catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 11 :: 2008.05.30 — 2008.06.13


E! True Hollywood Stories: Extreme Philosophical Edition

You know that guy who breaks excitedly into a conversation when someone mentions Jamie Lynn Spears or Miley Cyrus because he recently saw on or read on Perez Hilton that.…!   But then he sheepishly pulls back, suddenly aware that he’s coming off a bit too eager and knowledgeable about the topic.  Such an outburst reveals how much time he actually spends following the trivial doings and undoings of pop stars, luxury hotel owners’ daughters and reality TV stars.  You know that guy?

Well, that guy is me.  And I must confess that my intense curiosity about the lives of others does not stop there.  It carries over into my work.  No, I don’t spend my time on the job looking up gossip sites on the Internet.  It’s worse than that.  As a philosophy teacher, I carry my obsession with me into the classroom where I attempt to corrupt my students with such drivel as well.

Though philosophy offers as much scandal and intrigue as any celebrity gossip, finding “the dirt” on philosophers is more difficult since they are notoriously better at keeping their secrets than Hollywood stars.  In the 2004 film Derrida, the French thinker is asked what he would want to see in a documentary about past thinkers.  “Their sex lives,” he responds.  When filmmaker Amy Kofman asks why, Derrida opts to give the quick answer:

…I’d love to hear about something they refuse to speak about.  Why do these philosophers present themselves asexually in their work?  Why have they erased their private life from their work?  Or never talked about anything personal?  I’m not talking about making a porno film about Hegel or Heidegger.  I want them to speak about the part that love plays in their lives.

The irony of Derrida’s admission is that during most of the film he avoids such questions concerning himself.  When filmmaker Amy Kofman asks the philosopher and his wife to talk about how they met, they refuse to do so.  Derrida also resists talking about love when Kofman suggests he say a few words on the subject in general.

Derrida: I have nothing to say about love.  At least pose a question.  I can’t examine ‘love’ just like that.  You need to pose a question.  I’m not capable of talking in generalities about love.  Maybe that’s what you want me to say in front of the camera…that I have nothing to say about love in general.

Kofman:  Could you explain why this topic has concerned philosophers for centuries?  It’s an important philosophical subject, isn’t it?

Derrida: You can’t ask this of me Amy.  Why have philosophers always spoken of love? [shaking his head]  That’s how philosophy started—No, no.  It’s not possible.  I have an empty head on love in general.  And as for the reason philosophy has often spoken of love, I either have nothing to say, or I’d just be reciting clichés.

Kofman: Plato often spoke of this, maybe you could just talk about that.

Derrida:  One of the first questions one could pose…I’m just searching a bit…is the question of the who and the what.  Is love the love of someone or the love of some thing?  Okay, supposing I loved someone.  Do I love someone for the absolute singularity of who they are—I love you because you are you—or do I love your qualities, your beauty, your intelligence? Does one love someone, or does one love about someone? …Often, love starts with some type of seduction.  One is attracted because the other is like this or like that.  Inversely, love is disappointed and dies when one comes to realize the other person doesn’t merit our love….  So at the death of love, it appears that one stops loving another not because of who they are, but because they are such and such….  I speak of it abstractly, but I think that whoever starts to love, is in love, or stops loving, is caught between this division of the who and the what. 

What’s interesting about this exchange in the film is that Kofman seems to intentionally leave the question open at first.  It is Derrida’s choice to either engage the question on a “personal” level or a “philosophical” level.  After some bandying about, he chooses the philosophical level, which is more abstract, less risky when it comes to giving too much of himself away.  Derrida shows he is well schooled in the Socratic tradition of escaping the grasp of the lover.  So our hero narrowly escapes yet another trap laid by the filmmaker.  We are left having to take the philosopher at his word, yet still desiring more.

The content of Derrida’s response is interesting as well because it helps explain why people are so intrigued by the life that lies (or tells the truth) behind the words of the thinker. Near the beginning of the documentary, Derrida cites Heidegger who claimed all we can really say about a philosopher is that “he was born, he thought, and he died.  And all the rest is pure anecdote.”  The who of the philosopher can only be understood by the what, in this case by the content of the person’s thinking.  It is tempting to suppose we might understand the who of the person better if we knew more of the what, the anecdotal evidence, but then aren’t we just chasing our own tails?  The two can’t be separated.  How maddeningly frustratingly tantalizing! 

So what’s happening when I read philosophy?  I believe it’s something very similar to what happens when I’m watching MTV’s hit show The Hills or following the love-stellated octahedron (a triangle with 24 sides) on ABC’s The Bachelor.   I’m engaged in getting to know others—as a who and a what.  And I’m learning about myself in the process. 

But what am I learning about myself?  Is my desire to know the other person a healthy fascination or is there a twisted dimension to this obsession?  What does it say about me that I am intensely satisfied to learn, for instance, that the 19th Century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer—who claimed “loving kindness” was more important than philosophy—was charged for allegedly pushing a neighbor woman down the stairs in his building and was forced to provide monetary compensation as long as the woman lived.  Why is it that I am fascinated with the debate surrounding Martin Heidegger, whose work has been influential on many important contemporary thinkers despite the fact that he was a Nazi?  And is this curiosity qualitatively different from my interest in Britney Spears’ public meltdown or Tom Cruise’s strange behavior and allegiance to scientology?

My favorite anecdote about a philosopher is the tragic story of Francis Bacon who committed his life to empiricism—the belief that knowledge can only be gained through the senses.  This conviction ultimately played a part in the philosopher’s death.  Bacon took the scientific method so seriously that when he and his friend were theorizing about whether or not meat could be preserved by inserting snow into the inner cavity of the animal, Bacon was not satisfied with mere rational inference.  He had to test his hypothesis.  So he walked a great distance on a winter’s day to a nearby farm where he was permitted to stuff a dead chicken’s anus with snow.  Bacon contracted pneumonia and died a few days later.  The fittingness of this death is second only to that of Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy, who was hit on the head by a tortoise because a vulture thought the man’s shiny bald head was a good stone on which to break the shell.

The fact that I know this, that I’ve chosen to store such trivia in my memory, must say something about me.  It must say something about a lot of people.  Finding entertainment in someone else’s demise is one of the oldest forms of amusement known to humankind.  We’ve long since accepted the idea that another person’s misfortune has value, especially if someone else is able to learn a lesson from it. 

The present day reality TV show continues this time-honored tradition.  It operates on the principle that in order for us to be entertained, our sense of “justice” must ultimately be confirmed and we will keep watching something that admittedly annoys us if it promises to wrap things up in a neat and tidy package by the end.  As an audience we are made to feel amicable toward some characters and perturbed by others.  Even if the “villains” of such shows as Blind Date or Cheaters don’t ultimately learn the error of their ways, at least we are filled with a sense of self-satisfaction for realizing the wrong in what they did.

Reality shows are not inherently evil.  And they are not part of some lower level of mindless entertainment in contrast to great works of art.  Though I admit reality shows work on significantly lesser levels than Shakespeare or Dante, they can fulfill a deep human need like a philosophical text, work of fiction, autobiographical document, published or unpublished diary, historical narrative, film or music.  We are drawn to such things because they act as windows into the intimate corners of other people’s lives.  As such, the lives of others also reflect our own secret passions and pursuits.

For example, when I read Renes Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”), I am drawn to his struggle to make sense of himself.  I get the feeling he’s trying to form a comic book hero of himself, an indestructible man impervious to doubt.  He is not just a distant object of my own enjoyment.  I am also truly reading the story of my own self.  Even though I, from my privileged perch of some 400 years of subsequent philosophical history, may not agree with his particular idea of the self, I still can’t help but see “my” self in it—the autonomous self that was passed on to me through various modern thinkers who influenced America’s forefathers.  And the disembodied self that can still be detected in the language of fellow Christian believers when they talk about God, heaven and the soul. 

In the same way, when I listen to music, I share the sorrows and joys of fellow image-bearers of God.  Particularly in rock’n’roll I hear a rebellion that resonates in many aspects of our contemporary culture.  Rock music began as the embodiment of a new concept of selfhood.  At its foundation is the idea that each individual can and must become his/her own god, must be gods themselves. Rock’n’roll is a music of self-expression, passionate commitment to intuitive spontaneity, absolute originality and orgies of creative self-destruction.  For the rock star “life is art.”  This vision of the self-reliant self illuminated by its own light of yes-saying creativity can be traced to the Beat poets who paved the way for rock’n’roll with their admiration for Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Rimbaud, Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  The perspective of these poets and thinkers is a hallmark of rock heroes from Elvis Presley to Kurt Cobain.

One would think following a “life is art” philosophy would result in beauty and joy but unfortunately numerous examples show the opposite is true. Over and over again, television and Internet media replay the tensions of this fantasy-self as it shape-shifts from one person to the next in an eternal recurrence of the same.  The pattern is so common that VH1 was able to turn the rise and fall of pop stars into a successful long-running TV series that has become a comical cliché of the decadence-before-downfall story.  VH1 clearly recognized the dramatic character of the rock’n’roll lifestyle, perhaps unintentionally demonstrating the tragic nature of our age.

Nietzsche was one of its early proponents.  He died of a sexually transmitted descent into madness.  Jack Kerouac’s search for beauty and truth in his own individuality ended in alcohol-related self-obliteration.  The Sex Pistols rose to stardom on unruly anarchist behavior only to be trapped in a commercial prison of their own making. Kurt Cobain carried on these same punk principles, and found himself in a similar trap.  He also could find no way out but to carry this philosophy to its illogical conclusion. 

The popularity of such figures displays the degree to which contemporary society is drawn to lawlessness and self-destructive behavior as entertainment.  These people gained popularity because they embody our fantasy of individual freedom from societal norms.  But on the flip side of their beautiful (beatific, “beat”) lifestyle was alienation, despair, addiction, anxiety, horror.  When Nietzsche proposed that we become gods ourselves to make up for the murder of God, he was trying to offer the next stage of man’s evolution.  Looking at the results, we might say it was a bad idea.

The famous Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, saw it coming. In a prologue to The Brothers Karamazov, Konstantin Mochulsky points out that one of Dostoevsky's characters (Kirilov) in The Devils realizes that "If God doesn't exist, then I am God." Mochulsky says,

In place of the God-man appears the man-god, the 'strong personality', who stands beyond morality, 'beyond the confines of good and evil,' to whom 'everything is permitted' and who can 'transgress' all laws…Dostoevsky made one of his greatest discoveries: the nature of man is correlative to the nature of God; if there is no God, there is also no man. In the man-god, the new demonic being, everything human must disappear.

Jack Kerouac’s life exemplifies the despair and restlessness found in the man-god.  In Desolation Angels, Jack is starting to realize the meaninglessness of all his wandering and is growing tired of it.  What was previously described with such hope and excitement in works like On the Road becomes laborious and empty.  Kerouac still believed in the God of his Catholic upbringing, but he turned to Eastern religion, which ultimately offered no solace. Kerouac's friend William S. Burroughs warned him: "A man who uses Buddhism or any other instrument to remove love from his being in order to avoid suffering, has committed, in my mind, a sacrilege comparable to castration." One of Kerouac's ex-girlfriends comments that "Through Buddhism, [Kerouac] could rationalize the void he had discovered within himself, but he could never accept it." She points out that Desolation Angels is particularly sad because Kerouac claims near the beginning that it's a book without characters. His loneliness is creeping in and he tries to avoid it by wandering or meeting up with his friends to chatter the silence away in drunken orgies of words and sex.

The end of Kerouac's life was essentially a descent into madness. The author finds meaninglessness in his books where once he hoped to find the most meaning. On the Road made Kerouac famous for expressing the ultimate individualistic American fantasy—the wanderer who goes here and there without any commitment to others.  Less publicized is the fact that Kerouac left his pregnant wife in the lurch to pursue his journey.  But the lifestyle that was Kerouac’s claim to fame as a writer also became his biggest trap: If he stopped this self-destructive on-the-road life he would no longer have anything to write about. People would stop buying his books.  His livelihood depended on his own self-destruction.

Kerouac’s story seems an ominous foreshadowing of the punk rock problem as embodied by the Sex Pistols and repeated by Kurt Cobain. The Sex Pistols rose to fame as people “gobbed” (spat) and threw beer bottles at them.  Not an ideal way to make a living, but punk music had turned self-negation into an art form—and the devotion of the punk audience proved it could be a very marketable product!  The problem is that the only way to keep making money with such a business model is to keep finding new ways to shock people, to go even further so that the crowd doesn’t get bored.  How disappointing it would be for everyone if the Sex Pistols ended less disastrously than they began.  Would we be talking about them still with such admiration if they had peacefully grown old together, their careers sustained by greatest hits records? 

No, the punk definition of success is self-destruction.  The paradox of the punk attitude, however, is that in order to stand out from the crowd, to be uniquely and radically individual, one must be willing to let oneself be annihilated.  The punk attitude is a heroic stance against any lofty goals that society has established as good and proper and for all the things society deems bad (hence the Nazi swastikas).  The strange irony is that our society is more than willing to grant immortality (what is more lofty and time-honored than the desire for immortality?) to the punk star who has shown willful disregard for such things, for life itself.  We admire the punk gesture, the middle finger pointed straight into the camera lens, even though—or maybe because—it is directed straight at us. 

But such “freedom” is also a kind of suicide.  It requires an absolute absence of care-for-self, and that’s what people find so entertaining.  You won’t find any images of Kurt Cobain brushing his teeth to fight cavities, but of Kurt Cobain flinging himself into a drum set you’ll find no shortage.  Check out the documentary Nirvana: Live and Sold Out and you’ll find Cobain trashing the oscillating fans on stage as well.  Was he against air circulation?  No.  It was an intentional Freudian statement against the people who got him there in the first place. 

So Dostoevsky was on to something. Finding one's self outside of one's commitment to others becomes a necessary fantasy in a world where God no longer exists, but it leads to alienation, meaninglessness and self-destruction.  It is not a mere coincidence that rock’n’roll became popular in America at a time when people were also being turned on to Eastern Philosophy, drugs and sexual “freedom.”  The rock’n’roll life-and-death-style expresses, perhaps even validates, the emptiness people feel from this individualist way of life. 

It is unclear if this delusion that has held sway in American popular culture seems to be falling out of favor.  The mythical barren backdrop of Hollywood Westerns that once held the promise of hidden gold and new opportunities is certainly starting to look less romantic in films today. The open emptiness of the plains that once promised the ability to start over somewhere else also offers a (black) mirror image of ourselves, pulling us further and further into our own god-man emptiness.  Increasingly, the American West appears less as the road to riches and more like the road to ruin.  There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men are just two recent examples that give these Western landscapes an ominous quality portending doom for the world to come. 

Though Hollywood continues to be the epicenter for this American Nietzschean myth, it also represents the culmination of the man-god desire.  As David Lynch has shown in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, there is a dark nightmarish side to the city of dreams.  But we don’t have to look at fictionalized representations to confirm Lynch’s mysterious premonitions.  The evidence is in the “stars” themselves. 

Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Anna Nicole all play out this myth on a global stage, but the attention given them reveals more than their own failings.  The sin of a society that desires this fantasy, even desires to see the self-destruction of its fantastic heroes, is also on display.  The lives of other people that we find fascinating in a voyeuristic society are a reflection of our selves as well. In this tabloid culture, the objects of our desire can’t help but be projections of our own desire.  Therefore, an examination of media and popular culture must always already be a self-examination.  Why do we love to watch and read the lives of other people?  What is it that we love in these people? 

Many years ago Socrates suggested “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  He considered close scrutiny of someone else’s thoughts to be the ultimate gesture of love.  This may be true of close friends, but it also holds for famous people, philosophers, poets, musicians and filmmakers.  Though some of them may embarrass me, I don’t feel right denying their existence.  And it is not an option to disown them as representatives of a sinful culture in which I have no part whatsoever.  Yes, I could just ignore them, stop watching these human train wrecks repeat a tragic cycle.  But these are the people whom I love.  Though we don’t always know exactly why we love who we love, perhaps a continual examination of this desire is as important now as it ever was.

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