Jan 25, 2010

Socrates, that dog

All men are mortal.
Socrates is mortal.
Therefore Socrates is a man.


Some logical fallacies are taught just because they're common mistakes. Slippery slope. Ad hominem. To some extent, Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc. But there is also a second, maybe more important purpose. They're mistakes, yeah, common, yes, and you want the students to see those mistakes and correct them, but becoming aware of some fallacies in particular preforms another function. When something clicks and it is clear why an argument doesn't work, clear how, is suddenly obvious why Post Hoc isn't Ergo Propter Hoc, it's suddenly possible for the students to critique their own arguments. It opens up the possibility for reflexive thinking.

The same thing happens when philosophy and theory are applied to pop culture. Before, when it was about rarefied things, distant, high-class things, Plato and Shakespeare and the stuff of school, theory and thinking are cordoned off into homework, something separate from life. But when it's applied to "Seinfeld" or "Pirates of the Caribbean," Lady Gaga or Coco Puffs, there's this rip and we realize we live in theory and it's all around us. It's like becoming aware of breathing or the ocean of air. This is why the aesthetic response to Chuck Klosterman is to start coming up with theories that connect some pop culture ephemera (Scarlet Johannson's voice, faux hippies, sharks in hip hop artist's homes in "Cribs") to an explanation of something important about us. The feeling with which we respond to Slovoj Zizek's toilets or David Foster Wallace's cruise is one of enlightenment, even if we're not quite precisely sure what we're enlightened about (note, e.g., DFW's negative reaction to the applause he gets from the speech that became This is Water). Jacques Derrida, in the documentary about him, says deconstruction is not about a TV show about nothing, but he's wrong. We look at pots to understand Pompeii. Deconstruction, if it's going to do anything, has to open up a space where we can be critical of ourselves and think about our thinking, where we can be critically aware of the culture like air around us.

This function of theory, like the light bulb that goes off sometimes when talking about logic, is to make self-reflexive criticism possible in a way it wasn't before.

All lips are red.
The truck is red.
Therefore, the truck is lips.