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Friday, April 01, 2005

On Bullshit

The fellow who wrote this essay on bullshit, Harry Frankfurt, Professor of Philosophy at Princeton, was on The Daily Show earlier this week, promoting the essay's publication in book form. The following (along with the idea that a liar acknowledges the truth, at least to himself, while the bullshitter could care less what the truth is) seems to be the essence of what he's saying:
It does seem that bullshitting involves a kind of bluff. It is closer to bluffing, surely than to telling a lie. But what is implied concerning its nature by the fact that it is more like the former than it is like the latter? Just what is the relevant difference here between a bluff and a lie? Lying and bluffing are both modes of misrepresentation or deception. Now the concept most central to the distinctive nature of a lie is that of falsity: the liar is essentially someone who deliberately promulgates a falsehood. Bluffing too is typically devoted to conveying something false. Unlike plain lying, however, it is more especially a matter not of falsity but of fakery. This is what accounts for its nearness to bullshit. For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. In order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake or a phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is not genuine need not also be defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.
Poetry, and poets, probably thrive on bullshit (example: Robert Bly), whether it's of their (our) own making or made by critics and reviewers, or whether it's a inevitable seepage resulting from the strange habit of each type feeding on the other.

For instance, the essay on Emily D. that I linked to in the previous post begins with bullshit:
In contrast to Emerson's image of benevolent spiritual enlightenment, Dickinson's volcano consumes, burns, and destroys. The volcano is an unpredictable, subversive force, more appalling when it erupts because it has been so long silent. Yet the subtlety of the volcano persists even in the eruption, which is only a hiss, and in the destruction, which is an oozing away. Far from being limited by its constraining rock, the volcano's power of expression is so great that it can swallow up the exterior that seems to confine it. As such, it offers an image of Dickinson writing from within the confines of her society, exploding the language by which her culture seeks to limit and define her. The volcano, though phallic in shape, ejaculating lava, has a feminine component, too: its vaginal and oral lips dispense symbols that scorch the phallus from within and devour the surroundings above and amidst which it has erected itself. The volcano thus evokes the terrifying image of the woman writing from within the male organ(ization) itself. Dickinson's disruption of social structures, like her poetic image of the volcano, is primarily a linguistic one. The volcano destroys cities that are, like conventional language and grammar, constructions of civilization. But just as the fiery lava and ash also resculpt the landscape and enrich the soil, Dickinson's disruption of conventional discourse also reshapes and enriches language.
And Emily herself could spout it:

The Martyr Poets — did not tell
But wrought their Pang in syllable
That when their mortal name be numb
Their mortal fate encourage Some

The Martyr Painters never spoke
Bequeathing rather to their Work
That when their conscious fingers cease
Some seek in Art the Art of Peace

Oscar Wilde's De Profundis runs, I think, the gamut from truth to lies to bullshit. He was, poor man, by Frankfurt's standards at least, finally, sadly, a bullshitter at heart, if not in essence.

Of course, Frankfurt himself is a philosopher. Given that fact, and my opinion that his essay, though useful to keep in mind while in proximity to "news" media and politicians, could very well be defined as bullshit — and probably should be — by it's own measures, I'll not be giving up my daily grain of salt.

(Oh yeah, there's also a video interview of Frankfurt here.)


Humble Servant said...

"The volcano, though phallic in shape, ejaculating lava, has a feminine component, too: its vaginal and oral lips dispense symbols that scorch the phallus from within and devour the surroundings above and amidst which it has erected itself. The volcano thus evokes the male organ(ization) itself."

It's as if these 2 sentences were added to fulfill the requirement for womyn's studies--or is she whooshing us after all? How can the volcano have both vaginal and oral lips? (What is an oral lip?) A volcano is not phallic in shape (to me it's Devil's Mountain/mashed potatoes in Close Encounters). Also, it is really mixing metaphors for the volcano to dispense symbols and organ(ization) is gleefully over the top.

It is indeed pure and odiferous bullshit, and I mean that in the nicest way.

If she had just said, "Emily's punctuation/capitalization/grammar is consciously unconventional in the same way that her poems are unconventional," using the same material as examples, I'd have nodded in agreement.

Instead, I feel like an old Chicago school great books male chauvinist pig, just wallowing in a prime batch of bullshit. And snorting.

MackJohnny said...

I don't know what an oral lip is, but I do know that it rhymes with aural hip.

I would like to know how vaginal and oral lips can scorch a -- sorry -- "the" phallus from within ... is that a really big phallus, or are those really teeny tiny lips that'll fit inside? (Now I'm skirting images that probably none of us want.)

Mmmm, potatoes mashed with butter, cream and dill and lots of fresh ground pepper. Now I'm hungry.

Humble Servant said...

Heathcliff crushed Catherine to his chest and buried his head in her flowing curls. Volcanic passion welled up in his soul, devouring his senses. Catherine trembled at the scorch of his hot oral lips on the nape of her neck. Nature rumbled in sympathy: they felt the molten press of the lanscape unsteady under their feet. Catherine in an evocative realization of her power over Heathcliff pushed him to the earth and symbolically ground her heel into his chest.

What's the point? Hell if I know. I seem to have confused post-feminist lit-crit with a romance novel.

The dash is my personal fave punctuation mark.

MackJohnny said...

Catherine trembled at the scorch of his hot oral lips on the nape of her neck.

I was waiting to see -- and yes, that line is still as hilarious this morning as it was when I first read it last night. Thank you, Lisa. By the way, I think the title of that novel should The Landscape Unsteady.