The Truth Conditions of Cultural Criticism

After my recent brush with cultural commentary, I’ve been thinking about the business of art and media criticism. Sometimes I wonder whether a philosopher ought to be in the business of diagnosing the Zeitgeist. Nonetheless, I keep finding myself drawing general conclusions from cultural trends, predicting an uncertain future or analyzing something as grandiose and amorphous as the American psyche, while at the same time I find most of the pronouncements people make along these lines tiresome. Remember the ‘death of irony?’ How’s that working out?

Yet I hope I come by it honestly. As a consumer of culture and popular entertainment, I can’t help but develop opinions and attempt to ground them in my professional expertise and sometimes to make connections between apparently related concerns. Perhaps at times I can help model the philosophical enterprise in these playful moments, for those who are more interested in suspense than sorites paradoxes. And so it seems that we should start with the essential question: what are the truth conditions or rules of evidence for cultural criticism? How do we distinguish true claims about, say, Tony Soprano or Dexter Morgan, from false ones? For instance, is it ‘true’ that Dexter is a sociopath whose appetites have been reigned in by his father’s youthful discipline, or was he actually completely sane until his father’s training regime corrupted his boyish innocence? Is Ferris Bueller a playful con-artist and well-meaning trickster trying to help his friend Cameron break out of his shell, or is he a Tyler Durden-like hallucination, the whole film a fantasy of the fevered Cameron, until he bashes in the front of his father’s car?

Such questions are about the ontology and truth conditions of fictional entities. Does the fictional Harry Potter really have a scar on his head? How can a fictional character have a real scar? That’s not so hard to rectify: the fictional Harry Potter fictionally has a real scar. Okay: but is J.K. Rowling the only one who can say what’s true about her characters? For instance, is she the only authority on the claim that the fictional Albus Dumbledore fictionally is really gay? Consider Star Trek fan fiction, sometimes called ‘slash’ fiction (Kirk/Spock fiction, for instance) in which two characters who have always been written as heterosexual are entwined in a homosexual relationship. Is such fiction false, because those characters are really straight? Is the Kirk who fellated his second-in-command the same Kirk who cheated the Kobayashi Maru scenario? And (for those who have seen the recent film) is he the Kirk whose father died the day he was born, or later? Science-fiction that plays with possible worlds gives us the answer: Kirk himself has possible worlds, so there are possible worlds in which he is gay. But is there a possible world in which James T. Kirk is bitten by a radioactive spirder and falls in love with Mary Jane? Probably not, but I haven’t yet figured out why: it seems like that would just be an oddly named Peter Parker.

Of course, that’s only one level of the inquiry. Insofar as the social sciences can study correlations between social facts, we can ask questions about, for instance, the connection between watching 24‘s Jack Bauer and approving of torture. Which means we can start offering hypotheses for other kinds of investigations, about which a demographer or a social psychologist might be able to produce conclusive statistical evidence.

In this mode, I imagine cultural commentators as the assistants to social scientists. By necessity, their work is less rigorous, but it is still aiming for accuracy and hoping to supply the hypotheses that will spark further study. Where social scientists are obligated to write only propositions that are based in objectively verifiable facts, using experience and reflection to arrive at true propositions about the world, cultural commentators are hypothesis-generators, forgoing careful inductive experimentation for what C. S. Peirce called abduction. Abduction allows us to generate hypotheses by moving directly from a set of experiences to the most likely explanation, without following a deductive path, and without concern for induction-busters like black swans. Without abduction, scientists would have no hypotheses to test. The early results of abduction can often be disproven through more rigorous testing, but this does not negate the value of the earlier hypothesis-generation. On the abductive model, the goal of cultural criticism is to provide us with insight, not truth. Some critics jump from unproven assumptions to unproven explanations: when I’m being irresponsible or speculative, I’ll do this too. However, I’d prefer to start with questions and draw implications of possible answers. My goal in such moments is to ask questions in a way that makes my readers want to test hypotheses they had never before considered.

In the blog posts and my conversation with Noel Holston, I asked questions like: “Are vampire movies more popular during periods of economic expansion?” “Do people prefer television thematically related to their political concerns?” I think these are testable questions, and if you care about torture, you’ve got to be asking yourself the same set of questions: “Is 24 propaganda?” “Does violence on television promote violent crime or legitimate state-sanctioned violence like war or ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’?”

Lately, I’ve been asking some new questions, ones I’m less certain can be adequately tested: “Is our decades-long love affair with the police procedural drama a cause or an effect of the fear of crime and erosion of trust in American communities?”  “What impact did 24‘s fictional black president have on the 2008 presidential election? What effect do stereotype threats have on viewers’ prejudices?” “Is television bad for us? Can we know the answer if we don’t have a theory of human flourishing?”

Some of these questions suggest hypotheses about social facts for which the demands of metricians cannot be met. That’s not the same thing as equating them with bullshit. We see this same problem in science, for instance, when string theorists propose accounts of the nature of matter and the universe that could only be proven using techniques and instruments that won’t be available for centuries, or worse, that would require computers the size of the universe itself. So my claims about antiheroes might simply be beyond the realm of testable hypotheses, a trivial kind of string theory, or they might be just as trivially wrong and provably so. That said, I remain convinced that the questions themselves aren’t trivial. We inhabit a world that is shot through with fictions and narratives that are modeled on fictions. As Heidegger and Arendt would say, art constitutes our shared world: the work of art is the concrete remainder and mark of the human activity of world-making. The same words that weave a film’s plot into an entertainment can be rewoven into a political speech or a declaration of war. In short, we can’t afford to ignore fiction just because it isn’t real.

An old joke

Probably my readers have all heard the old joke: Mathematics is the second cheapest department to run, because all you need are pencils, paper, and waste bins. Philosophy is the cheapest, because you can dispense with the bins.

The implication is that we hold on to everything, even bad ideas and bad work. When I am in a good mood, I think this is probably true because we take even bad ideas and bad arguments as an excuse to exercise our craft, pointing out poor syllogisms and unwarranted conclusions, correcting fallacies, noting inconsistencies, and salvaging good bits lost to prejudice or superstition. Sometimes when I am feeling more cynical, however, I worry that it is because too many in the profession still preserve a notion of the discipline as “Here’s what I think,” legitimated only by degree, pedigree, or reference to an abstruse European philosopher. In some circles for instance, “I’m not convinced” still counts as a hefty counter-argument, as when discussions in value theory center around moral or even aesthetic intuitions.

I recently noticed a new book in the philosophy section by Anne Dufourmantelle, who had previously written a book with Jacques Derrida that I liked. Called Blind Date: Sex and Philosophy, at first I mistook it for one of those gag books like Harry Potter and Philosophy or Napoleon Dynamite and Philosophy, full of articles on “Tater Tots, Ressentiment, and the Least Advantaged,” “Wand Construction and the Sources of Authenticity,” and “Naming-Voldemort and Necessity.” I had to admit that this straightforward juxtaposition of philosophy and sex seemed like genius marketing however, since the type of person who buys those books is probably easily seduced by marketing and, well, sex sells. But no: this was a serious book.

I didn’t buy it and I’ve only skimmed it, so I won’t try to criticize the book itself. But I found a review online that seems to back my suspicions. Let’s start with the thesis:

Dufourmantelle’s thesis is that philosophers have been silent about sex.

It’s still common to complain that philosophy ignores or excludes bodies, and especially when we offer these charges to Descartes and the rationalists it has the ring of truth. But sex? I fear that philosophy has rarely spoken of anything more than sex. The traditional cannon includes a great deal of sex: going back to the Phaedrus and Symposium, Aristotle if you squint a bit, the Stoics quite obviously, the Roman rhetoricians, especially Ovid’s Amores, Augustine’s Confessions, and though there’s certainly a bit of a dry spell in the late-medieval and early-modern periods, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have their fair share of sex as well, and after Freud and feminism get off the ground, it’s like we can’t shut up about it. Oh, Dufourmantelle will note that all those texts are ‘about’ sex but not really sexy, not really instantiations of sex, or erotically charged celebrations of sexual encounters. She seems to be pursuing some idealized Sadean text, “Philosophy in the Boudoir does Epistemology,” or “Luce Irigaray’s solution to the Gettier Problem.” Yet just as Foucault noted, our current obsession with talking about sex is actually the flipside of repression, since our loquaciousness is every bit as mandatory as the previous censorship. Moreover, we are inundated with thinkers insisting that if we could only ‘say sex’ well enough or true enough, we’d all be free, there’d be no misogyny or rape, and the world would finally know peace and harmony.

According to Dufourmantelle, the great appeal of sex, like that of philosophy, is its liberating capacity. Where philosophy frees us from convention, sex frees us from isolation.

In sex, we try to overcome our separateness and to connect with someone else.

Perhaps this why philosophers who want to say that sex isn’t quite as important as justice or truth or (God forbid) the non-sexual Good are themselves allegedly in league with the forces of violence, misogyny and ignorance.

How do philosophy and sex incite us to freedom? Philosophy encourages us to avoid platitudes and question received opinion. Sex is a place of “danger for anyone who seeks to subject others”.

This last claim is what I’d actually like to see justified the most. As the reviewer also notes, this is an absurd assertion that requires a justification that properly addresses the criticisms of modern feminists, yet Dufourmantelle ignores that requirement. Sex may be ‘dangerous’ to rapists and misogynists, they may ultimately be prosecuted for their crimes or fall in love with their victims, but sex doesn’t seem to have properly ‘endangered’ the institutions of misogyny and rape. From the perspective of justice rather than from the perspective of sexology, rape and misogyny are some of the primary bads served by sex and sexual desire, and it’s precisely in light of this miniature ‘problem of evil’ that sex (or sexologists) have a lot of (self-)justification to do.

Perhaps feminists, our contemporary philosophers of sex, depend on outmoded conceptions of autonomy and informed consent? After all, the riskiness of sexual contact is that you can’t know what will happen until the sex is already underway. You may end up falling in love, developing a new fetish, or experiencing something extraordinarily traumatic, but because sex is an unforeseeably pure hazard, you can’t know in advance. Thus, the argument goes, sexual actors are liberated from precisely the kind of calculation and comprehensive ‘saying beforehand’ that would be required by a conception of autonomy that entails informed consent to risk and hazard.

In that form, this argument seems like a perfect candidate for the waste bin, if only we could afford one. Under the guise of some very unsexy work on determinism and compatibilism, philosophers have been working out a variety of theories of freedom that properly consider the problems of contingency, unintended consequences, and domination. I tend to side with Arendt and Pettit, but there are many ways of dealing with unforeseeable novelty. Not everyone throws up their hands and becomes an anti-humanist upon learning of the Freudian theory of the unconscious or being confronted by the moral luck paradox. But look at me: I’ve turned an opportunity for encounter and coupling into an argument about autonomy, sucking the sexy eroticism right out of philosophy again.