Friday, November 27, 2015

Exercise in the Netherlands

Copies of the Dutch translation of How to Think About Exercise have just arrived: Filosoferen over beweging en sport.

As always, Uitgeverij Ten have have done a sterling job with design and layout. (And paper. The stock is thick and very fondleable.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Is there an ethical case against MMA?

Joanna Jedrzejczyk (L) vs. Valerie Letourneau (R) in UFC 193
Prompted by the recent UFC show in Melbourne, I've a piece in the Canberra Times on mixed martial arts: 'UFC 193: Why cage fighting is cruel and objectionable, but still alluring'.

This is not my title, by the way--I don't think MMA is necessarily cruel or alluring (though fighters and fights be both). My aim was to ask whether or not there is a good ethical case against MMA. I don't think there is, but I'm open to reasonable, well-evidenced arguments--particularly against MMA as a professional spectator sport. A sample:
This kind of violence is still controversial, and not because women were involved. Gender is irrelevant to this particular question, although it's worth noting that their physical prowess was unquestionable. What's troublesome for many is the spectacle itself: public, brutal, hand-to-hand combat. Is there a robust ethical case against MMA? 
The most obvious charge is that is violent. Fair enough – it is. But this is a fact, not a moral failing. Violence itself has no inherent ethical value. It can be cruel, just, petty or tragic. There must be something about the violence that makes it objectionable. 
Much violence does not involve consent: it is a form of domination, which reproduces asymmetries​ of power. But these UFC fighters are consenting adults, specifically trained for this sport. They are professional athletes, not victims, and it is patronising to deprive them of their agency. If there is exploitation in the industry, this is cause for industrial relations reform, not blanket condemnation of the sport itself. 
There are certainly risks involved in combat sports. While victor Holly Holm celebrated and gave interviews, Rousey was in hospital with a split lip and concussion. Even the winners, like meticulous Polish striker Joanna Jedrzejczyk​, can look set-upon afterwards. But according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the martial arts have a much lower injury rate than all codes of football, horse riding, and basketball. Some of the most dangerous pursuits, by severity and hospital stay, are sports like cycling, skateboarding, roller-skating and quad-biking.
(Photo: Getty Images / Quinn Rooney)

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Humility: I do not think that word means what you think it means

I've a piece in today's Age and Sydney Morning Herald: 'And the award goes to...Hollywood's humblest'.

Mariah Carey and her celebrity peers speak about being 'humbled' by awards. Are they really? And if not, what do they mean? I discuss humility, pride and the notion of virtue. A sample:
If they're not feeling humble onstage, they probably were to get there. To achieve anything of note, we need some psychological pain: the uncomfortable "ugh" that comes with our own failings. The only way to develop any talent is to recognise deficiency. We are not perfect beings, worthy of worship. We are fallible, weak animals, prone to lapses of reason, focus and strength. Without the discomfort that humility brings, we settle for less; we think ourselves unworthy of improvement. 
Carey's high notes, Davis and Portman's gestures and tones – each asked for some portion of humility. Not abject self-loathing, or what Aristotle described as "unduly retiring": this leads to more paralysis. They simply needed to recognise the limits of their abilities; to grant that they were not yet what they hoped to be. And in confronting this, to feel the discomfort of imperfection. 
Yet accomplishment also requires some pleasure in our efforts, and the benefits they bring. Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian, recognised the importance of joy in oneself. To be overly modest, he said, was "contrary to a law of nature". Those who get no buzz from themselves, he argued in his Summa Theologica​, will shrink from good deeds. Absolute modesty leads to miserable idleness, crushed by its own inferiority. 
It is no coincidence that flourishing asks for this balance of pain and pleasure, humility and pride. As Aristotle noted more than two millennia ago, this is exactly what virtue is: a poise between complementary urges. Too much pride and we become puffed-up pretenders, spruiking our false kudos. Too little and we shrivel altogether.

Twitterati on ABC RN Drive

Yesterday I ducked into the ABC studios to chat to Patricia Karvelas on RN Drive.

We spoke about Twitter's new 'heart' farce, Ronda Rousey and women's martial arts, gender in publishing and the S C A N D A L of tea towels being used instead of oven mitts.

You can listen here.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Philosophy and fame

Plato, keeping to himself
I've an essay in the latest New Philosopher magazine: 'The longing to be seen and heard'.

I discuss the seemingly reclusive nature of philosophy, and argue for the importance of public works. Along the way, I introduce ideas from Plato, Seneca, Arendt, Sloterdijk and Bradatan. Here's the introduction:
Are thinking and fame at odds? Philosophy certainly has a reputation for retreat: bristling men in dated suits, writing to one another from musty apartments or austere shacks. Martin Heidegger in his Black Forest skiing hut, Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Norwegian cabin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Saint Peter Island, David Hume in Anjou, working on his ‘very rigid frugality’—all exemplary philosophers, all avoiding the crowd. The archetypal modern philosopher is Friedrich Nietzsche, whose later sane years were lived in ‘wounded isolation’, as he put it in Ecce Homo. The herald of the Superman: stateless, often lonely and almost always ill.
This is no modern quirk. During pagan antiquity, we find Epicurus setting up shop in a bohemian commune, ‘The Garden’. He counselled ‘a quiet life and withdrawal from the many’. In Laws, Plato argued that fame helped keep communities obedient, but he himself was suspicious of glory-chasers. He believed that love of the good—even if prompted by a sexy youth—was more noble than adoration of popularity. The masses, from whom fame is granted, are superficial and fickle. Genuine thought and thinkers must be protected from hoi polloi.  
This asylum need not be physical. Part of Epicureanism was psychological defence against popular foolishness. The Stoic Roman philosopher and politician Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius from a bathhouse, providing tips on mental seclusion. ‘There can be absolute bedlam without,’ he wrote, as a man screamed while his armpit hairs were plucked, ‘so long as there is no commotion within.’  
The point is not that each of these thinkers treated society in the same way; that they had identical diagnoses and prescriptions. As doctors of culture, Plato and Nietzsche, for example, were at odds. The point is that philosophy seems aloof; that living philosophically means dying to one’s fellow citizens (first figuratively, then literally, in the case of Socrates).  
This otherworldliness often arose from political or psychological alienation. This is what Peter Sloterdijk, in The Art of Philosophy, calls a ‘romantic loser’ outlook. It grew out of helplessness in the face of tyranny or empire, and made a virtue out of flight from the fracas. ‘The spectator shall always be superior now,’ Sloterdijk writes, ‘while the players inevitably look ridiculous.’ Better to be unknown and unerring than famous and false.
Want to read more? Grab yourself a copy of The New Philosopher, now out in Australia, the UK, United States and Canada.

(Illustration: detail from 'The Death of Socrates', by Jacques-Louis David)

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Halloween 2015

In the spirit of cross-Pacific cooperation, we have adopted the US custom for at least this year.

Clockwise from top left: Scarecrow Nikos, Punisher Damon, Vampire Sophia, Witch Ruth.

We have come to horrify, punish, feed and curse -- but mostly to source low GI calories.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Happy tenth birthday Nikos

Just over a decade ago, Ruth and I did a thing. Well, Ruth did most of the thing. But it was a shared thing. (Nowadays, you might call it a 'project'.)

Anyway, Nikos was born. It was sublime: frightening, overwhelming, beautiful. (I wrote this twee poem about it.) Parenthood still is all of these things, with the customary ballast of banality.

Now our boy is ten, and it's a pleasure to witness the slow unfolding of his personality. There's the franchise-talk, of course -- see the glee above, as he visits Lobo's Collectibles in Northcote. But we also enjoy the moments of reflection, on mortality, intimacy, artistry. We nod at the stuttering fury in his condemnation of injustice; his anger at cynical border policy, for example.

Thank you Nikos, you gangly smartarse, for another year of your company.

Monday, October 26, 2015

First pages: The Art of Reading

My next nonfiction work, The Art of Reading, will be out in Australia in 2016.

I'm currently editing the first page proofs. It's a finicky job, like patching up the wings of angels dancing on pins. At a certain point, often unnoticed, the manuscript becomes a book; the hypothetical succession of glyphs becomes something for a shelf.

And after all the toil, the labour still isn't done: the reader had to keep the angels tap-dancing.

I'm looking forward to the show.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

We're all fucked

The new Island magazine is out, brimming with cool stuff. Amongst other things: Geordie Williamson's interview with Neil Gaiman, Ruth Quibell on the 'failed intellectual', Frank Moorhouse on reading, a cracker of a poem by Berndt Sellheim.

It also contains my latest column, 'We're all fucked', on the relationship between humanities intellectuals and everyone else. A sample:
Intellectuals are partners, or they risk becoming monsters or fools: lords pronouncing fiats, or babblers of vain monologues. To say ‘intellectual’ is to speak as much about relationships as about identities. These associations can be baffling, exasperating and often dull—but they are no less valuable for this. Scholars must be trained to write for those outside their fields, who in turn must be educated enough to read, reflect and respond—and to see this as good, necessary and sometimes even fun. This requires ambitious schooling at all levels, a brave publishing industry, the leisure to seek challenging literature, and the existential robustness to do so when we are harried by the state of things. ‘We are afraid that when we are alone and quiet something will be whispered into our ear,’ wrote Nietzsche in “Schopenhauer as Educator”, ‘and so we hate quietness and deafen ourselves with sociability.’ Encouraging an intellectually adventurous society requires something like an intellectually adventurous society. 
So we’re probably fucked.
Go buy a copy. In fact, just subscribe.

(Illustration: 'The Orator', Fedinand Hodler, c.1912)

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Philosophy in the garden (with ABC TV)

Yesterday I filmed an interview with ABC TV's Gardening Australia.

We shot at the Royal Melbourne Botanic Gardens, visiting Guilfoyle's Volcano, the Hopetoun Lawn, camellia collection, Nymphaea Lily Lake, and more.

While a fierce northerly shook the pines and palms, I chatted to Tony about my Philosophy in the Garden, and about gardens and gardening more generally.

My story will air in 2016, with the new HD season of Gardening Australia.