The Inconsistent Luddite

Scott McLemee utters dire warnings about the cultural impact of media, while fast forwarding through commercials....

March 22, 2005

When we met during the waning days of the administration of Bush the Elder, my wife and I both had libraries that were about the same size, roughly a thousand volumes each. She has weeded hers, over the years, while mine has grown to about four times its original size. (Plus, I'm still wearing the same pair of shoes.)

In any case, it was the sort of detail that looms large in the first stage of dating. Each of you puts a favorable mental checkmark on what becomes, at a certain stage of one’s romantic life, a standardized application form. When things got more serious, we noticed that we had about five books in common. There was the little Vintage paperback of the selected poems of W. H. Auden, of course, and Orwell’s 1984, and probably something by Kafka. Even when we had the same authors, they weren’t always the same books. And we each had areas of specialization -- theater for her, early Soviet political history for me -- that suggested profound differences of sensibility.

Which was not a bad thing, as such. For love can create whatever compatibility it does not immediately find. Besides, there was some really interesting early Soviet theater.

I bring up this tale, first of all, as an exercise in historical memory. One day, the notion of a courtship conducted without any information technology will seem both antiquated and somewhat daring, rather like the Amish tradition of bundling. There is a difference between mutual respect and sharing the same niche on a grid by Pierre Bourdieu.

But will that difference survive? Every online purchase of a book, or rental of a DVD, now causes intricate systems of computerized data-sorting to churn out suggestions for what else you might like. It’s like a feedback loop -- defining one’s taste and identity by statistical analysis, then making it all so convenient that it’s hard to argue. Even your eccentricities can be standardized. (Buy one academic-press book about UFO religions,  and before you know it, Amazon has pointed out a dozen volumes of interstellar scripture.)

The whole trend is somehow intimate and alienated at the same time. It may be that, in the future, any really interesting changes in one’s cultural sense will occur only through glitches in the programming. In our household, for example, TiVo keeps recording telenovelas even though neither of us knows Spanish. But I am thinking of learning it, just to keep TiVo happy.

Fortunately, it did record Harry Frankfurt’s appearance on The Daily Show last week, where he discussed his book On Bullshit (about which, see this earlier column ). The interview was a chance to witness something rare, wonderful, and altogether salutary: an intelligent man unafraid to be uncomfortable on television.

To some degree, that comes through in the transcript. But to get the full effect, you have to watch Frankfurt’s effort to formulate an answer to questions in front of an audience prone to laughing at, more or less, everything he says. There is an element of humor to On Bullshit itself, of course – but of the dry sort, sometimes called “donnish,” for which a sober decorum creates more than half of the comic effect.

But the problem may have gone beyond the uneasy fit between Frankfurt’s personal style and The Daily Show’s laugh-a-second ambiance.

The host, Jon Stewart, seemed actually to have read the book – easy enough to do, with so slender a volume, but a rare enough occurance for most hosts of television talk shows. Given the constraints of time, the discussion never dug into the nuances of Frankfurt’s argument. ( On Bullshit does present a serious analysis of the topic, its mirthmaking title notwithstanding). Yet Stewart did manage to hone in on a central problem in applying Frankfurt’s work today, some two decades after he developed his ideas.

To whit: Isn’t a certain degree of tolerance for bullshit (especially on the part of elected officials) now an basic part of the media game of "spin"? Which comes first, cynicism or indulgence?

That might have made for an interesting conversation. Too bad it didn’t happen. Not that you could start the discussion, let along finish it, in the time between commercials.
Not that politicians and pundits have a monopoly. After writing about Frankfurt’s book last month, I got a note from a friend reminding me of the old saying that Ph.D. stands for “piled higher and deeper.”

Lest this hoary bit of populist academe-bashing throw any insecure readers into a paroxysm of rage, it’s worth mentioning that the friend in question is an associate professor.

It’s also interesting to find that academic bull is discussed in a work that Frankfurt himself treats as a classic reference, Max Black’s The Prevalence of Humbug and Other Essays  (Cornell, 1983). I recently came across a copy at a university bookstore, among tables of books selling at ten bucks per brown bag – at which price (so went my explanation, upon returning home) I couldn’t afford not to buy it.

Quoting a sample of overripe argument by George Steiner (prominent literary critic and frequent emitter of deep sighs over the End of Western Civilization), Black calls it "a prime example of the kind of academic or scholarly humbug that consists of saying more than you can reasonably mean, for the booming sound of your [rhetorical] periods (what the older rhetoricians called ‘bomphoiolagia’)."

The prospect of having the latter word at my disposal was so appealing that I hauled out the first volume of the compact Oxford English Dictionary – and located the magnifying glass – just to look it up. But in fact the OED does not list "bomphoiolagia." Nor can it be found in the indispensible Dictionary of Difficult Words, the reference book that got me through a particularly nerdy adolescence. (Still waiting for my opportunity to use "xenodocheionology," meaning “the love of hotels and inns.”)

Suspicions alerted, I plugged “bomphoiolagia” into a search engine – and found it nowhere in cyberspace. Was Max Black indulging in humbug himself by making up a word?

Then, thanks to Google, a revelation: The copyeditors at Cornell had goofed. “Did you mean bomphiologia?” asked Google.

Uh, maybe.....And then, after two quick clicks, I was able to consult the amazing Silva Rhetoricae, an online reference work compiled by Gideon Burton of Brigham Young University, who traced the word back to its definition more than 450 years ago.

And so my own vaguely Steiner-esque mutterings about electronic media and the death of the humanities began to seem not only hypocritical, but just a little, well, bomphiologic.

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.


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