on love – from stand-up philosophy

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stand-up philosophy: the academics’ edition

WOW.

On Tuesday night something a little weird and very special happened: about three hundred people turned up, at six-thirty on a Tuesday evening, to hear a bunch of academics talk about philosophy.

There were so many people that we had to run two shows simultaneously because there were just far two many people to fit in the 130-seater lecture theatre.

And I was the lucky, lucky fellow who got to compere it all.

—–

There is some backstory to this. Last autumn, I was talking to Dr. Gordon Finlayson of Sussex University about the idea of Stand-up Philosophy. We were discussing how it could work, who could do it, what its purpose would be, etc. Gordon suggested that since the emphasis would be on serious (but accessible) philosophy rather than comedy, it could be called ‘Philosophy Stand-up: No Joke.’

And then Gordon said that he thought it would be a good idea to talk about it to the rather prestigious and brilliant Forum for European Philosophy based at the LSE, which organises public philosophy events and of which he is part of their planning committee.

And then a few months later, as I was trying to organise my little experimental night in the Jeremy Bentham pub, Gordon said to me, ‘It’s happening. You should come to the next planning meeting of the Forum.’

Crikey, I thought. And then I went along.

The committee of the Forum for European Philosophy convene in a rather ornate meeting room, high up in the Old Academic Building of the LSE. The board is packed with various professors and senior lecturers and is chaired by the Forum’s director, Simon Glendinning. I hadn’t met Dr. Glendinning before, but I knew of him. He is something of a big deal authority on J.S. Mill. On that day he came in wearing a very smart suit with a waistcoat and tie, looking extremely distinguished and – for me – quite intimidating. And there I was – as a comedian – at a table with them all.

I was quite taken aback by how much they seemed to like the idea of Stand-up Philosophy; they had already scheduled an event, and Gordon seemed to have persuaded them to let me compere it.

Simon and the other philosophers were, perhaps unsurprisingly, somewhat hesitant about my suggestion that we invite some stand-up comedians to take part too. But that didn’t matter: the point was that they were interested in the idea.

Afterwards, I worried. Was anyone even going to come? The event had been booked at six-thirty on a Tuesday evening, after exams had finished and outside of term time. It was booked for the Wolfson Theatre, a quite fancy new lecture theatre which seats 130 people and doesn’t allow people to take drinks in. There were no comedians on the bill, and most people outside of the very small world of academic philosophy wouldn’t have heard of any of the philosophers who had been invited to perform.

Surely we would be performing to about ten or fifteen sober postgrads in a room which was too humiliatingly large?

—–

Then, it seemed, philosophy made a comeback.

This summer, the ‘How The Light Gets In’ festival of philosophy and music at Hay-on-Wye seemed to really take off.

I started my night at the Jeremy Bentham pub, and the room has been consistently full (much fuller, in fact, than most comedy nights at this time of year).

A few weeks after that, an event called ‘My Night With Philosophers’ ran a night of public lectures at the Institut Francais; I went to see what was happening and there must have been close to a thousand people there.

And then we put on our event at the LSE on Tuesday.

I arrived at six in the evening, and there were already about ten people sitting in the Wolfson Theatre. That’s our ten, I thought. They’re keen.

Then more people came. And more. And more. They filled all the seats in the theatre by 6.20. And then they just kept coming.

Eventually, Gordon and Simon – who had both volunteered to perform – suggested that we were either going to have to run a second show, or turn away at least a hundred people. So we found some space and ran a second show – simultaneously with the first – with me frantically running between the two rooms, welcoming acts on to the stages, charing mini-Q-and-A-sessions and generally trying to give the whole thing the impression of orderliness.

It was brilliant.

After about an hour and forty minutes, everyone was exhausted but both rooms had seen all six philosophers speak, and they seemed very happy.

There was even a podcast made of the show in the Wolfson Theatre. It’s at http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=1939

—–

I’m starting to get the impression that many, many people have been interested in philosophy in a much more serious way than most academic philosophers like to think; they just find academic philosophy pretentious and inaccessible.

Philosophy has been concerned for its own survival for a while; academic philosophers are terrified about department closures, and cuts in teaching budgets and research funding. But at the same time, we’ve been gradually making our discipline so completely opaque to outsiders, especially in the language we use, that what we do is often impossible for any normal person to get their head around.

Too many academic philosophers complain that Alain de Botton can sell a million books, while doing almost nothing to make their own arguments available or accessible to the public. Instead, they obsess about whether they can get an article published in tiny niche journals that only about two hundred people ever read. These philosophers are right, I think, to be worried for their survival. And if they don’t survive, who will miss them?

But I think philosophy which makes itself as accessible and unpretentious as possible is capable of thriving. A few academic philosophers are starting to get this: that the general public of non-philosophers contains a huge number of people who are intelligent, curious, and want to know about philosophy. They do want to know what philosophers are doing, and do philosophy themselves, and know how philosophy can be fun and useful and important to them, too.

They just need ways in.

I want Stand-up Philosophy to be a way in. And I am finally starting to think that I am not the only one.

stand-up philosophy #2: ‘justice’

Well, Stand-up Philosophy is definitely working. The audience for last night’s show at the Jeremy Bentham were a strange, slightly mixed bag of philosophy postgrads, comedy fans, people I used to teach…and my family.

But the show was really fantastic – perhaps because we had a line-up of acts who were pretty much perfect in terms of them all being extremely proficient comedy performers, as well as all having interesting and different takes on the question of Justice…

– Dougie Walker opened the show pretty much perfectly with a thing called ‘What’s so fucking great about fairness anyway?’, in which he argued that a lot of the principles of fairness which we associate with the notion of ‘justice’ (ie treating people the same, etc) don’t really work. He nevertheless argued (with some success, I think) that justice would have to be in some way connected with empathy.

– Lindsay Sharman talked about a variety of problems associated with Justice, but in particular (or at least, this was the bit that was most interesting to me) raised some really interesting points about whether a person can be just or unjust to their future self. (She was also very funny – out of all the philosophers involved in the show, she the one about whom most people came up to me afterwards and said, “she was really funny”).

– Tony Dunn approached the problem with an analysis of how justice might apply to psychopaths, considering the fact that it doesn’t make sense to punish psychopaths because their inability to empathise with others means that they often can’t really believe that they’ve done anything wrong. Added to the difficulties when it comes to identifying psychopaths, and the fact that they nevertheless have to be prevented from doing harm to others, he claimed (quite convincingly, I thought, if somewhat depressingly) that perfect justice is impossible in any world which contains psychopaths.

– Andrew Watts headlined the show with a new and fascinating spin on the question, pointing out that the principle that legal judgments must set precedents in order for later cases to be just, had thrown up all kinds of bizarre anomalies when it came to the practical application of justice; he illustrated this somewhat brilliantly with the problems surrounding the legal status of necrophilia.

And the audience seemed to love all of it, and somehow I wasn’t even too embarrassed to talk with Andrew about necrophilia in front of my Mum…

HOORAY.

stand-up philosophy 1: the meaning of life

Last night was, as far as I could tell, London’s first ever night of ‘Stand-up Philosophy’, and pretty smashing it was too.

What’s Stand-up Philosophy, you ask? Well, it basically seems to be somewhere between a stand-up comedy night and a public lecture.

My thought was this: I’ve been at literally hundreds of stand-up gigs where an act has actually said something philosophical and intelligent, and thought, I wish they could just make their argument without being tied up in trying to get laughs. Or philosophy lectures which have been really entertaining and accessible as well as insightful, and thought, I wish there was a bar and the possibility of heckling.

So now there is something which has it all. And last night we crammed it – and I mean crammed, there was standing room only for latecomers – into the lovely upstairs room of the appropriately named Jeremy Bentham pub near University College London.

For the first night, we started with the theme question of ‘The Meaning of Life’ – because it does seem to be the first question that people start with in Philosophy. And I tried to answer it, and so did Broderick Chow, Patrick Levy and Ahir Shah, all of whom were fantastic.

Before we started, I thought I’d better set some rules. For example, giving the philosopher onstage 10 minutes or so to make an argument before fielding ‘question-heckles’; not using loads of technical terms, because it was in a pub after all; and a general rule of ‘don’t be a dick’.

Which we all mostly stuck to.

And the audience were fantastic and lovely, and so were the acts. Brody argued that if life can be given meaning, we can do it though attempts to ‘organise’, ‘know yourself’, and ‘be a dog-person’; Patrick argued for a Levinasian other-grounded ethical life; and Ahir argued that life is basically chaotic and that looking for meaning is futile.

And just in case anyone missed it, here is what I argued…

 

 

The meaning of life is happiness

I think the meaning of life is happiness – to try and create as much happiness as possible. But ‘happiness’ is a pretty vague word, so I’m going to have to try and explain what I mean.

First of all I should say that I think happiness is something you can actually feel, you can experience it, and it’s something people do in fact want to feel. And I think that’s necessary to make any kind of decent judgment about any proposed candidate for something which might give life meaning; I don’t see how you can make any proper judgments about real things unless those things can be tangibly experienced. We need to try and decide our meaning, and what to do to make that meaning, based on things you can see or hear or feel (and I include emotions like happiness in that).

So metaphysical things like ‘God’s will’, for example, can’t be a contender for the meaning of life, because it can’t be experienced – it’s an abstract concept. Justice, too, is a concept that can’t itself be felt or experienced.

But happiness is something that can be experienced. It can actually be felt. And it’s something that, most of the time, we do actually want to feel. It’s what we look for as a result of the things we do.

So, it’s worth also saying that if believing in God’s will does in fact create happiness (and it very often does) then I have no problem with people doing it at all.

Additionally, the feeling of satisfaction which we feel when we see justice done also counts, I think, as happiness. So if people want to do things which create a feeling of satisfaction that justice is being done, that is great.

But metaphysical concepts like God or justice are a means to an end, and not themselves the meaning of life. The tangible feeling is the goal, because that is the part that we can honestly have some actual experience of.

So, I want to argue that what gives meaning to life is that feeling of happiness, and a meaningful life is one in which we try to do whatever will create happiness.

There are three problems with this:

– The first is, what do I really mean by happiness?

– The second is that if happiness is a consequence of other things, what if we don’t actually always know what will make us happy?

– The third is, whose happiness do I mean?

The first problem, of what happiness is, I’d like to put on hold for a moment – I’ll just say that a lot of people hearing this kind of theory assume it just means shallow hedonistic pleasure, and that’s not what I mean. I mean, I am a big fan of simple hedonistic pleasure (big gulp of beer, smile). But actually I think real happiness is a much deeper feeling, it’s a feeling of satisfaction or fulfilment with life. I will come back to this, though.

So, let’s look at the second problem: that we don’t always know what will make us happy. Because it’s true that most of the time we don’t know what will bring happiness. Anything we might choose to do will bring about all kinds of problems and unintended consequences, and we don’t know what they’ll be.

Fortunately, we can look at a situation and use what we’ve experienced in the past to make pretty good bets. For example, I know that almost every time I see my friend Lawrence, it makes me happy – seeing his face makes me feel happy.

Look at his face! It’s the exact way I don’t feel when I listen to the music of Justin Bieber.

So I can make some pretty well-informed bets – I can choose to spend time with Lawrence’s face, and not listening to Justin Bieber.

Obviously I can’t know for sure whether what I choose to do will make me happy until after I’ve chosen, which I will accept is quite annoying. Especially because it means that, until time stops, one choice will almost create more happiness than another, so there almost always definitely is a right or wrong answer to any decision – I just can’t possibly know what it is until long after the decision has been made.

This kind of consequentialist theory is often quite unpopular because it pleases nobody – it doesn’t please people who want there to be a right answer, and it also doesn’t please people who want there to be no answers.

It’s like saying it doesn’t matter whether you like pizza or not, there definitely is pizza – but it’s not coming out the oven until you’re not hungry, and maybe not even then. It pleases nobody.

But this is not a reason to reject the theory: it just means we have to be cautious, because we can make informed gambles but we can’t be certain. And if we are to ground meaning in what can be actually experienced, then we don’t really have much else to go on. (Pizza is all we’re really getting). So we have to make these gambles in the most informed way possible.

The third problem was, happiness for who?

Well, I think the only realistic answer is, happiness for me. Because I only experience my own happiness, and I don’t really feel other people’s happiness. But this is not necessarily as selfish as it looks, because I can see signs of whether they are happy or not; and if I feel empathy for someone else, as most humans tend to do, then their happiness makes me happy. If I look at Lawrence’s wonderful face and he looks miserable, then I won’t be happy either. But seeing him happy makes me feel happy, especially if I’ve helped make him happy.

And, to go back to the first question, I have found – empirically – that this kind of happiness, a shared happiness with other people, is a much deeper and more rewarding kind of happiness than if I decided to just sit on my own eating chocolate.

Now this doesn’t have to be true for everyone. I mean, not everyone knows Lawrence. Other people might find the deepest happiness by excluding other people, and I have to accept that if that is what makes them satisfied and happy with their lives that is ok, too. But for me, what gives me that deep kind of happiness is to share that happiness with other people, to feel I am a cause of their happiness and for their happiness to cause mine. Another word for the way I feel happiness might be the word ‘love’.

But there’s another aspect to this, too, and I think it will get us closer to the answer overall.

Last September, I was at a party, and I was talking to a girl, and I was a bit drunk and probably, I think, hoping I might get off with her. And then she asked me a question.

She asked, if there was a news flash that a meteor was going to hit earth in six hours, and everybody was definitely going to die, what would you do?

Well…what would you do?

And I know a lot of people would think, let’s get drunk, right? Maybe that’s what she was hoping for. But straight away I knew what I would do. I wouldn’t be talking to some random person at a party.

I would find the person whose happiness I know has the most significance for my own. Who it really makes me feel happiest to share my happiness with.

And if they weren’t nearby, I would start running, and I would run and run until I got a stitch so it felt like I was tearing apart and I would just keep running, until I found them.

And I would try to spend the last few hours trying to share with them whatever happiness was still possible. Even if they didn’t want me to! I would still try – I would have to – because it would be my best hope for happiness.

(That person might not be Lawrence. I suspect his wife might get first call on that.)

But the point is this: that even if there is no meteor, time is still limited: it might be in six hours, or six days, or six years, or sixty years – but however much physicists may say time is infinite, my experience of time is that it isn’t infinite. It is very very finite.

Not long after that party conversation, there was an electrical explosion in the badly-wired warehouse I was living in that somehow managed to not kill me.

And that sharpened up the question to which the meaning of one’s own life is the answer. The question is: given that time is limited, how should I spend my time – and who with? – in order to create the deepest feeling of happiness in whatever time remains?

So. Happiness, I think, is a deep feeling of satisfaction or fulfilment with your life and what you do. You can’t ever be sure whether what you’re doing is going to make you feel satisfied or fulfilled or not, but for me, and I think for a lot of people, happiness comes from a shared happiness with other people.

And that – for me – is the meaning of life.

on the problem of not being quite mad enough

Tonight, out of the blue and on my way home from a gig – a really fun one, in fact – I had a bit of a brainwave.

It’s not original, of course, but it’s this: that stand-up comedy is not for people without some serious emotional issues. Really well adjusted people – however funny they naturally are – really wouldn’t do it. Even relatively sane people like me, although we can get solid laughs, can never be that great.

In actual fact, many great comedians aren’t that funny as people. Some are quiet and withdrawn; some are really tiresome because, in Steve Martin’s words, they are ‘never off’, their brains having become machines of gags/banter/whimsy and they become exhausting to be around; and many, like the people I spent this evening with, are polite and intelligent and lovely. But we are no funnier than the average person.

The difference is that I don’t think any of us are without some kind of serious emotional flaw. The problem is, after six years of stand-up, I don’t think I’ve ever yet been quite emotionally flawed enough, for long enough, to ever get really good.

I mean, considering what it takes to actually get that good. Because you can’t just rock up and be consistently funny. You have to write material, rehearse it, go out to gigs (often terrible ones), night after night after night, and every time ask yourself, ‘why didn’t they laugh as much at that bit as I wanted them to…?’ And analyse it and do it differently the next night, over and over again…

That takes an incredible amount of drive – a kind of drive I have had, sporadically, for a few months at a time before getting exhausted. But that isn’t enough. You need a drive that commits your entire being to it. And that drive doesn’t come from nowhere.

Basically, you have to really really care whether people like you or not. I mean, really CARE. If you have some talent, of course, you can rock up, mess around a bit, do some old material and call it consistent, or competent, or whatever. But it’s not storming. If you have a decent level of confidence in yourself and your own value as a person, you can be okay. But never really good.

To be that good takes a horrible, nagging, worm-like insecurity that eats you from the inside out. But it drives you to be funny.

And I worry, secretly but often, that every time I turn up to a gig underprepared and do respectably but not stormingly, it’s because I just… well, I just don’t worry enough about whether the audience will like me or not.

Perhaps this is, in itself, my flaw.

So I carry on, competently gigging, semi-regularly, until I’m fucked up enough to really need to get good…

the things art does

Yesterday my mum came down to London. I like it when that happens – we get to go to galleries and exhibitions all day and then eat nice food. I’ve got Tate membership and she’s got Royal Academy membership and an Art Card, so between us we get to see pretty much everything.

Yesterday we started at the National Portrait Gallery for the Glamour of the Gods exhibition. It’s essentially three or four rooms of black and white pictures of movie stars of the 20s-60s. The trouble for me was that, whereas these were film actors that my mum grew up knowing (many of them weren’t quite her generation, but they were icons all the same), I didn’t recognise half the people there.

I mean, there is always some fun in looking at a good picture of Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers. And Buster Keaton’s extraordinary face, of course. And there is no doubt that Clara Bow and Marilyn Monroe were beautiful.*

But generally, looking at black and white pictures of a bunch of faces not doing very much had limited appeal for someone who hadn’t seen the films. In fact, I think this is ultimately why I don’t go to the National Portrait Gallery very much; portraits of people I don’t know, without action, can’t refer to very much for me. They don’t do much apart from exist as images that refer only to themselves. As a result they are little more than pure form; and there is limited interest in that to non-Kantians.

And as for making me do anything – well, it takes a really really exceptional portrait of a really really exceptional face to have any kind of perlocutionary force (I’m talking Mona Lisa/Pope Innocent X exceptional), and without that, what’s the point of an artwork? Heresy perhaps, and I’m deliberately overstating the point. But even so, I don’t think portraits generally tend to do a lot. Which is why the best use of photography is not portraits, but reportage and invention.

The next thing we went to, the exhibition of Hungarian photography at the Royal Academy, is packed with both.

In particular, I stared for ages at Capa’s photograph of the Falling Solder. This is it:

Obviously there’s some debate about whether it’s staged or not, whether the soldier died at all, whether it was actually Capa that got him killed, etc. The Mail, perhaps unsurprisingly, ran this ridiculous piece not long ago.

But what that debate misses is that none of that matters. Capa knew that literal truth isn’t as important as what the photograph does; he knew it was art, and it was art that represented the fact that anarchists and republicans were getting killed – killed nobly – in the Catalan foothills. It worked to recruit support for the Republican cause and to make the rest of the world aware that something was kicking off in Spain that would spread throughout Europe, ultimately throughout the world.

That picture isn’t a good portrait. It’s blurred and you can’t see the soldier’s face clearly. But the point is that as well as provoking admiration, that picture terrified and it warned. Good art is not just there to be pretty or to be an accurate depiction – good art does something. That picture – there is no denying it – did something.

We finished the day at the Courtauld Gallery, which I have, unbelievably, never been to but if you have never been YOU HAVE TO STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING RIGHT NOW AND GO THERE. Why had nobody ever told me before that it is pretty much the world’s most perfect little art collection?

I mean, the exhibition we were ostensibly there to see – the Toulouse-Lautrec pictures of Jane Avril – was not very interesting (maybe because the intended perlocutionary force of those pictures were just a little too crude: “go and see this woman do the cancan,” they say, and that may have worked at the time but for obvious reasons doesn’t work now). But it was worth it just to see the rest of the gallery.

At risk of getting the intentional fallacy chucked in my face, I do wonder, when I see a lot of art, how much intention (conscious or otherwise) there was from the artist that the work does things. And I wonder how subtle those intentions need to be before the work becomes really good.

With stand-up, there’s such a delicate balance – the work is intended to get laughs. But what other things must it do – while still getting laughs – in order to be the really great artform some of us aspire for it to become?

—-

*OH MY GOODNESS CLARA BOW WAS BEAUTIFUL LOOK AT HER FACE!

back in edinburgh

So I’m in Edinburgh again. And it would be weird not to blog while I’m here.

Plus it’s 8am, and most of the comedians will have only just gone to bed. There is not a single flyerer in sight. So, blogging it is.

I just got off a night megabus, and I’ve got that woozy, early morning slightly surreal just-tried-to-get-a-night’s-sleep-on-a-bus-and-failed feeling that I usually reserve for arrivals in Paris. It’s not that dissimilar from standard Edinburgh sleep deprivation, but it’s annoying because, as a veteran of night coaches, I had a sleeping strategy this time.

I didn’t even try to get my own double seat – I’ve tried that before and it just means that any massive snoring bad-smelling weirdo can come and sit next to you and take up all the space with their massive snoring bad-smelling body. But this time I knew all the seats would be fully booked, so I chose to try and get in the middle of the queue. That way, I could get on when about half the seats were taken. That way I could quite legitimately pick my weirdo.

I picked well: not far from the front there was a small woman, about forty-ish, who did not obviously smell and was having a quiet telephone conversation in a sane-sounding US accent. I sat next to her, and she gave me a polite, not-mental smile. When the bus pulled out, she settled over to the far side of her seat, put a blanket over her head and went into a calm, snoreless sleep, leaving me to celebrate the success of operation pick-your-own-weirdo, and feel just a little bit smug at not feeling too cramped.

At which point, the dark-haired man in the seat in front of me violently jammed his seat so far back into the reclining position that it almost crushed my legs. Then he couldn’t get it to go forward again – he’d forced the seat way further back than it was designed to go, and now it wouldn’t budge. He shrugged, lay back and closed his eyes, and I spent the rest of the journey unable to move my legs, and with nothing but a headrest separating the dark-haired man’s head from my crotch.

So I didn’t get much sleep. Whenever I’ve taken night coaches to Paris before, I’ve got over this feeling by sitting in the nicest café I can find and getting a café au lait. But this time I’m in Edinburgh.

So I’m sitting in Starbucks on the Royal Mile, looking over the crossroads where I’ve flyered for shows I’ve done every year for the last few years. It’s the place where I always notice how it’s suddenly getting dark early in the evenings towards the end of the festival. And no other square in the world has rained on me quite so much.

In fact now I come to think of it, this is the Starbucks where I come to get out of the rain. I’ve sat in this Starbucks before (many times), and it occurs to me that I’ve never actually been happy in here. In fact, I’ve only ever sat in here and felt depressed.

Come to think of it, I don’t really have very many memories of sitting anywhere in Edinburgh in the daytime and really being happy. I’ve always been miserable and worried and tired, and usually either hungover or still drunk. The few occasions I can remember being in Edinburgh and being really happy have almost always been followed by sudden, crushing downs that were usually a direct result of whatever it was that made me happy in the first place.

Still. I’m here now. And I’m only here for three days, and I’m not doing a show.

So perhaps this year will be different.

And the first step towards that is to get out of this fucking Starbucks.