Tuesday, 4 February 2014

News or theories? Books or parties?

So (to start with a conclusion), news have been circling the world that Alain de Botton and his equally famous peers have generated what they seem to have thought to be a wonderful idea: not a book, but an online newspaper. Kind of. An online news agency run by philosophers! They call it, significantly, The Philosophers' Mail. And it looks like this:



I don't want to be wrong on this one. The idea is not bad at all. Quite original, in fact (if we pretend eighteenth-century newspapers never existed). What is bad, though, at least at this point in time, is the approach. Some of the pieces I've gone through (say, about an hour ago) are a very scary hybrid of news and silly commentary. To be more precise, I don't quite see the philosophical turn.
There's good intention, though. Capitalizing on the general taste for celebrity gossip, sex stories, tragedies under magnifying glasses and so on, the mailmen who promise to steer the wheel of this new and hopeful venue write with the intention to sound different. Well, they do.
Let's pretend we don't mind that one of the longest articles so far, dedicated to Harry Styles, who (see blow) poses as one of the settlers of this journalist-philosophical colony, turns away from gossip columns and veers into the lane of opinion. A tricky lane, we might add.Where, as expected, things get "philosophical":
We shouldn't be so hard on ourselves. Day-dreaming is a remarkable achievement. The inventor of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, made an instructive observation about babies and daydreams. Imagine a baby who wakes in the middle of the night. The mother isn't there and it starts crying. It's going to take a few minutes before the mother can come along and see what's the matter. In those few minutes, the baby is alone with its distress. To an adult, it wouldn't seem a long time, but to an infant it could be devastating. In a healthy scenario, the baby is able to imagine the mother being there even when she isn't; the baby fantasises that it's not alone, that things are better than they are. And that can be enough to hold things together for a while. Fantasy comes to the rescue when there aren't better options..
What do we have here? On the one hand, we seem to have de Botton's popular philosophy, which needs to be explained to all those who have never considered philosophy for fun (see the 'How To' series of books on his School of Life). On the other hand, we have Style's celebrity, whose boastfulness doesn't need to be explained at all.
Given the conditions, I propose to brainstorm on the following dilemma: Who's written the piece? Who done it?
One clue: Alain de Botton has just published a new book, called (surprised?) The News. A book properly marketed, like all the books bearing his name.


It all makes sense together, doesn't it?

"Philosophical" invisibilities

If we're ill at ease in finding an answer to these questions, there's an explanation for it. A lot of hiding is happening on this site. To start with, articles published in the Philosophers' Mail have no authors. They float about un-fathered, like the impudent musings of a collective noun that bites (or so it thinks) and then runs away when consequences threaten to steal the show. Readers are left to guess and possibly day-dream, as in the article cited above.
Most importantly, though, they don't like comments at the PM. Many will think this is to do with the terrible tendency of philosophers to ruminate on the essence of life while not exactly allowing life to be part of their gossip. The explanatory note (they knew it was going to be necessary!) makes an attempt at elucidating what many may have guessed from the beginning:
Which is correct, the picture we have of other people from our own experience or the far darker picture given to us by the Comments sections?
The conclusion displayed by the editorial board (or whoever has put this testimonial piece on the site) is unequivocal: they like the former option best.
Are they trying to give the site an empiricist spin (believe none but your "real world"!) or do they simply find feedback insulting? If the former: they might still gain some followers; if the latter: the venture is as good as dead while in the cradle.
But then there's another clue somewhere else on the site. It reads:
For too long, philosophers have been happy merely to be wise and right. This has offered them huge professional satisfaction but it has not influenced the course of society. The average work of philosophy currently reaches 300 people.
So that's the gist! Popularity. The Goddess of Mass Media. Even philosophers can be bent to its will, as successfully exemplified by de Botton himself, who has already reached fame and is comfortably bathing in its plenitude.

Many words aimed for some cultural gain that still needs to be weighed against the output.
It's all there, in their eyes. The Almost-serious, the Cheeky, the Satisfied.
The site also hides its lack of originality behind a tongue-in-cheek imitation of the Daily Mail. I don't know how successful this will be, but at this stage one would easily mistake the one for the other. I know. I know they wanted it to look so. Alain de Botton said it to Huffington Post Lifestyle UK, just to make sure we all got it:
The challenge was rather than reinvent The Guardian, to try and reinvent The Daily Mail.
I know. I can see it. But still...
And speaking of the Daily Mail, there's probably good reason to reflect, under the auspices of one article published there, whether it isn't better to bathe in the sun of life rather than read Karl Marx at nauseam in the shadows of anonymity. Unrelated, but relevant.