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
Getty
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Out like a light: why bad sleep poses a danger to us all

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim.

At 4.02am on 2 November 1892, near Thirsk railway station in Yorkshire, an express train crashed into a goods train. Ten people were killed and 39 injured. Nearly a century later, at 1.23am on 26 April 1986, the No 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, killing two people instantly and causing multiple deaths from radiation. To see how these seemingly unrelated tragedies are connected requires that we understand biological time.

Our lives are ruled by time, but the alarms that drive us out of bed in the morning or tell us that we are late for a meeting are recently adopted chronometers. Life answers to a more ancient beat, which probably started to tick early in the evolutionary process. Embedded in our genes are the instructions for a biological or “circadian” clock that regulates our sleep patterns, alertness, mood, physical strength, blood pressure, and more.

Normally, we experience a 24-hour pattern of light and dark and this aligns our day to the Earth’s rotation. The clock is then used to anticipate this rotation and fine-tune physiology and behaviour before these conditions change. Temperature, blood pressure and cognitive performance all decline as you wind down to sleep. Before dawn, these processes are slowly reversed in anticipation of the new day.

The daily sleep cycle is the most obvious of these rhythms. While asleep, we don’t eat, drink, make money or have sex, so we have relegated the sleep state to a lowly position on our list of priorities. At best, we tolerate it; at worst, we regard it as an illness in need of a cure. Such attitudes are not only wrong, but dangerous.

Though sleep may involve the suspension of most physical activity, the brain is consolidating memories and solving problems; it co-ordinates the removal of toxins; promotes cell division and tissue repair; and rebuilds metabolic pathways. In short, without sleep, our performance and health deteriorate rapidly.

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim. The unintended consequences of cheap electric light are twofold. More light at night, together with forms of entertainment including social media, have eroded our sleep time by as much as two hours every night. On top of this, many of us are trying to sleep at the wrong time. Those with night shifts work when they are sleepy and try to sleep when they are not. The body clock fails to adjust and remains synchronised to the natural light/dark cycle.

Shortened sleep and working against biological time have been linked with many health problems. These include lapses in attention and uncontrollable micro-sleeps; impulsiveness and loss of empathy; memory impairment and reduced creativity; immune suppression; higher risks of Type 2 diabetes, infection, cancer and cardiovascular disease; weight gain; and a susceptibility to depression, anxiety and mood instability.

In our quest for instant gratification, it is unlikely that we will stop doing what we like when we like. However, understanding the consequences of bad sleep will help us to reprioritise sleep. Perhaps, one day, the self-inflicted tired will be viewed with the same contempt as that for smokers huddled outside a building. Employers need to recognise that employees with disrupted sleep will be less productive. Why not introduce more health checks and offer advice to those at risk? As night-shift workers are more likely to have heart disease and Type 2 diabetes and to be obese, firms could provide food that reduces these risks. Finally, technology could be used to alert an individual that they are falling asleep both in the workplace and during the drive home.

So, what happened at Thirsk railway station in 1892 and Chernobyl in 1986? These disasters and others like them were linked to excessive tiredness, people working at the wrong biological time and a breakdown in procedure. James Holmes was the signalman at Thirsk. The day before the crash, he had been awake for 36 hours, caring for his daughter, trying to find a doctor and looking after his grief-stricken wife when the baby died. He reported to the stationmaster that he would be unable to work the next night, but no replacement was sent and he was forced to do his shift. He fell asleep, and he had forgotten that the goods train was on the line when he allowed the express through.

After the crash, Holmes was found guilty of manslaughter but given an absolute discharge. The railway company was blamed for ignoring him, and for failing to use procedures which would have detected that he had fallen asleep.

Russell Foster is Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution