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1964 Denis Dutton (above) and Marty Welch prepare for election coverage

Courtesy Photo

1964 Denis Dutton (above) and Marty Welch prepare for election coverage


Denis Dutton, 1944-2010

Intellectual Tastemaker


When I decided to start an interview show on KCSB, I figured I’d better first nail down its sensibility. My idea (born of dissatisfaction with the shallow five- to seven-minute discussions increasingly prevalent on public radio as much as from a simple desire to talk to interesting people) was to hold discussions of the greatest depth and breadth.

Having encountered so little like that in modern media, I wasn’t sure what to use as a model. Making my usual rounds through Web one day, it struck me: Why not create the radio version of the one site I check every single day?

That site was Arts & Letters Daily, a creator of trembling addicts which has slowly fed their habits since 1998. Structured like an 18th-Century broadsheet, it showcases three new pieces a day from all around the Internet, one under “Articles of Note,” one under “New Books,” and one under “Essays and Opinion.” Some of us habitués have been foolish enough to set it as our browser’s default home page. Who could resist clicking on A&LD’s famously tantalizing links?

“Dumbing down takes many forms: art that is good for you, museums that flatter you, universities that increase your self-esteem. Culture, after all, is really about you…”

“Philosopher Peter Singer wants to be on the side of the weak and poor against the rich and mighty. It’s just one of his many, uh, novel ideas…”

“Mrs. Thatcher viewed Ferdinand Mount as ‘an idle and effete youth.’ But she came to admire his powers as a wordsmith. Right she was…”

1965 Denis Dutton in La Cumbre yearbook's KCSB pages.
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Courtesy Photo

1965 Denis Dutton in La Cumbre yearbook’s KCSB pages.

Early in my own A&LD addiction, I discovered who was responsible for these artful teasers: a certain Denis Dutton, professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. By 2000, he’d brought on managing editor Tran Huu Dung, a professor of economics at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Together, Dutton and Dung gathered the most compelling and provocative written content on the Internet, organizing it into a startlingly accessible form. Titling my KCSB show The Marketplace of Ideas, I hoped to emulate at least a fraction of this rich mixture of art, culture, philosophy, and contrarianism on the airwaves.

After a few months, I felt I the show could never truly achieve its goal without bringing on one particularly important guest: Dutton himself. To interview the man about his Web site on a show inspired by his Web site brought just the sort of strange circularity I enjoy most. As it turned out, he would visit my show not just once but twice, spending one hour in May 2008 and another in April 2009. The second time, I invited him on to discuss The Art Instinct, the book he’d written on the intersection between aesthetics, philosophy, and biological evolution. Having just been on The Colbert Report to promote the book, he thus became, I think it’s safe to say, the only guest I’ll ever share with Stephen Colbert.

That Dutton wrote such a book suggests, correctly, that his skills and interests went far beyond the maintenance of a Web site. His most hilarious side project — and, to my mind, his most necessary one — was the Bad Writing Contest, featured in his academic journal Philosophy and Literature in 1996, 1997, and 1998. Meant to eradicate the strain of baroquely meaningless prose that had gained a shocking prevalence in the academic humanities, the Bad Writing Contest found its finest specimen when it awarded first prize to this sentence from post-structuralist Judith Butler:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

“To ask what this means is to miss the point,” Dutton wrote. “This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind.”

Spring 1966 KCSB board (Denis Dutton front row, third from left).
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Courtesy Photo

Spring 1966 KCSB board (Denis Dutton front row, third from left).

Though I suspect all his accomplishments would prove too numerous to list, I must mention that Dutton taught unusual philosophy courses, played the sitar, founded the misunderstood Climate Debate Daily, and helped KCSB become the station it is today. Joining its staff as a UC Santa Barbara undergrad in the early 1960s, Dutton held the position of general manager at KCSB when it made the leap from AM to FM in 1963. He was there to oversee KCSB’s election coverage; he was there to manage the broadcasts as news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination broke; he was there, as other early KCSBers have told me, to dart out of bed and into the station to reprimand DJs who would dare jeopardize the station’s license by broadcasting the then-rebellious genre of rock and roll in the middle of the night.

Nobody active in the world of ideas on the Internet could have suppressed their shock at Denis Dutton’s death last month at age 66. Despite his surprisingly sudden passing, I hope to live even half as colorful a life as the intellectual-tastemaking, expatriate-living, sitar-playing, bad-writing-ridiculing one he did. As a would-be fellow promoter of conversation and thought about what’s really fascinating in the world today, I can’t help but feel proud that we were both forged, in part, at the very same radio station.

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