Friday, March 13, 2015

On curiosity

My most recent Canberra Times column was published today: 'Here's cultivating curiosity... Why's that, you ask?' A sample:
David Hume, in his Treatise of Human Nature, argued that curiosity is the thrill of mental exertion. This is why those who are curious find no joy in simple addition or the recitation of historical facts: it's not that 40 + 29 doesn't equal 69, or that Caesar didn't cross the Rubicon, but that reception of these truths alone is unchallenging.
Hume also pointed out that curiosity often seeks important truths. Not because these are somehow more exciting, but because this sense of worth aids concentration. "When we are careless and inattentive," Hume wrote, "the same action of the understanding has no effect upon us, nor is able to convey any of that satisfaction". These truths may not actually be epic or greatly practical, and the curious person might be highly misanthropic. But the idea of importance is enough to keep them occupied. The student tells himself his studies of late Heidegger are vital for civilisation but his chief motive is a rightful fascination with the nature of art, for example. 
Curiosity, in this light, is neither professional duty nor principled discovery. Certainly someone curious might also be a fine scholar or social reformer: Leonard Woolf comes to mind. But, if Hume's right, curiosity need not have any relationship to professional competency or justice. It is simply a disposition to finding pleasure in mental labour. Sometimes this leads to novels or medicines, other times to a life of quiet but unproductive poking about.
(Image: painting by Allan Ramsay)

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Magic Pen

Only in fantasy: the horny green harem from Venus
I've a review of Dylan Horrocks's marvellous graphic novel Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen in The Age and Herald. In 'Magic Pen delivers a graphic masterpiece', I discuss fantasy, art and their sometimes troubling pairing. A sample:
Horrocks' protagonist, Sam Zabel, is a fantasy merchant: selling superhero stories to Eternal, a big publisher. His heroine, Lady Night, is torn right from the Freudian guidebook: seemingly tough and smart, but basically an empty sexual plaything. "You can hurt me, torture me," she explains to her creator in a dream, "f--- me with your words." Sam is unhappy and unproductive. He spends days staring at the screen, and hours downloading high-resolution paintings such as John William Godward's A Quiet Pet: utopias within which his mind finds asylum. In short: more fantasy, this time of "a world of perfect grace and languor". When he returns from his reveries, the deadlines remain. 
Sam is saved from ennui, not by some neat reclamation of facts, but by a more articulate, ambivalent fantasy. He finds himself inside the pages of an old New Zealand comic, The King of Mars, feted as "the cartoonist god king" by a horny green harem from Venus. Sam refuses their ministrations – preferring to fantasise about them – and escapes to real life. He soon enters more stories, joined by 'zine maker Alice, and Japanese character Miki Roketto. Each comic, he learns, was written by the titular pen: a plot device for Scheherazade stories within stories, but also a neat symbol of creative imagination. 
What follows is an intelligent, moving and quietly funny study in fancy: from orgiastic monks and nuns in a 13th-century illuminated manuscript, to Rupert Bear-ish talking animals in postcards sent by a German soldier in World War II. Horrocks pokes gentle fun at superhero tropes, while the most unsettling and unsparing chapter is on Miki, whose origins in hentai pornography reveal the nasty side of made-to-order wish fulfilment.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

My Pop is a Pirate: out now

The Australian edition of My Pop is a Pirate is officially out now. 

Following on from My Nanna is a Ninja, which recently had its second reprinting, it follows the adventures of several proud kids and their fun grandfathers--one of whom has a golden leg and an eyepatch. Argghhh!

You can buy it at all good bookshops, or online. Meanwhile, a few early reviews:
"Highly recommended. This funny picture book showcases the loving relationship of a granddaughter and her pirate pop as well as presenting pops enjoying their lives, hobbies, vehicles, activities and food choices. [...] Damon Young's alliterative rhymes need to be read aloud to the young audience, his rhythmic style and funny scenarios celebrate the exciting lives of grandpas and pops. Peter Carnavas' colourful and funny illustrations add to the excitement of this rollicking picture book." - Readplus 
"Following on from the fun and deservedly very successful My Nanna is a Ninja comes this companion volume which is just as playful and energetic. The poetry is sheer joy and the rhythm flawless, but for me the thing to celebrate is that the stereotypical granddad, with his tartan slippers and doddery, wise ways, is nowhere to be seen. The pops in this book still have a lot of life left in them and they are embracing it with gusto.
So get your dose of pirates and alliteration with this rambunctious picture book for all ages, shapes and sizes." - Readings 
"The rhyming text is word perfect and the accompanying illustrations will have kids and adults rolling with laughter. [...] This is a great book to read aloud, with opportunity aplenty for sound effects and voices. Keep an eye out for the cameo appearance by Ninja Nanna and her crazy cat too!"- Kids Book Review
"Written and illustrated by the same team that did My Nanna is a Ninja; this is a companion volume with grandfathers as the focus. It has the same sense of inclusiveness, showing grandfathers or pops, as they are called, of different types. It has the same light-hearted sense of fun as it looks at how people are different. The cover is colourful and eye catching and the illustrations are clever and fun. I particularly like the pop in green gloves chopping wood but there were plenty of other fun illustrations that perfectly match the playful rhyming text." - Read and Write With Dale

Monday, February 23, 2015

The benefit of the doubt

Manus Island detention centre, Papua New Guinea
Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently suggested that, for too long, Australians have given asylum seekers, welfare recipients and criminals 'the benefit of the doubt'. 

My latest Canberra Times column is a reply, focusing on refugees. A sample:
[N]ot even children have been given the benefit of the doubt. The Human Rights Commission recently reported ongoing abuse in detention centres, alongside self-harm and mental illness. "Every day that they are in detention," said one charity worker employed on Nauru, "they face the risk of being sexually assaulted, physically assaulted, verbally assaulted. Every day." Even if their parents were economic opportunists – and there is no evidence of this whatsoever – these children would still have committed no crimes in coming to Australia. If anyone deserved the benefit of the doubt, it would be these kids. And yet the Prime Minister feels "no guilt whatsoever" at their imprisonment. 
In this light, the Prime Minister's portrait of Australia is misleading. He suggests a kind nation, wary of being too cruel in situations of uncertainty; a nation quick to offer help and slow to make charges of criminality or ethical perversion. But Australia, for all the countless everyday kindnesses of its citizens, treats asylum seekers with contemptuous brutality. There is a bipartisan spirit of political opportunism that has deemed these foreigners 'guilty' well before the boats arrive. Benefit of the doubt? We don't even give them the benefit of international law. 
Perhaps we are being played as mugs. But not by refugees. And we're not the ones who suffer most from this game.
(Photo: "Manus Island regional processing facility 2012" by flickr: DIAC images)

Monday, February 16, 2015

On spanking

My recent Canberra Times column was on spanking kids: 'Smacking children as punishment asks for a certain brutality'. A sample:
Even if spanking were a foolproof method of producing virtuous progeny - and it most certainly is not - this would not mean parents ought to do it. The corporal punishment argument too easily slips into neat instrumentalism: if it works, do it. Yet the efficacy of something does not make it right. A deed can be useful without being good. 
This is partly because the measure of something working well depends on what it's working for. In other words, ethics involves debate, not only about the means, but also about the ends. The goal of corporal punishment is often cowed obedience, and this is a trait I do not value highly. It has little worth in our family or, in my limited experience, in the workplace or public sphere. Respect for authoritative conduct is another thing altogether, and requires more than demonstrations of brute force. 
But instrumental justifications of spanking are also lacking because they ignore questions of character. To be frank: I don't want to be the kind of man who hurts a smaller, weaker person. I don't expect to be our children's friend: I am their custodian. I do have to advise, second-guess and discipline them, often unpleasantly. But deliberately striking them, whether coolly or in a rage, takes advantage of their weakness. Even if done for their own good - and, again, this is problematic - it asks for a brutality I choose not to embody. Controlled violence in self-defence against a threatening peer? Sure. Violence against a 25-kilogram grade one? No. I'll find my "dignity" elsewhere.
(Illustration: Giorgio Conrad)

Friday, February 13, 2015

Exercise: reflection, creativity, ethics (Vox)

I was interviewed about How to Think About Exercise for popular US news site Vox. You can read about the book, and my discussion with journalist Brandon Ambrosino, here: 'Exercise can make you more thoughtful, creative, ethical'. A sample, where I talk about my audience:
First, you have people who feel completely alienated from the fitness industry. They see themselves as mind people: bookish, curious, artistic. They see sport as something colonized by meatheads. This happens really early on, for a number of people, who are turned off to exercise early because of gym class in school. It was like physical, psychological torture. They hated it and never went back. So I'm saying to them, look, you are not exiled from the commonwealth of bodies. We are all bodies. There is no reason you can't revel in bodily striving just because you're bookish. 
Second, there are people who have joined gyms because they were trying to lose weight, or because they were worried about their hearts. So they join a gym, go for six weeks, then stop. They treat their bodies like a thing you tune up. The gym is seen as a body shop: you go and get things tuned up, and once things are better, you leave. What I'm suggesting is that these people focus on the intellectual and emotional awards of exercise, the way it enhances the imagination. These rewards would keep people motivated over their whole lives. 
Then you have the jocks, the people who are fantastic at sports in school, and they're fast, and they're rewarded for being swole [someone who is very, very muscular]. But no one ever takes them seriously for their minds. They're not rewarded for their interests in literature, or art, or avant garde music. The book is saying to these people: you can value yourself as more than a body. There are rewards you can get out of exercising that go beyond flexing in the mirror — not that I've got anything against that!
(Photo: Justin Maalihan)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

How to philosophise with a hammerfist (Psychology Today)

My New Philosopher essay, 'Plato Said Knock You Out' (see below), is now available on Psychology Today. You you can read it here. A sample:
The point is not that every brute is an honorary classicist or that a black belt or golden gloves victory must make us righteous. The point is that Plato’s ancient precedent might rightfully occasion a little surprise. Physical violence and intellectual ambition seem radically at odds. Yet they cannot only coexist but also complement one another. To paraphrase Nietzsche, perhaps we might gainfully learn to philosophize with a hammerfist.
(Image: Fingalo)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Two sides to every story?

I've a column with the Canberra Times on the common axiom: 'There are two sides to every story'.

The article has been titled to focus on climate change, but my point is broader: there are often two sides, but quality matters. What can seem like a radical argument between opposing sides is actually an exercise in consolation--an opportunity to avoid the (exhausting) nuance of genuine debate. A sample:
When the media promote "two sides", and one side is unqualified or uninformed, they are encouraging...prejudices. While giving the impression of radical controversy, they are in fact keeping the conversation safe, without the constant and sometimes exhausting to-and-fro that marks genuine intellectual inquiry. Sometimes this show is for entertainment, such as a panel of celebrities offering quips. Sometimes it is simple ideological promotion, for profit and political dominance, such as businessmen doing what's good for business (in the short term at least). Either way, what looks like balance is in fact an appeal to its contrary: the comfortable bent that resists correction. 
The point is not that we desperately need censorship; that non-compliant ideas or language must be criminalised. The point is not that expertise guarantees certainty - quite the contrary, as professional scholars are often more aware of complicating nuance. The point is that, while there are indeed many takes on every story, some are not worth listening to, even for giggles. And if we find ourselves saying "well, there are two sides" in an argument, it might be time to stop talking and do our homework in silence. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Plato said knock you out (New Philosopher)

I've an essay in the most recent New Philosopher magazine: 'Plato said knock you out'. I'm discussing the ethical benefits of martial arts practice, which complement a philosophical life.

(For more on this, see Philosophy and the Martial Arts, which I edited with graham Priest.)

The New Philosopher essay isn't online (yet), but here's a sample:
The father of Western philosophy was a fighter. This is not a metaphor. Yes, Plato battled figuratively against Greek relativism and romanticism, symbolized by the Sophists and poets. But the great Athenian scholar also fought literally. The historian Diogenes LaĆ«rtius tells us that Platon, meaning ‘broad shouldered’, was the philosopher’s wrestling nickname. As a prominent aristocrat, Plato was known for his pedigree and youthful poetry, but also for his physique: the muscles of a gifted grappler, who reportedly competed at the Isthmian Games.  
And for all his wariness of the body and its wayward desires, Plato also recommended wrestling for the youth. In his dialogue Laws, he spruiked the benefits of stand-up grappling. This had a straightforward military use, developing “strength and health” for the battlefield. But it also cultivated character if “practiced with a gallant spirit.” The overall impression is that physical virtues encourage psychological excellence: perseverance, courage, and perhaps a greater sense of autonomy. 
Plato also believed that the martial arts were training in what might be called ethical competition. He pointed out that athlete Iccus of Tarentum put sport before sex. “Such was his passion for victory, his pride in his calling, the combined fortitude and self-command of his character, that,” wrote Plato, “he never once came near a woman, or a boy either, all the time he was in training.” This outlook, argued Plato, might easily move from the wrestling school to public life. You think winning a grappling match is a buzz? Think of victory over your own lust and delusion. “If they achieve it,” says the Athenian, “we shall tell them, their life will be bliss; if they fail, the very reverse.”  
So at the very beginnings of Western philosophy we have martial arts: not simply as a hobby, but as a moral and political policy. Nietzsche certainly echoed this combative credo, but most reflection is seen as a genteel business. Was Plato…unphilosophical?

Friday, January 30, 2015

Yoga Classes and Yoga Asses (Psychology Today)

My latest Psychology Today piece is up: 'There's More to Yoga Than a Yoga Butt'. A sample:
The point is not that we have literally touched ultimate reality; that we have special knowledge of the cosmos. Instead, this state of mind is a break from ordinary perception: for a little while, we can leave our ordinary categories behind. The experience of being ‘unborn, unchanging, and unsullied by all objects’, as the Katha Upanishad puts it, is a relief from our ties to the world. 
This, in turn, can be extraordinarily therapeutic. We leave the yoga school, not simply with better core muscles or flexible joints, but with a little distance from our everyday assumptions. The usual stressors, to which we are so tightly attached, are loosened.
In short, yoga and other meditations (these needn't be religious) allow us to step back and reconsider things. But instead of simply affording the abstract idea of distance, they encourage a rich experience of it. Yoga is a holiday from the rut.
(Photo: Lululemon Athletica)