In Defense of Pop Philosophy:
Notes on Philosophistry

An interesting post from Simon Obirek, responding to a post of mine from a few months ago, which was about the dwindling vitality of the blogosphere. I have a few thoughts about each of the sections in Simon’s post, so I thought I’d just replicate his titles and offer up some additional notes or perhaps contrasting perspectives.

Dominant Deleuze

The first part of Simon’s post is broadly concerned with what many used to sarcastically call “Deleuze Studies”. That the joke no longer really lands is a sign of the times. It used to be said with tongue firmly in cheek, as if nothing as unruly as Deleuzian philosophy could be subsumed within some academic cottage industry… But here we are. Now the mantle of “Deleuze Studies” has been taken up with an unfortunate sincerity.

Simon seems to share in the disappointment. “The trajectory of the blogosphere and, more broadly, para-academia must be viewed under the light of Deleuze’s status within academia”, he argues. This is correct, in some ways, but is the suggestion here that the popularity of the blogosphere had something to do with it? That the popularity of Deleuze online helped him take over offline? I don’t see that personally. Deleuze’s influence within the academy has certainly trickled outside of it, but when Simon argues this is an important point “because the thinkers engaged in this practice [of blogging?] all emerge from the same ecosystem of thought”, that’s not my experience of the blogosphere at all.

In fact, as the post he’s responding to hopes to emphasise, that the original blogosphere was all Deleuzians is a bit of a misnomer. He was central, of course, but many of those in discussion with one another were less interested in further his influence in isolation. They were broadly engaged with what was once called “Post-Continental Philosophy”.

If I’m following Simon here, I think what he’s describing is applicable to the current Twittersphere — let’s be clear: there is no real blogosphere left to speak of — which has been influenced by a generation of grad students learning about Deleuze at school. But the original blogosphere seemingly had a far more diverse education than that. It’s not that they all emerged from the same ecosystem, as he suggests, but were attempting to populate a new platform with thinkers who properly responded to the times.

In an interview conducted by Christopher Haworth, Robin Mackay discusses the postgraduate modules undertaken by those who were at Warwick in the 1990s (and many of Warwick’s graduates went on to be major figures in the first blogosphere, of course). He explains:

There were two good courses, one was called Recent Continental Philosophy, at that time taught by Keith Ansell-Pearson, and the other one was Current French Philosophy. And, you know, the very idea of there being ‘recent’ or ‘current philosophy’ seemed exciting and somewhat unexpected, even though it was not really that recent, it was post-Heideggerian and then post-’68 thinkers, in CFP mostly Deleuze and Guattari — but certainly, those were the exciting courses to be on.

I asked Robin about this a few months ago, prior to writing the post Simon is responding to, and he confirmed my suspicions. They weren’t just reading Deleuze and Guattari, but also Badiou, Laruelle and Michel Henry.

At that time, people were less interested in picking a philosophical team and then defending it to the death. They were interested in philosophical buggery, marrying positions between philosophers who supposedly disagreed, finding points of intersection and tension and cracking them open. That this was arguably a central gesture within Deleuze’s thought did not make him somehow immune to it in practice. A desire to complicate his reception especially was central to many of the blogosphere’s better-known interlocutors. This was true enough for Mark Fisher himself, who wrote in 2005: “The most productive area of conceptual discordance is that between Badiou and Deleuze-Guattari.”

Meanwhile, that the rest of academic philosophy soon fell under the spell of one figure in particular was ridiculed back then as it is by Simon now. Fisher again was frequently critical of it — I’m sure others were too, of course, but Fisher’s remains the most easily navigable record of the discourse. (He even seemed to actively avoid teaching Deleuze and Guattari directly in his classes.) Back in 2004, he described the rising damp of academic “Deleuze Studies” as follows:

The whole academic lockdown on D/G proceeds programmatically:

Install ‘Deleuzianism’ as a research project. Typical focus: Difference and Repetition, the most boring book Deleuze ever wrote. (Interesting that Freud says that fetishists fixate on the final object they see before confronting the ‘horror’ of the vagina. The Philosophical establishment is similar with D and R, the last moment you could pretend what Deleuze was doing was academic philosophy.) Object: turn Deleuze’s work into ‘respectable’ philosophy. Systematically sideline not only Guattari (i.e. refer to Capitalism and Schizophrenia as by ‘Deleuze’) but more importantly downgrade the whole concept of collective authorship.

It’s all OK provided you don’t take it seriously i.e. provided you don’t really ask ‘how do you make yourself a body without organs?’ When they say ‘sorcery’ they’re being metaphorical, right?

Irony: the one thing you are not allowed to do in the academy is talk about practices of intensification, still less – hah! – engage in them. Of course, what you are endlessly required to do is deconstruct your own position, worry about the politics of taste, develop negotiated readings.

Suffice it to say, the original blogosphere didn’t contribute to this; it sought to resist it. If my own writing on this blog over the past year or so is fixated on historicising that era, it is to emphasise what has changed and what we have lost, because I’d love to see a return to that kind of cross-pollination. (See my post on Badiou/acc or, indeed, the post Simon is responding to, which is ostensibly about Badiou rather than Deleuze, making his response somewhat disjointed.)

It’s not just about what Deleuze can offer us, but the challenges within recent Continental philosophy that are still unresolved today. That the blogosphere failed to persist in this manner is, I think, a comment on the academy’s penetration into the blogosphere, not the other way round. The thrust of influence still largely goes one way. This is important to note because the tandem withering of the blogosphere and the rise of Deleuze Studies was not an example of cause and effect but a kind of dovetailing that echoes broader trends within the humanities today.

On this topic, then, I think it is fair to say that Simon and I agree.

Blogospheric Challenges

From here, I get confused. Simon seems to suggest that this “Deleuze Studies” approach has long been a pervasive tendency within the blogosphere — as shown above, it hasn’t — and since Deleuze is no longer a challenge or a surprise but a part of the furniture, Simon asks: “What heresies, unorthodoxies and challenges to the status quo has occurred as a result of the blogosphere?” Though he seems to think the answer is none, he nonetheless catalogues a fair few examples himself.

Popularising chimerical political projects and experimental prose styles, exploring collective authorship on the web, welcoming a form of fiery debate that the academy would surely deem uncouth, raising awareness of certain debates that were (at that point) only happening in the academy, materially reconnecting philosophy with its cultural ground… Simon devalues these activities because they’re not new to him — come on, just because you take it for granted, doesn’t mean it wasn’t an innovation at one time — but he also devalues these things further by comparing them disingenuously to things that academia already does. To say collective authorship or discussion online, for instance, is no different to putting together a journal is very silly when we actually consider the modes of production that are deployed to produce either one. (At that level, to say they both include multiple people who have written things is surely a non-statement boiling things down to their lowest common denominator?)

On the contrary, the blogosphere was genuinely a kind of avant-garde at that time. It defined popular conversation whilst appearing to be anything but popular. I still remember when “hauntology” became an inescapable music industry buzzword in the late-00s / early-10s. A few bloggers did that. Their grafting of Derrida’s hauntological political philosophy onto Noughties dance music culture was inspired. It dragged conversations about the end of history and cultural innovation out of the academy and into the music press, and shaped a decade or more of cultural thinking. That there was later a backlash against it was welcomed too. It inaugurated a new thrust towards the future that many provocatively suggested had lapsed.

But Simon seems to think that this trajectory from philosophy to culture doesn’t count for much. What really matters is an influence that proceeds the other way round:

Did blogging, then, truly update philosophy? I’d argue that it did nothing for philosophical thinking itself, but it did shift the surrounding circumstances of such a thinking.

There is a pessimism here that I’ve challenged repeatedly over the years, which relates to what concerned the first blogosphere explicitly — the emergence of the new. Deleuze versus Badiou; hauntology versus accelerationism — these were two sides debating the same thing, with the nerdiest heretics seeking a recombinant approach to Badiou’s creation ex nihilo. I think it is telling and incredibly ironic that, in our own complaints about our current stuckness or lack of innovation, we completely ignore the innovations and challenges that resulted from that initial debate 15 years ago and just retread old ground, albeit without any of the ferocity or rigour that the old blogosphere gave the same issue. (See Alex Williams’ denouncement of hauntology or his inaugural post on xenoeconomics, which the accelerationist blogosphere grew out of.)

If that weren’t enough, we’ve already had this exact same debate a few months ago, after Matt Bluemink’s excellent “anti-hauntology” post, which led to a really productive back and forth in which I personally focused in on the ouroboric hunt for “new forms of the new”. In that discussion, I think we did well to outline the sort of catch-22 thinking we’re often caught within, which always projects its concerns outwards but doesn’t consider the fact that the real issue comes from within, that we don’t actually understand how the new emerges at all at the level of pop cultural discussion, to the point that we often denounce it or ignore it completely when it appears right in front of us. That is to say, that we don’t see innovation or newness says more about our own aptitude for perception beyond the ideology of “the end of history” rather than say anything of value about the actual conditions we live under.

Soon afterwards, inspired by this exchange, I presented “a brief history of the new” to the Ctrl Network — the lecture still hasn’t been uploaded yet, but I’m assured it will be one day — which showed how this question of what’s new and what’s just a recombination of the past is one of the oldest in the history of philosophy. There are conflicting ideas about this going back to the pre-Socratics, discussing finitude and infinitude, and Deleuze and Badiou clashed on the same topic as well. (See the excellent introduction to Sam Gillespie’s The Mathematics of Novelty.)

Admittedly, there’s a lot more links than direct exposition above, and Simon seemed to want to hear some direct examples from me. But, to be honest, if I’m reluctant, it’s because it’s already out there. I just don’t want to needlessly retread too much ground here.

If Simon complains that the most popular blogposts are summaries and curated lists of links, this is precisely why. People can’t keep up most of the time — understandably in my case… I don’t space things out much — but poor reasoning nonetheless emerges from lazy engagement. It’s all out there and pretty easy to access. We don’t have to make assumptions based on over a decade of lazy readings.

Of course, the biggest obstacle here is often finding a way in, and it’s very easy to provide a roadmap rather than just regurgitate various past arguments. This is another point missed. That the blogosphere has dwindled has less to do with those who actively attempt to keep it afloat and more to do with other people’s standards of engagement. Those sharing lists are often just trying to bring everyone up to speed, but even then it is a slow and dispiriting process.

With that in mind, I think it is wrong to blame the blogosphere — a veritable treasure trove of philosophical thinking — for its own demise when the trajectory of communicative capitalism more generally has drastically shortened attention spans. Having to curate lists and provide histories is a result of intensifying TikTok brain. Wasn’t it Fisher in Capitalist Realism who declared people want an understanding of Nietzsche as quickly as they want access to a hamburger? Now people want access to Fisher himself as quickly as they want access to a meme. It’s a Russian Doll of idiocy. Things are worse, in some ways, not better.

This is all to do with the conditions within which thought is produced, which Simon basically glosses over. But it is important that we unpack this point further. Because philosophy is hard. There’s no getting around that. But how do you encourage people to even start the journey of unravelling it and sticking with it? How do you do that without slipping into the sort of gatekeeping associated with the academy, where most people who can afford to read and think about this stuff often don’t have to worry about other things? Most of this blog was written whilst working part-time in London for less than the living wage. But I wouldn’t complain too much about it, because that was by choice. The older I get, however, the less I’m able to just slum it without putting pressure on others, my partner in particular. Philosophy gets harder as drudgery increases. But that’s precisely why I’m an advocate for the blogosphere. Because I struggle to think properly about philosophical questions when I’ve got a 9-to-5, having a blog gives me a reason to put in the extra hours. Like an amateur musician coming home from his day job and spending all evening practicing his instrument, the blog is a space to practice writing when academia isn’t there to coddle you. Social media, too, gives me people to talk to about these ideas. (I generally don’t talk about philosophy offline because I don’t have people in my life who are interested in it like I am.) Though it isn’t a paradise, when I think about what I’d be able to achieve without it, I feel better being in than being out; being online instead of off.

When we consider that people have different living circumstances, that directly impact how they are able to think and what they are able to think about, we have to be careful about demarcating certain activities or styles as having more value than others. The question is always: to whom? Though he broadly seems to be on the side of the blogosphere, that Simon argues blogging “is not a place for original thinking but rather for the proliferation of what is already out there, what is already published in journals or initially explored in books”, he seems to be replicating an academic bias.

This is the crux of it. That Simon argues the blogosphere has transformed “from subversion to pop philosophy” is something most of those initially subversive bloggers would themselves vehemently reject. Pop philosophy is subversion. The lines drawn between the original and the pale imitation are often snide and prejudiced. If we want to have this conversation properly, we first need to recognize what it actually is — not a cynical question of “value,” but a meta-philosophical discussion about “real” philosophy and its simulacra in our complex world of broken ideological mirrors.

Let’s focus in on one point in particular:

What does it mean if, as Simon suggests, the blogosphere “did nothing for philosophical thinking itself, but … did shift the surrounding circumstances of such a thinking”? Well, what is philosophical thinking in itself if not some enclosed ideal held aloft by the academy? Where does this philosophical thinking take place exactly? Where is it deemed to be acceptable and proper? What is “real” philosophy beyond a canonical stylistic approach? Despite opening his blogpost with a dismissal of the academy and its polite publishing arm, neutralizing certain kinds of errant thought, I can’t think of anything else that might count as “philosophical thinking itself” other than that ordained “official” by the academy.

As for changing the circumstances surrounding thought, isn’t that as good as changing philosophy itself? “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” — that was Marx’s line, and it fits with his materialist worldview. Thought doesn’t change our circumstances nearly as often as circumstances change our thought. In fact, for many over the past few decades, changing the surroundings has broadly been the point. (See Badiou and Althusser on the “conditions” necessary for philosophy’s emergence throughout the ages.) It’s not a question of how the blogosphere fits into a deterministic trajectory of philosophy proper, but how it changed philosophy’s direction. (It’s dialectics, baby!)

Still, there is an important issue to consider here. To what extend has the blogosphere been through a process of marketisation? (If we ask this question, we must affirm that the academy has arguably gone through a more intensive version of this same process — at least in the Anglosphere). Simon argues:

Philosophy continues to be a mixture and expansion of previous philosophers, but is now starting to resemble marketing in its practices because it is centred so heavily around individuals. Matt criticises Harman for being self-serving, a criticism Brassier levels against him as well in the postscript to Pete Wolfendale’s Object-Oriented Philosophy: The Noumenon’s New Clothes, but Harman is really just doing what all bloggers are doing:…

Hard disagree on that point…

…fostering a certain philosophical style, a brand, a conceptual apparatus, which now comes with a domain you get to name and a colour palette you get to choose. But in a way, this mechanic was built into philosophy prior to the blogosphere. Sometimes, the only things separating two thinkers are mere semantics, minor conceptual differences, and different approaches which still end up with the same results, and this is where stylistic variations are key to understanding these particular oppositions. This has always been a question about branding even if this concept has only recently been invoked in philosophy.

I find the idea that Harman represents the true spirit of blogging nauseating considering he turned so many off it as a platform and practice. But the less said about Harman, the better. What is important to consider is the collapsing of terms here. Isn’t Harman just being a philosopher in developing a style and conceptual apparatus? What is it about any of these things that is exclusive to blogging, besides the point that Harman happens to have a blog? If anything, the intense emphasis on marketing yourself as a font of public engagement, which Harman loves, is the sort of thing that the academy loves about blogging. Like many academics who run blogs, his no doubt benefits his academic position rather than existing somehow outside of any relation to it.

I’m very aware of this at the moment as I’ve been applying for PhDs (against all better judgement) and the repeated invitations to add my blog or social media profiles to my applications as a way to prove I have a certain public standing is very disconcerting. The amount of followers you have on Twitter can be measured against your academic publishing record these days. (Makes sense for some, but I die inside when I think about some administrator actually engaging with the content.)

But again, that’s not blogging’s fault. That’s part of academia’s attempt to capitalize on everything that might appear outside of its bounds, in accordance with the socioeconomic system at large. With that in mind, I’d also disagree that linguistic differences don’t matter a great deal in discussing the finer points of certain philosopher’s bodies of work… Let’s not devalue conceptual engineering through pomo relativism, otherwise we’re really for the shitter. (This is not the first time that Simon employs the talking points of the parasitic neoliberalising forces he’s supposed to be denouncing here.)

All that being said, I do agree with Simon’s characterisation — attributed to Harman — of what makes blogging great:

He champions a view of blogging where he likens it to the hurried discussions of the bar or the pub. It’s a place to loosely sketch out new ideas and try them out for a wider audience and a place to receive hopefully informed feedback and responses. This would require a rejuvenation of the blogging practice and the more experienced practitioners might lend new ones a helping hand.

The blogosphere has never lost this. Twitter also carries that same sense of hurried discussion. But the point about the pub is that these discussions aren’t carried out individually in public — as is the alienating nature of social media — but properly together in a social setting. The pub is the space where you get to drunkenly talk over the blowhard object-oriented philosopher. (Harman is a tenured academic who notably blocks anyone who dissents against him in a heartbeat.) It carries within it a function of collective enunciation that the individualizing tendencies of the academy cannot capture. (That these tendencies have been brought to heel online in general is an issue that far exceeds the bounds of academic Twitter, of course. Nor is it a new phenomenon — we can literally trace it back to the invention of the printing press…)

For these reasons, I also find the cynicism here — and elsewhere in this section — a bit rich. I’ve describe the blogosphere in these terms myself on many occasions, and very much use my blog in the same way at Simon describes. They always were and tend to remain public notebooks for a lot of people. (I don’t buy into the idea of using your blog to just upload the stuff that didn’t pass peer review or some journal’s submission guidelines.) Forsaking that, they’re really not hard things to curate. All it requires is a diminished filter, which most people don’t have, perhaps because the academy teaches you to be more precious about your thought as a commodity. Harman isn’t a one-man barricade in the face of this; he represents academia’s appropriation of the platform.

So what are we to do about it? To be clear, this isn’t me drawing a convenient line around the blogosphere in an attempt to preserve its purity, but rather talk properly about the conflicting relations that now entangle it to the structures it was once proudly an antagonisation of. We needn’t denounce the blogosphere in light of this, just as we needn’t denounce anything that exists within our capitalist totality. (There is no outside.)

I’ve written about all of this before as well. What is key here, which Simon sort of trips over as his post develops, is the ancient tension here between philosophy and sophistry — an ultimately romantic distinction, in this day and age, which smells like a neoliberal work ethic, and which means either doing philosophy as a passion or doing it whilst getting paid.

What is necessary for philosophy’s survival is that we do both. If people are now trying to make a living off their various forms of intellectual-cultural production wholly outside of the academy, I don’t understand how that is anything but a good thing (unless you’re precious about the sanctity of the academy, which Simon began his post arguing against). Because, for too long now, philosophy has been the preserve of those who, for some reason or another, don’t have to work or who have been ingratiated into the academy at a young age.

In other words, monetising non-academic philosophy doesn’t denigrate philosophy as such, it denigrates the supremacy of the academy.

It’s also worth emphasising the way that non-academicians are finding ways to do philosophy outside of the academy do not reflect the same processes of marketisation that the humanities more generally have gone through. In fact, they are distinct in an integral way. As I tweeted around the time that previously linked post was written, the humanities embarrasses itself when it “insists on always making the case for its existence under capitalism by announcing its contributions to GDP and uses at a managerial level”. Ultimately, this “isn’t a humanities worth fighting for. If that’s the base line, the battle has long been lost.”

Many who resist this explicitly go the other way, relishing the irony. Crit Drip comes to mind, as a jokey but also brilliantly designed clothing brand that supports the really great community that Acid Horizon have built up — it is frequently hilarious and often lampoons the relationship between philosophy and pop culture impeccably; Craig’s re-imaginings of philosophical classics as pulp fiction are a brilliant example of this.

If we really want to have a struggle session over these accusations of complicity with capitalist forces, without devolving to snobbery, I think it is necessary that we treat the question of philosophy and sophistry with the appropriate rigour philosophy demands of it.

Matthew McLennan is excellent on this in his book on Badiou and Lyotard’s debate on the same topic. His introduction summarises the stakes of their debate today most succinctly. I have come back to this repeatedly, and I’m sure I’ve shared it on the blog or on Twitter more than once. Here is the opening section in full, with a few choice annotations:

Now, as ever, the question of philosophy’s definition is intimately bound to that of its survival.

Without pre-deciding the issue, let us assume for now the kind of broad definition of philosophy proffered in undergraduate courses: philosophy is an activity of higher-order questioning, a search after truth. Thus construed, in the present conjuncture philosophy is threatened on two fronts. It is in fact subject to a double bind: if unable to plead its utility, philosophy is existentially threatened; pleading its utility, it is threatened no less.

In the first place, philosophy as pure pursuit of truth is widely considered impractical or useless, and its claims to the intrinsic value of its labours tend to fall on deaf ears. But this is nothing new; Thales, traditionally considered to have been the first Western philosopher, was already subject to the ridicule of the Thracian maid when he fell in a well while gazing at the stars. More interesting is the fact that philosophy also and increasingly flirts with absorption into the very discourse of economic efficiency that undermines it. It finds a place at the table by pleading its utility, as training for the flexible, lateral thinking often said to be essential to economic and professional success.

(The most interesting philosophers online and in the blogosphere don’t do anything like that… Others have fallen into that same trap, however. See Justin Murphy and Nina Power and the recently christened reactionary academy for the cancelled, Austin University — these are the types of people who claim to be subversive whilst constantly appealing to and attempting to imitate apparatuses of state power.)

Philosophy may also be tapped for its therapeutic value, to the effect that the wisdom of the great philosophers alongside yoga and other techniques helps to cultivate the contentment, health and productivity of economic contributors. Moreover, the philosopher increasingly finds a role in practical ethics training, an explosive growth field by which she contributes not only to genuine ethical deliberation, but to the alibis of institutions and the individuals who populate them.

(That my blog has been routinely nominated for annual wellness awards (as part of the same multi-level marketing scam) never ceases to amuse me on this point.)

This economic operationalization of philosophy is of course part of a global trend with much wider implications. Where the economic winners in a globalized post-Fordist system see flexibility, dynamism and opportunity, the vast majority of Earth’s labourers — adjunct philosophy faculty included — see precariousness, pressure, displacement and the permanent threat of obsolescence. Frequently, formally educated labourers must retrain midstream to stay swimming, and the increasingly irrational demands on one’s time and one’s spatial locations push many to top up their credentials with night classes and online certification. Less and less frequently one locates the philosopher in the comfort of the ivory tower, pursuing pure research. It is increasingly common to find her on the adjunct treadmill, or at the intersection of diverse digital applied humanities courses in programmes targeting non-philosophical professionals.

(Or, having escaped that mess, the blogosphere!)

To this extent the philosopher becomes more than ever a facilitator who helps others — the real producers, the real drivers of the economy, it is said — to think differently; to look at alternative points of view; to cultivate intuition, understood as an openness to unthought-of solutions to practical impasses (and it goes without saying that such solutions are — at least on paper — to be ethically sensitive if not ethically sound).

In sum, philosophy — where tolerated — is increasingly tapped for its productive potential rather than its millennia-old and, arguably, essential link to truths. In a general way, this poses with a new urgency the question of philosophy’s survival. But it also raises a more focused question: whether or not present conditions, by insisting on economic efficiency, encourage philosophy to distance itself from the standard, broad definition and even, perhaps, to slide into sophistry.

Why sophistry? Compare Socrates to Protagoras. It is widely known that Socrates took no money for his philosophical craft, and that ultimately he martyred himself for the truth. Though arguably he was Socrates’s intellectual equal, the craft of Protagoras was linked in perhaps an essential way to economic and political survival and flourishing. In Plato’s Protagoras (1992a) — tendentious though we may assume it to be — the character Protagoras pulls shy of the anti-democratic conclusions to which he is pushed by Socrates’s rigorous questioning. He thereby demonstrates a political savvy placing him squarely and ably in the realm of doxa, mere opinion. He is no partisan of truth, but seeks above all to cause effects with language, and this with a view to human flourishing.

(In this regard, the proto-blogospheric activities of the Ccru were proudly sophist, enacting a Burroughsian magick that sought to engender cultural affects through the poetic intensification of para-academic jargon — and it clearly worked, and continues to work, on many. But truth was still never far away — this kind of sophisticated cultural activity was put to work precisely to break the veneer of capitalist realism. If we think of Plato’s allegory of the cave, rather than haranguing those in chains about the blinding enlightenment that awaited them outside, the Ccru entered the cave and constructed shadow puppets of their own, revealing not an ultimate ideological truth but the very malleability of our surroundings — which arguably amounts to the same process of enlightenment anyway: different means, same end.)

Certainly, high-quality philosophical work in the Socratic/Platonic tradition of fidelity to truth continues to be produced internationally. But the existence of a hungry, desperate intellectual underclass — the army of adjunct faculty and the reserve army of underemployed and unemployed philosophy graduates seeking a toehold in the academy — favours the unmooring of philosophical technē from this fidelity.


Since philosophy is tied to money through the university, it is at any rate fair to question whether or not this tends to corrupt it at the pedagogical level.

(Hmmm, okay, also increasingly the blogosphere…)

Adjunct philosophical under-labourers are more competitive to the extent that they can balance the demands of challenging, even titillating their millennial students, with the demands of telling the latter what they want to hear. To be safe, one usually assumes a basically liberal-democratic framework for discussion, in which thought experiments are brought out to show instinctively liberal-democratic students the minute inflections of applied liberal-democratic thought. One challenges, but only mildly; acts the benevolent eccentric, the clown even, the fondly remembered philosophy professor, within this familiar space.

(Again, it is intriguing that Simon brings Harman into the discussion as the arch-blogger retaining a certain spirit today. This above paragraph reflects how many felt about his development, and it was precisely his success within the blogosphere, utilising these same tactics, that put many people, like Ray “The Butcher of Beirut” Brassier — certainly not known for mild challenges — most infamously off his instrumentalization and capture of recent and dischordant philosophical innovations. (The comment about the blogosphere as an “orgy of stupidity” loved by “impressionable grad students” was a dig at the husk Harman had transformed speculative realism into.)

On a cynical reading, one does so to gain favourable student evaluations by which to secure one’s incumbency, and with which to pad one’s portfolio in pursuit of increasingly rarer tenure-track positions. The razor-thin difference between Socrates and Protagoras has perhaps never been so important, since it is precisely by Protagorean political instinct and flattery, not through fidelity to truth, that the professional philosopher increasingly wins and keeps her place at the table.

The question of philosophy’s survival, then, is tied up with its potential slide into sophistry, broadly construed as the politically astute practice of creating effects with language for a fee.

(This idea of doing it for a fee is still very much outside the remit of the blogosphere, I think. For better and for worse, our contemporary patronage model doesn’t reward the creation of effects, nor does it constitute a salary. It is a mark of appreciation for what you do, like tipping your server, and as someone who has tried but generally struggled to get some remuneration for their work online, the problem is perhaps that the money people give me doesn’t influence my behaviour or content very much at all. This online precarity is, of course, just another thing the academy has appropriated. Whereas I think many people expect the money they give to provide access and more professional, paywalled content, I have always been clear that it just helps me continue to do what people like. This is unlike, say, the Justin Murphys of the world, who seem to have explicitly exported academic ways of working into an online space, even continuing to trade off academic qualifications and experience to ensure would-be buyers that he and his cronies know what they’re doing…)

But this poses anew the ancient question of whether the definitions of philosophy and sophistry here assumed are sound, and to what extent the line between the two can or should be drawn in any rigorous way. Indeed, not all thinkers in the ballpark of philosophical practice agree that sophistry should be quarantined from philosophy; Hegel notably assimilated sophistry to the history of philosophy and Heidegger, far from defending philosophy against sophistry, charged sophistry rather with provoking the fall of Greek thought into philosophy. In a more contemporary vein, Keith Crome has drawn attention to the crucial distinction between sophos, sophistēs and philosophos, roughly wisdom, sophistry and love of wisdom. His indispensable Lyotard and Greek Thought: Sophistry is a promising reflection on the possibility of a positive definition of sophistical intelligence, as distinct from both pre-Socratic sophos and Platonic–Aristotelian philosophos (Crome 2004). And not only the rich written corpus, but also the very career trajectory of Barbara Cassin, troubles any neat distinction between the craft of the philosopher and that of the sophist (Cassin 2014). The standard definition of philosophy is, in other words, question-begging according to some scholars on the grounds that it degrades, implicitly or otherwise, sophistical intelligence either by assimilating it to a stop on the road to philosophy, or to the status of a lesser rival. Is the story of sophistry parasitical upon that of philosophy? Is sophistry essentially autonomous? Or is the distinction between the two insufficiently nuanced to begin with?

These are questions we could do with asking ourselves. Unfortunately, I think Simon buys into the tendency to degrade and hierarchise which is already, in itself, a tired old trope of idealist academicians. Still, there’s a worthwhile question here — is the blogosphere of today just sophistry?

I still think it’s a cynical assessment. Academic careers are hard to come by, and most who pursue them anyway do it for love not money. Academia, in general, takes advantage of that. It is a deeply exploitative career path, as McLennard suggests (albeit without revealing the full horror of the adjunct treadmill). Against the behemoth of academia, many fighting for job security, academic freedom and non-exploitative working conditions are facing an uphill battle. It puts someone on the outside, like myself, completely off a career in teaching.

That’s not to say the solution is that everyone just goes online, teaches or writes independently with no salary to speak of, martyring themselves for “truth”. This just sounds like blogging with a Protestant work ethic. The blogosphere still has its problems and there are a lot of still-viable critiques we could do with discussing. (Jodi Dean’s book Blog Theory is particularly prophetic and relevant to contemporary circumstances, for instance, though it’s a decade old and few today seem to have read it.) But relative to the academy, the blogosphere and its ever-changing nature feels more malleable.

New approaches are emerging all the time and I’m anticipating a shift myself in the near future, as I plan my exit from WordPress to a platform that is more independent, decentralised, and can offer opportunities to share knowledge in a way that allows me to make a living and build communities. People deserve to get paid for what they do, both inside and outside of the academy, and we’d do well to further highlight the value of what people do outside rather than call it into question.

P(r)opping Up Philosophy

In the final section of his post, Simon begins working with his own definition of “pop philosophy”, which I interpret as just another way of talking about “sophistry”. I have little to add here beyond what has been posed above. But I think a kind of “pop (or pulp) philosophy” has already been theorised by Robin Mackay, which responds to McLennard’s philosophistry problematic well.

As Robin writes:

In principle, philosophy is a popular practice, given that both its problems and the materials it uses to interrogate them are available to any modern human mind. But it’s also a two-thousand-year-old discipline with its own highly technical language, which for much of its history has been the preserve of idle aristocrats and, following a brief respite during the fleeting historical episode of the welfare state, now looks well on the way to becoming, once again, an esoteric specialism accessible only to the privileged few.

Drawing on my experience as an editor and publisher, and especially the publication over ten years of the journal Collapse and its reception by non-specialist audiences, I want to examine various models for what a modern pop — or pulp — philosophy could be, asking how one can possibly maintain the careful and rigorous cultivation demanded by philosophy within the boisterous jungle of memetics, marketing, and cultural production. Pop is not just popularity, and can’t be measured in audience numbers. It’s an aesthetic, social, and political question that involves thinking through the relation between form and content, integrity and generosity, democratic ideals and cognitive probity, commerce and commitment.

The blogosphere as a whole, then and now, struggles with this balance, but let’s not pretend there aren’t plenty of us out here who keep this stuff explicitly in mind. Robin is a case in point. His lecture is the perfect response to all of the above.

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