A Philosopher's Blog

Conservative Comedians

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 6, 2017

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In the United States, comedy seems to be dominated by the left as exemplified by shows such as The Daily Show and Full Frontal. While there are conservative comedians, they tend to avoid political comedy and instead seem more likely to comment on red necks rather than red state politics. As might be imagined, there has been considerable speculation about this political division in the art of comedy, one that mirrors the political divide in the arts in general. While I do not pretend to offer a definitive answer, it is certainly interesting to engage in some speculation.

Smug liberals might be inclined to avail themselves of the hypothesis that comedy requires intelligence and that conservatives are generally less intelligent than liberals. Conservatives might counter that liberal stupidity is what causes them to be amused by stupid liberal jokes. While comedy can be an indicator of wit; there does not seem to be a meaningful intelligence gap dividing the political spectrum; although people always think that their side is superior.

A rather more plausible explanation is that the difference does rest in psychology; that the same traits that draw a person to liberalism would also make a person more proficient at comedy. In contrast, the traits that draw a person to conservatism would make them less capable in regards to comedy.

Sticking with the classic definitions, conservatives want to preserve the existing social order and tend to have a favorable view of the established social institutions. Liberals tend to want to change the social order and regard the established social institutions with some suspicion. Since political comedy involves making fun of the existing social order and mocking established institutions, this would help explain why conservatives would be less likely to be engaged in political comedy than liberals.

It is worth considering that while conservative comedians would not be very inclined to attack conservative targets, there is still a target rich environment. There are obviously many liberal groups and organizations that would be ideally suited for conservative comedy—in fact, liberal comedians have already put down the foundations for mocking many of these groups. There are also numerous liberal individuals that would be suitable targets; they have already been softened up a bit by liberal comics.

Conservatives, such as Rush Limbaugh, do engage in mockery of institutions and social orders they regard as tainted with the left. However, this mockery tends to be more of an attack than an exercise in comedy: while some regard Limbaugh as a clown, he is not seen as a comedian. Or particularly funny. Given the abundance of targets and the willingness of conservatives to go after them, it is something of a mystery why this ecological niche of comedic liberal mocking has not been filled.

One possible explanation is a variation of the victim narrative that conservatives typically reject or condemn when it is used by the left to explain, for example, why women or minorities are underrepresented in an area. The narrative is that comedy is controlled and dominated by the liberals and they are using their power and influence to suppress and oppress conservatives who want to be comedians. If only conservative comics were given a chance to get their comedy out to the people, they would succeed.

Some might be tempted to reject this argument for the reasons typically advanced by conservatives when the narrative involves racism and sexism, such as claims that the failure of the allegedly oppressed is due to their own defects, to simply deny the disparity or to advance the bootstrap argument. While this approach might be satisfying, it is certainly worth considering that conservative comedians are the victims of oppression, that their voices are being silenced by the powerful, and that they are victims. The dearth of conservative comedians, like the dearth of minorities in the highest positions in society, does suggest that an injustice is being done. If conservative comedians are being oppressed, then steps should be taken to address this oppression, perhaps beginning with an affirmative comedic action program to help them get established in the face of a system that has long been stacked against them.

While this is certainly the sort of thing leftists love to do for the oppressed, it is also worth considering whether conservatives want to be comedians. As with other cases of alleged oppression, it might be the case that the reason that there are few, if any, conservative comedians is because few, if any, conservatives want to be comedians. If this is the case, then there is no oppression to address—things are as they should be. Another possible explanation lies in the nature of comedy, at least as it is defined by Aristotle.

As Aristotle saw it, comedy “is a subdivision of the ugly” and “consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive.” Political comedy typical involves mockery across the lines of power, because politics is all about power relationships. Liberal comedy typically involves mocking upwards in regards to power. For example, female comedians making fun of the patriarchy is mockery originating down the power curve that is aimed upwards at the established institutions and norms. Since the mockery is going up the power divide, the comedy generally will not be painful or destructive—after all, the power advantage rests with the target and not the comic.

Since conservatives tend to support the existing power structures and established social values, the target of conservative comedy would tend to be people and organizations outside of those structures or those with different values. As such, conservative comedy would tend to be going down the power curve: the stronger going after the weaker. For example, a white comedian mocking Black Lives Matter would be shooting downward from an advantageous social position. While comedy can go down the power curve and still be comedy, this becomes rather challenging because it is very easy for such attempts to become painful or destructive, thus ceasing to be comedy. Trump provides an excellent example of this. While he often claims to just be joking, his enormous power advantage means that he is almost always punching downwards and thus appears bullying and cruel rather than comedic. This, I think, is a plausible explanation for the dearth of conservative comedians: mocking those who occupy positions of social disadvantage seems more cruel than comedic.

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Monkey Selfies & Animal Artists

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 8, 2014

While in Indonesia in 2011, photographer David Slater’s camera was grabbed by a macaque. While monkey shines are nothing new, this monkey took hundreds of shots including some selfies that went viral on the internet. As many things often do, this incident resulted in a legal controversy over the copyright status of the photos. The United States copyright office recently ruled that “Works produced by nature, animals or plants” or “purportedly created by divine or supernatural beings” cannot be copyrighted. While this addresses the legal issue, it does not address the philosophical issue raised by this incident.

From a philosophical perspective, the general issue is whether a non-human animal has moral ownership rights over its artistic works. This breaks down into the two obvious sub-issues. The first is whether or not a non-human animal has a moral status that can ground ownership rights. The second is whether or not a non-human has the capability to create a work of art. These issues have often been the subject of philosophical discussion, but it is certainly worth considering them again.

One approach to the issue of ownership rights is to note that non-human entities are taken to possess ownership rights. To be specific, corporations are taken as having ownership rights—they can and do own copyrights. If a legal fiction like a corporation can be taken to have ownership rights, there seems to be no principled way to deny the same rights to animals. After all, animals have a significantly better claim to rights since they are actual entities with qualities analogous to human persons.

The easy and obvious reply to this approach is that corporations are legal fictions (and legally fictional persons in the United States) and, as such, this does not help with the philosophical issue of whether or not animals can have ownership rights. Legally, the matter is simple: just like corporations, animals have whatever legal rights the law provides. So, if the Supreme Court ruled that animals are people and can own property, then that would be the law—but the philosophical issue would remain unresolved. That said, if corporations should be regarded as having ownership rights (and as people), then it hardly seems unreasonable to accept that animals also have ownership rights (and as being people).

In order to determined whether animals have ownership rights or not, it would be necessary to determine the foundation of these rights. Locke famously bases property rights on the claim that each person owns her own body (well, God does…but He is cool about it) and hence each person owns her own labor. This labor is mixed with common property and thus makes what it is mixed with the property of the laborer. If animals have this sort of self-ownership, then they would have the same ownership rights as humans—whatever an animal mixed her labor with would be hers. The stock counter for this is that animals are not owners—they are objects to be owned. It is worth noting that people have long said the same thing about other people.

Higher animals like dogs and primates also seem to grasp the basics of ownership: they distinguish between what is their property and what is not. To use a concrete example, my husky clearly grasps the distinction between her toys and similar objects that belong to others. As such, there seems to be some basis to the claim that animals regard themselves as possessing ownership rights.

The obvious objection is that animals have, at best, an extremely limited understanding of property and this could simply be attributed to possessiveness or territoriality. The obvious reply to this is that ownership does not seem to require an understanding of property rights—corporations (which have no minds and hence have no understanding) and humans who are dumb as posts are still regarded as having ownership rights.

While the debate over ownership could go on endlessly, animals seem to have as good a claim to ownership rights as humans do, at least in terms of the foundation of such an alleged right. Roughly put, if humans have ownership rights, then animals would seem to qualify as well. Thus, it would seem that animals do have ownership rights.

The next issue is whether or not an animal can create an artistic work. Addressing this properly would require an adequate definition of “art” that would enable one to distinguish between art and non-art. While there have been many attempts to provide just such a definition, they have all proven to be inadequate. Since such a fine definition is lacking, a rough and ready approach must suffice.

In this case, the rough and ready approach is to begin by considering cases in which it is intuitively appealing to accept that a human is creating a work of art. The next step is to use an argument by analogy to determine whether or not an animal could do the same sort of thing.

One clear case is that of painting: a human intentionally applies paints to a surface based on the contents of her intentional states and this image is typically a resemblance to something internal (a feeling or thought) or external (a person, landscape, etc.). While animals do apply paint to surfaces, their lack of language makes it rather difficult to determine what they are doing. If, for example, elephants painted pictures recognizable as elephants, flowers or whatever, them there would be very strong grounds for thinking they are creating art. But, to be fair to the animals, there are humans who create paintings that look exactly like those created by elephants. The main difference is that the humans claim to be artists while the elephants say nothing. But, if the matter is judged entirely by the work produced, if those humans are artists, then so are the elephants.

Another case is that of photography and it seems reasonable to accept that a photo can be a work of art and a photographer an artist. The challenge is, obviously enough, distinguishing between the taking of photos and being an artist. To clarify, photos can be taken by automatic timers, motion sensors, tripwires or by accident but these would not be cases involving an artist. To use an analogy, if the shelves in a shed fail and the paint spills to create a work identical to that of Jackson Pollock of Van Gogh, that would not make the shed’s owner an artist. If the paint where spilled by a trip-wire trap, this would not make the victim an artist. So, being an artist in photography thus requires intent and control rather than automation or chance. At the very least, the photographer must know what she is doing and act with intent.

In the case of the monkey taking pictures, the key question is whether or not the monkey understood what it was doing and acted with intent. If the monkey was just playing with the camera and it just happened to take a few shots that looked good, the monkey is no more an artist than an automatic timer, motion sensor or defective shutter control that made the camera constantly shoot.

It might be objected that some of the shots were quite good aesthetically and judging by the work itself, the monkey had produced art. This does have some appeal—after all, whether the work is art or not should (it can be argued) rest in the work itself rather than the process of creation. But, even if this is granted, it does not follow that the monkey is the artist. After all, an automated camera shooting constantly would almost certainly produce artistic photos eventually—but the automating machinery or software would not thus be an artist. Thus, there could be art but no artist. In the case of the monkey, this seems to be the most plausible explanation—the money was probably just pushing the button and by chance some good images occurred. As such, the monkey was not an artist.


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The Curators of Culture

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 2, 2014
English: Oprah Winfrey at the White House for ...

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When a well-connected author comes out with a new book, she makes the rounds of the various shows—radio and television. Such others also get mentioned fairly often. For example, a few days ago I was listening to NPR and the author Karen Russell was apparently the author of the day. Her latest book, Sleep Donation, was reviewed and she also was interviewed. Her book was also mentioned regularly throughout the day. Authors who have their own shows, such as Bill O’Reilly, can (and do) plug their own books. The authors are also supported by those who might be regarded (or at least regard themselves) as the cultural elite. These are the people, such as Oprah, who tell the rest of us what is good.

There is, obviously enough, considerable advantage to being blessed by the curators of culture. First, there is the boon of exposure. One way to look at this is a bit inaccurate but still useful. A book can be thought of as having a certain percentage of people who will buy the book—if they hear about it. Alternatively, this can be thought of in terms of there being a certain percent chance that a person who hears of the book will buy it. So, for example, a book with a 5% purchase rating would be bought by 5% of those who hear about it (or each person who hears about it has a 5% chance of buying it). While this is obviously an abstract simplification, it does nicely show that the more people who hear about a book, the more the book will sell. This is true even of books that are not that good. This is the same principle that email spam and blog spam works on: if enough people hear about something, even if the response rate is low money can still be made. Obviously enough, when an author is able to get on a talk show to talk about her book, her sales will increase. Likewise for other forms of exposure for the author and the book. Equal obvious is that fact that access to the curators of culture is limited and carefully controlled—an author has to be suitably connected to make it into that circle of media light. This suitable connection might even be a matter of luck—the book just happens to catch the attention of the right person and the author is invited, perhaps briefly, into the circle.

Second, there is the gift of endorsement. If a book is endorsed or praised by the right people, this will typically grant a significant boost to sales—over and above the boon granted by exposure. While endorsement does provide exposure, exposure does not always entail endorsement. After all, the curators of culture do sometimes speak of books they dislike or regard as bad. While the condemnation of a work can impair its sales, the exposure can increase sales. There is also the fact that being condemned by the right sort of people can boost sales. In the case of ideological works, for example, being condemned by an ideological foe can often boost sales among ideological friends.

As discussed in an early essay, the quality of a work has little connection to its success. Luck, as noted in that essay, is a major factor. Exposure and endorsement add to this (although either or both might be acquired by luck). While the ideal would be that works receive exposure and endorsement proportion to their merit, there is little correlation. The best books need not be the most exposed or most highly endorsed. Mediocre (or worse) books might garner great attention and receive unwarranted praise from the curators of culture.

This is not to say that merit never achieves success, just that merit seems to be a rather small factor in successful sales. Sometimes, just sometimes, a meritorious work does achieve success against long odds—but this is notable in its rarity.


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Aesthetic Masochism

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 5, 2013
English: Double Stuf Oreos, by Nabisco.

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Like many philosophers, I am rather drawn to science-fiction movies. One of my colleagues, Stephen, deviates from this usual path-while he does not dislike science fiction, his experience with the genre was somewhat limited. After learning that I was “big into sci-fi” he asked me for some recommendations. While he did like some of the films I suggested, he regarded some as rather awful. As should come as no surprise, this got me thinking about the enjoyment (or lack thereof) of bad films.

As my colleague pointed out, one common approach to explaining the enjoyment of bad films is to appeal to the notion that something can be so bad that it is good. On the face of it, bad would seem to be, well, bad. As such, there is a need to sort out what it could mean for something to be so bad that it is good.

One possibility is what could be called accidental aesthetic success. This is when a work succeeds not at what it was intended to be, but rather in being an accidental parody or mockery of the genre. Using the example of science fiction, this commonly occurs when the work is so absurd that although it is horrible science-fiction, it succeeds as an unintentional comedy. Thus the work is a failure in one sense (to borrow from Aristotle, it fails to produce the  intended effect on the audience). But it succeeds in another sense, by producing an unintended but valuable aesthetic experience for the audience.

While this view is certainly tempting, it can also be disputed by contending that the work does not actually succeed. To be specific, while it does produce an effect on the audience, this is a matter of accident rather than intent and hence to credit the work with success would be an error. To use an analogy, if someone intends to defend himself with a devastating martial arts attack, but slips on a banana to great comic effect, then he has not succeeded. Rather, his failure has caused the sort of mocking amusement reserved for failures.

That said, I am willing to extend a certain sort of aesthetic success to works that are so accidentally bad that they are good. There are, of course, works that endeavor to be good at being bad (such as the film Black Dynamite). These works can be assessed at how well they succeed at being good at what is attempted. Intentionally making a work that is good at being bad does open the possibility that the work could fail at being bad in such a way that makes it good in another way. But perhaps in that way lies madness.

Another approach to good badness can be used by drawing an analogy to junk food. Junk food is, by its nature, bad food. At least, it is bad food in terms of its nutritional value. However, people do rather like junk food and regard it as good in regards to how it tastes. The reverse holds for other types of food. For example, as a runner I have tried a wide variety of food products designed for athletes. While such food is often rather good in terms of its nutritional content, the taste is often rather bad (leading to my bad jokes about junk food and anti-junk food).

Going with the food analogy, some works that are so bad they are good could be rather like junk food. That is, they are deficient in what might be regarded as aesthetic nutritional value, yet have a certain tastiness-at least while they are being experienced. As with junk food, the after effects can be rather less pleasant. For example: for me, watching True Blood is like eating a mix of Cheetos and Oreo Cookies washed down with Mountain Dew. Somehow it is enjoyable while it is happening, but after it is done I wonder why the hell I did that…and I feel vaguely sick.

In such cases, I am willing to grant that such works have some sort of aesthetic value, much as I am willing to grant that junk food has some sort of value. However, the value does often seem rather dubious.

One counter to this is to contend that valuing “junk food” aesthetic value is just as big a mistake as valuing actual junk food. While a person might enjoy such experiences, she is making an error. In the case of food, she is making a poor nutritional choice that is masked by a pleasant taste. In the case of art, she is making a poor aesthetic choice, masked by a superficially pleasant experience.

It could be responded that a work might seem to be junk, but that it is actually better than it seems (or sounds, to steal from Twain). Going back to the food analogy, this could have some appeal. After all, food could be bad in one area (taste) but excel in another (nutrition). So, a food could actually be much better than it tastes. However, this sort of approach only works when the thing in question does actually have the capacity to be better than it seems.

In the case of aesthetic experiences it would certainly seem that a work cannot be better than it seems. After all, the aesthetic experience would be the seeming and it is exactly what it is. For example, consider a song that sounds awful. To claim it is better than it sounds would seem to be an error. After all, the song is what it sounds like and if it sounds bad, it is bad. There is nothing beyond the sound that could be appealed to in order to claim that it is better than it sounds. After all, it sounds what it sounds like. This is, of course, in contrast with many other things. For example, it makes sense to say of a wound that it looks worse than it is-the appearance (lots of blood, for example) is distinct from the seriousness of the wound. As another example, it makes sense to say that a car is better than it looks-it  might look like a junker on the outside, but the engine might be brand new.  Naturally, if it can be shown that art has these multiple aspects, then this matter could be properly addressed.

Before moving on, I must note that I am aware that a work of art can be good or bad in various aspects. For example, a song could have great lyrics, but be sung poorly. As another example, a film could have terrible special effects, but a brilliant story. This is, however, a different matter-in the above I am considering the aesthetic experience as a whole. To use an analogy, while a hamburger might have good cheese but a crappy burger, what would be considered is the overall experience of eating the hamburger.

Like other folks I know, I will sometimes indulge in watching a bad sci-fi/horror/fantasy movie that I recognize as being awful and hence prevents any appeal to the idea of good badness. As might be suspected, my colleague asked me why I would waste my time on bad movies that I actually admitted were bad.

My initial response was a somewhat practical one: there are only a limited number of good movies in those genres and when I get a craving for a genre, sometimes the only option is something bad. To use an analogy, this is like getting a craving for a certain food late at night and the only place that is open is rather bad. So, the only options are going without or going bad. In some cases, just as a bad burger is better than no burger, a bad film is better than no film. However, in other cases nothing is better than something bad.

My second response arose from conversations that my colleague and I had about running. While we are both runners, my colleague is the sort of runner who runs for himself and has no real interest in training for or competing in races. I am, however, very much into training and competition. In addition to enjoying the competition, I must admit that I enjoy the painful experience of hard training and running. That is, I obviously have some mild sort of masochism going on in this area which my colleague lacks.

This difference seems to extend beyond running and into aesthetics-I can actually enjoy suffering through a bad movie. Since I know other folks who are the same way, I believe that there is a certain aesthetic masochism that some people possess. I have not worked out a full theory of this, but given the volume of bad films and shows, this does seem like a promising area.

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The Body You Deserve

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 22, 2013

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While driving to yet another committee meeting, I heard an advertisement for cool shaping, which apparently is some sort of method for shaping body fat to make a person appear less fat. What struck me about the commercial was the claim that cool shaping would give a person the body they deserve.  While this is certainly a clever advertising phrase, it does raise a matter worth considering.

On the face of it, a person who has not suffered an unfortunate accident or illness would have exactly the body he deserves. After all, the body a person has is the body he has forged by his efforts (or lack thereof), diet and lifestyle. That is to say, the body one has is the product of one’s choices and is thus deserved in that it has been properly earned. So, if a person is fit and lean or soft and flabby, then he has just what he deserves. If this is plausible, then something like cool shaping would not give a person the body they deserve, since the person already has exactly that body.

It could be countered that a person could have a body they do not deserve by arguing that while a person does earn his body by his actions and choices, the body he starts with is not one that he has chosen. After all, a person is born with (or as, for those who are materialists in the philosophical sense) whatever body he happens to get and this body is not something a person earns or deserves. After all, one just get (or is) it. Naturally, it could be claimed that Karma or some other metaphysical system in which a person does get the body he deserves (such as being reborn as a banana slug)-but I will set aside those considerations and just go with the view that they body one is born with is not deserved.

A person born with a genetic predisposition towards packing on the pounds would not deserve this predisposition and hence, it could be claimed, would not have the body he deserves. However, this leads to the obvious question: what sort of body does a person deserve? Do people, in general, deserve to have better bodies than they have? Or is this absurd?

I am inclined to stick with my original view, namely that even though people just get (or are) whatever body they are born with without deserving it, people do (in general) end up with the body that they deserve in the sense that they get what they earn-and that is what deserving is all about. In fact, aside from cases of unfortunate accidents, diseases and other such dire undeserved circumstances, this is one of the rare cases in which a person does get exactly what he deserves-that is, the body he has forged.

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A Socratic Challenge

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 23, 2012
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Sci-Fi Speeches

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 30, 2012
Inglourious Basterds (soundtrack)

Inglourious Basterds (soundtrack) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m a fan of science fiction and I especially like alternative reality sci-fi. In this genre, the fictional world is like our own, only with important differences. Philosophically, these writers are engaged in counterfactuals. That is, they are describing a world that is counter to fact.  For example, an author might explore what happened if the American Civil war ended with the country permanently divided. As another example, an author might set her story in a world in which the Axis won the Second World War.  One specific example of this is Inglourious Basterds, a nice piece of science fiction in which Hitler is assassinated by Jewish soldiers. There are, of course, also more extreme versions that slide towards fantasy, such as the X-Men First Class movie (although they are presented as mutants, their powers are more akin to magic than anything that could be based in science) or the tale in which Lincoln hunts vampires.

I also, like many Americans, like politics. Interestingly enough, I can satisfy my cravings for science-fiction and politics at the same time by watching some of the political speeches being given these days. While political speeches often distort reality by including straw men, lies and partial truths, some speeches actually present entire counter factual worlds. In some cases the extent to which the reality of the speech differs from the actual world would seem to qualify the speech as science fiction. After all, it is describing a world somewhat like our own that does not exist, except in the imagination of the creator and those that share the creator’s vision.

Paul Ryan’s speech is an excellent example of this sort of science fiction. The world he describes is somewhat like our own and a version of Obama is president of that America. However, the world of Ryan’s speech differs from the actual world in many important ways, as presented by Sally Kohn over at Fox. The influences of another fiction writer, Ayn Rand, certainly seem to have helped shape his fictional world. While I specifically mention Ryan, I am confident that the Democrats will present some of their own alternative realities at the upcoming DNC.

While I do enjoy speculative fiction and alternative histories, I would prefer that they not be presented as the truth. Honest writers have the decency to label their fictions as fictions, something that politicians do not do. This is, of course, dishonest and also has a negative consequences. After all, people who do not know better and who are not inclined to engage in even a modest amount of critical thinking (checking the facts, for example) can easily be deceived by such fiction and accept it as reality. These people will, in turn, attempt to convince others of the reality of these fictions and they will also make decisions, such as who to vote for, on the basis of these fictions. As might be imagined, such fiction based decision making is unlikely to result in wise choices.

While creative counter factual fiction does have its place, politics is not that place.

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Boobs for Boobs’ Sake

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 9, 2012
Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I mentioned in a previous essay, I recently started watching HBO’s Game of Thrones. In addition to noticing the predominance of evil, I also noticed that the show apparently had a budget for boobs (a large budget, as a friend of mine commented on Facebook). When talking about the show, I jokingly claimed that HBO stood for wHores, Boobs and Obscenity but a bit of reflection on shows like True Blood and Game of Thrones revealed that that this was rather dead on. Of course, the display of breasts in not limited to Game of Thrones. As a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I am well aware that the breast is a standard guest in many works of the genre.

While I was dismayed by the evil in Game of Thrones, I was also somewhat dismayed by the amount of nudity. To be honest, my reaction was somewhat split. As a straight male, I am reasonably confident that I am hardwired to be very much in favor of boobs and accept that, in general, the more boobs the better. There is no doubt a circuit in the male brain says “if boobs, then yay!” Of course, this is a fairly base reaction and is not a matter of reflection. There is, not surprisingly, clearly an interesting issue here.

In terms of objecting to the display of nudity (specifically boobs) in such aesthetic works as Game of Thrones there seems to be to main avenues of approach. The first is ethical and the second is aesthetical.

In regards to ethics, one stock moral objection to nudity is that nudity is something inherently wrong and is something dirty or filthy. This view is typically grounded on a religious foundation which casts nudity as something shameful. Not surprisingly, this is commonly based in the story of Adam and Eve in which the pair learn to be ashamed of their nudity and this seems to set the stage for a puritanical view of the human form that persists to this day. There is, of course, a strong tendency to cast female nudity as being especially bad—there is an abundance of feminist literature addressing this point and hence I will not expand on this here.

Some people take a somewhat different view, claiming that it is men that are the problem and the moral weakness of men entails that women must always be covered. However, the result tends to be a similar view: female nudity is a moral threat.

While this sort of view is popular, it is not one I subscribe to. As far as the religious foundation, there are two obvious replies. The first is that the burden of proof rests on those who make such an argument—they need to prove that God exists and that God is okay with the idea that the human form is “dirty” and should be covered in shame. That is, God’s own handiwork is a shameful thing. The second is that the human form does not seem to be dirty and although some people might stand some more time working out, there does seem to be a beauty to the human body—as the ancient Greeks and others clearly believed. Thus, while the shame argument is not without merit, I do not find it convincing and it is certainly not the foundation of my dismay at gratuitous nudity.

A second stock moral objection to nudity is from Plato, namely that the portrayal of lustful behavior will corrupt the viewer because the viewer will not be on guard against said corruption. On this view, it is not that the nudity itself is bad; rather it would be the lustful behavior that is typically associated with said nudity. As such, the concern about nudity would be secondary, although the display of nudity would presumably augment the alleged corrupting power of the art.

This argument does have some appeal. After all, what people experience (even fictional experiences) does help shape how people think and behave. Hence, exposure to nudity and lustful behavior in art could shape people in negative ways. This is similar to a common argument against pornography. Of course, the nudity in science fiction and fantasy is supposed to not be of primary concern whereas pornography is supposed to be focused primarily on the nudity and sex.

While this argument does seem reasonable, the corrupting power of the occasional breast or other nudity in science fiction or fantasy works seems rather limited. To use an analogy to radiation, the amount of exposure does generally not seem enough to provide a dangerous dose of boob (and this assumes there is a dangerous dose). As such, the corruption argument does not really motivate my dismay at the typical nudity in such works.

A third moral argument is a specific variation on the corruption argument and is one that is commonly presented by feminist thinkers in regards to female nudity. The idea is that the use of female nudity in this way demeans women by using them as mere sexual objects. This is harmful to both females (who are demeaned and objectified) and males (who learn to demean and objectify) and hence wrong.

This argument does have some appeal. After all, looking at the demographic target for science fiction and fantasy that includes nudity (usually boys and nerdy men) it seems very likely that the nudity is there to attract and titillate the male viewers. That is, the women are being exploited as objects for the amusement of men. This does work—I recall, as a young guy, people talking about seeing certain movies specifically for the nude scenes.

Even then, this struck me as a bit odd—I recall asking a friend why he just did not get a Penthouse or Playboy if he wanted to see nudity (this was long before the internet). These days, of course, the internet is chock full of all the nudity and sex anyone could want and this seems to make gratuitous nudity make even less sense. My suspicion is that the situation is rather like with the way it was with Playboy. People used to say that they got Playboy for the articles and perhaps people do the same thing with science-fiction and fantasy works that feature nudity—they can say they are watching it for the story and that the nudity just happens to be there. Presumably this works in a way similar to the psychology that allows a person to feel that they are dieting when they have a diet soda with their megameal.

Getting back to the main subject, this line of argumentation does have merit—most cases of nudity in such works occurs simply to appeal to the target demographic and clearly seems to be objectifying and demeaning women. This does not, of course, even take into account women being cast as sexual victims (prostitutes, rape victims and so on) in such works.

That said, there is a reasonable concern that this sort of argument can bring one into the moral territory of the other two moral arguments. After all, if it is claimed that nudity demeans a woman and presents her as a mere object, then this would seem to entail that there is something wrong about the female body, which seems somewhat problematic from many feminist perspectives. The easy reply is, of course, that it is not the woman’s body that is wrong, but rather the way the woman is being treated and the specific context. This seems like a reasonable reply.

In my own case, I do admit that this is part of the reason that I often feel dismay at such nudity. It is not so much the nudity itself, but the way it is used and the context, which is often demeaning. However, the moral aspects of the matter do not exhaust the issue and there remains the aesthetic aspect.

When it comes to aesthetics, I am something of a traditionalist. To be specific, I draw much of my aesthetic theory from thinkers like Plato and Aristotle. While I have already mentioned Plato’s argument, I will now borrow a bit from Aristotle.

When I teach my students how to write the paper for my classes, I discuss the matter of deciding what should and should not be in the paper. I base this discussion on Aristotle’s view that a work should be a complete whole as defined by the purpose of the work. I tell my students that there is a simple test to decide whether something should be left in or left out, namely to leave it out and see whether this improves, worsens or leaves the work the same. Obviously, if leaving it out makes the work worse relative to its purpose, then it should be retained. Otherwise it should be removed. This same sort of principle can be applied to nudity in works of science fiction and fantasy.

While a discussion of the purposes of science fiction and fantasy would go beyond the limited scope of this essay, it does seem reasonable to accept that their primary purpose is not to serve as a platform for displaying boobs to men. That is, of course, the purpose of pornography. As works of fiction, their main purpose is to present a story (at least as Aristotle would argue) and that should be the main focus. Sticking with Aristotle, the display of nudity would typically seem to be part of the spectacle rather than part of the story. That is to say, that the nudity does not (in almost all cases) advance the plot in a way that is probably or necessary in order to achieve the purpose of the work.

What is hardly surprising is that science-fiction and fantasy have a long tradition of gratuitous nudity that has no connection at all to the plot. For example, in Moontrap there is a completely gratuitous stripper scene that has nothing to do with the plot (what little plot there was).  As far as why I used that example, the image of Chekov (Walter Koenig) in a strip joint stuck in my mind. Obviously, gratuitous nudity by its nature lacks an aesthetic justification.

Interestingly, some movies and shows have attempted to merge plot and sex, creating what Myles McNutt called “sexposition”, which is when characters present exposition while having sex.

Not surprisingly, this attempt to merge sex/nudity and exposition seems to be an aesthetic failure. First, it seems to be rather odd to have people engaged in lengthy exposition during sex. While I am not an expert on sex, it seems that is not something that people would do. As such, this makes the scenes less in accord with what is probable. Second, the nudity still seems to add nothing to the plot—the exposition is doing all that and hence the nudity is gratuitous and would seem to have no aesthetic justification.

In addition to not adding anything to the story, the use of gratuitous nudity seems to have two other flaws. The first is that it can be seen as an insult to the audience—that they need to be thrown a boob or two in order to retain interest in the work. Of course, this might be true of some people. Second, it would seem to show a lack of talent on the part of those creating the work.  After all, if they cannot sustain interest through aesthetic means and need to throw in nudity to keep people interested or to fill the visual space while characters are engaged in lengthy exposition, then they would seem to be lacking in their craft. Of course, it is fair to keep in mind that a show or film is subject to many influences and creators and that the nudity stuck into a work might not be the idea of the writer or director and hence should not be held against them. For example, some of the nudity and sexposition in the Game of Thrones need not be what Martin envisioned and what was added to his work is not his fault.

These arguments do not exclude all nudity. After all, there can be cases in which the nudity is warranted on aesthetic grounds. For example, the nudity in a scene might be required for realism and the scene might be an important part of the plot. That is, removing the scene or the nudity would result in an inferior aesthetic result. I am sure that there are such cases, but none come to mind.

As another example, the nudity might actually be an important part of the experience the work is supposed to create. For example, From Dusk Till Dawn can be seen as intentionally embracing the stereotypes of the genre which must, of necessity, include gratuitous nudity. As such, the nudity does serve a legitimate aesthetic purpose in that work. Maybe.

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MWF Posting Schedule

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on November 8, 2011

Thanks to the budget cuts, I face summer unemployment, a lower salary and an increased workload. As such, I need to devote far more time to activities that generate revenue. While I enjoy writing this blog, it generates $0.00 for me per year. As might be imagined, I can make far more spending my free time writing professionally for money.

I did consider simply stopping this blog, but I do enjoy it. As such, I will try switching to a MWF posting schedule rather than my usual seven posts per week. If I am forced to let my blog end, I will be sure to have a final post noting that, rather than simply fading away.

In any case, I will still be active on the Talking Philosophy Blog, although I think that WTP is probably still banned from the site.


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Anti-Social Writers

Posted in Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on August 28, 2011
Medieval illustration of a Christian scribe wr...

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While I do not make my living as a writer, I do consider myself part of that sometimes disreputable clan. While much can be said about writers, one thing that I hear rather often is that writers tend to be anti-social (at least when they write). Since I know numerous self-proclaimed writers who make a point of writing in very social settings, I am well aware that the anti-social label is not one that should be considered universally applying to all writers. It should also not be taken to apply to writers at all times. After all, while I consider myself to be a bit anti-social when writing, I am otherwise a rather social person-especially for a nerdtastic introvert.

As far as why I consider myself anti-social as a writer, it is because I prefer to avoid interacting with people when I am trying to write. When I am seriously engaged in writing, I do not check my email, I do not have any chat software going (okay, I never actually do), and I feel ever increasing resentment with every ring of the phone. While I can tolerate having people around when I write, I feel a perhaps irrational level of irritation with every interruption inflicted upon me. As such, when I am writing I endeavor to be away from people.

It is not that I do not like people or consider my writing to be of greater value than interacting with people. What it is, I think, is something that appears to be inherent in the nature of writing-or, more accurately, in the nature of my writing.

While I can hack out words under almost any circumstances, true and proper writing seems to require the right sort of conditions. These seem to involve relative quiet and a freedom from interruptions and distractions. Since other people are an abundant source of interruptions and distractions, it is natural for writers to try to avoid them while writing.

I have also found that writing shares a lot in common with running. While I can almost always run or write, there are times when I am in (as they say) the zone. In the case of running, I feel like I am flying over the terrain. In the case of writing, the ideas and words are pouring forth in an almost magical stream. Of course, this can be broken. In the case of running, if someone or something stops me, it is hard to get back into that zone again. The same holds for writing-if someone interrupts me and forces me to stop, the spell is broken and the magic is gone. Sometimes I can get back into that writing groove, but I often cannot. I can still push the keys, but it is just not the same.

Non-writers, as the Tea Party folks might say, generally don’t get it. Since they do not understand, they tend to resent any resentment shown by writers who they interrupt-especially when their interruption was an attempt to do something they regard as nice. For example, a husband might bring his wife a beer while she is writing and try to engage her in conversation about her writing with the intent of being supportive. However, he might not realize that she was in the middle of a very good idea and now has found that the thread of thought has become tangled. Writers, not surprisingly, often over-react to interruptions, thus making them rather annoying.

Some writers attempt to address this problem by making it clear that they should not be interrupted while writing (except for matters of importance). Wise writers are careful to make sure that this practice does not damage their relationships with other people. After all, many people find the idea of someone placing themselves “off limits” to be annoying. However, it can be useful to discuss the matter with such people and get them to understand by drawing analogy to activities they do that they do not want interrupted (such as watching a movie, engaging in a hobby or sleeping).

This method can be effective, provided that it is done with due respect for others and handled in a tactful manner. Of course, some people just cannot resist interrupting and annoying other people.

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