Bullshit Happens

One man's B.S. is another man's Bible. But what would Jon Stewart say?

Almost exactly a year ago, I received word that Andrew Sullivan, the gay conservative Republican blogger celebrity, had nominated me for an award. That prize, called the "Poseur Alert," celebrates "examples of the absurdly pretentious, pseudo-intellectual and massively self-regarding among the nation's intelligentsia (and beyond)." I can't say I felt honored.

Bullshit calls come in pairs, and the same week of Sullivan's blast, I found myself dangerously close to Jon Stewart and a wiffleball bat. He was in Boston to perform stand-up, and at the behest of the Harvard Lampoon, came Cambridgeside to play wiffleball after accepting the humor magazine's award for "Best Journalist of All Time."

Stewart decided teams with simple logic: Jews versus Gentiles and Hindus. Since I was a Gentile, I went to that side of the field. But when I approached the plate, Stewart refused to pitch to me. "You're not a Gentile!" I explained otherwise, but his dismissal was curt. "Don't bullshit me." I put down the bat.

Read bull: Princeton's Harry Frankfurt
photo: Princeton University Press
Read bull: Princeton's Harry Frankfurt

Then I went a year trying my hardest to avoid these sorts of accusations. I had succeeded, I thought. Bullshit, like diamonds, is forever though, and a few weeks ago, when Stewart brought to his Daily Show Harry Frankfurt, Princeton professor emeritus and author of newly hardbound 1985 essay On Bullshit, I received more than a few e-mails from friends telling me about "a book I might enjoy."

Keen on common sense, common parlance, and some ostensibly no-bullshit etymological rigor, Frankfurt bravely sets out to define his "vast and amorphous" subject. The distinction he makes between bullshit and its cousin, the lie, yields him his biggest breakthrough: While a lie must have some obedience to the truth if it is to succeed functionally, the "lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are" is to Frankfurt "the essence of bullshit."

Frankfurt goes one step further, though: Bullshit's indifference to the truth makes it that much more dangerous than the lie, especially in public life, "where people are frequently impelled—whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant." Bullshit means empty politicking, a set of "issues" every politician is supposed to have an opinion about, and the inevitable beatings around the Bush.

The flip side, of course, is quite romantic. Frankfurt's appeal to the absolute truth suggests he thinks we can actually know how things "really are"—that we don't invent our own realities, and that as a system of ethics, "sincerity is bullshit." Like Stewart, his call to arms has a protective and wholly positive bent.

But hey—bullshit happens. Frankfurt doesn't expect otherwise, but suggests the mythical beast best stay within the confines of the fabled bull session. Here, "the purpose of the conversation is not to communicate beliefs," but "to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion." To Frankfurt, statements made within a bull session are hardly dangerous, since each contributor understands that what someone says isn't what he necessarily believes. This is thinking strictly for kicks, and as a point of leisure, presumably far less valuable to Frankfurt than the development of a bullshit-proof canon of essential truths and modes of thought.

What's one man's bullshit though is another man's bible or an entire culture's pantheon. Making claims to essential truths and definitive canons is an inherently exclusionary process. With each cry of "bullshit" we push back the boundaries of the bull session still further, marginalizing that volatile spirit of free thought that, for every billion misfires, yields one massively important breakthrough, or at the very least, some colorful and truly affecting mythology that engages a people.

In short, bullshit needs to happen.

Take the alternately maligned and celebrated Hieroglyphica of Horapollo. The purportedly fifth century C.E. Egyptian Horapollo had prepared his own translations of nearly 200 hieroglyphics, some of them logical, most of them entirely fantastical. He thought the glyph of a snake eating its own tail symbolized "the universe"; and in addition to believing in such a thing as an "electric catfish," he translated its glyph to mean "a man who had saved many in the sea."

Before scholars realized hieroglyphics weren't strictly iconic, Renaissance bourgie had taken up the Hieroglyphica for its elite codified system of emblematics, or mute-writing, while artists wrote secret, glyph-informed messages for viewers in-the-know to decode. One man's bullshit, his something-from-nothing alchemy, played an undeniably important role in art history—and at the very least, comprises an essential truth for anyone looking to impress his date at the art museum.

That's just accidental history, sure. But maybe that's the point—maybe bullshit's worth comes precisely from the dialogue between someone accidentally taking it seriously and someone else who then puts that bullshit to the rack. And maybe that dialogue is ultimately more important than what either has to say.


Frankfurt, believe it or not, seems to agree. Curiously, aside from a few cheeky one-liners, I haven't seen anyone tease out the extent to which On Bullshit is one of the more brilliant and worthwhile instances of bullshit in recent history. Even physically the essay mocks itself with high bravado: hardback, throwback, big print, and margins so wide only about a hundred words can fit on a page.

Instead of subjecting bullshit to any rigorous a priori pressure, Frankfurt culls instances of the word from literature at large (especially poetry), making questionable claims based on a series of OED etymologies and arriving at his definition quite haphazardly—more the stuff of half-baked, last-minute seminar papers than definitive inquiries. In fact, Frankfurt openly admits, "I have not undertaken a survey of the literature, partly because I do not know how to go about it."

Other times Frankfurt's clearly toying with us, as in his lengthy comparison of bullshitting to blowing hot air:

Excrement may be regarded as the corpse of nourishment, what remains when the vital elements in food have been exhausted. In this respect, excrement is a representation of death that we ourselves produce and that, indeed, we cannot help producing in the very process of maintaining our lives. Perhaps it is for making death so intimate that we find excrement so repulsive.

And too perfectly, the crux of Frankfurt's definition rests on the essay's best irony. Setting up the truth/lie distinction, Frankfurt recalls fellow bullshit caller Ludwig Wittgenstein's 1930s reaction to Fania Pascal explaining her latest bout of sickness: "I felt just like a dog that has been run over." With motives perfectly unclear, Wittgenstein responded, "You don't know what a dog that has been run over feels like." Frankfurt then spends several playful pages justifying his use of the anecdote as evidence, asking first rhetorically, "Now who knows what really happened?" then writing defensively of Fania's account, "She knew him, and she knew what to expect from him; she knew how he made her feel."

This—like Frankfurt's essay as a whole—is great slop, its true worth revealed only to those who struggle with its fraudulence. We need bullshit, precisely to expose it as such—or maybe I'm just being defensive.


Nick Sylvester is an associate editor at Pitchforkmedia.

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