Sunday, 23 October 2011


On Tuesday evening, I went on a wet and muddy walk through the woods round the edge of Lancaster University campus, and listened to Organ by Kevin Drumm (from his Necro Acoustic box set). Organ is a solo piece for electronic organ, amplifiers and RAT distortion pedal. It’s a repetitive but not exactly rhythmic alternation between two pitches with varying levels of distortion and what sounds like a leslie rotating speaker. Sometimes there’s a very marked difference in sound between the smooth pitch and the distorted one, sometimes less so. Sometimes the higher pitch is the more distorted, sometimes the lower. Beats from close dischords are sometimes audible. It lasts for just under 55 minutes, and then stops very abruptly, as if the recorder has been switched off.

Why would anyone listen to this? It’s tuneless, it doesn’t develop, it doesn’t exactly lift the spirits, and it goes on for a very long time.

Here’s one reason why: listening to it causes intense sensitivity to other noises. I was drawn to focus very closely on traffic noise as I was walking near a road, on the wind in the trees, on the sounds of hockey players on the all-weather pitch in the distance (I wear not-very-isolating earphones while walking, since I prefer not to step under buses). Something about very minimal, repetitive music acts as an amplifier. Organ works as education of the senses.

I’d be interested to know how Drumm thinks about what he’s doing: what effect does he intend in his listeners? What effect does making this stuff have on him? The couple of interviews I’ve read with him suggest that he’s a bright and amiable guy, but are more about how he got into playing guitar, or how he knows Jim O’Rourke.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

This week in my classes

There's a balance to be struck between: (1) Guiding students in how to approach difficult philosophical texts - offering prompt questions, contextualising the texts' problems and assumptions, explicitly demonstrating the skills of the philosopher in reading, reconstructing, and imaginatively extending the texts' arguments; & (2) Allowing students to experience the productive confusion and open-ended response that's part of what makes reading those texts worthwhile. Too much of (1) will lead to box-ticking and purely reactive work; too much of (2) will lead to frustration, panic, and rejection of the course (students stop doing the reading, don't attend seminars, etc.). Neither excess helps learning.

For my ethics course this term I'm experimentally turning the dial a couple of clicks towards (1). I'm offering quite a lot of prompts, and using lectures to explain problematic contexts: free will; consequentialism, deontology, virtue. And in particular, I'm doing more explicit meta-analysis of philosophical practice. I'm spending time in seminars identifying different kinds of task as we engage in them - exposition of the text, argumentative response to it, imagination in constructing replies to objections on Hume's behalf. I'm saying out loud that what we're doing now is trying to make Hume's argument clear in our own words, and what we'll do next is see why we might disagree with it. This is in contrast to the rather more free-wheeling, student-led, and demonstrative rather than self-descriptive seminar style that I've adopted over the last few years.

I'll be interested to see how it pans out...

Jokes that are only funny to philosophers

In one of the seminar rooms I'm teaching in this term, someone has written on the white board in permanent marker. What they've written, delightfully, is Hobbes's account of the authority of the sovereign.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Ethics lecture: Hume 1

Podcast of the first of three lectures on Hume: his life, work, and philosophical project; his naturalism and scepticism; his account of human action.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Teaching this term

I'm teaching two courses this term: a large part II undergraduate ethics course, on Hume, Kant, and Mill; and the core course for our MA in Philosophy, What is Philosophy?, on methodological and metaphilosophical issues. I'll be posting links to podcasts and occasional thinking about how things are going (inspired by Rohan Maitzen's This week in my classes series). Course guides here and here.