Monday, September 24, 2012

Markets, and also Media Influences on Thought

This post is about Pornography. But I've learned better than to put that in the post title, or it attracts all kinds of comments which then have to be deleted for the sake of decency.

My Feminist Theory course has been discussing pornography, and the reading assignment last week was a well-structured examination of the issues that Catherine MacKinnon raised in the mid-1980s. The pornosphere was so different then, though, that my students had a hard time understanding what the debate was about.

Their obtuseness didn't just seem a result of different experiences with porn than the easy access to Playboy and little else that was a feature of life before the internet. Their premises about cultural influence seemed markedly different from mine and from those of the textbook chapter we read. Most of the students weren't disagreeing with MacKinnon's point. Beyond disagreement, there seemed to be a failure of comprehension. Some of the sticking points:

1. MacKinnon and other feminists started by formulating a definition of porn that differed from the Supreme Court. While the Supreme Court's definition uses criteria such as 'obscenity,' 'prurience,' and 'community standards,' the feminists don't mind materials that are sexually explicit or unusual ("kinky"). Their problem is with violence and with acts and attitudes which are dehumanizing. My students' response was that "you can't change a definition--just look it up in the dictionary." What's going on here? A failure to understand philosophical methods? A failure to see the role of law in changing culture? A failure to accept that culture can change and be changed, that it's not simply given? I don't have a sense of the reason for the strenuous opposition to MacKinnon's move of using a term ("porn") to specify a category different from the category the term usually specifies.

2. Once they understood that MacKinnon was only talking about a subset of porn, the students' response was "don't watch what you don't like." And also, "if enough people like her want more sex-positive porn, then the market will respond." Thus, all culture and all means of controlling culture were reduced to markets. And furthermore, there was the unstated belief that markets are responsive and can't (or shouldn't) be controlled.

3. Finally, the majority of the class resisted the idea at the heart of MacKinnon's critique--that the content of porn could shape how people think about sexual possibilities. That is, though they agreed that many young people look to porn as a form of sex ed, they disagreed that porn influenced how people think about what's appropriate or inappropriate behavior in sexual relationships. Further, there seemed to be general disagreement with the statement that media affect how people think. Instead, they believe that viewers exercise free choice in what they watch, and they only choose to watch things that reflect what they already think. There was strong resistance to the idea that what you watch can change your perception of the world.

Monday, September 17, 2012

More Examined Than Some

A former student recommends The Partially Examined Life podcast and blog.

[Whoa! Is that a St. John's College t-shirt on one of the bloggers? What IS the ratio of philosophers to others at that school? Not that they have majors.]

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Interviews at 3AM

It's apparent that since I avoid reading the most-read philosophy blog I do sometimes miss a gem.

And so here I am, on a Saturday evening, finding some thoughtful weekend reading: Richard Marshall's interviews with philosophers at 3AM magazine.

Earlier this week:
Huw Price on deflationary accounts of truth and tenseless time

Last week:
Simon Blackburn, too, touches on deflationism (if these interviews were all one read, wouldn't one develop a healthy attitude toward truth?), but also on relativism and--true to his style, so to speak--just about everything else.

And from the dimly remembered days of summer:
Elizabeth Anderson, who gives a shout-out both to Dewey and to the Levellers.

Update: As I dig deeper into a pint of pistachio ice cream and into my Saturday evening reading, I said to my nearby Saturday evening philosophy-reading friend, "Huh, I never really thought that the second thing someone would say about Huw Price, after 'ice cool,' is that he's a pragmatist. I guess he is a pragmatist, sort of. But it's not the first or second thing to say."
Response: Sure, he's a pragmatist. Like Brandom's a pragmatist.
Me: Elizabeth Anderson--now there's a pragmatist. John Dewey's right there at her elbow. Her work is always socially engaged. Price and Brandom? That's affinity with pragmatism not identity with pragmatism.
Response: Why's it matter?
Me: It's an honorific.
Response: True that.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Gendered Conference Campaign

The Gendered Conference Campaign has designed a petition to publicize the importance of attending to inclusive gender participation among professional philosophers. To sign the petition is to commit to paying attention to whether or not women are included or excluded from organized events (conferences, speaker series), from invitations to contribute to edited volumes, and for other forms of work which are typically organized through precisely those informal networks which tend to leave out women.

The petition also includes a set of links to help jog our memories about the women who work in various subfields:
"Information on female experts in various areas is available hereherehere,here."

Friday, September 07, 2012

Bad writing and writing badly

Siris writes about Jonah Lehrer and the scandal of his recycled, misquoted, and plagiarized writing for the New Yorker and Wired. Most of the work that has been called into question appeared as blog posts or in books.

A news (NYT) article is here, and a more extensive analysis of what he did wrong and why it was wrong is on Slate here.

Siris makes an excellent point about the differences between journalistic writing and academic writing and that though they are similar in that authors in each area strive to say something distinctive or in a distinctive way, the ways in which they build their reputations are different.

That line becomes blurred, though, when academic writing becomes judged as a matter of quantity without concern for the content of what is said (e.g. in merit evaluations that simply quantify number of articles published) or the process of vetting (selectivity of journals, % of their articles that are submitted rather than invited, forms of peer review). I remember reading about this problem and an effort to combat it a while back, but I haven't heard much in the meantime about its effects.

Charles Seife, the author of the Slate article makes a subtle move, highlighting his own control over his writing and the way that a point can be made available to certain readers without making an unfair or explicit accusation. Seife shows text that Lehrer wrote next to previously published but very similar text by other authors. The explicit message is that Lehrer plagiarized others' work. What is not said but can't be missed is that in every case the original passage conveys more detail in fewer words using more interesting sentence structure. A secondary question follows the ethical issue of plagiarism--how does a writer rise to stardom when his material is not (all) original and his writing is not in the best style?

And now a serious question. I've assigned Lehrer's "The Truth Wears Off," an article in the New Yorker, in my philosophy of science class later this term. The New Yorker has posted notes on Lehrer's blog posts identifying the recycled material but has not made a note about this article. On the other hand, the Wired piece makes it seem as though everything Lehrer has written should be called into question, not just for having been recycled (which doesn't bother me in this particular context) and not just because of plagiarism, but also because of factual inaccuracies and unsupported claims. The New Yorker's fact-checking department has a sound reputation, so should I keep the article on the syllabus?