Would Kant do the Ice Bucket Challenge?

Most of you are probably familiar with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Celebrities have taken part, including Bill Gates, and it’s been filling social media.

But for those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s pretty simple: when challenged, you either dump ice water on your head or donate $100 or ALS research and treatment. Many donate the money regardless, but if you do dump the ice water, you can challenge three more people, giving them 24 hours to comply. In effect, it goes like this:

The goal, besides raising money, is to spread awareness. The viral quality of the campaign has proven particularly effective, raising over $100 million dollars, according to this article from Aug. 15, and bringing ALS to the forefront of the public sphere. It is a brilliant viral campaign, seeming to make a positive difference.

But for some the project feels too public, too self-broadcasting. It reeks of shallow millennial-led narcissism and low-effort activism, where over-rich Americans throw cold water on themselves, film it, send it to the world, and think it constitutes “help.”

Well, despite some reservations, I think it does.

Continue reading “Would Kant do the Ice Bucket Challenge?”


I apologize for not posting lately. I’ve been moving into school and prepping for the semester. I have a post in mind that I hope to write soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to post a video that I come to now and then: Alain de Botton’s take on Epicurus.

Epicurus and the “Epicurean” way of life has taken an odd turn through the ages, earning the connotation that it’s easy, hedonistic, and pleasure-focused. We have Epicurean.com, for example, which is all about food. It often contrasts Stoicism’s emphasis on endurance and austerity with a fat, easy life of comfort and self-gratification.

Oh, the decadence! [Image from Epicurean Life]
Oh, the decadence! [Image from Epicurean Life]

But, as you can probably expect, the original Epicurus and his followers were not nearly so “epicurean” and had much in common with their rival school, the Stoics, in ways of general beliefs and lifestyles. Both wanted the good life and both emphasized that one’s behavior required a certain logic and virtue in order to find it. Moreover, both emphasized simplicity.

For Epicurus and his philosophy, one of the key means to this happiness was simplicity. Simply your life, he might say, and you have less to fret over. A bit like Thoreau’s philosophy with Walden: strip life to its must fundamental points, and you can live it with fewer distractions, getting more out of it. Or as he famously put it:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

"Live deliberately" in this replica of Thoreau's cabin
“Live deliberately” in this replica of Thoreau’s cabin [Image from Wikipedia]

Epicurus also wanted to “reduce [life] to its lowest terms,” emphasizing fundamentals like friendship, freedom, meaningful tasks, and time to reflect. He ate simply, preferring water, bread, and vegetables over wine and and banquets. He also worked hard. But he kept those fundamental “pleasures,” like friendship, nearby.

Epicurus and Thoreau are not alone in this perspective. It’s common to many religions and many self-help guides–from the mundane to the truly helpful. The Buddha, for example, has a famous story in which a farmer interrupts his teaching to ask if they have seen his cows. The farmer is fretting and saying he might kill himself if he can’t find them. The Buddha cannot help. When the man walks away, the Buddha tells his followers how lucky they are that they do not have to worry over such things. For him, the greatest possession is freedom.

Currently moved into my townhouse, I have a very simple arrangement–few decorations, the basics in kitchen, clothes, and hygiene. I’m sure I’ll acquire more, especially as my fellow suite-mates move in, but for now I must content myself with these and seek out other, deeper pleasures. We shall see how that goes. But for now, I’ll remember Epicurus:

Internet Dialects and Online “Space”

I know I’ve been posting a lot lately about the Internet and digital literacy, but this time, it’s based off on one of the more recent Idea Channel videos:

To summarize, many online “speech communities” from specific groups and interfaces have their own linguistic patterns, expressions, and focuses. In the language of the video, they have “dialects,” just as different geographic regions have different wording, slang, and linguistic personalities.

For example, as the video shows, the /b/ forum on 4Chan feels and sounds coarse, chaotic, and (to some) unfriendly. Or Tumblr tends to use many .gifs based off of the .gif-friendly interface.

As I think of these topics, I often turn to the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and his conception of the “public sphere.” While the details often differ depending on the theorist or the argument, the public sphere is essentially a space where people from different backgrounds can meet and discuss topics in a united context. Imagine a park, bringing together a web of people, or a coffee shop, open constantly to the public.

A handy diagram to give some clarity. [Image from main.nc.us]
A handy diagram to give some clarity. [Image from main.nc.us]

For Habermas, one of the key principles of the public sphere is its “universal access.” Here, many others attack him, as access to the public sphere often requires certain things, like a reliance on shared symbols and rules, a level of education, and material access. Many also critique his assertion that this public sphere must be rational, a carryover from the historic genealogy that Habermas uses. Action- and meaning-defining discourse may be happening, they arguem even if it is not “rational.”

Thus, while the Internet may seem like a “public sphere” of sorts, it clearly isn’t because it lacks this universal access. You need a connection, something many people do not have, and the Internet lacks the order and unity that a public sphere seems to imply. Its borders and spaces have no geographic limitations. Some exist beyond the realm of legislation. Professional or educational websites coexist with amateur, joking, obscene, pornographic, criminal, and chaotic spaces. Many different languages and symbols collide, and many users don’t “discourse,” but troll or produce random content, like “YouTube poop.”

My vocabulary is deliberately spacial and organic here. Like our living spaces, the Internet is a lived-in space, changed by those who live in it. Or, to go back to language, the Internet is always in a constant dialogue with itself, as the theorist Mikhail Bakhtin might have seen it. It builds meanings, connotations, and references constantly through the shared use of its symbols and spaces. Memes change. Expressions change. Words emerge, like “smol” or “lol.” The Internet and digital technology, in Bakhtin’s language, is the new novel, alive and changing.

Continue reading “Internet Dialects and Online “Space””

Dada, anyone?

Dadaism may be one of the slipperiest and most deliberately annoying movements of modern art. It’s the sort of”art” that draws the rolled eyes, shaking heads, and remonstrating fingers of skeptics. One can see Rodin’s Gates of Hell as “Art,” but making the same case for this “sculpture” is a little difficult:

1964 Replica of Duchamp's "The Fountain" (1917) [Image from the Tate.org]
1964 Replica of Duchamp’s “The Fountain” (1917) [Image from the Tate.org]

This piece is from Marcel Duchamp, representing his Dadaist “ready-made” art. For these pieces, Duchamp simply took everyday objects, here a urinal, and slapped them with a signature or set them up as art with little to no effort.

Other pieces, like this collage by Hannah Hoch required more effort but resulted in a mishmash bricolage dissolving into irreverent chaos, not a balanced aesthetic masterpiece:

Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, (1919) [Image from Wikipedia]
Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, (1919) [Image from Wikipedia]

As one can expect, the Dadaists challenged conventions. But why? As one can see from the dates of these pieces, 1917 and 1919, respectively, Dada was an early 20th Century movement of avant-garde, in the midst and aftermath of WWI.

This timing is no coincidence. The “War to End all Wars” created a climate of despair and anxiety for many intellectuals. High death tolls, mutual destruction on both sides, little political gain, and an economic depression that brutalized Europe–these cracked the facade of meaning and progress that had kept Europe pumping through the 19th Century.

Artists responded by doing the same with art. New pieces were deliberately anti-aesthetic, challenging and breaking rules of taste or logic. Meaning crumbled into collage. The artistic genius simply found readymade pieces or compiled cut-and-paste poetry. Irreverence, obscuration, and the subconscious–not reason –became guiding principles. The name itself, though of uncertain origins, signified this, with its playful sound and French meaning of “hobbyhorse.”

Many Dadaists, especially in Germany, were also political. Manifestos, public gatherings, and magazines, like the infamous 291 by Francis Picabia, spread the message and hoped to change the world, redrawing it in more Dadaist lines. It was a way of life for many, not just a style, and influenced many fields.

Inevitably, this leads to the “so what” question. Here, one could put it even more bluntly: Were the Dadaists a bunch of overly educated cranks or heroic geniuses?

While they proved instrumental to the avant-garde, still felt in art and philosophy today, Dadaism’s deeper relevance, I think, came from their inclusion of irreverence and counter-discourse into the public sphere. In a modern world that often tries to articulate what something is, like art, the Dadaists tried to show art that was both art and anti-art, voiding traditional categories. This matters because categories can often oppress or limit.

Here, the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu helps clarify. Bourdieu’s work often references the role of “doxa,” a term he draws from another sociologist, and  aesthetic taste. Doxa are habits that fly below our scrutiny because they seem so natural and obvious–even universal. But as Bourdieu argues, they are socially constructed.

Matters of taste, i.e. a person’s ability to discuss beauty in a seemingly disinterested manner, provides an example. People in wealthier, upper- and middle-class homes gradually acquire the correct doxa to make aesthetic claims through exposure to art, etiquette, criticism, and general conversation about elite topics. Others don’t. Then, as adults, those with the doxa can make rules about sophistication or taste–whether in language or movies–excluding those who can’t. And since such doxa remain invisible, they have no reason to doubt their perspective.

Pierre Bourdieu [Image from thefrailestthing.com]
Pierre Bourdieu [Image from thefrailestthing.com]

But as the Dadaists and other irreverent composers show, such rules are often transient and empty. They can be broken, sometimes to brilliant, comical effect. With this in mind, we shouldn’t try to impose matters of taste on those who “lack it,” flaunting a refined love for theater as a passport for pretentiousness. Instead, we should strive to see what’s aesthetic in the non-aesthetic. Or, as some argue, we should just see it as a form of pleasure.

Along with this, the Dadaists also vitalize humor. The role of humor, can be a key tool in moving an audience and inspiring social change. As Mark Twain said, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” Moreover, humor can breakdown the seriousness of a debate so an agenda stalls. At times, this is a problem, but having a plurality of discourse, including anti-discourse, can challenge power structures, keeping them from too dominant.

For example, as I noted in my post on hashtags, the #McDStories campaign suffered after irreverent composers took this readymade hashtag to mock McDonalds with stories of bad experiences. This brought to light a fuller, more truthful “story” and challenged the authority of McDonald’s, a huge company, with the irreverence of scrappy Tweeps.

Or, at the very least, the Dadaists are simply fun and fascinating to learn about, as this documentary, Europe after the Rain, shows. Just as their pieces are the dappled, awkward rebels of the art world, their own story proves colorful and oddly insightful.

Existential Comics

I’ll be going on a trip today for about a week, so I won’t be posting. In the meantime, on the lighter side, here’s a link to one of my favorite sites, “Existential Comics.” It’s always good for a laugh. This comic, though not as timely as it could have been, remains one of my favorites: World Cup Philosophy

I suppose you can read this in tandem with Monty Python’s “Philosopher Football” for the full effect of philosophy on the pitch.


[Image from University of Glasgow]
[Image from University of Glasgow]