Daniel Bell

by Kieran Healy on January 26, 2011

Daniel Bell has died at the age of ninety one. The New York Times has an obituary, and I’m sure there will be more to follow elsewhere. I heard a story once about Bell being asked what he specialized in. “Generalizations”, he replied. But not the sterile, merely verbal generalizations of something like structural-functionalism, the dominant “grand social theory” of his day. Bell was prepared to sick his neck out. This meant he could get things wrong. I’ll leave his political writings for others to assess. His cultural criticism has not aged well: his sniffy disdain for “aggressive female sexuality”, for instance, or his view that the “new sound” of the Beatles made it “impossible to hear oneself think, and that may indeed have been its intention” are unlikely to play so well today. But we should be so lucky to coin so many phrases that become part of the language — “The End of Ideology”, “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism”, “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society“. The latter book, in particular, is one of the most impressive pieces of economic sociology written in the twentieth century. It asks a big question about the future, it works out an answer, and gets it mostly right. At the beginning of his academic career Bell was on the periphery of the self-consciously scientific sociology department at Columbia that had Robert Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld at its core. (A little like C. Wright Mills, interestingly enough.) I believe they thought of him more as a journalist and political type, at least initially, given his background at Fortune magazine. Yet a book like The Coming of Post-Industrial Society has more truly scientific spirit about it than Social Theory and Social Structure.

Feminist Philosophers“:http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/ has for some years been conducting a “gendered conference campaign”:http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/gendered-conference-campaign/, a campaign against conferences where all speakers are men. I support this campaign. A conference in which all speakers are men is undesirable in terms of its outcomes: it gives a biased representation of the field, the likelihoods are that wo/men cover different topics and/or use different methodologies, we don’t want to put off (female) grad students by giving them the implicit message that the field is not welcoming to them, and we want women scholars to be given an opportunity to present their work. A conference with only male speakers is also likely to be the result of a biased process in which the organisors have given free hand to gendered stereotypes that influence us when thinking about who the ‘interesting speakers’ in the respective fields may be; although the evidence on these kind of implicit bias processes is by now vast, I still regularly come across instances where conference organisors have not given this any thought.

Now it seems like we’ll have to extent this campaign to include Summerschools: to my surprise, I received a call for participation for “a Summerschool”:http://www.summer.ceu.hu/02-courses/course-sites/justice/index-justice.php on ‘Justice: Theory and Applications’ yesterday, which includes six teachers, all male. Theories of justice belong to my own area of specialisation, and I thus can say with some confidence that there are plenty of interesting, excellent contributors out there who are female. In fact, in my Research Master Course ‘Contemporary Theories of Justice’, one student remarked that he had never had a philosophy course with so many female authors on the reading list.

Clearly there may be additional hurdles: for example, it may be the case that female scholars are more likely to refuse an invitation. Or there may be areas where it really is much more difficult, bordering at the level of the impossible, to find female teachers. But that’s definitely not the case for theories of justice.

SF Film Regressivism and Progressivism and Revisionism

by John Holbo on January 26, 2011

Teaching ‘Philosophy and Film’ this semester, with a focus on sf, I’m amused to read this bit from a Salon piece by Michael Lind:

If there was a moment when the culture of enlightened modernity in the United States gave way to the sickly culture of romantic primitivism, it was when the movie “Star Wars” premiered in 1977. A child of the 1960s, I had grown up with the optimistic vision symbolized by “Star Trek,” according to which planets, as they developed technologically and politically, graduated to membership in the United Federation of Planets, a sort of galactic League of Nations or UN. When I first watched “Star Wars,” I was deeply shocked. The representatives of the advanced, scientific, galaxy-spanning organization were now the bad guys, and the heroes were positively medieval – hereditary princes and princesses, wizards and ape-men. Aristocracy and tribalism were superior to bureaucracy. Technology was bad. Magic was good.

He’s got the film history wrong. Metropolis came before Star Wars. Hell, so did Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times: that’s dystopian sf. Also, it isn’t really right to say that the theme of Star Wars is ‘technology bad’. Star Wars is really more a case of lacking a ‘science good’ message. Also, Star Trek is conspicuously moderate in its pro-science thematizing. Kirk is the captain, exemplifying the properly adventurous equilibrium point between McCoy’s emotionalism and Spock’s rationalism. Hell, that’s the theme of Metropolis, too. You need ‘mediation’ and ‘moderation’ between pure science and … some more human source of meaning.

I think we should distinguish at least six or seven stances. [click to continue…]