Philosophy in the public square

My night with Slavoj Žižek.

Thick with heat and windows dripping with condensation, the atmosphere in and overcrowded Café Oto was almost tangible as I walked around the packed floor of eager participants looking to prop myself up against a vacant wall space. I found one at the back of the room and waited for the night to begin.

I was there for a marathon evening based on the work of philosopher Slavoj Žižek, and his latest book Less Than Nothing.  A non-stop 24-hour (yes, you read that correctly) event that began with a seminar by Iain Hamilton Grant before a talk by Žižek himself was then turned over to the general public who in turns read from the author’s latest offering throughout the night and next day. Frazzled from a particularly trying week at work, I didn’t quite manage the whole 24 hours.

I couldn’t and I’m not going to attempt to summarise Žižek’s lecture – you can listen to it yourself below - but there was something about the persistent heckling during this talk that made me think, not about the heckle itself but about what was going on in the room. About the public engaging with philosophy. Even though the man’s complaints were drowned out against the far more numerous groans of Žižek supporters that greeted it, it made me contemplate the possible role philosophy could and should have in society.

There is a possibly apocryphal interpretation of Socrates that says he used to sit in the Athenian square debating with the general public about the subject of philosophy. That this practice, for him, in someway constituted doing philosophy. That philosophy should really be about debating with everyday people and bringing academic subjects to the public as opposed to a conception of the subject in which philosophers sit alone in universities and think about philosophical problems. Fast-forward over 2,000 years and this debate about whether academic subjects should prioritise public engagement or research is - with universities having to justify funding against the backdrop of education cuts - as current as ever.

The tension between working in an academic environment and engaging the general public in those subjects was something familiar to me from my time studying philosophy. Throughout my studies at a BA and MA level I often wondered, ironically perhaps, what was the point of my chosen subject. Why was I doing philosophy and did it serve any purpose or public good? Over the course of four years I went from believing I was doing something useful to believing I was not. The further up the academic ladder I went – with the increasing specialisation and alienation from the general public this requires - the less I felt the academic work I was doing was a valuable public service. Writing a dissertation on objections related to a probabilistic account of subjunctive conditionals (yes, again you read that correctly) was the point I realised my time in the subject was up.

The Saturday previous to the Žižek talk, I’d been at a similar event. This time though at Kensington’s Institut Français and the My Night with Philosophers event – a vast assortment of lectures and talks comprising the audiovisual, written, musical and theatrical that took place through the night. Having drunk enough wine and coffee to power me through the 12 hours I fell into a twitchy sleep haunted by words such as subjunctives, truth, beauty, reality and all manner of other philosophical concepts. Spurred on by the amount of conversations about Descartes’ sceptic I’d heard the night before, when I awoke I even pinched myself to double check I was really awake. Although, as Descartes would say, this is no guarantee to know that I was really awake as opposed to just being tricked by some malicious demon.

As with the Žižek talk, people were actively engaged in philosophy. Over the course of the evening through readings, performances and most importantly arguing and debating with each other as well as the philosophers giving talks it was strikingly clear that there is not only a need but an appetite for this kind of public engagement of academic subjects. Particularly appealing for myslef was watching the philosophers debate between themselves (see here Beyond The Fringe’s fantastic spoof of such debates) and, in certain debates, try to find their own answers to the questions that had bothered me so much as a student and that I’ve outlined above. They didn’t reach any conclusive answers but then again, if I’d learned anything from studying philosophy and attending these events, it was that it isn’t the point of the subject. And maybe that’s why we need it.

Sean Gittins is a performer, broadcaster and producer of the Arts Council England funded project Til Debt Do Us Part. You can follow him at http://www.seangittins.co.uk/Home.html and @sean_gittins

In the agora: Slavoj Žižek at Café Oto Photo: Tim Ferguson
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
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Low fat, full fat: why the diet industry keeps changing its mind

A new report illustrates just how disillusioned the diet industry has become, at the expense of everyone else.

Another year, another wave of dietary fads. Most seem to surface in the summer, when new nutritional advice claims to provide the panacea to everyone’s health woes: “Eat clean get lean!” “The simple secret of intermittent fasting!” “The paleo way is the only way!” “Six weeks to a super you!”

However, despite the barrage of diet books, the expansion of nutrition research and the growth of education about healthy living, global obesity has more than doubled since 1980.

It may be that this is due to the conflicting information constantly issued from the diet industry. “Eat lots of protein – it’ll speed up your metabolism!” “Too much protein will damage your kidneys – reduce your protein intake!” “Superfoods are a vital source of antioxidants!” “Superfoods aren’t so super at all!” “Don’t snack it will make you pile on the pounds!” “You should snack – it’ll stop you from binge eating!” It’s no wonder people aren’t sure what to eat.

The UK launched its first dietary guidelines in 1994, which have since been continuously revised to form the guide now known as “The Eatwell Plate”. The dietary guidelines recommend plentiful carbohydrates “such as rice, bread, pasta and potatoes”, at least five portions of fruits and vegetables, some protein, some milk, some dairy and minimal saturated fat.

However, a recent report serves to highlight the confusion consumers face when it comes to food: it claims that the official advice on low-fat diets is outright wrong, even damaging.

Led by the National Obesity Forum and the Public Health Collaboration, the report (not peer-reviewed, it’s worth noting) attacked a host of official health proposals. It claims that “eating fat does not make you fat”, and criticises Eatwell Plate’s small fat allowance. The report also stated that saturated fats have been unfairly demonised, as there is allegedly little evidence to suggest that they cause heart disease. Meanwhile sugar consumption should be dialled down to zero, apparently, and calories shouldn’t be counted, as an abundance of them won’t cause obesity. Also, forget about the exercise - apparently a bad diet can’t be outrun, according to the report.

Professor David Haslam, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said: “As a clinician, treating patients all day every day, I quickly realised that guidelines from on high, suggesting high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets were the universal panacea, were deeply flawed. Current efforts have failed – the proof being that obesity levels are higher than they have ever been, and show no chance of reducing despite the best efforts of government and scientists.”

Dr Aseem Malhotra, consultant cardiologist and founding member of the Public Health Collaboration reinforced this by saying the guidelines were “perhaps the biggest mistake in modern medical history, resulting in devastating consequences for public health.” Under current dietary guidelines, obesity levels have indeed increased in the UK, with nearly two-thirds of men and women overweight or obese, costing the economy more than £3bn per year.

In the face of such starkly opposed sides - both backed by seemingly reputable experts who claim all their research is based on empirical evidence - what are consumers meant to do?

The vilification of fat

In 1983, it was recommended that overall dietary fat consumption should make up only 30 per cent of total daily energy intake – 10 per cent of which, at most, should come from saturated fat.

The recommendations came from a number of research papers published at the time, which suggested a link between saturated fat intake and increased levels of LDL cholesterol – the cholesterol which has been connected to increased risk of heart disease, stroke and atherosclerosis.

An even simpler reason for the suggestions boiled down to this: fat has more calories per gram than carbohydrates – nine calories per gram versus four, to be exact. This shape to future official guidelines, and gave birth to the low-fat high-carbohydrate mantra. Fat was cemented as public enemy number one.

As a result, the fat eliminated from people’s diets was to be supplemented with an increased intake of carbohydrates. Tipping the scales in favour of carbohydrates were promises of weight loss as a result of higher fibre content, elevated levels of serotonin to aid sleep and boosts in mood from feeling fuller.

But obesity levels continued to soar, and health experts shifted their focus to the next culprit: carbs.

The low-carb era

An analysis by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition combined the results of 21 studies and found that “saturated fat was not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease”. Other studies demonstrated the positive effect on testosterone levels in men from increased saturated fat intake, and have noted increased levels of triglycerides (the stuff that makes you fat) from lower fat diets.

As a result, dieticians developed a deep suspicion of carbs, and sugar in particular, and diets like the Atkins regime became more and more popular.

In part, the report by the National Obesity Forum and Public Health Collaboration uses the research that propped up these low-carb high-fat diets as a means by which to attack the general consensus surrounding healthy eating. Dr Malhotra, who led the latest report, previously worked in a pressure group called Action on Sugar – a group that has tried to get the food industry to reduce the amount of sugar added to food.

The reasoning goes something like this: guidelines encouraging greater carbohydrate consumption are oblivious to the fact that sugars constitute a vast amount of refined carbohydrates. By cranking up the sugar intake we ratchet up the risk of type 2 diabetes; this in turn could spark further health problems including obesity.

The logic seems sound, and yet obesity levels have continued to soar in the face of this research. The notion that all sugar should be avoided also ignores the fact that our brains require a significant amount of glucose for optimal functioning.

Everything in moderation

In the face of an industry that can’t make up its mind about how people should eat, it’s no wonder obesity levels have grown to epidemic proportions. So what can be done?

Professor Susan Jebb, the government’s obesity adviser, believes that the current debate needs to expand beyond the battle between carbohydrates and fat. She said: “We’re eating too many calories – if we want to tackle obesity people do need to eat fewer calories and that means less fat and less sugar.” And she’s right. If decades of research have pointed to anything assertively, it’s that calories count, and paying attention to portion sizes could take us a long way.

Both fat and carbohydrates are necessary for our bodies to function. The solution? Enjoy everything in moderation. Eat fruits without fearing fructose, don’t throw away the egg yolk, get a decent amount of protein and yes, you should have your slice of cake too.