You may recall two years ago I was having serious problems with my Movable Type blog software install (which turned out not to be a problem with MT, actually, but with the site host), so for a day or two I posted to my LiveJournal account while I thrashed things out. Which means the entry below never actually showed up here, which I think is a shame. So I’m posting it here, now. I originally wrote it on June 28, 2007. Sigh. I was so young then.
Today’s Example of an Egregious Use of Something a Writer Once Learned in Freshman Philosophy
It comes from Matt Feeney in Slate, discussing whether various action films are homoerotic (in this case, the Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze Surf Crime Dude flick Point Break):
Indeed, claiming a macho film friendship is not-so-secretly gay has become its own kind of silly convention, a fake-subversive cliché. It is better—sounder both aesthetically and sociologically—to view the masculine pathos in films like Point Break in light of the tradition of heroically minded philosophy that runs from Aristotle to Nietzsche. If Point Break is homoerotic, in other words, then so is Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.
Well, and it is. All the major Western philosophical tracts are, like, totally gay, right from the moment in Crito when the dying Socrates reminds his friends that he owes a cock to Asclepius. Philosophy never got past that. Consolation of Science? Gay. Summa Theologica? Practically swishes across history. The Praise of Folly? Glam. The Prince? Clearly meant to be read in S&M bars. And let’s not even talk about Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. Because, come on. It’s right there in the title. I don’t even know why this is a question.
More seriously, however, reaching all the way back to Nietzsche and Aristotle to explain why Keanu and Patrick are not, in fact, planning to cock fence each other at the soonest opportunity is completely unnecessary, the middlebrow cultural commentary equivalent of going after a fly with an axe. There are several places to go before you have to hijack Western philosophy for such a meta-exercise. You can talk about director Katheryn Bigelow’s stylish-but-straight directorial canon, the camera gaze of Point Blank focusing more on the action in the film than the hunky, hunky bodies, or the fact that while Keanu or Patrick individually may generate tasty waves of homoerotic delight, placing both in the same film makes them cancel each other out, leaving you with nothing but a bland and depressing straightness that not even Lori Petty’s butchtastic presence can dent. Any of these work without having to drag poor closeted Hegel into it.
And as for the “macho = homoerotic” thing, both in film and in general, well, let’s just chalk that up to the fact that at this moment in the history of our nation straight men have ceded everything but snarky T-shirts, Xbox 360, leet speek and the classic geek pear shape to the men of alternate sexualities. A good-looking man in text-free clothing, speaking about something other than the iPhone? Gay. Two such men engaging each other in a way that does not have a WoW server as an intermediary? Super Gay! 300 such men, fighting Persians in jock straps and capes? Super-Mega-Ultra Gay! You don’t need to drag all of Western philosophy into the discussion, when the present heterosexual male abdication of anything more culturally, emotionally and intellectually resonant than “Dick in a Box” works just as well.
Going back to Aristotle and Nietzsche, Western philosophy’s cute couple, a good and general rule of thumb is that, unless you are having a discussion about philosophy, if someone starts trying to link the topic under discussion to the superstars of Western thought, you should probably have your internal Mr. Sulu raise the Pretentious Twaddle Shield to maximum and then brace for impact. It’s not that the fellow is wrong (Feeney’s overall point that macho is not automatically homoerotic is largely correct), it’s just that going there is probably unnecessary on the rhetorical level, and the only reason to do it is to impress an editor or to show off to your conversational partner that, indeed, you got one of them there edumacations (showing off your book learning? That’s so gay). It might seem impressive at first blush but what it really suggests is a certain lack of rhetorical sophistication, and the lack of awareness of every cultural thing between the quotidian subject under discussion and the giants of philosophy. Something inbetween is likely to be more relevant and on point.
In short: Dragging philosophy into the discussion is not always as effective as you might think it is. Just because Ayn Rand ran to Aristotle for every little thing doesn’t mean it works for everyone. Hell, it didn’t actually work for Ayn Rand. Let’s not get into that now. Although I will say this: if Howard Roark and John Galt ever got together, that would be hot.
(original posting, with comments, here)