Sunday, November 25, 2007

Will This Message Self-Deconstruct?

For the next three weeks, Deconstructing Phil. is going on a writer's strike. However, Dr. Phil is continuing on, so we hope that our patrons will bravely assume the role of thesis to Dr. Phil's antithesis by sending in guest blogs. If not, we'll be back in three weeks. Now you know what's happening; but why don't you watch the video below to see if Brecht is right that it's more fun to watch how something happens?


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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Murder He Wrote

Today’s episode of Dr. Phil showed that, even with the ongoing writers’ strike, fiction and humor are far from extinct on the airwaves. Yesterday’s episode focused on Wade, who was brought to the Phil by Michelle, his wife. She had recently started to suspect that her husband was a compulsive liar and, as per usual, cheating on her. The standard schema of accusations, phil plashbacks, yelling, lie detector results, crying, and excuses resulted. No big surprises, until the last 5 minutes or so, where we learned that the next episode (today’s) would reveal how Wade admits not only to a long list of affairs and marital transgressions, but also multiple rapes and murders. Apparently, after the show, when heading back to Iowa (to get their divorce) Wade told Michelle that he had vague memories of raping his ex-wife and a co-worker, as well as a time where he picked up a hitchhiker who refused to have sexual intercourse, leading him to a violent outrage, murdering and dumping the woman’s body on the side of the road. Adding to the intrigue, the audience learns of restraining orders, fruitless FBI investigations, death threats, stalkings, and suicide attempts from basically all the parties involved except Phil. While adding a certain dimension of excitement, and, perhaps most importantly, providing reason to extend the show for 2 more days, it’s also extremely unbelievable. After all, as Dr. Phil actually made clear on the first show, Wade is a compulsive liar, fibbing about little inconsequential things and distorting big, important matters. Considering Wade’s modus operandi, it seems far more likely that this new story of murder is a different, albeit perhaps more intense and perverse, outlet for his persistently compulsive lying. The ethical complications, therefore, are not so apparent. One interesting authority to consult would be St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, particularly question 110, “the vices opposed to truth.” Aquinas writes of Wade’s condition, calling it “the lie which is told ‘out of mere lust of lying and deceiving.’ This proceeds from a habit, wherefore the Philosopher [Aristotle] says (Ethic. iv, 7) that ‘the liar, when he lies from habit, delights in lying.’” (article 2). Perhaps more importantly, in terms of ethical consequences, Aquinas argues that this type of lie has its “own measure of gravity without addition or diminution.” (article 2). Aquinas believes that lies, by their very nature are sinful and bad—though some are worse than others depending on the nature of the lie, its end, and its nature as a sin. The compulsive lie is only unique in that the nature (as a lie and sin) and end can provide neither mitigation nor further condemnation. This should call attention to Aquinas’ notion that all lies are intrinsically wrong. Why does he say this? Following Aristotle, and more directly Augustine, Aquinas justifies this claim by writing: “words are naturally signs of intellectual acts, it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind.” (article 3). This is a startling discovery in the modern age and is a drastic contrast with any poststructuralist idea, since the latter philosophy is founded upon the concept that words do not (and can not) truthfully express intellectual ideas in a natural way. If we take poststructuralists’ model of language and signs as accurate, while simultaneously following Aquinas’ moral code as complete and true, then we are left with no choice but to conclude that all communication is a lie. This isn’t that difficult to imagine, especially considering today’s episode of Dr. Phil, where, in just 20 minutes we learned that Wade is a serial killer, Michelle enjoys cutting herself, and Dr. Phil kept huge secrets from his loyal fan-base. At the same time, these accusations must all be accompanied by words like: “potentially,” “appear,” or “according to…” Is everyone, including Dr. Phil, a liar? If we take Aquinas’ words literally—that it is “unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind”—then the most innocent and well-meant thought-experiment, hypothetical, or act of subjective thinking could be construed as unethical whereas an objectively false accusation, if honestly believed, is completely moral and blameless. To deconstruct Aquinas and Phil side-by-side, it seems strange that, despite the Saintly one’s definition of lying, Summa Theologica is structurally supported by unconcealed lies. Aquinas offers many articles, containing questions, followed by several short objections, then his answers to them, plus concise and exact replies to each objection. Thus, each original objection is a hypothetical strawman for burning down, seeming to fit the philosopher’s own description of a lie. In a similar way, the Dr. Phil show exhibits a deeply rooted structural lie by attempting to focus on a “real” and “serious” problem—i.e. compulsive lying—only to completely disregard a problem when a more attractive (for ratings, revenue, etc.) interpretation comes along—i.e. the compulsive liar is telling the truth about being a serial killer. If, as on the Dr. Phil show, everyone’s a liar, then the act of lying honestly might become a question of aesthetics more than ethics.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Anorexic to Dr. Phil: "Bite me"

Today’s Dr. Phil show dealt with eating disorder, primarily anorexia and bulimia. I had expected it to be a particularly telling episode, especially from the previews, which showed Phil staring down an emaciated girl with the words “you are going to die...soon!” In fact, McGraw was far more reasonable and reasoned than normal. He went out of his way several times to say “it’s not as easy as saying: start eating,” and he did make several salient points. However, if there is one part of Phil’s logic and methods that needs to be addressed, surely it would be that he claims—in an apparent contradiction—that it is a problem that stems “from within” as well as being “driven by media images [and] media icons.” McGraw did not elaborate how such a relationship between the subject’s interior psyche could be related to a larger social consciousness, but luckily Freud did precisely this in his work Civilization and Its Discontents. Freud writes that “it was discovered that a person becomes neurotic because he [or she] cannot tolerate the amount of frustration which society imposes on him [or her] in the service of its cultural ideals.” (39). Considering only this idea, one could imagine how any or all of the four guests on the show could have become anorexic or bulimic because of society’s imposed cultural ideas. However, the fact that Freud writes “cannot tolerate” clouds the situation. The standard explanation of anorexia, incorporating Freud’s vocabulary when possible, would be: the subject feels society imposing the cultural ideal of skinniness, health consciousness, and so on, causing them to try and fulfill the objective to the extreme. But that is no longer Freud’s model. To him, psychosis arises not from the wish to fanatically fulfill society’s imposed ideals, but rather from the subject’s inability or unwillingness to tolerate such ideals. It would be more in line with Freud to say that these guests are, in fact, not enthralled by the media’s glamorous portrayal of youth, beauty, and tiny figures. Instead, from the very beginning of their psychosis, they found these images and ideals to be quite disgusting and deplorable. It was exactly this desire to not tolerate, to rebel, which drove them to the extreme, just so that they could prove to themselves, to their families and friends, to Dr. Phil, and to the whole world that the ideal is an extremely dangerous and perverse one. Engrained within their psychosis is a realization that Freud already understood, but Dr. Phil and the mainstream media are understandably reluctant to make: “this useless thing which we expect civilization to value is beauty.” (45). Dr. Phil can blame Nicole Ritchie and the media which fetishizes small sizes but, as Freud understands, that is simply a confined, contemporary manifestation of the problem and not the problem itself. As he writes: “the urge for freedom…is directed against particular forms and demands of civilization or against civilization altogether.” (49). Today’s guest, then, are obsessed and drawn into the values and images of the media at the exact symbolic location of their rebellious psychosis. Specific cultural values have always, and will always, continue to change, but the individual’s great need to “defend his [or her] claim to individual liberty against the will of the group” is an innate and unstoppable force and one which, not surprisingly, Dr. Phil cannot understand or articulate.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Third Worldwide Web

In the nearly two months and 15 entries that comprise the Deconstructing Phil. lifespan, no episode has presented such a dire need of drastic interpretation as this evening's. “Bringing Home Katherine” part one aired today (the second half set to hit the small screen tomorrow) where Dr. Phil introduced his audience to Katherine, a girl who, at 16, fell in love via myspace with Abdullah, a 20 year old Palestinian man, and procured a passport to leave the country surreptitiously. When she was then reported missing, the FBI intercepted her in Amman, but after she later turned 18, with her family unable to stop her, she “ran away” from home again to live with Abdullah and her sister called Dr. Phil for help. Dr. Phil, of course, agreeing that Katherine is in danger, blames the internet. The real culprit is Orientalism. As Edward Said wrote in his groundbreaking work Orientalism, “the Orient is not an inert fact of nature. It is not merely there, just as the Occident itself is not just there. Instead, Said writes, such concepts, in all their geographic and cultural facets, are “man-made.” It is clear that the Orientalist picture of Palestine presented on the Dr. Phil show is one manufactured and in many ways fantastic. In fact, the dialogue was eerily similar to one of the most famous pieces of literature addressing the topic: Othello. Mary, Katherine’s sister, described her as being “under a spell,” the same way Brabanzio, Desdemona’s father, describes how his daughter was “corrupted/ By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks.” (I.iii.60-61). The family also repeatedly alleged (with no apparent factual basis) that Katherine had been brainwashed. At least Brabanzio said it with a bit more sophistication and panache when he bemoaned “O, treason of the blood!/ Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters’ minds.” (I.i.170-171). They also characterized both of Katherine’s premeditated, voluntary, and mostly unaided journeys to the middle east as “kidnappings.” This is, of course, the jaundiced and Janused voice of Iago, starting the whole tragedy with the cry of “thieves, thieves, thieves!/ Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags./ Thieves, thieves!” (I.i.79-81). The similarities are astounding, and it would be interesting to further compare Katherine’s story with that of Desdemona and the famous Moor (who, interestingly, some Shakespeare commentators read as an Arab). The main point here, though, is that the picture of the middle east presented by Katherine's family (with the help of Dr. Phil) is very much based on and promoting a fiction. It is extremely unlikely that any of the guests, or even Dr. Phil, ever visited Palestine, and certainly none were experts. The next important thing that Said tells us about Orientalism is that “the relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony.” (Orientalism). As Shawn [sic!], Katherine’s mother says: “I don’t know anything about Abdullah.” Such lack of knowledge is utterly unacceptable for a hegemonic figure (an American, a matriarch, a mass media product, etc.) Instead, it must be filled inwith xenophobic, racist, and jingoist notions if those are all that’s available. Katherine’s liberal international relations stance was stated quite adroitly and succinctly when she said: “I respect [Abdullah’s] culture, and he respects mine.” Though no one explicitly voiced it, the ideological position of those left in California was clearly: I don’t respect his culture (hell, I don’t even know it), but he needs to respect mine. If more evidence is needed that this is really a power struggle in every sense of the word, simply consider the fact that Katherine’s mother was outraged that at “18, according to the state of Michigan, [my daughter is] an adult.” While most people would probably see this as an entirely reasonable, acceptable, and just matter of law, Shawn was so outraged at her lack of control over her daughter that she “considered taking her passport or having her kidnapped.” Here, we can see Said’s point that “Orientalism…as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with ‘our’ world.” (Orientalism). Here Said seems very indebted to Lacanian psychoanalysisthe self being defined through the Otherwhen he writes, “Orientalism is premised upon exteriority, that is, on the fact that the Orientalist…makes the Orient speak.” When Katherine returned to America after her first, unsuccessful expatriation attempt, her sister Mary said “I’m glad she’s here on American soil and alive.” The Orient is where danger is located, the Occident is, by way of contrast within an artificially constructed binary, the place of safety. But in this globalized, post-September-the-11th-of-2001 world, how far does Mary have to broaden the Other in order to make herself and the place she lives safe seem safe? Of course, her secure and harmless Occident could not include the inner city, or the American military "nuclear" family. Could it include NRA members' houses, where every room has 3 loaded guns? The first generation immigrant living next door to the vigilante Minuteman border patrol? The very idea of liminality seems to become the territory of the Orient as exteriority and “a re-presence, or a representation” become vital since there is, in fact, no interiority and “no such thing as a delivered presence” (Orientalism). When Dr. Phil says “that situation over there…is highly unstable” he was apparently talking about Palestine, but he could have just as easily been talking about dozens of “Oriental” countries from Iraq and Iran to Venezuela and Cuba. But it masks (or, in fact, redefines) a more important question: in what way is the United States “highly stable”? Every episode from the Dr. Phil canon illustrates precisely how unstable America is. In this particular case, Shawn was so worried that Abdullah and his family would “kidnap” Katherine and prevent her from filing the proper paper work to travel across the Atlantic, yet that is precisely what she had previously contemplated. Katherine’s aunt callously cried that “Katherine needed her butt whipped” and yet expressed horror that the Oriental Arab/Muslim might be abusing her. Similarly, when she complained to Dr. Phil, “in America, men don’t call women ‘bitch,’” Dr. Phil could only respond “well, I wish that was true.” In fact, this reveals it all. The essence of Orientalism, wherever it may be found, is that it expresses what Orientalists want for their Orient and (perhaps more subversively) what they would like to see in their Occident too. When Dr. Phil says, so matter-of-factly, “at 16, Katherine shocked the world” he is—as an Orientalist—the one applying the questionable shock therapy to the world, re-shaping (and not just reporting) the Orient in his own warped and equally dangerous western space. Said is insistent, though, that Orientalism is not escaped or surpassed by academics, instead Orientalism is precisely “a distribution of geopolitical awareness in aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts.” (Orientalism, see also the picture from The XXth Century Citizen's Atlas, John Bartholomew, Edinburgh, pp7). Perhaps the most important question, then, is: in this supposed critique of Dr. Phil’s Orientalism, even in breaking down his superficially Occidental world, have we really helped to define a true Orient? No, of course we can’t, nor can anyone. There isn’t one.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Dr. Phil's Text Messages

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Here, for the first time, Deconstructing Phil. is in video form. Today's episode of Dr. Phil dealt heavily with the properties of language and it's subsequent interpretation as a couple getting ready for marriage started feuding and verbally fighting with the groom's mother. In order to examine some of the general structuralist, poststructuralist, and deconstructionist matters brought up in the episode, Roland Barthes, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Jacques Derrida are our guides as we consider what's so interestingly and complicatingly wrong with saying things like "her sorries are 'I'm sorry you took my words that way'" or "they're fighting before they're even related".

Friday, November 2, 2007

McGraw's Familiar Quotations

Tonight, Dr. Phil appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, right after "stupid pet tricks." Dr. Phil is actually a fairly frequent guest on the Late Show, which is particularly surprising since, especially in the past, he has been the subject of considerable ridicule. Recently, when it comes to McGraw, Dave seems to have shifted his comedic technique from open mockery to Socratic irony. Practitioners of Socratic irony take on a faux naïveté to reveal the foolishness and ignorance of the person they question. In this subtler, yet still quite complex fashion, Dr. Phil gets introduced as "America's favorite t.v. mental health professional," a platitude which is in a way true, but also meaningless considering the subtextual, sarcastic implications that 1.) there are basically no other "t.v. mental health professionals" and 2.) Dr. Phil is barely a "mental health professional." While Socratic irony is often very funny, it can also expose things that are normally kept out of the dialogue, particularly here, as the questioner has become the questionee. Thus, when Letterman asked Dr. Phil about many issues that have been discussed previously on the Dr. Phil show, he got very different answers. On Britney Spears, to whom Dr. Phil recently devoted an entire episode (see "Dr. Phil Isn't a Freud of Anything"), the audience got insight into this prize quote: "you gotta not pay attention to her." It would be easy enough to say that this is simply an indication that the Dr. Phil we get on the Late Show is not the same Dr. Phil we get on the Dr. Phil Show. This is obviously partially true, yet it should not permit a complete contradiction, at least it usually doesn't. We allow dramatic actors, politicians, athletes, and other non-comedic public figures to appear on such humor-driven talk shows, often even making fun of themselves, and while this is often viewed as portraying a different side of the celebrities in question, they do not deny their other work. If we are to consider this advice good and actionable, it necessitates that we ignore not just Britney in the tabloids and Entertainment Tonight, but also as she is discussed on the Dr. Phil show. In this sense, Dr. Phil has come onto the Late Show to advertise and promote his own show andthrough Socratic irony, his own precarious ideology, and lack of philosophic universality or commitment—has criticized and dismissed it instead. Similarly, we learned what Dr. Phil really thinks about the kids he so desperately tries to protect on his own show. All week, we've heard the broken reproductive futurist record: save the kids, do it for the kids, don't endanger the kids. What did Dr. Phil say about the kids tonight? "I would just turn the hose on them." That's right, when Letterman led McGraw down the road that leads to complaining about today's youth (with their loud music, lack of clothing, and "grinding") Dr. Phil responded by suggesting (in an act reminiscent of one of the status quo's best defenses against the civil rights movement) that we turn the hose on them. When Dave questioned him on the future, Phil replied: "Where does it go from here? There's nowhere else to go...I guess we're just going to all run around naked." We could interpret this in a number of ways. Again, it might simply be a joke that is Venn-diagrammatically distant from the true value of Dr. Phil's wisdom. But what sort of wisdom can be obfuscated simply by an appearance on the Letterman show? Freud holds up to comedy just fine; consider any Woody Allen movie or the ubiquitous penis joke. There seems to be deeper things at work here. Phil could also be refuting and depreciating his advice given in more serious surroundings, now admitting that all that kids-are-the-future-are-important talk is nonsense. It could also be an admission that, though he is, in reality, working and fighting for the children, it is to no avail, the future is grim, his work is not working (it is flawed and could never work, it isn't reaching the needy, et cetera). Most insidiously, one could also say Dr. Phil is, in fact, creating the problem himself. To my knowledge, very few people have championed the therapeutic possibilities of hosing children down. Perhaps the problem itself did not address until Dr. Phil chose to find it. Indeed, many people probably do not find these "problems" harmful in any way, including the deplorable—wait, I mean vulnerable—children committing such despicable—wait, I mean helpless—acts. It seems Dr. Phil is an unruptured personality with a split philosophy. To use Lee Edelman's binary of the sinthomosexual and the reproductive futurist (see "The Queerest Dr. Phil Yet") we could say Dr. Phil embodies both, fighting for and against the children depending on the situation. He demands neither jouissance nor an endlessly delayed realization of an impossible end, but instead seeks to continually create problems which make possible their own solutions which make possible their own problems, this is the true child he's fighting for, the child named "America's favorite t.v. mental health professional."