Toward a phenomenology of television

I admit that I’ve lost anything but a passing interest in contemporary film and television. I’m not entirely in the dark on such matters; I browse Youtube occasionally, and I have a store nearby where I can find used DVDs for as little as a buck. A year ago, I got into a jag there, buying and binge watching police procedural from the the first decade of the present century. But in general, I don’t watch telvision and stay away from special effects spectaculars. (Although the last film I actually went to a theater to see was Godzilla 2014; but then I have a soft spot for Big Greeny from my childhood, and just wanted to make sure they treated him with respect. I doubt I’ll go to any of the proposed sequels, though.) And 3-D doesn’t interest me. Harpo Marx was once asked about Lenny Bruce who was achieving notoriety at the time; he replied “I have nothing against the comedy of today; it is just not my comedy.”

However, having had to study the phenomenon of television in grad school, and having invested considerable time in thinking, talking about, watching, and even, in my youth, making film, I do have some general remarks that may be useful here.

First, never lose sight of the economic background here. Both commercial cinema and television are primarily business enterprises. The purpose of film production is to provide entertainment enough to attract audiences willing to spend money on it. This has caused considerable friction between those who provide capital for production and those who come to filmmaking with a particular vision that they are hoping to realize.

The purpose of a television show is to produce enough of an audience to sell to advertisers. (This is obviously less true of the secondary markets, DVDs and on-demand viewing; technology has changed that dynamic, although it is still in effect on most of cable.) This is actually quite a lower bar than selling tickets to the theater, since the audience only needs enough incentive as necessary to get them to watch at a particular time for possible advertises. A show only needs to be less uninteresting than competing programs at the same time in order to achieve this.

With these concrete notices, we can get into the phenomenology of the two media. The most important thing to grasp here – both easily recognized and yet easily forgotten – is that what distinguishes these media from all others, and differentiates them from each other, is their relationships to time, and how the makers of these media handle those relationships. Of course every medium establishes a relationship to time, and this relationship effectively defines the medium to a large extent. But each medium does this in a unique way, as opposed to all other media. * Yet one of the problems we have in distinguishing film and television as each a distinct medium is that fictional television seems to have a relationship to time similar to that of theatrical drama or at least of film. This is not the case.
The true structural principle of television did not become recognizable until the late ’70s, when television began broadcasting 24 hours a day. By the late ’90s, when cable television was multiplying into literally hundreds of channels, it should have been obvious to all; but part of the success of television is that it depends on, and manipulates, our attention to the particular. Most people do not think of themselves as ‘watching television.’ They see themselves watching Seinfeld or Mad Men or The Tonight Show or ‘some documentary about the North Pole.’ On the immediate existential sense, they are quite right, it is the individual program to which they attend. The trouble is, when the Seinfeld rerun ends, many of them do not get up to do something more interesting in their lives; they sit there and watch Mad Men. Or at least let it play on while they discuss what it was like to live in the ‘60s, and then the Tonight Show… and if they can’t get to sleep, it’s that documentary about the North Pole on the Nature Channel, or an old movie on AMC (does it really matter which?), or an old Bewitched rerun….

Now it sounds like I’m painting a bleak portrait of the average television viewer. But such a viewer is what television is all about. And we should note that this says nothing against such viewers. They are presented with an existential dilemma: What to do with free time in a culture with little social cohesion and diminishing institutions that once provided that cohesion?

So, whereas film is about how to manage visuals and audio and story and acting in the compacted period of a couple hours, television is about how to provide endless hours of possible viewing. It is not about this or that particular show – trends are more telling at any given moment.That CSI and NCIS and The Closer and The Mentalist and Criminal Minds, etc., etc., all appear in the same decade tells us more of what people found interesting on television that decade than any one of these shows, and certainly more than any one episode.

Which brings me to my real point. Although there are still some decent films being made on the margins and in other countries, the history of the cinema I knew and loved is at an end. Despite the fact that the basic premise of both movies is that a group of talented warrior gather to defend the good against overwhelming force there is no way to get from The Seven Samurai to The Avengers. That there is a core narrative conflict they share only means that there are core narratives shared across cultures, and we’ve known that for a long time.

But while the aesthetics of The Avengers is substantially different from that of The Seven Samurai, there is certainly an aesthetic at work in it. I am not willing to grant that television has any aesthetic at all. We can certainly discuss how aesthetic values are deployed in individual shows and individual episodes. But these are almost always borrowed from other media, primarily film. Television, just as television has no aesthetic value. And that cannot be said for film.

One way to note this is admitting that the ‘talking heads’ television is what television does best. That and talk-overs (as in sports) or banter, playful or violent, as on reality TV shows. Fictional shows can deploy aesthetic values, true; but only to get the viewer to the talk show, the next commercial, the next episode. Anything that accomplishes that.

Of course, what we end up discussing is the individual show, or the individual episode. and because television lacks aesthetic value of its own, it can fill endless hours deploying a multitude of aesthetic values from other media – poetry recitals, staged plays, documentaries, thrillers, old films, old television, various sports, news and commentary – perhaps ad infinitum. That’s what makes commenting on individual shows so interesting – and yet undercuts any conclusion reached in such discussion. All the shows we find interesting today, will be forgotten in the wave of the next trend tomorrow. But don’t worry – there will always be reruns and DVDs. As long as there is a market for them, that is.
My general point here is such that it cannot be disconfirmed by any show, or group of shows, or discussion of these – such would only confirm part of my point, television’s dependence on our attention to particulars.

One way to see think of the general problem is to imagine rowing a boat in a river; upstream someone has tossed in a flower – perhaps it is even a paper flower, and we’ll allow it to be quite lovely. So it drifts by us, and we remark its loveliness, while not addressing the many rotten pine cones that surround it. Now do either the flower or the pinecones get us an aesthetic of the river? No. So ‘bad’ television tells us no more about the aesthetics of television than does ‘good’ television.

And the river trope has another use for us here. We know the flower was tossed into the river only recently; but the pine cones have been floating about us for some time. Yet to us, now rowing past these, the pine cones are contemporary with the flower.

We think of an old TV show, say Seinfeld as if it is a phenomenon of the past; it isn’t. Reruns are still playing in major markets, making it a viable competitor to Mad Men or even Game of Thrones. It is still contemporary television. (Television does not develop a-historically, but the history of its development has been somewhat different than for media where individual works are the primary product.) So an ‘aesthetics of television’ would need to account for that phenomenon as well – not just the aesthetics of Seinfeld or of Game of Thrones, but why it is these aesthetics are received by their differing audiences at the same moment in history – and allowing even that many will watch both. And I suggest it would also have to address the aesthetics deployed in ‘non-fiction’ television (scare-quotes because I’m not sure there is any such thing). I suggest this cannot be done. What television as television presents us is grist for the mills of sociology, semiotics, cultural history; but an aesthetics?

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have criticism of individual episodes or discussion of favorite programs. In fact most of us having watched television or still watching it are doomed to this. But we should be aware that, reaching for the flower, we may end up with a rotten pine cone – or, what is most likely, simply a handful of water, slipping through our fingers. returning to a river we merely float along.

—–

* On the time issue: The art of cinema – that is, the cinema I know, which I admit is no longer of interest, except on the margins – is defined by the control of time. This is also true of music and drama, but in a different way, since the filmmaker has a tool neither of the other two have: editing. Films were made on the editing boards.

But this technique could be accomplished – at least to some extent – in the camera itself. Thus even amateur filmmakers, making home movies, deployed the aesthetic of the medium – a particular control of time that photography could not emulate. Thus, picking up a movie camera and operating it immediately engages an aesthetic, however poorly realized and however unrecognized, even by the one using the camera.

Stories are inevuitable in every media; exactly becasue of this, each medium must define itself in terms of its approach to and presentation of stories, not the stories themselves, since stories will occur inevitably – and when they do not, the audience will invent and impose one.

To be less elliptical then, film’s dominant concern was – and still is, although in a way I no longer recognize – vision, in both the literal and figurative senses of that term, as we experience it through time.

While such considerations are understood by producers of television, that’s not what television is about. Television is about filling time with whatever, and getting the viewer to the next block of time (as defined by producers and advertisers). If a talking head can do this, there’s your television.

Again: We viewers are not the consumers of television – that would be the advertisers. We are the commodity that television sells to them.

That changes everything.


A reply to

“Medium, Message, and Effect” by David Ottlinger:  https://theelectricagora.com/2017/05/30/medium-message-and-effect/

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The known unknown on the internet

This was written after reading an interesting article by Firmin deBrabander, “Shame on You,” at the Aeon website. *

 

deBrabander uses the perspective of French sociologist and philosopher Michel Foucault to discuss some current cultural formations arising in and because of the internet and its ‘social media.’

 

Foucault was concerned with the nature of power in modern capitalist society. But he held that power is diffuse and not centralized. We learn to regulate ourselves in a society in which our personalities are formed by society, a society in which even our darkest or most cherished secrets are actually available for view and review in particular circumstances.  This creates a web of relations throughout which power, as the effort to control behavior (of ourselves and others) is disseminated through language and shared interests.  One essential aspect of such power relationship has to do with how we seek to be seen, and how we seek to see others.

 

We may be watched by the state (probably are), but first we are watched by parents, peers, total strangers – your neighbors, the people you meet in a shop or on a bus, your congregation at church (if you attend), etc., etc. However, society has a hierarchical structure, so naturally those who benefit most from social strictures on behavior will be those with money, influence, or authority.

 

So what deBrabander is asking is how the internet has effected the diffusion of power, normalizing this interplay with what one might call socialized privacy, and how that generated echo chambers leading to a disunity of communication in society as a whole: “The result,” deBrabander remarks, “is a growing conformity within camps, as well as a narrowing of the shared space for understanding and dialogue between them.” And this seems clearly to benefit those with money, influence, or authority.

 

Self regulation is essential to any society; however in the current environment, you are almost guaranteed to reveal some, perhaps all, of these things to some one; if you do so on the internet – which is always a public forum, no matter how we pretend otherwise – that creates problems, some of which deBrabander discusses. (Although I think there are more as well.)

 

In some sense everything about us is ‘shameful,’ yet everything must be ‘confessed.’ And we seem to be constructing a culture around this double imperative.

 

Shame exists as a social function,helping to generate a sense of self with the agency to determine seemingly hidden values and revealed values. However the sense of shame is indoctrinated by parents and peers, and in differing social groups will determine the shamefulness of differing values. Thus anything about an individual may prove shameful in some circumstance. However, in the globalized social media, small groups appear to form around what the participants may think are private revelations that are in fact entirely public. If we take the presumed privacy as a means of protecting the hidden, then everything hidden in the many different groups becomes an object of potential shame. However, in order to participate in any group, one has to reveal what is hidden, even what the person feels ought to be hidden, and so confess. However since there is no real privacy on the internet, what is confessed is done so publicly. , This creates a web of what is hidden from some groups but revealed in others, but available to all in most circumstances,, and in other circumstances, available to those with the proper technology. This web supports the social status quo, and in a hierarchical society especially those at the top of the hierarchy with the wherewithal to leverage technological access to all information in the web.

 

It’s pointless to get paranoid in this situation; however it helps, in learning to live with it, to recognize that it is, and what it is.

 

To see this more concretely, imagine a professional football player; last year he signed a lucrative ten year contract, this despite his knowledge (known only to his family) that his mother died of Huntington’s chorea, which means that there is a 50% chance that he will likely not be able to fulfill that contract.

 

So, he doesn’t want to confess this to his team. But at some point, reluctantly, he confesses to a doctor, to receive proper diagnosis. It’s positive. So he secretly joins a support group with fellow sufferers, which is primarily concerned with confessing the kinds of physical and emotional suffering the condition causes.

 

Meanwhile, on his off-hours he pursues an interest in gardening, particularly flowers. But he doesn’t want his teammates to know this, because they all say such an interest is gay. That isn’t true, of course; but just as it happens, he is gay – and he doesn’t want his teammates to know this either. However, he certainly wants those who attend his favorite gay bar to know this, since that’s the only way he can make relationships at that bar, to which he goes after spending time at a local horticulture club. But he doesn’t mention this at the bar, because it’s a leather bar, and flowers are considered fey there.

 

Meanwhile, his alcoholic brother has sobered up thanks to the intervention of a fundamentalist church, and insists they attend some meetings there together, which he does to support his brother (who doesn’t know he’s gay), despite the fact that he’s an atheist, which only his gay friends and his fellow horticulturalists know about him.

 

Now it might be said to him, that these various social groups in which he participates put him in a tense and precarious situation, which can be ameliorated considerably if he would only confess all of his issues to everyone involved. But of course while his sense of shame in certain groups would be alleviated somewhat, he would be effectively making himself a focus of attention, some of which he would rather not have (especially if his team decides that his Huntington’s chorea invalidates his contract).

 

But here’s the problem. On the internet, under various pseudonyms, he begins participating on sports site; on sites for sufferers of Huntington’s chorea; on gay sites; on horticulture sites; on Christian sites for the support of families with someone suffering alcoholism; on atheist sites. On each site he confesses some aspect of himself and his situation he thinks he’s keeping hidden from others – from different others in the different groups in which he participates.

 

But he’s not. That myth is maintained by the acceptance of the pseudonyms he uses, and the fact that most of these sites do not communicate with each other. But in fact all his pseudonyms can be traced back to him; everything about him can be known.

 

The ease of access to the internet, the rapidity with which we can post on it, the ‘friending’ and ‘liking’ on many sites, the seemingly protective allowance for using pseudonyms, ‘handles’ and the like, have misled us into believing we have control over our presence on the web. That’s not true. To socialize at all we surrender something of ourselves to the groups we address. But on the internet, we may end up surrendering everything about ourselves to people we don’t know, and don’t even know exist. Remember, even without posting on the ‘net, our browsing is tracked to provide us with advertisement ‘recommendations.’ These are provided by programs; but the information can be accessed by the advertisers themselves. So there is no invisible presence on the ‘net. We enter it revealed, already ‘confessed’ by the websites we visit.

 

And as the construction of the surveillance state continues apace, there may be a time that everything we’ve revealed on the ‘net will be registered in a data-base in some government agencies main-frame.

 

Again, there’s no point in getting paranoid, because in contemporary society, there’s no way to avoid these interactions. But one should always post on the ‘net prepared for the consequences of public exposure.

 

—–

 

* https://aeon.co/essays/how-baring-and-sharing-online-increases-social-conformity

I  noted this article through a posting at Plato’s Footnote.*  The above includes a comment made there: and since posting this, I’ve felt impelled to write another comment, which I expand on here,  discussing some of the possible motivations for this problem:

 

In a society with few naturally formed communities, such as one used to find in homogenous small towns, we are ever trying to find communities of interest to which to join.  These can be support groups, hobby-interest groups, religious groups, fan clubs, sports clubs, or just the neighborhood bar.  In the process of becoming a member of such a community, one chooses what to reveal and what to conceal about one’s life as a whole.  This will often take on something of the nature of a confession, while involving anxiety something in the nature of a sense of shame concerning what is not revealed, although this is always a matter of degrees.  An alcoholic in AA is certainly confessing, but in a presumably safe environment.  A recovering alcoholic attending a book club ‘confesses,’ even professes a love of books, but may feel too much anxiety about his/her alcoholism to reveal anything about that.  However, in the process of attending AA he or she might discover someone who likes books; attending the book club might lead to discovery of someone else with a similar issue, and friendships are formed; each community grows tighter together.

But on the internet, the communities we join, while still needing professions, confessions, and silence on secrets, social interactions necessarily change.  Our recovering alcoholic begins posting on an AA oriented website.  The conversations involved are for all those to see, not just recovering alcoholics.  The other participants to discussion are unknown to our poster.  Some of them may not even be recovering alcoholics, they may be trolls trying to attract attention to their own site to accumulate ‘clicks’ for sales to advertisers. Meanwhile, at the book-club site, where the participants are required to provide a list of their favorite books, our recovering alcoholic unthinkingly includes the Big Book as a favored text.  Soon, it goes the rounds ‘Are you an alcoholic?’  ‘I think Fakename21 is an alcoholic!’  ”My father was a drunk, I hated him!’  ‘Why don’t you show some will-power?’ etc. etc.  If our protagonist wishes to remain in the online book-club. suddenly we see a confession concerning his/her alcoholism.  It might be made angrily, or sorrowfully, or, if done with rhetorical finesse, will earn responses of approbation: ‘good thing you joined AA, keep it up!’

But the fact remains that what seemed to be a secret has now become a confession in an entirely different community than the one it was intended for.  And further both the AA site postings and the book club postings are now public property.

Such issues are magnified ten-fold on ‘social media’ sites like Facebook.  There, the communities are shallower, and less grounded in shared interests, and the public access more open, less controlled, yet frequently unnoticed by those posting to their page.  They think their sharing with family and ‘friend’ (whom they’ve never met or actually talked with).  But their audience may include trolls, their employers, sex predators, government agencies, and certainly includes advertisers tracking their browsers.

So I don’t think its largely fame or attention such people are looking for, although that may be part of it.  Frankly, I think loneliness is what drives most of them to the internet.  It is ever harder to find real communities to join in one’s vicinity, and of course joining those requires the effort to get out, drive the car or take a bus, get jostled in a crowd, etc. all the unpleasantness of real human content – the internet is so much more convenient.

That tells me that something has changed, is still changing here.  I can’t say that it’s a bad thing, I may be a grumpy old man concerning such matters.  But it doesn’t look like much of a good thing over all.


The election’s over; what now?

Among the many gaffes, groundless accusations, false flags, insults and general whining these past couple weeks, Donald Trump assured his followers that he couldn’t possibly lose in Pennsylvania unless the election were rigged.   Let’s stop and consider the logic of that.  Trump was not relying on any polls (indeed he has taken to deny they matter).  He was not referring to a tsunami of letters to the editor of various news organizations, or some set of petitions.  His reference point seems to be entirely his own ‘gut,’ his confidence that everyone recognizes him as the ‘smartest guy in the room,’ who so many people love and admire.

Actually, my suspicion is that his true reference point is simply and only the applause he hears from fans at rallies.  If true, that tells us a lot about the man, first of all that he really doesn’t get the difference between fans applauding and an electorate voting.  But I think it is becoming more and more obvious that this is exactly the case.

But the logic of his assertion that he can only lose if the election’s rigged, extends beyond the rallies.  Basically, what he’s saying is, that since it s so obvious that he’s so smart, and would do such wonderful things, and is so beloved for this – the election is now immaterial.  Indeed, if Trump’s gut were a true measure of reality, then we shouldn’t hold the election at all.  Hillary should simply throw in the towel, and the House of Representatives appoint him to office.

The irony is that Trump is making his gut known on this matter at exactly the moment when it is now possible to admit that the next President of the United States will be Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton is some not so nice things for a progressive – or even a liberal.  She does lie, she is dishonest, she is conniving and manipulative.  She’s also a neocon on foreign policy, and a neo-liberal on economics.  The judge she appoints to the Supreme Court will steadfast moderates – meaning that while the train-wreck that was the Roberts court is now over, it’s legacy will not be undone by any major reversals.  On top of that, she has now a small constituency of anti-Trump Republicans that she will have to accommodate after election.  In short, Clinton’s offers to become the most conservative Democratic administration since Woodrow Wilson.

However there is one thing Clinton is not, that Trump now obviously is – She is not mentally ill.

Call it sociopathy, or narcissism or delusions of grandeur or some other out-of-touch egomania, what you will.  Donald Trump has not the slightest clue as to the nature of the political process, the nature of government, what it means to be a political leader of the most powerful nation in a very complicated world order that is untethering at the seams in response to years of finance-capital-elite driven globalization.  (In fact, by some reports, he wouldn’t even know what to do in day to day administrative tasks, and is not entirely enthusiastic about becoming President for that reason.)

However – the good news is, that the election is all but over.  Whatever the final numbers prove, this is why Donald Trump has lost the election:

Demographics:  Besides loyal Democrats, Trump has alienated the majority of each of the following voting blocks:

African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Muslim Americans, non-Muslim Americans from pre-dominantly Muslim nations, Mormons, Jews, Americans with disabilities, LGBT Americans, atheist Americans, scientists, veterans, parents of veterans, attractive women, not so attractive women, mothers, women who menstruate (I think that’s quite a number), Republican women, Republican moderates, Republican politicians struggling to retain their seats in the next congress, Republicans concerned for national security, Republican business people, the college educated (left and right), Americans who don’t like Putin, Americans who like babies – and the list goes on.  Trump has failed to alienate angry uneducated white men, but recent polls indicate that he’s no longer doing so well among them.  (And yes, he has alienated the Christian Right, but then hired Mike Pence for VP to make amends.)

But, that’s not all.  Trump has utterly failed to understand the post-nomination campaign process.  He has no ground game, few storefronts with door-to-door campaigners, few liasons with local Republican politicians.  (It’s not even clear he understands why that’s needed.)  He expected the RNC to fund his campaign, when part of the responsibility of the Presidential nominee is to raise funds for the Party.  He has isolated himself from the national press, failing to realize that he is expected, in part, to speak through them, especially were he to become the President.

It clear now that Trump has no strategy.  His pet boy Manafort may be able to guide him to battleground states, but in as lop-sided an election as this, he can’t just ignore previously safe ‘Red’ states – even Arizona, probably the most right-wing Republican state in the West, and one suffering severe tensions between dominant Anglos and a Mexican American underclass, is now in play.

But Trump’s biggest problem, of course, is his own mouth.  He can’t stop it.  That’s why he is clearly pathological.  He sounds like a robot when he reads a written speech, but when he goes off-text, he’s an uncontrollable, foam-at-the-mouth ranter, and self-promoter.  Even if his people could get him to reign it in, it’s probably too late.

The next big moment of the campaign season is the arrival of the Presidential debates.  My guess right now is that Trump will probably make it through one or two before he blows up.  After which he will ‘double-down’ on the narrative that the ‘system is so rigged against me, they won’t let me win,’ because by that time it will be obvious even to him that he has already effectively lost the election.

So the discussion progressives and liberals now need to begin is, what are we do during the Clinton administration – how do we further progressive causes and somehow begin winning seats in Congress and in State capitols?    That’s a long game to play; but otherwise we may have more nightmares like 2016 further down the road.

Writer’s block

…so I haven’t been writing much at all lately.  I haven’t been reading much, either.  Mostly I just watch episodes of old TV shows or listen to old songs, or putter around the home, attempting not to clean anything – every layer of dust marks its era.

 

We had a shake-up at work recently, but while it didn’t lose me any money, it did lose me some prestige, and the job’s taking more time than it has, while yet being ever more boring….

 

Then of course, there’s politics.  Trump is worthy of satire – and I’ll post some of my own soon – but the very fact that he could be the candidate of a major party in the US is shameful.  I suppose one can fear him as a kind of Mussolini of the digital media age; or laugh at him as reality TV clown pretending to be a politician; or gloat over his demolition of the Republican Party; or hate him for his tastelessly open bigotry.   But his very presence on the national stage reminds me of how dumbed down, uninformed, anti-intellectual, bigoted, unreasonable and unreasoning people there are in this country – not just among the voters, but among the politicians who managed to generate the conditions that have allowed this walking stink bomb onto center stage, but also among the media that has pandered to this fool.   This country has been working its way down into a ditch out of which it can never dig out, for quite some time, but this is the lowest Its gotten by far.

 

But it’s ben a downer couple of months, for sure.  A friend of mine, suffering from psychological difficulties has also recently developed physical issues.  My dog is going blind.  The shake-up at work has left the future uncertain.  I don’t like the used car I recently bought, but am stuck with it now.  (“It seemed like a good idea at the time” – oh, that fatal judgment on our supposed powers of judgment.  And on some of the websites I read, I seem to be seeing the same discussions with the same arguments ad nauseum.   Can’t we find something new to say?  Can’t I?

 

I should also mention my last two major writing efforts, my posts on Hegel here, and the essay I wrote about Heidegger on http://heideggerpolitics.wordpress.com.  The Heidegger essay was a bit of a downer because it concerned Germany in the 1930s, and that’s always a downer.  But the Hegel essay had an odd lingering depressive effect – partly because I was unable to complete the series, but also because as I posted it, I grew saddened, and somewhat frustrated, because I know that Hegel was one of the great writers in philosophy of Modernity, even when largely wrong, and he has certainly been one of the most important.   But the fact is that almost nobody in America reads him anymore, not only his texts but his influence have largely been forgotten, the kinds of lively discussions one could have about him are all quieted, and while some of this is just the general movement of history in one direction rather than another, what is especially upsetting about it is that this is not really a result in the trends of the history of philosophy, so much as it is the result of the trending toward a post-literate culture.  People have lost interest in reading difficult texts.  As far as the texts of the past are concerned, we’re essentially a ‘Cliff’s Notes’ culture – that is, a culture of interminable redactions, simplifications, and half-baked generalizations about what someone said about what someone else said, about some book written by someone or other sometime when.

 

Yes, it is true that I am somewhat waxing nostalgic for the age 0f the book.  But it is also true that the post-literate culture has allowed the anti-literate, the anti-intellectual, the proudly ‘know-nothing’ to thrive – indeed, become the presidential candidate of the Republican Party.

 

At times like this, I wonder – what good is writing?  What good in speaking?  why even think?

 

So anyway, as must be clear here, I am suffering a relapse into chronic depression.  And that makes sitting down to write very difficult.  It’s simpler to sit and stare at a blank piece of paper.  Eventually, you know, the mind projects patterns where none can be found.  I have found great entertainment staring at blank monitor screens and letting the pixels cause my optic nerves to generate illusions.   Perhaps one of these illusions will prove to be that I have written something interesting.  We’ll see.

 

 

The dead end of moral relativism

I confess that I would find it very difficult to go to the families of the victims in Orlando, and explain that ethical prohibitions against murder are simply a question of taste; that their suffering is a matter of complete indifference, philosophically; and that the deaths of their loved ones are of little importance because these were somehow predestined by random physical acts at the Big Bang; or because, being gay, they weren’t expected to pass on their genes.

If evolution has gotten us to that point – it wasn’t worth it.

There are certainly those suggesting such a perspective – by logical implication and extension – that there is no ‘wrong’ to it. Don’t we even have those proudly declaiming that they are happy making no judgment concerning Hitler?

Come on – let’s get real. Ethics is not about theory (and certainly not about meta-theory), it’s about behavior – those behaviors we enact, and those of others we live with.

I find the denial of ethics to be inhumane, arrogant, and egotistical. It’s really a way of saying, ‘ethical standards do not apply to me (or only when I want them to).’

The squirrelly, weaseled language defending such a vacuous, self-centered, anti-social antipathy toward all the social bindings that make living human difficult, painful, and sometimes joyous is *at best* evidence of a lack of tact and rhetorical skill; at worst… well, something far worse.

How can people who claim that ethics is entirely a matter of feelings, be so insensitive to the feelings of others, so as not to recognize that our discussions of ethics, both in the Academy and in the wider community, are part of the process that brings people together, that forms the community, that generates our laws and our sense of decency.

I should note that conventionalism, ala Hume and Darwin, is in itself an ethic (not a meta-ethic) that the Logical Positivists relied on in their effort to curtail discussion of ethics in philosophy. This is almost never discussed as such in philosophy, because its faults are plain: projected out from a given society, it spirals down the rabbit hole of relativism. (‘We don’t like murder of girl infants in Europe; but if they practice that in the backwoods of China, who are we to say it’s wrong?’) Consequently it is usually defended as a consequentialism. But consequentialism, just as such, is fundamentally simplistic, and blurs into psychological anxieties involving such issues as peer pressure and legal sanction. Someone who’s gay can still be fired for this some states. The self-loathing bisexual in Orlando, no longer able to tolerate the multiple threats to his own sense of identity, produced a consequence he apparently hoped would meet approval from at least one group of self-serving religious fanatics – and he accomplished this consequence. He wanted to die doing that – and he did.

Ethics must be complex, complicated, sociologically rich and psychologically layered, in addressing human needs, fears, hopes, because it is about maintaining a stable society with as little potential for harming others as possible.

We all behave according to ‘oughts;’ whether derived from utility, or religion, or deontologically; virtue, or convention or consequence. The question is *how we share these with others*. Because when we don’t, the only ‘oughts’ an individual may comply with are psychological drives, some of which lead to destruction or self-destruction.

Again, this iss the logical implication of what is said, extended into the practicalities of real life – and not empty and undisciplined ‘theorizing.’

Ideas have consequences. We live with them. That is why study, sharing, caution and care, are so important.

I didn’t lose anybody in Orlando. But I did on 9/11/01. Gesticulations about ‘utilizations’ for maximum ‘good/bad’ in some empty theory insult me in times like this.

I don’t care to discuss such matters with those who even won’t pass judgment on Hitler; half the family of my first girlfriend (whose memory I still cherish) was wiped out in Dachau.

Such people keep saying its all about emotions, likes and dislikes; but they don’t care about any of this, any of the real feelings of the people they address – even on their own terms, why the hell should we care about them?

I’m sorry; I won’t talk to any of them about such matters anymore – they don’t have anything to say that I would find interesting in any way. If I found myself on a bus with them, I would get off and hitch-hike. Then maybe I’d get a ride from someone with something interesting to say about politics and ethics. It might not be ‘philosophical,’ in the professional sense (and certainly not ‘theoretical’) – but at least it would be the meat and potatoes of real people talking about real things.

The moral relativists should explain how their positions properly ground condemnation of the Orlando murders. All of them, really. Or let them keep their disgusting egoism to themselves, because I won’t be paying attention anymore… .


Note added next day:

I’ve realized that I need to clarify to what or whom I am referring to as “moral relativists” –  especially since I am to some extent a relativist of a kind, in that I think weighing the differing behaviors of peoples from different cultures must always be undertaken carefully and with charitable tolerance for behaviors that may be useful and conducive to greater well-being within the given culture.  No, what I am referring to here are those who gleefully proclaim their independence from ethics all together, who would even argue that we should have no discussion of ethics, particularly in philosophy or politics.  This makes no sense at all. We do not have any guidance of behavior that is somehow free of the necessity for public articulation or public argument; and as long as this is the case, there must also be a corresponding philosophic discussion of the general principles of such articulation and argument.  And the inevitable response to this seems to be, that we don’t need any guidance of behavior at all, and this is clearly false, for reasons I suggested above.  We will have such guidance; the question is whether it will be reasonable and social, or whether it will be egocentric or psychologically driven.  I believe the former is more conducive to the possibility of stability and greater flourishing.  The latter creates monsters and generates violence.  And we just don’t need that anymore- we ought not to have it anymore – we cannot survive together like that anymore.

Problems with public discourse again (and again, and again…)

Recently, people have been been wondering about the clamor for correct speech, from both the Left and the Right. There are just some things we’re not supposed to talk about in certain quarters – whether this is a discussion of a rape narrated in a work of literature in an English studies course, or about the non-Christian deism or skepticism among the writers of the US Constitution. People are just too damn sensitive these days. We forget that an honest public discussion on shared concerns should deal with the realities of life’s experience, and the disappointments of history, however harsh. This is a problem that bubbles up time and again in American public discourse. America has been a Puritan culture since… well, since the Puritans first landed here. (They were not escaping the religious intolerance of England, they were running from the religious toleration they found in the Netherlands.)

Puritanism, need not be claimed by only one ideology. It is a rigid attitude toward social behavior, demanding that what one person, or one group, sees as the right and the good ought to be accepted by everyone and abided by. So there are many forms of puritanism, across the cultural and political spectrum. Since it stems from a ‘will to be right,’ which is endemic among those belonging to cultures open enough to engender serious disagreements, it will keep rearing its ugly head again and again, causing pain to those successfully repressed, and push-back of various rebellious spirits – including competing forms of puritanism.

But while we should always increase our understanding of the problem, that doesn’t mean we will ever be able to rectify it. The variable factors are too many, too historically entrenched, and too many people are invested is the most troublesome of them.

Two things I’d like to note. First, of course, the obvious – all societies engage in discourse management and limitation. ‘We don’t talk about such things;’ ‘a proper lady/gentleman would never use such language;’ ‘say that again, child, and I’ll wash your mouth out with soap!’ Such cautions were common in my youth. The free speech movement of the ’60s led to their eventual disuse; but they’ve obviously been replaced by other cautions, motivated by different interests. Were these eventually discarded, they would simply be replaced. Social interactions, to proceed smoothly, must have some sense of direction, and of boundaries that cannot be crossed. Some of these boundaries are rather obvious in a given context: A white supremacist skinhead should probably not spew his racism when he’s in the midst of bloods in the hood. Knowing such boundaries and maneuvering through them is part of the skill of speaking with others. An individual is his/her first censor, and should be.

Second: America doesn’t have only one culture, and never has. The very hope for one was lost with the Louisiana Purchase. Throughout the 19th century, when people wrote of ‘American culture,’ they were actually talking about the culture of the Eastern seaboard. By the 1920s, this myth became harder to sustain, as emergent cities in the West began defining themselves, while regional politicians began stoking grudges born in the Civil War against Eastern intellectualism, big banks in NYC, and the ever out of touch Washington politician. Meanwhile new media were developing to record and preserve (and market) the culture of quite limited communities – think of the blues and early country recordings from various locales in the South. But also think of the Western films that memorialized the fundamental differences between the Eastern and Western historical experience. Finally (but only for now), think of how the influx of immigrants in the late 19th/early 20th centuries effectively redefined many of the cities of the Eastern seaboard (and, later, elsewhere as well). The 1926 might find one reading The New Yorker, but just as likely, given one’s heitage, Der Groyser Kundes.

In the ’60s, which saw television become our major media for information and politics, combined with the rapid increase in the number of colleges, all sharing a similar curriculum, and the ride of national political movements, Americans effectively deluded themselves into believing there was a national culture. That could not be sustained. The social consequences of the national political movements included much good, but also considerable fragmentation along regional, political, economic, ethnic lines, but also along lines of locally generated sub-cultures, some cultures of choice. Now when people refer to an ‘American culture,’ they are really only talking about the culture projected on television, since TV is the only source of information that most Americans share. Unfortunately, all TV seems to deliver is further delusion, much of its ‘information’ of questionable quality and uncertain factual basis.

The fragmentation is an on-going process – the tendency appears to be a function of Modernity, and we find it in play during the Reformation, as Protestant churches splintered off from each other due to (often violent) doctrinal disputes. This fragmentation is thus an on-going historical process; groups are formed in opposition to other groups, coming together over a perceived sharing of values, only for its members to discover that they do not share the same motivations, and are not unanimous in their interpretation of those values. The group’s discourse management strategies break down, boundaries get crossed, and group members break off to form new groups, and so on.

‘Well,’ the question may be asked, ‘why aren’t we simply a bunch of mutually suspicious, antagonistic tribes at this point?’ Well, maybe we are. However, we have, at crucial historical moments, developed bureaucratic institutions and organizations that suffer from considerable inertia; and these institutions and organizations are really what bind most of us together.

(For instance, I prefer Bernie, but I’ll probably have to vote for Hillary in November, because I share more values and interests with the Democratic organization than the Republican one, and the institution of the US government remains relatively stable, even though apparently incapable of needed reform. But hopefully it would prove resistant to Trumpian subversion as well, should the worst come to pass….)

I here think of the countless essays I have read over the past 45 years that have deployed phrases like ‘we need to,’ ‘we ought to,’ we really should,’ concerning hopes of political, social, or economic reform. Not a single one of those essays actually contributed to political, social, or economic change.

I think it was maybe the late ’90s, when I was reading an essay insisting that ‘we need to do (x).’ when I suddenly realized: ‘no, we don’t need to do anything – it might be good to do (x); but since we don’t need to do it, and most people seem not inclined to do it, well, so it goes.’

Around that time I had another unhappy insight, into the nature of ‘the crisis of contemporary capitalism.’ There is no crisis of contemporary capitalism. Workers get screwed, lose their jobs, suffer in poverty – and that’s exactly what is needed to keep capitalism working. So was the recession of ’08, and the lame attempts at amelioration. Unemployment is built into the system; poverty is built into the system; uncertainty is built into the system. Social injustice is part of the American economy. Some use race to leverage this injustice, some gender, some age, some class, some education – but some prejudice must be formed and deployed to leverage injustice in the system, because the injustice is a necessary function of the system. One can no more imagine a capitalist economy without social injustice than one can imagine a species of tree without bark.

That means that social injustice cannot be corrected by sweeping movements without actual revolution; it has to be corrected incrementally, on a case by case basis, even where the case involves collectives. John L. Lewis, when asked why he was not a communist, replied (paraphrasing from memory), ‘Communists want utopia; I just want to make things better.’

It is a core problem with so-called Social Justice Warriors, or scientisimists, or religious zealots, or the Tea Partiers, etc. – that they honestly believe that if we all just get together and get our heads right, the world will spin in the desired direction.

That’s not true, and it’s not how history happens.

Read instead Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.” King uses “we must” phraseology in only one paragraph, and it is not a call to social change, but a moral directive to those who already agree with his basic project. http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm

There’s no point in asking people to change. They have to want to change. Americans are unhappy; but they do not want to change. That’s the real problem here.

I’m not simply trying to say something about our economic system (although economic considerations underlie many of the issues here discussed). My point is that ‘what ails our discourse?’ is a question for those of us who believe that public discourse ‘ails’ – that the shared interchange of information and persuasion has developed obstacles to communication and shared agreements leading toward collective action. But I suggest that most people do not perceive any ailment here at all, and are not only content with the current universe of discourse, but actually find it socially useful in a number of ways (including economically).

Any time we are considering a seeming problem in a given society, it helps to ask three questions: 1. Do the people involved perceive a problem? 2. If they do, what are they willing to do about it? 3. If they don’t, or are not willing to do anything about it, then could this ‘problem’ actually be built into the social processes that keep the society functioning? In other words, a) it may not be causing anyone discomfort despite its inefficacy as a process, and b) even should it in some ways cause discomfort or even harm, it may be satisfying in other ways that keeps the given society functioning.

In short: on disinterested observation, it may appear to be a problem; but once all interests are taken into account, it may not be a real problem at all, or at least one that people are quite willing to live with.

Finally, I referenced Dr. King’s “I have a dream,” because that was a public address that really did contribute to a moment of social change. But how? At the time, everyone knew that change was in the wind – it had already begun with Brown v. Board of Education, and the Alabama marches, and it was not to be stopped. All King did was to provide it with a focus, a lightning rod of imagery expressing the fundamental hope that his audience held dear, while reminding those on the fence of the issue of the justice embedded in that hope. He doesn’t talk about what we should do – his audience already knows what they should do; he is telling us ‘now is the time to do it,’ and reminding us of the future it can lead us to.

In the condition of increasing fragmentation in 2016, it’s not clear that an address like King’s is possible or would have anything like the same effect. We do not know that change in a given direction is possible; we do not share the same hopes or dream the same future anymore. There is really no ‘we’ here to share this knowledge or these hopes. or take action based on these. Just a whole bunch of differing ‘us’ against ‘them’ tribes.

Unfortunately – most people, though they complain, seem quite willing to live with that.

Language, innovation, history; in philosophy

A blogger writing under the handle Philosopher Eric, recently replied to a comment at Plato’s Footnote ( https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/platos-weekend-suggestions-4/comment-page-2/#comments ), “(…) my actual theory is that meaning doesn’t just exist as consciousness, but rather as the positive/negative sensations which consciousness presumably produces for a given subject to experience. Thus for a cat in a world without humans, “pain” would be something meaningful to it. While you have no ability to logically assert that this definition of meaning happens to be “wrong (…)” – which, of course happens to be mistaken, as his interlocutor pointed out. (Much of what follows is my own commentary on the discussion.)

The hard fact is that we cannot change the of philosophy (less so of science) willy-nilly simply by thinking matters through and coming up with some Great Idea that will answer everybody’s questions, and set all matters right. Further, the language we have with which to communicate just is as it is; it may be highly specialized in specific fields of discourse; but it is not open to sudden change by sheer will. Innovations in language require time, effort, but most importantly community. Language is a shared practice; if you can’t get others on board to your personal language usage, you might as well keep a journal of your unique and special proclamations – and burn every day’s entry upon completion, because nobody’s ever going to read it besides your self. (As Eric’s interlocutor, Daniel Kaufman, noted, “While you are free to invent a word, argument by stipulation is rarely very persuasive.”)

I see this misstep frequently from people who believe they have discovered The True Philosophy (their own or another’s), and are convinced that if readers don’t get what they are saying, or read it in contextual ways they won’t allow, or expect clarification in commonly understood conversational terms, that there is something wrong with the readers, or with the conventions of normal conversation, or with commonly understood language usage.

Language does not function communicably that way. Language has never functioned that way. Language cannot function that way. Language is a communal system of verbal signification that came before us, prepared us in our youth, and will speak eulogies over our graves.

Of course language changes over time; But this takes concerted responses by groups of people engaged in determined efforts to do so. It may be a collection of academic professionals, it may be an ethnic minority unsatisfied with expected norms, it may be poets or novelists looking for better ways to express themselves – but it’s always a group, it is never an individual, and it is never achieved through a top-down injunction. Esperanto failed, Positivist purification failed, puritanical grammarians have failed – all efforts to ‘clarify’ language from some supposed position of wisdom ‘outside of language’* will inevitably fail. Language just is, in the first instance, what we speak; and what we speak, if it is to communicate, must respect the expectations of our audience. Refusal here leads to isolation, not to superior authority or winning arguments.

As to the question, whether ‘pain’ is ‘meaningful’ to a cat: here the distinction between semiotics and philosophy of language may be useful. If a cat steps on a thorn and thereby reacts in a manner attempting riddance of the invasive object, we can indeed say (semiotically) that its sensations have significance – the sensation signifies the invasion into the body of the foreign material, as immediate response to the thorn as sign of threat, calling forth the ‘ridding’ response.

That doesn’t make it ‘meaningful’ in the semantic sense, since this requires an ability to formulate the experience conceptually for verbal expression.

This also illuminates the issues of whether there is inherent meaning to the universe or to life. The universe is filled with phenomena that can be responded to as signs – but only by living beings, since that is in the nature of life, that it is responsive to the stimuli it encounters as significant to its survival in one way or another.

But if meaning is a function of language, then only an intelligent species capable of language (and humans are the only species we know to be so capable) will be able to ‘make’ or ‘find’ or other wise articulate meaning, for meaning to be understood.

And it has to be understood, by those of like intelligence, in order to be communicated; else-ways we are spinning wheels in isolation. That may make someone feel good about themselves or their ideas; but it won’t effect anyone else’s thought, nor the common language in which these thoughts are communicated.

Bottom line: If one reader doesn’t understand you, that may be his or her problem. If multiple readers do not quite ‘get it’ or read it differently than you intended, then it is best to rethink your writing strategies. Believe me; I been there; I know.

And if you have something truly new to contribute to science or to philosophy, or to some other field of inquiry, find some way to express it within the many streams of discourse that we inherit in our history. Innovation is difficult, but not impossible. The question is whether you can attract others to it in way that is meaningful for them, given that they share the same history.

Or start a religion; but don’t expect others to flock to your church. You may be your only congregation. That might not be a bad thing – you can always save yourself. But others might think it more reasonable to find traditions in which they feel comfortable – and there’s nothing wrong with that either. **

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*There is no ‘outside of language’ for the human animal; hence no position of pure authority from which to adjudicate and purify language usage.

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** It is said that, after his enlightenment, the Buddha met a Hindu yogi on the road, and explained all that he had learned.  The yogi listened patiently;  saying something like, “very well for you,”  he walked away.  The Buddha thus learned that his message was only for those who wanted it.