Sunday, 27 September 2009

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Staking Out My Position

Disclaimer: It's not so smart on my part to dismiss a branch of Philosophy, and there are people out there with more philosophical knowledge who could set me straight on a bunch of things, but these are my two cents. Comments and criticisms, as ever are welcome.

I'm going to start with a synopsised summary of analytic and continental philosophy taken from wikipedia:

Analytic philosophy is a term for a style of philosophy that may be characterised by an emphasis on clarity and argument. It often incorporates analysis of language, and a respect for the natural sciences. It is committed to the idea that the object of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts, and also that philosophy should be continuous with those of the natural sciences. Key names would include Wittgenstein, John Searle, Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker.

Continental philosophy includes movements such as phenomenology, existentialism, structuralism and post-structuralism (don't worry if you don't know what they are). Philosophers who subscribe to this approach are said to generally reject scientism, the view that the natural sciences are the best or most accurate way of understanding all phenomena.

From the early 20th century until the 1960s, continental philosophers were only intermittently discussed in British and American universities. However, with post-modernism (a continental idea) in the 1970s and 1980s, university departments in film, literature and the fine arts have increasingly incorporated ideas from continental philosophers into their curricula.

At least, this is how it's characterised in wikipedia. I've got a bunch of other opinions on how one can characterize continental philosophy that aren't so charitable. But the fact that it rejects science as a means to understand phenomena is probably a good starting point.

Here are two short clips. The first is of an analytic philosopher, Steven Pinker who discusses free will (ignore the text pop-ups and the Dawkins bit at the end):

And the second is Slavoj Zizek discussing the Universe (he's continental):

In both cases, I tried to find something brief, but long enough for you to get the flavor of their approaches.

OK. Now, now you'll be forgiven if you find Zizek interesting and charismatic. But read the following extract from Searle in a comment he made about Derrida and see if Zizek also fits Searle's description: "anyone who reads [Derrida's] texts with an open mind is likely to be struck by the same phenomena that initially surprised me: the low level of philosophical argumentation, the deliberate obscurantism of the prose, the wildly exaggerated claims, and the constant striving to give the appearance of profundity by making claims that seem paradoxical, but under analysis often turn out to be silly or trivial."

Derrida responded by saying that Searle had misunderstood him, Searle (and others) responded back by saying that this is a long-running excuse for his bullshit (though he didn't phrase it like that)

Since I don't have the patience to make this blog flow more smoothly, I'm just going to put all my thoughts into a series of bullet points. So this is...

  • Continental philosophy rests on the assumption that the more difficult an idea is to understand, the greater the reward will be when you do finally grasp it. Even if the mind 'rewards' itself when a difficult concept is grasped, that's not the same as being enlightened with a profound truth
  • Using specialist terms and thinking in novel, counter-intuitive ways does not elevate your thoughts above those of everyday people. It's more difficult (and ultimately more useful) to use the same language and framework of thought as everyone else, and still say something insightful
  • Some continental person responded to Pinker's clip on youtube and said the following: "Freewill is an IDEALIZATION of our mental faculties. Moral theory requires that, much like how mathematics has figures such as perfect 2-D circles which could not possibly exist in reality." That's what I'm talking about - total cobblers. It's not even a coherent sentence
  • I heard the continental accusation of science as being "bougeois". Whoever thinks that is a big fat loser
  • Continental philosophy has a powerful aroma of name-dropping and the snooty "Europeans are smarter than English speakers" attitude. Check a list of continental names some time - they are great to drop into a conversation (e.g. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre)
  • Zizek is colourful, animated and has a charming speech impediment. His video is hard to understand, yet somehow seems clever and internally consistent. So one comes away feeling like there is profound truth and wisdom in there, but one also has to keep watching it over and over to properly grasp if there is actually anything meaningful. I've not figured it out yet, and I've watched this clip a few times. Pinker, on the other hand, not only did I enjoy the first time but I understood it too
  • Continental philosophy is far more responsible than analytic philosophy for making most people feel like their not brainy enough to have anything to do with Philosophy

  • Continental Philosophers tend to have fertile minds and be well read. It fuels creative thought. If it could be a branch of the arts, on some level this might not be so bad. But to claim that it's more connected to the world than analytic philosophy is a bad idea. Aesthetics should be difficult to grasp, but thought should be clear and articulate. That's not dogmatism, it's sense
  • The ideas are sometimes interesting. But continental philosophy subordinates explaining phenomena in place of being interesting. There is an intuitive feeling that we should resist common assumptions and accepted wisdom, and also that we should develop new terms and use words in a different way. I agree with that stuff, but it can, and has been taken too far by continental philosophers - any Lacan clip would prove my point on this one better than the Zizek clip
  • I do sometimes enjoy listening to philosophers of the continental strain and occasionally feel enriched after contemplating them. I like this clip of Derrida discussing love, for example. But there are far more ideas that fun to believe, or fun to try to understand, but little more

So there you go, that's my feeling. Hit me!

Monday, 14 September 2009

Small, private thoughts

This is kinda frivolous, but I wanted to share it because I've been thinking it for years and never told anyone. Plus I never actually put these two pictures next to each other.

I think that the woman on the left from The Mamas and the Papas:

was kinda pulling the same pose as Henry 8th:

Friday, 4 September 2009

Jews, Nazis and Tarantino

I went to see Inglorious Basterds with some amount of apprehension. I’d heard that Eli Roth said that the film is a “Jewish wet dream” because we see a team of Jewish soldiers brutally kill lots and lots of Nazis. The level of idiocy on Roth’s part is mind-boggling. Even if there is a part of the human psyche that wants revenge, from Jews or anyone else, why watch a movie that indulges such negative, destructive impulses? Are Jews supposed to feel appeased somehow, watching a movie with people pretending to kill other people who are pretending to be Nazis? Think of it as a question of what kind of stories we need to tell ourselves. Movies provide cultures with a working-through of ideas and feelings. The only thing I can imagine this film will provide us with is stoking the flame amongst Neo-Nazis that Hitler should have ‘finished the job’, and that Jews are 'just as bad', and are capable of the same level of savagery (Neo-Nazis will inevitably be interested in seeing the film), and it will also invite the delightful comparison that gets banded around, whereby Jews are behaving like Nazis. This comparison comes up every once in a while from liberals, Jews and anti-semites alike.

A digression: are Israelis behaving like Nazis? No. They are insofar as Palestinians are treated like second-class citizens, just as Jews were in Nazi-occupied areas before they were sent to death camps. But it’s a bogus comparison because a few more conditions would need to be comparable. For instance:

• Palestinians would need to be sent to death camps
• Israel would need to Invade Syria, Egypt and other surrounding countries
• There would need to be have been terrorist Jews killing German civilians in the 30s and 40s

If these things were happening, the comparison might have merit. Instead, we have impoverished Palestinians retaliating by firing rockets into Israel, prompting Israelis to elect politicians who are going to come down hard on Palestinians, and the whole thing winds up in a big ugly cycle. I imagine most Palestinians are caught in the middle between Palestinians terrorists and heavy-handed Israeli soldiers. Dreadful.

Anyway: it’s a lousy comparison, and I think people enjoy saying that Israelis are acting like Nazis because irony is appealing, and people get a little buzz out of being provocative when they think their entitled to be.

But back to the movie, and back to Tarantino. Something that bothered me about the Kill Bill movies is that they spent too much time contemplating themselves. I realize that that was the point of those movies – small incidental scenes turn into 10 minute sequences (walking into a nightclub, or a sword being ceremoniously given away), but the whole thing just seemed in awe of itself. Inglorious Basterds seemed happy just to get on with the story (with the exception of a 5-minute lipstick application scene). More conventional on Tarantino’s part, but a welcome return to commonplace convention. He did remain consistent with his other work by having monologues in which we are invited to reconsider something we’ve always taken for granted. In this case, it’s why we have a bigger problem with rats than we have with squirrels (previously, he’s covered a new understanding of Superman, what they call the Big Mac in France, what the song Like a Virgin is really about).

He also follows his earlier trademark-thing by citing movies and filmmakers he’s interested in – Leni Riefenstahl gets name-dropped (a famous Nazi-Propaganda filmmaker), Pabst and David O Selznik gets mentioned too. This is just part of his ‘wink at the camera’ thing where he recommends films to fans who want to look up bits of film history. Shogun Asassin gets menitoned in Kill Bill, and I’m sure there’s a reference to some 70s action movie that gets mentioned in Death Proof. Well, I kinda like the ‘lets celebrate cinema’ thing in movies. Nanni Moretti does that too and it’s always cool. Godard did it as well of course (though he’s not a fan of Tarantino, incidentally). Somehow, in Tarantino’s hands citing film history is starting to feel a little bit tired.

Another criticism: while Inglorious Basterds was about 2hrs 30, it still felt like there were too many threads and characters that weren’t given space to breathe. As a result, I wasn’t really in the zone during the climax. Perhaps Tarantino should have split this movie into a 12-part mini-series as he said he considered doing. If he had, it may have been the masterpiece he claimed it to be.

In spite of my criticisms, I did come away from Inglorious Basterds feeling like it might be his most interesting work. Whether it’s his best, I’ll not comment because I try not to be in the business of evaluating stuff too much. But it did get my brain going more than any of his other works. I found the very first scene very compelling and affecting indeed, and there is a scene in an underground bar which plays out beautifully. Despite what some critis said, I didn’t think the scenes played out for too long at all. They played out nicely, and Tarantino found a new way of using time rather than his usual *blam blam blam* pacing.

In conclusion then: Inglorious Basterds is a socially irresponsible movie (though hopefully ultimately innocuous, like most art), but it picks up on a bunch of Tarantino-esque tropes and is compelling to watch, despite a bunch of shortcomings. Also, comparing Jews or Israelis to Nazis is stupid.

There you go.