PBS Idea Channel
What are Ideas, and who gets to have them?
The Idea channel has been around for five years and covers pop culture and philosophical theories. In this video Mike Rugnetta talks about the idea that we are all nomads in the land of ideas. He wants all people to be idea channels themselves in the world. His thought is that we should all be allowed to have complex ideas. His broad definition of ideas is that ideas are all subjects of mental activity that you think with or about. Any thought is an idea. The idea channel covers ideas of a particular type, complex ideas. Complex ideas aren’t obvious or boring, they are complex combination of one or more preexisting ideas.
The idea channel talks about well-known, old and impactful ideas, like love, being, liberty, evil, popularity, violence, religion and others. These concepts frame each episode’s theoretical framework. Philosophers and theorists helps understand these concepts by explaining what they are, how they work, and where they come from. Mike says that theorists aren’t the only people that work with concepts. All people work with concepts. We are all faced with many concepts each day through world events, personal experiences, the media, the entertainment. We can find these big and impactful concepts hiding in unexpected places. By looking for these impactful concepts in media, contemporary art, entertainment, technology, community practices, the seemly mundane every day things, you can make every day more exciting and these seemingly pretentious ideas become useful in your everyday life. You become a more powerful agent of experience and thought in your everyday life.
Rugnetta’s aim has been to present often unexpected relationships between concepts, media properties, or theories from his own observations. The fact that these are his personal observations aids in the ultimate goal of the channel, which is to encourage conversation, to get the audience to talk to Rugnetta and to one another. Because these are personal observations, each of us might have a different observation and ideas and this can make for an interesting conversation.
Rugnetta says that we all have ideas, because we all have experiences. We all get to have complex ideas, not just the ivory types, the elite, or experts. All of us get to have complex ideas and we should be able to discuss them. However, it’s hard to create a situation where everybody feels welcome to engage is this occasionally difficult material. Two of the challenges are that most philosophers and theorist have been white males, not quite a diverse group, and also how to apply their thought to wide range of subject matters. The history of homogeneity of only certain kind of people get to have complex ideas does not make it easy to convince people that we all get to have complex ideas. Rungetta wants to cover these classic ideas but make them less stern, less homogenous, and more inviting to people of different perspectives and different backgrounds.
One of the solutions to this is the idea of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, that we are all nomads in the land of ideas. These French philosophers are huge inspiration for how Rugnetta treats concepts and complex ideas. In their book A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari say that their book doesn’t contain a slice of one single truth. They ask how would we even know if there is one single truth and even if there was how could a book be able to contain it? They intended the book not be only read but to be used. They wanted the concepts in the book be applied to foreign medium, like painting or politics. They wanted the readers not to get bogged down. Deleuze’s own image for a concept is a tool box. Throughout the book Deleuze and Guattari rapidly shift perspectives, subject matter, disciplines, and styles in order to uncover something about the interconnectedness of the world, the psyche, and the body. They call this rapid theorizing where you don’t build with ideas but use ideas, a nomadic thought.
Nomadic thought has been the model a lot of Ragnetta work and the Idea Channel. In his channel, he uses ideas in unexpected ways, in unconventional ways, rapidly shifting from one idea to another, while preserving some sense of dynamism. He is not building on ideas but instead using them to unlock and open various parts of the world. His hope is that this pursuit becomes less daunting if we worry less about building and perfecting but instead using, exploring, testing. Ideally we all do it together so that we are not alone. We do it in conversation with one another. Nomadic thought is also one of the principles that encourages people to treat the idea channel like a conversation. Ragnetta reads comments and responds and even incorporates them into the show to promote conversation. He wants the channel to be used in a practical way, not just to be watched as entertainment. Ragnetta hopes that the Idea channel gives us the frame work to strike conversation with others about other media, material, complex ideas and concepts out there in the world.
A Defense of Overthinking Popular Culture
In this episode Mike Rugnetta talks about the idea that pop culture is an abstract location where values are secured and challenged. He states his case as to why are pop culture and overthinking are important. Rugnetta has encountered four common charges against overthinking. First is that the movies are just movies, games are just games, meaning that all you need about the meaning the certain piece of media can be understood from it’s surface level content or whatever broad ideas you associate with it’s medium. Second charge is that going beyond surface level content is “opinion dressed as fact”, meaning the only significance we should look for is that which is objectively verifiable by the person complaining or the viewer. Third, in the process of uncovering deeper significance one is “reading too far into” a piece of media, meaning the creators don’t won’t you to find unverifiable significance in their work. Therefore, you are bringing the significance to a piece of media instead of finding it. Fourth, why would one bother with esoteric, social and political points that can be found in TV shows, and Internet memes, there are more important things to do like finding a cure for cancer. The Idea channel has been an exercise in challenging and ignoring these arguments.
The Idea channel is based on thinking that nothing is just itself. The social, economic, cultural impact of media is there and it’s very important. Meaning and significance are deeply personal and based on each audience member’s experience and environment, therefore meaning is not objective. Rugnetta has found that a lot of the times the meaning is not intended and it’s unexpected in a piece of work but it is still “part of the work.” Rugnetta refers to Roland Barthes Death of the Author on the complexity of influence. Rugnetta reiterates as in the last episode that looking for meaning is a useful, powerful tool in deepening one’s experience of the world.
Since the Idea channel does cover only certain works of media, these are chosen based on whether they contain theory and as works they do philosophy, they cause people to think deeply about their experiences and surroundings. Gillez Deleuze argued that film was important as both material for and source of philosophical thinking. Steven Mulhall, in his book On Film argues that certain films philosophy in action. Film as philosophizing. Costica Bradatan from magazine Eon argues that philosophers have much to learn from film makers. Jordan Erica Webber wrote about video games as executable thought experiments, in her book Ten Things Books Can Teach Us. Rugnetta argues that all works of media contain philosophical content even if miniscule.
One of the most common places to find works like these is popular culture. Rugnetta’s working definition of popular culture is media and goods that are available to the masses. He defines media as any material communication made by one person or a group made to be consumed by another. Examples are TV, books, YouTube, text massages and even YouTube comments. The goods are another way of looking at media though the lens of commercialism, but also the goods are comprised of products. Examples are make-up, fidget spinners, battery chargers. Masses refer to a broad cross section of demographics.
For many people the divide of popular and non popular culture is the same as the divide between low and high culture. At the beginning of 19th century popular culture was referred to as ill mannered. This is not the case today as there are many popular works that are smart and artful. Today high culture and popular culture mix and borrow from each other. Popular culture is hard to define as within it seemly contradictory things mix like high and low culture, digital and analog, urban and rural, foreign and domestic etc. Rugnetta argues that popular culture is worth overthinking about because popular culture is place where vastly different outlooks gather, interact, and have shared experiences. In the best case scenario pop culture facilities a common language across many boundaries for understating what it’s like to be a human with a unique point of view in the world. Because of this our understating grows, and we learn to respect one another. Pop culture also facilitates conflict over pop culture’s purpose, meaning, impact, etc.
There is one conflict that is always present in the pop culture and that is between the producer, the one in power to create and make statements, and the viewer, who is expected to consume these statements. The producers of popular culture occupy a space of immense power of influence, social, cultural, economic, even moral. The producers decide which stories we gather around. This is how any piece of popular culture does some level of philosophical work. Any piece of popular culture is a statement about the world. Rugnetta argues that overthinking is one of the ways to dismantle and examine the culture that we have been fed by the powerful class of people who produce it. One of the most important cultures to treat this way is pop culture because of its richness, pervasiveness, and influence. The act of dismantling and overthinking is a way for us to use something available to us but which is not fundamentally ours. Overthinking helps us discern what about the popular culture is good, bad, helpful, hurtful, interesting or boring on our own terms. It is important to exercise this right even if we think that the piece of work is boring, or we love it or hate it, it still holds certain values. It is important for us as viewers to exercise our power and show that we are willing and able to do it. Stuart Halls says, pop culture is one place where our values can be secured or challenged. Overthinking popular culture allows us to discern which values we must challenge and which values are worth securing.
Thinking with Others
In the last episode of the Idea Channel, Rugnetta refers to a quote from Donna Haraway’s book “It matters what stories tell stories. It matters what ideas we think other ideas with.” Rungetta says the third and the most important ingredient of the Idea Channel is People. Most notably, the channel does comment responses. Rugnetta wants to make sure the audience has a say in the show. This is a way to include perspectives different from Rugnetta’s and also give him a chance to change his mind. In 2012 they were inspired by Grace Helbig’s “Commenting on Comments.” “The Brian Lehrer Show” from WNYC’s daily morning show where Brian takes calls on often complex topics from whoever decides to call, is another inspiration. Rugnetta listened to this show every morning and wondered whether it could be possible to do the same on YouTube; invite the audience onto your show as part of the show’s premise. Many have made fun of Rugnett’s idea however, he is still in awe as to how the Idea Channel’s audience’s comment section turned out to be the smartest and most thoughtful comment sections, thus proving everyone wrong. Another idea is that the channel used is that people, not the media or technology have agency. Finally, the catalyst for discussing a particular piece of popular culture have often been fans or detractors have responded to it. The channel focuses on pop culture through its impact on audiences.
The definition of critical thinking is a bit more nuanced than just objective thinking, it also involves people. In 1987 philosophers Michael Scriven and Richard Paul who was the director of research and professional development of National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking (NCECT) have said “Critical Thinking – in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes – is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.” Lynda Elder, the president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking has said in 2007 “Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in fair-minded way. People who think critically strive to diminish the power of their egocentric and sociocentric tendencies. They work diligently to develop the intellectual virtues of intellectual integrity, intellectual humility, intellectual civility, intellectual empathy, intellectual sense of justice and confidence in reason. They avoid thinking simplistically about complicated issues and strive to appropriately conside the rights and needs of relevant others. They recognize the complexities in developing at thinkers, and commit themselves to a life-long practice toward self-improvement. “
Critical thinking requires you to be aware of yourself, not erase yourself. Critical thinking also means being humble in the face of someone else’s ideas. Critical thinking is a way to inspect, dissect, and examine, but it’s also a way to grow. For Rugnetta critical thinking means having difficult selfless thought about many things, including thinking, which then informs the self.
Mike Rugnetta, because of the Idea Channel and all the conversations the viewers had with Rungetta, grew as a person and the audience members also grew as people. Rungetta says that the audience members grew the most because of the conversations amongst themselves that the Idea Channel facilitated. Even though our culture views emotions as something opposite to critical thinking, Rugnetta argues that empathy is crucial to critical thinking. It is his firm belief that the respect and use of the feelings of others not is only permissible but also required for critical thinking. Which brings us to critical empathy.
According to Todd DeStigter “Critical empathy refers to the process of establishing informed and affective connections with other human being, of thinking and feeling with them at some emotionally, intellectually, and socially significant level.” Peter Elbow in his 2009 paper refers to doubting game and believing game. The doubting game refers to critical thinking as objective and logical thinking. Elbow argues that we should expand this and be welcoming and accepting of all ideas we encounter. “The doubting game is the rhetoric of propositions, while the believing game is the rhetoric of experience.”- Peter Elbow. The Idea Channel uses the believing game in creation of its content. When viewers have said that Dr. Who helped them be a better person in the world, they were believed and out which the episode Doctor Who is Religion, was born. When people said they hated being blamed for every industry being ruined because of their age, they were believed by the Idea Channel team and Why did Millennials Ruin Everything episode was born.
Rungetta leaves us with one last idea, that is that we should think with one another and to listen and believe one another’s experiences. If somebody tells you one piece of culture has impacted them, even in a way you would have never expected, believed them in order to understand them better. He encourages us to pursue intellectual civility and intellectual empathy. This practice will help us learn and grow. Rugnetta says that popular culture is more than just popular culture. Through the ideas that are embedded in pop culture it can help us see and think about the world and it’s where our values are secured or challenged. It’s one the ways we can learn with and about each other.