Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit has just been published by Princeton University Press as a handsome little volume you would call a pamphlet if it were not in hardback. I haven't actually done much more than glance it over for a few minutes in a bookstore, but am going to write about it anyway.
No, that does not mean that this column will bullshit on On Bullshit. In fact the volume is simply a reprint -- incorporating two or three quite infinitesimal changes -- of a paper originally presented by Frankfurt, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, in 1986. It was reprinted in a collection of his essays, The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge University Press, 1988), and has been available online for some time now.
Anyone involved in either academe or journalism certainly ought to be familiar with "On Bullshit," and for those of us at their fragrant crossroads, it is indispensable. Alas, nothing in the new edition informs the reader of the essay's scholarly provenance. It tells you the book appeared in 2005, not that it is already a classic. Then again, most copies of the book will doubtless be purchased, not by those with a sincere interest in bullshitological studies, but as gag gifts -- with a likely spike of sales coming right around graduation time.
It is, however, a serious exercise in conceptual definition. Frankfurt writes with a certain dry eloquence, and commands impressive analytic perspicacity -- all of which is thrown into still more striking relief by the appearance, every few sentences, of the word "bullshit."
Something of the quality is evident in the book's opening lines (perhaps the most arresting in contemporary philosophical prose). "One of the most salient features of our culture," writes Frankfurt, "is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves."
The stakes are not trivial. At the risk of pitching a little of it myself, it is tempting to say that On Bullshit comes very close to defining the essence of postindustrial society. "The realms of advertising and of public relations," Frankfurt writes, "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."
Such mass-produced bull has vast resources at its disposal: "There are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who -- with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing, and so forth -- dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right." In other words, bullshit is not just an irritant. It is a form of professional expertise. If it vanished overnight, the economy might collapse. A sobering thought, perhaps beyond the limits of satire to handle.
How, then, should a philosopher grapple with bullshit? Frankfurt undertakes a careful review of the term's meanings in ordinary usage. But his own method is to define the concept primarily by reference to the process ("bullshitting") rather than the product. He emphasizes the difference in intentionality between a liar and a bullshitter.
A liar is engaged, obviously, in misrepresenting the truth about something. "Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus," as Frankfurt puts it. The liar must carefully determine just how much to distort, conceal, and fabricate in order "to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth." For a liar to frame his lie halfway plausibly (let alone, get away with it), actually requires a fairly exacting degree of lucidity about truth and consequences.
More so, at any rate, than the bullshitter need manage. "It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth," writes Frankfurt. "Producing bullshit requires no such conviction." The bullshitter enjoys a level of freedom and creativity worthy of the Nietzschean superman: "His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires." Not by accident do we refer to someone with a peculiar gift for this as a "bullshit artist," for "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 more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play." It also corrodes the mind's necessary power of "attending to the way things are...By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are."
My paraphrase omits quite a few insightful lines of thought in Frankfurt's tour de force. On Bullshit rewards more than one reading. But classic though it is, the text did not offer the last word on the topic. Princeton University Press should be called to task for failing, in this edition, to send readers in the direction of G.A. Cohen's "Deeper into Bullshit," appearing in Contours of Agency: Essays on Themes from Harry Frankfurt (MIT Press, 2002).
Cohen suggests that, however suggestive Frankfurt's theory may be, it goes off the rails by analyzing bullshit primarily by reference to the bullshitter's state of mind. We are able to discern the liar's goal, ex post facto. In every case, the liar has as an end the advantage he gains from the listener not knowing the truth. (For some reason, the immortal words of Homer come to mind: "It takes two to lie, Marge, one to lie and one to listen.") But as Cohen notes, it is much less clear from Frankfurt's account what we could say about the goal of the bullshitter. Much of the bullshit produced by political or advertising campaigns could just as well be treated as a kind of lying.
Furthermore (and here Cohen begins cutting very close to the academic bone), there are forms of bullshit produced by people who would not recognize themselves as being indifferent to the truth. "An honest person might read some bullshit that a Frankfurt-bullshitter wrote, believe it to be the truth, and affirm it," writes Cohen. "When that honest person utters bullshit, she's not showing a disregard for the truth. So it is neither necessary nor sufficient for every kind of bullshit that it be produced by one who is informed by indifference to the truth, or indeed, by any other distinctive intentional state."
Or, to sum up that last sentence in shorter form: Gotcha!
Cohen's paper is itself a substantial contribution to understanding bullshit. In particular, he has opened an important line of study through his useful description of certain kinds of academic discourse as "unclarifiably unclear." Future scholarly work in this field will need to grapple with the notion of the "bullshit detector" (a device routinely praised, though seldom given the attention it is due).
It also bears mentioning that, in the pages of the festschrift dedicated to him, Frankfurt does comment on Cohen's critique. He does so with impressive philosophical rigor -- and with still more admirable good grace. "If I am reluctant to endorse Cohen's claim that the short of bullshit on which my attention was focused 'is just one flower in the lush
Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Two or three times a month, I head to a research library to spend at least a couple of hours at a computer terminal tracking down journal articles or papers from various databases -- and then printing them out, since I can’t really absorb an argument without pen in hand to mark up the text. A few months ago, a German graduate student showed me what he was taking back home after several weeks here on a fellowship: a zip drive on his keychain, containing thousands of pages of text. I respect the efficiency, and do feel bad about the dead trees. But my cognitive wiring is not readily upgradable; and anyway, there is evidence to suggest that it has its own benefits.
As for the routine of trawling through databases, the latest issue of Against the Grain puts it into an interesting context. I’ve mentioned the magazine in this column from time to time as one focused on the “inside baseball” of scholarly publishing and research-library life. You could call Against the Grain a publication of record for intellectual infrastructure. But that seems too solemn for a journal that, besides the serious articles, runs its fair share of gossip and general quirkiness. The new issue includes a poem that parodies the one by William Blake about the "tyger" -- updated so that it is about Kindle. (Let none but hardcore nerds enter here.)
The September issue looks at the topic of metrics for scholarly journals. Usage statistics are a factor in decisions about what a library should be carrying. You can see where this would tend to have a self-reinforcing effect. Most of us have drawn up a mental list of the major journals in our fields of interest – a rough estimate of their relative prestige and influence. That, not surprisingly, can be quantified. But changes in scholarly publishing have called into question just how this is done.
“There is huge diversity among scholars and the ways in which they use and cite scholarly publishing,” writes the guest editor, Peter Shepherd, in his introduction to the issue. Shepherd is director of Project COUNTER, one of various recent initiatives to create new metrics suited for the way research is done now. (The acronym stands for Counting Online Usage of Networked Electronic Resources.)
A well-established metric in the natural and social sciences is the Journal Impact Factor, which assesses how often articles in a given publication are cited by other journals. This figure has implications going well beyond decision-making about whether or not to renew subscriptions, of course. The impact factor of the journals in which a researcher publishes can influence funding for a department or a project. Some concerns about the influence of this metric were listed in a statement by the European Association of Science Editors. And the impact factor has “limitations that originate from the inherent properties of citation data,” writes Johan Bollen, an associate professor of informatics and computing at Indiana University, in the new Against the Grain. “It can take anywhere from six months to several years to publish an article and for it to become ‘citable,” he writes -- making the impact factor “a delayed indicator of current scholarly activity,” at best.
But more fundamental are the changes in what counts as a scholarly publication now, and in how scholars work. It is now possible to track not just when an article is cited, but how often it is read, or at least accessed. As we sit at our terminals downloading material for research papers -- whether from journals, digital repositories, or commercial databases – it creates usage data that can be used to analyze how scholarly material is disseminating.
One advantage of this, writes Bollen, is that “usage data can be recorded for a wide variety of participants in the scholarly communication process, not merely those who publish journal articles, and can in principle be recorded for any online resource including books, data files, software, images, and sound files.” It also matters that this usage data “is recorded at a very large scale that may exceed the magnitude of all existing citations by several orders of magnitude” -- allowing for “a more reliable assessment of scholarly activity and impact” than is codified in bibliographies.
Of course, none of the records have much value in their raw state, sitting there on university servers. Bollen is the principle investigator of the MESUR (Metrics from Scholarly Usage of Resources) project, which is “aggregating otherwise separately recorded usage data sets from the world’s most significant publishers, aggregators, and institutional consortia.” The data is threshed and sorted, allowing for “the reconstruction of user clickstreams, i.e. the sequence of how a user moves from one article (and journal) to the next in a session.”
This makes it possible to calculate how likely it is that a researcher downloading a given paper will go on to look at another.
Other contributors describe work on data-mining initiatives such as PIRUS (Publisher and Institutional Repository Usage Statistics) and SNIP (Source Normalized Impact per Paper). As with much else in Against the Grain, these are developments that ordinary civilians remain blithely unaware of -- but that will quietly reshape the landscape of research.
In 2003, the State University of New York Press published a collection of interviews called Critical Intellectuals on Writing, which received a handful of reviews, and sold a few hundred copies, but did not create much of a splash. That has always puzzled me a little. I’ve reread the book (or at least grazed around in it for a while) once or twice per year since it came out and found it, above all, a useful volume. It is a stimulant. It jump-starts my brain and provokes the urge to work.
It is not habit-forming, in the usual sense. But it is helpful for generating some perspective on one’s intellectual and writerly routines -- the first step towards forming new habits.
Critical Intellectuals on Writing contains excerpts from discussions with more than two dozen prominent figures in the humanities. You have Judith Butler and Richard Rorty; Donald Davidson and Luce Irigaray; Stanley Fish and lesser fishes. (A complete list is available here.) The transcripts originally appeared in JAC, which used to be known as the Journal of Advanced Composition. At some point the journal dropped that title while rebranding itself as “a forum for interdisciplinary inquiry into rhetoric, writing, culture, and politics.”
The volume’s editors are Gary A. Olson, who is now provost at Idaho State University, and Lynn Worsham, now a professor of English there. Their introduction makes a distinction between academic writing, which is “inherently conservative inasmuch as it seeks … to fulfill the relatively narrow and policed goals and interests of a given discipline or profession” and intellectual work proper, which they define as “relentlessly critical, self-critical, and potentially revolutionary.”
This passage was cited with interest by one of the few bloggers to have noticed Critical Intellectuals on Writing. I’m not about to rain on the parade of anybody who finds the distinction to be novel. If someone wants to use the book as a kind of introductory Whitman Sampler of critical theories, then that’s O.K. too. But to my mind, its value lies elsewhere.
Most of the interview extracts focus on composition -- the process of turning one’s ideas into words on a page. (Or hard drive, as often as not.) The exchanges usually begin with some variation on the question, "Do you think of yourself as a writer?" The discussions often go on to descriptions of work methods and reflections on how the act of writing and the process of thinking influence each another.
There are occasional bits of intellectual autobiography or rejoinders to what the interview subject may consider misreadings of his or her work. While sometimes interesting, they are not why I revisit the volume every so often. There are scores of books by and about most of these figures, but Critical Intellectuals on Writing is the only place you get a glimpse into their workshops.
The famous Paris Review interviews – running to several volumes, and now available online – did this sort of thing for novelists and poets, of course. But this may be the first time anyone has documented this many of the ceremonies dedicated to the lesser muses of theoretical prose and scholarly nonfiction.
I turn to Critical Intellectuals on Writing when my own productive routines seem to be collapsing or (worse) turning into a rut. This doesn’t mean I raid it for alternative methods or models to imitate, exactly. Rather, it is a matter of gaining energy from the accounts of how other people go about the work. Their reflections on the process -- including the moments of difficulty or perplexity – seem to recharge my own batteries.
Without claiming that it conveys the full depth or variety of the book, I'll offer a quick anthology of memorable passages.
The philosopher Donald Davidson recalls how a friend suggested that the way to write a paper was “to begin by asking a question that anybody could understand or by posing a problem in such a way that anyone would see that it was a problem.” He says he followed this approach for a long time and found it useful – but still finds himself getting tied into knots.
“I often imagine the first sentence,” he says, “and then ask myself, ‘Wait! What comes next?’ Pretty soon, I’m writing the whole paper in my head, and any problems in the composition or organization of the text stops me from writing the first sentence for fear that I would somehow be trapped. When I do finally write something, I often find that the first couple of pages, which usually sort of ease me into the subject, are better left out. So, I’ll throw away these painfully constructed early pages completely.”
Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek pursues exactly the opposite course in composing his psychoanalytic and philosophical writings. “I never write in my head,” he says. “I don’t begin with an entire line of thought in my head. I write in complex units – let’s call them ‘abstract units’ – in which each unit develops one line of thought, usually in three or four pages, and these units more or less correspond to the subchapter headings in my books. I simply write these units and then it’s a matter of how to combine them into larger units…. You can imagine how much I had to copy, cut, and paste – using scissors and tape – before personal computers, so PCs come in very handy.”
The linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky, who publishes a new book every other Thursday, indicates that he almost never sits down to plan one in any detail. When he decides to produce something, it is usually “because I’ve thought about most of it before, or lectured on it before, or written a letter to someone about it.”
The word processor had a transformative effect on his writing: “I discovered that there were a lot of things I could do that I’d never done before. For example, I’d never done much editing, simply because it was too much trouble; I didn’t want to retype everything. And I never did much in the way of inserting and rearranging and so on. Now I do a fair amount of that because it’s so easy. Whether that shows up differently for the reader, I don’t know. But I know I’m writing quite differently.”
Many of the interviews were conducted in the 1990s -- so the topic of how shifting to the use of computers has influenced the writing process tends to come up often. Today it will seem mildly antiquarian to read the account by J. Hillis Miller, the paleo-deconstructionist literary critic, of how he produced his early work:
“There was a period a long time ago,” Miller recalls, “when I wrote on a typewriter and then revised with a pen, writing things up and down the margins and on the backs of pages. Then there was a long period, essentially when I was at Yale, when I wrote longhand in notebooks. That allowed me to revise on the page and on the back of the page. (If you were to see those notebooks, you’d find them totally illegible.) Then I would read the manuscript onto a tape; it would be typed by a secretary; then I would revise it; and it would have to be typed again.”
For some reason the term “phallogocrat” comes to mind. Now he uses a Mac.
During a recent rereading of Critical Intellectuals on Writing, one set of reflections jumped out as especially interesting and suggestive. In it, the feminist philosopher Sandra Harding describes her strategy of writing with an eye to finding the toughest knots or obstacles in her own thinking.
"I usually start with an argument in mind – some view I’m criticizing, not necessarily an individual, but some assumption or some claim – and develop a little paragraph or argument.” She creates an outline, then prepares “little abstracts of the arguments in different sections, and then I start on whatever I think is the hardest section to write.”
This means going “from an abstract to an outline to say a six-page version of a forty-page paper, and then I pick whatever's the most problematic aspect – the thing that I can’t envision, that’s least clear to me – and I try to write that section up into, say, a ten-page version. (I am for a paper that’s at least fifty percent longer than what I’m going to have to end up with.) Then I go back and work with the other sections, kind of growing them up and keeping them in balance with each other…”
Putting the first draft aside for a few weeks, she may return to find that “the paper is not where I thought it was.” This means starting over. “My computer directory is full of these different versions of the paper,” she says, “and later I may go and take a paragraph or a section out of one after I’ve got the second paper well formulated.” This is not just composition by accretion but writing as process of discovery.
The novelist John Gregory Dunne once stated that "writing is manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe." There is something valuable about this sort of demystification. The interest of Critical Intellectuals on Writing is not that it defends "the pure good of theory" but that it respects the craft of plumbing. Or so it seems to me.
Two more final thoughts. As noted, the book was published in 2003. In the interim, the very nature of writing and publication have changed, and "composition" now can include building a website or collaborating in ways that go beyond earlier forms of co-authorship. If someone decided to prepare such a book in a few years, it might encompass very different sorts of conversations from these.
Meanwhile, I'll recommend the book to people trying to think about their own habits and attitudes about writing -- and point out that, after several rounds of purging my overcrowded bookshelves, it has survived. But then, that's also because Critical Intellectuals on Writing is not really available in e-book format. (It seems there was a PDF at one point, but that's not the same thing.) SUNY Press should consider this a hint.
I've taught high-school and college writing for nearly 15 years now. And I've directed a university writing program for three. In that time, I’ve found countless risible examples of student writing. I try not to share these. But temptation occasionally gets the better of me.
Here's a gem from this past semester. A student in a required first-year course recently sought to explain what he had learned. (I require such a written explanation at the end of the semester.) He wanted to show that he grasped something about "presentation," a category including grammatical correctness and stylistic felicity. So he wrote: "My improvement in presentation has improves also, I’ve gone from writing long and confusing sentences, to writing more clear and readable ones."
This is like hearing a cologne-soaked man intone: "We should talk more about how I’ve stopped philandering, perhaps over a drink at my apartment." Nevertheless, I’d like for you to consider something. Something that I had to remember myself. Writing is different from casual romance in a very important regard: the writer gets to revise. And the revision erases the first performance altogether. Would that all were so.
Perhaps, in some teaching practicum or graduate seminar, you were exposed to the glory of composition pedagogy, so you know the glittering magic of process and the transformative luster of revision. Those of us in rhetoric and writing delight in such terms, so we readily forget that others aren’t so dazzled by their appearance. Allow me to illuminate.
The student mentioned above did write a poor sentence at an inopportune time. But I won't say that he learned nothing of grammar and style. Over the course of this semester, I watched as he wrote and revised several papers. The first drafts typically featured many sentences like the above. But subsequent drafts improved. As the class practiced editing techniques, as they learned a few choice grammar rules, I noticed that his ability to improve … well, improved. He got better at sentence-level revision. He learned to write concisely, clearly, and appropriately. Just not in the first draft.
By the way, the ability to revise for correctness and felicity improves all writing. It improves my writing. The second-to-last sentence in the paragraph above started out like this: "He really did learn to write clearer, more concise, and more readable prose." Then it became, "He did learn to write more clearly, more concisely, and more readably." Somewhere during the third iteration, I settled on a form but misspelled "learned”: "leared."
Even the writing teacher needs a chance to rewrite.
Since my students submit their materials in electronic portfolios, I can revisit various stages of their work. I can see evidence to support this student’s claim. His ultimately elegant expressions evolved from hideous, writhing syntactic monsters. Unfortunately, he did not have an opportunity to reconsider the sentence quoted above. While professing his ability to revise for style and grammar, he could not revise for style and grammar.
And so, this end-of-the semester self-evaluation that I require of my students is a cruel little puzzle with no satisfactory solution. This is like evaluating a professional dancer’s merit based on an impromptu oration that describes his most recent and successful performance. Or evaluating an orator based on an interpretive dance version of her best speech. Perhaps the impropriety under investigation is not stylistic but pedagogical, not my student's but mine.
It's easy to chuckle at a single sentence, easy to focus on what's written and to overlook the writing. Good writing instruction, as you may have heard, requires attention to process and opportunity to revise. Or so a diligent, though not initially eloquent, student reminds me.
Mark Longaker is associate chair of the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin. He is grateful for his student’s patience and permission to reprint the quote in this article.