Dearest reader: I have been to a birthing class. A birthing class is a thing you go to when you, your partner, or someone close to you (in the case of one disturbed attendee, a daughter) are about to give birth. Heavy on ideology, low on information, we went because that’s what people do in movies. The teacher asked what had brought us there, and in the spirit of openness, I answered honestly. I have never seen pupils tighten in contempt before.
A birth class is what happens when an administrator decides to systematically distribute bad advice to terrified people. If you come within 100 kilometers of a birth, people give advice. Like athletes who let their underwear rot to preserve a winning streak, child birth is replete with superstition, hysteria, and pep talks. People are not afraid to contradict themselves in the space of a single sentence, and garbled coincidentia oppositorum is the norm. Even the most drug addled mystic has nothing on the shit spewed by people when they discover you are about to have a child.
A birth class is a terrible thing: there are several competing ideologies, and all of them are stupid. You are made aware that all births are wonderful, but natural ones are more wonderful. Science is trotted out: did you know that a baby born under the influence of painkillers will not immediately clasp the mother’s tit? No, you did not. Now that you know, do you care? I propose that you shouldn’t. The goal is to keep the little fucker alive long enough that the first few moments of its life will, on balance, fade into meaninglessness. Worst case scenario, the first hour of life will be trotted out during some Robert Bly or Carl Jung inspired weekend, an attempt to avoid midlife crisis, re-enchanting the world with a shoddy and embarrassing ritual (one hopefully soon forgotten in shame). Did you know that you can give birth in your own bathtub? I’ve been told that the blood and shit drenched water looks like a shark attack, and is a pleasure to clean. Did you know that the birth class lasts four days, when the ‘keep the creature alive’ class only one? This seems deliciously American. I know that it’s easy for me to say, but I am far more worried about the period after we leave the hospital then the time spent surrounded by medical professionals and wondrous machines. The only machine at home is the oven, and I am not about to go full Baba Yaga. Not yet.
But, dear reader, worse than the ideology, worse than the forced exposure to other people’s fears when you are doing your very best to suppress your own, and worse than sitting in a hospital basement, is the way people talk about babies. I know almost nothing about babies, but I now know this: never use the definite or indefinite article when referring to ** baby.
You might be inclined to speak about baby the way you speak about other things, and say “don’t let the baby drink bourbon”—no. This is wrong. The proper way is “don’t let baby drink whisky”. You might be inclined to say “never let a baby play with a table saw”—again, no. The proper way to say it, is: “never let baby play with a table saw”.
This is the one thing I learned: “the” and “a” have no place next to “baby”.
This is not to accommodate those who’ve made the odd decision to keep their child’s gender secret. And, yes, this still happens: despite the fact that few North American children enter the world without first being scanned, pictured, and analyzed by a series of devices and professionals, despite the fact that doctors know more about this unborn creature’s body than I know about my own, many parents don’t know the gender. Intentionally.
They like to keep it a surprise, like a fortune cookie, or one of those Christmas ‘crackers’. But instead of wisdom and lottery numbers, or a plastic toy, it’s full of genitals. Imagine the bizarre thinking that wants to scan a child for every possible disease, but passes over the pudenda. Who wants to be surprised by a child’s genitalia? The answer, dear reader, is ‘more people than you would think’.
But this is not the reason the word ‘baby’ cannot take an article. I think the real desire is to develop an object so magical that it’s neither a proper noun, nor part of a group.
Yahweh is not ‘a god,’ or ‘the god,’ but ‘God’; this unnamed and over-scanned creature is not ‘a baby,’ or ‘the baby,’ but ‘Baby’.
Await it in fear and trembling, and do not ask about its genitals.
Here the Earl continues the critique of the previous section. Having claimed that the philosophers of self interest are betrayed by their genre—if they sincerely believed that humans acted solely out of self-interest, they would not write their books, but instead exploit this fact—he moves from their writing to the concept of nature. The Earl rarely goes point for point in his arguments: he thinks in pictures and systems. Always delighted and delightful, he cannot pin down a principle to be used in an argument, because principles change into their opposite.
If there is a guiding principle, it is complexity and variation: there is no “Alphabet of Ideas” [Leibniz] where each thought can be broken down into a set number of parts. “
YOU have heard it (my Friend!) as a common Saying, that Interest governs the World. But, I believe, whoever looks narrowly into the Affairs of it, will find, that Passion, Humour, Caprice, Zeal, Faction, and a thousand other Springs, which are counter to Self-Interest, have as considerable a part in the Movements of this Machine. There are more Wheels and Counter-Poises in this Engine than are easily imagin’d. ’Tis of too complex a kind, to fall under one simple View, or be explain’d thus briefly in a word or two. The Studiers of this Mechanism must have a very partial Eye, to overlook all other Motions besides those of the lowest and narrowest compass. 
The Earl does not try to save kindness, or decency, from the clutches of Hobbes and the “lower Genius” descendants of the atomists. His argument is actually simpler: the world is complex, not simply in its arrangement, but in the parts and forces that make it up. A simple theory is a bad theory, because it does not do justice to nature: “Modern Projectors, I know, wou’d willingly rid their hands of these natural Materials; and wou’d fain build after amore uniform way”. There is a naïve and mildly intoxicated perspectivalism at play: no one perspective can catch the machine. Any pretense to see the whole mechanism is not philosophy, but projection–meaning not a film projector, but one who plans, schemes, forecasts, or throw something forward.
More hucksters than hacks, simplification of nature—a concept with “so little meaning”—costs them dearly. The attempt to draw a firm line between Nature and Civil Society (as if the first is automatic, and the latter “a kind of Invention, and Creature of Art”) is doomed. This sort of bifurcation requires that we ‘exit nature’, into some kind of social contract, but with a such a uniform picture of nature, the tools required to exit it will never be available.
Simply put: the social contract is a kind of promise, but it is a promise made in the state of nature. So, either promises are binding in the state of nature (which means there is something already social there) or, they are not, and are stuck there. “A Man is oblig’d to keep his Word. Why? Because he has given his Word to keep it.” In other words: there are obligations, even in nature—here I see shades of Mendelssohn: the political and moral are not imposed by a sovereign fiat, but tended to, and you cannot grown something without a seed; we never begin at the beginning—and civil society is just a further development of a natural form, what Shaftesbury calls “herding”, or forming groups.
What does this have to do with comedy? Humour is one mechanism among many for the development of a civil society: it is not a social product, or social corrective, but rather a primitive force, or building block. It is found in both nature and civil society
As a basic force, it is neither good nor evil: the Earl does not value in this way. Instead, he sets the machine turning, and follows it. The desire for fellowship can lead to conspiracy or “cantonizing”—the need for fellowship can turn into war, a situation that manufactures closeness. Despite being a defense of humour, the essay does not present humour as a good, or value, but an overlooked element of the machine.
The Midwesterner is distinguished by the extreme lengths they will go to hide (even from themselves) the regional weirdness of their social rules. Texas, for instance, is enamoured with its own odd behaviour: there are Texan ways of doing things, and these are proper; they are not proper because they are what everyone should do, they are proper because they are Texan, and this is Texas, and Texas is chosen. There is something punk-aristocratic about it, and even if the violence, racism, and stupidity can easily repel an outsider, the local codes and craziness are visible, and can usually be easily navigated, or avoided, if you’re fast enough. Israel and Palestine are also replete with regional rules, and they are fiercely visible, if only because everyone likes to talk about their own codes, and their neighbours. The opening premise in most conversation is that everyone, including the speakers, follows an incomprehensible set of rules. This talk produces distinctions which are not actually there in practice: differences are exaggerated, and even the most banal habits are presented as singular and precious.
I have moved several times. More than one would expect for a creature as habitual and bland as I am. And, each time, I am miserable for about 14-18 months. One year to go through a seasonal cycle, hating every violation of my routine, all new objects grinding the tips of my nerves. Then, it takes part of a second year, to learn how to enjoy the place, to slip into its bloodstream. Only Japan did I like within 8 months: food and flowers go a long way with me.
The Midwest is the only place I have moved where the cultural codes are completely invisible to the people who live within them. I have had more than one Midwesterner tell me, with full sincerity, that there are “no codes” here. The effortless movement between the particular and the universal is not intentionally dishonest. Americans are too quickly accused of emotional dishonesty (being ‘fake’) by groups that fetishize their own rudeness—as if German frostiness or Israeli gruffness are sincere, rather than boorish. I find American politeness admirable, and no less authentic than that found in other countries–it is certainly preferable to Torontonian coldness. But the refusal to admit that there are particular, local rules is disorienting to the point of vertigo. Boundaries are sponged away, and the ground disappears with them. The politeness that is supposed to compensate for this absence is not enough for me. You can push your hand right through solid objects, like jelly. When you ask: “what am I doing wrong”, you are politely told “Everything you’re doing is fine”—but knives are still sharp, and people are still desperate. Mid-westerners are very polite. But, הם לא נחמדים. The Midwest is a violent place–there are more gun murders per capita in Ohio than in Texas. Few members of either state would believe this—but a quick glance my student evaluations reveals a seething cruelty.
My sister is hounding me to finish this, get out of the hammock, and eat some fish. I have discharged my duty.
More than usual, this week’s writing is just to keep my promise to myself. I am taken up entirely with grading. Grading is one of the worst parts of teaching. For a new professor, grading is worse than meetings, because we have no stake in the institution and do not yet love the things being slowly destroyed.
Recently, a good student asked a revealing question. It concerned one of my many annotation assignments, where I collect readings and grade the marginalia. The point is to see how carefully they’ve read the text, to see if they’ve found the juicy bits. I’d given the student a 90%–generous by any standard other than hers. I told her it was a good grade, one of the best in the class.
Nonetheless, she asked: “I want to know what I did to lose the 10%”.
And this, gentle reader, is a serious difference between students of today, and my crew. When I went to school, it worked like this: you knew that there were a certain number of A’s, and so your job was to convince the professor, through your written work, charm, and, if need be, an office visit or two, that one of those A’s should be given to you. It was macho, competitive, and arbitrary: a terrible system, one I will not apologize for, or be nostalgic about.
But I do believe we’ve managed to come up with something worse. In the mind of this student (and I believe she is not alone) you begin with 100%, and with every miss-step, every error, your grade is whittled down to what you ‘deserve’: grades are a matter of loss, not gain. While perhaps less macho, it is more anxious and less creative. None of my peers suffered under the illusion that our essays were great works: but they were still something built, crafted, or made—a kind of machine, confession, or (very rarely) art. Often crass, usually soulless, there was always the potential for an assignment to be judged for what it had done: thus the fear was “is it good enough?” and not the more anxious question “what did I allow to be taken from me?”.
As far as they are concerned, students are now graded on their blunders. They begin with an A+, and must do their best to protect it: assignments are entirely defensive maneuvers, exercises in avoiding failure. The school chants that students should “fail better,” but this only compounds the cruelty. They quiver inside of the rubric.
Once she asked the question, I realized that I have been an idiot. Of course, the ‘culture’ of assessment would hurt them, whose egos are developing inside it. In most classes, at least one assignment is designed with an eye to monitoring the course’s ‘progress’—assignments are handed to me, and I in turn hand them over to a higher authority. Of course, students can feel this.
Things have changed here, perhaps more than I thought: part of teaching is trying to gauge the distance between you and your students, and there there is a great temptation to exaggerate. But the student’s question rang true. As an aside: I think this is part of the reason it has been so difficult for me to get them to develop arguments–an argument is built, and they are too busy trying to avoid the knives.
I need to completely rethink my teaching, and grading. I used to use grades as a stick to poke lethargic students—especially the clever ones who have grown used to coasting. But I need to find some way to convince them that I am not just hunting for errors, that I do in fact want them to make things. At the very least, I need to replace anxiety with fear.
I am forever being told that
prescriptive spelling is a tool of oppression.
And always, the way being defended,
just happens to be fucking American
Every few months or so a series of memes and critiques run through the social media mill, and they all sing the same refrain: “telling people how to write or speak correctly is authoritarian and bigoted”. The impulse is correct: We’ve all seen ‘proper grammar’ used to shit on a lower class, or justify a racist position. We all know that language is full of traps to figure out ‘who belongs’. But the simplicity of the “there is no such thing as proper English” critique is going to fuel this weekly writing exercise .
Anyone who’s read three of my sentences knows I’m not picky about grammar. I doubt I could be even if I wanted—I don’t have the skills or training. But I am trying to improve my writing, and so have been thinking about the role that grammar could play.
Behind every stupid critique is an even stupider debate, and this time the debate is between ‘descriptive’ and ‘prescriptive’ grammar. Simplified to the point of offending my friends in linguistics, the debate looks like this:
On the one side, we have the prescriptivists –for them, grammar is a set of rules that you should follow; follow them, and you end up with proper writing.
On the other side, we have the descriptivists—for them, grammar is, at best, a way of describing how language is used. Grammar doesn’t tell you how you should write, rather, it tells you how people do write.
I am not stupid enough to venture into an academic debate—I assume actual linguists long ago thought through all of my complaints. But I am stupid enough to see how this debate informs memes and drunken arguments—that’s the level I operate on. And at this level, prescriptivists are identified as linguistic bullies who force everyone to try to speak the same way, while descriptivists are like ethical butterfly collectors, gathering dialects rather than insects.
Once this scene is set, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that “there’s no such thing as proper grammar” and that “people who believe in prescriptive grammar are bigots”. All bases are covered: descriptivism is more true, and, as a bonus, more ethical.
I get the critique, but it misses something important (training and improvement). Yes, there is no unchanging standard of correctness. Yes, your friend who remembers three rules from Latin class is annoying. Yes, while you shouldn’t say ‘literally’ when ‘figuratively’ is called for, gleefully correcting this error makes you a prick, and not a ‘grammar nerd’.
But this does not mean that all types of grammar correction are similarly tone deaf. It strikes me that the fantasy operating behind this critique, is a world divided into two camps: on the one hand, a university full of donnish and prissy bigots speaking in dead letter; and on the other, vibrant and dynamic dialects spoken by peasants in the fields and in the slums. Let us grant this fantasy: do we seriously think that these idealized dynamic communities of noble outsiders do not correct each other? I have been told that even the Scots have standards.
I suggest: correcting each other is an essential part of how good speech and writing develops. The English spoken in Newfoundland is as ‘proper’ as that spoken in Jamaica and Cambridge. But people in Newfoundland correct each other: that’s part of how language develops and defends itself. It should surprise no one that the vogue for descriptivism coincides with a massive homogenization of the English language.
As usual, the pop critique could use a healthy dose of pop dialectics. It’s half-way there: prescriptive grammar is dishonest, because it hides the fact that it enforces one particular description. But the critique misses the other half: good description would have to describe not just a dialect’s scaffolding (the rules), but also the mechanisms by which the building is maintained. And this, my darlings, is where correcting each other comes in (“you sound like a pretentious wanker” serves just as well as “you have dropped the ‘u’ from colour”).
Giving up on proper grammar is fine. Giving up on better grammar—which requires correcting each other—is not. Because hovering in the background of these cheap critiques is the belief that “all that matters is clarity—if you get your idea across, that’s good enough.” You don’t need a thorough critique of neoliberalism to see that this is a depressing ideology that sucks the life out of speech, and leaves behind only a ‘marketplace of ideas’.
Here a dose of pedantry is called for. Otherwise, we will be stuck in conversations sustained only by their content.
I hid myself between two leaves of sorrel, and there discharged the necessities of nature.I hope the gentle reader will excuse me for dwelling on these and the like particulars, which, however insignificant they may appear to groveling vulgar minds, yet will certainly help a philosopher to enlarge his thoughts and imagination
– Gulliver’s Travels
On Bullshit is a famous little paper by the professional philosopher Harry Frankfurt. First published by an academic journal in 1986, in 2001 it was re-packaged as a slim little black volume, the sort you buy for someone you don’t know. I saw it for sale in Japan over a decade ago, but resented its 10$ price tag: 10$ struck me as exorbitant when a real book could be had for 12$ (or free, if I was fast enough). This touched one of my many exposed nerves, and so I didn’t bother reading it until a Houston friend handed it to me. I read it on the plane as the liquor drained from my blood.
My bile has two parts. The first is a long and rambling bit on Frankfurt’s paper, the second is proper blog-length (12 words and a wet kiss). I’d skip to the second part, if I were you.
Part 1 (the Essay)
A tiny book, On Bullshit is still too long. The intro suffers from the usual patterns of professional philosophy—carving out a problem paying very little attention to anything other than the writer’s discipline. To be fair, the opening to On Bullshit is slightly nicer than usual: the tiresome rehearsal of older and inferior positions is mercifully short, and is followed by a charming trip through the Oxford English Dictionary’s “Bullshit” entry.
The essay gets interesting when it turns to one of Fania Pascal’s recollections of Wittgenstein. Frankfurt is oddly suspicious of the anecdote (Wittgenstein was a well known prick, especially to women), which is as follows:
I had my tonsils out and was in the Evelyn Nursing Home feeling sorry for myself.
I croaked: “I feel just like a dog that has been run over.”
He was disgusted: “You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.”
Frankfurt itemizes Pascal’s sins, but one stands out: “Her fault is not that she fails to get things right, but that she is not even trying…She does not even think she knows, except in the vaguest way, how a run-over dog feels”. She is not concerned about whether her statement is correct—and it is for this mindlessness that the passionate philosopher (Wittgenstein) berates her. Frankfurt gives the American allergy to playfulness the support of a quivering Austrian philosopher. We are meant to understand Wittgenstein’s irritation as the integrity of a serious man. I would slap him.
Why does Wittgenstain’s ‘princess and the pea’ level of sensitivity to bullshit matter? Because bullshit has a structure that is—according to Frankfurt—worse than lying.
“Her statement is grounded neither in the belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection with a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I consider to be the essence of bullshit.”
The story goes like this: Bullshit is worse than lying, because the liar has the decency to be worried about the truth: you need to know the truth to tell a good lie. Liars, even if they hurt the truth, keep alive the concern for the truth (Frankfurt’s concern with concern makes him sound more like Heidegger than I bet he would like). The bullshit artist is worse than the liar, because s/he kills even the concern for the truth. The liar has the decency to play the “same game” as the truth teller, and so is less dangerous
So, the essence of bullshit is that it is not even concerned about the truth it is debasing. It’s not a bad ‘essence’, but it’s probably wrong. Out of the gate: with this as your guide, there is more-or-less no way to tell the difference between bad bullshit and a good story.
This is the essay’s first mistake: it wants to figure out the difference between bullshit and Truth—and this is the place to start. Look: if bullshit is unconcerned with the truth, it seems pretty likely that comparing bullshit to truth is the wrong way to go about figuring out what bullshit is. If I want to figure out what something is, it’s probably a better idea to look at what it is concerned with. (Everyone should read Feuerbach).
The essay’s second mistake is that it wants to capture the essence of Bullshit, period. This is a problem, because in a basic sense, bullshit does not have an essence to capture. I’ll get into that in the second part
Why these obvious mistake on the part of someone so intelligent? Because the concern is not really to figure out the structure of Bullshit, but to identify its cause, and the cause, dear reader, is known in advance.
“The contemporary proliferation of bullshit has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefor reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are.”
Sometimes it feels like they just can’t help themselves. I am tempted to not bother critiquing this, but I need my whisky.
No concern for economic forces, no question about media technologies, social networks, history, violence, masculinity, or pleasure. The problem begins with a handful of literary professors who believe that “reality has no inherent nature” and therefore look to “sincerity” rather than “correctness” to guide themselves (where are these people?). Frankfurt himself seems sincere about this. Finding nothing in bullshit but a lack of concern for the things he has devoted himself to (correctness, Truth) he decides to hold responsible his peers who are also unconcerned with these things.
Let’s say it again, in unison: with few exceptions, those of us who critique the notion of truth, do so out of concern for the truth. When people don’t get this, we are forced to watch otherwise intelligent and decent people shake in rage at imagined enemies, fighting ghosts when there are real demons out there. One day this might get so bad that people who barely read will march in the name of science.
Bullshit is rife, and it is growing. But chanting the words ‘Truth’’, ‘Enlightenment’, or ‘Science’ are not going to help us–enlightenment is a fire to be fed, not a word to be repeated. Nor is the problem epistemology, as if the purveyors of bullshit just haven’t thought hard enough about how to make truth claims.
I do think we can look at bullshit-in-itself and figure a few things out about it, rather than blame it on mediocre ontologies. And now is the time to do it, not because there is more bullshit than usual, but because right now the bullshit is just so damn pure. All politicians bullshit, but with Trump at the helm, bullshit is sovereign, central, and imperative.
Part 2 (theses on Bullshit)
We have at our disposal an endless supply of top self, single malt, bullshit. So what can we learn from it? Why is it compelling?
Intimacy and response:
- Bullshit seems intimate, because it gives you permission to speak without consequence. It feels like unconditional love, because it does not judge you.
- Bullshit responds to you. Trump knows nothing until a question has been asked, and the answer is just the question rejigged, perhaps an added anecdote, some righteousness, and the promise of action.
- More: there may be ‘first philosophy’, but there can be no ‘first bullshit,’ because bullshit is always a reaction to something. It may flip it around to be controversial, it may restate it in a more sonorous voice to seem pious. But it responds. This is also why it seems to care more than facts do—facts are indifferent; bullshit may not be a good listener, but it responds to what you say
- Bullshit responds, but it is irresponsible. Not because it does not care about truth, but because it does not even care for itself. It lacks all consistency, and changes the terms from one moment to the next. Here bad bullshit is nothing like a good story: a good story has a degree of consistency, and cares for the audience more than the teller.
- Bullshit believes. It believes without knowing. In this sense it is (pace Frankfurt) hostile to the truth. Not hostile to specific truths (facts), which can be useful for bullshit—every bullshit artist has a bag full of facts—but hostile to institutions and atmospheres where truth is encouraged and grown, both of which require consistency. I suspect bullshit hates every environment where continuity of thought is encouraged.
- Bullshit is sincere, but it is a limited sincerity. It lives in thin time-slices: often shorter than a phrase, never longer than a single conversation or interview. Within this instant, bullshit believes absolutely (including, yes, in truth). But it does not believe in the previous instant, nor in the next. It has no permanence, no metabolism. If you want to find something like a structure for bullshit, you have to look at the way bullshit deals with time.
- Bullshit seems close, and even honest, because it has no interiority. No conscience, but also no secrets. Bullshit holds nothing back, delays nothing. After all, the next moment is not important.
- Bullshit is fun. Bullshit lives in the moment. Bullshit lives every day as if it were its last.
- People who never bullshit are insufferable. There is good bullshit, and bad bullshit. Here something like esprit de finesse is required.
Dustin Atlas wuz here
Is this invisible?