Chuck Klosterman and Philosophy: The Real and the Cereal (Popular Culture and Philosophy)

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9780812697629: Chuck Klosterman and Philosophy: The Real and the Cereal (Popular Culture and Philosophy)

Since he burst on the world with his heavy-metal memoir Fargo Rock City in 2001, Chuck Klosterman has been one of the most successful novelists and essayists in America. His collections of essays Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas have established Klosterman not only as a credible spokesman for intelligent purveyors of popular culture. His writings and regular columns (in Spin, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine and other venues) about music, sports, and modern culture have sometimes become themselves touchstones in popular culture. The success of his card-based game Hypertheticals: 50 Questions for Insane Conversations has demonstrated that Klosterman can connect with his fans and readers even off the printed page.

As he writes in his contribution to this book, Klosterman enjoys writing about big, unwieldy ideas” as they circulate in culture, in people, in music, and in sports. The twenty-two other philosophers writing alongside Klosterman couldn’t agree more. They offer their own take on the concepts and puzzles that fascinate him and take up many of Chuck’s various challenges to answer brain-twisting "hypertheticals" or classic ethical quandaries that would arise if, say, Aristotle wandered backstage at a Kiss concert.

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About the Author:

Seth Vannatta is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore. He teaches philosophy of law, political philosophy, ethics, logic, and American philosophy. He is a former varsity volleyball coach and soccer coach and has written on the philosophy of sport.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction: Chuck at the Crossroads of High and Low Culture

Seth Vannatta
We all have guilty pleasures, don’t we? During the summer of 1993, my guilty pleasure was watching Saved by the Bell reruns. That summer I bussed tables in Vail, Colorado. After the lunch shift I would swing by the video store, pick up a classic movie, a Hitchcock or an Academy award winner from long ago, get in a quick jog, and then veg on the couch for an hour and a half watching four episodes featuring Samuel Powers and Zack Morris. (The middle thirty minutes covered two episodes on different channels).

Somewhere in North Dakota, Chuck Klosterman was doing the same thing. But for Chuck, this was no guilty pleasure. Nothing more lofty or academic or altruistic was being postponed by this 90 minute routine. He was not even postponing his consumption of high art, watching Citizen Kane, for instance. I know this because Klosterman wants to rid the phrase, guilty pleasure” from English diction. He thinks it’s a phony category of entertainment.

The contributors to this book do not agree as to whether Chuck is right that guilty pleasure” is an empty phrase. But I don’t think they view reading Klosterman as a guilty pleasure, even if we think that concept is one worth keeping or even if we think Chuck is lying to himself about the status of guilty pleasures.

Chuck’s distaste for the phrase guilty pleasure is really just a suspicion that distinction between the street paved for serious academic work and the one for spontaneous riffing on pop culture is either bogus, or the paint used to mark the direction of traffic has so faded as to be indiscernible. Some serious minded people have tried to issue academic traffic tickets to Klosterman. He’s been accused of misinterpreting Jacques Derrida, of all violations! In the face of the accusation, Chuck pled guilty, telling his self-proclaimed academic copper that he had never read Derrida. When Klosterman did peruse the French philosopher’s work, he was doubtful that his accuser had ever read Derrida either.

Klosterman wanders the streets without paying any attention to the rules commanded by academic sovereigns. He follows his interests and inspirations, come what may. Chuck serves no academic camp in the war of ideas. In fact, he brings no philosophical weapons to the battle. How could he, when Chuck tells us that he secretly hates reading?

The contributors to this volume do not hate reading. In fact, they have probably read Derrida and quite a few other famous folks usually confined to college syllabi. We also read Klosterman. In doing so we find ourselves at a strange intersection where high meets low Kierkegaard meets KISS or Baudrillard meets Britney Spears.

Confronting the work of Chuck Klosterman at this eclectic, entertaining intersection forces us to ask whether the roads that constitute two forms of culture, the high and the low, are real or imaginary. If these one-way thoroughfares are real, then they only intersect once if at all, and their crossing each other is potentially dangerous. Violent accidents await, and we need some traffic rules to prevent disaster. But if these roads are fake, then the intersection is really infinitely inflated, allowing a continuous flow of traffic, spontaneously producing new travel patterns and rules of engagement.

The contributors to this book bring some philosophical lens to Klosterman’s project, as if to highlight what is already there, or to reflect on the same subject matter as Klosterman in a more consciously philosophical manner. This book is a celebration of the idea of engaging in culture in a thoughtful, reflective way. We are amenable to violating the supposed traffic rules maintaining the one-way streets of high and low culture. We are hopeful that such violations will produce new ideas about the meaning of pop culture and more.

The intersection of pop culture and philosophy is fortunate to have Klosterman as one of its libertarian traffic cops. But Chuck’s a traveler too, and in reading his reflections on the meaning of music, movies, celebrity status, TV, and video games, we ask a lot of questions. How are our relationships affected by our inundation in pop culture and the multiplication of media? What do pop culture trends say about our values? How do we create a cardinality of pleasures, goods, and interests if we are willing to break down the distinctions between high and low art? What is good, what is beautiful, and what is true?

Most importantly, how is our access to the good, the beautiful, and the true a refraction of our relationship to pop culture? If we cannot glimpse behind the veils of irony, appearance, persona, and inauthenticity, what are we left with? Are we left only with phoniness, cynicism, and disenchantment, or can we recover a modicum of earnestness, reality, self-understanding, and authenticity in and through our favorite bands, sports teams, video games, movies, and TV programs?

The authors in the volume are both fans and critics. Some worship at the altar of a Chuck-inspired religion, while others think Klosterman’s Kool-Aid is, if not poisoned, not mixed quite right. One author imagines Chuck as the leader of a new, hip religion of blasphemy, built on a new ten commandments, including imperatives such as thou shall rock, cuss, and footnote frequently.
Another author criticizes Chuck’s thin reading of texts such as soccer that constitute culture, and provide alternative speculations on the meaning of culture, the culture of football and fútbol, for instance. Others criticize Klosterman’s rampant hyperbole, his bad logic, and his ignorance of the wealth of ideas and facts, which would help him do his job. We criticize him when he turns his idiosyncratic tastes into ideal categories.

But we celebrate the logic of Klosterman’s writing, his endless string of resemblances that compose his thinking about the soundtrack of his and our lives. We celebrate Klosterman as a media ecologist, while asking that he take up a cause in his media ecology. And we thank him for allowing us to see something about ourselves, by reading his own quest for self-understanding in the reflections on pop culture that make up a sort of philosophical biography.

We see Klosterman producing carnivalesque literature that challenges the traditional road rules of culture criticism. Klosterman champions the low culture of women’s love of John Cusack and Coldplay and my generation’s fondness for Kelly Kapowski. Chuck subversively undermines the travel tenets of culture criticism by suspending the distance and hierarchies between those who travel the paths of high and low culture. We find this liberating. Additionally, we see Chuck’s discussion with Bill Simmons on the B.S. Report as representative of the meaningful public discourse necessary for a lively democracy.

We compare Chuck to a few famous philosophers, Socrates among them. Both wander around asking important people difficult philosophical questions involving self-understanding and the meaning of life. We speculate on the irony Chuck uses and the irony he discloses in his role as low culture guru: is he a cynic, a comedic ironist, or faithful servant of some idea that he claims to be ignorant of?

Chuck tells us: In and of itself, nothing really matters. What matters is that nothing is ever in and of itself’” (Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Preface). With or without Immanuel Kant’s noumena-phenomena distinction in mind, Chuck reminds us that we seek access to the in-itself, to the real and the true, but we cannot escape our own perspectives. We are always unconsciously applying the categories of our understanding to the objects we engage with, and those objects include rock bands, video games, cultural icons, and sports teams. Nothing Klosterman writes pretends to be in-and-of-itself. Chuck doesn’t pretend to write from a privileged perspective or from a foundational one. He writes in the middle of things and lets his interaction with the pop culture generate its own concepts. Then he uses those as formalized conceptual schemes to organize his pop culture realm.

In doing so, Klosterman stumbles onto meditations on concepts like self-awareness, self-understanding, identity, persona, authenticity, phoniness, and how those abstract concepts relate back to Klosterman’s pop culture subjects, but also back to himself. He uses pop culture as a prism to do a philosophical biography.

In Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck writes about a Guns N’ Roses Tribute band, Paradise City, reflecting on the meaning of a band whose sole purpose is to efface their own identities in order to imitate the equally constructed identities of another band. In doing so, he shows us the layers of self, persona, and constructed identity not only in performing rock bands, but in ourselves as well. In Killing Yourself to Live, he travels across the country visiting the places where famous rock musicians died, and the story turns into a long reflection about the meaning of dying and its relationship to the meaning of rock stars’ careers and memories, its relationship to love and sex, and ultimately its relationship to our own lives.

Klosterman writes in the space between inauthentically following the crowd, disingenuously attempting not to be a crowd follower by some self-stylized, already co-opted way of rejecting the mainstream, and the existential project of recovering a sense of self in and through our involvement with the stuff of pop culture. That space and that project of self-understanding is one strand of thematic unity in his writing. This a more meaningful theme because he is so obsessed with death and dying. Living with the possibility of our own deaths is more authentic than the retreat from that possibility. Seeing the dying in the living is one of the ways I think Klosterman is recovering himself and helping his readers do the same.

We also give Chuck a say in the whole affair. He has written the epilogue. Of course this just adds another dimension to the meta-character of the book. Chuck writes on pop culture. We write on Chuck writing on pop culture. Chuck writes on us writing on him writing on pop culture.

As you read what follows, know that you are at a crossroads. The high and low roads have intersected, and we only have Chuck Klosterman, the western canon of philosophy, and the stuff of pop culture to help us navigate them. We’ll break a few rules along the way because we’re not sure the roads are real or not.

We’re also not sure whether or not our libertine attitude is a guilty pleasure. Read on, and decide for yourselves.

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