All entries for September 2009

September 29, 2009

Does Genius Excuse Crime? Another Angle on the Polanski Case

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The celebrated and notorious film-maker Roman Polanski has been re-arrested in Zurich for having sexually abused a drugged-out 13-year old girl 32 years ago in the United States, a crime for which he was convicted but he skipped the country before serving time. Nobody has denied that the criminal act occurred. The question is what to make of it now. What is striking is that the artistic community across the world has been virtually unanimous in calling for Polanski’s release, whereas virtually everyone else (though not the victim) wants him to pay for his crime – if not more.

What accounts for this vast difference in sentiment? Well, Polanski is a genius! Let’s assume that this claim is not only true but also relevant to judging his case. How would it be relevant? From his artistic defenders, you might think it has something to do with the quality of his cinematic output. Perhaps we’re supposed to think that Polanski served his prison time by creating great art, which more than makes up for the original heinous act: Community service on a grand scale, if you will.

The only – but crucial – difference, of course, is that Polanski wasn’t coerced by the legal system to create this great art. He just happened to luck out in being that sort of artist. A porn film producer who committed a comparable act, even if his films had bigger box office takings than Polanski’s, would not enjoy comparable sympathy. The late ethicist Bernard Williams, who popularized the phrase ‘moral luck’, actually justified this way of looking at things that would now keep Polanski out of prison.

However, that can’t be right. Is genius nothing but a kind of miracle? On the contrary, I think ‘genius’ should be treated much more literally. After all, ‘genius’ refers primarily to the artist’s state of mind, not his or her output. In cases like Polanski’s, it makes most sense as the flipside of mental deficiency, possessors of which are also often given leniency in rape cases, either because one was too dumb or too crazy to have a fully functioning moral compass -- to put not too fine point on it. But of course one needs to prove mental deficiency in court, which is not always easy. But why not the same for genius? Polanski’s defenders should welcome the opportunity to have his genius demonstrated in a courtroom through a variety of expert witnesses who could testify, in the face of cross-examination, to the necessity of his particular pattern of personal behavior to the quality of art that he has created. Still, just as insanity defenses don't always work in particular cases, neither might the genius defense. 

We don’t have mental deficiency – whether of the cognitive or psychiatric variety – decided by a self-recognized class of ‘deficients’ for legal purposes. So why then allow it for claims of genius, even though that is what much of the artistic community who recognizes Polanski as one of their own seems to wish?

September 28, 2009

Draft David Mitchell for Board Membership in a UK Research Council

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Yes, that David Mitchell – the one from the ‘Peep Show’, ‘That Mitchell and Webb Look’ and numerous comedy quiz shows on British radio and television. He’s also a Cambridge history grad and one of the most articulate and insightful commentators on the state of higher education today – professional academics and certainly government officials included.

Beneath the title of this blogpost, I have provided a link to an article that appeared in the Observer this past Sunday (where he has a regular column), which takes comic aim at the proposed standard of ‘practical relevance’ put forward by the Research Excellence Framework, which is the successor to the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise.

What’s most interesting about this piece is that Mitchell only has to tweak the straight version of the story a little to produce massive comic effect. Yes, it is pretty st-o-o-o-pid for the public sector to fund mainly research that demonstrates short-term economic and social utility when that would be precisely the sort of research that would most naturally attract private funding. State funding is supposed to make up for – not contribute to – market failure.

Of course, Mitchell overlooks the possibility that, as in the case of the banks, the state is trying to bail out the charities and other private funders, whose coffers have been depleted by the global credit crunch. It’s a stretch, I know. But given the absurdity of the official policy, why shouldn’t its justification be at least as absurd, if not more so?

Mitchell is also spot-on in associating so-called pointless research with a society that thinks beyond sheer animal survival. Indeed, if we can think only in terms of research for the sake of survival, then we should cut out the research middleman altogether and simply focus state funds on implementing solutions that facilitate survival. Surely, if our straits are so dire, we don’t have time for any research whatsoever!

To end on a constructive note, I would like to invite David Mitchell to put himself forward for membership in one of the UK’s publicly funded research councils, probably Arts and Humanities (AHRC) or Economic and Social (ESRC). These are administered by the ominously named Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (of which Higher Education is a subdivision). Here is the website:

You will see that openings for these councils will be advertised later in the Autumn. Council members are typically people who do not work in academia but are seen as ‘stakeholders’ in the future of academia. Comedians certainly fit that bill, given their large student market – not to mention the source of much of their funniest material!

Pass the suggestion along: Draft David Mitchell!

September 15, 2009

Audio version of the play now posted

Follow-up to New Play: 'Three women after the soul of William James' from Making the university safe for intellectual life in the 21st century -- by Steve Fuller

I have now managed to post the audio file of ‘Three women after the soul of William James’ as item 31 here

The first 50 minutes of the file is the play itself, followed by 50 minutes of discussion with the audience.

September 08, 2009

New Play: 'Three women after the soul of William James'

I have just come back from the British Science Festival in Surrey, where I staged my second play, Three Women after the Soul of William James. Here is the script surrey_play.pdf. The running time of the play is 45 minutes. (I did an audio recording of the play and the 45 minutes of discussion that followed. I hope to upload it at some point but at the moment the file is too large.) Here are some nifty pictures of the actors in character. Many thanks to Rachel and Esther Armstrong and Zoe Walshe for their brilliant performances as the three female leads!

The festival is sponsored each year by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Last year, while sociology and social policy section president, I staged Lincoln and Darwin – Live for One Night Only!, in which the two famous figures – both born on 12 February 1809 – return to one of today’s talk shows to reflect on what has happened to science and politics since they died. The play was subsequently performed at the Oxford Science Centre and made into a podcast by some actors in Sydney, Australia. It was also written up in the Times Higher.

The premise of this year's play is that William James, who would later become the great early 20th century US psychologist and pragmatist philosopher, appears for tea in London as a young recent medical school graduate travelling Europe to find himself. He has been invited by Harriet Martineau, an old liberal firebrand, and they are subsequently joined by Clemence Royer, Darwin’s French translator, and Helena Blavatsky, the Russian psychic and theosophist. The year is 1870.

Bearing in mind that the play takes place about a half-century before women enjoy full political rights in most developed countries, the three female leads represent an array of scientific, political and personal positions that, in their day, marked them as operating on the radical fringe of European society. Of particular note is the way they turn potential female liabilities into epistemic and political strengths: e.g. the positive role of ‘receptiveness’ as mode of discovery in both medicine and metaphysics, the conversion of biological reproduction into a branch of political economy under the rubric of ‘eugenics’.

I am still working on the ideas underlying the play, some of which will feature in a book I am writing on the history of epistemology for Acumen.

Finally, those interested in following up the themes here might look at the following books:

  • Charles C. Gross, Brain, Vision, Memory: Tales in the History of Neuroscience (MIT Press, 1998). See especially chapter 3 on the spiritualist (Swedenborgian) legacy to brain science.
  • Jennifer Michael Hecht, The End of the Soul (Columbia University Press, 2005). On Clemence Royer and her quest for an atheist science based on Darwinist principles.
  • Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (Flamingo, 2001). On the intellectual context of William James’ development
  • David Wootton, Bad Medicine (Oxford University Press, 2006). On the role of belief in healing.

September 07, 2009

Indisciplinarity’s Mid–Life Crisis

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The latest (Summer 2009) issue of Critical Inquiry, arguably the leading humanities journal in the United States, is devoted to interdisciplinarity, an idea with which I have identified throughout my entire academic career, even as an undergraduate. In fact, all of my degrees are interdisciplinary. I have also theorized about interdisciplinarity from time to time. My most sustained treatment, Philosophy, Rhetoric and the End of Knowledge, appeared in a second edition a few years ago, now co-authored with Jim Collier of Virginia Tech. I am very much pro-interdisciplinarity, but after reading this issue of Critical Inquiry, I am minded of Voltaire’s quip: ‘God save me from my friends -- my enemies I can take care of’. From the looks of it, interdisciplinarity is suffering from a mid-life crisis.

I will review a few of the matters raised – and not raised – in this special issue. But first, readers who are sensitive to the contemporary academic scene will be struck by the American-style parochial elitism, which mirrors an older period when British journals were over-represented by people from Oxford and Cambridge – rather than, say, Harvard and Chicago – all of whom seem to know each other’s texts and even jokes. There are also various excruciating verbal mannerisms – the rhetorical throat clearing, tie adjusting and name-checking – that are the telltale signs of people who spend too much time talking to each other and hence are too reliant on what each thinks of the other.

Without denying the occasional insight in many of the articles, I come away from the special issue disappointed by the extent to which the discussion of interdisciplinarity does not seem to have progressed very much since Philosophy, Rhetoric and the End of Knowledge came out in 1993. In fact, many of these papers appear caught in the early 1980s time-warp of my graduate school days when, in the first flush of Anglophone postmodernism, it was cool and radical to ‘blur genres’ and ‘deconstruct binaries’, given the ossified nature of disciplinary boundaries.

Part of the problem may be the context of publication. Most of the papers appear to have been written for a conference held at the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Chicago. In terms of changes taking place in higher education across the world, this may be the ultimate backwater, simply by virtue of its relative immunity from those changes. We are so used to thinking of backwardness in terms of the dispossessed that it is easy to overlook that the elites may also be left behind by history, even while they largely keep their possessions – which just end up being worth less than before. To flourish for oneself and to be relevant to others are two distinct achievements, and while there need not be a tradeoff between the two, one should provide independent evidence for each.

James Chandler’s introduction to the issue illustrates what I’m talking about. He barely registers the fact that the recent drive to interdisciplinarity reflects not the inherent limitations of disciplinary knowledge or the discovery of new domains of knowledge (which he discusses in considerable abundance), but the relative weakening of the university’s position in defining how knowledge should be organized, even within its own institutional setting. Here I refer to the withdrawal of state subsidies for higher education, accompanied by various incentives for academics to justify their existence by collaborating with private funders. To be sure, universities have always had working arrangements with the private sector but our own period is marked by increased dependency on a limited range of funders – largely due to the size of the budgets required for cutting edge research.

To his modest credit, Mario Biagioli sees this point but in a characteristically too polite way to cause anyone to take notice. Biagioli’s article is about our shared field of science studies, and how it has managed to thrive amidst the post-Cold War meltdown of the university – unlike other interdisciplinary fields in the humanities and social sciences. The trick is simply to follow the funding fashions in research projects and not be overly concerned about theoretical coherence. The result is that while science studies certainly thrives in the academy, its exact disciplinary location always remains uncertain. Although Biagioli means well, his conclusion is about as intriguing as the idea that cockroaches can survive in virtually any previously inhabited space.

Lorraine Daston, in contrast, is keen to distinguish ‘history of science’ as a full-fledged discipline independent of science studies. She is happy to admit that the controversies that have embroiled science studies over the past decade or so – the so-called Science Wars – are to be expected of a field that shadows so closely the changing fortunes of science in society at large. Yes, of course. By implication, she suggests, ‘history of science’ is different – dealing with the past but only with an eye to the past, not the present or future. Daston unwisely presumes without argument that the relative insulation of ‘history of science’ from the present and future is to the field’s credit. Her piece left me with the sense of a discipline settling into a state of ‘genteel poverty’.

Finally, something must be said about Judith Butler’s piece, ‘Critique, Dissent, Disciplinarity’. It is presented as a defence of academic freedom but it is last article I would offer as evidence in support of this noble principle. Butler is here defending the quite reasonable proposition that if the state, which protects academic freedom, objects to questions being raised about the legitimacy of its own actions, then the state forfeits its own legitimacy. In this respect, the legitimacy of state power and academic freedom are mutually implicated. Fine. But why do we need 25 pages of digressions through the works of Kant, Derrida and Foucault to make this point – especially when nothing interesting is added to our understanding of these texts? Instead we are given a tour of Butler’s reading habits (and infer that she is heroically abstracting from the specific case of Israel). Others may and have come to similar conclusions by a much less circuitous route – but probably in lower profile places.

I know this sounds churlish, but our responsibility as academics goes beyond simply giving a running order of our states of mind – that is, unless we think that there is some intrinsic value in retracing the steps by which we have reached our conclusions. The discipline called ‘logic’ promotes itself on such grounds. However, Butler – and of course she is hardly alone – does not claim to be a logician. In that case, would it not be more academically responsible to make one’s arguments by adopting the most efficient means vis-à-vis the target audience? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate good faith demonstration of interdisciplinary communication?

In any case, I recommend those interested in the future of interdisciplinarity to look out for the publication of the Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity in March 2010.

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