Friday, October 01, 2004

The Metaphysics of Cool

The TLS sent me a letter the other day.

Well, I received some junk mail asking me to subscribe to the TLS. I wish it were possible for me to reproduce the entire letter here, but I really don’t feel like it. So here are some salient bits:

“Dear Reader

For over 100 years, the Times Literary Supplement has set the tone for the intellectual debates shaping our times.

A TLS subscription, perhaps more than any other, denotes a certain intellectual feistiness. A confidence in one’s own opinions tempered with a willingness to entertain the views of one’s peers.

On the subject of ideas, much has been written (some of it even in grammatically correct English) about the supremacy of the Internet and the corresponding demise of the printed word. But you and I know something the pundits appear to have forgotten.

Books are still the primary source of new thinking. To keep you abreast of the intellectual currents flowing through our culture, the TLS reviews the most important books published each week… These closely argued essays are just one of the reasons why I feel so strongly that you will enjoy receiving the TLS each week. For you are someone to whom books mean much more than just light reading. You are [I am?] engaged with the world of ideas, and nowhere will you find a more stimulating, enthralling and critically acclaimed guide to that world than the TLS.”

Clearly these people are not to be trusted. But why?

I think there is an important but undervalued epistemic principle that can help clarify what may be wrong with the above passage: hipness as a truth-satisfying condition. There is much work to be done regarding hipness generally – not least a satisfactory working definition – but it is in terms of knowledge that I think the most valuable contributions can be made, and where, ironically, there is a so little work done.

These comments are suggestive rather than proposing any systematic account. My aim is to invite and encourage debate. But I think it is important to mention what I think will be constraints on where this discussion can take us, and outline some basic ideas.

The term ‘truth-satisfying condition’ is misleading here. But this is the historical usage and I think it presumptuous at this point to modify it. It seems to imply that hipness is a necessary condition for truth, which I am sceptical about. Certainly hipness is not sufficient for truth (just look at Naomi Klein et al[i]). My assertion is more modest: hipness (in the relevant sense and appropriate quantity – whatever these may be) will make something (epistemically) more probably true. A lack of hipness will make something more probably untrue (or less true)[ii].

Another constraint is on when it is appropriate to employ the principle. Not, loosely speaking, with regard to ‘matters of fact’. Empirical facts and logical statements are the most obvious cases[iii]. The principle is appropriate where truth-values are ambiguous and murkier (forgive my imprecision, again this is suggestive). Arguments of rhetoric, aesthetic values and so on. Not arguments where a statement is either true or false but (really) ‘more true’ or ‘less true’[iv].

It may also be useful briefly to sketch the most useful sense of hipness and see some reasons why it may be so important. This is the area in which I expect the most exciting research will be done. I look forward to readers’ submissions.

First (firstly?), hipness seems to accompany (/be extensionally equivalent with/is entailed by?) the elusive quality of ‘getting it’. Some people get it, many don’t. They just don’t get it.

Listing those who do get it is a useful exercise, and this is a project we should probably undertake. But the primary aim should be to try and define and understand what getting it really is, and what it involves.

Second, hipness seems to indicate a degree of sensitivity to the times. This can sometimes actually be reason for wariness. An argument may have a very transitory appeal, its force derived merely from a brief cultural whim. Or a text may be very much ‘of its time’, piggybacking on the social mood rather than meaningfully commenting or reflecting on the social order. To do this successfully is itself not an insignificant feat (think of all those embarrassing adverts trying to emulate youth culture) but is liable to be superficial at best (those slick teen ad campaigns that do work). What is relevant here is keenness of observation, a feel (I like this word, I think it is key) for what is going on.

The third is that hipness indicates creativity, inventiveness, originality and (at best) a groundbreaking sensibility, a genuine avant-gardeness.

Of these, I think the first is both the most difficult to pin down, and the most important. One may fulfil conditions two and three, and still just not get it. This happens not infrequently with ‘public intellectuals’. There are many smart, sensitive, original intellectuals who just don’t get it. Here, perhaps more than anywhere, the hipness principle is more important than ever. In some such cases, it may even be our only reliable discriminating tool.

There are thus two basic categories of enquiry: what are the logical relationships between truth and hipness (and knowledge); and how are these manifested, how do we recognise and understand these values, how are these values instantiated, who possesses them, and so on.

Over to you. Its time to reset the tone for debates.

[i] I have never actually read Naomi Klein. This would never happen in a rigorous and careful publication like, say, the TLS, where reviewers are required at least to have read the reviewed book. But I think this supports my point. Some may dispute the counter-example by denying these works actually do posses hipness, or hipness in the relevant sense. I think this is plausible, but am convinced other suitable examples exist. This may make for interesting debate.
[ii] I have slight qualms about using the term ‘probably’. I may modify this at some later time. Note that this does not refer to any strict technical account of probability.
[iii] The author assumes there are some objective values.
[iv] Perhaps I am being overcautious. Science has precise truth criteria. But how are scientists to choose amongst competing theories that are likely to be true, or may turn out to be successful. Often they do so by reference to elegance and simplicity, or even beauty (in a sense related to the other terms). But there are various ways to go about doing this. Suffice, for now, to say that Richard Feynman was way cooler than Murray Gell-Mann.


Blogger jermaine noble said...

don't click on the footnotes people! it's a trap!!

6:24 PM  
Blogger Waltz Scott said...

I don't get it.

8:56 PM  
Blogger jermaine noble said...

kaiser, tell me that waltz is in fact an independant entity and not an alias you're using to create the illusion of readership.

9:07 PM  
Blogger jermaine noble said...

i spelled 'independent' wrong. damn. but i will restate my dissention with the term "genuine avant-gardeness". i prefer fake avant-gardeness to be honest. not to mention ava gardner.

9:12 PM  
Blogger jermaine noble said...

hipness often seems to accompany the exclusionary activity (in the case of the TLS pitch, that's reading).

9:26 PM  
Blogger Kaiser Gestalt said...

And this too often is manifested a elitism. Perhaps hipness is limited in how effectively it is able to discourage non-institutionalised exclusion. That's why I don't trust organised counter-culture.

The TLS and other publications in the highbrow ring employ obviously important methodology: close editing, tight dialectical reasoning, careful research, and all that stuff. Any tendency to disregard this is dangerous. But there seems to be some essential point of understanding, something intangible (I'm not really sure what I'm talking about), that doesn't just follow from a rigorous argument.

If I want accurate information on, say, global trade, I'll turn to The Economist before any kooky theorist. I have less faith in the values they ascribe to the data. (The Economist is pretty hip though. Way cooler than the TLS.)

Nearly as bad as elitism is stupidity. Pardon the gratuitously long quote from that great Luc Sante article:
All of Hornby's little essays are similarly artless and, often enough, equally vague. He succeeds so well at not sounding like a critic that he could easily be mistaken for the average inarticulate consumer, someone who wears his heart on his sleeve and doesn't care to probe much underneath. This is in fact his particular genius: he is l'homme moyen sensuel of pop culture. What he expresses and how he expresses it could almost pass for a replica of your neighbor's or your cousin's explanations of why they love "Take It Easy," by the Eagles—although they would be unlikely to command such fluidly plain prose, its plainness giving luster to every stammer and ellipsis:

"Like a pretentious but dim adult who won't watch a film unless it has subtitles, I wouldn't listen to anything that wasn't smothered in loud, distorted electric guitars. How was I to know whether the music was any good otherwise? Songs that were played on piano, or acoustic guitar, by people without mustaches and beards (girls, for example), people who ate salad rather than rodents...well, that could be bad music, trying to play a trick on me. That could be people pretending to be The Beatles when they weren't. How would I know, if it was all undercover like that? No, best avoid the whole question of good or bad and stick to loud instead. You couldn't go too wrong with loud.
In that way Hornby is like a comic actor imitating a drunk—the audience thinks anyone can lurch around the lamppost like that, until they try it themselves—although there is no indication that he's pretending. As a critic (Hornby was until recently the pop music critic for The New Yorker, and the last five essays in the book first appeared in that journal) he is notable not because of his insights, but because, like a politician, he speaks to a constituency."

-(Luc Sante, 'Disco Dreams'. NY Review Volume 51, Number 8 ·

11:06 PM  
Blogger Kaiser Gestalt said...

"[Ava Gardner] was excellent without removing her clothes on screen, without performing in lurid scenes that left little to the imagination. She was part of the true golden age of Hollywood, when stories were of the heart, when a face could tell of joy or disappointment or sorrow or fear or anger or failure or determination to succeed. She was a product of a Hollywood age that is unfortunately gone."

- Doris Cannon, Museum Consultant, Ava Gardner Museum

11:10 PM  
Blogger Waltz Scott said...

For now I'd be happy with the illusion of authorship.

11:32 PM  

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