Philosophy & Film: an annotated syllabus


In the last few decades, there has been an increase in interest in using film (and popular culture, more generally) to teach philosophy. In addition, there has been some effort to use film and popular culture in philosophical work, and there have been philosophically-minded film makers. Given my own obsessive consumption of popular culture and philosophy, a “Philosophy & Film” course was all but inevitable.

Overview of the course

The course began as a series of conversations with David Magill; at the time, we were both at Pitt-Johnstown, and we thought it would be great to team teach a course on this material. Although that course never came to fruition, the courses brought together as a composite in this syllabus eventually did.

The class has three major sections:

  1. Philosophy through film: how have film makers explored traditional questions in or highlighted problems from the history of philosophy? Topics in this section include: truth, knowledge, mindedness, and personal identity.
  2. Social thought through film: how film can illustrate, reinforce, and critique norms of femininity, masculinity, and race?
  3. Film as literary pursuit: how does a mass medium like film stand up to analysis using standard tools from literary analysis? Topics in this section include the nature of adaptation, satire, authorship, and the morality of cinematic representations.

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How not to write a trigger policy


There has been much press about the growing movement to mandate (either as formal requirements or as “strong encouragement”) the addition of trigger warnings to syllabi. I think that we ought to resist allowing colleges and universities to set trigger warning policies, though I am supportive of the use of such warnings by individual faculty members. I have used such warnings myself over the years, though never specifically under the description of “trigger warning.” Here, I will not defend the stronger claim that we ought to resist such policies; instead, I want to highlight the profound failures of the actual proposal that has been put forward.

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Burstein for Prez: 2016

She'd vote for me if she could.  Do it for her.

She’d vote for me if she could. Do it for her.

With this post, I am announcing my run for President of the United States of America. I can guarantee that I will not be bought, as I will not be accepting any campaign contributions. If you really feel like donating, please send your money to an organization like Care or Oxfam America.

Please remember to cast your vote for me as a write-in candidate in 18 months.

Why choose Burstein?

Are you tired of politicians who say a bunch of things to get elected, do something completely different, and then gaslight you by suggesting that this is what they meant to do all along? Aren’t you done with politicians who carefully vet their talking points—and still put their feet firmly in their mouths? Do you really think that incessant political advertisements are a good idea? Did you really want to spend what precious little time you have on this planet going to see a politician give the same speech over and over?

You won’t get that with me. I mean what I say, though, alas, I will totally put my feet in my mouth from time to time. If I don’t do what I say, I will begin my explanation of why with “I’m sorry,” and then proceed to discuss what changed, whether it is my views or the facts or my knowledge of the facts. I’m not against “retail politics,” but boy howdy do I dislike “stump speeches”—so there will be none of the latter in my campaign.

There are many good reasons to vote for me: I’m smart, charming (when I want to be), funny, and my parents think very highly of me. I am virtually incorruptible, as I have a visceral dislike of most of the forces, institutions, and people who might corrupt me. I have no skeletons in my closet, since I am proud of my degeneracy. I’m honest, and I cannot abide bullshitters, flimflam artists, grifters, and other politicians and media “personalities.” Also, I enjoy swearing, and who doesn’t want a president who looks over to Vladimir Putin and asks, “Are you fucking kidding me with this?”

My party affiliation

I have none. I have a difficult time thinking of politics in terms of gamesmanship, and so I don’t play for any team. I am not beholden to either of the two major parties. I am happy to work with people of good will who understand that the nature of a flourishing democratic government requires a moral commitment to compromise.

My platform

  1. Legalize, tax, and regulate all recreational drugs. The DEA will be largely disbanded and almost entirely disarmed; agents who are not disarmed will have to wear frilly pink lace uniforms.
  2. Reduce the “personhood” of corporations to the minimum required for them to operate.
  3. Any business that is deemed too big to fail will either be nationalized or its board of directors and top-level executives will become criminally liable for damage to the economy.
  4. Outlaw the death penalty, except for major financial crimes. If it is a crime for a poor person to snatch the wealth of others, then it is a worse crime for an organized group of rich people to snatch the wealth of a nation.
  5. Undo neo-liberal education reforms (e.g., Common Core and No Child Left Behind).
  6. Fund education and pay teachers as if the success of future citizens is a priority.
  7. Close all military bases abroad, except for countries that invite us and pay full freight for the service.
  8. Demilitarize police forces.
  9. Legalize prostitution (insert joke about politicians here), and strengthen penalties for human trafficking.
  10. End mass incarceration.
  11. Replace the Affordable Care Act with Canadian-style health care.
  12. Ensure “Net Neutrality” and make ISPs common carriers.
  13. Publish the personal correspondence—including email, text messages, and phone calls—of all intelligence-related NSA personnel online. I suggest we call it
  14. Invest in infrastructure, both physical and human, as if we want this country to be around for a while longer.
  15. End non-humanitarian aid to foreign countries.
  16. Rename the Federal Christmas holiday “Winter Solstice.”
  17. Relax ineffective gun laws, on the condition that all gun owners must be a part of a duly constituted, well regulated militia. (There will be regular drills, and gun skills and safety training will be required.)
  18. Tax religious institutions. Religious organizations that are “organized and operated exclusively” for other 501(c)(3) purposes, which include “charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, or preventing cruelty to children or animals,” may retain non-profit status.
  19. All lobbyists must dress up like clowns when conducting business—anywhere they might be conducting business. Former elected officials or government employees who are now lobbyists must dress up like Pennywise, the clown from It, but lobbyists who have never been elected or worked in government may choose any traditional clown style.
  20. If congress doesn’t pass legislation granting DC statehood, the residents of DC should be allowed to vote in every district’s election for the U.S. House of Representatives and every state’s election for the U.S. Senate.

Other important issues

There are, indeed, many other important issues. Stay tuned for updates, position papers, and other hilarity.

Things I’m surprised I’ve had to tell students

The following items are quotes (or very close paraphrases) of things I’ve actually had to say to students over the years.

  • No, I cannot give you a hint on the exam question. Even if you ask three times. And, yes, I know that you probably would have gotten the answer if I had given you a hint.

  • Just because you worked really hard doesn’t mean that you will do well on an assignment.

  • It is spelled ‘ludicrous’, not ‘ludacris’—unless you’re talking about the hip hop artist.

  • Please do not use sms abbreviations in your papers.

  • I don’t think invoking the abortion debate will clarify people’s positions on [this unrelated debate].

  • You aren’t required to put my name on your paper, but if you do, please spell it correctly.

  • “It is safe to assume” does not mean “I really need this to be true, but I don’t have any justification for it.”

  • We don’t refer to human reproduction as “breeding,” so maybe “if we feed them, they will breed” is a problematic response to an argument about famine relief.

  • Since you didn’t actually address the question, what grade do you think you should get on this paper?

  • Other than X being cruel and immoral, no, I guess I don’t have any objections to it.

  • Getting a B+ on this one exam in “Intro to Philosophy” won’t preclude you from succeeding in life.

  • If I needed a [insert better grade than one about to be received] to [achieve some important end like keep a scholarship], I probably would have treated my schoolwork as if my [important end] depended on my getting a [high grade].

Talking films, too: electric boogaloo

In my previous post, I suggested that I distinguish between the following sorts of reactions to films:

  1. Enjoying a film
  2. Recognizing the cinematic virtues of a film (i.e., its being a “good” film)
  3. Acknowledging the cultural significance of a film

I think a bit more should be said here, so let’s talk about some examples.

  • Let’s start with a film that I enjoy, is good, and is culturally significant. I take Citizen Kane to be a relatively uncontroversial choice for this category; its satisfaction of (2) and (3) are generally accepted, and I do enjoy the film on many levels.
  • A film that I enjoy, is culturally important, but that is not good: Glen or Glenda is a terrible film in many ways, but it also is quite a hoot and fairly groundbreaking for its day in thinking about gender.
  • A film that I enjoy, is good, but is not culturally important: Fletch Lives was a fairly funny and well-put-together film, but it wasn’t as good or important (or quotable) as the original film.
  • A film that I enjoy, but that is neither good nor important: Petey Wheatstraw is better made than Dolemite or The Human Tornado, but that isn’t exactly saying much. Nonetheless, its arrival on the scene in 1977 puts it at the tail end of the blaxploitation period, and so had less cultural uptake than the films with the Dolemite character.
  • A film that I do not enjoy, but that is good and important—so, someone interested in film ought to watch it: Olympia is Leni Reifenstahl’s celebration of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. It features techniques that were way ahead of their time and it is beautifully shot, but it runs about 226 minutes.
  • A film that I don’t enjoy and isn’t culturally significant, but which is a good film: Man Bites Dog is a well-made, often funny mockumentary about a film crew following a serial killer. It has a fairly grotesque scene that is supposed to make the audience feel . . . ashamed? uncomfortable? about its having laughed its way through the film up to that point. I found the scene difficult to watch, but I didn’t agree with the intended critique. (It isn’t particularly culturally important because it didn’t break any new ground in film, and very few people saw it.)
  • A film that I do not like and isn’t a good movie, but which is culturally significant: there are probably a lot of these, but perhaps the one to choose for this list is Reefer Madness—which is just a terrible, boring film that has played a role as propaganda in the early part of the American drug war and as counter-cultural humor among stoners.

A few of my favorite films


people see so many movies that when they finally see one not so bad as the others, they think it’s great. an Academy Award means that you don’t stink quite as much as your cousin. — Charles Bukowski, The Last Night of the Earth Poems

My film students frequently ask about my “favorite” film (yes, usually singular), and, honestly, I don’t have one. Indeed, one of the things I try to convey to my students is that there may be a gap between the films one enjoys, ones that a person recognizes as being excellent in one way or another, and ones that a person recognizes as being culturally important. So, I reply by asking which of these sorts of categories are they interested in and why. Sometimes I mention a film or two in each category, but I try to make the questions the topic rather than my particular tastes.

So, this list is an “arbitrary 15” (i.e., rather than a “top 10”) list of films from some combination of the aforementioned criteria.1

  1. Point Blank (Boorman, 1967)
  2. The Human Tornado (Roquemore, 1976)
  3. Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)
  4. Pink Flamingos (Waters, 1972)
  5. La Jetee (Marker, 1962)
  6. Death Race 2000 (Bartel, 1975)
  7. Tales from the Hood (Cundieff, 1995)
  8. Key Largo (Huston, 1948)
  9. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Lee, 2006)
  10. Shaolin Soccer (Chow, 2001)
  11. The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 1969)
  12. Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958)
  13. Master of the Flying Guillotine (Wang, 1976)
  14. Vanishing Point (Sarafian, 1971)
  15. Schizopolis (Soderbergh, 1996)

  1. The films aren’t completely arbitrarily chosen from within the broad criteria listed above. I have left off films from my “Philosophy and Film” course, and I have generally included films that have stuck with me, inspired multiple viewings, and the like. I’ve also left off fairly popular films like Fight Club or Fletch

Jiro’s dreams in my class

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

In my “Philosophy and Film” class, one of the documentaries I show is 2011’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Jiro depicts the life and work of Jiro Ono, who is the proprietor of the Michelin 3 star winning sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro. Kicked out of his house in first grade, he spent the subsequent seven decades mastering the art of sushi preparation. He has been relentless in pursuing excellence. The advice he gives the film’s audience provides a flavor of his work ethic:

Once you decide on your occupation… you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success… and is the key to being regarded honorably.

I’ve resolved that I will require students in all of my classes to watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi before the first day of class. Then I will announce in class on the first day:

If you aren’t working “Jiro-hard” on your schoolwork, then do not report that you “worked really hard” on a project.

It strikes me as a potentially effective way to communicate expectations to students from a media-saturated, No Child Left Behind/Common Core, everyone gets an award educational culture. . . .

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to violence, the word and the act.


And so it begins. . . .

I’ve decided to put up this site for a few reasons:

  1. I’ve developed a bunch of materials that might prove useful to others (e.g., syllabi for classes that I’ve developed), and I wanted to share them.
  2. I am leaving academia (or trying to, at any rate), and I would like to continue publishing my work.
  3. I’m no longer super-keen on the academic publishing process, and I’d rather publish my ideas in my own voice and for a more general audience.
  4. I’m no longer totally content to post a bon mot or two on facebook.
  5. It seems clear that what the internet really needs at this moment is someone to offer commentary on stuff, and I am heeding that call.

So, click through and enjoy the show.