Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON
LECTURE ONE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d__In2PQS60
LECTURE TWO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al7O2puvdDA

ALSO AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ONE THROUGH TEN ON IDEOLOGICAL CRITIQUE



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Sunday, August 31, 2014

THE WHORE OF MENSA


Regular readers of this blog are familiar with my practice of taking a daily early morning walk, during which, in the pre-dawn quiet, I meditate on this and that, often writing a blog post in my head before later transcribing it here.  This morning, I found myself reflecting on my exchange with Professor Tony Couture on the possibility of podcasting my Marx lectures next semester.  Tony [if I may be so informal] included a link to an on-line course on Justice taught at Harvard by the well-known political philosopher Michael Sandel.  The course is astonishingly successful, enrolling more than one thousand students each time it is taught.  Sandel, who is a Professor in Harvard's Government Department, first came to prominence with a book criticizing the methodologically individualist presuppositions of Rawls' A Theory of Justice.  In his comment, Tony noted the rather lavish production values of the video of the Sandel lectures.  I decided to take a look, and picked the lecture on Kant's ethical theory, for which the students are apparently asked to read the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  I made it through two and a half minutes of the lecture, which, by the way, was held in Sanders Theater, and then clicked off, deeply offended.

On my walk, I began to think about what had bothered me so much.  Lord knows, it wasn't the subject matter.  Getting a thousand Harvard undergraduates to read the Groundwork has got to be a good thing, right?  Sandel's opening remarks were a little inaccurate, but not more than what one would expect at that level.  [The First Critique was not the first thing Kant published, but only Kant scholars like me would quibble.]  Was I merely envious of this good-looking man in the really good-looking suit who was so obviously adored by more than a thousand good-looking, bright, and probably rich young men and women? 

I found myself thinking of Marshal McLuhan's old mantra that the medium is the message.  McLuhan's claim, which echoes Aristotle's insistence on the primacy of form over matter, is that the form in which ideas are presented inevitably and unavoidably shapes the content of those ideas, regardless of the intentions of their author.  I recalled the two and a half minutes I had watched of the video.  When Sandel made a humorous remark about the years Kant spent as an unsalaried privatdozent, paid according to the numbers of students he enrolled, the camera cut to the audience and focused on an attractive young woman who laughed and began to applaud. 

And then it hit me.  Sandel was doing stand-up.  His subject might be justice.  The topic of the day might be Immanuel Kant.  But he was doing a stand-up comedy routine that he might as easily offer in a Cambridge coffee house.  The form of his presentation had taken control of the content.  The medium is the message.  And the message is:  This is fun, this is entertainment, albeit the sort of refined entertainment that one has every right to expect at a classy and expensive place like Harvard.

And then, my mind being what it is, I recalled the Whore of Mensa.  There may be some of you, especially among my younger readers, who are unfamiliar with the Whore of Mensa.  Even though I am fond of quoting the King James version of the Bible, this is not, as you might imagine, an invocation of Revelations.  The Whore of Mensa is a short story by Woody Allen, published just forty  years ago in The New Yorker.  It tells the sad tale of a man, hiding behind the pseudonym "Flossie," who has started a Call Girl service.  He hires young women from elite women's colleges who, for a fee, will meet you in a motel and talk to you for an hour about Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Kant.

It would be cruel, I think, to describe Michael Sandel as a Whore of Mensa, but if the bustier fits.

8 comments:

Tony Couture said...

Interesting rumination on Sandel, who clownishly skims the surface of philosophy while gesticulating in his awkward suit on a gilded stage at Harvard. Some philosophers have indeed turned into rock star sophists. The poor philosopher podcasting in his wake will look like a busker--unless all this over-production kills the spirit of philosophy by turning into 100% theatre, rather than some Socratic formula where it is 33% theatre/33% arguing or dialectical technique/33% ability to dig up knowledge or question and assert the authority of reason. --Don't call me Anthony unless I am in trouble! I should also say that you may wish to think further on the role of the philosopher as stand up comic. Think of Nietzsche's advocacy of comedy in book 4 of Zarathustra and other places, and revaluation of the traditional value of comedy as opposed to religious seriousness, or other opposites. Comedy is goofing off, not being serious about justice, putting on a show and posturing instead of single-minded search for truth. John Morreall's Comic Relief (recent book I highly Recommend) is a powerful reinterpretation of the use of comedy in modern culture. ALso, go to Youtube and watch the stand up act of Robin Williams, Bill Hicks, George Carlin or others doing thinking person type comedy. Sandel is like Jerry Seinfeld when he goes through the motions of his gentle introduction to justice, this was made for prime time TV. I also recommend the film, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, to show how comedy talks you directly into the heart of human matters, and allows easier dialogue about many philosophical issues or problems. But my thesis is that a good philosopher is never reducible to or only a comedian. Comedians move between the real world and a possibly comic world, balancing or moving back and forth along a contrast line between what we take seriously and what we joke about (that contrast effect of moments of seriousness and irony is the spark that makes our bodies explode in laughter). In Episode 1, where Sandel discusses cannibalism, he makes a joke about the sailors being rescued and that the rescue interrupted their "breakfast" (a part of the cabin boy's body they were using to survive their shipwreck). The great irony is that his 1000-strong elite Harvard audience bursts out in disgust, but that if capitalism is a form of life by which the rich cannibalize the poor, then the elite are being taught a sensibility to arm them for a life of sucking the life out of others.

I can send you a podcast of the first class for my UPEI course on Radical Philosophy (anarchism, Marxism and feminism) if you are interested in my idea of using lowtech to free philosophy from the latest forms of capitalism, if you wish to gauge the quality you can get from a digital voice recorder in class or how it might affect your teaching (you tend to write on board less). One problem with Sandel is that you are distracted by the audience and the "talk show" atmosphere that he cultivates on his gilded stage--an audio recording abstracts from the "show" and makes for a better path to inwardness. Pardon me for the length of this comment, but I think many more philosophers ought to put free philosophy online (without overproduction). THIS is a start of a revolution after all!

Kevin said...

There is a whiff of Puritanism about this post. Is it a curmudgeonly reproof that philosophy should be hard and boring? Oddly, Robert Paul Wolff has never been boring in his life, so I wonder if he isn't reacting to something else. Myself, I'm not sure that being the Whore of Mensa is such a bad thing. But, I will have to watch Sandel's for myself and judge.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

No, no, no. There is all the difference in the world between being amusing or even funny while teaching philosophy and becoming a performance artist rather than the teacher. It has everything to do with the message communicated to the students.

Oh rats. I thought I could make a deep and important point in a witty and amusing fashion, but it would seem that I need to spell out in painful detail the complexity of my thought if it is to be taken seriously.

Sigh.

Jamie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin said...

Different Kevin here (there are two who comment here?). I dunno, I think I got RPW's point pretty clearly. I don't see how one gets out of what he says that philosophy should be a bore. It's the upper-class knowingness of Sandel's performance that is irritating.

Jamie said...

I made some spelling mistakes in the previous post. Here it is with the mistakes corrected.

There is also the unsavory political dimension of Sandel's MOOC course on justice. Ironically, having himself been a steadfast critic of market fundamentalism, he is now materially contributing to the neoliberalization of post-secondary education in the US and the displacement of in-person professors by online videos. Last year, he was involved in the controversy at San Jose State University when administrators attempted to force the philosophy faculty to offer Sandel's MOOC as a departmental course.

Despite being an apparently affable and kind person - I've only met him once - and an ethicist, he is making an unjust situation worse.

Chris said...

I'm pasting what I wrote in a comment a few posts down:

There's an underlying insidiousness to Sandel’s popularity, in that he's now world famous for basically asking the same question: but should the market infringe upon X? X being peoples’ votes, healthcare, scientific analysis, pregnancy, etc. Point being he's very concerned when the market takes on a role in certain aspects of our lives that were previously considered too sacrosanct for market transactions. Who isn't? But he never asks the far more important - and Marxian - question: WHY does the market keep spilling over into these previously secluded aspects of our lives? If he’d make his way around to Vol I, he might get some answers to the more important question.

All that aside, I actually try and mirror some of his teaching style which wasn't present in the first 2:30 of that video. He'll often poll his students on where they stand regarding a moral issue, and let them debate one another. I find this strategy really helpful in my own class. It always keeps students engaged, intrigued, and alert...which is helpful for a 9AM course of freshmen!

Ludwig Richter said...

For a longer discussion of MOOC and related issues, I recommend "The High-Tech Mess of Higher Education" recently published in The New York Review of Books:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/aug/14/hi-tech-mess-higher-education/?insrc=hpma

Jamie speaks of the "neoliberalization of post-secondary education in the US." While the neoliberalization of education may take different forms in public schools, it stems from the same market forces that universities are subject to now. I have thought for some time that university professors should be joining common cause with those of us in the public schools. What neoliberal "reformers" have done to public schools they will do to universities, unless we all get organized and fight back.