Clive James & Jonathan Miller (Both RIP) Talk Together About How the Brain Works

"Were they the last representatives of a special kind of public intellectual?" asks John Mullen in the Guardian. He writes of Clive James and Jonathan Miller, two figures who exemplified "the polymath as entertainer." The Australian-born James became famous on the back of the television criticism that turned him into a television fixture himself. The combined TV critic and TV host also played the same dual role in the realm of poetry, and as his life and career went on — and his bibliography greatly expanded — it came to seem that there were few forms, traditions, time periods, or languages his cultural omnivorousness didn't reach. Trained as a doctor before he redefined British comedy as a member of Beyond the Fringe, Miller retained his scientific interests, using his fame to write books and present a television show on anatomy, psychology, and language, and much more besides.

Since the deaths of both James and Miller were announced last Friday, the outpouring of tributes (most of them lamenting the seeming loss, in our time, of high-profile roles for entertaining polymaths free to move between "high" and "low") has been accompanied by a renewed enthusiasm for both men's considerable bodies of work.




Despite having known each other, James and Miller seem never to have explicitly collaborated on anything — except, that is, an episode of Talking in the Library, an early example of what we would now call an interview web series. Produced from 2006 to 2008, the show has James pioneering a form that has now become standard among podcasters: recording the conversations he wanted to have with his friends anyway.

In James' case, his friends include the likes of not just Miller but Martin Amis, Ruby Wax, Ian McEwan, Stephen Fry, and Terry Gilliam. With Miller, James spends the half-hour talking science, and specifically neuroscience. Miller, who specialized in neurology while studying medicine (and who counted Oliver Sacks as a close friend since age 12), returned to the subject in the early 1980s for his book and BBC series States of Mind. Not long thereafter he returned at the age of 50 to his medical studies, diving into neuropsychology at McMaster University and becoming a research fellow at the University of Sussex.

Though James abandoned his own university studies in psychology by 1960, his curiosity about the workings of the human brain — and how it could produce all the art, literature, film, and indeed television to whose appreciation he dedicated his life — never abandoned him, as evidenced by the eagerness with which he asks questions of his more neuroscientifically savvy friend. "The brain is the most complicated thing in the universe," says Miller, "so complicated, in fact, that by contrast the universe itself it not much more complicated than a cuckoo clock." Fair to say that both Miller and James had the good luck to possess more complicated, or at least more interesting, brains than average — and that it's our good luck to be able to enjoy their work in perpetuity.

Related Content:

Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief, with Jonathan Miller

John Cleese & Jonathan Miller Turn Profs Talking About Wittgenstein Into a Classic Comedy Routine (1977)

The Drinking Party, 1965 Film Adapts Plato’s Symposium to Modern Times

Join Clive James on His Classic Television Trips to Paris, LA, Tokyo, Rio, Cairo & Beyond

Your Brain on Art: The Emerging Science of Neuroaesthetics Probes What Art Does to Our Brains

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinemaand the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Pretty Much Pop #18 Discusses Stephen King’s Media Empire

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Is the most popular writer of our time actually a good writer? Or maybe he used to be good but has long since run out of inspiration? What are the most effective ways to adapt these very readable short stories and novels? Does showing us the evil in a film lessen its impact? While you've been thinking about those questions, King has already written another book.

Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt share their experiences with and opinions about King's oeuvre and the films and shows that have come out of it, including It, "The Body" (aka Stand By Me), The Shining, In the Tall Grass, The Dark Tower, The Stand, Children of the Corn, From a Buick 8, Under the Dome, The Outsider, Mr. Mercedes, Castle Rock, Pet Sematary, Misery, The Shawshank Redemption, and more.

Some articles we read to prepare for this discussion include:

If you've never actually read a Stephen King novella, go ahead and read "The Body."

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

 

Are Stand-Up Comedians Our Modern Day Philosophers? Pretty Much Pop #17 Considers

In an age where the average person can't name a living academic philosopher, it's been claimed that the social role of an individual orating to the masses and getting them to think about fundamental questions is actually not performed by academics at all, and certainly not by politicians and religious figures who need to keep on message in one way or other, but by stand-up comedians.

This is the premise of the Modern Day Philosophers podcast, where comedian Daniel Lobell interviews some of our best known and loved comics. However, as Daniel has discovered in the course of that show, only some comedians are trying to express original views on the world. Many are just trying to tell good jokes. So do the routines of those more idea-based comedians count as philosophy? Or does telling the whole truth (instead of a funny one-side or exaggerated take on truth) rule out being funny? 

Daniel joins your hosts Mark Linsenmayer (of The Partially Examined Life philosophy podcast), actor Erica Spyres, and sci-fi author/linguist Brian Hirt to consider questions of authenticity and offensive humor.  We look at how philosophers and comics can use some of the same communicative tools like inventing new words, irony, and autobiography. We touch on Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr, Hannah Gadsby, George Carlin, Emo Phillips, Rodney Dangerfield, Louis CK, Between Two Ferns, Berkeley, Socrates, Kierkegaard, and more.

A few sources:

Find out about Danny's podcasts, graphic novel, album, and videos at dannylobell.com.

This episode includes bonus discussion (including some out-takes from the interview where we got too off-topic) that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

 

Is Opera Part of Pop Culture? Pretty Much Pop #15 with Sean Spyres

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Opera used to be a central part of European pop culture, Pavarotti was as big a pop star as they come. But still, it's now the quintessential art-form of the wealthy and snobbish. What gives?

Guest Sean Spyres from Springfield Regional Opera joins his sister Erica along with Mark and Brian to discuss opera's place in culture (including its film appearances), how it's different from music theater, the challenges it faces and how it might become more relevant.

Some articles:

Watch the Shawshank Redemption opera scene or perhaps the Pretty Woman scene. What Is pop opera? Here's Ranker's list of artists. Paul Potts sings that famous song on Britain's Got Talent. Plus, check out albums from brother Michael Spyres. Yes, you can hear an opera-singer sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," but you probably shouldn't.

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

The Appeal of UFO Narratives: Investigative Journalist Paul Beban Visits Pretty Much Pop #14

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TV news reporter Paul Beban (ABC, Al Jazeera, Yahoo, and now featured on the Discovery Network's Contact) joins your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt to discuss the public fascination with UFOs, both at the peak of their popularity in the 50s and in the current resurgence. Do accounts of sightings necessarily make for good TV? Do you have to believe to be entertained? Is belief in UFOs related to religious belief? To beliefs in conspiracy theories and anti-government venom? To humor?

We get into the mechanics of Contact, the Area 51 hubbub,and also touch on the show Project Blue Book, films like Arrival (2016) and UFO (2018), the documentary Unacknowledged (2017), the short story "Roadside Picnic," and more. To learn more about UFO lore in America, check out some of these podcasts.

Some of the resources we used for this episode included:

Plus, here are some stats from Gallup about UFO sightings and belief, you might want to pick up the book Nostalgia for the Absolute that Paul refers to, and here's the 2014 talk by Robbie Graham that Brian referred to describing "hyper-reality" and the Hollywood UFO conspiracy. Here's a list of UFO documentary series.

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

Is It Really Ever a Good Idea to Revive an Old TV Show? Pretty Much Pop #13 Considers

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An appalling number of shows are now being continued long after their deaths. Revivals (not to be confused with reboots) bring us back to the comfort of old friends, who are now really old. What can a revival's success tell us about why the show was appealing in the first place? Wouldn't you rather see a new work by the same creative team than more of the same? Mark, Erica, and Brian consider some successes, failures, and hypotheticals.

We consider Arrested Development, The Twilight Zone, X-Files, Twin Peaks, Will & Grace, Deadwood, Full House, Gilmore Girls, Queer Eye, Doctor Who, Veronica Mars, and talk too much about The Brady Bunch and Alf.

Some articles we looked at:

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood Examined on Pretty Much Pop #12

Wes Alwan, who co-hosts The Partially Examined Life philosophy podcast with PMP host Mark Linsenmayer, joins the discussion along with PMP co-hosts Erica Spyres and Brian Hirt to discuss Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood in the context of Tarantino’s other films.

Wes thinks the film is brilliant, even though he’s not otherwise a Tarantino fan. How is this film different? We consider T’s strange sense of pacing, his comic violence, his historical revisionism, and casting choices. Is this a brilliant film or a fundamentally misguided idea badly in need of an editor?

Some articles we drew on:

Wes is working on a very long essay on this film that isn't yet complete, but he’s written plenty of other long essays about the media and has recorded several episodes of his own PEL spin-off show, (sub)Text: Get it all here.

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

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