Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Homer redux

A nice follow-up to our earlier discussion about the use of popular culture to teach philosophy: This article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed by Stephen Asma. Asma says very much what I was thinking about in connection with Mike's earlier post. Here are a couple of choice quotes to whet the appetite.

On how recent philosophical work on popular culture differs from 'cultural studies':
Unlike the cultural-studies explorations of popular culture, these new philosophy titles have little interest in decoding the semiotics of the pop narratives. They do not play in the arena of associations and connotations to suggest possible readings of sitcoms or tunes, some "preferential" and some "engaging the margins." In general, these pop-culture philosophers don't "negotiate boundaries" or "problematize discourses." They do something much more refreshing and radical: They give arguments. They use TV, music, and movies to begin a discussion, but very quickly they start to generate premises, draw conclusions, check inductions against evidence, venture deductions, consider counter-instances, and so on.

And on the limitations of pop culture in promoting philosophical understanding:
In the end, I suspect that, despite these excellent new efforts, philosophy will remain intractable and estranged from popular culture. It will remain so not because it is biased or willfully elite, but because it is in an extremely self-reflexive relationship with its own history, and it requires highly disciplined, systematic, abstract conceptualization, a skill that does not come easily to most people.
One can barely make a move within the oldest academic discipline without understanding its past. People who don't know its vast literature feel excluded from the import of any particular philosopher or problem. That kind of exclusion can be remedied by doing the requisite study — by catching up, so to speak, on a body of knowledge.

1 comment:

  1. Asma's article is one of the best takes I've seen on this issue. One of the greatest tensions between philosophy and popular culture has to do with a point raised by Asma. He notes that the only people taking popular culture on its own terms are those who are simply entertained by it. And as we know by the looks on our student's faces, philosophy is not always "entertaining".

    However, it seems to me that the makers and purveyors of popular culture often seek to do more than entertain. A friend of mine received his PhD from USC, and overheard a conversation between two students who were studying to become filmmakers. The gist of their conversation was not that they wanted to make films to merely entertain, but also to change the world. While others merely want to entertain, and will stoop incredibly low in the attempt to do so, these future filmmakers were intentionally advocating their views about life and politics via film.

    When I discuss pop culture in class, I offer examples in which the writer is advocating a particular point of view, even if this is not explicit. One advantage of discussing philosophy and popular culture together, then, is to become aware of the ways in which we might be influenced by it. So even if the "X and Philosophy" books fail to accomplish as much as one might hope, they still can serve a valuable function in the classroom.


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