibly difficult, demanding tradition of philosophical thought is baffled at the banalization and worship of stupidity and shallowness that is officially endorsed by so much of American culture. I understand and approve of stupidity where it belongs -- among lawyers and politicians -- but surely it is not necessary for the rest of us to be morons.

Has it ever really been attractive to be an idiot? Why is American culture so relentlessly anti-intellectual, even as more of the finest thinkers in the world are found in the U.S. (and in media) than anywhere else. I am far from parochial or nationalistic about this issue. "A philosophy that can be put in a nutshell," Hilary Putnam writes, "belongs in one." Yes, but what about wisdom on a t-shirt? Contradiction in terms?

People in philosophically cool places and artsy-fartsy corners of the world, like Paris, often look to American intellectual life and arts for guidance in creating trends, even as the majority of the population of the U.S. (understandably) is dismissed, by those same people, in highly insulting terms. Europeans say: "Americans are all idiots." At the same time, they ask -- "What is Richard Rorty's latest book about?" Also, they say: "Let's go see The Matrix IV: Revenge of the Machines."

Actually, that sounds like a pretty good title for a new Matrix movie! This time the machines have sent their best: "Agent 'Evil No. 1' is played by Melanie Griffith ... and she's out for REVENGE. Followed by an army of her subordinate agents -- made up entirely of females -- with starring roles for Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz, all in tight and skimpy outfits. It's a dark twist on 'Charlie's Angels.' The engineer of the 'System' is Kate Winslet, who mysteriously morphs into a man, then back into a woman. Her male persona is none other than Hugh Grant. Rachel Weisz is the 'One,' and she is madly in love with Woody Allen, who leaps in slow motion not between buildings but over very big puddles ... Whoa!" Mazeltov.

What's up with this duality in America's and the world's psyches? How do we understand our love/hate relationship with pop culture? I may be the perfect person to discuss this topic, since I have been known to do the "dual aspect" thing myself. I am wearing my "Armani" shades from the .99 cent place; a black fedora hat dating from the forties; a black "Strand Books" t-shirt, boot-cut denims from "Old Navy," and black socks that say "Whoa!" -- as does my underwear.

Pop culture can be so liberating and a wonderful instrument of education and renewal, so why is so much of it just plain awful? I am sure that people can be taught to appreciate the good stuff. Is it necessary to appeal, always, to the lowest common denominator? I can't believe that. True, it must be easier to make a buck that way. Aren't there other considerations besides money in American media industries? I guess not.

Maybe this explains the sense of emptiness so many young people describe -- the shallowness, boredom, dullness that leads them to oscillate between a "blob-like" existence before the t.v. screen ("I got a 57-inch plasma set!") and casual sex or other distractions. Women, don't say a word about "inches." Religion is outlawed by the politically correct thought police and anything with intellectual substance is anathematized as "elitism."

What's left? Sex and "The Colbert Report." I prefer the first of these items. I am "for" casual sex. I want to make that "crystal clear," as Richard Nixon used to say. "Who?" -- say the twenty-somethings.

II. ABC/Disney: American Idols and The Politics of Spectacle.

O.K., let's pause a second to be clear about the issue. We live in a televisual-media-saturated culture. I doubt that this culture is escapable. We cannot insulate ourselves from it and remain viable or engaged members of our communities. We live here and now. Here and now is about such things as Bugs Bunny cartoons and Shakespeare's picture on ... well, glow-in-the-dark underwear. Is it possible for genuine philosophical thought to survive and remain important to an entire culture under such circumstances? I think so.

I purchased the Spanish-language magazine "Buenhogar" (Good Housekeeping meets People) for my daughter because Kate Winslet is on the cover. Kate provides readers with an interview, in flawless Spanish, and we all "visit with Kate." This way both of us -- my daughter and I -- can practice our Spanish by reading so-called popular prose in that language. French movie magazines will help with slang in that beautiful language, which is being lost in Paris where everybody speaks English, except in Spanish-language magazines.

We do not hesitate to wonder why Kate is speaking Spanish because, at some level, we know that there has been a "translation" (which is always a transformation into something new) of a previously existing interview. Does Kate really serve "Tapas" at home? What happened to "bangers and mash"? My favorite British dessert and the name I will give to any other child (or dog) I may be responsible for in this world is "Rhubarb Crumble." A villain in my forthcoming spy novel will be called "Spotted Dick." "Treacle Pudding" is a fading transvestite Opera singer. As for "Toad in the Hole," that's between me and Carmen Electra.

We know that Bugs Bunny (distressingly) is not "real"; yet, we have no problem in accepting cartoon characters, like Bugs, interacting with real persons (Michael Jordan). We enjoy seeing cartoons "dancing" with Gene Kelly. "I'm not bad," Jessica Rabbit says, "I'm just drawn that way." When these words are spoken in the smoky, drawling, sensual tones of Kathleen Turner, we not only believe the screen character, we want to meet "her." Just call me Roger Rabbit.

Politics unfolds for us in this bizarre culture. "Weapons of mass destruction" alternate with "smart bombs" on the evening news. This has nothing to do with Iraq. It is only a report on "strategy" for the Oscars. Philosophy now must participate in a conversation where much will be discussed in a language of images and in an argot drawn from street culture and advertising. Do not be overly alarmed by this development. Ancient philosophers were convinced that Western thought would end with the loss of Greek terminology and the arrival of the "language of lawyers and soldiers" -- Latin. Somehow, Western philosophy survived that horror. I am sure philosophers today will adapt and survive. We need them. We want them to survive, so we can survive.

When political discourse in America at this crucial moment becomes something on the level of "The Colbert Report," for the vast majority of people, we are in trouble. The Sunday morning serious discussions and the New York Times will only concern policy wonks and your grandfather. Most people prefer to see who won on "American Idol." The result is that politicians steal everything, including the kitchen sink, and law courts prohibit romantic love as "outdated." And that's only New Jersey, where nobody's paying attention -- usually. "Let's steal!" say the boys in Trenton. And they do.

Philosophical ignorance and stupidity, literally, destroys lives and causes great avoidable suffering. Many of our difficulties in the Middle East and elsewhere result from a failure to understand or imagine the perspective of other, intelligent, very different people. People who do understand those different perspectives are ignored as proponents of "convoluted gibberish." In other words, such persons express complex thoughts in abstract language. We can't have that. Let's destroy their writings and web sites. I can really relate to that.

I have encountered representatives of the prevailing American middle-brow world view in debates who did not understand basic philosophical propositions and terms. As a result, they contradicted themselves and lapsed into incoherence -- and did not recognize or acknowledge this incoherence when it was pointed out to them. People like me, who are theoretically-minded in America, are ignored and sometimes destroyed. We are unwelcome reminders of the complexity of the world and of glaring injustices in U.S. society. We are usually most serious when we are joking, like performers. We often make use of media imagery to make serious points in a way that will be understood by young people today. Hence, we are to be eliminated from public discourse, even from social life. Worse, we are to be instructed or "helped" for "our own good" by skinny people dressed in black, who may have graduated last year from Brandeis and who no longer need to listen to anyone. Anybody seen "The Colbert Report" lately? If so, can you explain what the show stands for? Anything?

If the answer to that question is that the "Colbert Report" stands for nothing, except pointless ridicule and unfunny sniping, then my point is established. For the nihilism instilled in young people by such media fare will not help much later in their lives. The world view associated with that t.v. program -- and many like it -- is a celebration of a smug, know-nothing shallowness and self-induced stupidity that I find not only unattractive, but potentially harmful. I am against all forms of censorship. Your viewing choices are your business. I am just saddened at the level of public taste and discussions today. Do not assume that all young people are stupid or have a short attention span. I believe that, if we speak in a media-smart language, then we have a good chance of communicating with young voters -- even when discussing the most complex ideas.

What do elites from other cultures think when they encounter such attitudes of dismissal and disdain from people whose philosophical and humanistic education is non-existent? Wonder. They shake their heads. This astonishment explains the French attitudes at the outbreak of the Iraq war. French comments were the warnings of a FRIEND. Let us heed those warnings now, before it is too late. Maybe it is already too late.

What are some of the public reponsibilities of philosophy in the new cultural space created for it? What can we do to help philosophy in its new mission? I provide suggestions or possible answers to these questions in my next section. I think French attitudes to philosophical discussions will be instructive. In France philosophy is seen as part of a full life for ordinary people.

III. HBO: "Boy and Girl Gotta Meet Cute."

Narratives and narativity are the new medium for apprehending a surreal cultural and intellectual social space. Great! America has some of the world's very best masters of narrative form who speak and construct this visual language of everyday life in the developed world and (increasingly) everywhere. The people I am thinking of are not in Washington, D.C. -- they're mostly in L.A. and N.Y., even Richmond, Virginia or Dallas, Texas. They are not the people you may think of in planning a public conversation about ideas in our time. ("'Justified': A Review of the FX Television Series.")

We want to ask them -- artists and thinkers -- about structures and forms that impose order on experience. We need their contributions concerning all that is missing from our self-presentation to the world at this moment. Please include artists in the intellectual conversation over the direction that we should take -- as a nation -- in a post cold war climate, in a multipolar world where -- like it or not -- power is dispersed and decentered (as we are), so that "asymmetrical" influence describes both the impact of small nations and "primitive" weapons. As we say in America, "it don't take much to stir things up these days."

The challenge is whether that American contribution to our global dialogue on meaning will be as brilliant and powerful as it can be; or whether entertainment values will drive out (as opposed to complimenting) the artistic and ideational content of this new discourse, cinema-imagery, in which America must now speak to the world. It is our language, in a way, because it was invented here. It is still, in my judgment, best spoken here. So why aren't we using it to explain ourselves?

"Hollywood" is not just a joke or about money and glitz. This is not to deny all the stupidity coming out of that town. Hollywood right now, today, is one crucial university or think tank where America's -- and maybe the world's -- philosophical future is really being formulated by means of the creation and expansion of this new language of images and goods as well as the economy it both creates, makes possible, and keeps in place. A more inclusive and equittable version of this conversation is in everyone's interest. This language of images is increasingly global and synthezising. On my bookshelf is a small plastic statue of a meditating monk, with a cell phone, dark glasses, and an Elvis t-shirt. The power to create the subjectivity of people all over the world is a true and overwhelming power. I am sure that, as the t.v. show "Justified" goes global, it will be very popular in Pakistan and India, also China.

I love a happy ending. I am thinking of placing the following sentence on my philosophical t-shirt: "Pass me the popcorn."

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