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Socrates: A Sophist?

October 26, 2018

Thanks to James Keller, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

With his head in the clouds, Socrates, as portrayed by Aristophanes, is a figure of mockery. Not only that—he is a sophist. One who comes to The Clouds only after reading the Platonic dialogues may be startled at this discovery. He may ask, Are we even talking about the same person? That Aristophanes considers Socrates to be a sophist is most shocking. Certainly, public figures are often subjected to mockery, and though Socrates has been a celebrated thinker after his death, he was not so celebrated in life. But that he should be considered a sophist? Unthinkable. It is almost inconceivable that Plato, who in The Sophist considers the sophist to be something of an anti-philosopher, should have studied with and revered a sophist. Moreover, the Socrates that appears in Plato’s dialogues is pitted against the sophists, particularly in Protagoras, Euthydemus, and Gorgias. How is it, then, that Aristophanes could think that Socrates was himself just another sophist? Yet, Aristophanes’ perception may not be inexplicable when one notes the similarities between Socrates and the sophists as they appear in Plato’s dialogues.

The Socrates of Plato’s dialogues is most renowned for his method of inquiry, Socratic questioning. In order to test the wisdom of certain figures and in order to clarify his own ideas, Socrates asked his interlocutors a series of questions, a particular form of dialectic. Despite its name, however, it is quite likely that this was not his invention. Plato gives no indication that this form of questioning was unique to Socrates even though other characters express exasperation at his questioning. Indeed, characters other than Socrates use the same method or one quite similar. In Euthydemus, the sophist brothers Euthydemus and Dionysodorus also employ questions as part of the dialectic process, a practice that appears natural to them. And, in one of the later dialogues, a young Socrates does not ask the questions but receives those given by Parmenides, after whom the dialogue is named. This suggests that what is called Socratic questioning actually precedes him and was a tool of sophists. To an outsider, contemporaneous with Socrates, it might then appear that Socrates’ disputes with the sophists was not a repudiation of sophistry but an inter-sophistical dispute.

Nor might his method be the only perceived similarity between Socrates and the sophists. In Plato’s portrayal of the sophists, the sophists crave acclaim. Applause punctuates their arguments and speeches in Euthydemus and Protagoras. They love an audience and they love playing to an audience. Socrates can be contrasted to them in that he does not seek the approval of an audience, not in Plato’s version of him anyway. Nevertheless, he does gather an audience. Various characters do root him on in the dialogues. And in The Apology, Socrates mentions that young men like to follow him around for the sake of being amused. As he roams through Athens challenging various authorities to prove that they actually do possess the wisdom they profess, he proves them to be lacking. This act of revealing authorities to be fools—or, if not fools, pretenders to expertise that they do not in actuality possess—is unsurprisingly found to be entertaining by some. To an outsider, it might look like Socrates was trying to make a name for himself, just like a sophist might.

The source of this amusement was different, but even that might look the same to an outsider, especially one who only knew Socrates by reputation. Euthydemus and his brother also make fools of others, but that is because they build absurd arguments that make their interlocutor appear to have said something foolish. It is as if they tricked him. They treat argument as a sport, playing word games to prove such absurdities as that a man’s dog is his father. They are facetious and mocking, and they leave their interlocutors frustrated and sputtering, fearing to answer lest that answer be twisted and used against them. Socrates may have shared a similar reputation, as he also left his interlocutors speechless. In Meno he describes himself as a torpedo fish that leaves others stunned. But an important difference separates him from Euthydemus and Dionysodorus. He is not playing word games; he is looking for clarity. He asks people to define terms that they take for granted, and to their great consternation, they often discover that they cannot. A well-known example of this appears in Euthyphro where Socrates leads the eponymous priest to the realization that he cannot properly define piety. After discussing the question for some time with Socrates, the priest hurries away, uncomfortable with the conversation. But never did Socrates play a linguistic trick upon Euthyphro. Never did he seize on an ambiguity in language to make a fool of the priest, turning the conversation to mere jokes.

Many of Plato’s Socratic dialogues end unresolved, which speaks to another difference between Socrates and the sophists. As represented by Plato, the sophist teaches others how to win arguments, unconcerned with whether the argument is correct or not. (See, for example, Gorgias.) Whatever the point is to be argued, the sophist will be able to prove its truth. But Socrates’ goal is not to win an argument. He desires to find the truth. The sophist asks leading questions in order to get an admission from his interlocutor. Socrates uses questions to better understand the arguments of others, to challenge them—yes—but not necessarily to overthrow them. It is the truth he is after, not victory. Argument is not a contest to him, but a means for inquiry. So, at the end of a dialogue, Plato does not show Socrates on the field of verbal battle having won the day and turned back all comers. Socrates is much more likely at the end of a dialogue to announce that, though no answer has been discovered to the question being discussed, still he and the interlocutor must not stop seeking after the truth.

To an outsider, perhaps it would appear that Socrates was just another sophist, asking endless questions to make fools of others, seeking fame, and winning an argument at all costs. Perhaps, he even started out that way, first learning with sophists and only later going his own way. But the similarities between Socrates and the sophists is ultimately superficial. Socrates, at least as portrayed by Plato, was not concerned with winning arguments at all costs. He would have seen that as a truly pyrrhic victory. He used the same methods as the sophists to achieve a different end: truth. In this way, Socratic questioning is properly named after him, because he used it for shared inquiry, not to lead others into verbal traps. If Plato’s portrayal of Socrates was closer to the truth, it is a tragedy that the comedian Aristophanes did not see it.

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I Speak Because I Can't

September 7, 2018

Thanks to Ben Peterson, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

Once upon two years ago, I met a gentleman who was raised selling illegal whiskey in the dry counties of Arkansas. I asked this man umpteen thousand questions, and he seemed genuinely pleased to answer them for his umpteen-thousandth audience. His recollections—of shootouts and stings and hideaway stills—were electrifying. As an adult, he’d made an honest career as the owner of an auto shop in Orange County, but he had also dabbled in the creative arts since leaving behind his ‘shining youth. When I leafed through a 350-page memoir of those danger-quenched days, my heart sagged. I found this account, after the oral regalia I had been treated to over calamari and vodka, comparatively sleepy. Of course, the narrative was the same: only the narration was different.

At every bookstore there’s a table dedicated to books like this: inexpensively printed paperbacks wherein first-time authors unfurl their triumphs in business or give the nail-biting blow-by-blow of an experience of miraculous survival. Some of these books sell a zillion copies and get movie deals and become megapopular Oscarbait. Others scratch in a couple thousand, and then stagnate within a certain radius of personal acquaintanceship with the author. These might be the last pages the author ever writes; if so, it’s probably because the author is not a “writer.” They were not spurred to the pen by an ineluctable need to express themselves with its black blood, but by a more basic desire to share with others the passages from their life that appear to be the most interesting.

Unless YouTube suddenly becomes pay-per-view, I suppose books are still the most feasible commercial medium for autobiography. They are the traditional medium, anyway, and most people looking to cash in on their best dinner party stories are not also looking to spark a stylistic revolution. This leads to a lot of books written by people who don’t know how to write. (Professional writers don’t necessarily “know” how to write either—there is no one way to do writing correctly. But career writers seem by some admixture of luck and labor to stumble on a so-called “artistic” style, or at least an above-average ability to make stories readable.) At worst, these tenderfoots aspire clumsily to an imaginary muster they believe all writing is supposed to pass. They think too much about the peculiar shape of writing. At best, they eschew any unlikeness between writing and talking, and transcribe the same words they might use aloud when telling their tale between mouthfuls of calamari. They hardly think about what’s peculiar to writing at all. Rarely does a singular literary “voice” emerge from a first-timer; most of the books on the memoir table read as if they were ghostwritten by a single, unstoppable eighth-grader.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, artistic success is equated with scholarly laud. The artists who achieve it are typically exemplars of the singular voice. They revel in the particular, the symbolic, the idiosyncratic. They are allegorists and poets. They can be found on many a “Best What-Have-You” list, but might not be widely identified with their actual work. They are recognized for their recognition. Elsewhere, success is defined by consistent efforts that are consumed and enjoyed by large numbers of people. (“Regular employment” is another definition of success in the creative dimension, but it may be synonymous with this one.) These artists are entertainers. They revel in the relatable and the emotional. They care about their audience sometimes with a saintly intensity. They might not be widely recognized at all, but their work certainly is. Obviously, there is tremendous crossover between these two camps, but it is fortunate when that eighth-grader madly typing all of our biographies leans more toward obsession with the story than toward the details of delivery.

The reformed moonshiner I met was at the time making his second sally into the written word. He hoped to refashion his memoir into a screenplay, which he figured would make a snappier sell to production companies than the unadapted book. If prose had been unfamiliar territory, scriptwriting was the surface of Neptune. (Professional screenwriters do know how to write: there is a correct, saleable way to write an industry-grade script. Paradoxically, virtually every script written exactly in this mold is terrible and never gets produced.) For guidance he had lately been “attending” the online MasterClass in screenwriting helmed by Aaron Sorkin. He complained at length about Professor Sorkin’s fumbling diction and awkward performance at the virtual lectern. I smiled: the idea of today’s Ben Hecht being anything but the most sure-footed of orators struck me as unexpected and funny. After all, this is a guy known foremost for his ability to speak well.

Except, that isn’t what Aaron Sorkin does. Aaron Sorkin makes other people speak well. He cannot be less intelligent than his famously gabby mental offspring, but that doesn’t necessarily make him as quick or as cogent. It’s Allison Janney’s job to make it look easy. Maybe to the writer the words don’t come so easily. Maybe they instead come through a long, careful, painstaking distillation of cerebral fluid. Isn’t writing a stone-squeezing sort of vocation? What is the point of cultivating a distinctive textual timbre and time signature if not to be able to conduct a communicative tunefulness that eludes one’s internal wind section? Joan Didion described herself as “neurotically inarticulate,” yet she’s produced some of the most praised language of at least five separate decades. This effort required a remove—a private buffer during the transubstantiation of thoughts out of the cognitive ether. (In my case, this means enough time to remember smart words.) Such a concession is seldom granted in face-to-face, real-time rapport, which affects the shy like quicksand. When words fail, you start to feel misunderstood, and to be misunderstood is to sink into disconnection from your fellow human beings. A unique voice, in another medium, well-whipped and surely braided, can be the rope to pull yourself free.

These thoughts began to congeal after I watched the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The story is culled from Hunter S. Thompson’s freewheeling “failed experiment” in Gonzo journalism, a Frankenstein style of reportage that pursues the Truth (big T) through a self-aware refraction of events. The reporter steps into things and allows the mud on their boots to become part of the story. Thompson is the protagonist in this fact-tinged travelogue, playing the dual roles of boy-who-cried and wolf: he raises alarm over the meth-addled mange of Western society, and he does it by wearing that decay, almost proudly, on his own hide. Of course, he lathers on a lot of makeup and fiction (and, I hope, embellishes the amount of drugs involved).

The movie version has its fun visualizing this haywire carnival cruise, but loses some ineffable element that holds the book together. After the film I snooped through some of the DVD special features. A couple of these comprise Thompson riding around Vegas during production and grumbling like an ox on a motorcycle. I recognized that husky, clipped voice: for the last two hours I’d heard Johnny Depp mimic it precisely. I realized suddenly that his performance had been based on Thompson himself. Not the figurative Hunter S. who appears in the pill-popping Iliad, but the literal Hunter S. who merely inspired it (and wrote it).

Philosophically—in the name of gonzo science—this makes sense. Peeling away some of the disguise makes the underlying tension between fact and fancy all the more aggravating. But, aesthetically (which I guess means it’s a matter of taste) it just doesn’t feel right. The book’s narration has a perverse clarity that becomes garbled by Thompson’s intonation, which sounds like a sewing machine firing into a pillow. Depp lived in Dr. T’s basement for four months to absorb his mannerisms, and before this they were garrulous pen pals. One’d think this would give Depp a clement appreciation of the variables between written and spoken Thompsonese. Maybe it did. But when camera came to action, he opted to mix the dialects all up together, and that decision throws a monkey wrench in the gears of Fear. In trying to be faithful to his friend the good doctor, to teleport him intact into a story where he has already, in his own way, inserted himself, Depp denudes Thompson of the very trait that ever gave the story life: his real voice.

Now take someone like Chuck Wirschem, who wrote a book called HitchHiking 45,000 Miles to Alaska. His writing is casual and familiar, unaffected with obtuse adjectives and mindfully uncoiling syntax. It’s conversational, if not especially memorable. Excusing some extra tightness in the grammatical discipline, Wirschem’s style of writing probably does not fall far from his style of speaking, because he probably never pushed his writing to any extraordinary lengths, because he’s probably able to make himself understood with the first or second phrasing that he puts together. For other writers, there are astronomical units between their vocal loadouts. When one tongue is brought in to do the work of the other, things can bottleneck, and become a barrier to one’s ideas. Microsoft Word is then a necessary detour. But it can also be the scenic route, where even on the dourest, dampest, drizzliest of days, you might chance upon something beautiful, something one of a kind.

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The Audience as the Artist: LARP's Place in Media

August 31, 2018

Thanks to George Hickman, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

For most of us, we experience the role of an audience member far more often than we experience the role of an artist. On our daily commutes, our mood is at the whim of the radio or our playlist on shuffle. We leave the movie theater buzzing with conversation about the actors, the soundtrack, and the plot. We can't go to bed until we finish that chapter, or that episode, or that level. We are constantly put in the position of an audience member, asked to respond to all kinds of media. Though, as technology continues to expand into our lives, rarely are the audience member and the artist in the same room. For both the artist and the audience, there is a dissonance in this modern experience of entertainment. A large gap between the actor and the front row. But what happens when we are asked to do almost the opposite of this? What happens when we have a room full of audience and artists, constantly exchanging roles with each other?

The form of media called Live Action Role Play (LARP) has been around since the 1980s. In its essence, LARP is a cross between improvisational theater, video games, and escape-the-room. The members of the game build a story together, and in the same way that improv actors write sketches, some of the planning takes place before the game, and some of the planning takes place in the moment. There are two roles one can have when entering a LARP: players and staff writers. Players adopt the role of a character and react to events as their character would react. Staff writers plan the plot structure for the game, and appear as multiple characters throughout the story, in order to see that plot structure through.

While these roles are different, both roles play audience for each other. If I, as a staff member, create a museum heist plot, I will probably play the museum guard and two players might put together a plan to knock me out and steal the ancient treasure. In this scene, I will have some idea of what is going to happen: I probably placed the ancient treasure in the room ahead of time, I might even be able to predict which two players will find me in the museum, and I can make a guess as to how they might make sure I don't talk. But most of the components of this plot are unknown, they will be improvised, once the players arrive on the scene. Will they use brute force or will they charm me into keeping quiet? Did they hire a helping hand or will they show up in disguises? And most importantly, will they accomplish the heist successfully?

Considering this scenario, you can see that LARP distinctly troubles the notion of audience. Here, the staff writer and the players are all audience members for each other's performance. They not only feed off of each other's responses, but they require each other's responses to carry out a scene, to LARP.

In the essay "The Great Divide", Emily Nussbaum describes the divide of the audience when the 70's sitcom All in the Family first came on TV. Half of the audience understood Norman Lear's intent and saw that Archie Bunker was meant to be a satire of racism, homophobia, sexism, and plenty of other problems in American culture. Then, to Lear's surprise, the other half of America cherished Archie, and loved the way he spoke his mind. In the essay Nussbaum asks, "Can there ever be a bad audience member?" After all, she says, who wants to hear that they have been watching something wrong? Is it even possible to watch something wrong, or is the divided audience simply an indication of unsuccessful art? In asking these questions, Nussbaum places the role of the audience in quite a weighty position. The sitcom All in the Family wouldn't have been the success that it was, if it weren't a platform for playing out these tense political discussions in a comedic environment. To raise the question of the bad audience member, is to place the viewers and the writers in equal roles of importance when it comes to determining the meaning of an artwork. By placing the audience and the artist in equal roles of importance, Nussbaum dismisses the age-old image of an actor performing on stage while the audience simply listens and applauds.

Live Action Role Play takes the role of audience and turns it even further on its head. It could be argued that LARP eliminates the role of audience, or at least allows for a more nebulous definition of the word. Unlike an improv sketch, where an audience sits in addition to the improv performers, there are no boundaries that determine who is involved in any given scene. LARPers can be called to the spotlight at any time. You might think this scene is about your best friend and her girlfriend, but when the girlfriend turns and accuses you two of having an affair together, you are thrown in the center of the scene without warning!

LARP shows us that our audiences can be trusted with influencing or even creating the content of our art. Archie Bunker shows us that too, as the aura surrounding his character was determined as much by Norman Lear as it was by the families that sat around their television sets in 1971. Perhaps this equality between audience and artist is something that we see in other genres too. In webcomics, artists will post weekly updates to an ongoing story. In this time frame, fans have the chance to critique, speculate, or possibly even influence the trajectory of the plot. In video games, the player has an incredible amount of control over the trajectory of the story. My playthrough of Skyrim where I robbed an entire village of its sweet rolls and then became a famous bard is greatly different from my sister who joined the Dark Brotherhood and married a huntress.

Can other genres similarly learn to trouble the notion of audience? Like John Cage's "4'33", can music experiment with giving the audience control over its content? Like Ragnar Kjartansson's The Visitors, can film become a choose-your-own adventure? If being an audience member feels less like being a viewer and more like being an artist, what will we learn about ourselves as creators and listeners? Perhaps this shift in the role of the audience is a bigger movement, and LARP is only one branch of a much larger tree, but it is without a doubt one of the strongest examples of this phenomena. If other artistic mediums were to trouble the notion of audience within their own fields, perhaps this new collaborative wave of art could teach us something about the roles that we as consumers expect to find ourselves in.

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Forget Blue or Brown Eyes, My Baby Will Have Five-Hundred Eyes

August 17, 2018

Thanks to Sam Risak, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

Ramona Ausubel’s short story “Atria” illustrates the ineffectiveness of logic against constructed but powerful societal pressure. She imagines the struggle of teenage pregnancy through the eyes of Hazel. Regardless of the outside evidence Ausubel provides that the child is a healthy girl, after a non-consensual pregnancy, Hazel cannot be convinced that what she is carrying is in fact human. Still an adolescent, she cannot align herself with her ingrained models of what a mother should be. Overwhelmed by her inadequacies, her loneliness manifests in a child whom she perceives to be as alien as she feels.

Culturally-speaking, sexual experience is often regarded as a divide between adolescence and adulthood, and Hazel falls victim to this ideology. Unplanned by her mother and far younger than her sisters, “Atria” begins with Hazel ready to skip her teenage years. Her vision of adulthood is perfect in its ambiguity—a “small apartment kitchen far from anyone to whom she was related, furnished with upturned milk crates and exactly one full place setting” (53). This fantasy is built from glimpses of her family’s life, an incomplete collage Hazel believes she is joining when she lies in the bushes with the gas-station boy Johnny. She agrees to have sex “because, having decided an hour before to say Yes to growing, she could hardly now say No” (54). After the experience, she expects to feel matured, to have undergone her right of passage into adulthood. She feels nothing but regret. A few days later, a much older man approaches Hazel and demands that she follow him. As he leads her away, Hazel asks herself: “Why am I walking? Why am I not drinking a Shirley Temple and adjusting my bikini top over at the country-club pool like all the other girls? Why did I agree to grow up?” (58). She asks herself these things as if her rape correlates with her desire for adulthood, as if her having sex with Johnny bears her culpability in this man’s decision.

Since society expects young women to remain virgins, Hazel keeps her assault a secret until her body refuses to hide it any longer. When she does tell her mother, she describes only the rape. Her omission of Johnny causes Hazel a guilt that solidifies to her with a karmic certainty that the boy must be the father. Because no one understands what led up to Hazel’s pregnancy, she believes no one can understand her child, and her secret transforms the fetus into a mysterious glowing knot of fur with claws and long, yellow teeth. And as the lie progresses, so does the ball of fur, evolving into a bird of prey and later a three-headed giraffe.

Outraged over her daughter’s rape, Hazel’s mother begins a crusade, the town starting up self-defense classes and emergency phone lines in her daughter’s name. The townspeople drop off condolence casseroles and cakes, gifts for the baby. They tell Hazel being raped doesn’t make her a slut, insinuating that a pregnancy by consensual means would. Every gift and comment reminds Hazel that she is being watched, that her rape and pregnancy have made her an anomaly, one vulnerable to judgment. She already knows that if she confessed Johnny as a potential father, the town would shame and reject her. She internalizes the cultural standards and projects them onto her fetus whose strangeness ensures her a place as distant in society as she already feels.

Hazel cannot conceptualize herself as a typical mother, and when she delivers a typical baby girl, she cannot recognize her as her own. She falls asleep without touching the child; however, when she wakes, Hazel finds not a human baby in her crib, but a seal. Her predictions validated, Hazel grows more confident. She sees the mop bucket in the corner and rubs it up and down the baby, believing she needs water. “‘Now that I am mother,’ Hazel said to the baby, ‘I get to set the rules, and the rules are: swimming, sunning, playing. Everything else we ignore’” (72). Stuck between her disparate roles as child and parent, Hazel creates a new position for herself, that of animal-mother, one unmarred by external expectations. With her seal-child, Hazel finally has someone to live on the outside with her, a comrade in her isolation. Conservative society—such as the one Hazel lives in—promotes motherhood as a woman’s ultimate purpose and creates firm ideals as to how a woman should carry out that purpose. Therefore, any slight deviance from expectation—such as Hazel’s youth—can stir feelings of catastrophic failure. Hazel defends against such condemnation by mentally exiling her and her child. Only once she is alone in the room and nursing does Hazel feels secure enough in her own maternal instincts to see her baby’s human arms and legs.

As the atria passes on blood to the heart’s ventricles, society and family pass on expectations to Hazel who passes them on to her child. When the expectations cannot be met, Hazel separates, internally moves to where she cannot be judged and, therefore, cannot fail. While everyone may have ideas on how to raise a human baby, no one has birthed an animal like the one Hazel believes she is carrying and that deviance allots her some protection from scrutiny. Hazel’s point of view allows readers to see how supposedly thoughtful acts—like the townspeople’s delivering of gifts—raise the stakes for Hazel’s secrecy as she knows she does not meet the conditional premises on which they were given. Her perception of her child thereby becomes a defense mechanism, turning outside opinions obsolete and reducing Hazel’s potential deficiencies. Fortunately, the story ends in a moment of escape for Hazel. Alone with her girl at last, Hazel feels less foreign as a mother and sees the little girl begin to shed her animal form.

Ausubel, Ramona. “Atria.” The Guide to Being Born. New York, Penguin, 2013.

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