Murder-By-Neglect: From Danto’s Optimism to Z’s Pessimism.

A long, long time ago, in a far-away land, I read Arthur Danto’s Transfiguration of the Commonplace, because I was thinking about philosophical aesthetics and philosophy of art on the one hand and critical social and political theory on the other, and was intrigued by Danto’s thesis that differences in collective intentionality determine the difference between mere commonplace objects (say, Brillo boxes) on the one hand, and objects with aesthetic and artistic “aura” (say, Warhol’s Brillo Boxes) on the other.

That led me sideways, and backwards, to read other books and articles by Danto, basically everything I could lay my hands on, including his very cool work on action-theory, etc.

Along the way, in one of those books or articles (I think it was in Transfiguration and on a left-hand page, that’s what my flashbulb memory says: but it’s been 34 years since I read it, and a quick flip through the much-scribbled-upon pages of my copy didn’t turn up the right sentences) I was also much struck by what at the time I thought was a very insightful and heartening metaphilosophical remark Danto made in passing when discussing something else, almost a toss-away line.

He wrote that contemporary philosophers shouldn’t be discouraged by the fact that their work was read by so very few people and seemed to disappear into a void and be forgotten almost instantly upon publication, because:

(i) although not everything is read by everyone, nevertheless

(ii) everyone reads some things, and

(iii) everything that is published is read by someone or another, therefore

(iv) the overall intellectual and moral health and progress of real, serious philosophy is sustained.

Let’s call this Danto’s Optimism.

But now, in retrospect, I think that Danto’s Optimism, while undoubtedly insightful, was also very institutionally/politically naive and and surprisingly uncritical.

This is because it almost completely overlooks the hyper-disciplined ideological situation of professional academic philosophy, gradually emerging after World War II, as part of the new military-industrial-university complex, but then speeding up in the late 70s and throughout the 1980s and 90s, then finally completely dominating and hegemonic by the 00s and now well into the 10s.

More specifically, however, Danto’s Optimism almost completely overlooks two extremely widespread professional academic philosophical phenomena that I’ll call, respectively,

(i) professional amnesia (aka P-amnesia) and

(ii) professional tunnel-vision (aka P-tunnel-vision).

By P-amnesia, I mean:

Aside from obligatory reading-for-teaching, virtually no one ever reads anything in philosophy published more than 10 years earlier, unless it has been pre-validated by their PhD advisor(s) or the leading high-status members of their post-PhD, AOS-specific professional philosophical research-&-publishing networks.

P-amnesia is obviously intimately related to what Otto Paans recently and very aptly dubbed “institutional amnesia” in professional philosophy.

And by P-tunnel-vision, I mean:

Aside from obligatory reading-for-teaching, virtually no one ever reads anything in philosophy outside their own AOS, apart from coercive moralist screeds or salacious gossip in the professional blogs.

Conjoining P-amnesia and P-tunnel-vision, and appropriately updating and revising Danto’s Optimism, then we get what I’ll call Z’s Pessimism:

(i) although everyone in professional academic philosophy reads some things and although everything that’s published in professional academic philosophy is read by someone or another, nevertheless

(ii) aside from obligatory reading-for-teaching, virtually no one ever reads anything in philosophy published more than 10 years earlier, unless it has been pre-validated by their PhD advisor(s) or the leading high-status members of their post-PhD, AOS-specific professional philosophical research-&-publishing networks, and

(iii) aside from obligatory reading-for-teaching, virtually no one ever reads anything in philosophy outside their own AOS, apart from coercive moralist screeds or salacious gossip in the professional blogs.

Aside from obligatory reading-for-teaching, when was the last time you read something in philosophy not specifically related to your AOS that was published more than 10 years earlier?

For example, those of you who aren’t specialists in aesthetics or philosophy of art or anyhow don’t teach courses in that area: have you ever read Transfiguration of the Commonplace?

Indeed, is it even possible that, aside from obligatory reading for teaching, you haven’t actually read anything in philosophy not specifically related to your AOS that was published more than ten years earlier at any given time since you finished and defended your PhD dissertation?

On the other hand, however, during the last six months have you ever read the professional blogs for salacious reasons only, e.g., to learn all about professional academic philosophers who either send bags of shit to each other, or are highly affronted to receive them?

(This absurdity on stilts, by the way, also almost literally confirms my recent contention that professional philosophy is a bullshit job.)

So am I right, or am I right?

The truth of Z’s Pessimism, in turn, substantially helps to explain not only the specific fact that professional philosophy has produced no important ideas since 1977, but also the more general fact of the collective stupidity, or destructive Gemeinschaft, of contemporary professional academic philosophy.

In short, contemporary professional philosophers have been, and are, systematically forgetting the history of philosophy and turning themselves into hyper-specialized philosophical pedants and good little professional do-bees.

Everything in philosophy outside the 10-year-memory-span limit, or more generally everything outside the obligatory-teaching-and-AOS-tunnel might be nothing but Brillo boxes for all they care.

As per Danto’s transfiguration-of-the-commonplace thesis, then, profession-driven differences in collective intentionality determine the fundamental difference between collective philosophical memory and breadth-of-vision on the one hand, and collective philosophical amnesia and narrowing-of-vision on the other.

That this dual process of P-amnesia and P-tunnel-vision is, perhaps, largely unreflective and heedless at the level of the individuals relentlessly participating in it and contributing to it, is no excuse.

The truth is out there for everyone in professional academic philosophy to recognize, and now it’s also out there for everyone to read--if only they ever read anything in philosophy, aside from obligatory reading-for-teaching, outside their own AOS, apart from coercive moralist screeds or salacious gossip in the professional blogs.

PP-amnesia and PP-tunnel-vision are murdering real, serious philosophy, by neglect of its deep history and wide scope.

Therefore, in order to resist the murder-by-neglect of real, serious philosophy, we must all resolutely

(i) read as deeply as humanly possible in philosophy published more than 10 years earlier,

(ii) read as widely as humanly possible in philosophy outside our own AOS, and also

(iii) eschew the groupthink of the professional blogs.

Or, more pithily put:

Read deeply, read widely, and fuck-the-blogs.

To be sure, in the present hyper-disciplined situation of professional philosophy inside the Professional Academic State, these seemingly benign activities of resolutely reading deeply and widely, and resolutely eschewing blog-driven groupthink,1 are themselves resolute acts of social, institutional, and political resistance, even revolution.

But the revolution has to start somewhere, and it’s not going to be televised on the APA website.

NOTE

1 Please don’t be tempted by this facile sophistry: APP, your recommendation about blogs is self-refuting!

Wrong, and wrong again. We’re not a professional blog, we’re an anti-professional blog; and we’re not telling you how what to think and say, we’re telling you to dare to think for yourself and speak your own mind.

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Z

About Z

Z is a 50-something cosmopolitan anarcho-philosopher, and previously was a tenured full professor of philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America, but still managed to escape with his life.