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!

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Symbol and the Thought

One of the odd, almost covert secrets to what we call thinking, is its relationship with what we write, and how we write it. To solve an equation in one's head is rather difficult, but to have it all written down, and in the right way, is to have it solved. The moment something is out there, the moment it is external, it changes in how we react to it. We see it as something external to us, and can correct it or even react to it as something other than ourselves. To write a thing, is to lose one's own unique right to it. Writing marks the moment the thought stops being simply one's own, and becomes everyone's (oneself included).
And yet, as anyone solving an equation or writing down an idea knows, it is not quite that simple. To write it down is to objectify it, and so be able to check it. And yet as one writes an idea down, as they become anyone's thought, they also remain one's own thinking. Hence one enters into a strange kind of dialogue, between one's 'thoughts that everyone' might read, and as they exist in one's own mind. To write a book is to think as oneself, but also as everyone or anyone, and so to be placed in the strange territory that oscillates between the two.
This process is very much the stuff of philosophy books, which are written as much for the thinker and their own mental process, as for any reader. They are often then both strangely intimate - as they record a mind exploring itself and its ideas; and yet also oddly impersonal - as what is left of that exploration is only the everyman part. Hence they exist as an enigma, as half of a thought process. What is more, a reader of such a work, is actually being invited to complete this whole and use the book as an 'anyone' to negotiate their own thoughts, and so to set up their own internal dialogues, and think for themselves.
The role of performance philosophy as I understand it, is to reflect upon, and catch something of these strange dialogues. One is therefore exploring not the personality of the writer (one is an actor, and never trying to 'get under the skin' of the thinker as themselves) so much as how the 'everyone' of a philosophy book loops both back into the initial writer, and forwards into us all. One is essentially exploring the 'double loop' by which a book binds together its writer and its readers in different mental journeys of their own. This is of course why the history of the text, both in the context of the thinker's own mental development, but also in the sense of wider posterity, matters so much. It is this history that shows, in part at least, the way in which the book changed things, both for its writer but also for us, and even more importantly how it still changes things. However even this history is only a part of the picture, and as such serves as its inspiration or clue. The real power of performance philosophy stands and falls, by how it illustrates or explores or opens out, or perhaps even inverts, the intense relationship between writer, book and reader. A performance works only if this relationship is rendered both palpable, powerful, and present. That is, it works when the book is made vivid, and given its own power to reach across the years, splicing our minds to the original thinker's ideas, and so inciting us to go on a mental journey own. I feeling, a power, I at least strive for in every performance.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

So, what is it about you and philosophy?

The question is often asked - why perform philosophy? What makes you like it so much?
This is a real question for any would be philosopher, and for two reasons. On the one hand the subject, because it has a certain cadence and history, has a real pretension value, that it is well to ward oneself against. To cite Nietzsche or Kant or indeed any bon mots, is enough to look like one knows something or thinks something (a fact that is a personal bete noire of mine). On the other hand, from the perspective of modernity, there is surely a question mark over whether all these thinkers from so long ago, who lived another world, and very different societies, have that much to say to us now. Why should they? And why should we expect them to?
What is more, if you put these two points together, you get a single simple fear - that the study of philosophy is merely ancestor worship for modern times. For where else but in a world of thought do we find our 'thinking ancestors' but in philosophy? Philosophy very easily becomes theology, where a single narrative of 'emerging ideas that changed the world', can be 'seen here in the "pure(est)" form' - which becomes the endless refrain. A form of ancestor worship which makes philosophers its priests, and so called upon to answer anything or everything.
What I suppose gets me down about these philosopher-priests is the assumption of the faith, that in the sacred writings of the philosophers there lie questions (we still are asking) and their (partial and absolute or still relevant) answers; and the authorities are cited safe in the knowledge of this fact.
The trouble of course is that this is simply not true.The history of thought is actually composed of very many questions, some badly formed, some still relevant, but there are also many half questions, or questions we would ask differently, or ones that have slipped in meaning and changed over the years. Likewise the histories contains many answers, many of which we now see as 'solutions' to other questions, or simply try to ignore them or occlude them. What unites the cacophony of different 'takes' on the world are however the minds of their thinkers, who are clearly thinking things out for themselves, and whose logic one can in a sense still follow, in spite of where it is leading. Hence it is the thinker, the named philosopher, who allows one into a world that is quite different from modernity, a difference that in a sense allows you to feel the history of all the time that has passed between the thinker-writer and you the reader.
And yet this weight of time is itself very uneven. Some of the problems of the past cut through to the present, making you see things (perhaps in spite of the thinker themselves) very differently, or just from another perspective, whilst other remain pure history, and it is very clear that their initial thinkers had no idea which would be the case. For me therefore, the study of philosophy is all about changing and partially challenging one's own mental landscape: To read philosophy is to change problems into solutions or older problems, and make modern 'solutions' themselves problematic (i.e. in order to critique it into being a better solution or to show up its unintended consequences for example). It is in short to think, and to be trusted with thought, and not merely given single or simple solutions.
From which it follows that to perform philosophy must always be about communicating, and involving the audience in the endless euphoria of this constantly shifting horizon line. It is to enter the world where ideas are not 'perfect abstractions' or clean simple divinities, but rather messy Greek gods, who endlessly challenge and change one's mind, and have histories and agendas of their own. Agendas which we, latterday Greek heroes, need to understand and navigate, and not escape or hope to master, but rather learn to enjoy and even love. And what could be more dramatic than that? How better to explore it then than in performance? And in answer to the question posed at the start, it is this deep love for difference, and the sharing of a challenge that keeps me thinking, that drags me back to philosophy; that makes me love it enough to perform it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Watching thought in Action

One of my odder 'guilty' pleasures is watching philosophy in action on YouTube. Why guilty? Because the philosophers I watch are all French, and I speak very little French. I am there, not watching them to learn anything, I am merely watching 'thought in action', in a pure form (well at least a form unflustered by the urgency to understand).
Watching too many of these videos and three things strike me. Firstly, there is the real care and yet very complex rhythms and flows of the thinker's speech and thought. They are not speaking in steady streams, even when they are out working out ideas they know very well. On the contrary their speech flows like a river, with rapids, eddies, torrents, strange backwards flows, as well as steady currents, taking one somewhere. Their conversation really is a journey therefore, and as about as far way from normal discussion as you can get. This is not a point being argued for or defended, so much as a flowing experiment in language. It is a flow which I find hypnotising even across the divide of language.
Secondly, to watch Foucault or Deleuze in action is to free one's mind of so many idiocies that are written by their detractors, who want to squeeze their thought into simplistic ideas (and accuse them of this or that). A parallel world of 'criticism' and of 'near' thought, where personality, 'popular' psychology, bad biography, national prejudices, and the fear which so many commentators appear to have about thinking, fuse and coalescence to give us Foucault the pervert, and fascist; and Deleuze the fool, and madman. To watch them in action is to see real philosophy, with all its very carefully nuances, and all its being necessarily thoroughly thought through. But more than that, one gets the feeling, from the voice, from the reaction of others, from the mannerisms, of the real compassion of this thinking. The thought is therefore really reaching out to others, in a resonance beyond simple characterisation or even identity. There might be a poetry in the nuance that is open to twisting by others or by history, but this is not there in the compassion of the thinking itself. But in a sense this is the point - the power and richness of an idea lies in its ability to say many things, and have many accords. It is not just Foucault who can be said to be fascist, but by the same logic Nietzsche, Spinoza, Plato, or indeed pretty much any one whom any critic does not care for... The fact that it is twisted, is of course the twister's issue, while the fact that the idea has the resources to be worth twisting relates back to its original rhythm and power; In short it is a black tribute to the original thought itself.
Thirdly watching a great thinker in action is very far from watching a discussion. Even great thinkers together are not discussing, so much as merging flows, and creating counter eddies in one another's thoughts. Philosophy in true philosopher's hands is less about straightforward discussion with its refrain of 'I respect your opinion but...' and more about flows of thought that capture imaginations, and minds, so that we become a part in it. Great thought therefore reaches inside us all from an unthinkable outside and so enriches minds and allows then to think differently, and it is by this criterion we always judge it. Real philosophy is not really a matter of discussions or endless legalistic 'this is my case' type arguments. A thinker might well not work for their readers or lookers on, but that does not matter, for one of the joys of the world is that one does not have to like everyone, and one can accept that some are likeable in spite of one's own feelings or thoughts or perceptions. Philosophy's true power is, and you can see this in the reaction of the audience and the care of thought in action, to give minds deeper resources, and polish up its power to see anew, a power that does not 'discuss' in conventional discussion form, that well.
All of which I suppose explains why for me, at least, philosophy is very close to being always performance. It reaches out into its audience, and is only good because it challenges and enriches them, using as its currency ideas which are themselves infused by passion, and language. Like good poetry or writing, good philosophy, should leave you wanting more, should also inspire you to provide that 'more' yourself, so that we are all inspired to think for ourselves. Perhaps the only difference is that ideas, if they are really great, should become genuinely part of the living fabric of one's thought as it develops and evolves (in a way very distinct for the bon mots and quotes of a great writer). Perhaps it this fact that makes watching the ideas being unwound in another language so mesmerising, for one is watching that enrichment of minds in action, without being a part of it. That is, one is experiencing in its most basic form, the performance of philosophy, and it is wonderful!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Performer Notes 2: Material Performances

One week, two open mikes, and a fair bit of stand up philosophy.
The first open mike was the long established and lovely Acoustic Night at Bristol (details at; http://www.myspace.com/acousticnightbristol). We went on a whim, it was my birthday, and we fancied a trip to the Big Smoke (or at least Bristol)... The main problem for me was what to perform - always a trouble without knowing the sort of audience in advance. I took in my 'Four Minute Foucault' on the grounds that introducing people to really revolutionary and freeing thought, is one of the funnest things I do. I love people's looks as Foucault deconstructs the prisons of gender identity and personal sexuality in front of their very eyes. It also has the advantage of being a short and very powerful piece.
However when I arrived they suggested that the night might not be that busy, as it was the day before Valentine's Day and all, and did I want to do a longer piece? So, I cursed a little, and rejigged my memory, attempting to remember the Trial of Socrates piece, I chose this as it is by far the most dramatic piece I do, real theatre, and very moving. But as I rehearsed and worked up my memory, the acoustic night filled up and up (all credit to the organisers). Until it became obvious that the full trial piece was too long, so it was back to Foucault, which I had to reload into my memory, just in time to be on.
Given which, I was very happy with the resulting performance, which went down well - I was asked about Foucault at length in the interval, and one kind PhD student said he was doing a PhD on performance and philosophy, and this was the purest exposition he had ever seen of the combination (shucks). So all in all we had a whale of a time... You can see the performance at; http://youtu.be/yEouPgH0xrU
Two days later it was another open mic and a different piece. The open mike was perennial favourite Taking the Mic at Exeter's Phoenix. This was my newest piece (which I blogged about before) which I was trying out, as I usually do, for the first time, on my 'home' audience. The piece was eventually entitled 'What would Marx want to say to us?', and was meant to be an answer to the 'What would Jesus do?' question, that was being asked a few weeks back. The piece is part exposition of what Marx did say, part critique of the financial system, and part confession, for Marx wants to explain why there was no revolution when said there would be... It is a piece therefore I was doing in very much Marx's own voice, and mannerisms (which I was extemporising from paintings and photos of him.) You can see what it was like at; http://youtu.be/Bs2ENnEQxtw.
The reaction was interesting. It was a finely nuanced and open ended piece, deliberately poised between comedy and critique, and as chance would have it, a large number of students had turned up, and they were game for a laugh. They sniggered through Marx's account of why there had been no revolution, laughter I am afraid I frankly that I played up to, camping up Marx's 'I will return' line, so it was worthy of a Bond villain. But all the while I knew that the end of the piece is actually very dark, so that I would be asking the audience to go from comedy to tragedy in a very few lines. A move that has be timed very well if it is to work at all, and one which when I first started out as a performer I would routinely get wrong. Luckily however, the interlinking lines, are the ones that involve the marxist analysis of the modern 'crisis of capitalism', and (Marx's) David Cameron impersonation. They are both then funny and sad, and so allowed the mood to change naturally, and very much as part of the performance. I let Marx then change the mood, as naturally as I could, which seemed to work well enough. I got the impression that I would perform this piece again, and that it would work for the right audiences...
I was left after these two performances in two cities, with the feeling that not only does philosophy really work as performance, but also that people love seeing it, and the doing the thinking it asks of them. For it only works if the audience engage with it, and want to enough to concentrate perhaps more than they were expecting at an open mike, and so far they always do. So that after a week of performing I am not only fired up to do more, but more than usually impressed by the quality of the audiences and heartened by their willingness to think and respond to something fairly different, and frankly quite provocative.
Oh and of course gratitude to the lovely organisers of the Bristol Acoustic Night (and the great sound technician), and as ever Tim and Morwenna of Taking the Mic.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Performance notes 7: Memories are made of....

One of the things that people routinely ask me about the stand up show is about memory. How, they ask, can you remember it all? What is the trick?
A sensible question, and yet one that makes me always feel like a conjuror, who has pulled a fast one. For I suspect if that I did remember the work as they think I must - word for word, I could not remember any of it. The game is to abstract the meaning of the text, and so to reduce it to a certain number of salient facts. What I am remembering is an abstract, which the performance then fleshes out.
And yet that is not quite the whole picture. For actually a single performance uses a number of different types of memory. Firstly there are the deep memories I have of these works. Most of them are based on pieces and thinkers I taught for a number of years, and studied very deeply for very many years before that. When you have read a book one thousand and one times, it tends to stick in the mind. Although there are issues of accuracy about such deep memories. I will therefore before a new performance, re-read the original text, and keep it around as I start on the piece. Secondly, when I am working on a piece for the first time, I often use the fact that I have a fairly developed visual aspect to my memory. I can remember quite well pages, and the arguments that are on the pages. As I perform I am actually following the pages in my thought, turning them over, and imagining the significant phrases.
Thirdly each piece I perform is worked up very much as I work up a story for telling. I do not write it down and draft it as a written text. On the contrary, I gradually work out what I am going to say aloud, repeating, composing, and rehearsing at the same time. It is at this point I decide about the voice and the passion, about who is saying what, and how much of the subsequent history or work of other thinkers I am going to blend into my interpretation of the piece, and how and when. All of which moves then feed back into my memory, creating 'chords' of thought and passion: Remember a phrase and passion comes to mind, remember a passion and one has an idea... I often will play with phrases again and again, fiddling with the emphasis, and the rhythm of the language - I like my performances to sound almost as if they were in blank verse - until I am happy with it (and have driven anyone standing near me quite quite mad).
Once the piece is half baked, I then perform it to my long suffering partner, and she gives me her take on it. She tells me how the mood, and the passions sounds to someone else. This is actually very important, as it never sounds the same in one's own mind, as it does to another. At which point I will discuss the important phrases with her, and work out those passages or sentences I have to get right. These I then commit to memory in the most conventional of senses.
After which, I rehearse a new piece every time I have a minute (when walking, driving etc). The point of these rehearsals is only partially to memorise. Each rehearsal is different, and explores other ways in which the piece might be said. They allow therefore for experiment, to see if I can find a better way to make the arguments in the piece. But also they allow me to explore the different avenues which different phrases lead to. Every performance is different, and to a degree the words I use are ad libbed. It is therefore highly useful to explore different ways you have said something, so that when you are in front of a live audience and use an odd phrase or a set of words that you had not used before, (which actually sometimes happens), you can still keep the piece going.
At which point, one is ready to go live. My first performance of most of my pieces is to an open mike audience, who I know very well. Their reaction will then allow me to accurately gauge the power or difficulty of the piece, and will to a large degree define its fate. Will it be a one off / occasional act or one of my absolute standards? We also video this performance, which is itself vital. For it is these videos I then turn to when reprising the piece. I learn it a second time in a totally different way, from the video, with all its mannerisms, gestures and audience reaction. So that when one is working up a piece for a second time, one is doing so very much in the light of how one performed it live, and what followed. This is actually vital, as it allows one to 'remember' one's timing, and to know exactly which pieces and parts worked and why.
The resulting piece is therefore a strange beast. Never purely oral or written, it oscillates between the two. It is a product of an initial written text, but also living memory (which always repeats in difference), and eventual video recording/live performance. It bounces around the written-spoken juncture, is part one and part the other. A place that really works for me and my mind but also I always feel, rather apt for performance philosophy.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Performer notes 1; So how do you perform philosophy?

I am currently working on a performance piece for next week, and it will serve well as an example of how one works up ideas or books into performance.
First and foremost is something rather obvious: One actually has to have something interesting to say. Moreover this idea must resonate with the audience. There is no point then in having an abstract idea that is too complex to explain, nor yet to simply learn and then repeat the words of the philosopher with no effort to show how and when and why they matter. But this does not mean of course that one cannot perform abstract ideas, and I certainly rework all the thinkers I perform. I perform 'my' version of them, as a philosopher. Nor can one as a performance philosopher ever forget the texts one is performing. It is just that onto these facets of 'straight' philosophy are grafted the need to keep words and ideas engaging and provocative: An exercise in exegesis that I actually find stimulating. If I can explain an idea to a mixed audience (in age/experience of philosophy from lots to virtually none) engage some of them, and keep the subtlety of the original, then I think the idea is really worth something.
Hence I only perform new pieces when I have something actually new to say. For example, next week I am performing Marx, a philosopher from whom I have developed performance pieces before. The question is therefore what do you have new to say? My previous pieces being a summary of the very important chapter on the machine from Das Capital (http://youtu.be/AtNuvR4bBhY), and the very famous opening bars of the eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (http://youtu.be/Eq7TySBsgq0). What I have not done, is a classic overview of Marx, the kind of one that I gave in my university lecturing days. But the game then is exactly how does one translate the lecture hall into the music hall?
This leads to the second main aspect of performing philosophy - it is an awful a lot about finding the right voice for the thinker. Most critical here is the person or character one performs in. I usually think stand up thought ought to have a little bit of first person performance, so that there ought to be a moment when one is being the thinker in question, and yet one does not need to be doing that solely. Additionally even if one is being the thinker, one has to decide exactly how one is being so. That is in what manner or aspect are they present? Are they before an audience as the writer of their work, or as a modern commentator with the benefit of hindsight, and even later scholarship? And if the former, exactly what part of the original are they going to highlight and develop, what part is haunting them and requiring them to write? Alternatively, are they actually haunting us through their work? And if so how is that ghost manifest? Likewise if they are simply present, then what are they going to say? Why have they come back? In what sense are they looking at us, and wanting to speak? Alternatively if one is keeping them in part in the third person, then why are you doing so? And even more importantly how does that distancing attempt to control the thinker or their work. and how does the idea of that philosopher actually strain at this third person element? Could they break free? In short perhaps, this is the point at which one finds the edge of the thought.
In the current piece I am working on, I started with this last option, trying to explain and contain Marx; But he broke free from the containment, and in my mind at least clearly wanted to speak for himself, and had a lot to say. For how could he not be fascinated and repelled by all the history that lies in the one hundred and thirty years since he died? Or how can he not comment on current affairs, and his interpretation of them? The strength of the piece will revolve around how this 'having Marx in the room,' element works. Here one must be as faithful as one can. Marx is a challenging and volcanic thinker, with a pragmatic eye, an ability to overturn dogma (even his own) and an ability to re-work current affairs, and to allow one to understand them anew or askance. But at the same time, he is prone to self-justification, and to an entrenchment of his own views in the face of what he feels to be criticism, or even worse, misuse of his ideas. He has therefore an awful lot to say about recent history. The trick of the performance will be getting this voice right. That is, getting the right amount of self -justification, blended with re-analysis of the political situation, and subtle re-interpretation of his own ideas and approach in the face of what subsequently happened. Central to the performance is therefore Marx's account of why things did not work out as he thought they would, and its climax lies in his relationship with what that might mean, and his posing it as a problem for the audience.
The style of this piece is in a sense my homage less to Marx and more to Nietzsche. For it was Nietzsche who first realised, and exploited the real power of the 'confessions' of philosophers. Nietzsche's Zarathustra draws upon all the freedom of the first advocate to re-think morality, and re-work humanity, a realisation that will then catch us all up in it. It is this ability of the original to re-think what followed that I will draw upon in this piece, and the performance will stand or fall by how convincing then the confessional element of a great thinker truly is, or not.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Performance Notes seven: Whose line is it anyway?

One of the features of philosophy, written or performed, is its relationship with its authors. In a sense every written discipline conjures up and then possibly kills its non-present author, in a whole variety of ways.
For example, both drama and novels exist as the progeny of their author. A Shakespeare play or a Dickens' novel is essentially part of a tribe, whose badge is the name and all it implies, of their distant author or parent. Each work reflects their parent's concerns, while being a thing in its own right. Moreover each work is bought into a relationship with all the other works of the same author, good or bad, short or long, comedy or drama. They all jostle together as siblings reflecting and refracting each other's themes, and ideas, but always each doing so in its own way, while others look on and choose their favourite...
Alternatively science, in the name of constants or formulae or laws, treat the name of their founder or first observer almost as an impresario. One talks then of Newton's laws of motion, as if he was the one who had realized their production. Which in a sense of course he was. It was his genius after all that cleared the way, that defined the stage in which the laws function, and through which they might be observed. In a similar vain, Einstein 'arranges' relativity and opens our minds not only to different ways of producing thoughts about the natural word, but also, that in the form of new experiments, endless new little possible dramas. (For experiments can be very dramatic.)
Philosopher's names are again different. For philosophy almost at its outset, used the names of others to explore thought, calling them up as if they were familiar spirits or demons, or wearing them as dramatic masks. Hence Plato called upon the voice, mask, and so ideas of Socrates to explain his thinking, while Kant wrestled with a Hume whose ideas he felt he needed to counter. Philosophers therefore enter the mind as a way of thought, a set of assumptions and moves, or ideas and observations, that are then treated as something in themselves. The power of a philosopher's ideas lies in their power to allow others to don the mask of their thinker, and to use those ideas to create new thoughts of their own. An idea is good in philosophy if it can take over, and run across the minds of very many other thinkers, and infuse many other ideas.
It is this feature of philosophy that works so very well as Stand up. One is always, in different ways, conjuring with another's ideas. To perform philosophy is to show exactly how and why philosophy works as it does. That is, it is to show how thinking with another's ideas actually allows and develops new thought. And even more importantly, stand up hopes to communicate how that curious state that develops in the mind of the student of philosophy, where they are no longer sure where their thoughts begin, and another's end, is so creative and so powerful. It is this 'in between space', where ideas are shared, and developed, held in common, and so transformed, that defines philosophy; but also perhaps ironically, which makes good stand up, which likewise revolves around a collective reacting to an idea or phrase or perhaps experience. It follows that done properly, stand up philosophy ought to be very real philosophy, for the sharing of ideas between the living and the dead and the creation of odd interpersonal thoughts that necessarily follow, is the stuff of philosophy itself, and the source of some of its power. So that essentially, philosophy is performance, it is always the sharing of ideas attached to philosopher-actors, and it is this vitality, this hidden drama, which stand up exploits and feeds upon, and hopes to communicate.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Stand up Philosophy: Fact or fiction? Performance notes 5.

An odd paradox lies close to the heart of stand up philosophy. Great philosophy is like great story telling, it is always open to reinterpretation and rethinking. One is never therefore simply a 'tribute act', and does not have the luxury of simply performing a script. On the contrary, to work out how to perform thought, is to be thinking at many levels, and with very many kinds of approaches.
First and foremost every performance must actually work as 'Stand Up'. It must therefore have a hook that will carry the audience along, be it the issue raised, the power of the words, or the intensity of the performance, or the humour of the approach. Every routine has therefore to be carefully thought through in terms of how it is reaching the audience, and making some kind of contact with them. Moreover audience participation is one of the central elements in working out how to make the performance work. One does not want too much of it of course, as stand up philosophy is not children's story telling. But not to have it at all runs counter to what the show is all about, as it reimposes the gap between the thinker and the audience. Getting the audience involved is highly nuanced, its aim is to always make them feel very much a part of the actual unwinding history of philosophy.
Secondly every performance needs to be true to the thinker. The ideas have to reflect what they are saying, and summarise something about them and their work. One needs then to extract the pith of the idea, as one understands it, which is always itself an active thought. And yet exactly how one tackles the original text is complicated by the history of how that work was interpreted and worked out across time. There is no point in just performing Cicero's 'Republic' alone, as much of its power lies in the fact that it is the bedrock of modern democratic constitutions. The strength of the performance therefore, lies in the fact that the audience hears this link, and reflects upon it in the context of the tragedy of Cicero's life. Nor is this ever simply a matter of going one way - for sometimes the history and tradition have greatly distorted how we understand what the thinker would tell us. There is nothing more shocking to most Western audiences than what Marx actually wrote, in all its measured reason, and ironic prophecy, and the game of performing him is therefore to somehow bypass the history that would tell us what to think of him and his work.
In short, one might say stand up philosophy only works if it is a real, albeit experimental, form of thinking. Ideas have to be thought through, performed and so shared, in the consciousness that the very act of sharing, transforms the ideas. To perform an idea or hear a performance, can never be the same as encountering that idea in book (or even in most lecture halls). And yet of course, this is indeed the point; Every idea always exists and actually has a power beyond the book and the school room. Philosophy matters in its capacity to reach beyond its specialists, to reach into people's minds and be reflected in the way they think and react. A movement that philosophy shares with not only most other forms of thought, but also with popular ideas and humour. Perhaps all good stand up revolves around being a link in this process. Stand up's role is to pass on semi-oral snippets - be they jokes or phrases or ideas, that will thereby slip into new contexts, and allow for new reactions, thoughts and remarks. All stand up must be fundamentally generous to the work which it shares. A generosity that I hope stand up philosophy not only shares in, but which transforms the ideas and their understanding, and so makes act of performing thought itself always a thought.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Stand up Philosophy: The power of ideas versus emotions - performance notes part s

There is an old truism, that one needs in thought to be very carful about emotions. Emotions lead one astray when one is thinking. They cloud thought, making you want to believe the untrue, or confuse the thought for the felt, as emotions form an intensity which feels like reality. This suspicion is well-founded; it was of such intense fears, and passions, that many a witch persecution is based. It is then no wonder that almost all philosophers, feeling themselves akin to witches, have lived in fear of the mob, and its collective passions: All the more so when the thinkers' ideas have often been untimely, problematic and complex. For how does one tell the collective believers they are not quite right, without becoming a figure of hate?
And yet this is only half the story. For what kind of passion motivates thinkers to think and act against the stream of public feeling? Is it really that they are following truth, pure and simple? And if so, is this not itself a passion? The answer surely is yes. What is more, it is a very singular passion, for it implies the thinker must have the courage to stand up against the mob, against what is currently 'normal' and thought right, a move which of course implies an even great passion for something, be it truth or posterity... To say that the philosopher should act dispassionately is therefore necessarily to miss the point. Most philosophers simply are passionate about something, - for why else write? What else is sustaining them as they sit in that closet, while the rain beats down and they think and write alone? Is it not that they are feeling the excitement of thinking and the urge to communicate those thoughts and the truths they open out on?
Moreover it is clear that passion that infuses their thought, in more diverse and complex ways, so much so that the relationship between the thinker and their passions is necessarily interesting in itself. For to think is of course to, in part, master one's passions, or perhaps better to endlessly reflect upon them. The result is essentially a patchwork of passion and thought. There are moments in every philosophy where the passion is not immediate, or hidden, or perhaps codified in the beauty or simple disruptiveness of an idea (think of Foucault's challenge to our ideas of sexuality here; a challenge that is passionate in the extreme, and yet expressed in logic). While at other times, the passion is allowed its head, in rhetorical flourishes or even sermons (think here of a Spinoza Scholium - little passionate essays that runs across his 'Ethics').
Finally many of the great philosophers are essentially vivisecting their own passions, and displaying the result. To read Spinoza's 'Ethics' or Nietzsche's 'Human all too Human', is to be taken close to the heart of a thinker, and their feelings. The power of the book lies in the way in which it allows you to understand the heart of its creator, and see in that heart echoes of one own being.
Philosophy is therefore caught is a very interesting and complex relationship with the feelings that infuse it, and yet which it must always clarify and reflect upon and through. A complex and often beautiful relationship, that is essentially the stuff of performance art. In showing the passion of thinkers, and how it infuses works of thought, one is both being true to the ideas of the thinker, but also their methodologies and motivations. For 'philosophy without passion is clearly a mistake'. What is more, these passions make great drama, and suck an audience of non-philosophers into a world some they thought they could never know, or perhaps otherwise experience: The world of thoughts and their passions, where philosophy really does mean 'love of knowledge'. A move that then allows the audience an entry point into philosophy, and new perhaps even offers them a new way to understand their own passions and their reaction to those passions.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Encounters with Philosophy as stand up: Part 2 - As difficult

One of the strange oddities about philosophy is its love affair with the difficult. And difficulty itself is such a tricky notion. There are three different senses in which philosophy is 'difficult', and only one of which is genuine.
First and most simply, philosophy likes to think of itself, and is thought as, 'difficult'. The motivation of course here is simple. If it is difficult then philosophers are clever - what is more, if it is difficult then the rest of the world need not bother with it at all. Philosophy becomes then a self-invented 'gold-standard' for knowledge. The course we put people on to prove we are serious in study. It becomes then, as it is sometimes taught (and often thought of ) as totally useless and self indulgent idiocy, whose main refrain is 'look at me, I am so very clever I am...I understand...': A feeling that might well be pretension, or might be honest, but either way misses the point. For me, the entire premise of stand up philosophy is that great ideas, even ones which are complicated in their language and subtle in the exposition, still have a power to move, to change the mind, to make one want to think differently. Philosophy however 'hard' has the power to intrigue, and opens on a poetry of possibly, which allows one to re-think one's own nature. Of course this move might in itself be 'difficult', in that it might involve much thought, and much self correction, however it should not feel it, in the same way that rhyming poetry should never feel artificial and forced. Philosophy should fascinate, delight, perhaps perplex, but always entice, and never feel difficult or impenetrable or even just mad.
The second a sense that philosophy is difficult lies in the fact that it does involve in itself a lot of study, and thought. And yet If the thinker is doing their job properly, the difficulty is more a problem of being time-consuming, rather than being 'hard'. Good philosophy takes time. That is of course rather difficult, it gets on the way of 'real life': But that requirement for scholarship in itself, does not make it 'difficult'. It merely says that the world cannot be immediately reacted to or understood - nor should it. Philosophy as stand up takes a certain position in this aspect of the difficult. Its job is to summarise years of study, to condense them into a performance, so that it should at once be highly textured, opening out on many layers, and shifting interpretations (with perhaps many voices), and yet not to ever drown in this knowledge. One must make the difficult feel natural, normal, even exciting. For as Socrates would say, what could be more exciting that being able to think, genuinely think for oneself? And good stand up makes you really want to think (and not merely argue or strop or simply react).
The final common use for the word difficult in this context is much harder to counter. Something is difficult if it makes the world difficult, edgy, not straight-forward. The difficult turns the world into a problem, and shatters easy had given solutions to that problem. A move, a making difficult, that philosophy, including as stand up, always claims as somehow peculiarly its own. The game is always to make that difficulty not feel hopeless or pointless. It might make the world more tricky, but the difficulty is worth it, or is at least worth trying. A move that is always difficult to make for every individual, but which which stand up philosophy hopes to inspire.
In short stand up is difficult because it makes one want to address the difficulty of the world, and should never be merely pointlessly 'hard'.