Looking Up From the Gutter: Philosophy and Popular Culture

11 10 2007

Stephen T. Asma in The Chronicle Review

Philosophy has never had a good relationship with popular culture. The two domains seem like different planets, each with an atmosphere toxic to the other. Thales (625?-?547 BC), the first philosopher, is famous for being so out of touch with the mundane world that he once fell down a well because he was distracted by deep thought. Philosophy broods, analyzes, and tends toward the antisocial; pop culture celebrates, wallows, and tends toward the communal. Philosophy is for cynics, and pop culture is for bimbos.

But the recent trend in publishing, dominated by Open Court and Blackwell, has tried to undo those old stereotypes. Perhaps its chief architect, or hardest worker, is William Irwin, an associate professor of philosophy at King’s College, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Irwin was the series editor of Open Court’s “Popular Culture and Philosophy” from 2003 to 2007, generating more than 20 titles, including The Sopranos and Philosophy, Harry Potter and Philosophy, and The Beatles and Philosophy. Open Court’s series originated when the press’s editorial director, David Ramsay Steele, decided to follow up on the success of the one-off Seinfeld and Philosophy. The Open Court series is currently being edited by George Reisch, an instructor at Northwestern University’s School of Continuing Studies, and the ever-busy William Irwin has moved on to Blackwell, where he’s put seven new titles on the docket for 2007 alone in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series.

Philosophers, who devote much of their attention to remote texts, are seen by many as irretrievably elitist. But elitism isn’t always bad. Professional sprinters, for example, are an elite group, too, but nobody holds it against them.

More here.


The Historic Significance of Atlas Shrugged

10 10 2007
atlas shrugged

Robert Tracinski in Real Clear Politics

October 10 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Ayn Rand’s classic novel Atlas Shrugged, so in the coming week we can expect to see a flurry of articles about the novel–many of which will, unfortunately, offer highly inaccurate descriptions of its meaning and significance.

That’s a shame, because Atlas Shrugged is a novel that everyone ought to discover and grapple with, because it succeeds at something too few artists and intellectuals have had the courage to do.

The purpose of art and philosophy is to show us truths about human nature, about the nature of the world and our place in it. Philosophy names these truths explicitly, in literal terms; literature dramatizes these truths in concrete terms, revealing its insights through the actions and statements of the characters created by the novelist. A philosophical novel, like Atlas Shrugged, is supposed to do both of these things.

But too often both the philosophers and the artists have simply repeated or project their own prejudices and pre-conceived notions.

More here.

Francisco’s Money Speech

30 09 2007

Marking 50 years since Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Capitalism Magazine reprints an important speech from the book.

“So you think that money is the root of all evil?” said Francisco d’Anconia. “Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil?

“When you accept money in payment for your effort, you do so only on the conviction that you will exchange it for the product of the effort of others. It is not the moochers or the looters who give value to money. Not an ocean of tears not all the guns in the world can transform those pieces of paper in your wallet into the bread you will need to survive tomorrow. Those pieces of paper, which should have been gold, are a token of honor–your claim upon the energy of the men who produce. Your wallet is your statement of hope that somewhere in the world around you there are men who will not default on that moral principle which is the root of money, Is this what you consider evil?

More here.

Interview with Phillip Roth

29 09 2007

Warning – badly dubbed. Best listened to rather than watched.

Part 1

Part 2

Why is Philip Roth so great?

23 09 2007
philip roth

Stephen Amidon in The Sunday Times

Philip Roth is America’s greatest living novelist. His books are the most widely anticipated literary events on both sides of the Atlantic – no other writer working today mixes universal critical acclaim with such broad popularity. His latest book, Exit Ghost (his 28th), is due out next month, and is certain to be the most important of the season.

Roth was born in 1933 in Newark, New Jersey, the oldest child of Herman and Bessie Roth, first-generation Jewish-Americans. He graduated from high school at the age of 16 and went on to study with Saul Bellow at the University of Chicago. His debut novel, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), earned him the National Book Award – the first of many big prizes – but it wasn’t until the raunchy, hilarious Portnoy’s Complaint, in 1969, that he became a bestseller. Although always popular, Roth’s work underwent a resurgence during the 1990s, when, over an astonishing five-year period, he won all four of America’s leading literary prizes – for four different books.

One of the keys to his success is his ability to discuss the weightiest of topics – faith, marriage, family – while at the same time being the sexiest writer in the business. Ever since Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth’s work has been characterised by a feverish interest in sex that occasionally teeters on the edge of the pornographic. Yet his work also remains a highly serious discussion of man’s tenuous place in an increasingly hostile world. Like so many prophets before him, Roth sees man as a fallen creature. It’s just that he usually sees man as falling into bed.

More here.

A Kick in the Pants: Reintroducing Henry Miller

22 09 2007
henry miller 1940

Jim Knipfel in Context

“For a hundred years or more the world, our world, has been dying, and not one man, in these last hundred years or so, has been crazy enough to put a bomb up the asshole of creation and set it off.”

In 1930, one crazy man wrote those words, and some thirty-five years later, he detonated that bomb—at least in literary terms.

In June of 1965, Henry Miller was the author of the top five bestselling books in America. There was a reason for it, of course. A tidal wave of publicity accompanied the 1963 Supreme Court decision lifting the decades-old ban on Miller’s more controversial works, and now they were available (legally) for the first time. On the downside, those five books (Quiet Days in Clichy, The World of Sex, and the three volumes of The Rosy Crucifixion)— even more than Tropic of Cancer, whose 1961 publication led to the Supreme Court case—solidified the then-73 year-old Miller’s reputation as The King of Smut. It was a grossly undeserved reputation. In fact, in one of the many ironies of Miller’s career, a number of his books had long been available in the U.S., but those travelogues, essay collections, and character sketches had generated almost no interest among American readers. No, it was his notoriety as a pornographer that would stick with him long after his death in 1980.

More here.

Can anyone stop it? Global warming, the book review

21 09 2007

Bill McKibben in the New York Review of Books reviews

Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming by Bjørn Lomborg

Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger

What We Know About Climate Change by Kerry Emanuel


Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren edited by Joseph F.C. DiMento and Pamela Doughman

During the last year, momentum has finally begun to build for taking action against global warming by putting limits on carbon emissions and then reducing them. Driven by ever-more-dire scientific reports, Congress has, for the first time, begun debating ambitious targets for carbon reduction. Al Gore, in his recent Live Earth concerts, announced that he will work to see an international treaty signed by the end of 2009. Even President Bush has recently reversed his previous opposition and summoned the leaders of all the top carbon-emitting countries to a series of conferences designed to yield some form of limits on CO2.

The authors of the first two books under review have some doubts about a strategy that emphasizes limits on carbon emissions, Lomborg for economic reasons and Nordhaus and Shellenberger for political ones. Since any transition away from fossil fuel is likely to be the dominant global project of the first half of the twenty-first century, it’s worth taking those qualms seriously.

More here.