What is Stand Up Philosophy

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This blog charts my attempts, in whatever way I can, and whenever I can, and as honestly as possible, to stand up for thinking - real thinking, whether in philosophy or politics, or maths - Because thinking needs standing up for!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Encounters with Philosophy as standup: Part 1 as Demonology

Deleuze says somewhere in 'Difference and Repetition', that Philosophy is all about encounters with Demons. To meet a philosopher adequately is to be taken on a witch ride, transforming your thought, allowing you to think differently, or at least to understand how you are already thinking differently. A maxim that is even more true when the philosopher one encounters is firmly 'part of the history' of philosophy. For history has its own power to create in us, thought. To study a past thinker is therefore not just to encounter their actual thought, but also the echoes and cadences of their thought today. So that one encounters both how these ideas affected subsequent thought, and so informed (or not) our thinking. And also how the debates, circumstances, and experiences that created the original thought find echoes in today's event. Repetitions that allow one both to understand the original afresh, but also in the process, allow different ways to comprehend what is happening now.
Demons, which merge past and present, and shift one's understanding of the future, are the stuff of the history of philosophy. A discipline that asks us to understand how the concepts and experiences that populate and mould our minds were originally not our own, and are never simply truly 'ours' alone. The material of stand up philosophy places one in a curious place. One is drawing on the works from the history of thought, and so in a sense running up against, and conjuring up these worldly demons, and one's performance must reflect that. At some point, there must be a feeling that something is breaking through or breaking out, a feeling of shifting, being challenged, where one is risking something possibly precious, and we are not sure what we will gain in return.
This much perhaps could be said of all performance art. But what makes Stand up Philosophy a little different is that the rhythm of the performance, is caught up very directly with the ideas one is communicating. Ideas are therefore not lurking beyond the performance or underlying it, but are very much centre stage, and the performance must echo, and reflect the 'demonic' lines by which the ideas reach back into the past, but also into our minds, and the way in which we grope towards a future. Good stand up philosophy orchestrates this thought by any means, be it by humour or audience participation, poetry or tragedy.
To perform philosophy, is therefore to allow an idea to really be understood for what it is. Ideas are not something there to be thought and done with, understood and so completed. They are rather strange pathways blending any times and multiple problems, making demons of and in all of us. For the history of philosophy done properly is really a demonology, and to perform it, an act of evocation.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Why perform Philosophy - part 2

Beyond my personal reasons for performing philosophy, there are a number of substantive reasons why it works so well. Firstly a large and very important part of the philosophical canon was, and in a sense still is, essentially oral. Before printing, ideas which resonated, which worked, had to be those which not only passed from book to book, but also lingered in the memory. Think of Plato's style, of the fact that we have Aristotle's lectures notes, or the lecture stylistics of Plotinus. Philosophy was then always, like so much of ancient culture, a game of speaking, thinking and remembering, and doing it is as stand up or performance is merely recalling that fact.
But there is a second very deep reason why Philosophy works as 'stand up', which goes close to the heart of my understanding of the discipline. It has always seemed to be, that most truly great philosophical ideas are actually rather simple in essence. They might mangle the mind, and make you re-think how you understand what you are, but the idea itself is very simple, and often quite succinct. It can therefore be taken succinctly from the context of a book, and presented as a thing in itself, as an idea that people will encounter, to surprise and delight.
But there are other reasons why Philosophy works as performance, great philosophers are, as Deleuze said, great stylists. They are re-working language, forging a word hoard of their own, and you can actually hear them do it as you perform them. Whether it is in the form of the great opener, or ending, or slips in words or quiet and complex or even evolving repetitions, all make their presence felt, and add to the performance. In a sense this is only natural, one is after all performing some of the finest material ever written.
Finally, albeit in a subtle way, great philosophy is great drama or perhaps comedy. Philosophy is after all, quite literally mind changing, and what is more dramatic than that? Moreover great works of philosophy often represent moments in a crisis, be that its onslaught or its resolution. They are therefore in a sense naturally dramatic, a drama that establishes odd connections between some of the deep assumptions of our own mind, and the personal histories and individual crises, of the thinkers, whose ideas laid down those assumptions. What we take as natural and so obvious, is seen differently, as an idea that is new and heartfelt, or perhaps agonising, or beautiful, or even ridiculous. Stand up philosophy opens us up to a drama we are still part of, and throws light on our place in it, as both audience but also as modern actors.
Or to put it another way, Philosophy is essentially dramatic - and stand up philosophy merely surfs that fact.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

What made you a stand up philosopher?

" Time bought me here "
The idea of stand up philosophy was born really from three things.
Firstly and most deeply, running through my show is my simple love for philosophy and for the problems it asks. Most particularly I love thought when it challenges our expectations about what the world is - be it our perceptions of the importance of Time or the balance of perception and reality, or the idea of freedom, philosophy has much to ask of us, and much to challenge us with. To perform philosophy is therefore to liberate some of the most powerful of ideas, and beautifully written intense words, from their traditional scholarly context, and introduce them into new contexts, so that many can feel their force and challenge.
Secondly the idea of stand up philosophy has appealed to me because of my own rather unique circumstances. I have a 'condition' which was, say thirty years ago, called mild dyslexia, but had by twenty years ago become severe dyslexia (although I has remained the same) and then changed by some odd 'medical' metamorphosis, a decade ago or so to 'Dyspraxia', before finally dropping off all scales, and the spectrum, to become what it always was - an oddity (which actually was a great relief). Suffice it to say that between my thoughts and my fingers a strange miasma exists. So that however clear an idea is in my head, and however subtle the way I think I am writing it is, however nuanced, and intricate, what actually appears on the page has spelling that would disgrace an eleven year old and far more critically, grammar that at times would disgrace an infant school. While at the same time, every piece of paper I lay my hands on ends up crumpled... All of which means means I do not really fit in neatly with traditional academia, which perfectly naturally, tends to judge on the written word, and to be somewhat suspicious of the spoken.
Finally, partly perhaps because of the dyslexia, I have always loved teaching, and presenting ideas so that everyone or any one can get something out of them, and have the chance to use them. Professionally I teach maths, but always, in my brief university career, loved teaching philosophy, and the show was a natural extension of that love. It just felt right, to still be presenting the ideas and thoughts I valued most... a feeling that was confirmed both when I started my stand up routine and when a very wide variety of audiences seemed to really engage with the show, which then developed to include more and more philosophy, but also became more varied, as the routines included some performances which drew upon my other storytelling / dramatic shows.

The result is a show that is I hope at once true to philosophical roots, but highly varied and engaging performances, from clear expositions of complex ideas, through to dramatic and powerful renditions of a philosophy, or perhaps the moment the philosopher suddenly had 'THAT IDEA', to crowd-pleasing, audience-participation, storytelling style pieces which remain quirkily thoughtful, and surprisingly complex. A sequence of performances and styles which create a show which I hope straddles many divides and is capable at once of making professional philosophers smile, while it engages those who have a passing knowledge of the ideas, and intrigues and encourages the lay person, but above all, and at all levels remains splendid entertainment.