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The Art Word

An open letter to Jeroen Stout responding to his blog-letter Discourses: Reflecting on the A Word with Chris Bateman at his Tumblr as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Further replies welcome from anyone!

Banksy Street ArtDear Jeroen,

If setting aside the word ‘art’ means opening up a treasure trove of aesthetic relations obscured by it, then ditching art would indeed seem to be desirable. After all, this is exactly what I argue in the case of ‘game’, another umbrella term where the confusion between aesthetics and ethics breeds discontent. But can’t we have the best of both worlds? Once we recognise that we are dealing with sets (in the mathematical sense) and not simple ‘black-or-white’ Boolean logic, do we need to give up ‘art’ or ‘game’? Besides, what if the words themselves gave us something that the more nuanced discussions you allude to could not get?

Your missive arrives at a most excellent moment, for I have finished writing my new paper for the British Journal of Aesthetics but have not yet submitted it (although I will have by the time you read this). Thoughts about what might or might not qualify as art are its specific subject, for it asks “Can a rollercoaster be art?” To my charmed and mischievous delight, there is something within it that matches what you deride as “a little weasel-game” of dividing art into ‘high art’ and ‘low art’. Looking at the attempts to define art, they can be divided into those that propose a concept of art in a strong sense (which is expressly valorised) and those who instead offer a weak sense (which is only implicitly valorised).

The musician Brian Eno, for instance, in this year’s Peel Lecture, defined art in a weak sense as “everything you don't have to do”. He admitted this meant that boob jobs are art in this sense. I find in this a wonderful parallel to Nöel Carroll’s criticism of Arthur Danto’s later theory of art, which Carroll suggests would support condom packets as art. Such is the normal business of a weak sense of art, which is certainly related to the concept of ‘low art’, although I think a clear distinction can be made. ‘Low art’ is expressly derogatory – it is intended to add magical lustre to ‘high art’ by contrast. Weak senses of art are not derogatory: Eno means no disrespect to boob jobs in choosing to cast a wide net. Indeed, he implicitly valorises them, even if it is only to a small degree.

So I shall see your weasel and raise you a statue, for my only explicit disagreement with what you write here is the idea that terms such as ‘statue’ are “benign” since something can be a “poor statue and a statue still”. This entails the idea popularised by the logical positivists, and largely set in motion by G.E. Moore, of a distinction between facts and values. It is true that we may recognise something as a statue and still judge it poor. But consider the art teacher who, facing the formless splat of pottery her student has wrought, remarks “it’s only barely a statue” or “I thought I asked you to make a statue?”

Judgements never cleave perfectly into fact and value, an issue Kant accidentally put into play with the now universally deployed concepts of objective and subjective, and one I try to address in Chaos Ethics. You will not build a device for detecting what is or is not a statue, nor does a human judgement in this regard fall into pure subjectivity. The concepts of language are always practices, as Wittgenstein realised. What is or is not a statue is not a fact, nor is it a purely ‘subjective’ value. It is something that is explained solely by the practices of sculpture, and if we had no familiarity with these we could not use the term coherently.

One problem with ‘high art’ as a concept is that it has tended to accord with the notion of specific practices (such as sculpture) getting a free pass into strong senses of art. I certainly have no interest in this. This brings me to the question of why the term ‘art’ could matter at all. If you are correct that we would benefit from folding up the umbrella term and embracing “an open-ended series of ideas” – and on the latter point we concur – what exactly is the use of the art word? Especially since, much as with ‘game’, the umbrella not only blocks our view but all too quickly turns to a weapon. (I made the same allusion regarding gender last week: this is not a coincidence). Is there something the art word does that we can’t do without?

What makes ‘art’ an indispensable term is precisely its role as an umbrella that collects together disparate practices that cannot be collated into a coherent definition without substantial violence to the way it is used. Its usage, as Wittgenstein attests, is its meaning. Here we cross from the individualist pragmatism that animated your argument to the question of the institutions of art. These institutions are far from trivial elements of our cultures, and include a vast host of diverse organisations and practices that defend not one but many conflicting strong concepts of art. What one gallery (to pick upon the most physical of art institutions) deems art in the strong sense, and hence worthy of exhibition, will not match the judgements of another gallery. But no gallery can get to the decision to display anything without accepting some conceptual framework for art in the strong sense. Hence Rancière’s assertion that art is what reveals the arts to us, as mentioned in my previous letter to you.

Now as a sheer point of political actuality, we would all be greatly impoverished by the elimination of galleries – not least of all because the consequence of this would be that the great artworks (however conceived) would become solely the preserve of the wealthy few. (I find a worrying shadow of this in Wu-Tang Clan’s decision to make and sell an album to a single purchaser, which I find fairly appalling, although understandable). But the word ‘art’ is not just the mythology animating the gallery system that ensures the poor can share in the work of artists, it is also a mythos that gives politicians reasons not to remove art from the curriculum, and that encourages the wealthy or politically connected to support those institutions that will pursue creative projects for reasons beyond profit or utility.

Returning to the question of the relationship between games and art, I can in this context give the clearest indication of why this matters. For Tale of Tales, who made this intersection their home for a marvellous decade, could not have pursued any of their works without the support of the Belgian arts council. Here is the corporeal consequence of the intangible spectre of the art word: there are no art councils without it. The institutions that support the creation of public aesthetic works depend upon the notion of ‘art’ to justify their existence. And, if I am frank, the same is equally true of the mythology of ‘science’, which in many respects is far more problematic at this time than that of ‘art’ – and I say this without in any way contradicting my life-long love of the work of scientists. Institutions accrete around the broad terms that give them meaning. As such, we must be careful not to look behind the curtain if there is something for which we should like the great wizard to deploy its mystique.

The variegated tapestry of art institutions defend the myriad practices of artists from being crushed beneath systems of governing that will commit billions to bombing the poor abroad with ever more complex weaponry, and lock us all into uncritical acceptance of unjust infrastructures that ensure poverty and forms of death so prevalent our so-called ‘news’ services don’t even bother to report upon them. Art may be too weak a word to stop any of this from happening, but its institutions are one of the few places where this grotesquely destructive obsession with narrowly-conceived utility can be resisted. You may say all this could happen without ever speaking the name ‘art’. I am radically unconvinced of that.

With love and respect,


Happy Winter Solstice! More nonsense in the Gregorian New Year.

Successful Game Design? It's Evolutionary

Over on ihobo today, an examination of the relationship between player practices and commercial success. Here’s an extract:

Excluding young children, all players come to every game with their own pre-existing player practices already well-established. Defender (1981) was difficult for arcade players to learn because it’s control scheme was nothing like the other arcade games of the late 70s and early 80s. The computer strategy game Steel Panthers (1995) uses a hex map because thirty year's earlier Avalon Hill’s second edition of Gettysburg (1961) established the benefits of these over square maps. DOOM (1993) and Quake (1996) used arrow keys rather than WASD because movement in most Western RPGs up to then had been controlled that way, with mouse-look simply creeping in as an optional alternative interface for games mounted on the Quake engine. Changes were incremental, not revolutionary, because utterly innovative practices become a barrier to play, creating negative word-of-mouth, high risk of bad reviews, and  thus no eventual community.

One of the ideas I considered and discarded for this piece was calling it Evolutionary Game Design. Under this title, I would have emphasised the way player practices are conserved but new successes come from variations in these maintained practices, in a manner directly parallel to the way organisms succeed. This would have been closely related to contemporary theories descended from Cuvier’s ideas about evolution and life that I discuss in The Mythology of Evolution. John O’Reiss, who I chatted with at length for that philosophy book, calls this the conditions for existence, and by necessity they must be primarily conserved, or else there can be no life – I learned a lot from talking to him. In the end, I decided I was playing a dangerous game: I might distract from my ideas by making the parallel to the evolutionary sciences. It felt, well, a little tacky. But the point remains.

You can read what I eventually did with the piece, now entitled Successful Game Design, over at

Gender in Feminism

Summer DaysEarlier this year, Cardiff University had to vote whether to cancel a planned lecture by Germaine Greer at the request of their woman’s officer Rachael Melhuish, who advanced a threat of ‘No Platform’ against the second-wave feminist icon. The issue at task was Greer’s view on transgender women, namely that they aren’t women at all. Melhuish takes this as transphobia, hence bigotry, and hence pushed for censorship. There’s much that could be said about this incident, but here I want to take it as an opportunity to consider one of the essential clashes of gender concepts within the feminist movements.  

For the most part, I’m reluctant to talk about gender in public. Despite all the great achievements of the feminist movements since the original fight for suffrage in the nineteenth century, we have now reached a point in time where all discussion of gender is dominated by feminist voices. This is a more important point than is usually considered. While we have certainly not reached a time where anything that could be called gender equality is the norm, we no longer live at a time when all power relations are resolutely male. If we accept ‘male’ and ‘female’ as the unfeasibly broad categories that they are, there is both male and female power at work in our world. While that has always been the case in some sense, I don’t believe it is unfair to say that ‘female power’ has never been greater than it is right now. That is certainly a cause for celebration for anyone for whom equality is an ideal to aspire to. It is also a sign that feminism – itself also a rather excessively broad term – is in dire need of reflection upon its own situations.

What I hope to present here is only a rather minor contribution to the discussion. To be frank, I could not hope to eclipse the intersectionality critique in its importance for contemporary feminism, and it is worth briefly explaining the thrust of this cluster of arguments before I develop my own. The stepping point for intersectionality is Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1989 legal theory paper “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex” that argues that you cannot understand what it is to be a black woman solely in terms of being black and being a woman, because the intersection between these two categories has its own experience – one that Crenshaw suggests can be more significant than either of its supposedly constituent elements. This has lead to a long overdue recognition that feminism was largely a set of movements driven by middle class white women in affluent nations who were frequently imposing their ideals upon women whose situation was radically different. I do not believe the significance of intersectionality has come even close to being addressed at this time.

We come, then, to the start of my concerns. The stated objective of contemporary feminism is attain equality for women, and I shall trust that this claim is not in dispute, which of course it could be. But there are two vast problems with this mission statement that create complications for the feminist movements, namely the concepts of ‘equality’ and ‘women’. The problems of taking ‘equality’ as an ideal are discussed in my book of moral philosophy, Chaos Ethics, and I will not pursue this point here beyond saying that any attempt to make some set of beings equal is necessarily founded upon other beings being excluded from the set. This does not make equality a non-viable ideal, but it requires more careful understanding than is usually provided. What I instead want to pick up here is the other horn of this beast, ‘women’, or more broadly ‘female’. Because feminism as it is often presented now requires this concept to be strongly construed – and that is a source of significant problems.

It is vital to appreciate why I insist on talking about ‘feminist movements’ and not ‘feminists’: feminism is an umbrella under which radically different perspectives shelter, and umbrellas are objects that all too conveniently turn into weapons when wielded in rage. It therefore matters greatly which feminist movement or movements we are talking about when we make claims about feminism. A significant number of people who identify as feminists take a deconstructive view on gender, which is to say that they claim that the importance of gender is overemphasised, that male and female humans share more in common by virtue of being human than they are distinct by having different genitalia and hormonal patterns. On the deconstructive view, it is a mistake to put too much faith into the concept of ‘male’ and ‘female’ (or any equivalent term) because to do so is to artificially endorse, empower, or (as the scholars like to say) reify terms that lead us astray from the true basis of our potential equality – that we are all human. This view has significant support from those scientists who claim to speak for gender, although this in no way closes the issue since the sciences thankfully lack this kind of authority to silence voices.

But elsewhere in the feminist movements, a vast number of people who identify as feminists take a strict view on gender, with firmly construed concepts of what it is to be ‘female’ (sometimes with the additional assumption that what is not ‘female’ is ‘male’), a position that is diametrically opposed to the deconstructive view for evident reasons. This becomes particularly clear when dealing with the questions raised by transgender people, that is, those who have lived their lives under conflicting influences of both male and female gender identities, and (in many cases) have participated in medical and surgical interventions to ‘reassign’ their gender. This word ‘reassign’ is clear evidence of a strict view on gender: it makes rather less sense to ‘reassign’ a gender on most deconstructive views. (I put this term in scare quotes because I question the unstated assumption here about the power of doctors, not to question the logic of transgender experience, an issue tied up in the usage of the term ‘cis’ that must wait for another occasion.)

Now we return to the opening point: the attempted exclusion of Germaine Greer from the people worthy of respect on purportedly feminist grounds. I am far from the only person troubled by this; Zoe Williams expresses the problem with admirable brevity. In terms of the concepts of gender, however, feminist movements who decide to ally conceptually with transgender people must use a strict view since the forms of life described by this term are ones in which such strict concepts of gender are required to make them coherent. On the deconstructive view, it simply cannot matter sufficiently that any given construal of gender is of a certain character that you would have to recognise yourself as governed by the wrong gender concept and need to identify with the other gender concept, since there are always more than two concepts of gender on this perspective. The kinds of experiences entailed in transgender identities are only available to people operating with strict gender concepts. One consequence of this is that to take on the issues of transgender people is to risk enforcing strict gender conceptions that at least some feminists would rather we did not take so strongly or uncritically.

So which strict gender concepts are we expected to adopt? It’s far from clear, and trangender people are no better positioned to answer this question than anyone else. Those on the deconstructive view recognise a panoply of different strict gender concepts and, generally speaking, deny any of them has any coherent force or authority. Where, then, does the deconstructive view leave transgender people whose existence has been transformed by experiences of specific, strict gender concepts? Germaine Greer thinks transgender women are ‘not women’, because that’s what her strict gender view means to her; Rachael Melhuish presumably thinks transgender women ‘are women’, or her attacks on Greer make no sense, and Melhuish comes from a background of recognizing and advancing the intersectionality critique. This strongly suggests to me that intersectionality is not an answer to any problem but merely a question that we have not yet become skilled at answering, and answering it in this specific context might well be about working out how the deconstructive view and the myriad strict views of genders can interrelate without being explicitly opposed to one another.

Here is where the problems of feminism cross into the problems of equality, and cease to be the exclusive purview of feminists. Indeed, issues of equality – and of gender – were never exclusive to feminism, and intersectionality is the wake up call that should have made that clearer than it still is. We are a long way from any plausible possibility of decommissioning feminism as no longer necessary, but we are always a little too close to instituting a perverse kind of Feminine Empire under a mis-wielded banner of equality. That such a metaphorical empire would not be the most powerful institution of its kind is hardly an argument in its favour. Rather, as Zoe Williams points out, any attempt to move in such a direction merely empowers the existing status quo. With every kind of movement, you have to be careful where it is that you are moving towards.

Feminist movements in general (and individual feminists like Melhuish) are not mistaken in thinking that action in support of transgender people is needed, but they are gravely mistaken if they think failing to respect other feminists, like Germaine Greer, is honourable conduct. One can disagree with the views of a person without having to target them for censorship, and one can respect a remarkable pioneer in the history of feminism for fighting a difficult political battle at a time when it was far, far, more challenging to do so without ever coming close to accepting every aspect of her worldview without question or challenge. If Greer’s views on some topic are misguided, we owe it to both her and ourselves to debate her on the topic.

If we’re all going to live together in some kind of equality, we must be open to negotiating what equality means, for it cannot be calculated in advance, much less enforced by any arbitrary faction. In this political challenge, every concept of gender, race, and identity should be perpetually open to re-negotiation. That state of affairs can only be fostered by open discourse, it can never be advanced by censorship. The moment it swings the other way, we have all lost.

The opening image is Summer Days, an acrylic painting by Julia De Sano that is for sale here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Debate and commentary is always welcome, but please try to remain polite to all participants regardless of their perspective.

The Frightening Moment of Approach to One's Latest Love

BJA ImageMy hands are clammy, my head is dizzy… I feel like I could swoon from the excitement, and I would just die if they so no. No, I haven’t time travelled back to my lovelorn teenage years, I have just this second clicked ‘submit’ on an online form to upload my second submission to the British Journal of Aesthetics.

I had previously sent them a paper entitled “Am I Afraid of Daleks?”, which they rejected, but with the most wonderful peer review I have ever received – and the promptest. Whomever it was who reviewed my paper actually read and understood it, and was able to make judgements that showed a full understanding of my argument. That is incredibly rare! And I immediately vowed to myself to make a second attempt.

The new paper, entitled “Can a Rollercoaster Be Art?”, has the following abstract:

Given the permissive quality of institutional theories of art, is it possible to prevent rollercoasters from qualifying as artworks? By considering the aesthetics of both games and art as diverse (as hinted at by Wittgenstein) yet inevitably possessing a unity emerging from our own nature (as observed by Midgley), a sketch is given of the strong and weak conditions by which something can be asserted an artwork. This in turn allows for institutional theories to be supportively contrasted to Badiou's concept of the event in the context of art as a rupture in the conditions of practice, and Rancière's taking up of a similar thread that Foucault had left unwound. The result has bearing not only for which conventional artforms qualify as art in any strong sense, but for whether games (digital or otherwise) should be considered candidates for being judged artworks – not to mention the rollercoaster itself.

Will they take it? I don’t know. I feel faint at the possibility of rejection, and impossibly excited at even the remotest chance of being accepted. It is as if I were young once more. I shall have to treasure the uncertainty before future events trammel my besotted heart into submission once more.

Wisdom in Practice

An open letter to Chris Billows responding to his blog-letter Modern Philosophy and its Loss of Wisdom at The Journals of Doc Surge as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Further replies welcome!

TreebulbDear Chris,

It is a source of some consternation to me that philosophy has as its original meaning ‘love of wisdom’, whilst many philosophers today are more interested in being smart than in being wise. Indeed, some seem to doubt that there is any meaning to the term ‘wisdom’. But to reason from this conclusion to a complete absence of wisdom in philosophy would be manifestly unjust.

I must thank you once again for writing to me. At a time when blogging feels less like a community practice and more akin to cooking a feast only to flush it immediately down the toilet, I especially treasure the discourse I have with those who commit to actually communicating – with me, or with anyone! Your argument consists of two parts: a blanket indictment of philosophy, and a pep rally for psychology. Pragmatically, I must focus here on the defence of philosophy. The main thing I will say about psychology is that you have rather cherry-picked your examples and thus demonstrated what psychologists call selection bias. An examination of psychology’s merits and missteps will have to await another occasion.

Your most general complaint – that many philosophers have parted company with wisdom – is a perspective we share. But you wish to make this an accusation against philosophy as a discipline. This I cannot support, since it was philosophers who gave me my clearest awareness of the problems in question. The core of your argument is that philosophy is excessively cognitive, to which I impishly reply: “Aye, hallelujah! Finally a field by nerds and for nerds!” But then, the same is largely true of the sciences, most definitely including psychology. The sciences, however, have largely lost the reflective qualities of philosophy because, sadly, Einstein’s generation of scientists were the last to accept that philosophy was an essential part of their job requirements. Ever since, the desire has been (as with Jonathan Haidt) to demolish any platform for philosophy as a discipline, which is an incoherent objective since we all must either conduct philosophy or be bound unknowingly to the philosophy of others.

To mount a complaint against philosophy upon the basis of it being ‘too cognitive’ seems like a misdiagnosis. Philosophy is a cognitive practice; its excellences are of the mind. You would hardly complain of sport that it was ‘too physical’! The real question here isn’t the core nature of the practices being exercised but the way those practices are integrated into lives and societies. Here, I feel, is the root of a genuine problem, and it is one that you accurately link to modern philosophy i.e. philosophy since Descartes. But Descartes’ philosophy didn't come from nowhere. This problem goes back in one form or another to the ancient Greeks. It is not by accident that Alfred North Whitehead characterised the history of European philosophy as “a series of footnotes to Plato.”

It is important at this point to separate influence from blame. Plato and Aristotle could not have remotely guessed at the consequences of their philosophy millennia later, and were far more interested in the more immediate fate of the Hellenic city states of which they were citizens. Still, it is Plato that gives us the roots of the rigid objectivity that you mistakenly attribute to all philosophy (and seem to overlook in the context of the sciences). His allegory of the cave presents clearly this idea that the philosopher is able to get outside of the local conditions of life, see ‘the truth’, then return to local life with the truths in question safely packed away like a sandwich. This metaphysical view gets taken up into Christianity (Plato’s followers’ fingerprints are all over the Gospel of John), and from there gives birth to the entire range of modern sciences, including psychology. Bruno Latour points out that today it is the scientist who is credited with this power to magically collect the truth, which loses none of its problems after being exported from philosophy.

However, this account is an incomplete story since it ignores the fact that for the majority of Christianity’s time on our planet it was Aristotle, not Plato, that was its major philosophical influence. It is only the rise of the sciences, and hence of positivism, that put Plato in ascendance and Aristotle in decline. I will not say that what was taken from Aristotle in the Middle Ages was as good as it could be, but I will say that in contemporary ethics (at the very least) the philosophical descendants of Aristotle – primarily the virtue ethicists – are the most embodied, situated, and generally un-Platonic of the voices within that particular discipline.

When you paint a picture of breaking away from monolithic truth into pluralistic happiness, you seem to make two questionable judgements. Firstly, in equating the former with the church you obscure the fact that Christians – including philosophers like Kant and Kierkegaard – were the driving force in these cosmopolitan movements, at least until the twentieth century. It is precisely because the kind of pluralism we currently have can trace its lineage to Plato through Christianity that plurality has become more of a moral problem than we usually recognise (a topic I pursue in Chaos Ethics). But still, let’s not forget that Christians were part of the solution to absolutism, as well as part of the original problem.

Secondly, you equate pluralism with happiness. Yet pluralism is not in itself a source of happiness, and its only plausible merit is in defending a diversity of paths towards happiness. But we are not happy today, and greater pluralism is not able to make us happy without a substantial overhaul of what that is taken to mean. This, once again, is a task for philosophy, which is not to suggest philosophers have anything like exclusive authority over it. We certainly don't! But some of us like to think we could help, at the very least.

You also raise the question of emotion in philosophy. This is very much a live issue in the discipline, as a glance at any summary of this topic will show. Neither is this situation new: up until the Victorian mobilisation of the sciences, talk of “the passions” (as then known) had a central role in the work of almost everyone in philosophy. Then we outsourced this work to psychology in ‘the divorce’ (when philosophy and psychology became separate fields), with decidedly mixed results.

Nonetheless, the majority of the philosophers who inspire me are those whose work intersects with their lived experiences and which could not be mistaken for coldly objective – people like Alasdair MacIntyre, Mary Midgely, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, or even your countryman Charles Taylor, who very honourably attempted a career in politics so that he might have a chance to put his philosophy into practice. All of these philosophers, along with Ivan Illich (who inspired Taylor) argue against narrowly conceived notions of expertise and the unquestioned authority of experts, and many (particularly Rancière) are keen to resist the idea that distant intellectualism is what will help solve social problems. I might add that Badiou and Midgley are influenced by Plato, whose work is far more complex and nuanced than even I give credit. As ever, the realities of the situation are never as simple as they seem from the outside.

Philosophy is intelligence in theory and wisdom in practice. It can seem to be a coldly cerebral activity, but only if you mistake its theoretical and conceptual skills for its application. Philosophers make many mistakes, because they are fundamentally human – much like scientists. Unlike scientists, however, philosophers are frequently keen that the mistakes they make as humans are explored, rather than hidden behind veils such as blind peer review and faith in objectivity. Wittgenstein in particular was fascinated by our deeply human foibles, and in his later work became concerned that his own ideas would be ignored because of the generally positivistic bent of the time. He was wrong, as it happened: his philosophy significantly influenced psychology.

When philosophers fail in practice, it is usually because they have misunderstood which practices they are embedded in. Many, for instance, are still trying to debug Kant's astonishing attempt to bring about peace through international cosmopolitanism. I fear the attempt to deploy wisdom at the level of the State is now doomed because at that scale wisdom is fundamentally impossible. To escape this trap requires philosophical revolutions of the kind philosophers, artists, and those blessed by a certain madness undertake. Perhaps you will consider joining us?

With love and respect,


Why not share your perspective? I’d love to hear from you, whomever you might be!

Defrosted Snippets

It’s been a while since I posted some snippets, and I thought it was time to get back to them:

  • The Republic of Bloggers did not stand idly by while I was on my annual Autumn break from social media. Firstly, there was this piece, Modern Philosophy and its Loss of Wisdom, from Chris Billows, my reply for which is running tomorrow.
  • …secondly, Jeroen D. Stout pens Discourses: Reflecting on the A-word with Chris Bateman, Part Two, over at his Tumblr. I don’t have a reply for this yet, but I am broadly in alignment with much of what Jeroen says here despite our general disagreement. That said, I do believe 'art' is an important word; there is a cost to giving it up that Jeroen doesn't consider.
  • In other news, I thoroughly enjoyed the current series of Doctor Who, which concluded on Saturday night. Despite niggles (see my piece from last week on Moffat’s schizophrenic continuity), this has been my favourite of all the Nu Who series so far. Of particularly interest was the way that cliffhangers were used, which breathes new life into something that hasn’t worked as well as it did in the classic show.
  • …that said, it has been very disappointing that there wasn’t a single episode I thought my son would enjoy. I would welcome a return to the family-friendly format Moffat insists is still the show’s mission statement. In the meantime, there’s always Carnival of Monsters on the Horror channel we can enjoy.
  • One other complaint: Moffat twice draws attention to the military use of drones, once by UNIT, once by the Time Lords’ army. But by not taking any kind of moral stand on this vital contemporary issue, he effectively endorses their usage. I have severe issues with this ambivalence, and the ethical problems of drone usage is one of the topics in Chaos Ethics.

That’s all for now! A new blog letter runs tomorrow.

Moffat's Schizophrenic Continuity in Doctor Who

Contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episode Heaven Sent that may completely ruin your enjoyment of it. If you have not seen this episode, I advise you not to read the following post. Caution: may contain traces of philosophy.

Heaven Sent TeleporterWhen it comes to Moffat’s Doctor Who, I have to wonder: can he repair the problems in the show’s infinitely compromised continuity faster than his own problems tear new holes into the Whoniverse?

In Heaven Sent, we have what Radio Times’ TV critic Patrick Mulkern has called an “instant classic”. I tend to agree, even if I found this particular script impossibly frustrating in my impatience to get to the resolution of the current plot arc, which is only very slightly advanced by this achingly slow but brilliantly acted episode. But we also have in Heaven Sent the embodiment of current showrunner Steven Moffat’s philosophy for guiding the show, which is diametrically opposed to previous showrunner Russell T. Davies, even though they share a common vision of Nu Who as classic Doctor Who plus British soap melodrama, as I’ve suggested before.

It’s clear from his work on the show that Davies is a positivist, i.e. someone with faith in the objectivity of the sciences. He mounted all his episodes under a tightly conceived materialist conception of science fiction – very much in the tradition of Terry Nation – despite being willing to play fast and loose with elements many sci-fi fans might consider ill-considered. It was never orthodox science fiction (i.e. hard sci-fi), but it was always under its shadow. While Moffat shares Davies’ anti-religious sentiments, he is not fundamentally a positivist, and has never shown any real sign of being interested in orthodox science fiction. So while Davies pursued Nu Who as sci-fi first and melodrama second, Moffat pursues it as melodrama first and sci-fi optional. In philosophical terms, Moffat is an ontic idealist about the Whoniverse – the complete opposite of Davies’ ontic materialism – a point made abundantly clear in The Big Bang, when Matt Smith’s Doctor restores the universe largely (it seems) from nothing but his own memories. Moffat’s universe, in other words, is essentially pure thought – George Berkeley would have been proud!

With Heaven Sent I believe we can see Moffat’s priorities clearly, in that he is willing to sacrifice anything and everything in terms of the Doctor Who mythos if it makes an episode as much of a spectacle as it can be, and simultaneously provides as melodramatic a plot as possible when taken as a self-contained story. However – and here is where he becomes schizophrenic – Moffat is also far more engaged in the process of maintaining (and repairing!) the ambiguities and problems in the long-term continuity of the show than any other showrunner in its fifty year history. This tension is part of my joyous frustration with Moffat’s tenure at the top, since I must confess that I struggle to find any episodes penned by Davies that I actually liked (possibly New Earth is an exception), while I find the episodes in Moffat’s era to be stronger in almost every sense, despite struggling to find any that are as good as those that Moffat wrote under Davies guidance.

The problem with Heaven Sent is that its temporally-leaky, closed-loop plot device breaks the Doctor Who universe in an all too predictable way. It’s not that other sci-fi writers hadn’t considered using teleporters as “3D printers” (as Capaldi’s Doctor presents it) – indeed, the science fiction megatext is full of stories about this, and I’ve discussed some of these previously in the context of low fidelity immortality. But as a writer working on a long-running show, you don’t use teleporters this way without opening the big can of worms clearly labelled ‘Do Not Open’. For if all that is required to make a teleporter into a replicator of beings is a jolt of energy, then the moment anyone has transmats (as Doctor Who traditionally calls teleporters), you instantaneously have immortality for everyone, not to mention perfect instantaneous cloning, and all the intriguing problems with personal identity than Ronald D. Moore explored in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. Because energy is a generalized resource, and not that hard to come by – particularly if you can simply zap a humanoid to get it – it is simply not a sufficient barrier to prevent the vast swathe of problems that come from conceiving of teleporters in these terms.

Let’s try and be generous to Moffat and imagine that it is the regeneration energy or time energy in the Doctor’s body that is required to thread the needle and make the teleporter into an autocloner. That at least prevents ordinary humans in, say, The Seeds of Death from having instant immortality and duplication from T-Mat. But the energy put into the teleporter each time should be reduced by the amount used to restart it (if regeneration energy) or entirely expended the first time (if time energy), so neither is a very plausible way of mounting the closed loop required for Heaven Sent to work. The situation is far worse if you just ‘burn’ a body to run it a second time. The Master needn’t have spent so many years hunting down ways to get a new body in the plot arc beginning at The Deadly Assassin (clearly an influence on this episode) since he could just use a transmat and a random victim to make a new him simply by having copied himself prior to his last regeneration. I’m afraid it doesn’t work as an element of the mythos: it only works as a means of making this individual episode have a dramatic finale.

That, in a nutshell, is Moffat’s problem. He’s content to make an episode under his jurisdiction work as well as it can in its own terms, regardless of the implications for the mythos. (Kill the Moon, anyone?) But he’s schizophrenic about this, because at the same time he is so admirably dedicated to maintaining and repairing the mythology and, for that matter, integrating the best of the non-canonical Who lore into the master canon. (In this regard, does the next episode, Hell Bent, imply resolving both the so-called Cartmel masterplan and the loose ends with the 1996 TV movie? Ambitious!) I have nothing but admiration for the way that Night of the Doctor not only gave some closure to the eighth Doctor, but also made all the Paul McGann Big Finish audio plays into quasi-canonical stories by name-checking every one of his companions on screen. That’s a move so bold that I just can’t imagine anyone but Moffat daring to do it.

Perhaps this is the point: Moffat is daring – positively reckless, in fact – with Doctor Who, always trying to mount bigger, more ludicrous high concept stories atop of a rather fluid conception of continuity and long-term plotting that he simultaneously savages and painstakingly repairs. Which is precisely Heaven Sent’s problem. It’s a ridiculous piece of high concept storytelling, utterly dependent upon its opening scene not giving the game away (much like The Usual Suspects, actually), and one that opens up the teleporter wormcan and hopes that its consequences can simply be ignored. (Actually, any psychological consequences can be ignored, since to the last and only survivor of these Doctor-copies only a short time has passed!) Perhaps some future showrunner will be able to fix the complications Moffat unleashes here by reconceptualising teleporters, but I doubt it. More likely, it will remain another tear in the fabric of the Whoniverse made by Moffat in pursuit of his own standards of storytelling. I admire him. He has, as they say in New York, chutzpah; audacity – both good and bad. But I also hope and trust that he’s working on the challenging problem of who could conceivably replace him when he eventually steps down.

Release the Kraken!

Clash-of-the-Titans-KrakenSlowly and reluctantly, I am facing down the monster that is social media. I’ve not yet uncorked Twitter, but I’m starting to work on the blogs, although my time is unfeasibly scarce at the moment. After some research, I have decided not to switch to Disqus comments (since it cannot be reverted without loss of comments) and instead I have taken the drastic step of switching from requiring users to sign in to making sign in optional. This might result in a sudden tidal wave of spam – if so, I’ll have to go back on the decision. But in the interests of encouraging comments, and with the recognition that mandatory sign in was blocking some who wanted to comment, I’ve decided to shoulder this risk.

Nonsense is in production… maybe even before the end of the week!