Jun 302012

With a few comments on my last post to spur me on, here are some hopefully final thoughts on the ironic life for the moment.

Irony is one of the characteristic social modes for Americans of at least the Generation X (that would be mine, i.e. 40ish) and younger. I can’t speak for how pervasive it is demographically in terms of race, class, or education: I certainly read R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” ironically.

While irony is generally interpreted as being the same as sarcasm, or satire, I saw something different in, say, South Park’s portrayal of Al Gore, which is so silly that I can’t see it as an actual criticism of global warming alarmism. Instead, it just uses our familiarity with this phenomenon as a premise for something comic. This is also my reading of Sacha Baron Cohen’s social commentary and Howard Stern’s arrogance. As detailed in my first post on this, I see in these examples some suspension of judgment on the part of the perpetrators: if it’s a commentary, it’s an ambiguous one, rooted in some recognition of the absurd.

What are the social and psychological affects of this phenomenon? Is it overall a good or bad thing? These are huge questions, and I don’t think I can do them justice here, but let me make a few points:

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Jun 292012

Following up on my last post, here are some more examples, some cultural and some personal, to make my point.

1. Consider Cake:

Listen to Cake singing “I Will Survive.”

When this rendition came out in 1996, it was greeted as a “naughty cover.” A parody of some sort. When I hear it now, I just think it’s awesome, and not disrespectful of the original disco version at all, i.e. even though disco was the ultimate in uncool from the point of view of the grunge generation in whose wake Cake gained its burst of fame, the boys in the band were not slaves to such fashion and so used this old groove to create their new groove. I think, though, that the question “is this a joke or not?” is a misunderstanding of irony. This is not a case of finding an already written song in their style and performing it; it really is intended to be weird and surprising. Irony is such that the listener can take it as ridiculing or praising the original; it does not require the artist to take a stance either way.

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Jun 272012

Funny rich guyNear the end of our humor episode, I threw out the truism that humor tends to deal with something we’re uncomfortable with, like death, sex, or embarrassment itself. The example I gave was of someone like Ed Conard making jokes about being rich. Now, I’ve since seen Conard on the Daily Show, and while he was good natured enough, I see no evidence that he would have the self-awareness to make the kind of joke I had in mind.

My point, though, was that someone who did feel properly weird about being in his privileged position, yet also simultaneously feeling like he worked for it and deserved it, could make a joke about being rich that would in effect be toying with his ambivalence. “Why don’t you get the big bucks like me? I guess God must hate you, what can I say?” In our age of irony, a guy like him saying something like that is compatible with his a) being a total bastard, b) being a nice guy who realizes the absurdity of inequality, c) being someone who thinks that the inequality really is deserved, but that life is fun and you should make light of things, and/or d) being someone who thinks that we all walk together in this crazy world, and those are the breaks, so get used to it. So really, if you’re the kind of person who gets irony (and doesn’t think, say, Sacha Baron Cohen is a simple bully), then you’d know that you can’t actually derive any conclusions about such an ironic Conardist. Maybe you’d have the right to say at least that he was the kind of guy who was comfortable with irony, but even that I’m not sure about; I used to read Dick Cheney like that all the time, but now I just don’t know… Irony is not quite the same as simply having a dry sense of humor.

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Jun 262012

Genevieve's fan art

Genevieve’s unsolicited fan art based on comments made during our Sartre episode, by which she got our attention so we could ask her to help us with this web redesign.

As you may have noticed, we’ve got a nifty new web redesign here that we’ve just deployed. Behold our new features:

-New art from Genevieve Arnold (thanks!), a fan/volunteer who took Ken Gerber’s original PEL guy icon and 3-man-caricature to create our new header, a cool philosophy vending machine picture, and a recolored caricature with Dylan in it. Yes, the picture above is her early quick swipe at Dylan as a Nietzsche-mustached mechanical owl.

-We also took brand new photos of ourselves so you can see what we actually look like.

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Jun 252012

Alan Saunders

 It was with great sadness this weekend that I heard via Facebook and on the Australian Broadcast Corporation website of the untimely passing of Alan Saunders.  Saunders was the host of the ABC Radio National program The Philosopher’s Zone, a weekly broadcast covering a broad range of topics, both in philosophy and outside of philosophy in a philosophical manner.

I first started listening to the show as a podcast via iTunes over 2 years ago and wrote a review in August of 2010.  I was a little critical of his style, but it was more out of a desire for more than the weekly, 30 minute format could accomodate in tackling lofty topics.  Saunders always demonstrated a strong grasp of the philosophical issues at hand, delivered his questions and comments calmly with his made-for-media voice and exhibited a generous spirit towards his guests, the issues, the thinkers and the history of philosophy.  He also clearly had a clever sense of humor that peeked out far too infrequently.

My blog post led to correspondence with the show’s producer, Kyla Slaven, who kindly acknowledged my interest and gave me feedback occassionally on topics I addressed here.  She shares Saunders’s enthusiasm and love for philosophy and his broad intellectual curiosity.  So I say to Alan Saunders’s family, friends, colleagues, fans and particularly to Kyla, may his memory be a blessing.

You can read the announcement on ABC’s site here and a tribute page here.  He will be missed.


Jun 242012

Saved by the Bell is EvilIn the episode, I brought up Moore’s use of the non-mathematical character of the good (in that one good plus another good doesn’t necessarily make a whole with the good equal to the sum of the parts) by bringing up theodicy, i.e. the defense of the existence of evil in a perfectly good world by saying that that evil is necessary, because it allows us to be virtuous in response to it. Here’s the quote from Principia Ethica on this (from Ch. 6. The Ideal, section 133):

There seems no reason to think that where the object is a thing evil in itself, which actually exists, the total state of things is ever positively good on the whole. The appropriate mental attitude towards a really existing evil contains, of course, an element which is absolutely identical with the same attitude towards the same evil, where it is purely imaginary. And this element, which is common to the two cases, may be a great positive good, on the whole. But there seems no reason to doubt that, where the evil is real, the amount of this real evil is always sufficient to reduce the total sum of value to a negative quantity. Accordingly we have no reason to maintain the paradox that an ideal world would be one in which vice and suffering must exist in order that it may contain the goods consisting in the appropriate emotion towards them. Continue reading »

Jun 222012

Good and Bad Road SignAt some point during the episode, Dylan and Wes were arguing about Moore and referred to the good as a ‘term’.  I corrected them that Moore actually calls it a ‘concept’ as if something hung on that distinction.  I guess it is incumbent upon me to explain.

First off, Moore never uses the word “concept” in the chapter – my bad.  He uses “idea” and “notion”.  But my point is the same:  I just felt like we were experiencing Wittgenstein hangover in the way we were discussing Moore.  He does try in the first chapter to make the point that he is not doing linguistic analysis of the meaning of the word.

What, then, is good? How is good to be defined? Now it may be thought that this is a verbal question. A definition does indeed often mean the expressing of one word’s meaning in other words. But this is not the sort of definition I am asking for…If I wanted that kind of definition I should have to consider in the first place how people generally used the word good; but my business is not with its proper usage, as established by custom…I shall, therefore, use the word in the sense in which I think it is ordinarily used; but at the same time I am not anxious to discuss whether I am right in thinking it is so used. My business is solely with that object or idea, which I hold, rightly or wrongly, that the word is generally used to stand for. What I want to discover is the nature of that object or idea, and about this I am extremely anxious to arrive at an agreement. Continue reading »

Jun 212012

Aristotle’s Politics (from around 350 B.C.E.) is presented as a follow-up to his Nichomachean Ethics (which we discussed in a previous episode). Actually, we’re not sure in what order these were composed, and the Politics is internally repetitious enough that it is probably itself mashed together from different original sources; those that are into that kind of thing can read more about the troubles of interpreting the form of those of Aristotle’s works that have reached us at Aristotle’s Stanford Encyclopedia page.

The distinction between ethics and politics for Aristotle (as for Plato) is tenuous, as part of “virtue” is how one acts as a citizen (man being a political animal and all), and the form of government will define what citizenship entails. Aristotle thought that a person can only really achieve his potential (his telos) when in a well-structured society, and that society is a natural outgrowth of the human need for association. What makes for a well-structured society? Aristotle is a realist, unlike Plato (if you take Plato’s Republic to be a serious political text and not just an allegorical account of the human soul; it’s clear that Aristotle did take Plato’s suggestions about education and ordering social classes seriously), so he recognizes that there’s not one kind of government that will be the best of the available options for all peoples at all times and in all social situations, but he does think that we can examine the experience of the many city-states with different constitutions (a constitution is not necessarily a document; it’s just Aristotle’s way of referring to the arrangement of political offices) to come up with a plethora of insights into what makes a state work (i.e. fulfill its own telos). What’s important overall is that the best rule, meaning those with good judgment, which for Aristotle amounts to a sense of justice.

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Jun 202012

On G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, ch. 1 (1903); Charles Leslie Stevenson’s “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms” (1937), and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, ch. 1-2.

Is there such a thing as moral intuition? Is “good” a simple property that we all recognize but can’t explain like yellow? G.E. Moore thinks that any attempt to define good in terms of properties like “pleasure,” “interest,” or “happiness” are doomed. Even if all pleasurable things were good, the word “good” still wouldn’t mean “pleasant;” you could always sensibly ask, “but are those pleasant things really good?” This is Moore’s “open question” argument, which expresses his objection to the “naturalistic fallacy,” i.e. deriving an “ought” from an “is.”

Stevenson agreed that “good” isn’t reducible to any natural property; saying something is good is not to express a property about it at all. Instead, moral terms are tools we use to convince other people to like things that we like. This tendency of the word “good” to elicit such a response is part of what Stevenson calls its “emotive meaning.”

MacIntyre thinks that this emotivism now pervades our current uses of ethical language. Because Moore is successful in debunking all the ethical theories that rely on natural facts (and supernatural ones too) to ground morality, we’re left with no grounding at all, and people like Moore who pretend to be using intuition to discover primal moral facts are really just expressing their own preferences. The same goes for ethical theorists whose key terms don’t hold up to scrutiny: when someone justifies an action by referring to a fiction like “greatest happiness,” “natural rights,” or “the dictates of reason,” he is just, again, expressing his preferences; these bogus theories just serve to mask what’s really going on. We’ll give MacIntyre’s positive account of how to ground morality (which is derived from Aristotle’s) in episode 59.

Read more about the topic and get the readings. Dig our new web site layout!

End song: “When I Was Yours,” by Mark Lint, 1997.

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Jun 192012

Go check out the album.

Our humor episode gave me an excuse to finally get this album all converted and posted for those interested. To quote my liner notes:

Black Jelly Beans are the ones that normal people with a fine taste for fine things pick out and throw to the weevils, but which certain freaky weevil-like individuals find quite to their liking, thank you…

Smokes (aka Spoo) are those silly (harmful?) indulgences that act to let off steam (smoke?), producing a small, noxious cloud, intoxicating to some and irritating to others.

So these mostly me screwing around in various ways: some are demos of decent songs (“Manager” and “Celebrity” both made it to New People albums), a couple are one-off collaborations (such as “Come On, Lady,” found at the end of the episode, and “The Saga of El Kater,” both of which were done with Brian my friend and Sklep co-editor, brother of Ken who drew the PEL icon and my recent album covers), a few are songs too embarrassing to make it into any other form (“Solitary Drama” and “Pass Time Incorporeal,” both of which I’ve seen fit to tack on PEL episodes for thematic reasons). I’ve even got a Bob Dylan cover on there, recorded to impress a girl.

The album is dominated, however, by Spoo songs, the first and most entertaining of which was “The Nipple Song,” which you can also hear at the end of the humor episode (I put “The Zoo Song” on the Foucault one). These are pretty much pure silliness: quickly slapped together and utterly meaningless, and yet I enjoy them even now.

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Jun 182012

Sklep coverJust because I brought it up on the episode, I call the new readers’ attention to a book I wrote in 1993, Tripe. You can get it for free here. I also blogged in 2010 about the first few chapters.

I had a few purposes in writing this, one of which was to explore the thesis that what makes something funny is the unexpected. As mentioned on the episode, one of my early eye-openers re. humor was Dave Barry (who I see currently has a blog), and in high school I wrote a humor magazine (called Sklep) featuring many articles of something like that style. I quote myself (from an essay called “The Meaning of Life and Such”) for historical purposes, not advocating the humor of the following but just giving you an idea of the style I was into:

Certain inconsistencies in religious philosophies lead one into doubt. For instance, everyone knows that Italian food is the essence of life, but manicotti is never once mentioned in the Bible (although it is in the “Second Apocrypha,” which says in Galdius 3:16… “And the Evil One tripped upon the manicotti and fell into the Abyss with tomato sauce on his foot”). And another thing… if Christ comes back, will he be born in the U.S.? I cringe at the possibility that the Russians might devote their entire economy to bridging the “Messiah Gap.” Things like this have led many to agnosticism and atheism as well as some other impressive-sounding a-words.

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Jun 142012

Black Americas have historically used comedy to cope with the sad realities of racism. Living in what Cornel West called “a perpetual state of emergency” has heightened Black American’s sensitivity to sometimes-subtle social truths. The best of the Black-American comedians cast a fresh light on every day social interactions in sometimes painful but often hilarious ways.

Dave Chappelle is among the best Black-American comedians working today.

Known to the world for his groundbreaking Chappelle Show, Dave Chappelle is also known in the Black community as a gifted stand-up comedian. Don’t be fooled by his aloof weed-filled persona, just below the surface of his relaxed delivery is a sharp comedic mind brimming with insightful social critique.

The Police and Race

Yes, he is exaggerating, but there is truth on display here. Would it be as funny were it not true on some level? Racial profiling is a reality in America. Here, Dave merely explicates in a comedic way what Black Folk have experienced for years.

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Jun 132012

Philosophy Bro[Editor's note: We're happy here to get a contribution on humor from Philosophy Bro who was on our recent Wittgenstein episodes. Give him a nice round of applause.]

I think that “funny” is one of those words that you’re going to have a real bad time trying to delimit or explain entirely. But, uh… fuck it. Here goes. In Wittgensteinian fashion, I mean them with the implicit caveat that “things are funny for this reason… except when they’re not.”

I more or less buy the “unexpected” thesis about humor: humor largely comes from a mismatch of our expectations with what we encounter. I think the unexpected thesis covers Bergson’s thesis that funny comes from an autonomous gloss on the organic, flexible parts of life, precisely because you don’t expect the robotic to intrude on the dynamically social, and so when it does, well, all-aboard for giggles-town. I also take ‘expectation’ to be super loose there. So, it’s not like everything funny is definitely a surprise; it means that things don’t happen the way you think things should be or ought to be or, whatever, and there isn’t something overriding like disgust or fear or whatever.

Our expectations also evolve very quickly, which is why it isn’t funny when someone keeps establishing conventions just to break them over and over; pretty soon you catch on to what they’re doing. That’s also why, even though robots are generally hilarious (apparently), if there’s a guy whose entire fucking schtick is ‘robot voices at parties’ he’s hilarious for like one party and then, “Oh, man, here comes robot guy. Greeeeeaaaaat.” Continue reading »

Jun 122012

While discussing (through Bergson’s book) how humor works in us, we had a couple of forays into related off-topics. The first was the question of laughter and delight. My contention was that the laughter of delight may be related, but is not the same thing as a reaction to something being funny. The second was the question of something not being funny or laughable. We considered this in a couple of ways, particularly by discussing Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat and the possibility of doing a rape joke (see a recent NYTimes article). (Note that there is a whole category of men raping men jokes, typically a version of prison-rape, that are a tried and true category of rape-joke.) I’m going to focus on this second case here and take up the question of delight later.

Key to why so much of Cohen’s work isn’t funny is his drawing the audience into being the willing manipulators and humiliators of his victims.  Now it is clear that much of humor comes from the humiliation of others, the poking fun at their mis-steps, misfortunes, and peccadilloes. That we find pleasure in such things and that we find it funny is interesting in itself. It’s surely partly power — we take pleasure from winning. It’s surely partly schadenfreude — we take pleasure from other people losing. Both are part of our ability to have ambitions and goals, to want to accomplish anything. If we didn’t get pleasure from accomplishments (winning broadly speaking), we wouldn’t have ambitions at all.

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Jun 102012

Tom Motley (Image: Tom Motley when he’s all spiffed up.)

It is a little known fact, even among our philosophically sophisticated readers, that Heidegger argued for the supremacy of German humor. Because German jokes have the most precise underlying structure, he argued, German humor would rule the earth for a thousand years. (Sorry if you’ve already heard some version of that old joke.)

In the spirit of episode #57, I offer some philosophical comics. (These are to be viewed for entertainment purposes only; David Letterman asks that there be no wagering.) Tom Motley (not his real name) calls himself a “CARTOONiOLOGiST” and he’s one of my favorite dudes. He does all kinds of work and it’s always clever, but not always funny. In fact, he did a “comic” strip that was deliberately not funny. He called it “tragic strip” instead.

I’ve selected a couple of pieces that are particularly philosophical and also humorous. The first one is titled “Fiction Krishna” and it provides instruction on cartooning and enlightenment at the same time. (Tom teaches cartooning at The School of the Visual Arts and illustration at Pratt Manhattan but, as far as I know, he does not teach the practices leading to Nirvana.) The second piece is shorter and gives you some recipes from the Existentialists’ Cookbook, “Bean Dip & Nothingness“. As you may have guessed, Nausea is the basic premise behind all the recipes.

If you are a fairly serious comic nerd, dear reader, then you might want to check out this interview article with Mr. Motely or explore his cartooniologist blog. You might even be interested in an illustrated classic, The Golden Ass.(Insert your own ass and/or gold joke here.)

-Dave Buchanan

Jun 092012

So Mark took on the comedy stylings of Louis CK in the first case study, someone who establishes a core insight and then plays it out through both content and performance.  I’d like to take a look at two other (multi-generational!) comedians who rely on establishing a premise quickly using audience assumptions and then make a joke by twisting either the meaning of words or expectations of the situation.

Henny Youngman was a comedian known for one-liners or jokes vs. story telling, character or prop work.  I plan to get to more ‘modern’ comics later so if you aren’t familiar with him – google now and come back.  Walter Winchell dubbed Youngman ‘The King of One-liners’ and he was famous for delivering dozens of jokes in a short set.  Check out the following recording:

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Jun 082012

We mentioned Louie CK on the episode in the context of his body image bits, but since he’s not a paradigm case of that (meaning it’s not his only shtick), we didn’t pursue it. So here’s a piece from I chose semi-randomly for us to discuss, having to do with kid naming and in general dealing with your offspring:

Watch on YouTube.

So he has this core insight about naming related to this overall weird power differential between parents and kids. Unlike the old timey folks with servants and all that, we modern Americans are very uncomfortable with inequality, and this is a frequent topic for Louie. With kids, the inequality is built in, and even beneficial, of course, but since being a dad requires taking on a role that is to some degree inauthentic, meaning you can’t act exactly around your kids how you would act around, say, your best friends with whom you are totally comfortable, this is another topic he’s keen on. So in Bergson’s terms, you’ve got this clash between being your true self and having to act this somewhat rigid role. Once you’re acting “unnaturally,” then it’s like you’re on the brink of spiraling into madness, in that the “true self” is no longer guiding you, making your actions sensible. (Of course, parental instincts are fully natural, but part of the art of humor is ignoring aspects of your experience that would cancel out the incongruity that you’ve set up, i.e. responding to an ironic statement or exaggeration with an explanation of why the statement is not literally true is to not get the joke.)

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Jun 062012

In the episode we spent some time discussing Sacha Baron Cohen’s humor of duping people (I don’t know whether he does this in his current movie, which sounds like it has more scripted elements), which I generally think is great, while Dylan and Seth found it hard to sit through given the duping of the innocent.

This scene from his TV show is pretty typical:

Watch on YouTube.

So we have the innocent bystanders, but they are clearly not the butt of the joke; the Borat character is the clown, but clearly a lot of the humor comes out of the interaction of this character and “the real world,” i.e. people who aren’t in on the joke. (His Ali G film which didn’t feature any of this wasn’t nearly as funny.)

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Jun 052012

UK's most beautiful faceThis Reuters video (and I’m sorry about the 30 second commercial that you have to sit through to get to it) depicts “Britain’s Most Natural Beauty,” where the contest “wasn’t just a matter of subjective beauty, but settled with science. Researchers said that the distance between facial features, and the width and length of the face are deciding factors for perfection.” Some of the text from the video can be read here, though you’ll miss the depressing images of her working in a fish ‘n chips shop.

This follows the ancient Greek tendency to equate beauty with harmony, which would make it objective and mathematical. Our modern pluralism argues against that, of course, and I see a parallel in our deliberations about the relativism of humor. As I said on the episode, different kinds of humor are trying to do different kinds of things. Not all of them are at even supposed to be laugh-inducing, and we laugh for multiple reasons, not all of which are even related to something we’d for sure call humor. But given a particular standard, there may well be a logic to it that can be measured, so you can objectively tell if someone’s singing in tune, or whether the colors in a painting our outfit are harmonized, or in this case, you can measure the mathematics of the face. Clearly, though, such an exercise doesn’t rule out questioning the standard itself by asking whether meeting that standard is necessary or sufficient for beauty or humor. Something that comes close to some fairly natural (or historically rooted, at least) standard could turn out to, on reflection, be not at all what we find most important in art/humor.

We’ve been long planning an aesthetics episode on George Santayana’s The Sense Of Beauty,and he describes the different layers/aspects by which we take in an object of aesthetic contemplation, e.g. the surface play of colors in a painting vs. the shapes which may have their own appeal vs. the intellectual relations between the ideas conveyed vs. the associations that we may bring to any of the preceding vs. external factors like knowing who the artist was or how much it cost. Without getting into the specifics of that theory, we can see that one can, like Santayana, try to explain the multiplicity of standards by focusing on the different aspects of the work, such that people who disagree on whether something is beautiful are just paying attention to different things (or bringing different things to it), and this retains the character of a theoretical explanation, a schema for explaining beauty, as opposed to the irreducible relativism that says that “we just like different things” and admits of no further explanation. I’m not prepared yet to come down on one side or the other here, but it’s a question I’d like to follow further.

Jun 042012

bad humorOne point I had intended to make during the episode was about the role of the imagination in aesthetic appreciation, including appreciation of humor.

One distinction that Bergson glossed over and which we weren’t very consistent about making is the difference between “falling within the category of humor” and “actually being funny.” This came through a bit in our discussion of joke construction. For something to fall within the category of humor, meaning it’s potentially funny, all you need is an idea of a certain kind. While we didn’t acknowledge a successful theory on the ‘cast that captures what this kind is, I think we gave enough individual properties of some funny things so as to set up a family resemblance kind of definition, which may well be the best one can do: two elements that clash against each other unexpectedly. When starting to formulate a joke, or as Bergson does, when trying to describe types of comedy, you might not be very specific re. what these elements are, in which case it’s not fully a joke yet, but a sketch of a joke.

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