“It’s Doctor Who day!” so proclaimed Hugo award-nominated Doctor Who writer Steven Moffat on Twitter last night. I had already watched the five-part “Pond Life” webisode series through the BBC’s Youtube channel, like many other Doctor Who fans, in preparation of the new series. In Australia we were able to watch the first episode of the new Doctor Who series as soon as we woke up this morning thanks to the ABC making it available on their “catch-up TV” service iView. This is exactly what I did, with a coffee in one hand and my iPad in the other. That it coincided with Father’s Day meant my Facebook and Twitter streams were full of Whovian joy crossed over with accounts of fathers watching the show with their children.
And yet there were also the haters. They were in the minority of course, but one comment struck me in particular; the poster said that Doctor Who “is made for children and simpletons”. Obvious troll is obvious, but, still, the elitist platitudes rubbed me up the wrong way… Doctor Who wears its infantile pretensions on its cross-platform global-brand sleeve. To say it is made for children (and, hyperbolically, for simpletons) is to state the obvious. Doctor Who captures a certain kind of stupid that I want to suggest is desperately needed. Hence, this is a defence of Doctor Who by way of a defence of stupidity.
We live in a world in which stupidities attempt to impinge on our mental and spiritual well-being at every turn. Indeed, I used to think of plenty of things were stupid (and still do to a certain extent): elite sport, organised religion, liberal democratic politics, pretty much everything that someone else is doing. A normative appreciation of stupidity, firstly, locates the stupid in someone else, and secondly, works to trace this stupid as the outcome of some kind of failure; a failure of thought, a failure of imagination, a failure of agency and so on.
The greatest stupid is produced by those who think they are a success. This is a kind of existential stupidity that provides security and purpose. Success as an Australian means policing borders. Success as a savvy businessperson means embodying the will of the market. Success as a moral subject means becoming an evangelist of law and order. Conservatism here is not a political category; the politics is just an expression of the ‘claptrap’ (political speech triggering audience clapping on demand) experienced as a collective pat on the back.
None of this is new. To realise this stupidity as an inescapable milieu is pretty much the only quality that is shared by all post-Boomer generations. Some resist through attempts at withdrawal, but this is insufficient. Like the coffee in a forgotten stove-top espresso machine, strategic apathy percolates into a ‘bitter’ generational cynicism. This ‘burnt’ cynic attempts to ward off being swept up in stupidities, but as a result produces their own. The cynicism of youth valorises the stupid of noseless faces.
The performative knowingness of the cynic is balanced with the performative naivety of the existentially enfranchised. This is more about the earnestness of those who transcend the collective stupidities of the individual and rather than choosing success, they choose the struggle. They are working to transcend the conditions of existence that forever turns inward back to the individualising ‘us’: the individual, the family, the nation. The stupid of the struggle is a failure to realise that resistance is futile; worse, it becomes a resource for the ‘winners’, like two cogs turning against each other.
Three forms of ideal stupidity; actual stupid is a combination of the three. If everything is stupid, how can anything or anyone escape or resist or succeed? Embrace your stupidities. In ancient Greece, Socrates called stupidity ‘ignorance’ and wisdom was the recognition of the way ignorance was an inherent character of humanity. Socrates did not live in our world, however. The possibility of ‘wisdom’ is to smuggle stupidity in through the backdoor under the aegis of philosophy. Although, Socrates was definitely on to something. Kant argued for a higher ‘pure’ rationality that transcends stupidity, but he did not recognise the conditions of rationality as being his own stupidity: the unthought of thought that haunts the modernist project. The stupid is the inescapable outside of thought that conditions the possibility of thought. Kant is the Batman of thought. “Why so serious?”
The fourth response is to follow Socrates, but turn Kant into the Joker, and go ‘meta’ to recognise the limits of the other three kinds of stupidity. The antidote to aggrandised Socratic beard-stoking, while at the same time pursuing an unforgiving self-awareness, is through play. To play is to suspend seriousness in a way that is often utterly serious. Is it a surprise then, that practices of ‘meta’ in the form of play characterise much of the activity found on social networks? “Best cat video.” Or imagining politicians as anthropomorphised animals? This is stupid, without a doubt, but it is obviously so. Almost anything that exists in the online economy of memes is an exchange of stupid. This is an invitation to a playful stupidity that is utterly serious.
Hence, it is a mistake to imagine the audience for Doctor Who as children when it renders explicit its process of infantilising the audience. Using the tropes of popular family-oriented science fiction television, Doctor Who incorporates this outside of thought into an hour or so of accessible television. Doctor Who is a suspension of seriousness that is utterly serious; a playful ‘meta’ of serious television and culture more generally. It is an invitation to become aware of our own stupidities.
Image copyright BBC