Monday, August 30, 2010

Plato And Pop Culture

As explained by Alexander Nehamas:
And so, as often in philosophy, we end with a dilemma: If Plato was wrong about epic and tragedy, might we be wrong about television and video games? If, on the other hand, we are right, might Plato have been right about Homer and Euripides?

Nehamas explains Plato's position thusly:
What is really disturbing is that Plato’s adult citizens are exposed to poetry even less than their children. Plato knows how captivating and so how influential poetry can be but, unlike us today, he considers its influence catastrophic. To begin with, he accuses it of conflating the authentic and the fake. Its heroes appear genuinely admirable, and so worth emulating, although they are at best flawed and at worst vicious. In addition, characters of that sort are necessary because drama requires conflict — good characters are hardly as engaging as bad ones. Poetry’s subjects are therefore inevitably vulgar and repulsive — sex and violence. Finally, worst of all, by allowing us to enjoy depravity in our imagination, poetry condemns us to a depraved life.

Listen, Nehamas is an authority on Plato and FLG is just some dumbass blogger, but again FLG thinks people take the polis part of the argument in the Republic too literally. If you look at it as a larger metaphor for illustrating how to rightly order the soul, and not really about a polis at all, then it makes much more sense. (Seriously, Socrates pretty much admits that his city wouldn't actually work in practice, so what's the point then if not as a metaphor for what can work -- rightly ordering the individual soul?)

Also, FLG wonders about this explanation by Nehamas:
Do we, as Plato thought, move immediately from representation to reality? If we do, we should be really worried about the effects of television or video games. Or are we aware that many features of each medium belong to its conventions and do not represent real life?

To answer these questions, we can no longer investigate only the length of our exposure to the mass media; we must focus on its quality: are we passive consumers or active participants? Do we realize that our reaction to representations need not determine our behavior in life? If so, the influence of the mass media will turn out to be considerably less harmful that many suppose. If not, instead of limiting access to or reforming the content of the mass media, we should ensure that we, and especially our children, learn to interact intelligently and sensibly with them.

The primary question for Plato is whether something was Good or promoted the Good. Nehamas seems to be arguing that mass media and pop culture might not be bad. Well, that doesn't seem like an argument that Plato would accept. Sure, if we know something is definitely not bad, then Plato probably wouldn't worry about it, but Plato makes a strong case that poetry is indeed bad.

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