Philosophy and the Interpretation of Pop CultureReview - Philosophy and the Interpretation of Pop Culture
by William Irwin and Jorge Gracia (Editors)
Rowman & Littlefield, 2006
Review by Rob Loftis, Ph.D.
Mar 25th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 13)

Books linking philosophy to pieces of popular culture have had a very high profile recently. In 2007 ten books were published with titles of the form "X and Philosophy" where the X is a TV show, musical act, or other bit of pop culture ephemera. If you work in academic philosophy you have probably also received solicitations to contribute to any of the five that are scheduled to come out in the first half of 2008, and the innumerable others that are heading down the pipeline.

The formula for these books was established by Bill Irwin, working first with Open Court Press and later moving his operation over to Blackwell. Irwin has now co-edited Philosophy and the Interpretation of Pop Culture, along with Jorge Gracia, who also edited Mel Gibson's Passion and Philosophy. Irwin and Gracia explicitly intend this new book to be a mirror image of the popular culture and philosophy books. Where those books try to interest fans of various parts of popular culture in philosophy, this book tries to interest academic philosophers in popular culture. Although the book targets academic philosophers, it is not aimed at any technical subdiscipline and is written in a lively and engaging style that would appeal to anyone with some background in philosophy.

The contributions to Philosophy and the Interpretation of Pop Culture primarily try to interest philosophers in popular culture by presenting examples of how consideration of popular culture can enrich philosophy. Only two essays are devoted to directly attempting to answer the question "how should philosophy engage with popular culture?" the first by Carolyn Korsmeyer and the second by Bill Irwin himself. Irwin's essay amounts to a manifesto for his popular culture and philosophy series. The formula for these books is simple: you take some standard lectures from an introductory level philosophy course and pour in as many references to the relevant piece of popular culture as you possibly can, like adding generous amounts of sugar to bitter medicine. When I contributed to the Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy volume from Blackwell, I received a style sheet that told me to mention Battlestar Galactica at least once on every page. The important thing about this approach is that you don't need to address the content of the piece of popular culture in any deep way. If you are writing about virtue ethics, and your work of popular culture is a TV show with a heroic main character, you can simply insert that character's name into a general discussion of moral exemplars. It matters little whether you are talking about the feminist icon Buffy Summers or Jack Bauer, crusader in the war on terror.

Irwin defends this approach from attacks on two sides. On the one hand, he is worried about old fashioned high-culture purists who feel that any mention of popular culture figures in the context of philosophy would cheapen the ideas of the great masters. On the other hand, he is worried about academics who find too much to like in popular culture and treat it as if it had more philosophical depth than it really does. The former worry seems unnecessary. Theodore Adorno and Alan Bloom are no longer with us, and there are no new guardians of classical learning interested in attacking popular culture from either the left or the right. Even the generation of academics that is now retiring grew up with television and rock and roll. Few out there are going to feel threatened by the parts of popular culture Irwin is mining.

Irwin's argument in the other direction is more timely. Irwin is adamant that "Studying popular culture as philosophy rather than using it for examples and communication would be abuse, at least abuse of philosophy" (56). When mining popular culture, all you need to do is drop the name as an example to illustrate your philosophical point. The consequences of delving deeper into popular culture would be to become like cultural studies, which often just amounts to "telling bad stories about (sometimes bad) stories" (ibid). In a footnote, he goes so far as to name names, citing the very successful collection Fighting the Forces: What's at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an example of how not to engage popular culture. In the note, he seems to endorse the criticisms of Buffy scholarship made by Michael Levine and Jay Schneider in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy volume. In their essay, Levine and Schneider argue that Buffy simply isn't as high quality a work as people think it is, and that the success of the show mostly comes from the girl-next-door sex appeal of the main character. They further explain that sex appeal using ideas from an essay Freud wrote in 1912 arguing that all men feel the need to debase objects of their sexual desire.

There are a lot of problems with this argument from Irwin. Fortunately, the other contributors to Philosophy and the Interpretation of Pop Culture provide the readers with the insights they need to refute it. I would like to mention one criticism that doesn't get mentioned: Eventually your audience will realize you are talking down to them. Anyone who buys an "X and Philosophy" book is going to be a pretty dedicated fan, if only because casual fans don't purchase that much ancillary merchandise. A dedicated fan of a band or TV show is going to be attracted to fandom for a particular reason, something that sets their show or their band apart from the others. If an "X and Philosophy" book doesn't address what the fans like about X, and instead simply mentions the name a lot, the fans will notice and feel insulted.

In Philosophy and the Interpretation of Pop Culture the chief opposition to Irwin's approach is articulated by the aesthetician Carolyn Korsmeyer, who has contributed to philosophical volumes on The Matrix and Buffy. Korsmeyer argues in her chapter that a television show can do philosophy. She defines philosophy "as a success term to refer to works demanding imaginative engagement that results in the recognition, and perhaps the acceptance, of a philosophical position" (31). She then compares the Buffy spin-off Angel and Simone de Beauvoir's Ethics of Ambiguity and argues that both succeed in bringing the audience to recognize the same existentialist ethic. This actually isn't too hard. The existentialist themes of Angel are quite explicit, to the extent that the titular character gives speeches espousing existentialist ideas. Actually existentialist themes are common in the work of series creator Joss Whedon, who in the audio commentary to the DVD collection of his short-lived show Firefly says he was heavily influenced by Sartre and Camus. Korsemeyer's essay gives a pretty dramatic refutation of Irwin's essay. It refutes his thesis by being precisely the sort of thing he says can't exist: a philosophically sophisticated treatment of a television show that takes the philosophical content of the show seriously.

Korsmeyer and Irwin provide the only two essays dedicated to the question of how philosophy should relate to popular culture. However three other essays provide insights that are useful for the debate. Paul Cantor, a Shakespeare scholar who has turned to writing books such as Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization, contributes a chapter entitled "Popular Culture and Spontaneous Order," in which he argues that the features of television that are commonly thought to make it a low medium are actually aesthetic advantages. TV shows are criticized for having their content dictated by market forces, for being the products of anonymous teams of writers and designers, and for having to improvise in the face of last-minute contingencies (like the lead actress announcing she's pregnant.) Cantor uses examples from the entire history of the arts in the west to remind us of the virtues of audience feedback, collaboration, and improvisation. None of what he says will be news to fans of Greek epic poetry, Elizabethan drama, 19th century novels, studio system films from the 30s and 40s, and pretty much all of jazz. Cantor's argument, unfortunately, still needs repeating, because far too many smart people have not gotten the message.

The other essays that assist in answering the question "How should philosophy relate to popular culture?" are Richard Shusterman's "Popular Art and Entertainment Value" and Ted Cohen's "Liking What's Good: Why Should We?" Rather than showing that popular art can rise to the quality of the arts prized by elites, these essays emphasize the value of casual entertainment in itself. Shusterman's essay is far more successful in this regard. He provides a very useful genealogy and analysis of the term "entertainment" and its cognates in European languages, as well as some interesting terms in Sanskrit and Japanese. More importantly, he argues that entertainment value is a form of intrinsic value, and that it shouldn't be denigrated because it is "merely" about pleasure. Cohen's effort is less successful. He writes in an enjoyable, conversational style, and I think we would all like to be relieved of the burden of having to like things that are labeled "good" by critics and other tastemakers, but the heart of his view is distressingly nihilistic. Really, he seems to be saying "I am a skeptic about almost any kind of judgment, not just aesthetic judgments. So really I can't give you any reason to prefer anything."

The remaining essays in this volume try to show how philosophy should relate to popular culture by example. They fall into two categories: (1) essays by aestheticians who have a big theory that needs to deal with possible counterexamples from popular culture and (2) essays that seem to be left over from an "X and Philosophy" book. As you might expect, the former are a lot more interesting. The standout essay is Noël Carroll's "On the Ties That Bind." Carroll's big theory is about the way audiences relate to characters, and this theory specifies that in popular fiction, we relate by sympathizing with them, rather than identifying with them or simulating their mental states. Sympathy here is technically defined as having pro-attitudes toward a character, rather than feeling what they feel. We root for the hero, but we do not put ourselves in her place. The quickest way to to do this in the stories from popular culture is to create a hero who can "command the audience's moral endorsement" (104). This theory must deal with the many examples of morally contemptible heroes in popular entertainment, like the mobster Tony Soprano. Carroll's solution, which he argues both here and in "Sympathy for the Devil" his contribution to The Sopranos and Philosophy, is to say that we root for the Tony Sopranos we see on TV because they are portrayed as less corrupt than everyone else in the cruel, fallen world they occupy. The other essays that belong in the same category as Carroll's is Theodore Gracyk's essay on allusion and Peter Hare's essay on Photography. Gracyk has a theory of allusion that must deal with potential counterexamples from popular art, and Hare has ideas about epistemology that must deal with the idea of "photographic realism." The other essays in this book cover movie versions of Dracula, children's literature, Batman, and Don McLean. They all could have gone into existing books like The Undead and Philosophy or Superheros and Philosophy, or books that are no doubt forthcoming, like Kids' Books and Philosophy or Drippy Singer-Songwriters of the 70s and Philosophy.

On the whole, the collection is fun. This book will be interesting to aestheticians and people who have been watching the popular culture and philosophy trend closely. Libraries with big holdings in philosophical aesthetics or popular culture studies will want to stock it. However the book is not as focused as I had hoped it would be. The stated goal of the volume was to get philosophers engaged in popular culture by showing how it can be done productively. All of the essays that succeed by that route were written by aestheticians. But aesthetics has been engaged with popular culture for a long time now. We don't see any leading by example here for how disciplines like ethics, metaphysics, or epistemology can engage with popular culture. The most interesting essays in the volume are the ones that deal closely with the metaphilosophical question of how philosophy should relate to popular culture. Underlying that issue is the question of how seriously philosophy should take popular culture. The essays here give powerful ammunition to both sides of the debate.

© 2008 Rob Loftis

Rob Loftis teaches philosophy at Lorain County Community College. His essay "Baltar the Tyrant?" appeared in Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy, from Blackwell Press.

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