SOMETIMES IT’S EASY to dismiss a kids’ movie. After all, films featuring cute animated talking animals voiced by not-exactly-kid-friendly actors are easy to not take too seriously.
Existential dread isn’t exactly the kind of subject matter suited for a film geared towards the pre-school set.
But every once in awhile a kids movie goes and gets all philosophical on everybody.
Something you wouldn’t expect in a movie about a talking pig.
Aristotle wrote that all beings act according to their nature.
Aristotle calls it our characteristic function.
Aristotle says human characteristic function is the use of reason in accordance with virtue
What is the function of man? For as the goodness and the excellence of a piper or a sculptor, or the practiser of any art, and generally of those who have any function assigned to him by nature? Nay, surely as his several members, eye and hand and foot, plainly have each his own function, so we must suppose that man has some function over and above all these
(Man’s function then being, as we say, a kind of life — that is to say, exercise of his faculties and action of various kinds with reason — the good man’s function is to do this well and beautifully [or nobly]. But the function of anything is done well when it is done in accordance with the proper excellence of that thing.) Nicomachean Ethics, I 7.
Dogs, cats, bumblebees, frogs – According to Aristotle, nature not only designs a purpose for all beings, but also it is unnatural to deviate from that being’s designated purpose.
A fish’s characteristic function is to swim in water.
A bee’s characteristic function is to pollinate flowers.
A cat’s characteristic function is to be an asshole.
Aristotle states that thing’s characteristic activity (whoops, function), can be performed well or performed poorly.
Not only does a species have an characteristic function, but individuals do as well.
In humans, we can determine one’s characteristic function by observing one’s natural inclination, that is, your characteristic function is what you’re good at:
Mariah Carey’s characteristic function is to sing.
Rembrandt’s was to paint.
Mine is philosophy because frankly, I’m not good at doing anything else.
Aristotle attempts to define the Good in terms of characteristic function.
And by the capital “G” Good, Aristotle means Eudaimonia.
Loosely translated, eudemonia means “flourishing”.
Wait – I think I’m straying off topic. I was talking about characteristic function.
If you want to read all about eudemonia read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. You don’t even have to pay for it. It’s all over the internet in print and audiobook. FOR FREE.
Now, I’d like to think that I’m too old for kids’ movies, but truth be told, I’m not. I’d rather watch Daffy Duck’s Fantastic Island over The Seventh Seal any day of the week.
For the record, I think Daffy Duck’s Fantastic Island is a very philosophical movie.
The reason why, I think, I’d rather watch a kids’ movie is because unlike movies made for adults, where philosophical subtext is often handled with the subtlety of a pillaging berserker wielding a cudgel, kid-oriented entertainment can’t really overwhelm its target audience with deeper meaning.
Because they’re kids.
And most kids don’t know Hegel.
At least l hope most kids don’t know Hegel.
But kids do know about talking pigs.
This talking pig in particular.
The movie Babe, directed by Chris Noonan, based on the book The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith, and adapted for the screen by George Miller (yes, the guy who wrote Mad Max!) is the story of a pig… named Babe.
Orphaned as a piglet, adopted by Farmer Hoggett, and raised by Hoggett’s sheep herding dogs, Babe is condemned to the short (and inevitably tragic) life of a pig: to one day become the farmer’s next meal.
Babe, however, wants more for his life than to become Christmas dinner.
Babe wants to herd sheep.
Naturally, Babe’s efforts to redefine his role on the farm meets with opposition from the other farm animals (including his adopted canine family), and Farmer Hoggett, who does not believe that a pig is capable of herding sheep.
The farmer’s cat explains to the would-be sheep pig nature’s rules of life on the farm – that each farm animal has a purpose – and that pigs have no purpose.
The cat says this because cats are assholes.
It’s their characteristic function.
The small pig is not deterred by the cat or anyone else on the farm. He ignores the naysayers and strives to prove that a pig can indeed herd sheep. Babe follows his heart even though everyone around him, including Farmer Hoggett, doubts that he can defy the laws of nature.
Now, if we were following Aristotle, we might have been on the side of the cat; pigs serve no purpose other than to get fat and feed the farmer and his family.
Luckily for the piglet (and the audience), Babe isn’t Aristotilean; he refuses to allow nature or the expectations of others to define his place in the world.
That’s downright existential.
The late 19th – 20th century philosophy of Existentialism, most notably associated with French philosophers Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus, and the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger (and also associated with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, who is credited with being the first Existentialist philosopher).
According to the dictionary,
“Existentialism is the name given to the branch of philosophy which is concerned with the meaning of human existence – its aims, its significance and overall purpose – and the freedom and creative response to life made by individuals.”
If you’re in the mood to think philosophically, Babe can be a philosophical gateway to thinking about more than a couple of philosophical topics (brush up on your Peter Singer ‘cause you gonna be discussing animal rights). It’s pretty much undeniable that the philosophical undertone of the film’s major theme is essentially existentialist. Babe rejects the idea of purpose assigned by biology and society. He defines his own purpose.
His purpose is to herd sheep.
And more importantly, he’s good at it.
The existentialist French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote
Life has no meaning a priori… it is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that we choose.
Babe finds meaning in herding sheep. It’s almost like sheep herding is his characteristic function.
Take that Aristotle!
If Babe was a practicing existentialist, he would say that existence preceded his essence.
What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be.
Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.
Babe did have a purpose. One that he determined for himself. Babe proves that he is capable of doing something other than his biological destiny.
All’s well that ends well, right?
Well, not quite.
Of course, with all things philosophical, there’s a glitch.
Existentialists hold that our true essence isn’t assigned to us by society or by our biology and we assign meaning to ourselves – we create our own meaning, purpose, and values in life. This means we are completely responsible for who we become.
Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.
See how Sartre says we’re “condemned to be free”? We’re condemned, Sartre says, because without God or biology to determine the meaning of our lives, we are solely responsible for creating meaning. This can be rather disorienting.
Lucky for us, we’re watching a kid’s movie. Babe is spared the agony of experiencing the existential dread of complete freedom. Babe‘s mind is as unencumbered as a pig satisfied.
He is completely happy and at ease once he becomes what he wants to be.
SO… we’re full of tears of happiness, cheers, and assumptions of lives lived happily ever after by the time the barn mice tell us we’re reached “The End”.
And we’ve just been given our first big lesson in existentialism.
There was, however, the inevitable follow up, Babe: Pig in the City.
I’m just going to leave it at that**.
** Babe: Pig in the City was criticized at the time of it’s initial release for being a darker, less family-friendly film. the film currently holds a 62% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is darker than its predecessor, however, it’s arguable that the film, directed by George Miller, is also a more philosophically developed film. The late film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel both praised the film, with Siskel naming the movie one of the best films of 1998.
You’re born alone, and you’ll die alone, and the world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one. – Don Draper, Mad Men.
I used to feel embarrassed to tell people that I watch television.
I’m not anymore.
I watch TV. A lot.
You see, when you hang around with philosophy types, the phrase you’ll most often hear is something like, “I don’t even own a TV” or “I only watch PBS”. Stuff like TV is a distraction or there’s better things to do with one’s brain.
Like reading Kant or Bertrand Russell.
Apparently philosophers aren’t too keen on the TV.
I guess that’s not a bad thing.
But I ain’t like that.
Let me say this clearly so that I‘m not misunderstood: I not only WATCH television, I ENJOY watching television.
I own a TV. Actually, more than one. I have cable. I watch Ridiculousness. I get bummed out when my favorite tattoo artist is eliminated on Ink Master. I take the judges’ critiques of my favorite drag queen personally when I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race.
I make sure to never miss an episode of Master Chef, Project Runway, The Walking Dead, Bar Rescue and Chopped.
I watch Cinemax After Dark.
I DVR Taxicab Confessions.
And yes, I know Taxicab Confessions airs on HBO not Cinemax.
Or, as it’s also known – Skinemax.
Let me tell you something: even though I am an unrepentant TV watcher, I still feel a bit dirty after spending an afternoon binge watching Firefly.
For the twentieth weekend in a row.
I think it has something to do with the fact that my excessive TV watching has afforded me enough time to occasionally chit chat with philosophers.
The deficit of philosophical chat time means my philosophical skills aren’t quite up to par.
Actually, my skills kind of suck.
This has not done well for my self-esteem.
You see, even if you don’t feel bad enough about yourself you’ll invariably end up feeling like a total flunkie once you talk to a philosopher.
Every time I talk to a philosopher, I inevitably leave the conversation feeling bad. Even when I’m engaged in small talk with a philosopher, his “trivial” conversation almost always involves mind-numbing discussions of mind-body dualism or Hegel.
Philosophers really dig talking about Hegel.
This is how any conversation I have with a philosopher goes: I stand, eyes glazing over, while the (real) philosopher talks about something written by Frege or Leibniz- something that I have not a clue about. I stand there; looking at my feet, hoping that the philosopher will forget I’m there or move on to someone smarter else after I attempt to evade the subject by telling a joke. But it never works. My philosophical ignorance is revealed.
This is what most of my trivial conversations are about:
I’d much rather talk about June Thompson’s “forklift foot” or about the lady with the dead chickens on Hoarders.
You know what episode I’m talking about.
I can never admit to a philosopher that I spend more time in front of a TV set than I spend with my nose deep in the pages of a major philosophical treatise.
I could tell you everything there is to know about RuPaul’s guest spot on Walker Texas Ranger or name the number of times Sheldon Cooper has said the word “Bazinga” on Big Bang Theory, but I know virtually nothing about John Locke or his philosophy.
When it comes to philosophy my mind is a tabula rasa – a blank slate.
Which is kind of appropriate considering Locke’s philosophy.
It’s all because I spend most of my waking hours watching television instead of reading philosophy.
I can’t tell you who this is
But I can certainly tell you who this is
Or what TV show made this guy famous
Well, somewhat famous.
By the way, that first picture is of the philosopher, Phillipa Foot.
I know that’s Phillipa Foot because Google told me that’s her.
My unfortunate reality is that no matter how much philosophy I read every conversation I’ve ever had with a philosopher is always accompanied by an overwhelming sense of dumb.
A special kind of dumb.
I always feel like at the end of every philosophical conversation that there’s going to be a test.
A test I’m going to fail.
There’s something that these philosophers don’t know, though. They don’t watch TV so they have no idea. This is what they don‘t know: TV can teach you things. Lots of things.
I’ve written this before and I’ll say it ‘til the day I die – television is one of the best places to learn philosophy. You don’t have to watch the high-brow stuff, either. You don’t have to spend your evenings watching PBS or some British something-rather starring Dame Maggie Smith.
You can watch anything. Anything.
The ideas – the philosophy – it’s in there.
I really mean that. You can watch Hobbes’ state of nature play out in an episode of Survivor. You can find Schopenhauer in an episode of Modern Family. Descartes in an episode of Star Trek.
There’s Socrates in The Walking Dead.
I’m kidding about that finding Schopenhauer in Modern Family thing. I wouldn’t know if that’s true or not. I’ve never seen the show.
And, as I discovered, if you watch enough episodes, you’ll find that there’s plenty philosophy to be found in Mad Men.
Fans of the show already know that Mad Men, created by Matthew Weiner, debuted in July 2007 on the basic cable network AMC (American Music Classics). The series, now going into its sixth and final season, averages 2.5 million viewers per episode.
That’s pretty good numbers for a basic cable TV show.
Until you consider AMC’s zombie drama The Walking Dead.
That show averages 13 million viewers an episode.
Ok. I admit it, I’m a little late to this Mad Men thing. I started watching the show mid-way during season four.
By then, Peggy had already had her baby.
Roger was on marriage number two.
The Lucky Strike guy had gotten Sal fired.
Don was already divorced from Betty and had his eye on Megan.
Who the hell is Anna Draper???
But it’s not because I hadn’t heard of the show.
I didn’t watch it on principle.
You see, Mad Men was on every TV critic’s top ten list.
It was the one show whose poop didn’t stink.
So naturally, now that I’m a fan, I was obligated to do this:
Naturally, the hater pop culture dismissing-philosopher inside me immediately disliked (without watching) the show and would not spend a moment of my time watching a show loved by the non-philosophically-inclined masses.
As it turns out I was wrong.
But then …..
Sometimes enjoying TV makes you change your mind about things.
From Sterling Cooper boss Bert Cooper’s love of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism to Betty Draper’s philosophy of femininity, the entire show is soaking in philosophy.
Fortunately for us, we’re not required to watch all seven seasons of Mad Men or contemplate the philosophical doings of the entire cast of characters to get a grasp of the philosophy in Mad Men. You really need only to look at the first season of the show and specifically at only one character: the power-drinking, cigarette smoking, philandering, identity-stealing, Army-deserting, bad dad, anti-hero, Don Draper.
I guess you could spend a little bit of time watching Peggy Olsen.
That whole hidden pregnancy thing was mildly interesting.
In the season 1 (one) episode titled “Hobo Code”, Don Draper awakens his young son Bobby from a sound sleep and tells the boy to ask him anything. The boy asks his father why lightning bugs light up. Don tells his son that he doesn’t know.
Don doesn’t know the answer and does not pretend to know.
Don vows that he will never lie to his son.
We all know that’s a lie.
This is not Don Draper’s first lie. It won’t be Don Draper’s last.
At this point the audience realizes that Don Draper may be the worst man TV dad in television history.
You see, Don Draper’s entire existence is a lie.
Don Draper isn’t really Don Draper at all. Don Draper is really Dick Whitman, the self-described “whore child” who stole the identity of fellow soldier, Don Draper, by switching dog tags with Draper after (the real) Don Draper is mortally wounded in an explosion in Korea.
An explosion totally caused by Dick Whitman, by the way.
This is all morally reprehensible enough, but, as we all know, there’s a moral theory that will justify just about anything we do. Luckily for the man formerly known as Richard Whitman, the man currently known as Don Draper finds employment with an adherent of one such theory.
The man is Bert Cooper. The theory is OBJECTIVISM.
The creator of objectivism, like Don Draper, also changed her name.
Her parents knew her as Alisa Z. Rosenbaum.
The world knows her as Ayn Rand.
Ayn Rand is mentioned no fewer than three times in season one.
Draper’s boss, Ayn Rand-loving Bert Cooper, has a bookshelf in his office that looks like this:
THIS IS BERT COOPER TALKING ABOUT AYN RAND
When Cooper is informed of Draper’s deception, Bert Cooper’s reaction is not moral outrage that Draper is a deserter and identity thief, but “who cares?”
(Ok, this may need explaining: Dick Whitman’s long-lost (or is it abandoned?) kid brother, Adam, discovers that Dick has been living in New York as Don Draper. Adam sends a package of old photographs to Dick/Don that is intercepted by Peter (“Humps”) Campbell, a particularly devious and overly ambitious fellow who works with Don and who very much wants Don’s job. Campbell decides that the best way to Draper’s job is through blackmail and so Campbell threatens to reveal Draper’s secret if Draper does not appoint him to head of accounts. When Peter tells Bert Cooper that Don Draper is not who he says that he is but is actually Dick Whitman, Cooper responds to Campbell’s revelation with “who cares?”)
What Pete Campbell doesn’t realize is that Bert Cooper’s failure to gin up a sense of moral disgust at Don Draper’s behavior has everything to do with his fondness for the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
What Pete Campbell fails to realize is that he would have saved himself from embarrassment if he had just made himself aware of Rand’s philosophy, based on the virtue of selfishness.
This doesn’t turn out too well for Pete.
You see, long before Dick Whitman had become Don Draper or had met Bert Cooper or heard of Ayn Rand, Dick Whitman/Don Draper was already a well-seasoned adherent of Rand’s virtue of selfishness. Dick Whitman didn’t consider what effect his actions in Korea would have on his brother Adam, or about the family of Don Draper or about Draper himself, with whom Dick swaps ID tags when Draper is mortally wounded.
Don Draper’s interest in maintaining his new identity (and his secret) means Don has to not care. Don can’t be concerned with the affairs of others (particularly those who potentially can reveal Don’s true identity) because to do so would interfere with his mission to live life as far away from the life of Dick Whitman as possible.
Don Draper, formerly known as Dick Whitman, acts according to his own self-interests.
Don Draper’s motivation is pure selfishness.
This is why Don offers his brother Adam five thousand dollars in exchange for Adam‘s silence and a promise to never return to New York City.
Don Draper isn’t morally invested in the effect of his adulterous affairs on his wife Betty or for Betty’s feelings (in general) when he talks to her therapist without her knowledge or consent.
Because he’s selfish.
…or it could be because Don is an alcoholic.
When Dick/Don propositions his mistress to run away with him ( actually mistresses, Don carries on with with as many as two women in season one), he does not consider the effect that abandoning his family will have on his children.
In fact, Don doesn’t think about that until he is reminded that leaving would be devastating to the children.
By one of his mistresses, no less.
Hint: it’s because Don is selfish.
Without ever having read it, Don Draper personal morality runs pretty much according to the philosophy of this book:
Whoops. I meant this book:
And this is what happens after you’ve divorced someone who lives life according to the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
Don Draper’s utter lack of regard for the consequences of his actions on others (aka his selfishness) leads Bert Cooper to observe:
Bert Cooper (To Don):By that I mean you are a productive and reasonable man, and in the end completely self-interested. It’s strength. We are different – unsentimental about all the people who depend on our hard work.
Cooper even recommends that Draper pick up a copy of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and tells Don that he must introduce him to his “friend” Miss Ayn Rand.
One can only imagine what Ayn Rand would with/to Don Draper.
For those of you who have never heard of Ayn Rand or read any of Rand’s novels, Rand’s ethical philosophy, called Objectivism, is based on the principle of self interest; what Rand calls the “virtue of selfishness”.
If you’ve never heard of Rand or her work, all I can say is
But I digress…
Don Draper is an example of the kind of man that Rand describes as one who lives fir his own sake “neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself”. This type of is a man completely devoted to the pursuit of his own happiness. Rand says of the Objectivist man:
He is not even militant or defiant about his utter selfishness… He
has a quiet, irrevocable calm of an iron conviction. No
dramatics, no hysteria, no sensitiveness about it —
because there are no doubts… A quick, sharp mind,
courageousness and not afraid to be hurt… He will be himself
at any cost — the only thing he really wants of life. And,
deep inside if him, he knows that he has the ability to
win the fight to be himself.*
In other words….
Don Draper is the kind of self-made Randian type (like Rand’s Howard Roark and John Galt) that owes nothing to anyone and does things on his own terms. He isn’t (terribly) concerned with what he has to do to get ahead.
Like the true Randian Objectivist, Don Draper’ pursuit of personal happiness is the reason why we alternately admire and hate him. It is the reason why Don’s fellow ad men envy his life and want to follow in his footsteps.
It’s the reason why women find him irresistible.
It’s also the reason why:
Don Draper is a man cut from the Randian mold, but there’s something that makes Don not quite the Objectivist that Bert Cooper thinks that he is.
Don Draper (seemingly) pulls the very existentialist move of self invention.
Existentialism assumes that there is a real you despite the role society imposes on us. We alone choose who we are and what role we want to fulfill. Dick Whitman sheds the confining identity that he was doomed to lead – he runs away from who he was possibly doomed to become – a poor farm boy, raised in a whorehouse – and transforms himself into Don Draper.
Following existentialist philosophy allows poor farm boy Dick Whitman transforms himself from this:
Unlike the true existentialist, Dick Whitman doesn’t become who he is, rather, he assumes the identity of someone else. The move doesn’t make the former Dick Whitman any more authentic than he was. If anything, Don Draper is another mask, just another layer Dick Whitman puts on to hide himself. Don repeatedly evades questions about his past because he does not want who he truly is to be revealed.
According to existentialists, failure to be who we truly are means we live our lives inauthenticly.
An inauthentic life, says the existentialist, is a life without meaning.
Fortunately for Don Draper, Rand’s highest moral goal isn’t authenticity; it is fulfilling one’s own self interest.
And as Bert Cooper observed, Don Draper does this in spades.
Sure, Don Draper occasionally says something vaguely existentialist like this:
And he hung out with some beatniks who probably read Camus and Sartre.
But after awhile one eventually figures out that it’s highly unlikely that Don Draper is an existentialist.
At least not in the strict sense of the word.
Which is to say that he really isn’t an existentialist at all.
But to suggest that one can easily figure out Don Draper because he is the kind of man Ayn Rand talks about in Atlas Shrugged or that he’s a French-style existentialist is to ignore a basic truth about human nature.
The truth is this: Like many people in the real world, the characters of Mad Men are a mix of ideologies. They, like people in the real world, are not philosophically just one thing.
More often than not, Don Draper is just like everyone else – that is to say, Don Draper, ideologically speaking, is a mix of everything and of nothing in particular.
One might say the Don Draper is a “pastiche” of identities and ideologies.
That’s a very postmodern thing to be.*
It’s not surprising that Don Draper is a bit on the postmodern side. Don works in advertising, an occupation where selling the image is the most important commodity.
In advertising, it doesn’t matter what the product actually is, what’s important is how the ad makes you feel. Advertising sells an idea – or rather, the feeling associated with an idea. Don Draper says:
Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing, it’s ok. You are ok.
The postmodernist idea is that we shop for identities.
And not necessarily authentic ones.
Becoming who we are is not unlike trying on different hats. During a life time we may try on many hats. Different kinds of hats may look good on us. The hat we wear at any given time may reflect who we are
Or say nothing about us at all.
For the postmodernist, changing one’s hat is like reinventing ourselves. We do it not to get at who we really are, but to play a role or to manifest a particular style.
Or to wear something that matches our outfit.
The image is what matters.
According to postmodernism, there is no real. Nothing or no one is (or can be) authentic. We’re not concerned with finding who anyone truly is. We’re not concerned because there is no real you that we must find to live existentially real lives. Who we are is nothing more than a veneer; the image we portray to others. As crafted as the image we see in advertising.
Dick Whitman is a genuine fake Don Draper.
Don Draper’s identity is the embodiment of postmodern advertising. The primary concern in advertising is not authenticity. Life is a fashion statement. And Don Draper doesn’t seem terribly concerned with being authentic, either.
What Dick Whitman does best is sell the idea of Don Draper.
The idea of the attractive image of an American success story.
When it comes down to it, I knowassume think the reason why television audiences like TV shows like Mad Men and are attracted to characters like Don Draper has to do with the fact that we are intrigued by the mix of ideologies. As we watch the chaotic philosophical lives of unreal people, we can not only vicariously experience their philosophical struggles but (hopefully) gain insight and understand our own real world philosophical conundrums.
We tune in to Mad Men to watch the characters as they struggle with ethical dilemmas and exhibit the moral contradictions that, if we did the same thing in the real world, would alienate us from our friends, co-workers, and family.
We see, while watching the unreal lives of those who inhabit the world of Sterling Cooper Draper Price (Cutler, Chaough….whoever) that these characters, though fictional, are like us in the real world – we are all a mix of different, often conflicting, ideologies.
The philosophical principles by which we live our lives and our moral choices are often inconsistent; sometimes even incoherent.
The fact that these characters are able to do thins that we can not do and get away with doing it is why we praise Don Draper’s Randian self-centered rugged individualism
and condemn him for his inability to keep his zipper closed around any woman within his immediate vicinity (except for Peggy Olsen).
What’s up with the Don-not-doing-Peggy thing?
We see Don’s existentialist tendencies yet we also see that Don is a product of society where authenticity is as real as the happy, smiling family in a Coca-Cola ad.
I’m sure the second half of the final season will give me more to think about.
We’ll have to wait until Spring 2015 to see how Don Draper’s philosophical struggle ultimately plays out.
Unfortunately, with Mad Men drawing to a close I’ll have to move on to other philosophical thought-inspiring television. Luckily, I’ve just been turned on to another TV show that I hear is not only philosophical, but is also pretty popular.
I think it’s called Breaking Bad.
It’s all about a high school chemistry teacher who gets into selling meth.
I haven’t seen it yet, but from what I’ve heard, I’m sure it’s gonna be philosophically compelling
Hey, maybe you should watch it, too!
* Ayn Rand is most often associated with Libertarianism. Don is mum about his political preferences, besides remarking that he preferred Nixon over Kennedy (Nixon was a man who built himself from the ground up, as opposed to JFK who was born with a silver spoon). Draper’s politics tend to be apolitical. We can assume, given Don’s actions, that it is highly unlikely that he is a liberal Democrat. * It is worth noting that the term “postmodernism” applies to a broad range of subjects, including art, architecture, literature, and philosophy. (For more info on postmodernism in philosophy check out the SEP entry on Postmodernism:http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/)
1. Leonard Peikoff. “Afterword”. 1992. In The Fountainhead. Ayn Rand. [orig. published 1943]. NY: Signet. p. 698.
I know that these days when someone says that they were “listening to the radio” that they were probably listening to music on the internet. It’s kind of like how some people say that they listen to “albums”.
I still say album.
I still listen to cassettes.
And I was listening to an actual radio.
The old hi-fi.
I know that the current technology is supposed to be all that, but there’s at least one good thing about being an old fuddy duddy still hooked on listening to 20th century technology. Namely, listening to a radio allows one to channel surf.
And while channel surfing, one occasionally tunes into something interesting.
And by “interesting” I mean something that allows a person to write about philosophical stuff.
I was listening to a radio show called “The Pocho Hour of Power”. It airs locally in Los Angeles. On Fridays at 4 P.M. On KPFK. An affiliate of the Pacifica Network.
That’s a Liberal radio station.
Wait. I think I’m supposed to say it’s Progressive.
Anyway, I don’t remember what exactly led to what, but I remember one of the hosts of the show said something about existentialist cinema. He made a joke about the movies The Seventh Seal and House Party. His joke was that one of the films is deep and packed with existential significance. The other (obviously) is not.
I’ll let you guess which one is which.
Figure it out yet?
For the host of the show, even slightly suggesting that a movie like House Party can in any way be as existential as a Bergman film is as laughable as the punch line of a joke. At first glance, the host is right. House Party is a thematically shallow movie.* Based on the film’s ostensible meaning, it would be absurd to suggest that the movie is anything more than an urban teenage comedy about a couple of buddies who throw the ultimate house party. But here’s a secret: movies, like books, TV shows, and songs, often have more than one meaning. There’s what a movie is supposed to be about – but then there’s what a movie is really about.
Want to take a guess at what House Party is really about?
That’s right. You guessed it.
At first glance (or as the philosophers say, prime facie), Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is just an old, overly-long movie about a knight who does some stuff, plays chess with death (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Observer from Mystery Science Theater 3000), rides across the Swedish (are they in Sweden?) countryside, and chats it up with some weird lady who is condemned to be burned at the stake.
If you watch the film on a purely surface level you wouldn’t get much out of it.
Other than annoyance with another foreign black and white movie with subtitles.
And the Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey reference.
And that that’s the old dude from The Exorcist.
Now THAT’S a good movie.
If you watch The Seventh Seal without really paying attention to the movie, you would miss the film’s philosophical significance.
Philosophical themes/significance in The Seventh Seal include (but not limited to):
Reason for man’s suffering.
Struggle with religious faith.
Identity (as relates to our place in the world).
The nature of being (including our place in the world).
There’s another movie that covers some of those philosophical themes, too.
1… 2… 3… Say it all together…
That movie is House Party.
On the surface, House Party (written and directed by the Hudlin Brothers) isn’t what anyone would call a “deep” movie. The movie’s seemingly simplistic plot goes a little like this: we follow a night in the (mis)adventures of a pair of inner-city high school chums (played by early ‘90s rap duo Kid N’ Play) and their chronic halitosis-besieged buddy (played by Martin Lawrence) as they evade cops, bullies, and Kid’s belt-wielding father (played by the late Robin Harris) to attend the ultimate house party.
Not to get off track, but is it just me or did the guys in Full Force look like they were about 40 years old?
Don’t get me wrong. I could plausibly suspend my disbelief watching Full Force as high school students in HouseParty. At least they weren’t as unconvincing as Vic Morrow as a delinquent “teen” in The Blackboard Jungle. Or the obviously-past-thirty-year old Stockard Channing as high school student Betty Rizzo in Grease.
And while we’re on the Grease tip, throw in Lorna Luft, Christopher MacDonald, and Adrian Zmed in Grease 2.
When House Party was released in 1990, moviegoers and critics immediately spotted the movie’s themes of race, class, gender relations (in particular, in the African-American community), and how the film bucked against the typical depiction of hypersexuality among teenaged characters in most teen-oriented comedies.
That already kind of proves that there’s more going on in this movie than meets the eye.
Now, we can spend our time, like the movie critics did back in ’90, discussing the social and cultural relevance/significance of House Party. And certainly there is plenty there to discuss, even after more than 20 years since the movie’s release.
Or, we can look even deeper and discuss the movie philosophically.
Let’s do it then, shall we?
In the movie House Party, Kid, played by Christopher “Kid” Reid, is a somewhat nerdy high school student, plagued by bullying classmates and stifled by an over-protective father. Kid is a character at a crossroads. He’s a character on the verge of manhood struggling to find his own identity.
Kid is being pressured by many influences: he wants to be a dutiful son to his widowed father, yet he feels the pressure as a young male at the edge of adulthood, to conform to the expectations of his peers – in particular, the pressure exerted by his best friend, Play (played by Christopher Martin) who urges Kid to attend a house party in hopes of “hooking up” with the object of Kid’s affection, a fellow student named Sydney, portrayed by Tisha Campbell.
Kid’s attempt to stand up like a man ends in a brutal lunchtime beating. His attempt at independence lands him in trouble with the police. His attempt at being a teenage Lothario ends in humiliation.
But despite the competing influences and occasional humiliation, Kid wants to determine his own life path.
Determining the path that one’s own life takes is the principle at the heart of existentialism.
Existentialism is the:
school of philosophical thought associated with Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Nietzsche. Existentialism emphasizes the importance of free will, personal responsibility, and how our experiences and choices forms what we become – what we make of ourselves.
Of course, bearing all the responsibility of who we become presents us (or any movie character) with a dilemma. To wit: how do we decide what we become? How do we determine what makes our lives meaningful? The French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) stated that the main message of existentialism is
… to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him.
For those of you who are well-versed in Sartre quotes, you’ll know that Jean-Paul Sartre famously said “existence precedes essence”.
According to Sartre, we are born without an innate nature. No one is a “natural born” sinner or saint. Or even naturally masculine or feminine. What we are and who we become (our “essence”) is a construct; it is not determined by a priori factors (God, society, biology, destiny, family, etc.) but by our own choices. We must make our own essence. In the absence of external influences, Sartre says, we are nothing more than the products of our own creation.
That means we are free to be whatever or whoever we want to be.
This can be a problem.
This is the problem:
Sartre’s “existence precedes essence” says we are free to create our own identity. We are not, as Freud declares, bound by our biology. Sounds good so far. After all, who doesn’t like freedom? But, the freedom to create one’s own essence means that we and we alone, bear all of the responsibility of figuring out who we are and making our lives meaningful.
According to Sartre, freedom is a double-edged sword: we are free be whoever we want to become, but we are also free to be whoever we want to become. When we have absolute responsibility for determining who we are, the freedom to choose is as liberating as it is problematic and confusing. Which path of life should we take? How do we figure out which path will make our lives most meaningful? And we can’t blame our bad choices on God or our biology. We almost we have too much freedom to choose. We have no other choice but to be free. This is why Sartre says “man is condemned to be free”. Sartre writes:
… man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet, in other respects is free; because, once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.
Sartre also says:
He was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate; to marry, to give up the game, to drag this death weight about him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no on had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good or Evil unless he brought them into being.
To make matters worse, Sartre says man cannot fully exist if he fails to create his own essence.
I figure at this point, you’re probably thinking that I’ve completely forgotten that this blog post is supposed to have something to do with the movie House Party. You’re probably wondering what the H-E-double hockey sticks does existentialist French philosophy have to do with early ‘90s urban comedy.
To the point: how exactly is House Party a modern existentialist masterpiece?
This is how:
At the outset of the film, Kid is subject to the kind of external forces that Sartre describes: his father, his friends, the pressure to act like a typical urban male. Kid seems to want to give into the pressure – it would be easier to simply follow along and be exactly what his family, friends, and society expects him to be. But he can’t. Kid must determine his own life path.
Kid chooses to live on his own terms in defiance of others’ expectations. Although his father warns against attending the house party, Kid chooses to go to the party despite his father’s threats. During a moment of intimacy with Sydney, Kid chooses not to have sex with Sydney, favoring instead to first develop a friendship with her. Kid is not the culturally stereotypical thug the police believe that he is. The path isn’t his father’s or his friends, but his own. And as a consequence, Kid finds his authentic self – who he truly is – not the person his friends, his father, or school lunchroom bullies want him to be. Kid does what he wants to do what he wants to do, and when he does he realizes the potential consequences.
Thus, House Party is really about how to lead an existentially authentic life.
So, when Kid’s father beats his ass with a belt for defying his orders, the punishment is all Kid’s fault.
We assume that he assumes full responsibility.
Ok. I know. You’re not entirely convinced of what I’m telling you. I understand. House Party is not the greatest movie. It’s not even a great movie. But just think about what I’ve told you. Watch the movie again. You might want to have some Sartre handy. It might not have the pedigree of a Bergman film, but trust me, House Party is a film about something.
However, I can’t say the same about Class Act.
I have no idea why or what that flick is about.
*NOTE: you many have noticed, when referring to The Seventh Seal and House Party, that I refer to The Seventh Seal as a “film” and to House Party as a “movie”. This choice of words is completely intentional. There are those who use the word “film” when making reference to “quality” cinema – i.e., cinema with social, cultural, and/or philosophical significance. “Movies”, on the other hand, may or may not include significant philosophical themes. In addition, movies, unlike films, are often intended primarily for entertainment purposes. I might add that referring to a motion picture as a “flick” denotes that the movie has very little to no (obvious) philosophical value and is made strictly for entertainment purposes (e.g. exploitation flicks, drive-in flicks, and pornography).
1) Jean-Paul Sartre. “Existentialism”. 1980. The Norton Reader. 5th Edition (shorter). Eds. Arthur M. Eastman, Caesar R. Blake, Hubert M. English, Jr., Joan E. Hartman, Alan B. Howes, Robert T. Lenaghan, Leo F. McNamara, James Rossier. NY: W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 659, 662
Someone who calls it like they see it? Believes honesty is the best policy? Insists that what you see is what you get? Claims they’re the real deal? The real McCoy?
That say they am what they am no matter what anyone has to say about it?
You know, the kind of folks who like to keep it REAL.
In case you hadn’t noticed, all of these claims have one thing in common: they are all claims of authenticity.
When we deal with a keeps it real type of person, we’re assured that we’re dealing with someone who won’t manipulate, dupe, swindle, con, lie to or bamboozle us.
They am what they am, and that’s all that they am.
We want to surround ourselves with people who are authentic. No one really wants to deal with con men, bullshitters, and liars. We don’t like being deceived or having our trust in others tested. When we put our trust in people who are not real with us, at best we end up looking like fools.
At worst, someone can get hurt.
And we tell others that we’re the real deal to distinguish ourselves from those who are disingenuous and not to be trusted.
Even in our most tangential relationships, the genuine is preferred. We believe that we cannot develop full relationships with others who are not authentic with us.
And if we cannot develop full relationships, we cannot become fully developed people ourselves.
If we are not fully developed, we cannot lead a full life.
At least that’s what a philosopher will tell you.
Authenticity, philosophically speaking, is a pretty big deal. Not just being authentic with others, but especially when we deal with ourselves. The most important kind of authenticity is authenticity of the self.
So, if it’s so important for us to be authentic, what does it mean to be authentic?
What does it mean to be as Polonius said in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true”?
To live authentically one must live life on his own terms, refusing to accept the expectations of others. We are not (and should not) be subject to the dictated ideas of what others want us to be or become. Who we are is not predetermined by God or biology. Neither is who we are the product of our family or society. We choose to “accept or revise the paths that have been laid down for us by others.”
To be authentic means that we are the sole origin of who we are and what we become. The Existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), wrote:
Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself… I am creating a certain image of man of my own choosing.
This means that when it comes to who we are and how we live our lives that it is up to us to give our lives meaning; we are responsible for ourselves and what we do with our lives.
So if you’re a complete douche bag, don’t blame your parents. It’s all you.
There’s something kind of funny about authenticity, though. I think we’ve all noticed it.
Have you noticed that so many people’s authentic self-expression looks just like everyone else’s authentic self-expression?
This is especially true in certain subculture/counterculture movements. Especially when the idea of authenticity is tied to a particular ethnic, racial or political ideology. Or even a particular genre of music.
It’s kind of difficult to argue that you’re being true to yourself and you’re resisting the mainstream when you and everyone else you hang out with looks like this:
I mean, come on. How many guys have you seen dressed like this?
Here’s at least one:
Ever notice how much hippies all looked alike?
There are many ways of self-expression. And we want to express ourselves authentically. But how can we express our authentic self to other unless we can identify what our authentic self looks like? Obviously, there is a clash between individual self expression (or our want to live according to our own rules) and the set of characteristics that we use to identify with a particular identity or culture. You may feel that you are genuinely all about living the hip hop lifestyle, but to identify yourself as a true baller, you may have to affect a look that screams “conformist” rather than “authentic individual”.
You might have to look like this:
Because no one will take you seriously if you’re dressed like this:
Vernon Reid, former guitarist of the early ‘90s alternative rock band, Living Colour, says of hip hop, “ …no other music is as peer pressure intensive as hip hop.”
Reid’s statement isn’t just true to hip hop culture.
The pressure to conform is a society-wide problem.
Of course that’s a problem for straight shooters who want to keep it real.
In our pursuit to live a truly authentic existence, we are caught between our personal want to express our authentic self and the countervailing (societal) pressure to conform to a preordained image of what the real deal is (and is supposed to look and act like). We are often skeptical of someone who claims that they’re “keeping it real” if they don’t look like the real deal.
If we don’t conform to the image how can anyone know we’re the real deal?
That’s the problem with authenticity. People won’t perceive our authenticity if we don’t look authentic. A part of how we view ourselves is inexorably tied to how other people perceive us. Sartre writes:
By the mere appearance of the Other, I am put into the position of passing judgment on myself as an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the Other… I recognize that I am as the Other sees me.
A part of our perception of ourselves, our sense of who we are, is formed by our interactions with others. The philosopher, Paul C. Taylor, writes there is a:
“tension between individual identity and the… scripts of social identity.”*
The tension between individual and social identity rises to more than a minor inconvenience when, in an effort to prove how authentic we are, the need to keep it real leads us to act in a way that may be detrimental to ourselves or our non-incarcerated status.
Most of the time, we can maintain our (authentic) identity against the societal pressure to conform to predetermined expectations. As long as we know who we are and for what reason we act, even if no one else sees or knows it, we can be assured that we are living according to our own script. The key is to being authentic is to know when to ignore what others may want us to be, and when to adopt those cultural scripts that enable us to function in society.
Only you know if you are living a truly authentic life.
If you aren’t, realize you may be the biggest douche bag in the room.
‘Cause I’m a straight shooter.
I keeps it real.
* Taylor is specifically referring to racial identity in this instance, but Taylor’s statement can be equally applied to any cultural/personal identity conflict.
Jean-Paul Sartre. “Hell Is Other People”. Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy. 1988. Eds. G. Lee Bowie, Meredith W. Michaels, Robert C. Solomon, and Robert J. Fogelin. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. p. 620
Jean-Paul Sartre. “Existentialism”. The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Expository Prose. 5th Edition (shorter). Eds. Arthur M. Eastman, Caesar R. Blake, Hubert M. English, Jr., Joan E. Hartman, Alan B. Howes, Robert T. Lenaghan, Leo F. McNamara, James Rossier. NY: W.W. Norton & Company. p. 659.
Paul C. Taylor. Race: A Philosophical Introduction. 2004. Malden, MA: Polity Press. p. 130.
“Steely Dan: Understood As the Redemption of the White Negro: A Conversation Between Greg Tate and Vernon Reid”. Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture. 2003. Ed. Greg Tate. NY: Broadway Books. p. 113.
The great Ludwig Van Beethoven said, “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”
I’m guessing most people would applaud this notion.
Beethoven wasn’t a philosopher. He was a musician.
His opinion was biased.
Lots of people’s opinions are. Even a philosopher’s opinions are.
If you haven’t noticed, philosophers have lots of opinions about lots of things – life, death, morality, good, evil, God – all the “important” stuff. Name any issue and a philosopher has got something to say about it. Anything.
I guess it would surprise absolutely no one that philosophers have something to say about the not-so-important stuff, too. Like movies and sports; even music. This is what a couple of philosophers had to say about music:
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote “Without music, life would be a mistake.”
The French writer and philosopher Voltaire wrote “Anything too stupid to be said is sung.”
Their opinions were biased, too.
Both men are absolutely right.
As a matter of fact, so is Beethoven.
A few weeks ago, I watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. There’s a character in the movie named Chop Top. Chop Top is Leatherface’s brother.
Leatherface is the guy with the chainsaw.
Chop Top was in Vietnam when the first movie happened.
That’s why you didn’t see him until the second movie.
Chop Top tells a late-night radio disc jockey, right before he attempts to bludgeon her with a hammer, “music is my life.”
I think he was paraphrasing Nietzsche.
As thinks turn out, philosophers tend to think that music is our life, too.
A long time ago, way before Nietzsche said it, the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates said that music is important to our lives. Socrates’ reason had something to do with the idea that music possesses a unique quality to influence the way that we think and act. Socrates argues music can stimulate the wrong kind of emotions in some people. If we listen to the wrong music, Socrates says, the wrong kind of music teaches us to prefer a life of frivolity instead of appreciating the serious philosophical pursuit of wisdom. We can become intemperate, cowardly, learn bad habits like drinking, and develop a taste for merriment.
The PMRC weren’t the first people to believe music can make you do bad things. That Kind of thinking goes back quite a long way. Socrates wrote:
“rhythm and harmony most of all insinuate themselves into the inmost part of the soul… they make a man graceful if he is correctly reared, if not, the opposite.”
The purpose for music, Socrates says, is to encourage the development of a good soul. According to Socrates, “…good speech, good harmony… and good rhythm accompany a good disposition.” The right kind of music, Socrates says, enables a man to develop the “right kind of dislikes” and an appreciation for the fine things. Through listening to the right kind of music a man becomes a gentleman …a philosopher.
Socrates declares that all bad music should be banned. The only music people should be allowed to listen to is music that encourages good emotions and virtuous behavior; music that teaches people to be courageous and temperate; to develop a warlike disposition and to encourage people love the gods and act for the good of the state.
This is why Socrates says music is important.
If one’s behavior is any indication of what kind of music one listens to, it’s clear that Chop Top was listening to the wrong kind of music.
Probably music like this:
Socrates probably would not approve of the song “Me So Horny”…. I think.
Now, I know that there are things (like music) that not only influence who we are, but may be indicative of the kind of person we are. In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell writes that we can tell a lot about a person from a “blink” or first impression. We don’t even have to meet an individual to tell what a person is like. All we have to do to figure out a person, says Gladwell, is to take a glance at what’s on their walls, their bookshelf or in their music collection.
Take a look at my bookshelf.
This is what my bookshelf looks like:
I have a lot of philosophy books on my bookshelf.
At first glance, you might assume that I like to read philosophy books and thinking about things philosophically. If you made that assumption you’d be right.
Socrates would be pleased.
Although an assumption about an individual’s disposition based on one’s reading material may seem like a sure shot, using one’s musical preferences as an indication of one’s personality may not be as cut and dry. Unless you’re an Emo or a metalhead it may be difficult to tell how the music one listens to influences us. There are plenty of closeted Metallica and My Chemical Romance fans; people whose musical tastes and disposition appear to be incongruent. Still, we’d be wrong to say that music bears no affect on who we are and what we do. After all, the way a song or musical artist makes us feel is what draws us to listen to a particular song or artist.
Now, knowing what philosophers have to say about the effect of music on the kind of person we are, what exactly does the kind of music we listen to have to say about us philosophically? If Socrates is correct, and music does have the power to shape one’s character, can a person’s philosophical outlook be identified by simply glancing at what kind of music a person listens to?
If we glanced at a person’s music collection could we differentiate a Socrates from a Chop Top?
More importantly, what does the music I listen to have to say about my philosophical disposition?
Can you tell just by looking at my music collection?
First off, I would say that, if you met me face to face and I had to define my personal philosophical beliefs, I would define them as follows: I would say that I’m an existentialist. I would describe my ethics as ethical egoist with a slight tinge of Kantian ethics (I call it Kantian Egoism). I would add that am an empiricist (which means I’m also a materialist). And as for what I think about God, well, let’s say that my religious disposition as apatheist.
Having said all that, this is my music library:
I know it’s a little bit difficult to see it from here, but there’s quite a bit of Steely Dan loaded up in there.
Yeah I said it. I admit, without any fear of seeming pretentious, I am a fan of The Dan.
Ok, I know. When (or rather if) one thinks of Steely Dan and you’re not a fan of William Burroughs, one will almost assuredly and immediately conjure up visions of over-educated, faded hipster, college-types (who spent too much time in college or at least too much time chasing co-eds) who quote Sartre, paraphrase Nietzsche, drink brands of hard liquor no one has ever heard of, and carry around a dog-eared copy of Camus’ The Stranger in the pocket of a well-worn, cigarette or marijuana (or both) aroma-soaked, vintage leather jacket.
Thinking about it, that’s not a wholly incorrect stereotype of the average Steely Dan fan.
What else would one expect of a fan of a band named after a dildo?
If you know a fan of The Dan, you’re probably already well aware that Steely Dan’s fans have a habit of pontificating.
There is a legit reason why Steely Dan is often associated with overthinking. And no, it really has nothing to do with pretentiousness. It’s because Steely Dan songs are philosophical.
To the point: Steely Dan songs are very existentialist.
Don’t roll your eyes. And stop laughing. They are. Really.
For those of you who have no idea what an existentialist is, an existentialist is a person who adheres to the philosophical theory of Existentialism. Existentialism is:
… the name given to the branch of philosophy which is concerned with the meaning of human existence – its aims, its significance and overall purpose – and the freedom and creative response to life made by individuals.
If you listen to a Steely Dan album or two (really, you should listen to all of them), it becomes pretty clear that Steely Dan songs like “Hey, Nineteen”, “Deacon Blues”, and “Home At Last” include lyrics about common existentialist themes such as life, relationships, sex, self-reflection, drugs, getting old, and death.
Actually, “Home At Last” is supposed to be about Homer’s The Odyssey.
See, I told you there was some thinking in there.
In the song “Deacon Blues” from the Steely Dan album Aja (1977), Donald Fagen sings:
I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues
Besides discovering one’s life achievements pale by comparison to the famed University of Alabama football team (nicknamed the Crimson Tide), “Deacon Blues”, with its lyrics about finding and defining one’s self, embodies the existentialist principle “Existence precedes essence”. According to existentialist philosophy our selves are not determined by God, nature, society, or our parents; we choose who we want to be (i.e. we determine who we are – our essence). We are born as physical entities (i.e. exist) then we define what meaning our purpose our lives will have. The French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), says:
Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.
Walter Becker (of Steely Dan) says:
The protagonist is not a musician. He just sort of imagines that would be one of the mythic forms of loserdom to which he might aspire and um, you know, whose to say that he’s not right in a thing like that?
Indeed, if we look at the lyrics of “Deacon Blues”, we should think of the existentialist idea that we make choices in our lives, and that we are accountable for the consequences of our actions.
Who we are, our identity, is the product of our own creation .
The song says Call me Deacon Blues.
I’m sure that many music experts will say that “Deacon Blues” isn’t about existentialism at all, but when I hear the song I think of Sartre’s declaration that “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
Especially when I hear the line “This brother is free. I’ll be what I want to be”.
The thing is I wasn’t always a fan of Steely Dan. When I was in high school, I was a pretty mopey kid.
Actually, I was downright pessimistic.
I could have been the subject of an Emily Dickenson poem.
Back when I was in high school (This was the early 1990s, mind you. Ugh! That makes me feel positively geriatric!), if you moped about and wore black as much as I did, it was pretty obvious what kind of music you were likely to listen to.
To be honest, I still wear black these days… because it’s slimming.
Back then, the particular subgenre of goth music every kid who moped around like me listened to could be identified by its raven-haired lead singer. Some kids listened to The Cure. They looked like a Robert Smith.
This is what The Cure’s fans look like:
Other kids listened to Siouxie and the Banshees. Some kids listened to Ministry, The Cramps, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire or Alien Sex Fiend. Some kids went old school and listened to eighties old-school synthpop artists like Soft Cell and Gary Numan.
My raven-haired lead-singered band of choice was nine inch nails.
Or NIN, if you like.
Ok, I know. First Steely Dan, now nine inch nails (and yes, I’m using the appropriate small-case letters). I know what you’re thinking. Stop thinking that. My musical preferences do not suggest that I’m a pretentious person.
However, the fact that I write a blog does.
But I digress.
If anyone was around and watching MTV in the mid-nineties, you couldn’t watch MTV for more than a half hour without seeing some angst-ridden, heroin chic-looking, alternative band front man whining his way through 4 minutes and 38 seconds of music video.
That would explain why nine inch nails was in fairly heavy rotation.
Wait, I know. Nine inch nails isn’t goth.
And I know it’s not industrial, either.
Philosophers know these things.
A quasi-industrial, somewhat goth rock band (or is it artist because it’s just one guy?) like nine inch nails may be difficult to categorize musically but it’s easier than a goth girl at Lollapalooza 1991 to figure which philosophical school of thought nine inch nails belongs to.
Everybody say it together. 1…2…3…
Nihilism, according to Webster’s New College Dictionary, Nihilism (from the Latin nihil: nothing) is:
The belief that all existence is senseless and that there is no possibility of an objective basis of truth
Nihilism is most associated with this guy
AND HE SAID:
Nihilism is Nihilism: any aim is lacking, any answer to the question “why” is lacking. What does nihilism mean?—that the supreme values devaluate themselves.
Nihilism’s themes of self-destruction, self-loathing, loss of values, hopelessness and despair is pretty much the theme of every nine inch nails song.
Seriously, name any song. Nietzsche’s philosophy is there.
“terrible lie”? Yup. Nietzsche. “hurt”? Title pretty much says it all. “happiness in slavery”? Check. “wish”? Yeah. “somewhat damaged”? Uh-huh. “everyday is exactly the same”? Yeah, Nietzsche is there, too.
Well, there is that one song about double rainbows, kittens, and blooming flowers.
I’m kidding. No there isn’t.
For a minute you felt like googling to see if there is, didn’t you?
Trent Reznor even quotes Nietzsche’s infamous (and often misused) quote “God is dead” in the song “heresy” on the 1994 album the downward spiral. Reznor sings (or is it yells?):
“God is dead and no one cares. If there is a hell, I’ll see you there.”
Not quite exactly what Nietzsche said, but you get the idea.*
Albert Camus (1913-60) said “Nihilism is not only despair and negation, but above all the desire to despair and to negate.”
Check out these lyrics to the song “piggy” (from the downward spiral):
Nothing can stop me now
I don‘t care anymore.
Nothing can stop me now
I just don’t care.
Does that sound like a sentiment that is not only despair and negation but also the desire to despair and negate to you?
Does to me.
Ok, that sounds pretentious.
You know something? Even though Nietzsche is most associated with nihilism he is often considered an existentialist philosopher.
Wow. I guess that confirms what I told you at the beginning of this blog about being an existentialist.
But I guess I really didn’t need to look at my current favorite band or the bands I liked in high school to know that. I could have started with the first band I ever declared was my favorite: The Beatles.
Not only were The Beatles the first boy band (They were! Don’t deny it), John Lennon and Paul McCartney remain one of music’s most successful and influential songwriting duos of all time. But, more importantly – yes, you guessed it –
Lennon and McCartney might not have realized it, but they were laying down some pretty heavy philosophy.
… Along with a lot of LSD.
I guess philosophy comes easy when you’re tripping balls.
In a decade that brought us “Wooly Bully”, “Gitarzan”, and the still-indecipherable “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen, The Beatles’ lyrics not only included themes of about love, peace, not fussing and fighting (and the occasional hidden drug reference), but also existentialism, Eastern philosophy and mysticism. The Beatles, though not as philosophically adept as Kant or Heidegger, not only established the boy band phenomena, they were one of the first pop bands to write lyrics that were not only enjoyable but intended to make the listener think.
Some folks out there think The Beatles are philosophical enough to warrant this book:
And this book was written by professional philosophers.
Look, if you don’t believe The Beatles are at all philosophical, check out these lyrics:
The love you take is equal to the love you make.
Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting my friend.
Ob-la-di, ob-la-da life goes on brah.
La la how the life goes on.
There’s nothing you can made that can’t be made.
No one you can save who can’t be saved.
There’s nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time.
If that’s not philosophical enough, get ready for some heavy philosophy:
When you’ve seen beyond yourself
Then you may find peace of mind is waiting there
And the time will come when you see we’re all one
And life flows on within you and without you.
Didn’t know The Beatles got that heavy, did you?
You feel enlightened?
Ok, never mind. Do you feel like dropping acid?
Go ahead. Tell everybody you’re searching for philosophical enlightenment.
That one worked for Timothy Leary.
Oh – but before you do, take a glance at your music collection.
Ask yourself this one question:
Would Socrates approve?
There is an entire sub-field of philosophy called the philosophy of music. If you’re interested about the exciting world of the philosophy of music, you can read this article:
In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell describes an experiment wherein a group of people were asked to assess the personality of individuals (they hadn’t met) after briefly looking at the individual’s living space. Objects we surround ourselves with often indicates what kind of person owns those objects. Gladwell argues that we can accurately assess personal traits of individuals through snap judgments based on what we see in a person’s living space.
The later (Beatles) songs written by George Harrison were largely influenced by Eastern philosophy, which generally includes philosophical and religious systems from India and the Far East, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jain, and Confucianism.
Read the Bhagavad-Gita and then listen to anything George Harrison wrote. Check here for a few quotes to get you started on the comparison:
* In The Gay Science (Section 125, The Madman), Nietzsche writes:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
1. Plato. Republic. Trans. Allan Bloom. 401d-e, 401e – 402a
I think that I have an OCD. Really. I’m an atheist, but I just can’t seem to stop thinking about God. I guess it may be due to, in some part, the fact that I live in a culture that is, whether it practices it or not, Christian. No matter where I go, there is either a “God bless you”, “have a blessed day”, or someone declaring that they’ve been blessed. So, no matter how hard I try, God and thinking about God is unavoidable. This would be bad, if not for the fact that I have this blog. At least it gives me something to write about. That said, I was thinking some time ago about my philosophy of religion class (that I had almost a year ago). There was, as I recall (then again, I could be making this up for the sake of making a point), there was some talk about the limits (if any) of the powers of God, namely on the topic of God’s omnipotence. The question was, are there things that God can’t see? That is, if we say that God knows all (all events that happen in the past, present and future), how can humans have free will? Well, for one, when I was a Christian, I was steadfastly a determinist. I figured that God, being a all-powerful being, had ultimate knowledge. There is no thing that he does not see. And being that he saw any particular event, it has to happen.The events of our lives are not only seen by God, but also actively planned.I thought that, if God even sees all things generally, he also sees what occurs specifically — including the choices that we make. And since God’s knowledge is eternal, he may have seen what I’m doing right now the instant that he created the universe. So, I figured, there is not such thing as free will for people. But my Christianity didn’t stay with me for long. I soon shrugged it off in favor of the cold, harsh cynicism of atheism. When I started on the path to Hell (i.e. becoming an atheist), I slid from divine determinism to biological determinism. Instead of God commanding my destiny, my choices were determned by my genes. Anatomy is destiny, as they say. This has always been a problem for me — not because I don’t like the idea of everything I do being beyond my control, but because I fancy myself an existentialist. And that’s all free will. I know that, even among non philosophers, the idea of determinism is none too popular. People don’t like the idea that the things that they do are out of their control. That makes sense. I hate the idea myself. But, for the life of me, I can’t figure how a God that sees all events in all times does not in some way determine my fate. Which made me think of something that I heard on the radio a couple of years ago. Out here in So Cal, there’s a radio show that comes on on Sunday mornings called “the Jesus Christ show” (it’s on KFI AM 640, for those who want to know). The show is hosted by the Son of Man himself! The format is that callers call in with questions to Jesus and he answers them. I suppose that all of his answers are the correct ones, given the fact that he’s Jesus. Better than calling Dr. Laura. Anyway, a couple of Christmases ago, a caller asked Jesus about predestination. She wondered how man can have free will in the same universe with a God that sees and knows all. She said that even if we attempt to do otherwise, God can make you do what he has seen you do, and since we humans cannot defy God (I’m thinking that she meant physically), we are subject to God’s will. Therefore, she concluded, we have no free will. Jesus answered that man does in fact have free will. Despite the fact that God is all-seeing, all-knowing, and all-powerful, we humans still determine our own choices in life. Jesus said that the caller was mistaken, and gave an example of what is meant when we say that God sees and knows all. He explained it by way of analogy: Jesus said that our free will and God is like “The Newlywed Game”. He said that, during the game, one spouse let’s say the husband, is secluded from his wife while she is asked a series of intimate questions (usually something to do with “whoopee”). The husband returns and is asked the same questions. They get points when their questions match. So let’s say that the wife is asked “what part of your body does your husband like most?”. She answers. “he likes my very shapely rear end”. When the husband returns from seclusion, he is asked the same question. He answers, “well, my wife knows that I totally dig her sweet bum!”. He got the same answer. Jesus told the caller that God’s knowledge is just like that. He said that the fact that the husband answered the same as his wife doesn’t mean that he knew what she was going to say. He said that God gets the answer right despite the fact that he doesn’t know what we’re going to do exactly. But then, all sorts of red, flashing lights went off in my head. The husband guessed the right answer. He really had no clue what she was going to say. A man’s knowledge of what goes on in his wife’s head is limited. But when we speak of God, this is not the case. God knows what we feel in our hearts. He knows about the sins that we merely think about. So, if God knows all the nasty thoughts (well, to be honest — in most cases, desires) that I entertain about rock stars, former high school classmates, and college professors, how can he not know what actions that I will undertake during the course of my lifetime? It seemed to me that the God that radio Jesus was describing was a God who only managed to get the right answers by guessing the right ones. He was right, but only gettierally. Besides, that, I know that, given the law of averages, some guesses are bound to be wrong. If there is even a chance that God might ( God forbid) guess wrong, then what does that mean for a God who among his qualities is perfection? I’d say that that would make him not God, wouldn’t it? Well, some people out there say that what the deal is, is that God sees all possibilities, that is, among the possible thousands of choices that we could have made in any situation, God sees every one of them, which includes the one that we eventually choose. So, say there are five possible worlds, and I’m trying to figure out which pair of shoes to wear. In one world, I put on my black Converse high tops. In another, I choose the white Nikes. In another, I wear high heels. In the fourth, I put on flip-flops, and in the fifth, I go barefoot. God sees all of these. (he sees every possible alternative, even the ones that I’m not aware that I have). All of these includes the choice that I make. I choose, since it’s such a nice day, to go barefoot. Now, that allows me to choose, since God saw everything and not me specifically. But I still have a problem. If God sees possible worlds, who he saw in those other worlds wasn’t me — as I exist in this particular world. He saw someone who looked like me who put on a pair of Converse high tops, but I, in this world, did not. So, God doesn’t know what will happen anywhere, which is really bad for the creator of the universe. Then again, we say that God sees all possibilities. Even if there are a million, God sees them (which leads me to ask, is there a point where we say that all those possibilities of everyone on the earth makes God’s task of seeing all possibilities too big of a task for God?). That means that my array of choices is within God’s knowledge. God is still setting the boundaries of my choices. Even if he sees all choices, my actual choice is there — he still saw it. This means to me that God is not only determining what goes on in my particular universe, but since all of those other people in those other possible universes (who look like me) have choices that are seen by God, he knows what they’re going to do. God not only determines choices here, but in all of those other worlds as well. Wow.
I was thumbing through my copy of Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs a few days ago. To start off, I envy people, any person who can write and make a living off of it. Second, I wanted to re-read the chapter on Mr. Klosterman’s friend’s encounter with a serial killer. I have no idea why. There’s, in this chapter, a bit about serial killers John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Mr, Klosterman ( I feel like, since I don’t know him, I shouldn’t call him “Chuck”), wrote about the fame that serial killers achieve as compared to real celebrities. In his book, he used Cameron Diaz. That started me thinking. For awhile, you had to do something like kill a whole bunch of people or blow the president in order to get noticed by the media. But now, it seems like this has totally changed. I noticed that there are a lot of people out there who, I cannot for the life of me, tell anyone why they are famous. I don’t think that they killed anyone, since they’re not in prison. And I don’t think that many of them interned at the White House during the Clinton Administration. But they’re there. I know who these people are and why they’re important to my life. What really struck me about reading Mr. Klosterman’s book, is that, although it was written in 2003 (yeah, eons ago), something he wrote hit me philosophically. It was that he said that he disagreed with the “accuracy of those comparisons” between the fame of celebrities and the fame of serial killers. Mr. Klosterman wrote, ” there was nothing inherently special about Cameron Diaz; until she made a movie. She was just an attractive person. At some point, she became Cameron Diaz. But Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t become Jeffrey Dahmer the first time he killed somebody. That’s always who he was” ( pg. 192. emphasis in original).The fame of the serial killer, he said, is more authentic. Authentic. Now that’s a philosophical word. In a way, Mr. Klosterman is correct. A serial killer just does what he is inclined to do. To quote (the fictitious) Mickey Knox, a serial murderer is a “natural born killer”. A famous person is mostly known for playing someone else. It would be a little odd to assume that, because David Caruso plays the ultra smooth Horatio Caine on CSI:Miami, that that is the way he truly is. Although he pretty much played the same guy in that movie Jade… Ok. Maybe he was a bad example. The point is, is that celebrities spend their careers playing people who do not exist. They are professional inauthentic players. That is, until the human race was beset upon by the authentic celebrity — the reality TV show personality. I was listening to the Billy Bush show a while ago. If you don’t know, Billy Bush is this dude from Access Hollywood, a show specializing in teling us that, in order to have meaningful lives, the American public must know intimate details about the lives of its famous people. I hate myself for knowing that 1) there is such a thing as a Billy Bush, and 2) I’ve seen Access Hollywood. Anyway, Billy was interviewing Kim Kardashian. I was torn for a moment. My crap-o-meter had told me to immediately change the channel. But, something was compelling me to listen. I struggled against myself to change the station. *Note* for those who live under rocks and have no idea who this woman is, is recommend Googling her. Have fun, and bring a box of Kleenex.* Now, we, as a culture, tend to dismiss celebrities like Kim Kardashian and her ilk. These are people that we say have no good resaon to be famous (as if there actuall is a good reason), and therefore, are underving of our attention. In particular, we feel that people like Ms. Kardashian and Paris Hilton are of an even less deserving class of famous people. To most of us, they’re cartoons. They appear to be caricature of what a person, even of what a real celebrity is supposed to be. we often use the words “fake” or “plastic” when we describe them. They are people who seem to have no real to them at all. They are inauthentic. But before we go label crazy, it’s important to explain what we mean. I’ve already trotted out the word “authentic” and attached philosophic significance to it. So what do I mean when I say “authentic”? Authenticity, according to the Existentialists, is ( as uncomplicted as possible) living one’s life unaccording to the expectations of others. That is, an individual lives life, not according to some supposedly pre-determined set of innate characteristics, but according to the terms that he sets out for himself. According to the Existentialist, we are the masters of our own being. We are our own creations. We are not born naturally shy or hot-tempered, or even naturally inclined to act masculine or feminine. The personalities we assume are assumed by ourselves. For the Existentialist, existence preceedes essence. We exist before we become who we are. Now, I recall that I had mentioned reality TV. Television is, according to some experts, a postmodern medium. There’s no need to get into postmodernism other than to say that postmodernism rejects the existentialist’s notion of authenticity. For the postmodernist, there is no such thing as “the real”. We are, at best, a mix of influences that we assume into what we call our identity. And TV seems to reflect that point of view. Just think of the gritty NYPD: Blue like cop show that is also a murder mystery in the tradition of Murder She Wrote, with a twist of My Three Sons, as asingle police detective, who also writes mystery novels tries to raise his three sons, including the adorably precocious 7 year-old Billy, as a single father in the rough streets of Claremont, California. But, somewhere in the postmodern mix, someone decided that it was time for people to stop being polite and start being real. I know that they say that the first reality show was PBS’s An American Family, and that the first reality TV star was the late Lance Loud, who appeared on the show. It seems that between the mid 70s and the early 90s, the need to see people being real wasn’t big on America’s to-do list. But, I remember the first time I saw The Real World. Debuting in 1992 on MTV, The Real World opened up a big can of feculent TMI for all of America to see. It brought what they said could not be brought to television: REALITY. For awhile, the only reality on TV, if one was looking for it, was only on the local news. Car chases, police shoot-outs, the local riot… all for the audience to enjoy with real people in real time. But, reality TV brought something new. The people were people that you wnated to see. They weren’t just some hillbilly whose house just got blown away by a tornado. Reality TV brought people that I could identify with — they were real. When Dominic from Real World: Venice Beach got drunk and passed out on the beach, I totally identified with what he was going through! When Ruthie from Real World: Hawaii totally got drunk, like, every episode, I was so there! There were no scripts, there were no rules. This was life as it unfolded. The camera just sat there and recorded whatever happened. So when Irene got socked in the face when she left Real World: Seattle, the camera showed us what was really going on. NO holds barred. Of course, we all know as they say, what you see isn’t what really happened. Let me say something a little bit about TV. What we see on television is not all that goes on to get the show to our eyes. TV shows are a team effort. They require the services of writers, directors, producers, casting directors, and personalities to make it to air. Even a show that calls itself a reality show required a team of producers to cast it and bring it to air. Some shows these days even let us in on this process (American Idol), or let us participate in which cast members stay of leave ( Dancing With the Stars, American Idol, Big Brother, etc). Any reality show producer will tell us that, in order to condense a week’s worth of going’s on into an hour of television, alot of editing takes place. And as was revealed during the Real World: Reunion show, what took place didn’t always happen in the order of actual occurance. Events are arranged for dramatic effect, not in order of how they really happen. Postmodernist writer Jean Baudrillard writes, “the attempt to increase the feel of reality are themselves simulations. Their authenticity is a special effect”. Baudrillard states that “images preceed the real”. But this doesn’t seem right when we think of TV that is supposed to be “real”. The notion that images preceed the real violates the idea that reality TV tells us is behind its being. Reality TV is supposed to reflect reality, how things really are. When we look at a show like The Real World or The Simple Life, we believe that we are seeing what really happened. Which brings us back to the idea of authenticity. What is authentic? I thought about this question for at least a good five minutes before I answered, for some famous people, they really do seem to be the real deal. When I look at Kim Kardashian, she seems to be one of these people. She’s famous for having a big ass. Nothing more. And she doesn’t seem to be inclined to convince us of anything more than that. But when I see someone like Paris Hilton, I see the postmodernist at work. One week, she’s a singer, the next, she’s a philanthropist, the nest, she’s staring in a really crappy movie (see Repo: the Musical, The Hottie and the Nottie, or House of Wax). You can’t put a finger on what Paris Hilton is because she doesn’t seem to be anything. I’m not saying this about her as a person, since I do not know her, but as something that is marketed as “real”, ther appears to be nothing “real” there. Perhaps then, Kim Kardashian is something like Jeffrey Dahmer. She is what she is, rather, she is what her ass is. Paris Hilton, on the other hand, is a Cameron Diaz. The funny thing is, is that, despite what view, existentialist of postmodern, each ultimately concludes that there is no purpose or meaning behind reality, and I guess this covers the world of reality TV as well. You know, Sartre called reality absurd. Exactly.