Friday, July 24, 2015

Philosophy is not therapy


I've an essay in the new Island magazine: 'Philosophy is not a therapy'.

As the title suggests, I'm arguing that philosophy can sometimes be remedial -- but it need not. Much that is true and fascinating in the works of the greatest minds can be useless for mental health. A sample:
[P]hilosophy often works, not be discovering some Polyanna talking point, but by following curiosity. And the exercise of curiosity can be undertaken for its own sake, because we are a species of unusually abstract intelligence. As David Hume noted in the eighteenth century, there is a pleasure associated with this academic labour: flexing the intellectual muscles. But we need not dignify curiosity by making it quickly and obviously useful. Plenty of philosophical ideas are true and interesting, but perfectly useless if you are depressed or anxious.
You can pick up Issue #141 in newsagents and bookshops now, or subscribe to have hot literature delivered right to your table.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

How to Think About Exercise (Lecture)

Last month I was a guest of the huge "Happiness and its Causes" conference in Sydney (the one with the Dalai Lama). I gave a lecture on my How to Think About Exercise, which is now available below.


TSOL: On Superheroes

Philosopher in Punisher mode
Last night I ran a new class for The School of Life: "On Superheroes".

Drawing on some of my essays, research for The Art of Reading, and a misspent youth, I spoke about superheroes and conflict: psychological, existential, political, ethical -- and physical, of course.

Between my lectures were exercises. Working in groups, participants killed a superhero, placed two protagonists in a fight, and then invented an Australian character. Some of these were WILD.

I can't give all the details, but I will say this: poor wet, cold, dead Spiderman; hoorah for Venus; and what Robin and Superman had could NEVER HAVE LASTED.

An enormously fun class, which I hope to run again soon.

Monday, June 15, 2015

What the bloody hell is democracy?

Floating democracy: reproductions of ancient Athenian navy ships
This week marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. To commemorate this, ABC RN is broadcasting a series of talks on democracy by 'notable Australians'.

Alongside these eminences, I've also been invited to give my ten cents' worth. You can listen to my talk here. A sample:
The point is not that democracy, as we know it, is a sham. The point is that it's not necessarily just, free or peaceful. It is simply government by the people in the very broadest sense. These people can be selfish, xenophobic, aggressive or wary of too much liberty.
(Photo: EDSITEment)

Friday, June 12, 2015

Happiness and its Causes 2015

The view from my hotel window and mind: Heideggerian fog
This week I was a guest at the 'Happiness and its Causes' conference, in Sydney.

The Dalai Lama was also speaking, but I spent my free time working on The Art of Reading, which is due to my publishers in August. Because of my worldly attachments.

The art of listening
My first gig, on Tuesday, was a seven-hour workshop, 'The Pleasures and Virtues of Exercise', for just over forty people. Normally I run this for smaller groups at The School of Life, but this worked well.

Participants went for a silent, solitary walk, sprinted, punched and blocked in pairs, and meditated on their little toes. And between each exercise: lectures and discussion.

Some great reflections from participants, particularly on the virtues required for martial arts, and the almost sacred experience of explosive movement.

One of the highlight: a large group of lanyarded conference-goers, sprinting up and down the promenade at Sydney Harbour, thinking about mortality.

'What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal...' - Nietzsche
On Wednesday I had a day off, which I devoted chiefly to my manuscript. I sat in Newtown for most of the day, writing about Batman, Heidegger and Borges. I also dropped into Better Read than Dead, and signed a stack of My Pop is a Pirate.

Better signed than not. Inscribing at Better Read than Dead, Newtown
Thursday saw me giving a quick lecture, 'How to Think About Exercise'. My talk followed Michelle Bridges on "The Motivation Myth", which perhaps made for incongruous viewing. I discussed my kids' refusal of dualism, and the importance of avoiding the 'body as machine' mindset.

You can read a summary by one of the audience here, and I'll post the video when it's online.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Sydney Writers' Festival 2015

At the podium, day two
Last week I was a guest at the Sydney Writers' Festival. A four-day program with twenty-two sessions, my schedule was unusually busy.

My humble schedule
I again hosted the 'Curiosity' lecture series. This is an intellectual yum cha, offering audiences a taste of varied ideas: dinosaurs and cinema, archaeology of Cambodia (and climate change), pandemics, non-monogamy, Elvis' hips and the primal in music, and more.

Festival-goers could drop into the Pier 2/3 stage, grab a coffee or wine, and nibble on facts, theories, impressions and stories.

My highlights were:
Podcasts of all the lectures will be available soonish.

While most of my time was taken by the 'Curiosity' lectures, I was able to briefly say hello to Claire Tomalin, author of the excellent Jane Austen: A Life. I draw on her biography in my Philosophy in the Garden (Voltaire's Vine in the UK), and it was gratifying to finally thank Claire for her work. Apparently her life of Dickens is outstanding.

Devo ninjas: with Krissy Kneen
I also had some excellent chats with Andy GriffithsKrissy Kneen and Anthony Mullins, David Henley and Alice Grundy, and Antoni Jach. Ariane Beeston endured a graphic vasectomy primer from me and James Fry.

And on Saturday night: a gobsmacking Thai dinner in Surry Hills with James Bradley and Mardi McConnochieGeordie Williamson and Frances Williamson, Ashley Hay and Nigel Beebe, and Delia Falconer and Richard Harling. If you ever need an explosion of critical loquacity, do ask Geordie about Australian hip-hop. Never follow Ashley into a shipping crate.

Man and marker at market
My twenty-one hosting gigs over, on Sunday I dropped into Dymocks Books in George Street, and signed some copies of My Nanna is a Ninja and My Pop is a Pirate.

It turns out Dymocks in Sydney is enormous, and also has a stationery shop, which led to some unintentional reinvestment in the bookshop industry.

My final Sydney Writers' Festival event was Sunday afternoon: a reading of my kids' books in the cosy Enid Blyton clubhouse.

Pirate and tiny buccaneers

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Dying For Ideas


I also have a review in The Australian today, of Costica Bradatan's Dying For Ideas: The Dangerous Ideas of the Philosophers.

In 'Live by the words, die by the sword', I examine Bradatan's notion that death can be the performance of philosophy:
Drawing on examples including Socrates, Hypatia, Giordano Bruno and Simone Weil, Bradatan argues that the destruction of the body can be welcomed, and in some cases encouraged, by what he calls the ‘‘philosopher-martyr’’. This often involves seeing death not simply as the end of being, but as a becoming: one becomes fully good, just and beautiful by leaving behind (or pulverising) one’s carnal lumps. 
This idea was expressed most elegantly by Plato in middle dialogues such as Phaedo, but has a long history. What makes Bradatan’s interp­retation especially illuminating is his attention to the performance and reception of death. For 16th-century Catholic politician Thomas More to ­become a philosophy-martyr, for example, it was not enough to simply oppose Henry VIII, then cease breathing in bed. He had to die voluntarily and publicly at the hands of his persecutor: by beheading in his case, though he was first threatened with hanging, evisceration and castration. Bradatan argues that More had to transform himself into an appropriate victim. Recognising the king’s authority as he rejected royal dictates; whipping himself, fasting and wearing a hair shirt; writing a dialogue to convince himself of his own divine mission — these rites helped Thomas the mediocre politician become More the sacrificial symbol of defiance. 
Bradatan also reveals how these ends can be inconsequential without storytellers who transform death into denouement, and without responsive audiences. Socrates had Plato and Xenophon; More his son-in-law: each made execution the last scene in new tale of heightened moral virtue. The storyteller had to ‘‘kill the live, contradiction-riddled person of the philosopher’’, Bradatan writes, ‘‘and remould him into a ... literary character’’. Receptivity is also vital. The horrifying but entrancing suicides of burning monks only wounded the consciences of those already abraded with some guilt.
Dying For Ideas will be fascinating for philosophers, psychologists and historians and, more generally, anyone curious about that inescapable possibility: death. (It is also handsomely designed and bound -- Bloomsbury have done a schmick job.)

Incidentally, Bradatan is very much alive, and in Australia right now, speaking about his ideas.

Authors performing: why meet the writer?

Portrait of the author being The Author - Sydney Writers Festival
I've a piece in The Age and Herald this weekend, 'Meet the author: why writing is no longer just about the words'

Extracted from my longer essay in Island magazine, this column explores the longing some readers have to meet authors. Not simply for entertainment, but to calm the anxiety that reading can evoke. A sample:
"In my first 15 or 20 years of authorship, I was almost never asked to give a speech or an interview. The written work was supposed to speak for itself, and to sell itself, sometimes even without the author's photograph on the back flap." – John Updike, "The End of Authorship" 
A publishing contract is now more than an invitation to write. It is also a request for performance. The author becomes, as John Updike puts it in "The End of Authorship", a "walking, talking advertisement for the book". The very year the American novelist gave this speech in Washington, a publisher told me in passing: "Of course, we'll fly you to the festivals, get you reading at shops and libraries." Of course. One does not simply have talent, which Flannery O'Connor insisted was vital for a literary vocation. Now one is a talent: an artful player, with all the ambiguity of each word. 
My point is not that there is anything necessarily vicious or vulgar about performance, or that we have lost a literary golden age: from enlightened literacy to primitive orality. The Romans regularly held public performances, in which poets tested their verse in a public laboratory. (Or lavatory. "You read to me as I shit," complained first-century poet Martial in his Epigrams.) Pliny the Younger lamented that his listeners did not obey audience etiquette: "two or three clever persons … listened to it like deaf mutes." Greek philosophy itself began with public performance; with the need to grab interest along with intellect. Put simply, we are not the first era to ask writers to tap-dance, and this request does not automatically corrupt literature. 
But Updike's observation does prompt the question: when readers book tickets for their "soiree with author", what are they paying for?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Can ideas travel?


Keeping up the travel theme, I've an essay in the latest New Philosopher magazine: 'Can ideas travel?'

It's not unusual to speak of ideas moving from era to era, country to country: Plato from Athens to Africa or Rome, for example. But can notions actually move? The reality is more complicated. A sample:
If Hume is right—and the general picture is convincing—then ideas cannot actually take trips. Humans can ride galleys to Londinium or jets to London; books can be shipped from warehouse to study, museum to library reading room. And these movements introduce us to new impressions, which prompt new ideas. But these ideas stay exactly where they are: within us. 
This does not mean that thinking happens inside minds, a ‘ghost in the machine’, to use Gilbert Ryle’s phrase from The Concept of Mind. It means that ideas arise in thinking beings, who are inescapably limited: situated in a given time and place, with a first-person perspective on the world. And because of this, ideas cannot take holidays—they are tangled up in the creaturely situations of the people who have them. 
For example, Plato had ideas over two millennia ago. These prompted him to write The Republic. His writings were copied by scribes, those scrolls were copied and translated into Latin, new codexes were designed and printed and, after centuries, various editions in various languages were digitised and downloaded—including the public domain one on my phone. At no point did Plato’s ideas become public, strictly speaking. Plato’s inscriptions caused impressions, which were transformed into complex ideas. And just as importantly, these became different ideas, from his early Academy students like Aristotle, to a Neo-Platonist like Plotinus, to a Christian theologian like Augustine. 
The point is not that we cannot think about Plato’s ideas. The point is that they are not Plato’s ideas, if this means some ethereal stuff that continues from fourth century Athens to today. Instead, we have to create and recreate notions, which we associate with yet another concept: ‘Plato’. Likewise, I put together the idea of London from scattered impressions of the city, and invent all that I have not witnessed. Many ideas of nineteenth century London, gained from Henry James’s English Hours, are all second-hand, fabricated from the raw materials of Melbourne: fog, carriages, sculleries. In fact, James himself had to do this, making do with invention. ‘Practically, of course, one lives in a quarter, in a plot,’ he wrote in the essay “London”, ‘but in imagination, and by a constant mental act of reference the sympathizing resident inhabits the whole…’. 
In short: to say that ideas travel is shorthand for a more complicated to-and-fro. Similar concepts occur in more than one place and time, often with similar influences. Ideas go nowhere. This does not mean that philosophical continuity is bogus: from Hume to me, for example. It means we have to be aware of the subtle play of experience behind the notions. When we pick up a book like Hume’s Treatise, we cannot simply unpack the pages to find bubble-wrapped ideas: we render them as we read, informed by a lifetime of perception.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Why travel?

Nami Island, South Korea  (clockwise from top left): children's library,
cow sculpture, decorating a vase in the calligraphy studio
My latest Canberra Times column looks at travel. In 'An inquiring mind essential kit for travellers', I argue that travel is, at least in part, best characterised as a prompt for thought. It offers experiences--the important thing is what we do with these. A sample:
What travel usually occasions is the opportunity for questions, not easy certainties. I recently flew to Asia for Australian Writers' Week. One of the highlights was Nami Island in South Korea, a cultural precinct north-east of Seoul. 
Nami is brimming with artistic venues, archives and goods. It hosts rock 'n' roll and rare musical instrument museums, several performance stages, a ceramics kiln, calligraphy studio, sculptures (often made from recycled soju bottles). It hosts an international children's book fair, sponsors the Hans Christian Anderson Award for children's literature and illustration, and has a sublime library of kids' books: a wall, some three metres high, of vibrant covers. There are rabbits, peacocks and, surprisingly, emus. The famous Metasequoia Lane, with its avenue of tall conifers, surpasses its own ubiquitous publicity. 
The range of cultural events and objects on Nami is incredible, and it makes their playful secession – declaring themselves an independent republic, complete with flag and passport – all the more understandable. 
The question for me is how this marvellous ferment squares with the portrait of South Korea as a capitalist wasteland. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek, in Trouble in Paradise, declares that the nation is fully digitised, atomised, commodified. It was, Žižek argues, essentially razed by conflict, ripe for a new regime of precarious work and rapid consumption, with no traditions left to resist the transformation of people into well-fed but lonely, anxious workers. 
It is, writes Žižek, "a place deprived of its history, a wordless place". In his eyes, the hugely popular Gangnam Style track becomes a ritual of communal ideology, promoting a kind of thrilled disgust. It offers no escape from zombie existence, except defeated irony. 
Does this make Nami merely a comforting museum? A way to keep alive the illusion of authenticity, before returning to the office on Monday? Or might its promotion of arts, scholarship and play provide the occasional break from ideology, and allow for reflection if not revolution?