30 May 2009

weekend notes #6

• Someone commented on last post's remarks about modern philosophy as follows:

You blogged recently about Blade Runner and teaching, noting "I suspect this particular rot may have started with the 1999 movie The Matrix." Not so. During the 1980s TV and film regularly were discussed in philosophy tutorials classes at Manchester University (dependent upon lecturer). For example we talked about Identity and Star Trek — if you made a perfect copy of a person with the same memories, would they be the same person. I don't suppose the discussion required the introduction of the Transporter but it served as a point of departure.
This is interesting but I think it misses the point. It is one thing to use themes and ideas from popular culture as illustrations or starting points in tutorials, quite another to use their would-be philosophical arguments as a basis for published research. What I meant by ‘this particular rot’ is the trend to let the conclusions of academic philosophy be influenced by the content of movies. It is my impression that The Matrix was influential in this sense, and that this was not the case for Star Trek etc. in the eighties.
I was looking back at the notes I made about the podcast I referred to, and see that I wrote down (not necessarily verbatim) one of the arguments made, illustrating my point that movies are being taken far more seriously than they used to be: "Blade Runner is philosophical because it is reflexive". This assertion seems doubly wrong. I do not see any connection between reflexivity (in the context of fiction) and philosophical analysis. Reflexivity in arts is a device in which attention is drawn to the medium. While potentially thought-provoking, it quickly becomes tedious if over-used. And crediting it with being 'philosophical' seems excessive. And in any case, Blade Runner seems a poor example of it. If reflexivity is your thing, go for The French Lieutenant's Woman or The Simpsons. Blade Runner is not what I would call a movie with significant philosophical content, although it does raise the issue of robot consciousness albeit without exploring it to any extent. Again, there are better examples: Spielberg's AI, for instance.
Reflexivity is one of the most overinflated concepts from the last twenty years, its pretentiousness perfectly suited to an increasingly vacuous literary culture. It has cropped up all over the place, even finding its way into the theorising of Mr George Soros where it has been used for one of the most fatuous bits of nonsense you can find in market analysis.*
Fake self-analysis is another weapon in the armoury of mediocratic pseudo-intellectualism, along with challenge, radicalism, and so on. It looks clever to seem to be examining the foundations of your own discipline, until one realises that the results of the examination are predetermined. Like other mediocratic analyses, the conclusions must always be consistent with the prevailing ideology. Pseudo-reflexivity has a number of objectives, but genuine analysis is not among them. The mediocratic dissection of literature/philosophy/etc. serves to undermine all attempts at real literature/philosophy/etc. It soon becomes impossible to say anything in any subject without an element of mockery, or without the anxious examination of the subject’s supposed foundations. (Mediocracy p.149)
Incidentally, I wonder whether the rise in popular philosophy over the last twenty years has something to do with increased supply, arising from the fact that academic philosophy no longer has room for those who are genuinely interested in philosophical issues. My colleagues and I at Oxford Forum are surely not the only intellectuals who find contemporary academia impossible to get on in, though we seem to be among the very few prepared to criticise the system openly.

While on a visit to the London School of Economics, the Queen apparently asked an economics professor about the condition leading to the financial crisis:
Why did nobody notice it? ... If these things were so large, how come everyone missed them?
I have an answer for her, given below, though it is probably not one she would accept as I suspect she is not nearly cynical enough about 'experts'.
Banks are merely corporations which exist to generate profits for their shareholders. (It may be argued they have not done a very good job of this.) There are however a host of other organisations and individuals whose job it is to try to be objective and analytical about the activities of banks and other players in the financial markets. The problem is that the ideal of analysis has become corrupted. Objectivity is rejected; labels trump reality; ideological correctness is more important than functionality; academic activity (e.g. economics) is judged by whether it looks impressive rather than by whether it makes sense. Because individual participants become aware that previous ideals of analysis have lost credibility, they have less incentive to maintain standards by themselves and are liable to find it does not pay to do anything other than passively perpetuate a dodgy system. In other words, we live in a mediocracy.

• The UK has been threatened by Standard & Poor's with the possibility of losing its AAA credit status. An eventual downgrade seems fairly inevitable, in my opinion — assuming that ratings analysts are still capable of making objective judgments. It is argued that the announcement's real purpose was to float the idea of a similar downgrade for the US, and that such an event would be far more serious for Americans than the equivalent event will be for us. But, downgrade or no, and regardless of how dotty or ineffectual a leader is notionally in charge on either side of the Atlantic, I know which of the two economies I would back in a crisis. The one with more of a work ethic remaining, greater respect for the individual, and more genuine meritocracy as distinct from superficial egalitarianism for its own sake.

• Mediocracy for Dummies. Part 1: encyclopedia-style definition
A mediocracy is a society in which things (culture, industry etc.) are mediocre or muddled, typically because conformity with an ideology is taken to trump realism and quality. The mediocrity is usually concealed by a veneer of sophistication, leading to the phenomenon of 'style over substance'. The people who succeed best in a mediocracy are those who combine a medium level of talent with a high degree of dishonesty.

Just say no. A cautionary tale in the Mail on Sunday magazine of 24 May, worth reading** as a warning of what can happen if you are too ready to trust medical experts' judgment. Particularly the judgment that feeling seriously down calls for the ingestion of heavy-duty chemicals which interfere with normal brain processes. You may find you are not able to leave your chemical straitjacket again, at least not unscathed.
[12 weeks after the birth of her daughter, Rebekah Beddoe asked her GP for help with her postnatal depression, and he put her on Lustral, a Prozac-type antidepressant.] The first adverse effect Rebekah experienced ... was a panic attack. 'I couldn't breathe, my heart pounded and I oozed a clammy sweat.' The nurses in the mother and baby unit alerted her psychiatrist, who added tension-reducing Valium to her medication ... A week later, she deliberately sliced her arm for the first time with a vegetable knife ... [her husband] rushed her back to hospital, where her Lustral dose was doubled. A day or so later, still in hospital, she wrapped a glass in a sock, smashed it and dragged a jagged piece into her flesh. Her psychiatrist prescribed alternative antidepressants and tranquillisers and her mental illness went into freefall ... She made the first of six suicide attempts ... by taking an overdose of sleeping tablets ... She was readmitted to the psychiatric hospital and given electric shock treatment, but her condition continued to deteriorate ... after a second suicide attempt, she was referred to another psychiatrist who initially reduced her medication, but then increased it, and added antipsychotic drugs to the antidepressants ... [Two years after her daughter was born] Rebekah had been diagnosed as bipolar and was taking seven different types of antidepressants, tranquillisers, antipsychotic and mood-stabilising drugs. Her behaviour was wildly erratic — dizzy highs during which she went on spending sprees were followed by crushing lows.
The story has a semi-happy ending: Ms Beddoe decided the drugs were to blame for her symptoms and started to wean herself off them, wisely telling none of her doctors for fear of being compulsorily medicated. It took her seven months but she got back her psychological equilibrium, though she now has Type 1 diabetes which she believes was caused by the drugs. Moral? If feeling depressed, postnatally or otherwise, think twice before seeking 'professional' help, and think even harder before embarking on a course of chemical intervention.

* Although largely ignored by the academic establishment because he is an outsider — not that this has any bearing on the quality of his analysis — Soros's theory (first published in his book The Alchemy of Finance) shows curious similarities with modern academic output. It basically states the obvious i.e. that market demand is driven to some extent by fashion, but wraps this up in unnecessarily arcane exposition, thus making it seem more profound than it really is, while also using it to score ideological points.
** not available online