On Bullshit in the age of Trump

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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.

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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.
Wittgenstein called.
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.

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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

Temporality:

  • 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.

A warning:

  • 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? 

4 thoughts on “On Bullshit in the age of Trump

  1. Nice piece.

    Here are my own (scattered) thoughts on Frankfurt’s essay:

    I’m with you. Comparing bullshit to truth is the wrong way to go about figuring out what bullshit is.

    Frankfurt’s confinement to the binary world of propositional logic makes his treatment of bullshit read like any other analytical attempt at defining art. Frankfurt ought to know better, though. He recognizes bullshit as an art form which defies analytical boundaries, saying:

    “But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with mare spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the ‘bullshit artist’.”

    But, still, Frankfurt believes he can “articulate the structure of its concept,” meaning he fails to see art as the ever-unfolding process that it is; the structure of which (necessarily) remains in flux. Understanding such ‘concepts’ comes in degrees rather than the binary absolutes of logic.

    The binary framework is what leads Frankfurt into falsely assuming opposite values. Like assuming that if I make a statement without intending to represent absolute truth, I’m either a liar or indifferent to truth.

    Lies do not necessarily serve to oppose the truth. Many lies are constructed to oppose uncertainty. Also, it is possible to tell (and even value) the truth and still be full of shit at the same time. I’ve done it myself.

    In his analysis of Pascal’s Wittgenstein recollection, Frankfurt never once uses the term ‘figure of speech’. I find this curious. The term deserves a minimal amount of lip-service for being the ordinary, everyday way people refer to statements like Pascal’s. The missing analysis is likely explained where Frankfurt says: “I shall not consider the rhetorical uses and misuses of bullshit. My aim is simply to give a rough account of what bullshit is and how it differs from what it is not.”

    It is not clear whether Frankfurt means to dismiss specific instances of bullshit as rhetorical device, or if he means to dismiss bullshit as rhetorical device altogether. Either way, accounting for ‘what bullshit is’ while ignoring its relationship to rhetoric makes for a paltry inquiry. Not to mention it’s contradictory to engage and abandon artistic effect at the same time. I’m not sure why Frankfurt (or anyone else) would even try.

    My theory? Bullshit is an epithet for rhetoric. Presumably, it represents a low-brow kind of rhetoric. In reality, it represents rhetoric you don’t like.

    -m

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  2. “creativity without creation”–there is a kind of avoidance of consistency–including consistency in time–with bullshit. It’s a type of potential (the bullshit artist always has a lot of potential). It’s also self-aggrandizing. Frankfurt sees to think there is a motive here; that can be the case, as with our current king, but I am not sure. I know some fairly selfless bullshit artists. But they, without fail, all self-aggrandize.

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