April Stools: On the Subject and Substance of Harry G. Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”

A few weeks ago, a former graduate student of mine dropped a copy of Harry G. Frankfurt’s essay “On Bullshit” into my pigeonhole.   In an accompanying letter, the sender stated that it was meant as a “thank you” for the thoughts my seminars inspired and the readings to which they led – but there is room for self-doubt on my part.

While replying to the student by “acknowledging [his] welcome addition to my shelf space-exceeding library, well suited as the volume in question is to the bedside table once occupied by chamber pots,” it occurred to me that my thoughts on the subject might be worth an entry in the broadcastellan journal, not the least since I penned my response to the sender – and to Frankfurt’s essay – on April Fool’s Day.

Having translated – for publication in an anthology of literary criticism – Nietzsche’s essay “Über Wahrheit und Lüge im aussermoralischen Sinne” (“On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense”) and written about Thomas Carlyle’s classic but initially rejected and subsequently anonymously published Sartor Resartus – “Thoughts on Clothes; or Life and Opinions of Herr D. Teufelsdröckh D.U.J.” (1833–34) – in my post-graduate days, I may be permitted to lay claim to a fleeting acquaintance with the material some crudely refer to as “bullshit,” whatever its qualities, its substance or its purported lack thereof.  

Perhaps I may even argue myself to be an authority on the matter, given that I have long been a voluble piler-up and at times unwitting purveyor of abject failures in reasoning and, I must insist, to a lesser degree, imagination, the latter being more essential to “bullshit” than the former.

Of Carlyle’s confounding essay, purported to be a translation from the German, a reviewer remarked on this day, 1 April, in 1834, that it was, in the words of a late-seventeenth and early eighteenth-century critic “a heap of clotted nonsense,” albeit “mixed,” he allowed, “here and there, with passages marked by thought and striking poetic vigour.”  The initial readers, on which the performance was largely lost in the translation some believed it to be, were looking at Carlyle’s playful essay as a lie, the distinction between which and “bullshit” Frankfurt is careful to make.  And yet, Frankfurt’s essay has none of the “vigour” of Carlyle’s distinctive pseudo-Germanic prose – and as a serious treatise on the subject of “bullshit” it left me wanting for more paper.

Granted, Frankfurt’s subject matter seems particularly apposite in light of current events and politics both in the US and in Britain.  “Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are,” Frankfurt proposes, because lies are dependent on an awareness of truth, whereas “bullshit” thrives beyond – in rejection or ignorance of – truth. “The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are,” Frankfurt allows.  

Indeed, in the climate that changed at first gradually in the twentieth century, then dramatically and perhaps irrevocably to “post-truth” in the second decade of the twenty-first century, so-called “bullshitting” is harder than ever to spot and more difficult to flush out now due to the eroding confidence in the existence of any one singular “truth” and the laying to waste of absolutes, standards and mutually exclusive opposites in the aftermath wrought by exposure to Postmodernist thinking and (un)doings, and to deconstruction in particular, tomes on which were dumped on academia with increasing frequency at the time Frankfurt’s tract was first published, up against as it is on the kind of relativism that has come to haunt us with a vengeance.

That said, had the author engaged with reception or relational aesthetics, he might have found it instructive, and indeed imperative, to consider “bullshit” not simply as something left behind for our analysis but as a response to and rejection of whatever we cannot face engaging with or neglect to examine more closely. As a voided substance, “bullshit” is also a matter of avoidance. Abjection is as much an act as it is an attitude. Whether assumed or actual, deliberate or unintended, detected or unnoticed, “bullshit” is a misfire of communication.

True, some balderdash stinks to high heaven, however we may or may not conceive of that realm as an abode beyond our earth closet. But is it not also true that we can be rather quick to exclaim “bah humbug!” – declaring a fine point a stain or rhetoric a stench – in order to achieve a swift, convenient as well as indiscriminate and often vociferous dismissal of challenging ideas and conventional wisdoms alike? Rather than any concrete mass for us to turn our nose up at, “bullshit,” in a metaphorical sense, may just be in the nostrils of the beholder.

“Metaphors,” as Teufeldröckh insists, are the very “stuff” of language, and, in a manner of speaking rather than a matter of fact, its “living integuments.”  What, he poses, “if you except some few primitive elements (of natural sound), […] is it all but Metaphors, recognised as such, or no longer recognised; still fluid and florid, or now solid-grown and colourless?”

That said, “bullshit” is surely something other than mere “hot air,” with which Frankfurt associates it when he claims that there “are similarities between hot air and excrement” that “make hot air seem an especially suitable equivalent for bullshit.”  Seriously? Few of us would, after the fact, confuse wind with a deposit in our pants, an issue suggesting “bullshit” to be something rather more substantial, problematic and of lasting consequence than the former.

While I enjoyed much of Frankfurt’s overall pellucid discourse – rather too much of which relies on the questionable equation of “bullshit” with “humbug” – the writer’s argument is lacking in the self-consciousness that the subject warrants. 

A philosopher’s thoughtless or imperious use of the pronoun ‘he’’ to denote anyone – even in the less gender-fluid days of 1986 – should make us suspicious from the start that they are equipped adequately to weigh the many sides of the matter and approach it from all angles as is deserving of any free-floating signifier.  Nor does the bandwagon appeal of “Everyone knows this” inspire confidence in the logic and rigour of Frankfurt’s argument. 

Whether it betokens the soul or the shortfall of wit, the brevity of “On Bullshit” was nonetheless appreciated by this reader, who for once exercises a modicum of restraint by refraining from pondering the onomastic puzzle whether Frankfurt’s essay – a sausage by any other name – would smell as pungent if it were given more time to ripen.  After all, there is only so much bullshit anyone can take.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: