Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Contest for the Biggest Geek in the World

I know I've posted on this topic previously, but here I go again.

I just received in my aptly designated junk email-box a Call for Papers from Open Court Press for yet another "Pop Culture and Philosophy" volume. This one is devoted to Dr. Who and Philosophy. Geeks of the world, opportunity knocks!

The email contends that "This is an opportunity for you to express your philosophical musings about your favorite Time Lord and popularize philosophy at the same time." Fuck you. These books do not popularize philosophy, they provide for inept and unaccomplished persons who somehow managed to find jobs teaching in philosophy departments a vanity outlet for their shabby, illiterate, and often philosophically incompetent output. What gets popularized, if anything, is not philosophy but an image of philosophy that's already quite popular according to which philosophy is trivial bullshit. And to think that there are some institutions which recognize this kind of activity as publication! It's CV padding, nothing more.

Luckily, these books are most often not read, but simply added to the owner's collection of pop-cultural memorabilia. Nonetheless: This series need to be fucking stopped.


Ben said...

I have never published in nor read such a volume, but I think if done well they could do what they claim to. Of course, the flood of such books actually on the market probably means they're just after a quick buck by cashing in on some pop culture fad.

Out of interest, what do you think of 'popular' philosophy without the tie-ins? (E.g. A C Grayling)

Anonymous said...

Damn, you mean actual philosophers write for those books? I always figured it was just, you know, jerk-offs. Uh, non-philosopher jerk-offs, I mean.

Anonymous said...

Well, uh, yeah, sure. But Doctor Who is one of the most brilliant shows ever. He fights creatures who feed on people's potential energy, after "killing" them by sending them into the past to live out their lives before they were sent back. And he sees the universe--or so he claims--as made up of temporal events that are either unchangeable or alterable. So, I mean, if any bit of pop culture goes well with philosophy, surely this must be it.

Maybe you just mean that philosophers shouldn't have anything to say about popular culture? Or, at least, that philosophers should never do anything cool with philosophy but should, instead, make sure they focus their thoughts exclusively on the Forms?
Are you convinced that the "image of philosophy" as "trivial bullshit" is somehow being spread by these books and not, say, by the Journal of Philosophy, Philosophical Studies, etc? Or even by small-minded bitching like this post?

Spiros said...


No doubt there could be a well-done book of this kind. Even about Dr. Who. But the books in both the Open Court and the Blackwell series tend to be as you suspect. In addition to the general philosophical incompetence that dominates the books, they're also filled with typographical and grammatical errors, as well as overall bad writing. It's clear that copy-editing and proofreading are optional. On every level, they tend to be bad as examples of philosophy.

Spiros said...

Anon @ 8:05:

It's true.

Spiros said...

Anon @ 8:51:

Surely your post is in jest-- a parody. I don't know how else to explain the intricately layered elements of foolishness the post contains: the defense of the philosophical content of Dr. Who, then the invalid inference and the false dilemma, to the throw-away reference to Plato... The bit about Journal of Philosophy and Phil Studies was the real tip off. I liked the culminating insult, too.

Nice try, though!

The Brooks Blog said...

You sure have made some nice friends, lately -- wow!

In any event, I know entirely why you don't like the series. The reason is simple: you privately wish to edit a David Lynch and Philosophy.

Now that I think of it, maybe I should do it... ;)

imipolex_g-unit said...

"And he sees the universe--or so he claims--as made up of temporal events that are either unchangeable or alterable. "

Wow! "Dr. Who Accepts the Law of Bivalence" will surely be more important and interesting than anything ever to grace the pages of J. Phil.

Spiros said...


Exactly! Dr. Who truly is "one of the most brilliant shows ever."

Spiros said...


Do it!

Rabbit said...

I read "The Simpsons and Philosophy". There was one interesting essay on a Marxist interpretation of the Simpsons, but a lot of the essays were predominantly testaments to the fact that these authors thought "The Simpsons" was a great show. Unfortunately, this sometimes amounted to quoting memorable episodes: 'Remember when Homer did X?'. And god knows what might justify this.

Spiros said...


Right-- the books serve to affirm the greatness or importance of their pop-culture subjects. There's rarely any philosophy being done at all. And that's why the books are mostly just collector's items-- they sit on a shelf (probably in plastic wrap) next to still-in-the-box action figures and autographed DVDs, etc.

And you're right: the *Atkins diet and Philosophy*, which I examined pretty carefully in a bookstore one evening, is embarrassingly bad on every front.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

There are some bright spots in the series, including essays written by actual important philosophers. Noel Carroll has an essay in *The Sopranos and Philosophy* which actually ties directly into his respected philosophical work in *The Philosophy of Mass Art* Basically, the Sopranos are a potential counter example for his theory of how we relate to characters in popular fiction.

(Also, the essays I have written for *Battlestar Galactica and Philosphy* and *Watchmen and Philosophy* are brilliant)

For nuanced criticism of the series I recommend John Shelton Lawrence in Philosophy now. I explained my problems with the series for metapyschology online.

Anonymous said...

Ok, same anonymous as at 8:51. And no, not writing entirely in jest, only partly. My point: if the claim is that the series overall sucks, then ok, so long as one recognizes some stuff in it isn't so bad. If the claim is that the series sucks in principle, then I just don't buy it. I think it's perfectly fine, and desirable, for philosophers to engage with popular culture. And Doctor Who is pretty much the intellectual high of popular culture, so those of you who can't see that there might be something interesting to say about it have, to be frank, your heads stuffed too far up your asses to be worth arguing with.

And I wasn't joking about J Phil or Phil Stud. Why should it look like a joke? The claim in the original post seemed to be that the writing in these books makes philosophy look like trivial bullshit. My point is that any layman (or laywoman) who picks up a typical philosophy journal is very likely to come--quite apart from any pop culture series--to the conclusion that philosophy is trivial bullshit. So if we're that worried about our public image, maybe we should try to produce some decent output that deals with pop culture (a la Zizek, perhaps?), instead of bitching about the--possibly well intentioned--people who do make the effort. If you think philosophy needs to be kept away from such filthy things as television, I'm guessing you must spend a lot of time looking at the kids today and clucking disapprovingly.

Anonymous said...

And imipolex: Does popular writing on philosophy need to be earth shattering for the philosophy community? Talk about false dilemmas.

Those of you who don't like the series: submit your own damn work to it and raise the quality if you can. Or sit around and whine. I guess the latter is easier.

Anonymous said...

Let's not just go for the easy targets-- there are plenty (PLEN-TEE!) of other sources of the philosophy-as-trivial-bullshit image, and a great number of them are publishing in much more respectable places.

That said, you just became my new favorite philosophy blog!

Mary said...

"Dr. Who" is one of those phenomena I know the name of but don't know the first thing about. But I scrolled down and saw the "Atkins Diet and Philosophy" book mentioned, and that leads me to conclude that this series is pretty useless.

Although I'm thinking now of all the South Floridians I've met who are or were on Atkins at some point, reading a book with the word "philosophy" in the title (or reading a book in general), and I'm shocked!

The Brooks Blog said...

As the world knows, I couldn't resist the call to write a brief chapter on my favourite Metallica song and album *Ride the Lightning*. Last December, I joked to my father while visiting BArnes and Noble that while I had three edited books (with a fourth out the next month) and a monograph out, the one book I had a part in that would be at the bookshop would be Metallica and Philosophy. I was right.

What is shocking is how many copies they sell -- I earned $400 for about 4,000 words.

For the record, while I *should* have tried to include a David Lynch and Philosophy book into the series, I did recommend -- spiros will love this -- *Rocky Horror and Philosophy* (although I wouldn't edit it). (Admit it everyone: you love Rocky Horror.) They decided not to run with it. Why? Not popular enough. Perhaps another reason to dislike the serious......?

Anonymous said...

"Perhaps another reason to dislike the serious......?"

ha ha... excellent Freudian slip...

Spiros said...

It's hard to know if all the ANONs are the same poster. In any case, we're losing sight of a key distinction between (1) "philosophical engagement with pop culture," (2) popularizing philosophy, and (3) popularizing philosophy by means of engaging philosophically with pop culture. Nothing in my original post pronounced on (1) or (2). Insofar as I pronounced on (3), it was within the context of commenting on a particular series of book that attempts this.

The claim, to repeat, is this: The essays contained in the books of *both* pop culture & philosophy series (Open Court and Blackwell) *tend* (n.b.) to be shoddy bullshit written (very poorly) by people who couldn't get their work past peer-review. So if these books are popularizing anything, it's poorly done philosophy.

Now, if you're inclined to think that philosophers should engage with popular culture and should popularize their discipline, I take it you should agree that these activities should be pursued in a responsible way. What should get popularized is *good* or at least *competent* philosophy. Ditto for the engagements with popular culture: they should be *philosophically* competent (at least) engagements. (I think that French's book about Westerns-- I forget the title... "Cowboy Philosophy," maybe-- is a good example of this kind of thing done well.)

As for JP and Phil Studies: the analogy is laughable because neither of these *professes* to be in the business of popularizing philosophy. Further, anyone who comes in off the street and picks up a major journal in philosophy (or in *any* established academic discipline) expecting to breeze through the articles contained there *should be* disappointed. Not all philosophy is for popular consumption, and that's a good thing, too.

Spiros said...


Rocky Horror. I hate it. I went to see it once many years ago at a midnight showing in NY. As you would expect, the place was crawling with the hardest-core fans. At several times in the film, I was scolded for not "participating" properly-- viz., for laughing at the "wrong' times.

imipolex_g-unit said...

Hey Anonymous!

No, it doesn't have to be earth-shattering. But it does have to be at least a notch or two above the utterly trivial.

One of the items on the short list of what's allegedly so great about Dr. Who is of the form "he believes that either P or not P". (Recall: "And he sees the universe--or so he claims--as made up of temporal events that are either unchangeable or alterable. ") Which, you know, you don't need to be a Time Lord to do.

Oh, and speaking of false dilemmas, here's yours:
"Those of you who don't like the series: submit your own damn work to it and raise the quality if you can. Or sit around and whine. I guess the latter is easier."

Suppose that I've taken ten seconds out of my day to say that Fox is a shitty TV station. Would you likewise recommend that I instead spend the next year or two developing my own TV show?

Also, would you follow your own advice and not whine about the comments on this blog post and instead create your own blog?

Spiros said...


Well put.

glaucon said...

I think the winner of the contest is the poor s.o.b. who was on the market this year because he was fired (asked to resign, I suppose) from his tenured position at a Christian college because a chapter he wrote in a recent book in this series espoused the wrong kind of theism. As my sainted Irish grandmother would say, that is some fucked up shit.

Spiros said...


Seriously? Details, please.

Glaucon said...


For real. I think it was a limited defense of "open theism" -- which is still frickin theism, after all. Hard to believe that a throw-away piece like that could cost you your job.

I put on Randy Newman's "God's Song" and thanked the nonexistent deity that I work in the secular sector...


Spiros said...



729 said...

With all this debate over the "X and Philosophy" series, I can't help but feel that so much of this energy is wasted when books like THIS ONE exist.

(I'm hoping this html goes through, *crosses fingers*)

729 said...


As my own Irish grandmother would have said: Those are some twisted shenanigans.


Say hello to your brother for me. I hope he's happy.

Glaucon said...


I shall pass along your greetings. He's still not 729 times happier than the seemingly just but unjust person, but he's getting there.

Perhaps I should take a page from grammy's book and employ a shilelagh in the classroom...


Anonymous said...


You're right. The ability to see temporal events as either alterable or unalterable is not very impressive at all, if the sentence is taken out of context, deprived of content, and interpreted in terms of its bare logical structure. And if that's how you normally communicate, I'm sure you spend many wonderful nights conversing with your Turing machines.

As a matter of fact, I do have a blog. A quite popular one. But since the owner of this blog is posting anonymously, I am criticizing anonymously.

The dichotomy isn't so false. No, you don't need to develop your own TV show to be able to bitch about Fox. On the other hand, submitting entries to the X and Phil series is pretty easy, and someone dissatisfied with the series might well consider trying to raise the quality. After all, obviously if the submissions suck, the series will suck. That doesn't necessarily mean the series itself is a bad idea.

As for the original concern--that people, heaven forbid, might be using chapters in these books to pad their CVs--horrors! Some departments might like that because they want teachers who can talk to students about pop philosophy. Most departments, I suspect, are more likely to hold a chapter in one of these books against an applicant on the grounds that this isn't "serious philosophy."

imipolex g-unit said...

I take it that the remark about my Turing machines was a sly insinuation that I am a nerd. That's mighty rich coming from someone who holds Dr. Who to be the height of popular culture (and probably eats boogers).

Spiros said...


Are you *sure* you're not posting as a way to make a kind of joke?

Instead of continuing to tar the philosophical characters of the people you're responding to with the standard fare of hackneyed caricatures of a style of philosophy you happen to not appreciate, why not explain how imipolex has taken a claim in your earlier post "out of context" and deprived it of content? Your claim, you will recall, is this:

"And he sees the universe--or so he claims--as made up of temporal events that are either unchangeable or alterable."

Sounds utterly trivial to me in exactly the way imipolex says. So what has imipolex missed? What's the context that makes this non-trivial? Perhaps by "context" you mean "that which I meant to say, but didn't"??

Santa said...

@ Anon: Is your exhuberance over Dr. Who as "one of the most brilliant shows ever!" one of those parodies on a scale of Talladega Nights where Ricky Bobby champions the cinematic merits of "The Highlander" as the best movie ever?

I like budget b-movie camp and have been champion of trying to get good opo philosophy out to the general public, but even I can't get behind a Dr. Who tome. It will be a cluster fuck on a par with the "Dharma of Star Wars" which being a geek and Bhudda fan, I needed to own and read to see if it could be good.

master of puppies said...

Sometimes I think that a philosophy blog provides for some unaccomplished person who somehow managed to find a job teaching in philosophy departments a vanity outlet for their shabby, illiterate, and often philosophically incompetent output. Then I think to myself "Wait a second. I have no idea since I haven't read their published work." And then I remind myself that it doesn't really matter since it's so amusing and satisfying to simply viciously insult those people and their blogs.

english jerk said...

As far as I can see, the following are the basic kinds of arguments in favor of these Mass Culture and Philosophy books: (1) they are good for philosophy because they either (a) improve ordinary people’s understanding of academic philosophy’s methods and concerns, or (b) draw people to the study of philosophy, either avocationally or professionally. (2) They are valuable themselves as works of scholarship in philosophy either because (a) the mass culture artifacts under consideration themselves contain, express, or embody non-trivial philosophical arguments that are not available elsewhere in the scholarly literature, or (b) the mass culture artifacts under consideration provide examples that enable philosophers to formulate non-trivial philosophical arguments that are not available elsewhere in the scholarly literature.

Both (1a) and (1b) are empirical arguments, and are empty unless they are substantiated by adequate empirical evidence. I doubt very much that books of this sort have either of the effects cited, but my beliefs on that score are groundless speculations and hence are worth nothing at all.

(2a) and (2b) seem like more serious contenders, and, since neither one is strictly empirical, they are more open to conceptual or quasi-conceptual investigation. (2a) either has to treat the artifacts as themselves making philosophical arguments that meet scholarly standards or as implying some such argument that a philosopher can bring out. The former seems a bit more plausible if one is talking about Proust or Wordsworth, but hardly so with Dr. Who: surely no-one thinks that the dialogue in Dr. Who or The Matrix is actually publishable in, say, The Philosophical Review. The latter it seems to me renders the artifact superfluous. Why not just go straight to making the argument rather than wasting time trying to show that it is implied by an episode of The Simpsons? A similar problem arises with (2b). It would seem philosophically unwise to restrict the examples one employs to a single source, however useful the examples it provides. But even if such a restriction were in some way philosophically desirable, it still makes the mass culture artifact purely instrumental to an independent philosophical argument, in which case again there’s no reason to construct a Mass Culture and Philosophy book rather than a plain old philosophy book.

One final thing I’d like to note is that the study of mass culture in English departments—and we’ve been swarmed with the stuff in recent years—has not generally turned up much of interest. Either scholars attempt to apply the same interpretive procedures to Britney Spears that they were trained to apply to Wordsworth and they discover (what should never have surprised them) that there isn’t really much to say; or they end up indulging in a kind of loose sociology in which Britney Spears becomes a symptom of some such numinous entity as the ‘cultural totality.’ All of which is just to say that, based on my acquaintance with the corresponding scholarship in my discipline, I’d encourage philosophers to shun these books, which represent not merely shoddy scholarship but the commodification of a domain of inquiry that ought not be driven by market forces.

Spiros said...

English jerk:

Nicely done. I myself tend to think that the series is driven simply by the commercial aspects of the enterprise. The books themselves hardly ever get read (Cf. Frankfurt's *On Bullshit*, which I'd guess has hardly been read despite the number of copies sold); they exist simply to add to the fan's merch collection. So they sit in display cases, wrapped in plastic, waiting for (commercial) value to accrue.

Yet the entire enterprise is sold to the academics as a way to make their discipline relevant. Nonsense. The way to make philosophy relevant is to do it well.

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