Thursday, November 4, 2010

Am I allowed to laugh now?

Whenever people say something like, "You know, Rowan Atkinson is actually quite intelligent," they are betraying at least one of two things.

Either they are perplexed, and not a little troubled, by the fact that someone "otherwise intelligent" would produce something like Mr. Bean. Citing Atkinson's actual intelligence is for them a way of legitimizing how silly, how pointless, Mr. Bean is. There's a method to his madness, you see, so, while they personally don't "get the joke," they can reassure themselves that Atkinson himself isn't really like that, doesn't really find it amusing.

Or they are anxious about the fact that they secretly love Mr. Bean and cling to Atkinson's actual intelligence as a way of justifying their own enjoyment. It's not simply mindless fun, and certainly not low humor, since, after all, the performer is actually quite intelligent.

This dynamic lies behind the frequent adulation "freethinkers" have for George Carlin, about whom I have written before. On the one hand, some fans might realize how arch and unreasoning Carlin's shtick often is, and so they advert to his obvious intelligence to buttress what they realize is little better than the ramblings of an angry drunk man. This is what Crude aptly calls "reverse strawmanning". On the other hand, perhaps fans really take all––or nearly all––of Carlin's pontifications to be rationally sound and compelling. When, however, someone begins to critique the logic, coherence, or relevance of what Carlin actually says on a particular topic, the fans advert to Carlin's actual intelligence––such as his love for physics––as a kind of blanket defense. The critic is allegedly missing the point, since, while Carlin may not have expressed himself flawlessly in this or that instance, "he's actually very intelligent," so his larger point of view holds. So there! Now shut up and laugh!

(As always, I want to go out of my way to say that I really do respect George Carlin as a comedian and rhetor, and, if his loyalty to his daughter is any indication, as a father. I don't deny for an instant that he makes me laugh, consistently, and pretty much always makes me at least grin. His delivery is one of the best in the business and he brings a great deal of insight into social foibles to the stage. When I disagree with Carlin, therefore, I do so either for intellectual or ethical reasons, as I have explained before. I have no axe to grind against Carlin, and I even pray for his soul.)

Some jokes can be denounced for intellectual reasons but I think we all know few if any jokes can be redeemed with an intellectual certification. A defense of a comedian which points more to his education than his material, more to his daily eloquence than his on-stage delivery, is just an elaborate form of "explaining the joke." Nearly all funny people are intelligent, but only a few intelligent people are funny.


Crude said...

Have you really run into someone trying what sounds like an argument from authority using *Carlin* of all people? Better yet, reference to 'arguments' Carlin made on stage? I don't doubt it, but holy hell, what a guy to pick. His 'arguments' about environmentalism alone would make the typical freethinker (ever in thoughtful lockstep) have a fit.

But you know, I just realized... was Carlin even an atheist? This is tangential to your post, but I've heard him called this so many times... yet I don't ever recall Carlin calling himself one. And I am an unapologetic, long-time (decades!) Carlin fan. Sure, he absolutely disliked organized religion. He mocked the "Bearded man in the sky" idea. He had it in for Catholicism. But I never heard him call himself an atheist. And when I googled just now, the only results I find are two where he's denying being an atheist, one second-hand from, and one where he says he's 'acrostic' (as opposed to an atheist or an agnostic).

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

I have indeed seen people dispute on Youtube about the validity of Carlin's "critiques", specifically how he shows the mastery of science over religion, etc. Not that commenting on Youtube vouches for one's intellectual stature.

I also have a real-life friend who looks to Carlin as a kind of philosophical-style guru (hint: it's the guy who waged war against "the best defense is a good offense"... which goes to show how deranged the Carlinist camp might be).

As for his atheism, I grant that I have been imprecise if I have called him an atheist. He's certainly got a "bearded dude in the sky" animus against "religion," but I agree that he's probably better described as a naturalist-pantheist or a very salty deist. I came close to expressing this in my commentary on the Carlin clip in this post

I think he would have had great sympathy for the classical truth about God, but his entire career and persona depended on potshots against easy caricatures.

Carlin--and popular Carlinism-- intrigues me because, one, it's a personal thorn with my apostate friend and, two, I think, while people may not commonly 'cite' Carlin in their defense, a great many people subscribe to, or rather suffer from, his basic confusion, namely, the illusion that enchantment with nature in a scientific key simply does away with adoration of Nature's God in a religious key. You hear it all the time, I'm sure: big and small numbers are grander than angels and demons; I don't need to worship, I just need to look around; science does away with magical thinking (meanwhile somehow investing nature with an enchanting preeminence that is allegedly not magical); etc.

You know my mean?

Crude said...

Actually, if you dig into Carlin's early career his attitude towards the Catholic church was (to me) shockingly sad. His biggest complaints early on were that so many things that once seemed sacred (not eating meat on Friday) were cast off after Vatican II and treated as meaningless. Which, in his act, sounded as if he thought the bishops themselves didn't take their own faith seriously. Notice how in Dogma, the role Carlin plays isn't some uptight, crazy traditionalist bishop. He plays a shyster, a 'the goal of the church is to make Catholicism popular and appeal to the lowest common denominator!' liberal bishop. Who knows, maybe that's telling.

And no, I wasn't going after you for calling Carlin an atheist. It just occurred to me that I've heard so many people label him as an atheist, yet I can never recall Carlin calling himself one. Sure enough, I go to look, and the few things I turn up are denials. It's like the Carl Sagan thing - this habit of atheists to label certain people as atheist thinkers, then you find out that no, actually they specifically denied being atheists (which seems to be the case with Carlin). Carlin would probably regard the New Atheists with contempt, just as he regarded quite a lot of intellectual liberals with horror (See his reaction to 'saving the planet'.)

I think something similar is going on here with 'Popular Carlinism'. I don't deny it exists among some gnu-subset. But I think it's a case of projection by those people. Carlin, in no act I'm aware of, went around praising science or even spending much time talking about it. His most common thing was a rejection of popular pieties, across the political and religious spectrum (See his attitude towards environmentalism or feminism.)

But I do agree about that oft-repeated, but never-explained, talk of science supplanting God. It's one of those things where, upon inspecting, all the key points melt into obfuscation. In fact, it's eerily similar to the other problem with Carlin - the projection. The 'science says', when A) Science manifestly doesn't 'say' what they think it does, B) Science can't, because what they want it to 'say' is usually (bad) metaphysics, philosophy, and even theology, and C) the evident *need* for 'science' to say it, because it has an authority they lack, and they can't provide the goods on their own.

There I go, blogging in comments again. Sorry!

Tap said...

Cool new blog! As promised, and update regarding the Whole Dr. Cross and the Corruption of Eastern theology issue. I actually got a reply from Dr. Cross himself, and i think Lee Faber might have listened to a talk from a different person seriously. Here are his words verbatim:

" A couple of thoughts. I've given a couple of talks on the Trinity recently, in which I worried about questions of divine simplicity and the coherence of the doctrine given certain strong accounts of simplicity. Here's the problem. If the divine essence is wholly simple and undifferentiated, and if there are no grounds for predications in divinis other than the divine essence (as, arguably, some Western theologians hold0, it looks as though there are insufficient grounds for Trinitarian claims. I don't have any plans to write on Palamas in the immediate future, though clearly he might in principle have ways of avoiding the simplicity problem. I think your acquaintance misled you if he/she ascribed to me a serious claim that the Eastern tradition was corrupt on these questions: I'm rather inclined to the view that the Western theologians are more vulnerable to coherence worries than some of the Eastern ones - though I don't know a way to show that the simplicity problem cannot be solved. (Perhaps one could appeal to mystery.) The Eastern positions are in general interesting, and I don't know an account of them which is philosophically nuanced: it all depends on how one understands energies, epinoiai, and things peri ten phusin/ousian. And I have a strong suspicion that these terms are not used in the same senses in individual authors, and certainly not from Gregory of Nyssa to Palamas.

I think that'll be all I'll have said in any talk on the subject - I remember mentioning some of the Eastern theologians in question and answer sessions after the papers, but I don't remember exactly what I said.

Best wishes,

Cross posted on your other blog, in case you don't catch it here

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Tap, thanks for this! I always try to read other charitably (it's an Ignatian thing), and so my hunch is that a) Cross may have uttered the word corruption in relative conjunction with discussion of Eastern developments and Faber made a cognitive leap, b) Cross may have been asked about the issue and uttered something like what Faber reported (note that Cross admits ignorance of what he said in the Q&A session). On the one hand, I think Faber is fair enough not to toss out pure BS for scoring points, but on the other hand I notice his writing is often rather slapdash and he may have just typed more quickly than he ought have.

I've got a lot of things to tie up this week and next but I hope to get back to glossing SCG soon. Hope you enjoy that new blog.


Tap said...

Yeah, i agree that Faber does not behave like someone who would want to score cheap debating points. The fact that he said that there was an imminent paper coming out, is why i suspect he might have been listening to another lecture, and conflated Dr. Cross' lecture with another.