Thursday, April 14, 2011

The worth of philosophy

I recently read an article titled How to Do Philosophy. As someone who majored in philosophy, I mostly agree with the writer, and shared a lot of the same frustrations in my studies. I'd say the material was half stuff that seemed to have practical application somewhere, and half stupid bullshit. The subject I usually cite as my prime example is epistemology. I am not sure if the wider field of epistemology is different from this, but we spent most of the semester arguing about whether you could have knowledge of the outside world. If you come to the conclusion that when everyone in the world says that they "know" something, when they don't really know it, something has gone wrong. Yes, it's true, I do not know whether I am a brain in a vat who is part of an experiment being conducted by a mad scientist. But I know that the Dow Jones is over 10,000, and I know that George Washington never studied kung fu at a Chinese monastery. (Or did he?)  Only an asshole would tell me, "Well, you don't know that you're not in the Matrix, so you don't really know those things."

The parts of philosophy that I thought could be useful for something were, generally speaking, things that could feed into the field of ethics, and most people would agree that ethics is a worthwhile field of study. For example, there is a branch of metaphysics that is all about causality. How do you determine what and who played a causal role in an event? And how responsible can you hold someone for failing to prevent something? The answers to those questions can be really important, and it often takes a philosopher to give a satisfactory answer to them.

A few years ago, I took a philosophy class at Portland State, and though I was not at all impressed with the professor, he did articulate what I think is the best definition of what philosophy is: the study of the construction and evaluation of arguments. Regardless of whether any person agrees on whether that is what philosophy is, one cannot doubt that this is what one is doing when one is doing philosophy, and I believe that this is what makes philosophy a worthwhile study. A philosopher can make an argument like a ninja: define some terms, mention out some logical connections, throw down a conclusion. BOOM. Done correctly, one can only disagree with the conclusion by disagreeing with the definitions and premises.

The general problem with this, of course, is that people are rarely persuaded by logic. One needs some appeal to emotions and values in order to convince someone to change their opinion. But that's a story for another time. Some recommended reading on that subject would be Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit" (which can also be found in an anthology of his papers, titled "The Importance of What We Care About") and the anthology "Bullshit and Philosophy," edited by Gary L. Hardcastle and George A. Reisch. Seriously, if you read no other works of philosophy in your life, you should read these.

On the ideal music video

Making a music video is a different task from making a typical movie. All of the soundtrack is there already, and your task is to add a visual element to that soundtrack. From time to time, there is a video telling a story that has something additional at the beginning, or the end, or slightly edits the song in order to fit the video a little better. But it's not like shooting a screenplay where the closest thing to what's set in stone is the dialogue and a description of what's in the scene.

So, what is the best way to add a visual element to a song? I think that the most common thing is to show off the artist, and make something that just looks totally awesome. Buttrock and hip hop typically are the ones who do this most often. Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See might be one such example–visually stimulating, but I would be hard pressed to tell you how it relates to the song. AC/DC seemed to have nothing but videos showing them playing their instruments on a stage.

Possibly the least interesting kind of music video is one that is a shot for shot representation of what is going on in the song. I love Weird Al, but he is probably guilty of doing this more often than anyone else. When you hear the various lines of White and Nerdy, you can imagine quite a lot of what is going on, and in most places the video doesn't add very much to that. Or it does it in a way that was better in your head. (The few places where it parodies rap videos are somewhat clever, to give him credit where it is due.)

If one is looking to make a video that is a work of art, the ideal is to create a movie that tells a story that is very much like whatever story or narrative is in the song. Take On Me is the best example I can think of for this: it is a song about a man chasing after a woman, and so is the music video, but there is no direct correlation between any parts of the song and any parts of the video.

At first blush, this sounds like a dumb way to make a music video, but it allows for greater creative expression. The song and the video can have a kind of dialogue, where the video tells you something you might not have known about the song, and the song informs how one is to interpret the video. This is why I think Tool makes better music videos than just about anyone out there: they have figured out the full potential for what a music video can be, and they try to take it to that full potential. Sober is an elaborate metaphor about addiction (sometimes descending from the metaphorical into the literal), and so the video creates visual metaphors for addiction, going so far as to have a demon in it (or, at any rate, something that appears to be a demon). Both are meant to be super creepy, and having the two work together amplifies whatever creepiness they might have on their own.

Artistically speaking, to me, this is the greatest thing a music video can aspire to: accomplishing synergy with the original song, such that both the song and video are expressing things that they might not have been able to otherwise, or such that they are expressing what they were before at greater amplitude. When anyone talks about what they think are the best music videos ever, they will either have this quality, or simply look totally awesome--and looking totally awesome is also a noble thing to aspire to.