Sci-fi and art: Thoughts from a man of art

Science fiction and its artistic value has long been a hot topic of discussion in academia and dorm rooms alike. Are sci-fi films art? Can sci-fi novels ever achieve the status of “literature”? Have they already? What kind of philosophical lessons can you find in them?

I had the opportunity to interview Andrew Kania, associate professor of philosophy at Trinity, about these very questions. He’s an award-winning philosopher who focuses most of his written work on the philosophy of music. His “Philosophy of Film” and “Aesthetics” courses led me to see if he could shed light on these questions.

With this in mind, here is what he had to say on the subject of sci-fi, philosophy and artistic value, among other things.

Dylan Wagner: Is there any kind of genre fiction you find yourself drawn to?

Andrew Kania: Not really. You mean films?

DW: Sure.

AK: Yeah, I think I like a range of genres when it comes to films. Definitely science fiction, like you said. I was sort of the generation that grew up with Star Wars. I enjoy some of that. I think I also enjoy sort of film noir-ish things, like detective story-type things. Though, interestingly enough, I don’t read any genre fiction. Once in a while I’ll pick up a science fiction novel or a detective novel, and I find them “”  disappointing. Even when they’re like “classics,” that people have said, “Oh, you just haven’t read the best genre fiction, read this science fiction novel, read this detective novel.” I’m just not into it! They just don’t seem interesting as novels, as a general rule to me.

But I mean this was like years ago, probably like two decades ago, that I last read a science fiction book.

DW: There’s an author named Chuck Klosterman, a cultural critic, who doesn’t like the distinction between high and low art, and he at one point said “Science fiction is philosophy for stupid people.” What do you think of that?

AK: When I was a grad student at the University of Maryland, I taught a “Metaphysics Through Film” course. So we watched a movie every couple of weeks with some sort of philosophical theme or take on it, then we would read some philosophy about it. And I think some of that stuff is well done, and some of it isn’t so well done. So for instance one of the topics I did was time travel, a classic example because it raises some interesting philosophical questions “” whether time travel is possible is the one people start out with, usually “” and some films are very careful to avoid the basic incoherencies that people raise about the possibility of time travel.

So “12 Monkeys,” I think, is what we used in that course. It’s a nice example, a nice film, because it doesn’t have any logical inconsistencies. Assuming time travel is possible, nothing impossible happens. But, for instance, if you look at a film like “Back to the Future” or, what was the recent one, “Looper,” they’re terrible in terms of thinking about the philosophical questions. Of course, one nice moment in “Looper” is when the younger version of the character asks the older version, Bruce Willis in this case, how any of this is possible, why it’s possible. And Bruce Willis of course gets a little pissed off and says, “What? Don’t worry about it, there’s no time to worry about how this works!”

It’s the same with “Back to the Future,” I mean, I think it’s a fun movie, I also think it’s a movie dear to my heart, from my childhood, but I wouldn’t show it in a Metaphysics of Film class “”  it’s basically incoherent.

There’s a big debate in the philosophy of film about whether film can do philosophy, and I think I taught a seminar about that a few years ago. It’s a difficult question because you have to figure out what philosophy is, what doing it amounts to, how films could do that, but it seems to me films can at the very least raise interesting philosophical question and perhaps say some interesting things about them. Typically, they [films] are not trying to do a lot of philosophy. They’re trying to do other things,  I mean entertain people, maybe make people start to think about some things, but they aren’t trying to do what a lot of philosophical articles do, try to defend a claim by presenting a lot of arguments.

DW: Is there value in using the medium of “low” culture to expose people to these ideas? Like, “The Matrix.”

Yeah, sure, I mean in terms of philosophy, “The Matrix” has made it much easier to teach Descartes’ First Meditation.

So yeah, I think in terms of getting a large audience to start thinking about these philosophical questions, I don’t see how anyone could have an objection to that.

I mean, one question is “What is philosophy?” But if by philosophy you just mean raising a question and getting people to think about it, then films do philosophy all the time. Is it for stupid people? Well, it’s true that “The Matrix” does not takes you as far in epistemology as Descartes’ Meditations, but then, Descartes’ Meditations doesn’t have as many cool gun fights. So, I mean, are the meditations action movies for boring people? That seems like a weird thing to say, so I think the goals of these films is different than the goals of philosophy books, and it’s not very fair to compare the two.

DW: Do you think sci-fi has different value, maybe because it involves explicitly imagined worlds? That’s what makes it different than realistic fiction, I think.

AK: I think one reason people reach for science fiction, that is people are creating films or writing books, is that it can defamiliarize the familiar. So you might think in one sense that science fiction represents these crazy worlds. And yet, gee, what a coincidence that the strange aliens or beings in these worlds fall in love and try to achieve different goals and sort of need to figure out how to communicate.

They’re involved in these obviously human scenarios, which I think other artists do in other ways, so they can make you think about things with a fresh perspective, or something like that. I think that’s one advantage of science fiction.

DW: So there’s this concept of high and low art in media. What do you think of science fiction in terms of high and low art?

AK:  I think that’s a deep and difficult question. I think these categories exist, as a matter of at least social construction, if you like. It doesn’t seem to me that things are kind of essentially “low art” or “high art.” I mean, oil painting is a high art in our culture, and quilt making is a folk art or low art. I think it’s a little bit like “being cool.” Some people are “cooler” than other people, but it’s not like some intrinsic feature these people have. You’re only cool if people think you’re cool. Nevertheless, if people think you’re cool, you are cool! That’s what “coolness” is.

Then you might ask, should there be such categories? People think well, maybe we should stop doing this I think a lot of people think these cultural distinctions are bogus.


There you go: some answers to questions you may or may not have asked. Is science fiction high or low art? Do sci-fi films have value in that they bring philosophical concepts to a mass audience? As with most fun philosophical discussions, this one raised more questions than it answered.