Wednesday, January 04, 2006

On Bullshit.

Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), $9.95.

We live in the age of bullshit. America's true maxim dates from the nineteenth century and is attributed to P.T. Barnum: "There is a sucker born every minute."

These are words to live by in America, the land of the huckster, where politicians and lawyers confirm this wisdom every day. The point is recognized by Harry G. Frankfurt.

The realms of advertising and public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept. And in these realms there are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen [and women] who -- with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinion, of psychological testing, and so forth -- dedicate themselves to getting every word and image they produce right.

There was a time in my life when I could fling the bull with the best of them. My concerns these days are antithetical to this joyful enterprise which engages the interest of so many of my fellow citizens. I am now officially retired. I leave the bullshitting to New Jersey lawyers, politicians like Bob Menendez and corrupt or incompetent judges, like Debbie Poritz and Stuart Rabner, along with many others like Donald J. Trump and the talking heads at Fox News.

Writing is almost a religious obligation to be as accurate as one can be to one's vision of the truth. Nowhere is this more so than in crafting literary fiction. Contrary to popular mythology, writing well and bullshitting (I think that I can do both reasonably well) are mutually exclusive. Only one of those activities interests me now or will concern me for the rest of my life, writing -- writing as well as I can about issues that interest me by attempting to create "literature."

The best bullshitters I know were (and still are) N.J. government officials, together with political hacks and their paid acolytes or sycophants. Poritz, Rabner, Moses, Milgram and equally loathsome colleagues are experts in this art form.

The world of lawyers and politicians, but also of advertising and big business, is the kingdom of bullshit. It is very different from the writer's world of truth communicated through fantasy or in a literal way for journalists.

If you enjoy bullshitting competitions, then you'll love electoral politics and the legal profession in America.

I destroyed a witness once and prevailed in a case -- earning an extra fee because of it -- and until the day I die I will regret doing well exactly what I was required to do by my professional obligations.

What is legal ethics all about?

The very concept of legal ethics is a joke in New Jersey.

Among the unexplored aspects of our lives in this bizarre or asylum-like setting where we are bombarded with bullshit by people trying to sell things (or worse) is what happens not merely to the categories of truth and falsehood, but to ourselves, as "performances," or social presentations, "for" others?

Writing is the most difficult thing that I have ever done -- especially writing philosophy -- because the effort of concentration is so intense that no distraction is permitted. I mean that writing is an effort to set oneself down on the page, as truthfully and as well as one can. It is a kind of purification by fire and ordeal:

"My books," Nietzsche said, "are written in blood."

Maybe this explains all of the efforts to frustrate my communication efforts by preventing me from writing. The goal of New Jersey's minions must be to inflict harm (or intimidate me) in order to control my opinions or try to force my acceptance of what must never be accepted -- decisions made by corrupt institutions and persons are never worthy of respect. Acceptance will never be extracted from me.

My professional interest now (to the extent that I have one) and for the rest of my life is, exclusively, as I say, writing as well as I can for political and personal reasons. In particular, one novel that I must write, obsesses me. I will not be deterred from this vocation by anyone. No threats or attempts at censorship will prevent me from speaking my mind, freely, which is the only reason to write anything. I will publish the books on my own, if I have to, though it now appears that this will not be necessary, which is a relief.

In testifying under oath, it is also wise to be literal and direct, as accurate and truthful as you can be. If you are ever in that position, speak what you believe to be the truth as simply as you can, so that you cannot be misunderstood, assume that your listeners are -- as Bertrand Russell suggested in a different context -- a group of unusually stupid twelve year-olds.

This is not an insult to others, but a way of being guided in the effort to testify under oath. Assume that anything you say will be twisted to make it appear that you are lying, even if you are not. Stay with simple declarative sentences, avoid all displays of irony or humor. Answer with a single word whenever possible.

Lawyers and judges, congressmen and -women conducting a hearing do not swear to tell the truth, only witnesses do that. So speak the truth, for yourself and out of respect for the process, whatever the consequences. You will then have the satisfaction of "flipping 'em the bird," as they haul you off to the guillotine. And if you speak enough truth to power then you can be sure that they will do exactly that.

Professor Harry G. Frankfurt's On Bullshit is a bestseller. This is rare for any work by a philosopher, which displays -- as this book does -- care and elegance in reasoning. The author provides a useful conceptual mapping, at a very general level, of the "bullshit territory." Wear your high boots.

I will discuss my areas of disagreement. There is no point in discussing what I find useful or unproblematic. I recommend this work because mendacity and bullshit make up the fabric of our lives in the age of media and commerce as politics and law have become branches of show business. (See the musical Chicago.)

We do well to come to terms with the "b.s." phenomenon, if we can: "If we accept that George Washington could not tell a lie," Germaine Greer said, in today's world, "he had better learn."

According to the 1996 book, The Day America Told the Truth, the overwhelming majority of Americans (93%) lie every day, both at work and in their personal lives. Politicians and lawyers are no different than anyone else. The number of daily liars is probably higher today. (96% by some estimates.)

We hold legal professionals and politicians to a more ethical standard only as a way of assuaging our collective guilt at our own foibles. People who like to accuse others of "lying" are usually the worst liars, projecting their own self-loathing on to others, probably someone secretly admired or envied. Garcia? Booth? Kriko?

I seem to recall a notorious presidential statement: "I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky." Of course, much depends on how you define "sex." This is a word which few of us find troubling to understand, normally. Despite the hue and cry surrounding the Clinton/Lewinsky case, most of us have lied about sex at some point in our lives, usually when we are not getting any.

The claims of outrage at President Clinton's statements were not accepted by the public because most people have lied about sex. Most people correctly concluded that President Clinton and Ms. Lewisnky are probably as moral, or more moral, than most of us. And this was true before, during and after the political scandal. It still seems true to me. For Professor Frankfurt, bullshit is ...

... not germane to the enterprise of describing reality.

And again:

[Bullshit is] a statement grounded neither in a 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 a concern with truth -- this indifference to how things are -- that I regard as the essence of bullshit.

I guess what bullshit is, depends on what "is" is. Yes, I know about the difference between the "is" of identification and the "is" of predication. (Look it up.)

My questions and challenges to Professor Frankfurt's formulation focus on the words "reality" and "how things are" in this statement. The key concepts in this area are intentionality, communicative intent, the resources of language, the figurative and allusive, ironic as distinguished from literal speech. ("Metaphor is Mystery.")

People who are very good readers know that each kind of literary communication invites a special form of attention. There are unique ways of getting the message in, say, a passage of the tax code or a police report. In reading such texts, my attention is entirely different from how I listen to a joke or view a skit in Monty Python's Flying Circus. 

Oscar Wilde says: "The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible."

What does he mean by this? Is he "sincere"? If so, what is he sincere about in this statement? Perhaps he is merely "artificial" in this statement? If so, then what is he really recommending? ("What is Law?")

I am sure that Professor Frankfurt, in a highly sophisticated way, and the average accountant or literal-minded lawyer in a much less sophisticated way, would say: "that's just bullshit."

To which Wilde would probably respond: "Precisely."

Think of how differently you listen when the first words spoken by someone are -- "Once upon a time ..."

My point is that you must always listen to what is being said, but even more to how it is being said, especially when communicating across a cultural divide. This is especially good advice for therapists and proponents of the so-called "Turing" test. ("Mind and Machine.")

Reading Montogomerry-Hyde's account of Wilde's trial, or Frank Harris's recollections of Wilde's conversations, one cannot help feeling the lack of comprehension of Wilde in his day. Somehow, this does not surprise me. Aside from some highly exceptional persons who were his friends, people detested the man because of his imaginative forms of expression and flamboyance. The English simply did not understand his Irish genius.

Happily, in our day, the gift of "blarney" is much more universal and democratic. It is not unknown, even among the English. I have not said a word about Mr. Blair. Tony Blair is described by Simon Blackburn as a "flower-arranger" of the truth. Surely this is only another way of describing a politician -- or any lawyer -- especially a politician or lawyer who writes a "memoir." Luckily, I am not a politician or any kind of lawyer, nor do I plan to write a memoir.

Think of how Muhammad Ali was demonized by white America during the sixties. Were his poems serious? Or were they bullshit? To quote the champ: We can't be "as dumb as we look" around him. And maybe that was his point. It is certainly why he disconcerts us. Ali made people nervous. He forced men, especially (and some women, too), to consider the differences in what they were or are, as compared with the champ. Ali was a reminder of mediocrity for most of us.

The one thing mediocre people will not forgive a person, is his or her visible lack of mediocrity. Mr. Coviello? John McGill of the OAE?

All it takes not to be mediocre, by the way, is to stop worrying about what others think and become that unique, extraordinary, fascinating human being that you are. "Yourself" is the one person who cannot be duplicated, and no one can be better at being you, than you. So be you. This is easier said than done when obstacles have to be overcome: childhood deprivations, trauma, social stigma and so on.

Unfortunately, an identity (like one's virginity) can be lost. Fortunately, in my own case, my virginity was simply misplaced and eventually recovered. I suppose much the same is true of my identity. Bullshit? Wit? Philosophy? A little of all three?

Hatred for, and attempts to silence, men and women (like Wilde) will always be common. Perhaps such persons remind us, through their exaggerations and wit, of something false in us. This is unforgivable for those who take themselves very seriously and/or who lack a sense of humor. Debbie Poritz? Stuart Rabner? Bob Menendez? All three of these persons seem to fit that bill.

It is evil in the eyes of those who "evade themselves," becoming what Nietzsche describes as "an empty bag of clothes," for anyone to opt for authenticity, rather than selling his or her soul for worldly "success." And yes, "worldy success" tends to be purchased at the cost of one's soul. Hence, The Portrait of Dorian Gray and see Vidal's play, The Best Man.

According to Wilde, the punishment for those who seek to become something external to themselves -- a bank president or office holder, for example, a U.S. Senator or a N.J. Supreme Court Justice -- is that they will receive exactly what they hope for, becoming only that external thing at the cost of themselves. Senator Bob? ("Menendez Charged With Selling His Office.")

Notice that this says nothing about the person who wishes to become him- or herself through work as a judge, banker, or physician. This insight is among the themes explored in Wilde's great essay, De Profundis. ("'The American': A Movie Review.")

A reminder to become the persons we are is highly valuable in a democracy. We need our gadflies and wits. It is also true that genius is always disconcerting for the majority of us, even a source of dread and envy. For a few people it is cause for hatred. Individualists are rarely conformists, for this we often destroy them. I think I can attest to this hatred of -- mixed with desire for -- unusually gifted people in a very direct way. Alina Fallat? ("Marilyn Straus Was Right!")

I have a bit of blarney in me, an Irish corner of my soul, where I sit chatting amiably with all who enter that mental pub where -- along with my chum John Banville -- I spin out yarns with all labels and Surgeon General's warnings attached.

The Irish once were among the world's best bullshitters. There is much competition these days with most nationalities surpassing the Irish in the gift for b.s. I also spell out the uncomfortable and literal truth when necessary with (I hope) brutal directness, especially in writing. (See "New Jersey's Feces-Covered Supreme Court.")

We appreciate Wilde much more today than did his Victorian contemporaries who were suffocating in hypocrisy and prudishness. Anyway, some of us appreciate Wilde.

When Wilde arrived in the United States and was asked whether he had anything to declare, he answered: "Only my genius."

I am sure that the average American customs clerk would then have said: "In which suitcase do you have your genius, sir?"

He or she would say this in all seriousness, literally. The frustrations that can result when someone like Wilde, or any ironist, is forced into a dialogue with literal-minded persons is beyond my power to communicate.

"Aha!," says the middle-brow, "so you think you're as smart as Wilde."

No, only that I understand him. Wilde would have to explain to the literal-minded plodder that he was not being literal in his statement. I would not wish to suggest, as Professor Frankfurt seems to, that the best way of understanding this exchange is to conclude that Wilde intended to deceive, that he was misrepresenting reality, or not concerned to describe reality or his state of mind. I suggest that such questions about this quip misunderstand Wilde's communicative mission. They are irrelevant and pointless. Equally moronic questions are posed by some scholars today (not Daniel Dennett) about religious stories: "Did those things in the Bible really happen?"

Gore Vidal's reception in the United States is another case in point. Vidal is dismissed when he writes about politics by some people in Washington, D.C., mostly because he is, allegedly, not serious. Vidal insists that "seriousness does not require solemnity" while a careful attention to facts is often a useful way of deceiving others, even as metaphors often serve to communicate truth. No discussion of bullshit will be very useful if it fails to delve into the mysteries of language and metaphysics. Language always creates a reality between speaker and listener, between writer and reader. ("Metaphor is Mystery" and "What you will ...")

Whether something is bullshit depends on the intentionality revealed in the communication and upon the acceptance or rejection of the meaning (or invitation) borne by the words used. This meaning is not just literal, so that the issue becomes whether the recipient has entered into the correct linguistic world created by the utterance which invites him or her into a text or language-game. ("A Philosophical Investigation of Ludwig Wittgenstein.")

Hamlet and Polonius are always in different linguistic worlds, though each of them may be found in Shakespeare's Elsinore. They never succeed in communicating. They never inhabit a shared psychic space. Why?

Examine the language used by each character, then ask yourself how each of them is defined and/or defining the other through the use of those words. How does your professional -- as opposed to your "personal" -- language construct your identity and relationships? Take your time answering that last question. (Lawyers may wish to examine the writings of James B. White, especially The Legal Imagination.)

Wittgenstein was almost insanely literal-minded, finding it fascinating that persons construct "language games" in which direct reports of literal truths are not primary concerns or may be entirely irrelevant. Jokes, obscene gestures, and other communicative moves mystified him. Hence, his talk of "language games." ("Magician's Choice.")

Sometimes a communicative gesture is an invitation to play. It is a way of saying exactly that, "let's play." Listen to the way children speak to one another. Attend to a conversation between men and women in a New York nightclub. Is literal communication of "facts" the purpose of every utterance? I doubt it. Or just think of the meaning of the word "attend." Frankfurt's objection that bullshit is not "for real," fails to ask the question" "What kind of real do you mean?"

For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up to suit his purpose.

And again:

... there are very few people to whom it would often (or ever) occur to lie from a love of falsity or of deception.

I wonder whether Professor Frankfurt has been to a good movie or to the theater lately. Has he seen a political spokesperson in a press conference? I doubt it. He clearly has not been to a singles bar in a while. His very American narrowness of concern when it comes to language use (a relic of Puritanism, German Lutheranism, or Old Testament severity?), infuriates or amuses many Europeans, especially Latins:

"The only people who do not lie," Italians say, charmingly, "are those who have no imagination -- and Americans." ("Jacques Derrida's Philosophy as Jazz.")

This Italian maxim has nothing to do with dishonesty. When called upon to speak seriously about matters, Italians or Spaniards, French persons or Latin Americans are as truthful as anyone else, but language is on holiday more often in such cultures than in America. Notice that the unimaginative and Americans are overlapping categories in this maxim. Yet I am sure that this assumption does not refer to people in movies or Italy's most famous American resident, Ravello's own Gore Vidal. We must bow our heads when mentioning his name, the magic name "Gore Vidal."

My concern at this point is humanitarian. Professor Frankfurt's students who accept his instruction on this matter will find themselves greatly disadvantaged when trying to get laid.

We must distinguish between malignant and aesthetic bullshit. Context is everything. As a mere hint of what is really going on when we "drop" a load of bullshit, I will quote from a recent New Yorker profile of Philip Pullman:

You could say that, for Pullman, stories are elementary particles of meaning, without which we'd be less than fully human. In his Carnegie Medal speech he said, "We need stories so much that we're even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books don't supply them. We all need stories, but children are more frank about it." What angers Pullman most about theocracy, in the end, is that it blinds people to the true purpose of narrative. Fundamentalists don't know how to read stories -- including those in the Bible -- metaphorically ...

Allow yourself to imagine, make use of figurative language, visit the Forest of Arden (the magical territory created by language), at least once in a while. Enjoy the stories, then figure out what they mean. If it hurts too much to stay in this world that contains such horrors as accountants and the IRS, not to mention State torturers (Tuchin and Riccioli), then don't drink or take drugs, avoid all violence, and simply dream, play ... with words.

The torturers of this world are unimaginative literalists (like wicked lawyers), who will never be able to follow you to the kingdom of dreams where you will always be safe.

Don't be a linguistic fundamentalist.

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