[21 August 2007]
Is philosophy fun? If you think so, then Open Court’s thriving Popular Culture and Philosophy series is definitely for you. But if you don’t think so, give the enterprise a wide berth. It’s based on the premise that philosophy is the most uproarious pursuit in the world, and it’s determined to make you agree.
Since the editors and writers pursuing this endeavor are philosophers, you might expect them to make their case via formal logic and systematic reasoning alone. But when epistemological implications of popular culture are at stake, anything goes. Accordingly, the folks at Open Court have deployed a not-so-secret weapon in defense of their cause: whimsy. Or rather, whimsy!!! In just a few years of existence, the series has produced a long list of volumes with titles like The Beatles and Philosophy: Nothing You Can Think that Can’t Be Thunk and The Sopranos and Philosophy: I Kill Therefore I Am, not to mention South Park and Philosophy: Bigger, Longer, and More Penetrating. New entries due this year take on Quentin Tarantino, the Grateful Dead, and Pink Floyd, among other topics. To borrow a phrase from a filmmaker friend of mine, these books are ontic antics with a vengeance.
Although poking fun at these titles is easy, there’s nothing wrong with using pop-culture subjects as the starting point for philosophical ruminations. Indeed, a number of important thinkers have done exactly that, including Stanley Cavell of Harvard University, whose The World Viewed is a key text in the philosophy of film, and the late Gilles Deleuze, whose twin volumes on Cinema have revolutionized moving-image studies in recent years. Alongside these major achievements, Hitchcock and Philosophy is something of a foothill. But if you can handle its sporadic bursts of whimsy!!! you’ll find that the essays assembled by editors David Baggett and William A. Drumin are often engaging, entertaining, and enlightening.
Its subtitle notwithstanding, Hitchcock and Philosophy: Dial M for Metaphysics doesn’t mention Hitch’s fine 1954 thriller Dial “M” for Murder, and more to the point, it doesn’t privilege metaphysics over such other branches of philosophy as ethics, aesthetics, and epistemology. An essay about North by Northwest examines the nature of personal identity; one about Strangers on a Train looks at relationships between morality and the psychopathic mind; one links Rear Window with Plato’s allegory of the cave; another finds “epistemological vertigo” in Hitchcock’s eponymous movie; still another illuminates Hitchcock’s most famous TV episode, “Breakdown,” with ideas from Martin Buber and Jean-Paul Sartre; and so on, covering Hitchcock films ranging from Sabotage of 1936 to Marnie of 1964.
The best of these essays are extremely good. One of the most interesting comes from Noël Carroll, a first-rate scholar whose writings have brought philosophical insights to bear on a broad array of cinematic subjects. He begins “Vertigo and the Pathologies of Romantic Love” by demolishing Vertigo as a mystery tale—masterpiece though it is, the plot is anything but plausible—and goes on to suggest that its real value lies in its use of a “double romance,” between James Stewart’s protagonist and the two incarnations of Kim Novak’s character, to illustrate a complex of pathologies to which romantic love is prone by its very nature. Along the way Carroll touches on Aristotelian poetics, Jungian psychology, and psychiatrist R.D. Laing’s concept of mental “knots,” making productive use of them all. The essay’s only real weakness arrives at the end, when Carroll overstates the educational value of Hitchcock’s film, and then surprisingly asserts that “philosophizing-through-the-movies is for the general public and not for the graduate seminar of the research university,” where students presumably don’t need the sort of instruction that Vertigo effectively provides by the terms of Carroll’s own argument. Tell it to Professor Cavell, Professor Carroll.
Another strong essay is Philip Tallon’s exploration of theodicy—which attempts to reconcile the existence of a benign deity with the presence of evil in the world—via Psycho and the gratuitous horrors it posits as endemic to human experience. “Democracy Adrift in Lifeboat,” by Randall E. Auxier, examines ethical outrage as a legitimate basis for decision making, and “Ethics or Film Theory?” by Thomas E. Wartenberg argues that North by Northwest is a meditation—far darker than the movie’s rollicking tone might lead one to expect—on film’s ability to reconcile the irreconcilable, not in reality but in the deluded realm of the cinematically dazzled imagination.
These and the book’s other essays are written in a style appropriate to college undergrads and smart general readers; the arguments generally strive more for clarity than for sophistication, and writers are careful not to let words like “maieutic” and “Übermensch” and even “utopia” slide by without a quick definition. Back in the whimsy!!! department, even sympathetic readers may recoil when confronted with subheadings like “I Kant Tell a Lie” or “What Nietzsche Can Teach Ya,” and some attempts at cuteness badly misfire, as when Auxier’s effort to decorate his discussion of “lifeboat ethics” leads him to puns that insult the book’s target audience, calling them “small fry” and “intellectual shrimp”!
But don’t shudder too much, because such cringe-inducing moments are the exception rather than the rule. Connoisseurs of pop-culture scholarship won’t find anything in Hitchcock and Philosophy to rival the analyses of a Cavell or a Deleuze or a Slavoj Žižek, but even savvy readers will find worthwhile perspectives and, yes, a bit of good fun within its pages.