Thursday, March 17, 2011

Late Night Comedy and Midafternoon Philosophy

Tina Fey in a "philosophical" mood.
I am loving the recent Tina Fey essays in The New Yorker, in which she talks about motherhood, working, comedy, all the important stuff.

And I have to say that I had a frisson of ... recognition?  anxiety?  pleasure?  when I read her essay on late night comedy and men and women, and it occurred to me:  many of these things apply equally well to my own work of being a professional academic philosopher.

Fey:  "Only in comedy does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity." 

Wow, right?  Because believe me, in philosophy, an obedient white girl from the suburbs -- a girl of any kind from anywhere -- definitely counts as diversity.  We're, like, one of the least gender balanced disciplines in the university.

Fey:  "There is a difference between male and female comedy writers, and I'm going to tell you what it is:  the men urinate in cups."

OK OK obviously no philosopher that I know pees in cups, and certainly no one leaves it around, as Fey puts it, "to evaporate back into his body through the pores on his face."  Of course not.

And yet, I feel like there is something about doing philosophy that  -- well, that encourages guys to be extra comfortable in their guyishness, in a way that doesn't seem to happen in other, more gender-balanced disciplines like English.  Like, philosophy guys feel comfortable taking off their shoes at talks.  There's a lot of rough-and-tumble style vocal arguments and trash-talking.  Mountain climbing, scuba-diving, and hiking are high on the list of philosopher hobbies.  It's a blue-jeans-wearing, Star-Trek-watching, electric-guitar-playing kind of discipline.

Fey:  "You have to let people see what wrote.  It will never be perfect, but perfect is overrated." 

Probably all the academic disciplines are like this, but it can be a hard lesson to learn, just as it was for Fey.  A maybe brilliant essay that isn't written down is no use at all; a pretty good one that's been published and read is.  So:  Don't fuss.  Let it go.

The process of evaluation is also parallel.  Some people gather in a big room; everyone listens to stuff being presented; those people judge whether the stuff is good. It's a lot like a colloquium -- though, I'm grateful that for the time being at least whether you look good isn't supposed to be part of the evaluation (Lesson number 5:  "Television is a visual medium")

As I said, I had a mixed reaction to these similarities.  Mixed partly because in a way I think it would be good if philosophy could become more like comedy.  I mean, more accessible, more interesting, more fun.  More like something your average person would enjoy watching/listening to/doing over a couple of cocktails.

But in another way, I think philosophy is a little too much like comedy already.  Engaging personal presentation style is really valued, and lots of the most highly regarded scholars really "wow" their audiences with clever power-point slides and cute quips.   Just reading an intelligent and interesting paper isn't enough any more -- you're supposed to have the chops to get up there and really put on a show.

And because philosophy is so abstract, there isn't much in the way of a standard of evaluation beyond "other philosophers thought this was good."  I mean, the heart of our work isn't usually archival, or experimental, or textual ... it's having ideas.  Whether the ideas are good is always evaluated by whether other people think they're significant, interesting, and clear. 

But the thing is that, unlike in comedy, those evaluations have to be made by other philosophers -- indeed, by other specialists.  So there's never any chance to check out what you got on a bigger playing field, to be vindicated in a way that doesn't fit with what the other "experts" think.  It's the kind of thing that, if you've already got a gender imbalance, tends to encourage a gender imbalance.

Fey tells a great story about wanting to do a skit about "Kotex classic" -- an imagined return to the bulky belted maxi pads of the 1960s.  The guys, she says, couldn't really picture it -- because, she suddenly realized, they didn't really know what those pads were like, because they were guys.  But they listen, they do the skit, it's a success.  She was, in a sense, proven right.

For me, it's one of the hardest things about philosophy:  there is never any "proven right."  Other philosophers either like your ideas or they don't; if they don't, there's no experiment, no proof, no live audience that's going to come along and prove them wrong. 

It's just:  sorry, game over.


Christopher Grisdale said...

I love the post.

But a "philosophical" mood was not the first thought that came to mind when I saw that picture--just saying.

Patricia said...

Right -- well that is the power of quotation marks. One of the things I love most about Ms. Fey is that she always looks so self-aware and knowing. It's like she's constitutionally incapable of the doe-eyed look.