Academic philosophers are scared of working in an ivory tower: even in political philosophy and critical theory, we often feel compelled to spice up our research with concrete proposals for action, or to incorporate insights from empirical research into our papers. In this way, we affirm that the age of ‘pure’ philosophy is over and done with, that the future lies with ‘applied’ philosophy.
I do not like this distinction between pure and applied philosophy, firstly because it casts a resentful shadow over some of the greatest minds from the history of philosophy. More importantly, however, we must note that these minds never understood themselves as pure philosophers to begin with and that their reception was far from a purely academic affair. One fails to grasp the full significance of a lofty and arcane treatise such as The Critique of Pure Reason when one ignores the fact that Immanuel Kant had published it around the same time as his attempt to signify the political conditions under which a people may become true freethinkers. The ability to think for oneself is, at once, an epistemological and a political problem.
So too with what has become known as pop-culture: everbody knows that most of today’s blockbuster films are heavily sponsored by private corporations, or worse, the US military. The point is that this raises a question as to how we must experience our Hollywood flicks. All too often, one watches these films as a form of ‘mindless entertainment’, as a momentary freedom from the heavy duty to think for oneself. Truthfully, it is the other way around: as soon as we relinquish this ‘duty’, we give up any prospects of true entertainment. For are we really hoping for satisfaction when we get locked in our binge-watching frenzies and repetitive ‘you might also like…’ suggestions? Is it not rather the case that true entertainment is borne of the “wind of thought,” as Hannah Arendt once characterized it? Thus we see that, rather than applied philosophy and for the sake of our entertainment, we are much more in need of a detached philosophy that contemplates the world from afar.
I do not advocate a return to grand speculative projects, rather I would see a philosophical method that engages pop culture in a dialogue: a series of minor dialectical probes into how singular articles of mass consumption come to be. In a word, we should strive to create a small inventory of the superstructure. But, what would be the use of such an inventory? Academics have often tried to change the world; the point, however, is to try and understand it first.