March 7, 2005

Towards a Marxist Hermeneutics of Total Bullshit

Der Hauptmangel alles bisherigen Materialismus (den Feuerbachschen mit eingerechnet) ist, daß der Gegenstand, die Wirklichkeit, Sinnlichkeit nur unter der Form des Objekts oder der Anschauung gefaßt wird; nicht aber als sinnlich menschliche Tätigkeit, Praxis; nicht subjektiv.

The main defect of all hitherto-existing materialism - that of Feuerbach included - is that the Object, actuality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively.

        -- Karl Marx, Thesen über Feuerbach

It does seem fitting to construe carelessly made, shoddy goods as in some way analogues of bullshit. But in what way? Is the resemblance that bullshit itself is invariably produced in a careless or self-indulgent manner, that it is never finely crafted, that in the making of it there is never the meticulously attentive concern with detail to which Longfellow alludes? 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. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought.

The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. It entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite. But in fact it is not out of the question at all. [...]

What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit.

          -- Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit

So, I did my gig over at the Dark Side and now I have to write something up about it to fulfil my contract. The problem I'm facing is how to tell a large tax-supported international treaty organisation, one which is soon to be my sole source of household income that:

  1. Their plans are shit.
  2. Their practices are shit.
  3. Their decisions to date have been complete shit.
  4. The things they propose to do about them are for shit.
  5. They are, in effect, full of shit.

I intend to start by sharing what I really think here, then proceding to shed some light on this situation through the application of bovinocoprotics. (From the Latin bovinae - cow, and the Greek κοπρος - feces.) Then, I need to actually start writing.

Essentially, this political entity - let's call it the GATO, the Galactic Treaty Organization - has made the decision to buy an off-the-shelf product as the core mechanism of their Death Star that neither works off the shelf, nor meets their needs in any meaningful way, without an extensive customization program which they are both unable and as far as I can tell unwilling to undertake. We'll call the product LunarSurface, and it is sold by a fly-by-night Alderaan-based start-up that seems to have spent the 90's blowing vast sums of money on expensive offices in the City and perks for employees, only to have their investors come down on them like a ton of bricks when the market crashed and be forced to start selling whatever they had finished.

In order to compensate for the Imperium's lack of clear program nor effective consideration of goals in the design and implementation of the Death Star, the two departments charged with this project have off-loaded much of the real work onto two related departments with other responsibilities, and are now consuming all of another department's labour, preventing them from fulfilling their intended mandate and driving its staff, including my wife, insane. I, by all appearances, have been called in so that an outsider - contractors are highly regarded by the Imperium - can tell them that they're going nowhere and convince them to stop.

They, in contrast, appear to believe that this metaphorical battle station of theirs will be live and operational by summer. It does not, however, appear that Darth Vader will be personally arriving to oversee the scheduled completion of the facility since, for some bureaucratic reason, the position of Imperial Lordship has been open for some time and is not likely to be filled soon, leaving a gap in the hierarchy between Admiral Tarkin and the higher levels of the Imperial government, who are not paying close attention to minor projects because they are off dealing with the diplomatic fallout of an ill-conceived war on Tatooine against the rogue regime of Jabba the Hutt, which has been undertaken against the advice of the bulk of the Imperial Senate. Indeed, my very ability to conduct this consultation and workshop has been delayed by a recent visit from the Lord Of The Sith, along with his entourage of Stormtroopers and the hightened level of security caused by recent rebel suicide attacks in the aftermath of Tatooine's first free(ish) election.

I had thought that some of my actual skills would come into play here. That, perhaps, confronted with real problems that happen to fit within my expertise, I might actually be able to help relieve the troubles that are so clearly taking their toll on my wife. But, alas, it seems their real problems fall more within Harry Frankfurt's field of expertise than mine.

But on, then, to a discussion of bovinocoprotics. Frankfurt's thesis, as far as I can tell from the brief portion of his essay I found online (via Electrolite's sidebar), is that bullshit is not a conscious act of lying nor an uninteded act of ignorance but a willful disconnect from reality. This is transparently the case from what I saw at the GATO. As soon as we got to Friday afternoon, it was transparent that people's weekend plans were more important to them than the serious failings of the work they had already given so much time to. There was a quick agreement on a sort of non-plan - essentially, the abandonment of everything they had done for an alternative strategy which involves a great deal of new work for which they are utterly unsuited and that they have no real intention of doing. Even though the most affected department - my wife's - objected quite voicefully, and I told them, with these exact words, "You don't realise how much work this is"; I am sure that most of the involved players left believing that a decision had been made and could now be forgotten, that the machinery of the Empire would simply churn out a decent outcome on time and within budget.

Frankfurt is concerned primarily with the identification of bullshit, with analytical methods that distinguish it from outright lying, from ignorance and from other, less socially acceptable forms of miscommunication. We here at Pedantry, however, are of a less analytical bent and prefer to draw on more "continental" trends in philosophy. And here, Frankfurt offers up something that is, in this short version of his essay, underexplored but which I hope has been more thoroughly explored in the now available in book version. Timothy Noah over at Slate mentions it in his review:

Frankfurt's conclusion, which I caught up with in its latest repackaging, is that bullshit is defined not so much by the end product as by the process by which it is created.

That conclusion - that what defines bullshit is not something which can be distilled from statements but a property of its history - enables us to place bullshit within a Marxist framework as a kind of practice. This, in turn, overdetermines the selection of this essay's title.

What I have always found most powerful in Marx' approach to things is that, despite tossing around the word objective in a manner quite different from the present understadning of the word, he nonetheless grounds his principles and abstractions in praxis - a revolutionary approach which still, as much as anything else, defines the distinction between philosophy that traces its roots back to Hegel and the German Romantics and the analytical tendencies that generally hold sway in America and the UK. For Marx, the truth of things is in human practices. An abstraction has real content when it can be made to do work, and its grounding in reality is that those who manipulate that abstraction succeed in propagating themselves and their abstractions. All else is bullshit.

A couple weeks ago, I finished reading Geoffrey Hodgson's Economics and Evolution : Bringing Life Back into Economics. He draws, I think, too much on the notion of an analogy between Darwinism and institutional development, evaluating economists on the basis of their grasp and use of such an analogy, and finding it not really present in Marx and a variety of other economists who gush on about evolution, but seem to grasp its content poorly. But this notion of developing an evolutionary economics by analogy with biological evolution strikes me as profoundly flawed, and his digressions into questions of "units of analysis" and of the viability of Lamarkism in the social sciences seems to me to be evidence of its analytical weakness. The gene as a unit of analysis flowed from the practices of biologists: By asserting this abstraction to exist they were able to make discernable progress from the era of Mendel up til fairly recently. Indeed, they were so successful that the position of this unit of analysis is now known as the "central dogma", and it is now coming under a growing number of challenges from a variety of corners.

The lesson to learn from biology, however, is that units of analysis should flow from practices. They are components of theories, not their preconditions, and they stand and fall with the theories that call on them. This, Marx seems to have understood. The notion of the unity of theory and practice has struck me as one that is excessively obfuscated in the hands of Marx' interpreters. Rather, it is simply that theories are not separable from the practices they engender nor the real world conditions under which those practices take place. It would have been pointless to assert the truth of quantum mechanics in the 18th century, when no practice could possibly have come of it. Nor could the theories of classical economics have had any meaning in mediaeval Europe, where the structure of society and the modes of prevailing thought could not have led them to produce anything of value. What Marx seems to have understood is that when theories engender practices that support the propagation of those theories, there is no standpoint from which we can assert a higher truth except by constructing alternative theories that engender alternative practices, which in turn displace the existing order.

This very conception lies at the core of Marx' theory of historical stages of development. When the conditions were ripe for the capitalist alternative to feudalism to propagate itself, it did. And, in so doing, it made its abstractions and theories true by leaving no alternative that would work for people.

Just this morning, I finished off Hobsbawm's The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 and he outlines just how much of the capitalist world was constructed by the forceful demolition of the social structures that preceded it. The peasant was not very interested in abandonning the structures of the church, the security of feudal relations, or the rewards of agricultural work. Instead, the rise of the capitalist class forced him out of his sustainable relationship with the land and into cities where the only possibility to survive was to adopt and sustain the system provided by the capitalists, even though his life was measurably worse than before. Recent work suggests that the pastoralization of hunter-gatherer societies might well have been similar. Primitive man was forced, by still unclear circumstances, out of simple and rewarding practices and into a far more difficult lifestyle. But, once agriculture was established, it had simply become impossible to turn back.

Marx' approach does more than simply strip away a belief in the eternal truth of what are historically grounded conditions: It makes it possible to look at systems of belief and see, in an evolutionary sense, how they propagate themselves rather than whether or not they are, in some ahistorical sense, true. The current understanding of magic in places like Haiti and Africa draws strongly on this perspective. Rather than concentrating on why people believe in magic when it clearly doesn't work that often, it shows how the social and economic structures of those societies are sustained by magic as a practice, and how difficult it is to escape that web of practices even if one is of a critical mindset. Hobsbawm's chapter on religion actually makes a good demonstration of this: The nobility of pre-revolutionary Europe was quite critical of religion, but the social structure of their society turned this scepticism into little more than an intellectual matter. No real challenge to it could come from them. Instead, when the French and industrial revolutions tore apart the social structures which the church had always upheld, we see mass secularization. The contrary process applies to the Islamic world. Where a two centuries ago, Islam was a flexible faith and secularized belief was very much the norm, the disruptions of colonialism tore apart the relatively tolerant framework of Islam and sowed the seeds of modern fundamentalism.

We might, therefore, recast the "Enlightment project" not as a war against ignorance - for as far as I can tell, ignorance hasn't taken much of a hit - but as a war against bullshit in Frankfurt's sense of the word. The attack on feudal social structure, on the church and on the guilds - all this can be better cast as a war to replace practices which no longer had an adequate grounding in reality with ones that did. The indifference of pre-revolutionary social structure to the world outside of their structures of thought was what did it in, as Louis XVI's calling of the États-Généraux shows quite clearly. In a world where facts are historically located things, linked inevitably to practices rather than eternities, rationalism can only be an effort to combat frivolous practices being passed off as truths - in short, bullshit.

But if we do take such an approach, we are confronted with the the problem Frankfurt poses at the beginning of his essay: One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. If the Enlightenment has been a war on bullshit, it seems that the bullshit is winning. Orwell, lacking Frankfurt's work to draw on, actually foreshadows him in 1984:

All rulers in all ages have tried to impose a false view of the world upon their followers, but they could not afford to encourage any illusion that tended to impair military efficiency. So long as defeat meant the loss of independence, or some other result generally held to be undesirable, the precautions against defeat had to be serious. Physical facts could not be ignored. In philosophy, or religion, or ethics, or politics, two and two might make five, but when one was designing a gun or an aeroplane they had to make four. Inefficient nations were always conquered sooner or later, and the struggle for efficiency was inimical to illusions.

Orwell's Oceania is not the land of the Big Lie - for the whole point of doublethink is to not lie - but the land of bullshit: A complete disregard for the truth about things and the defense of the processes that sustain that disregard.

The claim that vulgar rationalists use to argue against some sort of strawman relativism is that, "there are no relativists at 30,000 feet" - a remark that has been attributed to Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and John McCarthy, but which seems to be completely apochryphal. But this is to miss the point. The truth about the world is that things fall. Gravity, however, is an idea, and it exists only in human heads. Things fell long before anyone had invented the notion that a force existed to cause it, and if the force of gravity is a real thing, the truth of it comes from being able to build better artillery using its principles. Orwell defines his dystopia by their lack of need for better artillery, and as a result their lack of need for truths made real through the practices of war, economic competition, or any other external force able to mess with what they say. Their bullshit is made true because it is only by believing it that one can survive and cope in Oceania.

Although ours is not so dystopian a world as Orwell's, Frankfurt poses the salient question that Winston Smith in 1984 can't ask but gets an answer to anyway: Why are we so surrounded by bullshit? Frankfurt's answer, however, doesn't do much for me:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person's obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common 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. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country's affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person's opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

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. These "anti-realist" doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.

The first paragraph seems true enough - as soon as we are out of our depths, we have only bullshit to rely on - and the blog world attests more than adequately how the expectation of fully responsible and knowledgable citizenship - the pseudo-Jeffersonian ideal trotted out in high school civics classes - cannot help but create steaming heaps of cow dung. While this may be enough to account for talk radio and the pundit class - media bullshit - it doesn't seem to me to strike at the heart of the matter: the daily bullshit of "your call is important to us", or "Tide gets your whites whiter and your brights brighter", or the grand, almost Orwellian bullshit of "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa".

The second paragraph's efforts to find a larger cause for this inundation of bull strikes me as, well, bullshit. Frankfurt - lacking any historical theory of bullshit, bullshits his way through with a discussion of sincerity. As if the cause of bullshit is that we are too weak-spined to work at being correct. History does not exactly fill one with confidence in the moral rectitude or factual orientation of humanity, including past generations of US presidents. The past is rife with bullshit.

What Marx ought to show us, and what Orwell makes clear, is that what keeps bullshit in check is praxis. Ergo, if we are inundated with bullshit today, it is that bullshitters' bullshitting practices are working for them. When practices work for us, we keep doing them.

And that brings us full circle back to my problems with the GATO's Death Star. The willful disconnect with reality that characterizes bullshit at the GATO seems to be working for those who practice it. Indeed, the department which is most responsible for this project is heavily funded - didn't even look twice at what strikes me as my outrageous bill rate - and has already blown over a year on it. The chink in the institutional chain of command - the higher level manager who ought to be saying "This isn't working, we need to do something else" - is missing, and as a consequence the real, harsh, practical consquences of their choices have been off-loaded onto another department, and more specifically on my wife. That - and the money they've paid for me - makes this my problem, where I have to face the practical consequences of their bullshit.

As far as I can tell, all I can do for anyone there is document exactly how I told them so, and then wait for them to miss their deadlines in summer. I don't know if there is enough really at stake for even that to make a difference. A missed deadline is usually a harsh reality that has to be faced, but with these folks, I suspect it isn't.

The point here, the thing where Frankfurt is missing the point, is that the proliferation of bullshit has everything to do with consequences. The free market types out there will explain the neck-deep bullshit at the GATO by pointing out that it's a government organization with limited powers to fire underperforming employees or to save money. And, this isn't totally false. Really, they would have been much better off, and saved a lot of money, by outsourcing the Death Star.

But anyone who has actually worked in the private sector knows full well that bullshit is just as plentiful there. If the market punished bullshit, we would live in a very different world. If the voters punished bullshit, I'd be using "Lord of the Sith" as a euphemism for John Kerry instead of Dubya.

Bullshit is a practice, and practices die when they don't produce the goods. If you're against bullshit, you need to ask why it profits bullshitters. Now, I need to get back to work.

Posted 2005/03/07 11:48 (Mon) | TrackBack