Monday, December 12, 2005

Viva Pop Philosophy!

This post has been inspired by two different events. The first is that recently (i.e. this afternoon), somebody (i.e. me) was complaining on our beloved blog about the current state of all things philosophical in Newcastle. Somehow my rantings about iPods had led me to pose the question of what can be done to save philosophy at Newcastle Uni from disappearing up it's own proverbial arsehole. Serious answers to this problem have yet to be posted (yes that was directed at you Ming) . The second event was a purchase I made today at one of Newcastle's local bookstores. Put more precisely would be to say it was in a bookstore in Hamilton. More precisely again would be to say that it was at MacLean's. Here I came across the latest volume in a series of books entitled Popular Culture and Philosophy (Rorty fans will notice the impressive use of capitals given to the series title by it's authors). Most of you have probably seen various volumes of this series around before, it includes titles such as Seinfeld and Philosophy, The Matrix and Philosophy, The Simpsons and Philosophy, Harry Snotter and Philosophy, etc. The volume I picked up today was titled Superheroes and Philosophy.

Now aside from immediately thinking that I should cash in on this enterprise by submitting my own volume entitled DragonBall Z and Philosophy to the series editor, it did occur to me whilst reading a couple of the essays from my recent purchase this afternoon that what I was holding was another potential answer to the problem of how to make philosophy more palatable to the masses of Newcastle and hopefully more succesful at our local university. Clearly it would be a good, nay a great idea to generate philosophy courses that wedded philosophy to common yet highly popular icons of modern culture.

Now of course there will be those of you out there who are already thinking that any protracted discussion about this kind of topic with the likes of me has only one inevitable conclusion. It will simply be a matter of time before my Nietzschean impulses kick in, before I declare that of course we shouldn't be catering to the lower life forms that reside in this town and that we should be doing our utmost to preserve a healthy pathos of distance from the herd. Hence ultimately, though perhaps not initially, I will be arguing that such Pop Philosophy is a bit of a wank. I was however curious as to what the thoughts of others may be regarding this type of idea.....

14 comments:

michael said...

I must say that Chris beat you to the idea somewhat with his "Philosophy in Film". Bt there is only so much you can do for Joe and his Socrates ... I've got nothing. And I don't know that John would realy be up for pop culture. THough in principle it is a good idea - probably even a better ide than saying that we're going to form a suicide cult.

Pete said...

Yaya Ming. No doubt you could also consider Bill's attempts to run courses on philosophy and sex as also being along this line of thinking. But I'm not seriously considering that I'd be able to dictate to our illustrious teaching staff what they should and shouldn't teach. And what's more, I seriously doubt that there is actually anything at all on this planet that will save philosophy at Newie....

I was more interested in exploring the idea of pop philosophy in general. I mean aside from this series of books I'm mentioning we're all familiar with other pop philosophers like Alain DeButtcrack and so on.

Ok. So I can understand how this type of idea mught seem appealing. After all, if successful a wide audience should be reached and philosophical ideas disseminated to a large crowd. What's more, if it is attached to pop culture icons then everytime people see an image of Superman, Bart Simpson or Harry Snotter then they'll think of philosophy. But what I'm interested in is, what would be the advantages of that?

Samuel Douglas said...

Since everything has to be commodified these days, it is Obvious that Philosophy should follow suit (note my Impressive Use Of Capitals).
The advantages are clear from a veiw to keeping a philosophy department (etc?) alive. The disadvantages could be horrors beyond our imagining, but I can imagine there being no philosophy at Newcastle, and that is a more tangible and current problem, and therefore takes precedence.

Questions over whether we would create better people, or simply a bunch of pretensious gits who think they are smart (wait, that could us!), or possibly even worse a group of people who think of themselves as superhumen, overmen, post-human or otherwise special in a way that they are clearly not could arise. These issues are not what we should think about, since the economy will treat the money of a philosophical sociopath the same as any other currency.

I'm not being entirely sarcastic here either. Our choices are to radically effect the nature of the economy, or popularise philosophy and I thiink it is obvious which strategy has the greater chance of working. On the up side, it may not be that bad, as many philo-blogs that are extremely popular are not amazingly low-brow in their content, so there might be hope for us yet.

Bill Pascoe said...

You have to be careful doing this sort of thing, cause you could make philosophy look cheap like something from a $2 shop, so that no-one actually wants to do it. What you need is the 'pull' marketing approach, where philosophy is 'exclusive', only the best people have it, it's hard to get, everyone is jealous of it, - so everyone wants it (the rich and famous get for free what everyone pays top dollar for, to be like them). Tell people they can't have it, they'll want it. In this way it might be a good plan to market it as cliquish high brow, beyond the mob. Will you be one of the lucky few, do you have the right stuff, to reach these heady mountain climes?

Pete said...

Hurrah for Bill! I couldn't agree more.
For a good example of this you only have to look at the fascination that some philosophy groupies hold for Nietzsche. Now there was a philosophy aimed squarely at a handful of elites...
So perhaps what we should do is raise the standards: from now on if you want to study philosophy you have to go through rigorous testing, in depth interviews and excruciating torture and then maybe, just maybe we'll let you in.
That's it I'm burning my manuscript for 'The Philosophy of DragonBall Z'!

Despite the smartarse commentary, I do seriously think that Bill is onto something here. I'd definately advocate this course of action....

Bill Pascoe said...

To elaborate further:

Jason Tampake oft said that people he met from Scandinavia were deeply impressed whenever he said he was studying Philosophy. In that part of the world only the kids with the best grades of all can get in.

In Britain lawyers complain that they can only go so far in their profession *because they don't have a philosophy degree*.

Australia, what with the Tall Poppy Syndrome, finds it hard to stomach philosophy. But lets be realistic. The audience that will end up actually doing philosophy is unlikely to be the masses who watch football, think of nothing but beer, or flirtatious txt messaging. Philosophy will attract people who want to differentiate themselves from dunderheads, so market to your niche, not the mass.

What we need to say is something like, "Philosophy gives you the edge." (not to be confused with armed forces advertising). If you want to be a cut above the rest, philosophy is the way to do it. Philosophy gives you the solid theoretical ground that makes you more erudite on any subject than anyone else. Philosophy is at the top of the heirarchy of human thought - nothing is beyond it's scope. With philosophy you will solve problems in any field better than anyone else. You will understand why things happen. You will be aloof from politics as you will understand it's machinations. You will be far less likely to be a dupe, being able to see through any bullshit - at the same time you will have such amazing rhetorical skills that, yes, you will be able to convince people that day is night and night is day. Philosophy changes history - the philosopher is above the mundane and has the power to direct it, yet seldom does because the philosopher recognises what is worth while and what is not. Most people are bound up in the human condition - the philosopher is bound up in the human condition, but also understands it. If you study philosophy, the whole history of thought is with you.

Many may scorn at philosophy - "sour grapes"*

There would be much advantage also in recruiting students not majoring in philosophy to do a few subjects. Law students - if can quote your philosophy, you'll be 'in' with the judge, just as you would if you can quote Latin. Visual Art students - philosophy gives you the solid theoretical ground that make all the difference between 'pretty pictures' and Art. Scientists - how many great scientific and mathematical advances were made by Philophers - Pythagorus, Aristotle, Newton, Descartes, Newton. Is it not said that Einsteins thought was so great, it goes beyond science - it is almost philosophy.

*Aesop

Pete said...

Once again, well spoken Bill.

So do you think that if anyone were to ask us the official party line line should be sayings like "Philosophy is not for everyone", "You have to be special to study philosophy", or even "A lot of people try to study philosophy but most fail"? I think most of these sound fairly good to me. Of course we would have to explain the difference between passing a subject and succeeding at it since most people are capable of a pass mark these days.

I think you also have a point about the cross-disciplinary stuff too. When enroled in John's philosophy of art course a few years back I was surprised by the number of art students there who specifically stated that the reason they had taken the course was to "connect thier art to science". But they had been convinced to try and do this by thier art lecturers. Perhaps we should be promoting philosophy to other academics as a kind of translator between the disciplines as well as a useful addition to thier own pursuits.

Samuel Douglas said...

I agree with Bill also. We need to attract good students. The problem is that in the current climate they will be more interested in the finacial rewards than the prestige, academic challenge or any other less tangible advantages.

We may never convince the kind of students who study law because they like the idea of being rich to major in philosophy. But I think we can agree that it wouldn't be a great loss. The people who choose law or medicine or physics etc. because they think these disciplines are the most demanding, these are the people we have the best chance with.

Rowan Blyth said...

ooooh, can Ming and I be the poster boys for this.

What you can do is market for the cafe 'elite' - something I suggested about this time last year. Follow the trend in clothing which Mambo has encapsulated on a recent shirt "girly wear for pseudo-intellectuals". If you can't find philosophers, thats ok, we know we will always be able to find wankers.

Ultimately you will always have the problem with philosophy of 'the entry point' as primarily philosophy underwhelms those without the intellectual capacities it requires and overwhelms those who do. The point of philosophy can usually only be seen once inside and once inside your either a) fucked or b) you do something else.

MH said...

Look, I’ll be blunt. Falling into Rowan’s (b) group, my future no longer relies on the maintenance of a philosophy discipline. On the other hand, many of you participating in this discussion have bet heavily on philosophy surviving the evolution of universities, both in this country and internationally. It’s a gamble that I don’t envy.

It is fine for you to sit at your computers and lament the state of the Academy. There is a prestigious historical precedent for such practice; Nietzsche (yes, I’ll invoke him) in 'The Gay Science' (don’t ask for the section), and I can imagine the first Platonists making similar remarks about the Academy. The fact is that you actually need to do something.

What? I’m not sure. Perhaps taking up some of the vacant positions on the School of Liberal Arts Board, the Faculty Board, and the Academic Senate could be a place to start. Perhaps taking your concerns to the few remaining staff, and trying to get them involved in the project. Perhaps actually developing a project to begin with …

And, yeah, look at re-branding the discipline. But be aware that Australia has never had a PPE culture (the Oxbridge Gentleman’s combination of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics). I dare say that it never will, because eduction is no longer a means to knowledge but a means to money. This said, the University of Melbourne’s new vision of requiring generalist degrees prior to specialised vocational studies (like law and medicine) may be something that you should look into …

Samuel Douglas said...

Ah, the old "Do something " trick eh? It's so crazy it just might work.

look at re-branding the discipline

You make it sound like we a flogging gaudy clothing and shoes made in sweatshops to shallow moronic teenagers! Some would say that this sort of attitude is the problem, to which you might respond (with some justification) that the writing is on the wall, and it simply how the world is at this time.

Pete said...

Fuck off Martin.

MH said...

I forewarned that I was going to be blunt and ‘re-branding’ with all its connotations is, bluntly, where the discussion had been focused at that point, but since Peter wants me to fuck off …

Samuel Douglas said...

Just when things were getting interesting we slide into abuse and the threat of profound sulking.

Pete: You know getting the shits with Martin is pointless and frustrating. Why bother? He usually means well, even if the way he presents his opinions often makes people want to stab him with the nearest sharp ( or not so sharp) object. The only thing that this sort of behavior causes is a severe bout of smugness on his part.

Martin: Don't be such a child. Pete does not run this Blog, I do. So the only person who you need to take seriously when they tell you to fuck off is me (which I am not, just in case you were wondering).

You are both entitled to your opinions, and to hurl insults at each other as you see fit. But since we are trying to create a future for philosophy here in Newcastle and elsewhere, it is worth considering that this goal is more likely to achieved if the two of you can be civil and even cooperative. So if you two can just keep it down to a dull roar we will continue.

The point of my comment was only to highlight the use of a term that is not normally applied to philosophy. I don't know that its use in Australia is accurate however. You can't re-brand what is not branded in the first place. It doesn't matter.

The solution to our problem most likely falls somewhere in the middle of the elitist/popularist spectrum (if there is such a thing).

In the shorter term, one of the things we need to focus on is getting as many people as possible at the Uni to study philosophy. If every BA student took at least one PHIL subject a year, the outlook for philosophy at Newcastle would be much more optimistic.

We could take a more active role in the university governance ( there are numerous places on various commitees and even the academic senate that we could fill if we tried). I'm honestly not sure what this would achieve, but you never know.

And we can continue to promote philosophy across the Web and the real world.

It might be that none of these things work. But going on in the same way that we have been doesn't look so good either.