Monday, April 30, 2012

On Bullshit (2005)

     I certainly would not have paid money for (Professor) Harry G. Frankfurt's On Bullshit (2005), seeing as how it is little more than an exploratory paper on the nature of bullshit, and how it differs from things such as humbug and lying.  So long as I can still access the Roosevelt University library with my student ID, I have access to academic papers for free (if one considers how much money the school charged me for my time there to be settled with the degree, otherwise I am just afforded the opportunity to draw down against the account) and that means that I should be able to get things like this for free.  In book form, I was able to do the same thing from the local public library.
     On Bullshit tries to be academically honest in its exploration as to the nature of bullshit and how it has come to pervade situations where meaningful discourse should be more commonplace – Frankfurt places no onus on casual bullshit other than to note it is a way to keep some level of emotional reserve and protection from repercussions from outlandish ideas when used in casual situations – while at the same time maintaining a position that allows him to use mild humor rather than just dry, academic writing.  This makes it a marginally enjoyable read, but one that is marred by Frankfurt's inability to fully delve into the nature of bullshit and how it is employed in modern discourse.
     Frankfurt also gets lazy from time to time.  He goes too far astray when he wants to conclude that in the phrase "to shoot the bull", shoot is a stand-in for shit.  I wonder if he feels the same applies to "shooting the breeze"?  That would be messy, at least in the direction the wind was blowing.  It ignores the etymology of the phrase in favor of some wry humor, but Frankfurt never even introduces the phrase "to shoot the shit", which would defuse his entire line of thought on the matter while still advancing the examination as to the nature of bullshit
     For those who are willing to kill a small amount of time reading something mildly academic, On Bullshit is a fine diversion.  But it won't satisfy those looking for a more thoughtful examination of the linguistic and moralistic implications of the use of bullshit, nor will it make the casual reader happy with its lack of a definitive statement of conclusion.  I liked it, but I think it should have been much better.
     Now, the quotes stolen from the book (one of which was stolen right out of another book):

  • Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob?  Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined?  The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this.  Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped.  p. 21-22
  • Although I was only seven when my father was killed, I remember him very well and some of the things he used to say. ...One of the first things he taught me was, "Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through." p. 48 [Quote taken from Eric Ambler's novel Dirty Story (1967)]
  • Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game.  Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands.  The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether.  He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all.  By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.  p.60-61
  • Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial—notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things.  And insofar as that is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.  p. 67

1 comment:

  1. And now, a short video on the subject...