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.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Down With Optimism, Healthy Living, And A Positive Outlook On Life

Rumpole  of the Bailey, all dressed up for court.
Optimism, Healthy Living, And A Positive Outlook On Life:  I'm sick of all three.

You know, a couple of years ago, I was feeling depressed about getting older and being middle aged and all that sort of thing and I happened to pick up those books by John Mortimer about Rumpole of the Bailey.  Maybe you know the Rumpole character?  He's an old British defense lawyer, always complaining, always angry, but always struggling to get his client off and somehow always conveying a kind of interest in the important things in life.

The genius of Mortimer is that he makes you think Rumpole is an appealing guy with a kind of nice life, even though the list of particulars is staggeringly grim.  Rumpole -- or so he says -- doesn't like his wife.  He likes his kid, but his kid lives a million miles away in America.  He's not a very successful lawyer.  He is overweight and has health problems.  It sounds like the grimmest thing ever.

But it's not.  What Rumpole loves is a glass of cheap red wine -- or well, let's say three to four glasses of cheap red wine.  He drinks in a pub after work where he often jokes around with his colleagues -- both the ones he likes and the ones he doesn't.  He also obviously loves his work, and is proud as a peacock when he pulls out a surprise win.  And he has a kind of ... I don't know but a kind of honesty.  Rumpole is actually a man with integrity, who says what he thinks and fights for what he thinks is right, usually against forces of inanity, bureaucracy, superficiality, and petty-mean-spiritedness. He doesn't usually win, but so what?  He goes and has his cheap red wine and then goes home.

This cheered me enormously.  Because I thought Oh yeah, whatever else you got, as long as you got a glass of wine after work with friends and some people to joke around with, that's an OK life all on its own.  You don't have to be optimistic, striving, struggling to improve, to live the good life.  You just have to find some stuff you enjoy and enjoy it.  If what you enjoy isn't really good for you health-wise, well, big deal.  You're going to die eventually anyway.

Healthy Living and a Positive Outlook on Life, it turns out, are also overrated.  As Susan Jacoby points out in her new book, it's a myth that by healthy living we're somehow guaranteed to have a healthy active time in later years.  Lots of people get sick for no reason, and by the time you really get old, odds are excellent you won't be in good shape whatever you do.  All the sacrifice? not worth it.

Astonishingly, even the church of A Positive Outlook on Life is crumbling.  Actual empirical research showed that the people who live longest aren't the happiest most positive ones; they're the conscientious ones.  That's right:  worry, and don't be happy.  Happy people took risks and died.  Worryers made plans and stayed alive. 

I was listening to BBC comedy show The News Quiz the other day and the always awesome Sandi Toksvig (she's Danish and a lesbian! With a commanding voice and a dry wit! How cool is that?  I love her) said that her father always carried around a copy of a Punch cartoon in which two old guys are sitting around doing nothing in some old-guy-chairs and one says to the other, To think that if we hadn't given up drinking and smoking we'd have missed all this! 

Yeah, exactly. 

Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to go have some wine, waste some time, and do some quality worrying.