Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Fun With 20 Questions

I had a couple of friends (also philosophers) down to visit this past weekend and, over coffeee one morning, we found ourselves discussing the relative merits and demerits of the popular road-trip game "20 Questions." (You can play against a computer in an Artificial Intelligence version of the game here.) Since one of my interlocutors was a Kantian and the other an Aristotelian, I supposed that they would be big fans of the game, but they each pointed out some major difficulties with the way the game forces us to describe the "things" of which we are thinking. A couple of months ago, I was on a road trip with two other (philosopher-) friends, and we also got into a big disagreement about which sorts of questions constitute strong or useful inquiries. (Our major disagreement was over the utility of the question "Is it bigger/smaller than a breadbox?") Anyway, one of the interesting things that came up in the conversation this past weekend was what counted as an "unfair" subject-to-be-guessed.

My Kantian friend had suggested that all answers to the game 20 questions had to be something that could be "imaged" in the mind, thus "ideas" were unfair answers. But I don't think that's true. For example, I think you could have the idea of "freedom" or the idea of "WWII" as an answer, neither of which can really be "imaged" in your mind, but which you could still expect people to guess in 20 questions or less. However, I argued that I DON'T think you could have "the idea of freedom" as an answer-- not because it can't be imaged, but because it is a compound idea. So, in effect, it would be like thinking of two things instead of one. (As an analog, I would say that it is unfair to be thinking of "bread and butter.")

There were lots of other disagreements, for example, whether or not any of the following attributes could be included in the answer: space (e.g., "the tree in my backyard"), time ("Benjamin Franklin at 22 years old"), ownership ("my pencil"), etc. My Aristotelian friend pointed out that, although the game suggests that what one is supposed to do is guess a "particular" from the universe of things, in fact the final answer is not very particular at all since it doesn't include some of the above attributes.

Just a cautionary tale about mixing philosophers and parlor games....

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Packing 'Em In The Pokey

You can stash this little bit in your "Most Grossly Under-Reported Stories" file.

Last November, the Justice Department reported that there were a record 7 million people behind bars, on probation or on parole at the end of last year. That means roughly 1 in every 32 adults in the United States is somehow in the custody of the corrections infrastructure. That's a 2.7% increase from just the previous year and, what's worse, the numbers have risen eight-fold since 1975. The federal prison system is currently operating at 34% over capacity. But enough with the statistics already...

Now, I spent about 13 hours in jail once, most of which I was not literally "behind bars" but rather in a endless series of mind-numbing booking procedures or sitting in a large holding room (yes, in cuffs) trying not to look scared while I waited for the next step of booking. Jail is not fun... not even a little. And "jail" is not even "prison," which I don't want to imagine. My stint in the big house was ultimately the result of a totally mundane paperwork mistake-- for some reason, my driver's license was showing up as suspended, which it wasn't-- but the two things that I learned in my experience were that (1) you really don't have to do anything wrong to end up in jail, and (2) once they get you in there, it takes a lot of time and money to get out, regardless of innocence or guilt. Those were the longest 13 hours of my life, hands down.

I'm going to set aside some of the most obvious problems with the high rate of incarceration in the U.S. (racial bias, inept public defenders, Draconian "mandatory minimum" laws, rampant prison violence, backlogged appeals processes, recidivism rates) and address a couple of things that I don't think get mentioned enough.

1. The slow and steady siphoning of income from lower- and middle-class families. People spend a lot of time talking about the state's expenses for keeping prisoners in jail (about $20,000 per year), but not enough about the expense to the families of inmates. Since the inmate population is disproportionately represented by lower- and middle-class men, there is a large population of women--who, it should go without saying, are much poorer than the state-- who are bearing the burden of the paralyzingly expensive "justice" process. There are a host of reasons why the poor get poorer in this country, but this is a big one.

2. Permanent disenfranchisement of ex-cons. As we all know, anyone convicted of a federal offense loses his or her right to vote... but what many people don't know is that it is for the rest of his or her life! For felons, it's not enough to "do the time" for your crime, they keep paying for it looooong afterwards. That means, in our "democracy," you can pay your taxes, be drafted for service and be accountable to the law without having any representative participation in your government whatsoever. Where is the motivation for reforming the prison system going to come from? Which brings me to the last point...

3. Retribution, not reform, rules the roost. It seems that this country gave up a long time ago on viewing incarceraton as potentially reformative. This is a bit of a vicious circle, I realize, because the over-laden system can only barely house and feed the population that it is charged to manage, so any attempt to institute programs that are not directed at the most basic level of subsistence fall by the wayside. Even still, we lose the moral high ground when we view prison as merely punitive. If we don't even pretend to believe that prisoners can be reformed, then not only do we set in motion the inevitable (high recidivism rates) but we might as well just execute most offenders.

I'm not sure what action to encourage here to help remedy this growing problem-- except, of course, "avoid the police at all costs"-- but, at least with reference to #2, I can share an organization that I have been tracking for a while and which I think is genuinely trying to help. Please check out Project Vote, which is steadily working to faciliatate legislation that will re-enfranchise ex-cons.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Sad, Sad Day in Memphis

If you've heard me talk about Memphis for any length of time, you've heard me talk about Wild Bill's (pictured above, Bill standing in the doorway). After Junior Kimbrough's Place burned down in 2000, Wild Bill's became one of the last surviving "juke joints" in the Delta. It wasn't much bigger than a large living room, but still managed to seat a live 5- or 6-piece band in the corner and regularly packed sweaty, drunken R&B lovers in there like sardines. I've seen the sun rise (too) many times as I dragged myself out of Wild Bill's, but I was always happy on my way out. In fact, I would say that I've had some of the best nights of my life at Wild Bill's. Back in the day, the band used to call me up to sing a song or two on Saturday nights, and I can honestly say that I've never had a feeling like that since, and probably never will.

Wild Bill passed away Sunday after a bout with cancer. It's hard to explain what a loss this is. Bill Storey, who must have been in his 90's, always took the money at the door of his place-- a measly 5 bucks, which was a steal considering the time you were inevitably going to have there. Sometimes, when the place was really hopping, Bill would scurry around and distribute the "set-ups," occasionally partaking in a little nip himself. "Set-ups" are really just ice and glasses-- Wild Bill's only serves 40 oz. beers and a couple of fried foods (chitlins and wings). You can bring your own bottles of liquor, though, and can pay $2 for a "set-up." There was a time when Bill knew my face and my name, and he always gave me a bear hug when I came in. He was a man of few words-- I may have only collectively heard him say about 4 sentences in the years that I went to his place--but he had a presence. And he loved that place. And everyone loved him.

A couple of years ago, I was living in Philadelphia and travelled home to Memphis for a conference. I noticed that the airline magazine had a section on "Places to Go in Memphis" and that it included Wild Bill's. At the time, I thought this was the most tragic thing I had ever read. One of the great things about Wild Bill's, for many years anyway, was that it was the place you went to get away from the tourists. Of course, you can hear good music lots of places in Memphis, but Bill's was a place that only the "locals" knew about-- and even if a visitor had heard of it, they probably wouldn't be able to find it. When I saw the address listed in the Northwest Airlines magazine, my heart sank a little. Of course, this was selfish of me, as I am sure that the new publicity made Bill a lot of money, but it seemed like an era had passed, and I was sad about it.

I would say "Rest in Peace, Bill"... but the fact is that I can't really imagine Bill anywhere "peaceful", or at rest for that matter. I hope that wherever Bill is now, there is an organ and a few road-weary guitarists plugged into beat-up amps. I hope there's a cover charge, and that Bill is trusted to man the door. I hope he can smell the chitlins frying in the back and that the bottle of hot sauce is full. I hope that whoever sits down next to Bill remembers to bring a bottle of something brown and strong, and I hope that they tell Bill to help himself. And I hope he keeps watch over his place down here. We'll miss him.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Help Yourself


Recently, I've begun to notice that several of my friends and acquanitances are secretly adherents to some form of self-actualization philosophy/practice or another. Since most of my friends are over-educated, they tend to be more discreet about these allegiences than your average everyday schmo, but once the topic is breeched, I find that they can proselytize about their mutli-step program, therapist, metaphysical insight, or other psychological fix-it with the best of them. Now, I've always been very skeptical of anything that smacks of the "new-age"--I think that skepticism is a result of a combination of factors: my Protestant upbringing, my education, my tendency toward private struggle, my pride. But for some of these folks, I can tell that whatever Kool-Aid they're drinking seems to be working for them, and it has made me stop and re-think my skepticism on several occastions recently.

Now, I've had a host of major upheavals in my life recently, so I know that people may be more inclined than normal to proffer their therapeutic wares to me. For the most part, I've taken the "buffet" approach--surveying all the choices, passing over most of them, taking a sample here and there if it looks good. Yoga? Okay. Therapy? Too expensive. Keeping a creativity journal? Yuck. Investigating the details of my past lives? Ummm, thanks but no thanks. Something you saw on Oprah yesterday? Watch me while I run far, far away. In general, I shy away from anything that invoves multiple-steps-- although I think that system has been very effective for AA, in other contexts it smacks too much of a pyramid scheme. Then, of course, there are also the true believers, who invite me to church and who swear, really swear, that their church is different than any one I've ever been to in my life. I have to remind those people that I've been to a lot of churches.

I'm genuinely fascinated by the fact that self-help has become its own muti-kabillion dollar industry. Especially in light of the recent claim that people--well, "girls" in particular--who share their problems are at a greater risk for anxiety and depression. And, I'm very, very fascinated by the fact that many of these systems, which on the surface are so obviously provisional and makeshift salves for temporary emotional and psychological wounds, present themselves as the "deeper Truths" of human being. My instinct is to say that when someone is in pain, almost any promise of relief will be seriously entertained, and most will be semi-effective (as we know from placebo experiments). But the truth is that I have a lot of smart friends who are finding relief there as well.

I don't have any meta-claim to make here. I'm just interested.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Thematic Uncertainty

I need your help. This fall I will be teaching a General Humanities-type course that has a mostly prefab syllabus, which I can make minor alterations to, but not many. Basically, I can add things, but can't take any away. The course is pretty labor-intensive as it is designed, and if I were a student enrolling in this course, looking at the stack of required texts would make me a little nervous!

Ive been advised by my new colleagues that the best way to teach this course is to pick some sort of a guiding "theme" and try to trace it throughout the texts over the course of the whole semester. The students have so much reading to do, and they will be doing it at such a quick pace, that my colleaugues think a theme can serve as a kind of anchor (for both me and the students). So, I'm soliciting suggestions for "guiding themes." Here are (most of) the texts we'll be reading:

The Epic of Gilgamesh
Homer's Illiad and Odyssey
lots of O.T. stuff (Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Samuel, Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Job)
Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War
Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Antigone
Aristophanes' Clouds
Plato's Republic, Symposium, and Apology
Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

My first inclination was to choose something like "friendship," but I'm not sure that's going to get me through all of the texts. I'm definitely open to having more than one theme. Help!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tragedy Averted


Meet Sugarlump, my new housemate.

For weeks I had been debating whether or not to adopt a cat from the local shelter, but was hesitating because this cat (pictured) started hanging around on my front porch all day and seemed to be a stray looking for a home. Eventually, I began putting out food and water bowls for her, and would let her in from time to time. My neighbor told me that she had seen the cat around for a long time and thought it belonged to someone in the neighborhood. So, against my will, I made the rounds to all my neighbors a couple of days ago asking them if they were missing a grey-and-white cat. One of them said that she owned one like that, but she said that her cat was mean and unfriendly, and that my descriptions of Sugar didn't sound at all like her cat. I happily went home to take in "my" new pet.

Then, yesterday, that same neighbor knocked on my front door. When I came to the door, she pointed at Sugar (who was sleeping on my front porch swing, per usual) and asked: "Is that the cat you were talking about?" I said it was and she said that Sugar was, in fact, her cat. I must admit that my heart sank a little, as I was way past having grown attached to the little thing already. But as luck would have it, just at that moment, Sugar came over and started nuzzling my leg, so I picked her up and petted her and readied to give her back, reluctantly, to her owner. The woman said she had never been abele to pick up that cat and had never seen her be affectionate in the least. She said if I wanted to keep the cat, I could.

So far, Sugar hasn't indicated any desire to go back down the street. I'm happy to report that we're both content with the new arrangement.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Brain Sex

Here's something we all need to talk more about: eros in the classroom. I was reminded of this just recently by an excellently written article in The American Scholar by Yale professor William Deresiewicz entitled "Love on Campus." (If you haven't read the piece already, please stop and read it now. The references follwing will make more sense that way... as will the title of this post.)

For the most part, Professor Deresiewicz is upset with the current cinematic trend that portrays professors--especially humanities professors, as he points out--as lascivious, alcoholic, pathetic, amoral predators desperately trying to give meaning to their meager lives by sleeping with their students. According to Deresiewicz, this stereotype has (unfortunately) replaced the older caricature of professors as absent-minded and bumbling, but philosophically astute and ethically noble. He lists the offending films, almost all of which I am sure will be familiar to readers of this blog: The Squid and the Whale, The Life of David Gale, Little Miss Sunshine, One True Thing, Wonder Boys, We Don't Live Here Anymore, A Love Song for Bobby Long, Terms of Endearment, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera...

Professor Deresiewicz offers some interesting insights about how and why this new stereotype has taken hold. Maybe all of the current screenwriters are really ex-humanities-grad-students with a little too much ressentiment. Or maybe these films reflect the resentment by the larger American populist mind toward academia, which depends on elitism and intellectualism, and in which everyone is most certainly not equal. Or maybe we should blame coeducation for putting men and women in the same place at the same time in the first place. Or maybe its the fault of the baby boomers, who expect professors to act in loco parentis for their coddled, spoiled, oh-so-precious children.

However, the most interesting argument in Deresiewicz's piece comes near the end, where he writes:

Still, there is a reality behind the new, sexualized academic stereotype, only it is not what the larger society thinks. Nor is it one that society is equipped to understand. The relationship between professors and students can indeed be intensely intimate, as our culture nervously suspects, but its intimacy, when it occurs, is an intimacy of the mind. I would even go so far as to say that in many cases it is an intimacy of the soul. And so the professor-student relationship, at its best, raises two problems for the American imagination: it begins in the intellect, that suspect faculty, and it involves a form of love that is neither erotic nor familial, the only two forms our culture understands. Eros in the true sense is at the heart of the pedagogical relationship, but the professor isn’t the one who falls in love. ... This is the kind of sex professors are having with their students behind closed doors: brain sex. And this is why we put up with the mediocre pay and the cultural contempt, not to mention the myriad indignities of graduate school and the tenure process.

Of course, Deresiewicz's argument also includes all the perfunctory references to Plato's Symposium that one might suspect. But he ends with a real winner. He writes,

The Socratic relationship is so profoundly disturbing to our culture that it must be defused before it can be approached. Yet many thousands of kids go off to college every year hoping, at least dimly, to experience it. It has become a kind of suppressed cultural memory, a haunting imaginative possibility. In our sex-stupefied, anti-intellectual culture, the eros of souls has become the love that dares not speak its name.

I say: Bravo, Professor! Bravo!

So, any of you sex-crazed, Godless, pinko professors out there have a comment?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Perils of Songwriting

One of the good things about being back in Memphis is being around muscians again. I'm not talking about professional musicians--of which there are many here--but just your average, everyday, I've-got-a-guitar-and-an-idea musicians. I love just sitting around on somebody's deck, especially on hot summer nights, hammering out totally average versions of truly beautiful songs. I love it when somebody says, "hey, y'all remember this one?", and then breaks out something that I forgot I knew. I love it when, in the course of these impromptu sessions, I find that missing chord to a totally familiar tune that I never could figure out on my own. (This recently happened to me with Lucinda William's song "Those Three Days," which is kind of embarrasing since I think there are only like three chords in the whole song.) And I love, love, love it when people play their original songs. There's nothing like hearing a song sung by its songwriter.

Many years ago, here in Memphis, Keith Sykes used to host a monthly "Songwriter's Night" in a dive bar downtown. He would invite all of his old Nashville/Austin/Memphis/Key West songwriter friends to come and play. It was unbelievable. These guys who you've never seen or heard of--and who looked like they had been rode hard and hung up wet too many nights in their ragged lives--would sit on a bar stool with a Coors Lights and a guitar and play songs that had made the likes of Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw millions of dollars... though the songwriters themselves were still struggling to pay rent. One night when I was there, a man with a ukelele said, "here's a song I wrote that you mighta heard..." and then proceeded to play "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress." Bet you didn't know that song was intended to be played on a ukelele!

On the other hand, the bad thing about being back around all these musicians is that it has made me painfully aware of the fact that (1) I am very rusty, having not played much since the demise of Philbilly Cadillac, and (2) I have soooooooooo much still to learn about songwriting. I'm a pretty amateur musician, and an even more amateur songwriter. I've written a few good songs in my life, and a whole lot of bad songs... but I've never written a great song. And I really want to do that before I die. It's the holy grail that I've been pursuing for almost 15 years now. And many of my friends here are amazing songwriters, which only stokes the fire of my frustration.

(An aside for my philosophical readers: One of my longtime friends here, Amit Sen, wrote a song several years ago called "A Priori." It's a really great song, but those of you familiar with Kant will probably appreciate it more than the average listener. You can listen to it here at the website of his now-defunct band The Apostles of Love Song Orchestra, or ALSO. Even if it's not your style, you gotta appreciate the difficulty of writing a song called "A Priori"!)

I'm not sure what the secret to writing the perfect song is. As a deconstructionist, I should know that there is no "secret," but I want to believe there is. So, I'm soliciting suggestions. Tell me what you think makes a great song. Or give me an example of what you think a great song is and maybe we can pick those apart together until we find the pixie dust...

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Freebird

Want to know what that colorful little bundle in the sky is in the picture above? It's an Oregon man, Ken Couch, in a lawn chair, with 105 large heIium balloons strapped to it. Want to know the best part of the story?

His destination: Idaho.

Sad to say, poor Ken didn't make it all the way to the promised land. He landed in a farmer's field, short of Idaho, but almost 200 miles from his home. He also had to pay a $1,500 fine for violating air traffic regulations. (You can read the whole story here.)

So take this lesson to heart, kids... Follow your dreams! Reach for the sky! Throw off the shackles of convention and common sense and concern for personal safety... and set a course for Idaho! You'll be a hero to some, a legend to many, and an inspiration to all.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

La Vie en Rose, or, Women in Pain

You may wonder to yourself: who could possibly have had a sadder life than Frida Kahlo? Well, I just saw the biopic La Vie en Rose and I'm pretty sure Edith Piaf can give Frida a run for her poverty.

I was only introduced to the work of Frida Kahlo about ten years ago. Kahlo's paintings are a dreamy mixture of physical and emotional pain, many of them surreal self-portraits, and they exemplify that peculiar manner in which human sadness can be both captivating and beautiful. Very much like Edith Piaf's songs. Both women's lives were unbelievably tragic-- so much so that if you didn't know the stories were true, they would seem tastelessly overwrought-- and they both died quite young (age 47). Both were unapologetic drunks, one of many self-destructive chracteristics they share, and both became cultural icons of a sort, though never really enjoying the kind of satisfaction one might presume comes with that.

It's hard not to think that the popular fascination with these two women's art has more than a little schadenfreude about it. But, then again, so does Greek tragedy, I suppose. Nevertheless, Piaf and Kahlo are archetypes of women in pain: emotionally raw, stoically romantic, simulataneously optimistic and fatalistic, passive-aggressive and vulnerable. In general, I'm not one to overemphasize gender-specific differences (much to the dismay of my bona fide feminist friends!), but there is something unique about these women's pain that I am not sure one finds in the lives, however tragic, of male artists. They fought losing battles their whole lives, and Piaf still sings:

Jamais rien ni personne
M'empêchera d'aimer...
J'en ai le droit d'aimer
J'en ai le droit...
A la face des hommes,
Au mépris de leurs lois,
Jamais rien ni personne
M'empêchera d'aimer...
De t'aimer...
D'être aimée...
D'être aimée...

(from "Le Droit D'Aimer", 1962)

Thursday, July 05, 2007

There's No Crying in Baseball!

God bless those men and women out there who have been able to remain basbeball fans over the last decade or so. (I'm talking to you, Saint Kyle!) Although there have been a couple of seasons during those years that my generally waning interest was piqued, for the most part I gave up on MLB a long time ago. The game is a Slugger's Ball now, with drugged-up uber-athletes swinging for the fences every time... and connecting far too often. There's no real defense in baseball anymore, save whatever is provided by the bullpen, and you rarely see any pitcher work a whole nine innings. When was the last time you saw, or even thought to look for, one of the most beautiful and exciting inventions in sport--the "squeeze play"? When was the last time you saw an outfielder that didn't look like a linebacker? When was the last time that you thought for even a second that the stronger defense might win the game? As far as I'm concerned, they might as well just let all the fielders take a seat and go ahead and instead stage 60-something Home Run Derbys every season.

I grew up an Atlanta Braves fan. And I don't mean the Atlanta Braves that people know now--I'm talking about the Braves of the early 80's (Dale Murphy, Rafeal Ramirez, Claudel Washington and his toothpick wadering around the outfield). Being a Braves fan used to be something that people were assigned to do as penance... and for really horrible sins, like kicking cute puppies. It was an exercise in futility. It was truly tragic. And nobody did that tomahawk chop thing. But my great-greandmother (aka, "Milkshake Grandma") taught me this valuable early-life lesson: Somebody's gotta love the losers. And, man, did we love the Braves.

As we all know, Barry Bonds is closing in on one of the most impressive records in sports history--Hank Aaron's 755 home runs. But it's hard to be excited about that, given the allegations and court cases (not to mention Bonds' capital-A-Attitude) sullying the event. I don't want to sound like a crybaby baseball purist, but...well... I guess I want to sound like a crybaby baseball purist. What happened to the game? You know there's something rotten in Denmark when even Hammerin' Hank says that he doesn't want to be there for Bonds' record-breaking longshot. Says Hank (the Brave) of his decision not to attend the game: "If I chased behind Barry, then I would be endorsing everything Barry is doing."

I'm not watching it either. Just give me the peanuts and cracker jacks... you can keep the old ballgame.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

RSVP

A proposition for my friends, far and near:

This year is the 30th anniversay of Elvis Presley's death. As you may know, Memphis memorializes Elvis' death every year with "Elvis Week" in August, including a candlelight vigil and an "Almost Elvis" impersonation contest. As it just so happens, Elvis' death (August 16) is the same week as my birthday (August 19). So, I am extending an open invitation to all my friends to attend Elvis Week this year, which promises to be one of the most well-attended events ever. (And that's saying something, since almost a million people travel to Memphis every year for Elvis Week!) I've never actually attended the candlelight vigil--being a native Memphian, my absence is de rigeur--but I will gladly play the tourist if you decide to come. Or, if there are enough of us, we could hold our own impromptu vigil in my backyard. I can promise that drinks will be cheaper with the latter option. You are all welcome to stay in my house--which you pretty much would have to do anyway since all the hotels sold out a long, long time ago. Warning: it's hotter than hell in Memphis in August, so bring as little clothing as possible.

Now, for those of you in Philly, it's not an impossible drive. So if 3 or more of you are coming, you should drive. Same goes for State College, actually. But if you can't or don't want to drive, there are currently cheap flights available for August on Expedia. (It's even cheaper if you fly to Nashville, and I could come pick you up there.) There's a long-standing rumor that if you fly to Memphis dressed as Elvis during Elvis Week on Northwest then you can fly for free, but I don't know if that's true. Even if it's not, I think you should don the appropriate attire for your travels.

I'm really very serious about this invitation. Really. So, who's up for it?

huh? Hegel?

As readers of this blog know, I often comment on reviews that appear in the Notre Dame Philosophical Review. Mostly, I note when the critics have landed a real shiner (like the recent tags by Mendieta and Maudlin). But, this time, I'm a bit perplexed. In his recent review of the text Entfremdung: Zur Aktualität eines sozialphilosophischen Problems, Frederick Neuhouser opens:

"Rahel Jaeggi's Entfremdung is one of the most exciting books to have appeared on the German philosophical scene in the last decade. It has two significant strengths that are rarely joined in a single book: it presents a rigorous and enlightening analysis of an important but recently neglected philosophical concept (alienation), and in doing so it illuminates, far better than any purely historical study could do, fundamental ideas of one of the most obscure figures in the history of philosophy (G. W. F. Hegel)."

Huh? Hegel? One of "the most obscure figures in the history of philosophy"? Yeah, I guess so... right after Socrates and Nietzsche.

Fighting Fire with Squirting Lapel Roses

Last year, I saw Emory philosopher Cynthia Willet give two separate lectures culled from material for her forthcoming book Comedy, Friendship, Freedom: A Democratic Political Ethics. Willet's project is philosophically astute, extrememly timely, and not a little provocative, and I am very much looking forward to the publication of her complete text. She is trying to turn our attention to the power of comedy for political change, reform, critique and to investigate the sort of "freedom" and "friendship" opened up in comedy that subverts and reformulates our more conventional notions of those concepts/practices.

Now, for most people of my generation/education/political persuarsion, the idea that comedy has some political purchase is nothing new. In fact, for many of us, the only thing standing between our day-to-day existence and total despair is Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Most of my friends have themselves adopted this sharp (or, negatively stated, acerbic), quick (sloppy), biting (mean), and astute (cynical) sense of humor, which often turns an everyday conversation over beers with them into an exercise in pugilistic hilarity. Some people (namely, my father) find this generational characteristic a little off-putting--we're too loud, too mean, too enamoured with our own disillusion and, yes, a little too honest to make for good (read: polite) company. I actually respect his criticism to a degree, as I myself (like almost everyone I know) have certainly gone home and plucked the barbs out of my own ego after having been lambasted by friends... all in good fun, of course. But it is what it is. These are my people.

What Willet's work has made me think more about, however, is how much can actually be accomplished by such comedic criticism. Every night I watch Jon Stewart and I wonder: how in the world can things continue to go on like they are with this kind of truth out there? Of course, I know that the targets of Stewart's and Colbert's not-so-subtle criticisms probably don't watch their shows, or grossly misunderstand the jokes, but one would think the fact that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are such a central part of the social milieu would have some cash-out value. But, then again, maybe Stewart and Colbert are not that central. Maybe I'm just a member of the choir that they're preaching to nightly.

When I taught Media Ethics, I would show the clip of Jon Stewart's visit to the FOX exercise-in-ridiculousness show Crossfire. If you haven't seen it, you can watch it here. (And even if you have seen it, watch it again!) Stewart's dilemma in that conversation is the one that I imagine is the most insurmountable for the comedian who actually wants to effect political change-- how do I get people to take me seriously? But every time I see the clip again, I am reminded that it is one of the most brilliant, and most inspiring, moments of political confrontation that I have seen in my lifetime. It's such a perfect little concentration of all that is wrong with political discourse in our country right now... namely, that there is no "discourse." The Right caricatures and then lambasts the Left seriously, and the Left caricatures and lambasts the Right comedically. We all know who's been winning that battle for the last 6 years-- the question is, who's going to win the war?