Should Public Intellectuals Appear on YouTube?

Leiter Reports notes a new Danish television program on philosophy, which reminds me of this review of a book on French programs on similar topics. The French were apparently way ahead of the curve in worrying about the future of philosophy as mere written words:

[In] the thirty years after the radio broadcast of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 essay “Republic of Silence,” philosophers in France were peculiarly concerned with their changing media. Declaring the book inert—“written by a dead man about dead things,” Sartre wrote in 1947, “it no longer has any place on this earth”—he advised contemporary writers to “learn to speak in images” and to work for newspapers, radio, and film.

Tamara Chaplin’s vivid, thorough, and irreverent cultural history Turning On the Mind: French Philosophers on Television presents [programs featuring philosophers]. . . from [the] point of view . . . of a Parisian couch potato. . . . .The most charming scene in [one such program, The Teaching of Philosophy] is the attempt by the show’s director, Jean Fléchet, to capture “the philosophical event” in the “act of its becoming,” by putting Jean Hyppolite and Georges Canguilhem together in a taxi, where they debate the nature of truth.

Should philosophers (and public intellectuals generally) take to the airwaves? I think a few schools of thought on the topic are developing.


Back in 1995, Robert Hughes argued that

TV favors a mentality in which certain things no longer matter particularly: skills like the ability to enjoy a complex argument, for instance, or to perceive nuances, or to keep in mind large amounts of significant information, or to remember today what someone said last month, or to consider strong and carefully argued opinions in defiance of what is conventionally called ‘balance’ . . . and . . .its content lurches between violence of action, emotional hyperbole, and blandness of opinion”

Will YouTube make things better? Andrew Sullivan has his doubts:

You don’t want to watch a programme, let alone a full-length film or lengthy documentary, or even a half-hour news broadcast, on a computer screen. What endures online is the quick hit, the short impression, the visual punchline that requires a minimal set-up. For drama or in-depth journalism or even an interview that can actually get beneath the surface of a subject or beyond the spin of a public figure: television still has the edge. . ..

So if you’re still reeling from the impact of blogs on journalism, sit tight. Blogging with words was simply the beginning; blogging with video has only just begun.

I’m reminded here of the website BigThink, which I initially thought of as a good idea. Though I haven’t watched much, I have yet to see a short clip on it that I find truly compelling. I’ve also felt that appearances on BloggingheadsTV tended to diminish, rather than enhance, the bloggers it’s featured. Perhaps the title of the site itself plays a role there; as James Grimmelmann has noted in another context, “using such a silly title is like starting off a lecture by hitting yourself in the face with a cream pie.” Or perhaps the Supreme Court’s reluctance to be televised reflects an awareness of the odd relationship between authority and notoriety: a ubiquitous media presence can garner you fame, but it only takes one slip to lose respect.

On the other hand, YouTube is allowing some commentaries to flourish that would probably never see the light of day on even a community access channel. Regardless of the quality of the YouTube experience, I predict that those who want their ideas to influence public affairs are going to need to develop an audiovisual web presence. Though I have a very high tolerance for reading text, I’m getting an increasing amount of information from podcasts. People who don’t read text at leisure (an increasing percentage of the US population at least) are going to be influenceable, if at all, via audiovisual media. Market-driven media are not going to be picking up philosophy programs; YouTube (and podcasting like Philosophy Bites) are a low-cost alternative.

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