Books

In 'America the Philosophical' We Learn That America Is to Philosophy What Italy Is to Art -- Really

Carlin Romano

America today towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece or any other place one can name. Don’t believe it? Read on!


America the Philosophical

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Price: $35.00
Author: Carlin Romano
Length: 688 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-05
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Adapted from the Introduction from America the Philosophical by Carlin Romano. Reprinted by arrangement with Knopf Doubleday. Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

America the Philosophical? It sounds like Canada the Exhibitionist or France the Unassuming: a mental miscue, a delusional academic tic. Everyone knows that Americans don’t take philosophy seriously, don’t pay any attention to it, and couldn’t name a contemporary academic philosopher if their passports depended on it. As historian Richard Hofstadter drily observed in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), "In the United States the play of the mind is perhaps the only form of play that is not looked upon with the most tender indulgence."

But if the title phenomenon of Hofstadter’s classic indeed boasts "a long, historical background,” the peculiar attitude directed at philosophy in America is more quizzical than hostile, closer to good-humored wariness than contempt. Philosophy doesn’t threaten or bother the practical on-the-go American. The American middle manager confronted with a devoted philosophy type is most likely to yank out the old cliché, "What are you going to do, open a philosophy store?”, and leave it at that. If, of course, the information has been accurately downloaded. Tell your seatmate on a short-haul flight that you’re “in philosophy” and the reply is likely to be, "Oh, that’s great. My niece is in psychology too."

The infrequent philosophy blips on America’s media screens suggest that philosophy doesn’t register on the American psyche with the gravitas professors in the field deem warranted. Occasional mentions drive that impression only deeper.

When a wrestler named Nick Baines declared, upon entering the University of Northern Iowa to get his B.A., that he planned to become a professor of philosophy, the Des Moines Register treated him as an oddity. Local philosophers, historically wiser, noted the traditional lore that Plato, ne Aristocles, actually pulled a similar career move--he adopted his better-known name, which meant “broad shoulders,” while competing in the Isthmian Games. And when the University of Chicago, in October, 2011, simultaneously hosted a conference on British philosophical giant Bernard Williams and another on the hit reality show Jersey Shore, guess which one got the front-page New York Times coverage?

Summing up the American media mindset, it seems, was a publicity release from a New York publishing house, hyping a two-book deal with Dennis Rodman, America’s faded, body-pierced, ex-basketball badboy. It offered a sweeping historical perspective on its previously unheralded new thinker in ascending font:

Socrates

Confucius

Chopra

RODMAN!!!

Does America take philosophy seriously? One might as well ask whether America takes monarchy seriously. Joking about philosophy in the United States, or just ignoring it, comes with the territory. Hardboiled, concrete-minded descendants of everyone from the Pilgrims to the slaves to the boat people, we pick it up along the way, like mistrusting politicians.

It’s the way we’re supposed to think about a discipline described by journalist Ambrose Bierce as "a route of many roads, leading from nowhere to nothing."

Tocqueville, that touchstone for all synoptic thinking about America, thought the peculiar attitude of its residents toward philosophy so obvious that he began the second volume of Democracy in America by noting it: "I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States.”

Even Tocqueville, however, nodded. For all his general insight into the fledgling United States, he saw American thought through the prism of European assumptions. His belief that “in most of the operations of the mind each American appeals only to the individual effort of his own understanding” was false then, and is even more false now. Tocqueville’s misstep came in using the word “only.” He should have written that each American “also” appeals “to the individual effort of his own understanding.”

For the surprising little secret of our ardently capitalist, famously materialist, heavily i-Podded, i-Padded and i-Phoned society is that America in the early 21st century towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece, 19th-century Germany or any other place one can name. The openness of its dialogue, the quantity of its arguments, the diversity of its viewpoints, the cockiness with which its citizens express their opinions, the vastness of its First Amendment freedoms, the intensity of its hunt for evidence and information, the widespread rejection of truths imposed by authority or tradition alone, the resistance to false claims of justification and legitimacy, the embrace of Net communication with an alacrity that intimidates the world: all corroborate that fact.

To exalt America as the world’s philosophical culture par excellence is not just to argue that American philosophers have occasionally swayed everyday society, though a few examples are worth repeating. Emerson, we know, spurred American intellectual independence, and John Dewey co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union, with huge consequences for the republic. We recognize that William James catalyzed psychology into a full-fledged discipline, and that Alain Locke helped spark the Harlem Renaissance that began the explosion of black artistic self-expression in the 20th century. Closer to the present, the theory of justice of John Rawls, the economics-accented jurisprudence of Richard Posner, the "end-of-art-history" musings of aesthetician and critic Arthur Danto, affect politics, judicial reasoning and curatorial practice, respectively.

America the Philosophical means more than that.

It is similarly more than the boom in so-called "applied ethics," which over the past 30 years has seen American philosophers taking jobs in corporations, hospitals, prisons and other places outside the academy to bring fresh thinking to the moral dilemmas of those institutions. It is more than the effort of individual academic philosophers, such as gay social critic Richard Mohr, or complicated feminist figures such as Martha Nussbaum, to draw attention to terrain traditionally bypassed by the discipline’s establishment, and to extend their philosophical work to activism on issues, as Nussbaum has done in regard to poor women in India.

Finally, America the Philosophical is more than a phenomenon it encompasses, but to which it cannot be reduced: the transformation by which America has become a net exporter rather than importer of professional academic philosophy, an intellectual bank whose bottom line is in the black. The development is not new. As far back as the mid-1980s, The Economist observed that "British philosophy now consists of sophisticated commentary on the bright ideas of Americans." In Germany, leading philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas direct their theorizing toward ideas developed by the American pragmatists. In France, Jacques Bouveresse, best-known for his maverick promotion of Anglo-American analytic philosophy in the land of sometimes murky "masters of thought," was elected to the prestigious philosophy chair at the College de France. In Scandinavia, in Southeast Asia, in South America, professors evoke the names of American giants--Rorty, Danto, Quine, Rawls, Nussbaum--as they once did those of the French, English and Germans.

No, more than all that, acquiesing to America the Philosophical requires seeing America in the new millennium as directly, ebulliently and ordinarily philosophical in a way that remains unappreciated by philosophers, media and the general public alike. It is to see Americans as almost uniquely able, given their rude independence of mind, to pierce through the chief metaphorical scam of moribund yet still breathing Socratic philosophy: the "justification language-game" of academic epistemologists that purports to tell the rest of us the precise meaning of concepts (e.g., “knowledge”) by reasoning through a pocketful of examples. It is to see the United States as the exemplar of a new paradigm of philosophy--albeit one with roots in the pragmatically accented view of the ancient Greek thinker Isocrates (436 B.C.-338 B.C.)--suited to the 21st century.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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