Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Descartes was good, but Benaud is brilliant

This fortnight's Private Eye carried a cartoon that appealed to me. Two mourners are at Susan Sontag's gravestone, trying to read her epitaph. One says to the other "I'm sure it's very good, but I don't actually understand any of it." It reminded me of the death of Derrida late last year - an event so notable in France it was announced by the President - whose major contribution to the world's corpus of knowledge was that the use of language placed arbitrary and constraining limits on understanding, and that all knowledge was ultimately totally dependent upon personal perception.

Of course, useful lessons can, just about, be garnered from the messages of the likes of Sontag and Derrida. But what is it about intellectual culture that makes it so ultimately unaccessible to the ordinary man? Surely one of the reasons why Greek philosophers continue to have an impact into the modern world is not just because of the advanced nature of their culture, but because their ultimate message is also quite easy to understand, and not made impenetrable. (Admittedly, another reason for their continued importance is because they came from a culture with a love of learning - but that is a different matter entirely). When people criticise 'dumbing-down', they forget that half the problem is not the desire to appeal quickly to a mass audience, but the fact that guardians of moral and intellectual culture place themselves well above the plebs. The hostility in certain historical circles towards telly dons, for example, completely ignores the great work that television programmes can do in actually getting more people to take an active interest in history.

A familiar theme in the early days of this blog, and one to which I will continue to return, discussed the impact of sport on society. It's not necessarily a fashionable viewpoint, but the use of sporting symbolism actually tells us a lot about society, its politicians, and their shared or differing moral values. For proof of this, one need look no further than China - the effort that they are putting into making their team competitive in all sports at their Olympics is phenomenal; new ventures such as the Chinese GP are deliberately designed to showcase the successes of Chinese society to the rest of the world.

Because a flourishing intellectual culture is totally redundant unless it actually communicates something to a wider society. Yes, I believe that study at university is beneficial to society even if it does not have a direct impact on jobs, because it is firstly a life experience, and secondly the overhauling in the ways of thinking that occurs. But beyond that, academia should have use in aiding our understanding of the world. I probably sound overly critical here, but oh-so-learned works that write to a tiny audience are of little practical purpose, except insofar as they may manage to influence other, more accessible works. And yet there are too many prominent circles which laud these writers (and not just writers, but artists, composers, etc) beyond the merit that they hold.

At the same time Jacques Chirac was announcing the death of Derrida, Tony Blair was sending his condolences on the sudden death of John Peel. I know, in terms of accessibility, impact, and ultimate benefit to society, whose side I am on.