Tommy Ingram's Eclectic Variety Show

How these curiosities would be quite forgot, did not such idle fellows as I am put them down.

Category: Philosophy

The Lebowski Gambit, part 4: The Video Guy II: Electric Boogaloo

Previously…

The video guy redeems himself very slightly by making an interesting point at the beginning of this video.[0:51] He argues that, in a speech about banning certain video games, Hillary Clinton implicitly denies their inherent value by pointing to superficial instrumental values: they can be educational, improve hand-eye coordination, &c. He then argues that Anita Sarkeesian does the same thing.[1:05]

The substance of his point deserves more discussion than I will give it here. I will tentatively allow that this might be what Clinton is up to, but it is unlikely that Sarkeesian—a pop culture critic, whose job it is to believe that pop culture has some inherent importance—is trying to diminish the importance of video games in this way. Indeed, Clinton is trying to ban certain games. Sarkeesian is trying to explore them critically. That difference in context counts for a lot. Read the rest of this entry »

The Lebowski Gambit, part 3: The Video Guy

Previously…

The video guy’s hatchet job of Sarkeesian is in two parts, here and here. Part 1 begins with a childish rhetorical move, and such moves characterize much of its runtime. I will not respond directly to these, as they are beneath contempt.

I had intended to link to specific parts of the video, but my usual method for that (adding ?t=XmXs to the URL) is not working for these videos. This means I have to paraphrase inline, resulting in a lot more “he said she said” than I’d like. I will cite statements from the videos by putting the time at which the statement begins in square brackets like so: [2:30]. Read the rest of this entry »

The Lebowski Gambit part 2: Whiny Guys on The Escapist

Previously…

Well, that was some mighty long groundwork-laying, wasn’t it? I promise I’ll get to the point very soon, but there’s just one more bit of background you might need.

Who is Anita Sarkeesian?

Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist who has created two popular video series on Youtube (Feminist Frequency and Tropes vs. Women) and is working on a third (Tropes vs. Women in Video Games). I watched a couple of her videos when they started appearing in the news recently. They’re not my thing, but they’re well made and have pretty sound analysis (though as always there are things here and there I disagree with). The only complaint you can reasonably make about them is that they’re too basic and never really go beyond the 101 level. However, 101-level stuff often needs restating, and she’s not trying to reinvent the wheel. She’s just trying to provide a feminist voice in a venue where you still don’t have to go far to find neo-Nazis.

When Sarkeesian announced her new series on video games and set up a Kickstarter page to fund it, harassing, misogynistic comments started flowing in. There were death threats, there were rape threats, there were unspeakable things said. Anyone who has spent any time reading feminists on the Internet (as I do now and then) knows that this is fairly common, although it doesn’t usually happen on this scale and this publically. When the story got picked up and amplified, donations to her Kickstarter went through the roof, and as I understand it now her project is quite well-funded. So, bad things happened, but it came to a happy ending, right?

Well, not exactly. You see, the Escapist thread I happened across seemed to be accusing Sarkeesian of being a scam artist. There were very few dissenting voices, and even they made a few concessions to the OP. Among the people who most need to hear Sarkeesian’s message, some really shocking ideas about her are in common currency. My intention here is to mount a defence of Sarkeesian against these people.

More importantly, a twenty-minute, two part video was linked in the OP of that thread. The video is repulsive throughout and at some points so shockingly stupid I could hardly believe what I was hearing. But the video’s maker (hereafter referred to as “the video guy”) would claim to be a serious person, and I feel a certain amount of responsibility to deflate this claim definitively. As the actress said to the bishop, I have a feeling this is going to be a long one. Read the rest of this entry »

The Lebowski Gambit: or, A Matter of Opinion

Over the last few months I’ve written several times about people I’ve referred to as “lily-livered opinion-mongers”—the ones who turn up in the comment threads of negative reviews everywhere and demand that “but that’s just my opinion” be used as a hedge. I feel that it’s time for a long-form statement on the subject, clarifying what this phenomenon is and what’s wrong with it. This is something I’ve always wanted to write, but never gotten around to until just now. As a bonus, I am going to weigh in on the Anita Sarkeesian Kickstarter thing, although that’s going to be in part 2. —TMI

“That’s just your opinion”

The first order of business is to make it clear what I’m talking about. In the movie The Big Lebowski, The Dude and his friends, sitting in the bowling alley and shooting the shit, are interrupted by their arch-rival, Jesus Quintana. The following immortal exchange occurs:

Jesus: Liam and me, we’re gonna fuck you up.

Dude: Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, uh, your opinion, man.

What has happened here? Why is this exchange funny?

Jesus has advanced a proposition. Call it a hypothesis. No, even better, call it an opinion. He says that his team is going to beat the Dude in the bowling tournament.

The Dude responds. He does not agree. But neither does he offer a counter-proposition (“no, actually we will fuck you and Liam up”). Instead, he makes a statement that is epistemologically correct, but irrelevant. Of course it’s Jesus’s opinion. He wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t his opinion. The question is, is Jesus’s opinion right or not? The Dude has given us no reason to believe it is not.

This is all funny because it’s in a context—amateur bowling leagues—where there are objective and uncontroversial ways of determining whose opinion is justified. Compare scores of recent games. Factor in practice time. Or even just wait a week and see who wins. The Dude says “that’s just your opinion” when he could say “our averages for the past dozen games are higher than yours” or something like that.

Unfortunately, outside the artificial realm of sports you’re unlikely to encounter situations that are this cut and dry. That’s where “that’s just your opinion” starts to muddy the waters. It can be, and often is, not just a confused statement, but an attempt to shut down an argument by someone who doesn’t like where it’s going. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Aesthetics of Music

Looking at Roger Scruton’s political credentials, it’s easy to imagine him as some kind of slobbering reactionary, the philosophical equivalent of Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath. I was quite disheartened when I saw this, because I had already committed myself to reading The Aesthetics of Music and wasn’t eager to subject myself to a 500-page book that would be more accurately entitled Bitching About Schoenberg. Luckily for everyone, Roger Scruton is not nuts; he just has some bad philosophical odours here and there. A quick glance through the preface was enough to set my mind at ease. Whatever else he may be, Scruton is a real philosopher and a real musician interested in making a real contribution to the field of aesthetics, and though he ultimately comes down against the Schoenbergian tradition, he gives Schoenberg his due as a composer.

As Scruton notes in the preface, music is extremely important to the philosophy of art, but it has been under-served by the great philosophers. On the few occasions they do turn their attentions to music, many of them (e.g. Kant) only show their ignorance and apathy. The fanciest pre-20th century thinkers to remark on music are Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Boethius, and all of them are writing about something so removed from our experience of music it hardly seems relevant (as I recall, Augustine’s treatise never mentions pitch). Whole aesthetic philosophies have crumbled because their creators never bothered to consider how music fits into their scheme. The 20th century saw a proliferation of aesthetic philosophies and therefore a large number of works on the aesthetics of music from various perspectives, but we have seen very few accounts as complete as Scruton’s and his work would be valuable for this alone, even if it was completely incoherent. Read the rest of this entry »

Dickie’s Aesthetics

I recently finished reading Introduction to Aesthetics: An Analytic Approach by George Dickie. It’s a fascinating read, and Dickie’s institutional theory of art seems to me to be on the right track. Instead of focusing on labelling certain items as art and not-art, he concerns himself with describing the social institutions that make up the artworld. Indeed, his definition of art is unimpressive and arguably tautological, which has the effect of downplaying the uninteresting question “is it art?” and emphasizing the much more useful “how is it art?”

The first part presents a brief overview of the history of aesthetics from Plato through to the twentieth century, with Kant, Hume, and Schopenhauer as highlights. It gives a simplified account of the back-and-forth between philosophers and culminates in Dickie’s institutional theory. There are still tweaks to be made, of course. Perhaps the biggest criticism is that Dickie is somewhat parochial. I assume that he is mostly concerned with the visual arts, because reading as a musician made me feel alienated at times. His theory also doesn’t account for the segmentation of the artworld; it has no place for mass art, for instance. But these are minor changes that represent refinements, not paradigm shifts.

The second part deals with four problems of aesthetics and strikes me as a little bit shaky. The chapter arguing against intentionalism, especially, has convinced me more than ever that anti-intentionalism is not just confused, but utterly bankrupt. In any case, even when Dickie’s arguments fail, his summaries of the debates are useful.

The third part, on the evaluation of art, is pretty much entirely nonsense. None of the theories Dickie discusses, including his own, seem even remotely convincing, and many of them are so vague that they would be incapable of usefully evaluating anything. For example, Beardsley’s three criteria of unity, complexity, and intensity are only valuable if you don’t try to apply them in real-world scenarios. Unity of what? Intensity of what? I cannot think of any cases where these criteria linearly track with aesthetic goodness: it’s a bell-shaped curve in all three cases. And this was the theory that was the most coherent—Dickie’s own was just gibberish.

A correct, or at least defensible, theory of the evaluation of art will probably look like a cop-out, much like the institutional theory of art. The fact is that we will probably never be able to satisfactorily define beauty or aesthetic goodness. Yet we know why reviewers say what they do, why artists present some works to the public and hide others, and why audience members seek out or avoid certain works of art. In other words, we know all the relevant facts, even if we can’t define the concepts behind them. In his theory of art, Dickie largely avoids the question of what art is; instead he points at the bustling world of galleries, theatres, and concert halls and says “that!”. An effective evaluative theory will probably do the same.