Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

"The Problem of Elitism in Aesthetics" by Bence Nanay


Bence Nanay is Professor of Philosophy and BOF Research Professor at the University of Antwerp and Senior Research Associate at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. He is the author of Between Perception and Action (Oxford University Press, 2013) and editor of Perceiving the World (Oxford University Press, 2010) and he just finished his book on aesthetics, Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception (Oxford University Press, under contract), all very elitist, really. This picture shows him pretending to be down with the kids, but the truth is that he has no idea how to play drums (as you can probably tell from the picture)… Also, he looks about as dumb on this picture as Kelso from That 70s Show(to throw in a really elitist reference)…
Let’s begin with a little quiz:
Who are the characters depicted in these following three pictures:


My conjecture is that even the sophisticated aesthetics-y audience of this blog can name the characters in the third, but not the first and the second picture (correct me if I’m wrong). (solutions below)
But we, aestheticians, like to use examples like the first and the second picture – and rightly so, they are amazing images. This raises the question about our audience: who are we talking to? To the connoisseurs of Domenico Veneziano and Antonioni? Or to what university administrators like to call the wider public? Aesthetics has an elitism problem and we all know this, but prefer not to talk about it.
I recently said in an interviewthat aesthetics as a discipline is considered to be marginal in the eyes of other philosophers (and got some heat for this from all kinds of directions). One of the reasons for this is exactly the perceived elitism of aestheticians – we go on about extremely highbrow examples like Proust, Bartok and Godard and most of our colleagues find it difficult to relate to this. And our students also find it difficult to relate to this.
But if aesthetics has an elitism problem, what can we do about this? I myself have tried all the strategies I could think of at some point or another in my life, and I’m really unhappy with each of them:
  1. Ignore the problem. Just assume that your audience has as much background in atonal music and modernist cinema as you do. If they don’t, it’s their problem, maybe they’ll feel ashamed and go home to educate themselves.  
  1. Throw a bone to the crowd sometimes. When I served as a TA in Richard Wollheim’s 200-strong intro to philosophy of art class, one day he came to me enthusiastically, saying he will talk about an artwork the students can surely relate to – and then he talked about the Watts Towers in LA. The idea was that the student from Southern California are bound to love it. To Wollheim’s greatest amazement, the students were not particularly thrilled.
  1. Try to educate the audience. I have to confess that I have done this quite a bit. Especially when teaching, which may be excusable. But this can be pretty heavy-handed. Once when I needed to use examples of the representation of dance in film (why? I’m not sure. Maybe something about the relation between the visual and the auditory?), I eased them in with the scene from Pulp Fiction, but then went on to do some Godard, Pasolini  and even Bela Tarr. As I said, heavy-handed.
  1. Go completely anti-elitist. Stop talking about high art altogether and focus on artforms and examples the audience can be expected to know and like – sitcoms, comics, punk-rock, street art, porn, horror, late-night talk-shows, whatever.
I would be genuinely curious to know who opts for which strategy – or if there are other strategies the readers of this blog can recommend. I don’t want to pretend that I have a solution to this issue of elitism – I don’t. But I really think this is something we, as a profession should talk about and take seriously.
The real issue is that I suspect that the problem of elitism goes much deeper. I have been mainly talking about choosing what examples one uses to demonstrate an aesthetic phenomenon. But there is an even more important sense in which we should address the issue of elitism within aesthetics – if we remain too elitist, we may miss out on genuinely important aesthetic phenomena that have become extremely widespread around us, but we failed to notice in our ivory tower.
And here comes the bombshell. I believe that no work in aesthetics addressed what is now the most dominant way of engaging with narratives and it’s called shipping. I talked to two or three dozens of aestheticians about shipping in the last year or so and not one of them knew what shipping was, so I can safely assume that you don’t either.
You are shipping a couple if you really really want two fictional characters of a serialized narrative fiction, mostly a TV show, to have a romantic relationship. The term itself was coined when the world was fascinated with the sexual tension between the two main characters of the TV show, The X-Files, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. But it became a really global phenomenon with two extremely popular serialized narratives, Harry Potter and Friends (thus the illustration above)
Arguably, it were the writers of Friends who discovered that you can double, triple or quadruple the number of viewers if you manage to get them to ship a couple on your show – in the case of Friends, Ross and Rachel. Sitcoms before Friends didn’t use this trick. But after Friends it was not possible to ignore the shipping aspect of the genre. All the big sitcoms have been using it systematically – the more intelligent ones, like Community or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia use it ironically or comment on the phenomenon on a meta level. (By the way, see what I’m doing here, in a blog post on elitism???)
But shipping is not only for TV show junkies. Probably the most visible shipper community is the Harry Potter fandom. What makes shipping in this context even more a question of life and death is that there are two (well, at least two) couples to ship: Ron and Hermione or Harry and Hermione. Here is J. K. Rowling’s account of her encounter with the phenomenon of shipping:
Well, you see, I’m a relative newcomer to the world of shipping, because for a long time, I didn’t go on the net and look up Harry Potter. A long time. Occasionally I had to, because there were weird news stories or something that I would have to go and check, because I was supposed to have said something I hadn’t said. I had never gone and looked at fan sites, and then one day I did and oh – my – god. Five hours later or something, I get up from the computer shaking slightly [all laugh]. ‘What is going on?’ And it was during that first mammoth session that I met the shippers, and it was a most extraordinary thing. I had no idea there was this huge underworld seething beneath me.
I’m not sure ‘seething underworld’ is the best way of thinking about this phenomenon. Harry Potter is somewhat atypical inasmuch as shipping had no visible effect on the books themselves (at least according to the author). But most serial narratives are radically transformed by the phenomenon of shipping. This is especially clear with TV shows. There are two characters in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Barney Stinson and Robin Scherbatsky, who seem to have good on-screen chemistry and this got the shippers going. The writers noticed this and turned the narrative in a way that lead the shippers along with the usual will they, won’t they play. The shippers became more and more vocal and more and more desperate. But finally Barney proposed to Robin and all was well – in the last season they got married and the shippers were extremely happy. But then the showrunners pulled a nasty trick in the finale – they had Barney and Robin divorced and got Robin together with the shippers’ grand enemy, Ted Mosby. The shippers were outraged, but, from a cynical financial point of view, this outrage came too late – the show was over, the ratings soaring throughout the last seasons. If the shippers burned their DVDs and merchandise, this did not really influence the show’s revenue…
This is a clear example for how shipping influences the actual work. But what is even more shocking (to me at least) is the way shippers engage with the work. To stick with the Barney/Robin example, you can have some taste of this from this shipping site, where you can find all kinds of delicacies, from the analysis of the symbolism of the trench-coats of the two characters to the hidden visual messageabout the love of Barney and Robin in a blue and yellow trashcan (not joking). Clearly, a lot of mental and emotional energy is spent on this.
How new is shipping? When you read the Flaubert book and want Frederic Moreau and Madame Arnoux to end up together, is that shipping? I don’t think so. What I take the main characteristic of shipping (and the most scary thing about it) is that all other considerations are deemed irrelevant compared to the interest in getting the shipped couple together. How I Met Your Mother has a certain amount of narrative complexity, at least for a work in its genre. But the shippers have no patience for that – whatever does not move the two characters towards each other is time and energy wasted. And once they are together, happily engaged, any narrative complexity is seen as a distraction from showing the two of them holding hands being happy.
The conclusion? There is no conclusion. While I am somewhat shocked at the effect of shipping on both our engagement with fiction and on the fictional works themselves, my aim here was not to make fun of it. Nor was my aim to urge all aestheticians to devote all their time to the systematic theoretical analysis of shipping. But I’m really puzzled by how our profession should approach phenomena like shipping. So this is not a ‘telling you how things are’ kind of post, it’s post I’m hoping to generate some discussion about elitism in aesthetics and ways of dealing with it and the phenomena it may restrict us from engaging with.
Solution to the quiz at the beginning: Saint Zenobius and the widow in Domenico Veneziano’s predella; Claudia and Sandro in Antonioni’s L’Avventura; Chandler Bing and Joey Tribbiani in Friends.

23 thoughts on “"The Problem of Elitism in Aesthetics" by Bence Nanay

  1. Greetings! Wonderful short piece this… it's an interesting problem. My research is in ethics and aesthetics, but I teach Game Design (I'm a game designer by profession, but a philosopher by vocation). I therefore have an easy pop culture set of references inside videogames and tabletop games that has the wide reach – but I still try to show off artworks from other media as often as possible, which I suppose is the inverse of your strategy (2) “throw a bone sometimes”. In general, I think striking a balance is the answer here – you don't want to go completely pop culture (unless you're Zizek, maybe?), but you don't want to be entirely elitist.

    All the best,



  2. Thanks, Chris. I think you're right, the inverse problem is also a very important one: and I also agree that striking a balance is the way to go. But you may be in a slightly better position inasmuch as your nonelitist references don't alienate most of your colleagues. Whereas our elitism does exactly that. So imagine that your game design outfit is part of the MOMA – this would be the inverse of the situation of professional aesthetics (ok, I may be exaggerating here a bit).


  3. First of all I want to ask for a bit of clarification and to be corrected explicitly in my characterisation of 'shipping. As I understood the term, 'shipping (I also thought that it was spelled with an apostrophe, but I'm the sort of person who would write 'phone if I thought I could get away with it) is a creative act: it's writing fiction in which the characters whom you want to see together are gotten together in some way, or painting pictures of them in embrace, or whatever. But perhaps this creative-act part is just a total misunderstanding on my part. I'm young, but I'm still an academic!

    I also want to double-check that you're not eliding two sorts of elitism. On the one hand there's the elitism of thinking of art created in the Western art tradition by dead white Germans has something about it that makes it better than anything that is created by American comic book artists or Scottish rock bands or whoever. That's obviously a terrible attitude with nothing more to recommend it than that learning to appreciate unfamiliar sorts of art in unfamiliar ways is time-consuming and spiritually difficult. (Surely, though, the aesthetician has a duty to face this difficulty head on, just as, qua philosopher, she has a duty to face the difficulty of understanding unfamiliar ways of thinking head on!) On the other hand, though, there's the vaguer elitism of having a strong and unapologetic sense that some artwork is better than others because – for instance – it is more beautiful, or more expressive, or better brings us to awareness of the nature of our humanity – whatever our theory is; and that only this art is worth discussing at length. The art that is good by this standard, though, can crop up anywhere: in comics (as argued by Scott McCloud ('Understanding Comics') and evinced by, for instance, Maus and Scott Pilgrim); in folk musics (Martin Hayes, Joanna Newsom); in rock musics (Sufjan Stevens, King Crimson); in graffiti (Banksy); in pornography (Anais Nin); in webcomics (Hark! a Vagrant, xkcd); in video games (Bioshock, Portal); in children's cartoons (Adventure Time); and so on and on and on.

    This sort of elitism seems much less problematic to me. Of course, some aesthetic phenomena will still be missed (Ridley has a paper or two on medium-grade art), and first-year undergraduates may not even be familiar with (or appreciate) the best art created in genres with which they are familiar. But still, I would hope and expect, it won't alienate people to at all the same extent.

    P.S. Christy: I got a funny feeling, in writing this comment, that I had said all this before. When I clicked post, I discovered why – the system ate my original comment and I lost it. I had the foresight to copy the text and I'm reposting this on Firefox (I was originally using Chrome). Perhaps something can be done about this: goodness knows how many people post with Chrome, lose their comment, and then just give up.


  4. i would propose adding another element to the mix, beyond the cultural level of the artifacts or their value or whether colleagues or students or people like them, feel alienated from them, etc. or not. in my experience both high and low, truly insightful acts of criticism which make artworks available for philosophical reflection are as rare in philosophical aesthetics as anywhere else. most 'criticism' practiced by aestheticians is tendentious, merely illustrative, or mediocre. there are few cavells, dantos, though plenty of people who think writing some descriptive prose about a work of art suffices to warrant attention to it and consideration about its contribution to art or culture more broadly.

    high-culture warhorses give aestheticians not talented as critics an alibi; of course the works are great, of course few are equal to them as critics, of course 'we' share them, give or take a willingness to try to understand them, etc. there is just as much potential for forms of elitism in the realm of the low or popular. but there, it's harder to maintain the value of any given work absent a serious act of criticism; there's prejudice, more disagreement about taste, less widespread education of taste, less developed knowledge about the arts by which the works are made, less structural support owing to the philosophical tradition's biases toward ancient and modern classics (leaving populist tastes unequipped to contend for the significance of their loves).


  5. Hi James,
    As I understand it, one can be a shipper without writing any fan fiction at all. And vice versa. But of course lots of shippers write fan fiction. I meant to also talk about fan fiction (which is almost certainly the most widely practised fictional genre and gets not even a mention in aesthetics).
    About the two kinds of elitism you distinguish: I agree that the second kind is not problematic at all – in fact, I wouldn't call it elitism. It's just making a distinction between good Xs and bad Xs, without which it's hardly possible to talk about anything, let alone art.


  6. Hi J.,
    While I agree that art criticism is not something aesthetics people are particularly interested in, I'm not sure that this is because they are bad at it. To be honest, I'm not sure why aesthetics and art criticism parted ways. It's funny to see that there is almost no art criticism in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, for example.


  7. Strunk and White say never to use a fancy word when a simple one will do. I think the same principle applies to examples, and I wonder how far it goes to mitigate elitism.

    I think it is appropriate to use a highbrow example if and only if it exhibits some phenomenon better than anything else you know of. In this case, it's just good philosophy to explain what is so important about it in terms an unfamiliar reader could understand. So you will have ended up doing option (3) in a principled and natural way. (People like Cavell and Nehamas are very good at this.)

    On the other hand, if this is not the case, I don't see how the highbrow example is more than just a distraction. Not only can it look elitist, but even people who know and appreciate it may experience it as a source of noise–its complexity may make them wonder whether you are trying to do more with it than you are. Think of how much worse “Fearing Fictions” would have been if Walton used The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari instead of the green slime.

    Most of the annoyingly elitist examples I can think of run afoul of this condition. Beyond this I wonder if philosophers are sometimes too apologetic. Philosophy is a humanity and I don't see anything wrong with expecting philosophy professors, at least, to be interested in or at least accepting of great creative explorations of the human condition.

    p.s.: on shipping: the problem may be generational. I'm in my thirties and a bunch of my college friends were active in fannish subcultures on the internet back in the day (viz., a decade ago). I doubt I'm that atypical. fwiw, my (secondhand) experience with fandom makes me more optimistic about how shipping inclines people to engage with artworks than you seem to be. It struck me that lots of people got really passionate about Harry Potter, say, because they were interested in a particular (often hypothetical) pairing, and ended up forming rich and wide-ranging imaginative relationships to the text. I don't know how far this generalizes, though.

    Oh, and shipping can't be that new, can it? I bet a bunch of Dickens's readers shipped, and Dickens knew it.


  8. Thanks, these are difficult questions. I think the issue is when you have grown up in a highbrow milieu (as I think many aestheticians have) – do you then make an effort to move away from the examples that come naturally to you? So in this case, (3) would not really be 'principled and natural'.

    About shipping: one aspect of shipping I didn't really talk about in the post and that I take to be genuinely new is the communal character of it. People may have shipped Romeo and Juliet, but they didn't have shipping blogs that creates a community held together by nothing else but shipping. This ties into the aspect of shipping that I did talk about, namely, that it is much easier for the writers/showrunners to know about who the audience is shipping – it's enough to go online. In fact, it's now something very difficult for writers/showrunners to ignore. So this may be a difference from Dickens's times.


  9. Hi Bence,

    First of all, thanks for your reply and – as I should have said before – for your original post.

    I want to push you a bit further, though. First, my second elitism was not just the claim that there are good and bad artworks; it's additionally that in order to understand art as such better, we need to focus on good art. This thought is controversial (though it has pedigree), but it's certainly arguably problematically elitist, too, for the reasons I gave and no doubt others too. But it's certainly less likely to alienate people that the stupid elitism of focusing on art of a particular tradition which the focuser thinks is somehow better than other traditions.

    But anyhow. I understand your problem better now that I know your concern really is with a cultural rather than a taste gap between you and your students. I suppose I would suggest by way of solution a fifth option over the four you mention: 'Become comfortable with art in traditions and genres familiar to those whom you are teaching'. Where 'being comfortable with' means being sensitive to it, being knowledgeable about it, etc., just as you are with the art with which you've grown up. This is not 'throwing a bone' because it is deeper than that: it's cultivating a character such that the examples are natural. And it's not going anti-elitist either, for the reasons I've given above – you can still say that Friends in particular, say, is beneath what is worth discussing, but instead of turning thence to Hemingway or whatever, you turn to the Wire or Breaking Bad or whatever (I'm not familiar with either of these shows, so I don't know if they're actually good, but the point is clear I suppose).


  10. i say they are bad on the basis of their sometime attempts at engaging in criticism, more often as part of their other projects than as standalone work. i mean, think of how many aestheticians you could honestly pick out as having contributed to the critical understanding of works, on a par with (i think this is important) anyone else we would call critics. or, say, who are recognized by other critics, or specialist/generalist audience, as critics.

    i would expect that the JAAC is devoid of criticism because criticism involves a relation between critic and audience, and there is a sense in which a critic would be wasting his or her effort, trying to get some criticism there; with whom would it have contact? in what way is an audience for art, as opposed to articles in analytic aesthetics, at all constituted/attracted by that journal?


  11. Hi James, thanks for the clarification, I see what you mean by this second form of elitism, but I'm not convinced that we should call that elitism. Wolfflin and Walter Benjamin were both very forcefully egalitarian in this manner and insisted that we can learn about a period or style by focussing not on the masterworks but on the mediocre stuff. Nonetheless, who would call these two anti-elitist? But this may just be a terminological issue.

    About the Wire/Breaking Bad solution to the problem: I originally wanted to add a fifth option, which I wanted to label 'go middle-brow', but then the whole thing got too long and I don't think I ever tried this option. I think middle-brow is again a concept that aesthetics has surprisingly little to say about and I may do a full post about it here at some point.


  12. A somewhat cynical take would be to say that real critics would never dream of writing for JAAC for the simple reason that it pays nothing to publish there and real critics in general find it odd to write for free. So the question to my mind is why aestheticians stopped writing criticism. But then again, I just saw the owner of this blog give a talk with the title 'Everyone is a critic', so there…


  13. that might sound sensible from an academic's perspective, where food and rent are (if you win the job lottery) covered and all published work thereafter is 'not for pay', but it sounds insulting to all the working critics i know, who can barely make ends meet doing what they're good at because there are so many people who expect them to write for free (or write garbage instead, for peanuts). and sometimes they do anyway!

    was there a time at which aestheticians did write criticism? i assume outliers can be cherry-picked from history, but i'm not sure what their existence would reflect about self-identifying philosophical aestheticians in general.


  14. I have this probably unjustified belief that when JAAC was founded it published equal amounts of aesthetics and art criticism and there is a generation (Stokes, Wollheim, besides the names you mentioned in your original comment) that really did both.


  15. Hi Bence, thanks again.

    I'm with you on almost everything now, but I'd like to stress just one thing a bit more. I think I wasn't clear about what my fifth option meant. When I give examples of good popular art like 'The Wire', I'm not intending to give examples of anything 'middle-brow'. If I can revert to another example, from the earlier list: the 'Scott Pilgrim' series of graphic novels is an incredibly powerful story about coming to terms with our mistakes and accepting them as our own, and how this ties in with maturing as people and treating those we love in ways that that love demands. Formally, O'Malley has totally mastered the medium of the graphic novel (the aural properties are astonishing from page 1), and the video-game symbolism is rich and multilayered, somewhat childish, somewhat adolescent, somewhat grown-up; somewhat surreal, somewhat already symbolic. Etc., etc. There is nothing 'middle-brow' about 'Scott Pilgrim': it is great art pure and simple. Similar things could be said about plenty other examples. So when I'm suggesting that we become familiar with the artistic traditions familiar to our students, I'm not for a moment suggesting we lower our standards.

    If your fifth option is just supposed to be a different suggestion altogether, though, then I have no dispute. And it would be nice, to be sure, if there was something more written about the middle-brow.


  16. About growing up in a highbrow milieu: I would hate to say that anyone should write in a way that feels inauthentic to them. But even in this case, I still think the main thing is that all philosophers, regardless of their milieu, should write to an audience that is not assumed to know anything about art and culture beyond what more or less anyone with a college education could be expected to know. Nearly all of my favorite philosophers–along with my favorite critics and essayists more generally take this principle pretty seriously. Many of these people come from pretty highbrow backgrounds, and use highbrow examples. But when they do it does not feel elitist, since it does not feel like they are addressing some special in-group. (Note that this phenomenon is not limited to aestheticians. The worst offender I know of is Peter van Inwagen, who inexplicably refers to Chippendale furniture in papers about mereology.) It feels like they are friends who think something is wonderful or at least very instructive in certain respects, and who want to share it. But, again, I'm not sure how far this goes.

    Back to shipping: I really like that point! It's notable that this issue is strictly limited to serialized work produced partly in response to ongoing interaction (though not, importantly, collaboration) with a community of consumers–which pretty much means TV. And, yeah, this reciprocal relationship between cultural consumers and producers presumably must be radically new. I bet it actually raises a ton of really interesting issues that go well beyond shipping.


  17. Hi Bence. Although I'm sympathetic to the general idea that people in aesthetics should pay attention to phenomena associated with popular culture, I just don't recognize the picture of contemporary aesthetics you offer. You initially characterize the 'perceived elitism' of aesthetics in the following way: 'we go on about extremely highbrow examples like Proust, Bartok and Godard and most of our colleagues find it difficult to relate to this. And our students also find it difficult to relate to this.' And later you suggest that a deeper worry about elitism is related to a failure to 'attend to genuinely important aesthetic phenomena that have become extremely widespread around us, but we failed to notice in our ivory tower.'

    I'm not seeing either of these things. Consider the following very partial list of people with significant interest in works and genres of popular culture : Noel Carroll, Stanley Cavell, Ted Cohen, Roy Cook, Anne Eaton, Dan Flory, Cynthia Freeland, Stacie Friend, Ted Gracyk, Darren Hudson Hick, Shen-yi Liao, Sheila Lintott, Alexander Nehemas, Henry Pratt, Grant Tavinor, Paul Taylor, Katherine Thomson-Jones, Tom Wartenberg, Jonathan Weinberg, etc. Note that most (if not all) of these philosophers have done this while continuing to talk about high art; i.e., they haven't gone 'completely anti-elitist'. Isn't the natural solution to your first problem just to go pluralist (i.e., talk about both)?

    Re the deeper form of elitism. It seems to me that recent discussions in aesthetics about the distinctive philosophical issues raised by comics, videogames, digital cinema, horror, serial art, pornography, food, etc.–as well as the extensive discussion of the high/low (fine/popular) distinction itself, suggest that people in the field are, in fact, continuing to work hard to identify important and widespread aesthetic phenomena which may have gone as yet unnoticed in our, um, ivory towers. There was a panel on Friday Night Lights at last year's ASA (could we please have some more work on television!) and there's one on rap at the upcoming meeting. I heard a very cool paper about beer last year at the BSA. Phil Compass just published a piece on the aesthetic issues raised by punk rock. Punk rock!

    I guess the upshot is that I think we're doing pretty well on this front. Maybe we could do even better. But I just don't think the field is elitist in the two ways you describe.

    More importantly, shipping is really interesting and you should definitely form a band.


  18. Aaron, credit where credit is due – you did more to help this unquestionable shift in aesthetics than anyone else, and it's certainly true that aesthetics is way less elitist now than it was 10 years ago. But as I said in response to Shen-yi Liao on the other blog, my point was primarily about how we are being perceived by other philosophers and even if we are not elitist, if we are perceived as such and this contributes to the marginalization of aesthetics, that's a problem worth thinking about.

    By the way, last weekend at the British Society of Aesthetics meeting it was interesting to observe all the four strategies I talked about – and I would say that (b) (throw a bone) was the dominant one (not (d))…


  19. Oh, I see now. That could work, but my worry is that it's difficult to appreciate the masterpieces of any genre without some exposure to non-masterpieces – but maybe more on this in connection to the middle-brow one day…


  20. Fun fact–the first painting in the post,Domenico Veneziano's “The Miracle of St. Zenobius,” is on the cover of my Penguin edition of Alberti's ON PAINTING. Doesn't it look like that nun has just delivered an absolutely devastating head butt?

    Speaking of devastating head butts, when I started thinking about writing my aesthetics textbook (INTRODUCING AESTHETICS AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF ART–Continuum 2012: order yours today!), I did a survey of other intro aesthetics texts and came away with the impression that the examples in such books were heavily classical, and often with little or no explanation of the works, and usually without pictures (where applicable). Once upon a time, this may have been a reasonable move–one might expect the reader to be familiar with certain classical works. These days, I can't even expect that my students are particularly familiar with THE SIMPSONS. If the point of examples is to give set-up to philosophical issues, then there's certainly nothing wrong with classical examples, but your job is much easier if you can reasonably expect your students or readers are already familiar with the works discussed.

    One of my most recent publications (“Authorship, Co-Authorship, and Multiple Authorship,” JAAC 72(2)) focuses on a book co-authored by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston. As I say on the first page of that article: “Sometimes complications for philosophical views come from the strangest places, sometimes requiring imaginary and elaborate thought experiments. Sometimes complications are found on the paperback rack at the supermarket. This is one of the latter.”


  21. Hi Darren, you just destroyed that painting for me with the head butt remark – I won't be able to see it the same way every again.

    And you're exactly right about the lack of reference points, but I'm not sure I see a positive angle here – yes, it would be great if we could reasonably expect my students or readers to be familiar with the works I discuss, but the issue is exactly that this is not the case. So what do I do then? Should I talk about works they are familiar with but I don't really want to talk about? Or the other way round? Which, I guess, leads us back to the topic of the original post.


  22. Personally, I just like to mix it up. There's no reason to only select classical “high art” works, and no reason to only select contemporary “low art” works. There are sure to be some cases that you can confidently expect your reader to be familiar with (whether undergrad, grad student, professional philosopher, or layman), but I suspect this is actually a rather short list: the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo's David, Hamlet, Star Wars, Ferris Bueller's Day Off… but there are always going to be a few people from one of the categories unfamiliar with the work (have you noticed that the number of students who've seen The Matrix is dropping at an exponential rate? It came out in 1999, after all, when most of them were toddlers). So, I say, expand your horizons–look for UNfamiliar works of both the high- and low-art sorts, then EXPLAIN them to the reader (or, in the best of cases, show 'em a picture!). I've found this to be an infinitely rewarding experience.


  23. Darren:

    Shipping effects real life too, of course. The weird sense of destiny that friends might feel if they've known each other long enough is one borne not by real-world logic, but by narratives through which we aestheticize reality. To point to just one example, consider this real-world news story:

    One cannot help but project onto their reunion a highly narrativized sense that it was “meant to be” through some weird aesthetic logic, and I can't imagine that Currie and Fowley were not themselves feeling this same pull.

    Alex Reed


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