We are exuberant fellows and have long discussed using this blog as a BLOG and not just as a podcast accompaniment, so I’m going to initiate an idea I’ve been wanting to try out, sort of…
You see, I’ve wanted to go beyond the bounds of the podcast and tell folks about the philosophy books I’ve stumbled over of late, largely in trying to figure out things for us to talk about on the podcast, but in most cases I only finish part of the book, and it seems unfair to “review” a book given that. However, let me be frank: I’ve got a big bookshelf of philosophy books, and how many have I read ALL of? Not many, not many at all. Most courses only assign select chapters, select papers; there’s never time to discuss it all. That there Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason? Took a semester course just on it, and still didn’t finish it. Being and Nothingness? Didn’t come close to finishing. Dewey’s Experience and Nature? Searle’s Intentionality? Bernard Williams’s Descartes? No no no. Yet I deign to have opinions on most of this stuff anyway (or at least I did when the bits I had read were fresh in mind). So, you likely deserve my only partially informed ramblings on the books I’ve lately gotten out of the library, read the first couple chapters of, let sit for 3 months while I renewed them, and then returned. You’re welcome!
Now, if that doesn’t sound amateurish enough, right now I’m going to give you a review of the first 3/5 of a movie, because after 41 minutes, I’ve got opinions I can no longer keep in check.
The movie is “Stupidity,” a documentary from 2003 that I stumbled over sitting at my computer looking at Netflix’s streaming options. I just spent about 10 minutes writing about the format of the documentary just to give you some background but erased it. It’s a documentary! …and not the kind that has to actually follow someone interesting around or go shoot difficult footage, but just lots of talking heads and overlaid graphics.
The film points out that most people have ill-defined notions of stupidity, and hence intelligence, and talks to some people who have written books about the subject and who otherwise seem to have opinions, and of course the point is that America is dumb, rejoices in dumbness, and it’s largely the media’s fault. I find it ironic that a film that complains about people’s short attention spans feels the need to, just like a music video, cut away to a different image every three seconds maximum to avoid audience boredom. And yet, for me, it’s not enough. This is basically an informational piece, and there’s some real information in it, such as the historical, clinical definitions of “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron,” but I find myself wanting to just be reading the damn thing on Wikipedia, such that I could get all this publicly available information in three minutes rather than an 41.
After this sort-of interesting historical stuff is out of the way, then the movie just shows a bunch of people complaining about idiocy without doing anything to really add to my understanding of it. Yes, I understand that media editorial departments enforce an “audience target age” that means that not too many big words can fit in there. Yes, I understand that some TV shows are created simply as escapism, and, if poorly made, do so via a very limited number of tricks, i.e. murders, big guns, jiggling asses, people getting lit on fire, etc., but this all sounds to me like complaints about the 80s, where media were limited.
I have of late myself become addicted to big stories, whether in print or on film or whatever, which means, for instance, that I’ll get ahold of a season (or five) of a TV show with a continuous plot (like The Wire, Babylon 5, or Dexter) and watch it compulsively until it’s done. This kind of TV is very different from the Diff’rent Strokes and Three’s Company of my youth that was created purely to kill time and sell advertising, and yet, for me, it’s still passive, vegetating time on the couch, i.e. the putting oneself into a stupor that the film Stupidity objects to.
Likewise, after philosophy grad school, as an adult with some nice pretentious literature behind me, I went through a Stephen King phase… a writer read by many a dumbass who uses violence as titillation and consciously avoids any language (big words and such) that would trip anyone up and so interfere with the storytelling, and I’ll tell ya what: it generally works. I get sucked in, and I think I’m deadened enough to described violence that it just seems like some of the flavor of it to me… something that creates the mood but which could just as well be switched to something else to create a different, equally compelling mood.
So I’m not going to defend my country and my era against stupidity, and the film reminded me of the topic and provided me with some nuggets of information, but my view on the topic is about the same as when I started, which I’ll just tell you: Intelligence is a cultural myth, a reduction of a lot of very different capacities and behaviors to a one-dimensional scale that doesn’t make much sense. It’s not just “book smarts” vs. “street smarts” or “common sense” vs. “intellectualism;” there are just certain sets of things that make a given individual’s brain hurt when he or she tries to think about them, and so he or she generally DOESN’T, and philosophy is often one of those things, though not generally for me. I, however, have plenty of experiences of terminal inattentiveness, feeling “too tired to think” about some topic whenever it comes up, just not being able to get my mind around things, poor memory, etc. I’m convinced that these experiences are not fundamentally different than those had by someone pretty unambiguously dumb, and there are a lot of factors that go into how we each individually deal with those feelings. Do we have faith that even though this math stuff or Kant or investment crap or sports statistics or whatever seems so hard that we COULD figure it out with effort? It often depends on how we’ve dealt with such things in the past; my little nephew who doesn’t know his own limitations will ALWAYS volunteer to take a crack at anything you’re having trouble with, no matter how obviously inappropriate for a seven-year-old. Self-confidence is a lot of it, and practice is most of the rest. Yes, some people do a lot better on standardized tests, some people think better on their feet, some people can read Nietzsche while driving, but they’re all basically the same breed of dumbasses as the rest of us.
I’ve still got plenty of questions about stupidity: some positive puzzles brought up by some of the Nietzsche I’m reading for Episode #11, like what basic, necessary errors are necessary for us to live, or what crap we’ve inherited from our culture that we just can’t see past, or what can we possibly do to turn this era around and make it less stupid, but “Stupidity” doesn’t give me any insight on those questions. (Well, maybe it does at the end, but my prediction says no.)
So, there you go, a half-assed film review that’s now made me too tired to bother to see the rest of the film, told you not that much about the movie, and ended with a painfully inadequate account of one of my own half-formed views that you didn’t actually ask for. Again, you’re welcome!