Written Assignments

Applying Complex Thought: Philosophy and Popular Culture


Web Resources for This Assignment

Karl Marx, The Alienation of Labor
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals
Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age
A Philosophical View of the World Around You   The purpose of this assignment is to apply sophisticated ideas to the world around you. In keeping with the spirit of independence that characterizes the last half of this class, you can choose from one of three assignments. You can apply Marx to Beavis and Butthead, or you can explain the movie Babe in terms of Nietzsche's discussion of value, or you can show how Rush Limbaugh embodies the spirit of the present age as described by Kierkegaard. Remember always to respond to other answers; the best answers will incorporate ideas from answers dealing with other questions on a thinker that you're not dealing with.


Marx and Beavis and Butthead   Sometime before the industrial revolution, the nature of human labor began to change, not just simply in terms of actual work, but in the very idea or ideology of work. The two central theorists of this change in human labor are on the one hand, Adam Smith, and on the other, Karl Marx. Although Smith is the major early theorist of the emerging capitalist system and Marx the early theorist of its antithesis, you may find that by and large they think identically.
   In particular, both Smith and Marx begin from the same starting point: all meaning and value in the human world is fundamentally based in human productive labor . I want you to carefully examine Marx's discussion of the nature of human labor in the modern age. Marx diagnoses the problem by concentrating on the alienation of labor and the changed relationships between humans and the objects they make (the "fetishism" of commodities). These latter two arguments are extremely complex: there are four levels of alienation, for instance: you'll have to deal with one of those levels. If you deal with the fetishism of commodities, then you're going to have to grasp Marx's complex definition of a commodity—that will be your starting point in your essay.

At Work at Burger World

   Now this second section assumes that you have some familiarity with the show, Beavis and Butthead. In the second section of your assignment, I want you to apply one of the ideas you've discussed in the first section and apply that discussion to explaining the relationship that Beavis and Butthead have either to labor or to the objects they consume. There are, of course, an infinite number of examples of labor: the shows that deal with Burger World or the random occasions that Beavis and Butthead work for their neighbor, Tom Anderson. All the school episodes might be collapsed under this category as well. What is our culture in this show saying to us about the nature of the work we do? What is it saying to us about the nature of the objects we consume? Why do you think that it focusses so ruthlessly on the younger generation? If you want to be particularly brilliant, you can use this second discussion to come to a larger interpretation of the show as a whole.


Pigs and Values: Nietzsche and the Dilemma of Moral Values   If for Marx, humans are primarily defined by their ability to produce material objects , for Nietzsche, human beings are distinguished by their ability to produce meaning, morality, and value . While this is an oversimplification, it is the general thesis you should begin with in approaching the often disorganized and highly rhetorical arguments in The Geneaology of Morals . All the complexities of Nietzsche's arguments flow from his basic view that human life is distinguished by the human ability to create meaning and value and that all meaning and value is a social phenomenon. In other words, it isn't enough to simply come up with your own moral system, you must revalue the values of the societ y surrounding you.
   There are several aspects to Nietzsche's argument in The Geneaology of Morals . The most important is his distinction between the morality of "good and bad" (master morality) and the morality of "good and evil" (slave morality). He associates positivity and productivity with the former, and asceticism (ascetic ideals) with the latter. I want you to closely explore one of these moral systems of Nietzsche's carefully in three paragraphs or so, explaining and criticizing Nietzsche's logic.

Pig of Destiny

   Once you've produced a working, sophisticated, and critical explanation of one of the two modes of human "value-making," I want you to apply that discussion (the logic of Nietzsche's argument, not just his conclusions) to that magnificently nonsensical film, Babe . For the primary issue of the film is the nature of value, meaning, and morality, and the role individuals play in their construction and maintenance. It is a thorough-going Nietzschean film in every way possible. I want you to apply one of the central aspects of Nietzsche's definition of human value-making, either master morality, slave morality, or ascetic ideals to explaining the moral and meaning systems in the logic of the film.
   The film, of course, is rich in moral and value systems: the farmer, his wife, his children all have competing value systems; the value systems of the sheep-herding competition; the value systems of the dogs; the sheep; the duck; the cat. All of these are active participants in creating a unified, working moral and social system out of separate and competing value systems. And then there's the pig, of course. If there is one overriding theme to the film, it is the challenge to the social moral and meaning system unwittingly played out by the pig. I want you to think about these competing moral systems in a very sophisticated way. Your first step will be to start with a Nietzschean perspective: all morals, value, and social meaning are created by their participants. From there, apply one of Nietzsche's moral systems (slave morality versus master morality) to one or more of the competing moral systems in the film.
   This section of the essay should be fairly long: at least five detailed paragraphs. Your interpretation of the film should employ the logic of Nietzsche's arguments, not just his conclusions.

Bringing Home the Bacon

   There are three rules I want you to particularly follow on your assignment. Somewhere early in your first paragraph, I want you to provide a thesis which clearly lays out the entirety of your argument, that is, explains how you are going to apply Nietzsche to the film. The second rule: make sure that the material you discuss in the first part of the essay in your explanation of Nietzsche is applied to the material in the second part of your essay. The third rule: I want you to select a previous answer and respond to that answer specifically. I don't want you to reproduce that answer, I want you to frame your thesis as a rebuttal or as a development of someone else's answer (and be nice to that someone else or you'll be served for Christmas dinner).

May I have an extra porkchop?

   You will get extra credit for answering anyone who uses your answer to frame their own answer, whether they develop your answer or disagree with you. So I encourage you to look over the responses sometime on Monday and respond creatively and nicely to another person's response to your response.


Rush Limbaugh and the Present Age   Like Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard believed that modernity had lost the ability to make moral decisions; that modern society was an age of reflection rather than passion. There are four main parts of Kierkegaard's argument in The Present Age that you should get a handle on: a.) the difference between passion and reflection; b.) the notion of levelling and envy; c.) the public; d.) the Media.

The Present Age

   I want you to explain one of these four main ideas in two to three paragraphs. This is going to be hard work, for in order to explain any one of these ideas, you'll need to deal with the other three in some way. Kierkegaard's main focus is on what modernity does to the indidual, so your discussion should keep this aspect in mind.

Rush and Ads

   In the second part of your discussion, I want you to write two or three paragraphs where you apply your discussion in the first part to Rush Limbaugh's radio show. The focus of your discussion will about how mass culture changes political discourse and how Rush Limbaugh best represents the spirit of modernity as described by Kierkegaard.
   Make sure that you have a clearly defined thesis, and incorporate into your essay a response to a previous essay by another student.


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