Louis CK, Technology, and Philosophy (Part II)

Posted by Matthew on September 25, 2013

When a person makes some off-handed remarks about cell phones on TV, and the clip receives 5 million views on YouTube in under a week, some bells should be going off: that person has tapped into something.

But when the video is titled "Louis CK Hates Cell Phones" in a world that gushes over them, we might naturally go from attentive to baffled. Why are Louis' disparaging comments about cell phones such a big hit?

A few years ago, we looked at Louis CK, technology, and philosophy after America's favorite off-color comedian made some jokes about cell phones on Conan; and here we find the same themes again at work. "It's just this thing," he says simply, gesticulating texting-tunnel-vision. "It's bad." And that's only the beginning.

As far as I know, Louis CK is not a student of philosophy like Steve Martin, but what he is doing time and time again with the West's beloved and ubiquitous device - the smartphone - is injecting a love of wisdom into a world of utility. And we love it.

The popularity of the video underscores, in my mind, the great latent desire for the leisure of philosophy that lies dormant in these speed-loving United States. In a recent NY Times article, David Brooks wrote about "The Humanist Vocation," and how the study of the humanities (including philosophy) is in rapid decline:

A half-century ago, 14 percent of college degrees were awarded to people who majored in the humanities. Today, only 7 percent of graduates in the country are humanities majors. Even over the last decade alone, the number of incoming students at Harvard who express interest in becoming humanities majors has dropped by a third.

"I think students feel pressure on many more dimensions than they did in the past," Yale College Dean Mary Miller said in agreement. "We're in the middle of a great recession, and there’s a lot more pressure on students and their families to have measurable, demonstrable success."

A graph from the Yale Daily News seems to confirm the trend:

The study of subjects like philosophy, theology, or history is increasingly seen as practically useless in a world oriented around practical usefulness. "What am I going to do with this?" "When will I use this?" These are the laments of students everywhere, who come to see their study in school as little else than career training. In that context, philosophy becomes mere preparation for the stodgy and turgid air of pedants and papers, and even then there are no guarantees.

Louis CK takes a sledgehammer to this framework, not only bringing philosophy back to the kind of thinking about life and worth and truth that ordinary people engage in all of the time (What is it all about? What should I do today? What matters? Who am I?), but using it to look at the crown jewel of modern speed and ease: the smartphone.

Smartphone ownership has skyrocketed in the past few years: 79% of 18-24 year olds and 81% of 25-34 year olds now own a smartphone of some kind. (Stay strong you 19 percenters.) Some smartphones read "life companion" on the home screen - hardly hyperbole for a device that people use to sleep, wake up, eat, work, socialize, flirt, read, write, research, relax, and play on. 

At first, Louis' emphasis on the importance of embodiment in relationships calls to mind the work of the phenomenologists: Merleau-Ponty on embodiment, Edith Stein on empathy, and Heidegger on Dasein. But then, it's another of Heidegger's subjects that comes to the fore - The Question Concerning Technology. Here, Louis gives the lie to the image of a guiltless progress in mastery of nature, and reveals the dark side of our little "life companions." Where commercials about smartphones have the orderly ring of Enlightenment excitement, wellness, and control, Louis inverts the picture, pondering the existential fear, sadness, and contingency that always accompany our steps as finite creatures.

First, Louis echos the great Dane, Kierkegaard:

"Chattering dreads the moment of silence, which would reveal the emptiness."

"Boredom is the root of all evil - the despairing refusal to be oneself."

"There is only one way out, and that is to silence the deeper self by letting the roar of inconstancy drown it out."

"There is so much that wants to draw us to itself. There is pleasure with its seductive power, the multiplicity with its bewildering distractions, the moment with its infatuating importance and the conceited laboriousness of busyness and the careless time-wasting of light-mindedness and the gloomy brooding of heavy-mindedness-all this will draw us away from ourselves to itself in order to deceive us."

And then, the anti-Descartes, Pascal:

"The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room."

"Diversion. Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things."

"A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself."

"Man finds nothing so intolerable as to be in a state of complete rest, without passions, without occupation, without diversion, without effort. Then he faces his nullity, loneliness, inadequacy, dependence, helplessness, emptiness. And at once there wells up from the depths of his soul boredom, gloom, depression, chagrin, resentment, despair."

Peter Kreeft, commenting on Pascal, describes a great hole in the center of modern life, a nearly verbatim echo of Louis CK's concept of "that thing, that forever empty":

If you are typically modern, your life is like a rich mansion with a terrifying hole right in the middle of the living-room floor. So you paper over the hole with a very busy wallpaper pattern to distract yourself. You find a rhinoceros in the middle of your house. The rhinoceros is wretchedness and death. How in the world can you hid a rhinoceros? Easy: cover it with a million mice. Multiply diversions.

But then, all of this is preceded by that restless Bishop of Hippo, Augustine:

"People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering."

"I lost myself among a multiplicity of things."

"You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."

I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to hear that Louis CK had gotten his nose into books by any of these thinkers. And if he hasn't, well, his rants about cell phones are still tapping into existential gold - and somehow getting America to own up to the ugly side of its pocket-sized pride and joy.


  1. thanks for the post! fantastic writing

  2. Thanks for this great post. Saw a connection to it on JPII's Theology of the Body, specifically Original Solitude. Linked to your post via comment (http://wp.me/p2QE6j-mA). Your post is a lot more insightful! :-)

  3. Indeed! I shared this with a university class I teach on Theology of the Body.... so refreshing to see Louis CK in touch with that "ache" of our original solitude. If only we could all realize the "empty forever empty" hole in our hearts is made to be one day filled. We are destined for a "unity" that will truly fill us.

    I also saw an illusion to the concept of "sehnsucht" as CS Lewis was a fond of describing it. The "inconsolable longing" for more. Nothing like a Springsteen song to stir that up!

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