“The Rest Is, Indeed, Horseshit”

Welcome to a new feature where we review the latest in nplusonemag news and reactions from around the internet.

A new feature

Welcome to a new feature where we review the latest in nplusonemag news and reactions from around the internet. Richard Beck’s epic review of TV serial dramas, from Hill Street Blues to The Office, was picked up by the New York Times for its “Idea of the Day” rubric, which singled out Beck’s suggestion that coworkers who act like family are “the televised serial drama’s great obsession.” Times commenters were unimpressed. “Beck’s blather is a prime example of the much ado about nothing much article,” said Follanger from Pennsylvania. The IFC’s “Independent Eye” granted that Beck’s overview was “magisterial” but complained that it didn’t take enough of a “long gaze.” The piece failed to note “the unspeakably influential benchmark” The Prisoner, for example. On Metafilter, most serial commenters rejected Beck’s idea that the serial form peaked with Lost. “All the other critics talk about how the television serial is the Great Creative Form of Our Time, so this guy has to say it’s all over.” “Doesn’t the author remember sitcoms [were] declared dead after ‘Cheers’ ended?” One commenter floated the theory that TV died with ALF. Eventually the commenters turned on each other, but not before concluding that while there was “exactly one well-thought-out sentence in the article . . . [t]he rest is, indeed, horseshit.”


The seventh edition of our online book review supplement was posted at the end of May, including Marco Roth on David Shields, Amelia Atlas on Berlin novels, and Alexander Provan on John D’Agata. The piece that engendered the most arguments was Justin E. H. Smith’s charming, thoughtful examination of “experimental philosophy,” or “x-phi,” more sexily. The movement’s adepts took x-ception to it, however. While noting that Smith approached his subject “with a level of sophistication that substantially outstrips other popular media engagements with x-phi,” Jonathan Weinberg of the Experimental Philosophy blog objected to Smith’s comparison of x-phi to a rebellious teenager. Smith was making the common error viz x-phi of “taking its practitioners to be claiming to offer something vastly more than they actually do claim, and then, of course, pointing out that x-phi does not live up to its (misattributed) promises.” It was, Weinberg went on, “a terrible disappointment to see so many other excellent philosophers . . . wasting their energy (& ours) in stitching together a chimera costume to try to fit to x-phi, just to be able to have a nice big target to swing at when trying to knock it down.” Things became heated in the comments section–“Thanks for bothering responding to Smith’s odd remarks,” said one adept (a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Pittsburgh), and another (a professor of philosophy and neuroscience at Georgia State) called Smith’s piece “unfair? silly? false,” while another commenter, not this time a professor and speaking up on Smith’s behalf, called one of the professors “an idiot”–but eventually Smith appeared on his own, and peace and civility were restored. “I think you all missed the most important point of the essay, which is really a shame,” Smith commented. “The point was, namely, that I /like/ experimental philosophy. I think it’s the way to go.” His objection, he went on in a later comment, was to the hard science empiricist bias of the x-phiers:

Part of what I wanted to argue in the review is that there is no prima facie reason why philosophy, if it wants to reach out and cross-pollinate with other disciplines, should focus principally on psychology and the behavioral sciences as its most suitable partner. Cross-cultural study could also be rigorously supplemented by work that takes a participant-observer approach to understanding other cultures, rather than a testing-based approach; it could also be supplemented by scholarship that deals with the historical development of the perceptions of points of difference between cultures. I’ve read Nisbett’s popular work on the subject of differences between EA’s and W’s, and at least here, in my view, he comes up short on both of these fronts. He’s a psychologist, so there are good reasons why he spends most of his time running tests rather than doing field work or reading the 17th-century Jesuit relations from China. But we’re philosophers, and at this early stage of the development of experimental philosophy, I think it would be a shame if its practitioners were to over-identify with the methods and approach of one non-philosophy discipline to the exclusion of others.


In response to a poor jobs report for the month of May we posted Benjamin Kunkel’s deep examination of the historical arguments over full employment from Issue 9. Chris Maisano of the DSA responded thoughtfully at The Activist. Citing the work of Michael Kalecki, Maisano stressed that economically and politically, capitalism simply cannot countenance a regime of full employment. “Both Kalecki’s theoretical argument and the historical experience of the 1970s seem to demonstrate fairly clearly that full employment within capitalism is likely an impossibility, and that seeking to resurrect the postwar Keynesian order, and the commitment to full employment that was an integral part of it, is a theoretical and strategic dead end,” Maisano wrote. He also wondered whether we would actually want everyone to be working instead of, in Marx’s resonant fantasy, fishing and napping and writing poetry. “[I]f a left movement gains enough strength in the coming years to challenge the dominance of capital it should probably demand that advances in technology and productivity gains be used to take people’s labor off the market as much as possible. Why make work for the sake of making work?” He went on:

As Kalecki argued, a political economy run in the interest of workers should not apply a “fuller utilization of resources [to] unwanted public investment merely in order to provide work.” Spend to support the work that absolutely needs to be done to ensure a comfortable standard of living, and the rest of it “should be used to subsidize consumption (through family allowances, old age pensions, reduction in indirect taxation, and subsidizing necessities).” Perhaps even a basic income guarantee could be provided to all regardless of whether or not they perform any work in the labor market. And why not? All I know is that whenever I hear the words “full employment,” I reach for my beach chair.

Entering the discussion in the comments, Kunkel agreed that politically the demand for full employment would very likely prove unpalatable to the capitalists. But “[t]he essay was meant to consider the economic, not the political, viability of full employment within capitalism. It’s the economic viability of full employment that we’ve been encouraged to doubt over recent decades”–and it was this economic orthodoxy that Kunkel (with the help of Robert Brenner) wished to upend. As for the politics of the issue, it was in fact Michael Kalecki who provided the last word to Kunkel’s piece: “If capitalism can adjust itself to full employment, a fundamental reform will have been incorporated in it. If not, it will show itself an outmoded system which must be scrapped.”


Finally, in the past few weeks nplusonemag continued two traditions integral to the site since its founding: Intelligent appreciations of recently departed writers and thinkers, and sports coverage. In May, Kent Russell provided several incisive analyses of the NHL playoffs. His finals preview in advance of the Blackhawks-Flyers series was called “the most entertaining and knowledgeable series preview, in spite its overt anti-Flyers bias,” by the New Yorker‘s excellent hockey blogger Nick Paumgarten. Russell had predicted a Blackhawk victory, and it came. “And there you have it,” wrote Paumgarten in the wake of the overtime goal by young Patrick Kane. “Black Hawks in six, as the experts, and n+1, predicted.” Nonetheless, Paumgarten, a die-hard Flyers fan, was gracious in defeat:

The NBC broadcast ended with some emotional words from Jeremy Roenick, who I’ve needled a few times in these posts. There he was in the booth, tearing up, at the sight of the Cup, at the long-forestalled redemption of the Black Hawks franchise, and, perhaps most acutely, at the reminder that he himself had never won the Cup, over the course of a tenacious career that included near misses with both the Hawks and the Flyers. He was much, much better on the ice than in the booth, but it was great to have him up there last night, as an avatar for the legions of hockey fans who can never help getting a little choked up at the spectacle of a team, even the opposing one, celebrating with the Stanley Cup. It really is the hardest trophy to win. The players’ embrace of it is totally sincere, more so than in any of the other pro sports. In the perennial rag-tag photo op of the team clustered around the Cup, you may as well be looking at a bunch of pee wees or squirts, if you can see past the beards and forget for the moment that in several hours they will likely be reënacting this pose in a strip club.

In early June, David Markson, the author of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, died in New York. Paul Maliszewski contributed a fine appreciation of the author, whom he knew. He described Markson’s evolution from a late-modernist writer of dense, highly allusive prose to an almost classically pure writer of experimental fiction:

The allusions too changed. What, in the early novels, seemed like bits of unidentified music, there for the cultured ear to recognize, become, in Wittgenstein’s Mistress and the later books, to be one- or maybe two-sentence anecdotes about the lives of artists. . . . The details accumulate, creating a sad, slow parade of artists, writers, philosophers, and musicians. Here are their impoverished lives, the disregard and the insults they met with, their all-too-human cruelty, and their ignorant, almost irreconcilable opinions of other art and artists.

Markson sought solace in the past for the insults and injuries suffered by literature in the present. The history of his obituary at nplusonemag.com recapitulated in miniature the history of overlooked art. The next day after Maliszewski’s subtle, sensitive “Address Unknown,” we posted an entertaining World Cup Preview, a run-down of all thirty-two teams in the tournament. (“North Korea celebrated their first World Cup qualification in forty-four years by drawing three good teams that will crush them. It will be a struggle to find highlights to show on North Korean television.”) The preview was hailed as “the best World Cup preview” by the Weekly Standard, Atlanticwire, and the good people of Twitter, and also linked to by the fine aggreggator blog The Browser. In short order it became one of the most popular pieces we’ve ever published online.

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