Saturday, January 1, 2011

Deceased--Denis Dutton

Denis Dutton
February 9th, 1944 to December 28th, 2010

"Denis Dutton, Philosopher, Dies at 66"


Margalit Fox

December 31st, 2010

The New York Times

Denis Dutton, a distinguished philosopher, writer and digital-media guru who founded Arts & Letters Daily, one of the first Web sites to exploit the Internet as a vehicle for meaningful intellectual exchange, died on Tuesday in Christchurch, New Zealand, where he lived. He was 66.

The cause was prostate cancer, his son, Ben, said.

An impassioned polymath, genial contrarian and native Californian, Professor Dutton was at his death a professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, where he had taught since 1984.

Although philosophy has a mania for classification, Professor Dutton was demonstrably beyond category. His portfolio ranged over aesthetics (his major field of inquiry was the philosophy of art); evolution (his book “The Art Instinct,” a Darwinian exploration published in 2009, commanded international attention); editing (he founded and edited the journal Philosophy and Literature); obfuscatory prose (he was a publicly sworn foe of same, and ran a competition to honor the worst offenders); plagiarism (as a cultural phenomenon; he was not himself a practitioner); and sitar playing (this he did practice).

He wrote widely in the mainstream press, and his opinions were solicited by the news media on subjects from moles’ noses (“No one would find the star-nosed mole ugly if its star were iridescent blue,” he told The New York Times in August) to the essential difference between plagiarism and forgery (in the first, one passes off another’s work as one’s own; in the second, vice versa).

Professor Dutton was perhaps best known to the public for Arts & Letters Daily, which he founded in 1998. The site is a Web aggregator, linking to a spate of online articles about literature, art, science, politics and much else, for which he wrote engaging teasers. (“Can dogs talk? Kind of, says the latest scientific research. But they tend to have very poor pronunciation,” read his lead-in to a 2009 Scientific American article.)

Long before aggregators were commonplace, Arts & Letters Daily had developed an ardent following. A vast, labyrinthine funnel, the site revels in profusion, diversion, digression and, ultimately, the interconnectedness of human endeavor of nearly every sort, a “Tristram Shandy” for the digital age.

As one of the first people to recognize the power of the Web to facilitate intellectual discourse, Professor Dutton was hailed as being among “the most influential media personalities in the world,” as Time magazine described him in 2005.

Arts & Letters Daily, which was acquired by The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002, currently receives about three million page views a month. The site is expected to continue publishing, Phil Semas, The Chronicle’s president and editor in chief, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Professor Dutton also attracted wide notice with the publication of “The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution” (Bloomsbury Press). In it, he examined the arts through the lens of evolutionary psychology, asking, What are the cognitive reasons that painting or music or literature takes the form it does? (Or, to put the question more bluntly, Why, even if we don’t know a lot about art, do we instinctively know what we like?)

In sum, the book was an accounting for taste — and taste, Professor Dutton argued, could be accounted for by looking at the inborn faculties that aided our distant forebears in the arduous prehistoric business of survival.

Our reflexive love of landscape painting, for example, might hark back to early man’s life on the savannah. Likewise, Professor Dutton wrote, just as a peacock unfurls its tail to impress a prospective mate, our drive to make glorious visual art may be rooted in a similar biological imperative.

While some reviewers criticized Professor Dutton for indulging in unverifiable speculation, others praised the book for its intellectual reach, nuance and daring. Reviewing “The Art Instinct” in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Carlin Romano wrote that Professor Dutton “may be the best-equipped thinker in the world to explain” man’s universal need to create.

Denis Laurence Dutton was born in Los Angeles on Feb. 9, 1944. His parents were booksellers who founded what became Dutton’s, a nationally known chain of independent bookstores there; for many years, until the last store closed not long ago, the chain was run by his brothers, Dave and Doug.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1966, Denis Dutton spent two years in India with the Peace Corps; he later earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Santa Barbara. Before taking up his post in New Zealand, he taught at the University of Michigan, Dearborn.

Prolonged exposure to academic prose drove Professor Dutton to create the Bad Writing Contest, which he ran, under the aegis of Philosophy and Literature, for several years in the 1990s.

The contest rules, as he explained them in an essay in The Wall Street Journal, were these:

“Entries should be a sentence or two from an actual published scholarly book or journal article. No translations into English allowed, and the entries had to be nonironic: We could hardly admit parodies in a field where unintentional self-parody was so rampant.”

Scholars rushed to submit writing — though never their own — which was judged by Professor Dutton and his Philosophy and Literature colleagues. Entries did not have to be long to be obscure, as attested by the 1997 third-place winner, from “Making Monstrous: Frankenstein, Criticism, Theory,” by Fred Botting:

“The lure of imaginary totality is momentarily frozen before the dialectic of desire hastens on within symbolic chains.”

Professor Dutton ended the contest after the annual turgid torrent threatened to overwhelm all concerned.

Besides his son, Ben, and his brothers, Dave and Doug, Professor Dutton is survived his wife, the former Margit Stoll; a daughter, Sonia Dutton; and a sister, Dory Dutton.

His other books include “The Forger’s Art: Forgery and the Philosophy of Art” (University of California, 1983), an essay collection he edited.

Though Professor Dutton delighted in the tangential, the parenthetical and the weaving of seemingly diverse strands of human enterprise into a seamless whole, there were a few byproducts of the human condition over which he declined to cast the expansive net of Arts & Letters Daily.

“We will never have horoscopes,” he told The Times in a 1998 interview. “If people want horoscopes, they will have to go elsewhere.”

Denis Dutton [Wikipedia]

Arts & Letters Daily

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