I like bookstores. The inspiration for my visits is only marginally related to my actual interest in buying books. I like the aesthetic qualities of a bookstore. Whether it be the sterile calm of a chain bookstore or the many grades of disorderliness that make independent bookstores more like a cluttered library then a place of commerce. I like the smell of the paper. I like to wander the aisles pretending as if I am a general, readying the books – lined in regimental order upon the shelves – for a battle against the world’s absurdity – contained in their underbellies an articulate measure of sanity.
I am addicted to books.
In fact, to be quite honest, it doesn’t matter where the books are located. I love to browse books. I like the unexpected feeling of finding a new author or subject to immerse myself in. I like the feeling that comes with the expectation of coming upon something unexpected. I browse the shelves at Target, in airport newsstands, at friend’s houses, at houses of people I don’t know, at Starbucks when they sell books and I am actually buying my coffee at Starbucks. I’ll even go up to the bookshelf in my room at home and pace back and forth simulating the act of browsing.
Blind leads aside; this is all to say that I have become acutely aware of my surroundings when those surroundings consist of books. Particularly in the order of literature and philosophy, whose sections – in bookstores – I frequent most. So it has disheartened, no the right word would be bemused, yes bemused me, to see a burgeoning philosophy series, flanked by Edmund Husserl and William James, and nestled among the world of Spinoza, Schopenhauer and the like: the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series or in other words – The Blockbuster Hollywood Franchise-as-Philosophy Series. The ultimate combination of the high and the low. The Twilight franchise has a book dedicated to it, House, the TV show, Battlestar Galactica, the Final Fantasy video game series, Alice in Wonderland, I could go on – really.
They’re not so much incongruous, with their front covers adorned with film and TV stars, as they’re foreboding (Ok, they’re pretty damn incongruous). Not so much bereft of substance, as they are laughable for their surplus of vanity . Take this stunning passage as a starter, taken from the aforementioned Twilight book, from the opening paragraph of a chapter entitled “Can A Vampire Be A Person?”:
Edward Cullen is a loving husband, a brilliant musician, a devoted son and a remarkable baseball player. But of course Edward is also a vampire. Do you need to be human to be a person? What are the criteria for personhood?
What? Well to be a vampire you need to be a figment of man’s imagination for starters. So as these books slowly spiral into a state of frippery let us get serious just for a moment.
I had the good mind to dismiss the Blackwell Series until I realized there were more of them on the shelves than of any one philosopher’s books. I flipped through a few of them and found that, subject matter taken into account they posed some interesting questions. Like for example the edition dedicated to The Matrix. The Wachowski brothers admitted the serious extent to which philosophers such as Jean Baudrillard influenced their films. (Of course, there are multiple books dedicated to the philosophy of The Matrix already).The Batman book as well, which, to be quite honest, had socio-political undertones of a complex nature running through it and might benefit from a book of this nature, if not in so cartoonish a manner. They are in their own way “fun.”
Here’s the real problem: What does the presence of these books say about our current state of philosophy. When every book on the shelf has some kitschy theme that only utilizes philosophy to underscore some pop culture theme, our society as a whole has officially entered the intellectual vacuum. In fact, Slavoj Zizek, an idiosyncratic Slovenian, and Simon Critchley, a Brit were the only philosophers who were even attempting to capitalize on name recognition. Has philosophy been pushed to the periphery so thoroughly that the only way to be relevant is to undertake the dissection of a fantasy film or TV show (Disclosure: It notes on the front of each book this series has no connection with the producers of the respective film, series, or show or its auxiliaries).
Here’s another of the real problems:
To philosophize is to learn how to die. And this is killing me!
All in all, this isn’t a matter of “fun”. Or even a matter of philosophical right-or-wrong. Rather, what irks me is that these books, without designating too rigid a definition, dismiss what makes philosophy so virtuous – the search for knowledge in spite of materialism. Diogenes this is not. No, they fully embrace the profit driven world of Hollywood.
With the Blackwell Series, an obvious merger of the material with the intellectual, we are asked to suspend our disbelief – to dismiss the idea that philosophy is serious, best utilized to uncover the nuances of life, to find a truth that’s mostly deceptive, and most importantly to bring order to a chaotic world — so that it may become merely a secondary object in a fictitious enterprise. A simulacrum of sorts when one considers the rather controlled nature of Hollywood. Yes, let’s apply philosophy to a set of already predetermined, tightly controlled, and artificially influenced subjects. Not philosophy for philosophies sake but philosophy as an artificial device. A stand-in philosophy. The importance of the tool is dismissed for the insignificance of the object. It reeks of nihilism. Is it that nothing holds any value or that everything holds an equal value of nothingness?
A question posed in the Terminator and Philosophy: Is John Connor free to choose to defend humanity, or not? My response: it doesn’t matter. The movie wouldn’t have worked if he hadn’t!
In a sense we shouldn’t be surprised, especially here in the US. Capitalism has always threatened to make a mockery of thought. Thought doesn’t make any money, unless its aim is money and not thought for its own sake. Thus it’s easily replaceable with pseudo forms. Or, ideally, it is altered to that pseudo form.
And here’s my last problem: who reads this crap anyway? Clearly the obsessed fan — the fanatic. It of course takes a certain amount of familiarity to be able to relate to these books, just like if someone is to pickup Kant they must be somewhat familiar with his ideas beforehand to fully grasp him. (It’s no small expectation to think someone will be willing to endure 300 pages of theoretical analysis without some prior knowledge).
Nietzsche said “Fanatics are picturesque, mankind would rather see gestures than listen to reasons,” and I wish, in this case, the editors of the Blackwell Series would have left the fanatics to their gestures, and not so hastily materialized for them their reasons.