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Pop Culture ‘and Philosophy’ Books

John Shelton Lawrence reviews the genre of ‘and philosophy’ books.

Tales about goddesses and gods, villains and tricksters permeate the world’s civilizations. Wherever the philosophical feel tempted to reframe the common ways of understanding things, they make choices about how to deal with such stories. This is reflected in the origins of Western philosophy. Historians of ideas believe that Greek philosophy and science began to supersede mythology when thinkers like Thales shifted attention to observable patterns of process and material stuffs such as water. Those pioneers were displacing narratives about the gods and their passionate interventions. Plato became more explicitly critical, having Socrates in The Republic prescribe a ban on lusty Homeric tales about the gods, or at least requiring them reshaped so that they would have a wholesome effect on the youth.

Despite the long-term tendency of science to displace stories in natural areas of inquiry, stories prevail as never before in the popular consciousness – as the wallpaper of daily experience. In industrialized nations, technology has for many decades increased the immersion of consumer-citizens in stories: television, whether aimed at adults or children, is predominantly fictional (especially in its constant stream of ads which promise happiness upon purchasing a product). Children routinely have DVD players in their bedrooms, and even for backseat auto travel.

Few of the past century’s philosophers showed interest in the story culture. In the United States, theories of mass culture from the Frankfurt School and influential New York critics demeaned the popular as manipulative trash that students should be trained to ignore, if not despise. These views were reinforced by the scolding of more conservative best-selling academic authors like Jacques Barzun and Gilbert Highet, who urged the public to focus on ‘the best that was thought and said’ (Matthew Arnold’s well-known phrase), which they understood as the European classics. Keeping the mediocre ‘masscult’ and ‘midcult’ out of the curriculum was the way to maintain standards.

Professional philosophy’s trajectory from the late 1920s moved toward analysis as the approved style of thought for prestige institutions. Analytic philosophy focused on clarifying the logics of science and language. But at the same time that philosophy’s approved scope retreated from the metaphysical boldness of a William James or the pragmatic social engagement of a John Dewey, the numbers of philosophy professors and their students grew enormously in the United States. Now, thousands of PhDs and MAs are conferred annually, with the American Philosophical Association reporting membership of more than ten thousand.

Most advanced degree holders would like to teach in higher education, where they will encounter students whose tastes have been formed by the TV, movies, music and video games of the contemporary story culture. So how should those teaching philosophy relate to the stories of our time? Of what relevance is the classical canon for students who bring to school much knowledge of The Simpsons, but little of Socratic interrogation?

The traditional model of teaching, which says that the ignorance of the young must be cured, contains strong doses of ‘the best that was thought and said’. It rests upon the authority of teachers as possessors of priestly wisdom. They understand the difficult classical texts chosen for the acolytes. The philosophy priest/professor stands before the unknowing and rehearses the perennial issues of justifiable belief, God’s existence, personal identity, free will, rules of conduct, civil obligation. They train the undiscerning to appreciate and to rationally appraise the claims of Plato, St Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Kant…

Although this model of instruction has hardly been abandoned, it has well-known problems. Many students, repelled by the prose style characteristic of highly abstract arguments pronounce it all ‘BORING!’ – or even worse, permanently incomprehensible. Philosophers, after all, get their marks for systematic rigor and critical depth. Literary pleasure, if present at all, is a bonus. (This itself is a good reason why stories trump factual discourse in popular culture.)

Like earlier progressive educators, John Dewey recognized the problems of teaching the culturally determined ‘best’. He saw students as free spirits who rejected demands for prescriptive subordination. Even if they are obediently inclined, such instruction was unworthy of democracy and antithetical to it. In line with his political goals, Dewey put the progressive ideal this way in Experience and Education (1938): “To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience.” (pp.225-26.) There is no programmatic call to engage with stories in this formulation (published in Superman’s birth year, coincidentally). Yet if the influence of stories is where we find passion and a sense of individuality, that would seem to define the direction for progressive instruction. It took decades for the idea to catch on, but this is precisely where some publishers have been taking their pedagogical books in the past few years, aiming at both popular culture fans and students in the philosophy classroom. The cultural authority of ‘the best’ has been complemented by the cultural appeal of ‘our most successful entertainments’ – and sometimes displaced in some course syllabi I have seen. And whereas philosophy long ago developed skepticism about the church as an intellectual authority, the corporations of the mythic franchises, such as Paramount (Star Trek), Warner Bros (The Matrix) and Lucasfilms Ltd (Star Wars), have seemingly escaped critical scrutiny.

As the co-editor of a Star Wars collection and book reviewer for a journal, I have reviewed many dual audience ‘pop culture and philosophy’ texts. The trendsetter was Open Court, which in 1999 launched a ‘Philosophy and Popular Culture’ series, edited by Bill Irwin. The first title, Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book about Everything and Nothing, was followed by more than twenty others including The Sopranos and Philosophy: I Kill Therefore I Am (2004), Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts (2004), The Atkins Diet: Chewing the Fat with Kant and Nietzsche (2005), Harley-Davidson and Philosophy: Full Throttle Aristotle (2006), Poker and Philosophy (2006). More are being produced. So far as I can tell, the books on The Simpsons and The Matrix have sold several hundred thousand copies; astonishing numbers for books with philosophical exposition.

These books aim to combat alienation from abstract thought with the pleasing notion that philosophy sits as close to people as their favorite hobbies, films, or shows. Blackwell made this aim explicit when it announced that it would have its own ‘Philosophy and Popular Culture’ series, also edited by Bill Irwin. It said “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and a healthy helping of popular culture clears the cobwebs from Kant.” Its first titles were on South Park, The Family Guy and The Daily Show. The University Press of Kentucky also has its own Philosophy and Popular Culture series, including The Philosophy of Neo-Noir (2006). The University Press of Mississippi published Comics as Philosophy (2005) as part of its extensive line on the history of comics.

Is this approach good for spreading philosophical awareness? Is it pandering to popularity, or progressive pedagogy that has finally realized where it must go to connect with student minds and hearts? Has philosophy sold its critical soul to entertainment franchises to recover student attentiveness?

If we accept that every narrative depicts a set of relationships as well as containing an implicit metaphysics and epistemology, then any artifact from the story world can lead us toward the articulation of philosophy. These philosophy and popular culture texts do this superbly. In Philosophy and the Simpsons, for example, Raja Halwani takes Aristotle’s theory of virtue from the Nichomachean Ethics and with crisp clarity demonstrates how Homer fails to measure up. I am willing to believe that some students, otherwise unmoved by Aristotle’s classic text, could use Homer to experience a new twinge of curiosity or insight about how one should understand a good character. Many have reported such moments of enlightenment from reconsidering something they already understand. And many of these entertainment-centric philosophy books can speak directly to the thinking public without being filtered through professorial syllabi. However, based on the texts that I’ve looked at carefully, I have some reservations about the trend.

Students are good at detecting phoniness in older adults, and one backlash might be the suspicion that it’s just a ‘take your medicine’ scam on the part of cynical educators. That patronizing stance is suggested in the Blackwell desire to use the sugar of pop culture to eliminate the cobwebs from Kant. Or consider another quote from Philosophy and Superheroes (2005), an Open Court title, where the editor Tom Morris laments the decline of adult readership for superhero comics: “the demands of formal education, work, and family life… push this distinctive experience out of their lives. This is a modern aesthetic tragedy.” Can the average student believe that an adult sincerely feels this way about superhero comics? As Wittgenstein might ask, “Does Morris understand the use of the word ‘tragedy’?” Maybe it’s true for Morris; but maybe such cries from the heart should also be more restrained, lest they inspire ridicule for the entire enterprise. This example is a reminder about a strong convention of the Open Court series that in another way reflects on questions of honesty; an implied premise that philosophical mentors share without reservation the tastes of their younger audience, identifying themselves with the corporate franchise as they do so. But if the point of philosophical education is to develop critical instincts, shouldn’t a critical attitude be conveyed toward the entertainment corporations themselves?

This problem is conveyed emphatically by the editors Decker and Eberle in Star Wars and Philosophy: More Powerful Than You Can Possibly Imagine (2005). The gushing exuberance of the title is extended to the ‘Acknowledgments’ page, which has been changed to ‘Heroes of Rogue Squadron’. The book’s ‘Contributors’ became ‘Masters of the Jedi Council’. This prepares one for an uncritical celebration of everything in the Star Wars canon. I know middle school students who are appalled at the Star Wars obsession of their teen classmates: how do their college-aged counterparts identify with such giddy enthusiasm? Notwithstanding these problems, I found the essays in the Star Wars and Philosophy volume interesting, enlightening and engagingly written. It’s the rhetorical wrapping which suggests sycophancy toward the franchise that troubles me.

Another issue in this sort of obsessive fan stance is the apparent avoidance of some sticky controversies associated with Star Wars. ‘The Phantom Index’ does not mention ‘sex’ or ‘gender’, and the book discusses neither the subordination themes related to Leia and Padme, nor the abundant ripening homoerotic relationships among the men. It overlooks the ethnic stereotypes of the intergalactic Tontos – the Wookies, Ewoks and Gungans who labor selflessly for the identifiably American White Heroes. A resurgent, often Star Wars-themed militarism in the 1980s is not alluded to. I admit that that’s cultural history, but it’s an important dimension for a critical assessment of what the saga stands for. Yet the book has room for two exegeses inspired by Hegel, and one by Heidegger.

These erudite inclusions from Continental philosophy, incontestably worth reading for me, did make me wonder whether the subject material is treated as having its own value, or whether it’s simply instrumental in introducing that same old prescriptive curriculum Dewey wanted to avoid. Do we encourage students to become critically engaged with their own culture if we side-step the issues of gender antagonism and ethnic exploitation so that the old classics which ignore such issues can be reinstated? In reading Philosophy and Superheroes I was particularly struck by how little some of the authors knew about the history of comics and the associated controversies – particularly the 1950s congressional hearings on juvenile delinquency which momentarily fingered the superhero comics as a criminal factor. Of course, one essay or book can’t do everything relevant. It’s a matter of balance and emphasis.

I think that philosophy should pay attention to popular culture. I have personally studied the hostility toward democracy embedded in our most popular heroic myths and speculated about how those attitudes are expressed in national policy. I hope that under the guise of relevance and hipness the tasks of popular philosophy are not compromised by an allegiance to corporations that would love to own the souls of students as consumers.

© John Shelton Lawrence 2007

John Shelton Lawrence has coauthored The Myth of the American Superhero and Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil.

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