From Plato to Pop Culture

Pop culture and philosophy
Editorial, 10th March 2018

Gone are the days of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, when great philosophical ideas were born out of the regular conversations in the market squares, between shopkeepers and pedestrians. Philosophers were called to palaces and government institutions to give advice and share their ideas. What seems like a futile activity now, used to be a source of living for many then. The coming of industrialization and urbanization had rendered the epistemic discussions obsolete, and no sooner, modernization had stamped those ideas as pretentious. Does this mean that philosophy has limited itself to the dusty thick volumes, seated in some old libraries, and has faded away from the aura of common people? No. As it goes, philosophy is inseparable from human existence, and so, on the contrary, it has transformed itself into a language, that renders words, that common people relate to and connect themselves to; the popular culture or pop culture.

What once stood in contrast with the ‘Office culture’ or higher class culture, now firmly stands as the ‘mass culture’, associating itself with music, art, cinema, literature, sports, and mass media. Pop culture got its major push in the post WW2 era, during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, with, with the emergence of pop music. This transition from the earlier folklore and classical music bedazzled the public, especially the 20’s crowd of western nations of Europe and America. During its initial period, pop presented itself as a silly medium, favored by hormonally charged teens and delinquent bizarre behaviour by the public. But as the newly emerging culture reached its heights, it became a mass medium for the propagation of ideas, and among those were some that were buried deep in the bowels of generations of literature.

“All art aspires to the condition of music.” These words by Walter Pater aptly emphasize the charming and seductive effect music creates in the minds of its listeners. When Pink Floyd made the audience Comfortably Numb with their psychedelic notes, it was not only an exhibition of great art and madness, but also an overflow of ideas, which can be encountered in the works of Heidegger, Foucault, and Sartre. Existentialism, afterlife, despair, the contradictions of art and commerce became a common theme with the growing pop music. Like Plato’s tales on the meaning of love in The Symposium, the simplicity in Bob Dylan’s songs, its lyrics, and nice tunes accompany the simplicity of a youthful crush. Plato mentions that Love is the offspring of the Gods of Poverty and Resource, and it seems likely that Dylan is familiar with both, as is reflected in his songs.

Pop edges over philosophy not only by its charm but by the art of contraction. It knows what can be achieved in just a few minutes, and what under a few hours. Cinema is the most prestigious cultural activity in the modern world. With the advent of the motion pictures in the late 19th century and the growth of technology, cinema entered its golden age in the post world war era. With a power to induce emotions, films intellectually reflect and propagate what philosophy has tried for centuries. The Matrix Trilogy was explicitly based on Jean Baudrillard’s ideas about society and the hyperreality. From the alluring “Women in the red dress” to the classic Brain in a Vat analogy, where humans are used as batteries, the movie is packed with such academic and philosophical questions.

This may be just a bucketful in the whole sea of wisdom, but it acts as an axe which breaks the frozen lake of our emotions. Be it, the allegory of Plato’s Cave in The Truman Show(1998) or the spiritualistic and idealistic worldview of Andre in My Dinner With Andre(1981), cinema never ceases to knock on the doors of great philosophers; from Descartes to Sartre, Schopenhauer to Plato.

As the time progressed, visual media further branched itself with the sprouting of anime and adult cartoons. With the surge of growth in the popularity of Manga or Japanese comic books in the 1970’s, anime first came into the public view. First popular among children and teens, anime didn’t go beyond supernatural fights, laughs, and superficial human emotions, but with Ghost in the Shell (1995), anime industry saw an integration of deep philosophical themes with a complex plot weaving, segregating it from the world of a spiky-haired warrior on the brink of changing the world. The authoritarian future dystopian world in Psycho Pass (2012), or the exploration of a ‘radical sense of beauty’ in Kino’s Journey (2000), or the moral dilemmas faced by Dr. Kenzo in The Monster (2004), are only a few of the many pillars that the world of anime has grounded in the vast lands of philosophy.

Parallel to the world of anime, pop has also witnessed the growth of adult animated shows. Cartoons, primarily in the domain of children, are increasingly becoming oriented towards an adult audience. Once dominated by the Walt Disney characters in the 1930’s, grasped by Hannah Barbera’s Tom and Jerry in the 1950’s, or bed-rocked by The Flintstones in the 1960’s, the flowery world of cartoons was soon overshadowed by the antics that moved animation into the pop culture movement and that led to the emergence of adult cartoons. These cartoons can provide a crude and silly entertainment. But increasingly they are doing something else; offering a prime place in contemporary culture for philosophical and theological exploration.

The wave of this pop culture movement started with The Simpsons, a show that satirizes American culture with its adult humour and daft comedy. Based on similar lines, South Park raises interesting issues such as the ethics of the use of word ‘nigger’, or the question of free speech, or even the philosophy of language. In the episode, The F Word, where the characters officially change the meaning of the word fag, South Park creators, Parker and Stone demonstrate how the meaning of a word can change with reference to its usage.

Pop culture is growing. Piggybacking on the lives of the masses, it is embellishing. Like religion, pop knows repetition is the key. It strengthens itself by its countless recurrences on an everyday basis in the lives of people. Today, pop possesses, what was once the dream of many, a feeling of togetherness or shared emotions towards a common idea. It can generate collective euphoria. But, incorporating philosophy into pop doesn’t preclude the fact that pop need not learn from philosophy. Pop currently touches only the big themes, often trapping itself in preaching ‘pseudo-philosophy’. It needs to transcend its boundaries towards greater ambitions, bringing in more transformative ideas, which we can ponder daily with our headphones on, thus, echoing our lives with a tranquil rapport between pop culture and philosophy.

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