House of Cards and Philosophy
Why Write about Popular Culture
J. Edward Hackett
Philosophy is everywhere, but it conceals itself, hidden behind the debates internal to its own activities. There are many reasons why philosophy does not have a higher profile in the wider culture. Let me just suggest a few: First, philosophy is not taught in public school, like in France. Instead, students encounter (or avoid) philosophy at university in North America. Second, many universities and colleges have transformed their curriculum and emphasize the more popular and vocational majors. Third, philosophers are not greatly known in the public. Of course, there are exceptions. Peter Singer makes trips to many campuses defending controversial issues. Some know Judith Butler’s gender theory, Slavoj Žižek’s rants against capitalism, and Daniel Dennett’s writings against religion. Fourth, the most popular school of philosophy is analytic.
Analytic philosophy is admirable for its attention to logic, language, and science but it is less admirable for its insularity. The Analytic tradition has powerful resources to bring to bear on the larger concerns of culture, but analytic philosophers generally write only for one another. Continental philosophers and their American pragmatist counterparts have paid more attention to culture and modes of experience, but they too often write only for one another. A desire to show the relevance of philosophy to a wider audience is what led me to put out the call for submissions to House of Cards and Philosophy.
Television writers borrow from the assumptions and implicit ideas that underlie our cultural narratives. Often, these assumptions or ideas are morally or philosophically suspect, but we would never know if we did not reflect on them. Cultural works are fuel for philosophical thought. When I first saw House of Cards, I was mesmerized as I watched Frank Underwood address the camera in Shakespearian asides. This diabolical figure provided vivid examples for engaging the political theories of Hobbes, Confucius, Machiavelli, and Rousseau (just to name a few). Beyond Frank, House of Cards provides timely material for philosophical reflection, from the mass media collusion between Frank and Zoe, to the exacerbated fears of what Washington is really like reflected in a Bush-like naive President, down to the sleazy Congress corrupted by special interests.
The show’s popularity stands alongside other successful political dramas like Scandal, reportedly the most popular show on TV, and The West Wing, for which Aaron Sorkin won several Emmys. But unlike The West Wing, the success of Scandal and House of Cards seems tied to their portrayal of distrust and hyperbolic fear. These fictional fears mirror real fears. Americans feel the direction of the country is utterly wrong or excessively right. There is no center to hold the excessive ends of the right against an impotent left. Our politics have become more polarizing, the sides of the spectrum–both left and right–coming undone at the seams.
But, thankfully, the good never went away. The Good lies buried under these anxieties. There are good arguments, and there are good ways to think about ethical and political problems. To encourage the good, we need to invite the philosopher back into culture and welcome back the intellectual habits that accompany her. The good is not always readily apparent in scandal-ridden political dramas or in real life. But reflecting on the good after watching House of Cards can help us reflect on the good in the real world. Perhaps every situation is morally unique and perhaps moral truth is not accessible by a straightforward process of deliberation. But the good and the true are there for those who seek them. And it is in that seeking that we need the help of philosophy and philosophers.
J. Edward Hackett earned his Ph.D. from Southern Illinois University in 2013. He is a specialist in phenomenology and ethics, and works on the boundaries between pragmatism and phenomenology. He is the author of Being and Value in Scheler: A Phenomenological Defense of Participatory Realism forthcoming from Lexington. He lives in Akron, OH, and is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Akron.
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4 thoughts on “House of Cards and Philosophy: Why Write about Popular Culture”
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One of my favorite books in the world is The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles. Since reading that book, I’ve wanted to find another book in this pop culture and philosophy series. I recently started watching House of Cards, and I noticed the camera always zooms in when Claire takes off her high heels. I just KNOW this is significant, and the visual emphasis only had to happen four or five times before I promised myself I would find ‘House of Cards and Philosophy.’ I will patiently wait for this to happen. 😀
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