Interview: Tamler Sommers

Philosophically speaking
By JON GARELICK  |  March 25, 2010

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One of the most enjoyable by-products of lit mag the Believer’s many long, unconventional interviews has been the collection A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain, by 39-year-old University of Houston philosophy professor Tamler Sommers. A kind of cook’s tour of contemporary philosophy, the book collects nine interviews (five of them originally from the Believer) that set perennial philosophical arguments about free will and the relativity of morality in terms of real-world situations with “experimental philosophers” like Philip Zimbardo, of Stanford Prison Experiment fame, and William Ian Miller, who has studied the “honor cultures” of the Icelandic sagas.

I HAVE THE MOST DIFFICULTY GETTING MY MIND AROUND WILLIAM IAN MILLER. WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH HIM? DOES HE REALLY THINK THAT OUR SOCIETY SHOULD BE CONSTRUCTED ALONG THE LINES OF AN “HONOR CULTURE” LIKE OUT OF THE ICELANDIC SAGAS HE’S RESEARCHED? OR FROM GOODFELLAS, THE GODFATHER, OR THE MAXIMUM-SECURITY LOCK-UP IN OZ?
There are two sides to him, I think. One of them is, he finds this mode of life where we sublimate our honor-culture urges and dispositions and desires, and it comes out in all these other really boring ways. Like, he says, the tedium of faculty meetings, or the jostling over who gets a bigger office. He would really like to go back to where these things could come out in all their glory, since they are going to be there anyway. And he thinks it’s a kind of a more exciting way of life, a more dangerous way of life, but a more exciting way of life, to be constantly trying to improve your status, improve your reputation — but because of physical strength and cunning and courage, rather then how many times you get cited in some obscure literature that nobody reads. At the same time, he’s realistic about the possibility of implementing that kind of society, given where we already are. I think he wants people to respect our emotions, to respect our retributive emotions, our outrage, our feelings of vengeance, our feelings of not wanting to be slighted, not wanting to be disrespected. He wants us to admit that we have them and not consider them to be barbaric. But at the same time he understands that we have the culture that we have and there is not going to be any wholesale changes to it.

PERSONALLY, I ALWAYS ACKNOWLEDGE, OH THIS IS WHY I LIKE THIS GANGSTER MOVIE, IT'S JUST LIKE THE OFFICE! THEY JUST SETTLE THEIR ARGUMENTS IN A DIFFERENT WAY. GANGSTER AND REVENGE MOVIES DO OFFER THE APPEAL OF THE UNSBULIMATED ID. BUT IF YOU DON’T SUBLIMATE IT, THERE WILL BE ALL KINDS OF PROBLEMS.
I think what Miller will say in response to you is: “But when you do sublimate it there are also all of these problems.” I think he would probably like at least a little less sublimation, or at least a little less what he would call self-denial. That this is a deep part of our nature. Gangster movies like The Godfather or westerns or all these revenge movies, he’ll point out that we thrill to those movies. We love those movies. And instead of being embarrassed about that, embrace it.

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