After finding out about A Night of Philosophy and Ideas on Twitter, it took me about 10 seconds to decide to go. Laurie Anderson, plus a whole lot of talks by leading environmental philosophers, plus art, music, and dance with ecological themes — this is the sort of pairing of philosophy and the arts we don’t often find in the US. We’re usually expected to choose: the arts or philosophising. Who knew they could be enjoyed all in one evening?
My husband, son, and I arrived at the Moody Center on the Rice University Campus in Houston good and early, and joined the crowd that was waiting to hear Laurie Anderson. She was performing in a lofty, high-ceilinged art gallery that contained a gorgeous art installation by Natasha Bowdoin. From behind some partitions that were part of the installation, we began to hear Anderson’s inimitable voice, plus the voice of Rice English professor Timothy Morton. The two of them were talking to each other about environmental topics …. very quietly. The crowd started murmuring a certain bafflement, making it all the more impossible to hear the two. Finally, they emerged! And talked more audibly about environmental topics. I had hoped to see a more typical Anderson performance (involving both talking and music). But then I found myself gradually lulled into a state of euphoria — by the art, by the beauty of the gallery, by the sound of Anderson’s hypnotic voice. It was wonderful, whatever the two were saying — something about the end of the world, I think.
After that dazzling kick-off, it was time to settle down to some cognitive labour. Dale Jamieson, the first speaker, made it not too painful. He talked to a packed room on the topic of loving nature and letting it be. Then Ben Hale got into more daunting topics — what we should do, as consumers, when we have little chance of having any impact. Jeff Sebo talked about the importance of collective action, if there is to be any change in the massive system of animal agriculture.
The art exhibits and dance performances beckoned, so I skipped a few philosophy talks and strolled around an exhibition of work by the French artist Michael Blazy. He had filled a huge gallery with the bleak landscape of an environmental holocaust, but had included some hardy survivors — boxy machines and robots of yesteryear. Then it was back to the first gallery for a dance performance and a return to philosophy-ville for an interesting talk by Loraine Besser on what we get out of experiencing nature. We experience “arousal”, she argued; no, not that kind of arousal, she clarified, but still arousal. This seemed convincing, though I wondered whether being aroused by Grand Canyon, or a sequoia forest, or a rushing stream, is really a different thing from being aroused by midtown Manhattan. Downside of a packed schedule of short talks: no time was allotted for questions.
I stepped out for a look at an exhibit on a new type of death technology. Any self-respecting environmentalist will want their corpse to decompose and create new life, but it turns out that it’s not a good idea to just put dead bodies underground. They would leach problematic chemicals into the soil. A company has solved the problem with a special kind of shroud that causes quick and safe decomposition. The shroud is also visually arresting. I picked up a brochure and order form that has been sitting on my coffee table ever since the visit and I find myself increasingly — no, not tempted to order, but — disturbed. I prefer to keep a curtain over my eventual demise, like Tolstoy talks about in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”. I don’t see any way to order the shroud without drawing that curtain.
The talk that seemed to excite the crowd the most was one by Gwen Bradford, a philosopher at Rice. She made a passionate case for colonising Mars. Human beings are a necessary part of many of the greatest goods, she argued. We run the risk of exhausting earth’s potential, so let’s go! Bradford didn’t talk about the end of life on earth with sorrow or alarm — far from it. She couldn’t have made her argument more cheerfully — though with tongue quite possibly in cheek. In keeping with the whole night, the (subliminal?) message was that discussing the end of the world doesn’t have to be depressing. It can be downright fun.
A few more talks later, it was midnight, and the event reached a crescendo. There was a fantastic New Orleans brass band in the colourful space where Laurie Anderson had chatted with Timothy Morton. The staff brought out huge trays of multi-coloured French macarons and glasses of champagne. All the discussion of doom now finished, it was time to celebrate.
Night of Ideas events take place in cities around the globe under the auspices of the Fondation de France and the Institute Français. The goal of the events is to promote “the stream of ideas between countries, cultures, topics, and generations”. To find out about the next series of events, check out the program’s website, lanuitdesidees.com.