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Thoughts Busy Hatching

For Philosophy Professor Phil Seng, There's No Place Like Oz

By Heather Harris | Posted 2/18/2009

Do flying monkeys give you the willies? How about the promise, "I'll get you, my pretty--and your little dog, too." Did you see Wicked on Broadway? The Wiz back in the '70s? Have you ever wondered whether Pink Floyd intended for The Dark Side of the Moon to serve as a soundtrack of sorts? If so, UMBC visiting assistant philosophy professor Phil Seng has a book for you.

One of Seng's main areas of interest is film and philosophy, so last year he jumped at the chance to collaborate with his former professor, Randall E. Auxier of Southern Illinois University, on a book about the philosophical ideas present in The Wizard of Oz. The result is the latest addition to Open Court Press' Popular Culture and Philosophy series, The Wizard of Oz and Philosophy: Wicked Wisdom of the West, edited by Auxier and Seng and featuring essays by 20 different philosophers.

The point of the book, according to Seng, is to encourage people to watch the movie--for the first or 50th time--give them some ideas about what they saw, and then let them go to discuss it amongst themselves. "What makes the movie interesting is then talking about it with someone else," he says over a cup of coffee at the UMBC Commons. "You enjoy movies better talking about them because you get more out of them."

Don't expect Seng or any of the contributing philosophers to bully you with "correct" interpretations. "So this is how philosophers look at The Wizard of Oz," he says. "But you yourself, as viewers of the movie and readers of the book, might get something different out of it, and that would be interesting to talk about, too."

The particular joy of a movie like The Wizard of Oz is that so many people grew up with it, and those who have watched it multiple times retain some mix of childhood and adult impressions. Seng would like you to take everything you already think and feel about the movie and reconsider it through the lens of philosophy.

"Re-watch it and think about slavery, about feminism," he says. "Salman Rushdie comes at the story from a completely different perspective because he thinks it's a story about an immigrant. It's not a Western point of view. Americans see it as, 'I want to get home.' He sees it as, 'I want to get away from this situation.' Those are different ways of looking at it, and he's not wrong."

In keeping with their mistrust of orthodoxy, Seng and Auxier did not put out a traditional call for abstracts and curate the book ahead of time. Instead, they contacted the philosophers they wanted to write for the project and gave them the freedom to write any essay inspired by the movie. The result is an eclectic collection of riffs on topics ranging from matriarchy to Pink Floyd to something like quantum theory.

Contributors consider whether the story could have been written today, since our intimate knowledge of our earth has made it increasingly difficult to set a fairy tale "once upon a time in a land far, far away." (Seng points out, though, that the 2006 movie Pan's Labyrinth deals with many of the same themes in the same way as Oz. So maybe L. Frank Baum could have written his story in 2009.)

Contributors explore whether Oz is anti-organized religion, since, according to George A. Dunn's essay "The Wonderful Smallness of Evil in Oz," Baum is "clearly rejecting a notion dear to many religions when he lampoons those who turn to a higher power to satisfy their deepest desires."

It's Seng himself who tackles whether or not Pink Floyd intended to write a soundtrack to the movie with its 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon. His essay, "Dude, When Did Pink Floyd Write a Soundtrack for The Wizard of Oz?" looks at the phenomenon believers call "Dark Side of the Rainbow" or DSOTR. Supposedly, if you cue the movie and the CD up just right, Toto wags in time to "On the Run," the cash register rings in "Money" just as Dorothy steps into color in Munchkinland, and the Wicked Witch raises and lowers her broom to the lyrics of "Us and Them," among other coincidences.

Roger Waters has long denied any deliberate pairing, but it's always fun when academics take on urban legends. (Seng also notes that synchronicities seem to link The Fellowship of the Ring and Led Zeppelin IV, The Matrix and Metallica's Black Album, and Memento and Nirvana's Nevermind. An uncommon interest in hallucinogens among fans of these bands probably has nothing to do with it.) Seng's conclusion springs from his philosophical position as a contexualist.

For Seng, the particular coincidences that a viewer notices or does not notice are more interesting and provide more fodder for discussion than the objectivist question, Did Pink Floyd do it on purpose? "If we are objectivists we ask if my understanding of the movie is what it's really about, which would be right or wrong," he says. "If I'm a relativist, I would be right all the time. As a contexualist, there could be a 20 percent disparity between how I see the movie and how you see the movie. Can both positions be right? A contexualist says, 'Yeah.' The interesting question becomes what it is about me that caused me to see the movie this way."

Among the strongest chapters in the book are "Freeing the Slaves in Oz," "The Possible World of Oz," and "In the Merry Old Matriarchy of Oz." In "Freeing the Slaves," Jason and Jessica Bell explore a comment made by the Wicked Witch about Dorothy: "I can still make her my slave, for she does not know how to use her power." They effectively incorporate Socrates' abolitionist statement in Plato's Republic and the abolitionist history of Kansas--it wasn't always the Kansas we know and ignore today--into an interesting exploration of subjugation in Oz.

"The Possible World of Oz" is Auxier's dive into the theory that every logical possibility--e.g. Oz itself--is an actuality somewhere. And while it is a dense essay, Auxier leavens it with some very funny shots at the philosophical community ("so many people, so few social skills").

Pam R. Sailors specifically addresses feminism and Oz in an essay called "Wicked Feminism," which explores author Gregory Maguire's 1995 spin on Baum's story. But Auxier makes the more interesting comment on women in "In the Merry Old Matriarchy of Oz." Auxier tracks 150 years of academic work to legitimize the idea that such a thing as matriarchy ever existed in human history, echoing Leonard Shlain's idea that matriarchy went out with mythology at the advent of writing. Auxier ties these ideas to Oz through Maguire, who seems to give a nod to this history in the history he writes of Oz in Wicked.

Seng looks slightly confused if you ask him what the response has been to his book. "I remember going to Barnes and Noble around Thanksgiving and seeing it on the shelf," he says. "It was kind of weird. I was like, 'Oh. There's my book.'"

Uh huh. But what has the response been? "I haven't heard any feedback," he says matter-of-factly, like a philosopher might. "I don't really expect any. I just know that my family went to buy it. And when my sister goes to bookstores, she turns the cover out."

Sisters rock. So what did she think of the book? "My sister read some of my essays out loud to me while we were sitting around playing cards over Thanksgiving. In between hands, she would read a section." And? "It was excruciating."

But don't let his aw-shucks way fool you. He's got another project in mind, another collection of essays that he would edit. He wants to bring philosophy to bear on an iconic actor, one who is "very good about playing with his own mythic persona," Seng says. "He knows what he symbolizes on the screen, what audiences expect. In a lot of the roles that he takes, he's trying to play on that image, to do something unexpected." Keep an eye out next year for The Philosophy of Clint Eastwood. The cover may be turned out so you don't miss it.

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