by James Alexander
Pardon my American, but it is finally necessary to write about bullshit. In 2005 the American philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt wrote a book entitled On Bullshit. He characterised bullshit by saying that it is not simply telling lies, or misrepresenting the truth, but having a lack of interest in the truth. The bullshitter may tell the truth, or may lie, but, either way, who cares, that is not his primary concern. His primary concern is to say something which will achieve some other thing which is not obviously evident from the words themselves – amusing everyone, perhaps, or scaring everyone, or simply getting on, climbing the greasy pole, or securing a contract.
Of course, every utterance has some other significance or importance to us besides its propositional content. The English philosopher J.L. Austin in the 1960s noticed that statements have ‘illocutionary’ content as well as ‘locutionary’ content: that is to say, each statement has something which is intended to be done in saying it as well as something which is actually expressed in the thing said. If I am to explain bullshit in these terms, then the bullshitter is someone who is only concerned with the illocutionary content. In fact, the bullshitter lives in an illocutionary world. Yet when the bullshitter speaks, his words obviously also, alas, have locutionary content, posit truth and falsity, and we all – if this bullshitter has any authority over us – have to speak as if certain locutions are true and others false. In other words, we are caught up in a bullshit world: and the one thing we are not allowed to do is say that the emperor has no clothes. As long as we perpetuate the bullshit of the bullshitter we can live in this world; if we have any concern with truth and falsity it becomes harder to live.
Is this not a clue to what has happened in the COVID-19 pandemic?
Frankfurt commented that bullshit is “closer to bluffing, surely, than to telling a lie”. When one bluffs one does not engage in ‘falsity’ but in ‘fakery’. He wrote: “Although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false”, and, perhaps I should add, for Frankfurt did not quite say this, bullshit apes the truth. What I mean is that bullshit comes into a world of propositions which are generally true or false, and so operates in amongst them: and so seems to offer truths. Frankfurt wrote: “The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean he necessarily gets them wrong”. This makes arguing with a bullshitter much harder than arguing with a liar. With a liar, one argues against the locution, one argues against the proposition, one argues for truth. But with a bullshitter, one may find oneself, if one is incautious, arguing against someone who is right, who is speaking the truth. (This is the snare which ‘conspiracy theorists’ fall into, or are supposed to fall into.) When one argues against someone who has lied, one can condemn the lie without condemning the liar. But when one argues against a bullshitter – and, again, Frankfurt did not say anything about this – one has to argue ad hominem. The proposition may be true, it may be false; but it is the proposer who is the bullshitter. He or she is the fake. One has to make it personal.
Bullshit is obviously essential to politics. Consider the following description, in effect, of a politician: “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 characteristics is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to”. The consequence of the existence of bullshit, of this trading in truth or perhaps untruth in a careless but extremely purposeful manner, is that it creates a bullshit world. Truth has never mattered much in politics. Much is symbol, or magic, or illusion. Consider ‘representation’ for instance: it is nothing but symbol, magic and illusion. Consider crown, unction, sceptre, sword, wig, robe, and the ultimate English bullshit of the phrase ‘My right honourable friend’. Voltaire famously said that the Holy Roman Empire was not holy, not Roman and not an empire. In the same way, our ‘right honourable friend’ is not right, not honourable and not our friend. I jest, so let us quote Frankfurt again: “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.” Again, and in the spirit of being generous to politicians, this is eminently political. For politics, certainly parliamentary and deliberative and consultative and counselling politics, involves everyone talking about things they know nothing about: the future, or the facts. Bertrand de Jouvenel brilliantly defined politics as being whatever is left over when the engineers, technocrats and experts have solved all our problems. He defined politics as being composed of problems which cannot be solved but only settled, through compromise and accommodation, and, we might add, in a less decorous age than Jouvenel’s, by bluster, balderdash and bullshit.
Frankfurt thought the bullshitter is worse than the liar. “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it.” Telling lies does not mean one loses one’s grasp of the truth; but bullshitting does. Therefore, “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are”. Frankfurt was a philosopher and so perhaps understandably grim about this. Philosophers are concerned with truth. But we can reflect more calmly that since there has always been politics there has always been bullshit.
This is not the problem. The problem is the scale of the bullshit.
In 2018 the American anthropologist David Graeber wrote a book entitled Bullshit Jobs. A ‘bullshit job’ is a job which has no content, no point, makes no contribution to anything: jobs like consultant, advisor, manager, administrator. O tempora, O mores! Graeber suggested that such jobs have three characteristics. First, they are pointless. Second, part of the job is to pretend that they are not pointless, unnecessary or pernicious. And third, the people carrying out the jobs know that they are pointless. Graeber’s definition of a bullshit job is amusing. It is “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless that even the employee cannot justify its existence, even though they feel obliged to pretend this is not the case”. There is a problem with this definition though. For a start, though what Graeber called a bullshit job is a pointless job, it is a job which appears to ask the employee to lie about it. So, strictly speaking, it is not a job which involves bullshit in Frankfurt’s sense.
This is because bullshit, as Frankfurt showed, is not lying and is not pointless talk. Rather bullshit is talk which misdirects the listener as to what the actual point is. It is apparently pointed talk (where the apparent point is about some objective situation, ‘x’ concealing the actual point (which is about some subjective interest, ‘y’). Bullshit is natural for politicians, therefore, since most politicians have to continually engage in misdirection. (For example, take the favoured phrase of recent times, “Policy, not politics”: repeated by politicians continually even though their interest is always more likely to be the politics than policy.)
Another American philosopher, Raymond Geuss, in his recent book A Philosopher Looks at Work (2021), has adjusted Graeber’s definition, probably because he, Geuss, is more philosophically sensitive than Graeber, less concerned with publishing a best-selling work, and also more aware of Graeber’s problematic use of the term bullshit.
Geuss drops Graeber’s third characteristic of a bullshit job – that the person doing the job knows the job is pointless. As far as Geuss is concerned, a bullshit job is pointless, but it is likely that the person doing it does not think this, or does not think it for very long. By taking this step, Geuss brings Graeber’s concept of a bullshit job closer to bullshit in Frankfurt’s sense. The adjusted definition of a bullshit job “includes even pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious jobs that people who perform think are highly useful, which they might actually enjoy doing, and with which they might even strongly identify”. Geuss adds: “This immediately raises the issue, which for Graeber doesn’t arise at all: how I can justify claiming that something which some people enjoy doing – those who like their bullshit jobs – and other people are willing to pay to have done – the employers who create and fund the bullshit jobs – is actually or objectively pointless and useless?”
Geuss’s correction to Graeber is of course a loss to the clarity of Graeber’s picture. Graeber has a picture of people doing emphatically pointless things while claiming to be doing things with a point, even though they know this is not the case. They are liars, not bullshitters, because they know their jobs are pointless. Geuss prefers to see people with bullshit jobs as being involved not in a lie but in bullshit. With Geuss’s adjustment, any complacency that we have that we do not have bullshit jobs is thoroughly and alarmingly exploded. Beware, dear reader: you too may have a bullshit job. It is possible for us to read Graeber’s book, and say, “I believe in the point of my job, ergo I do not have a bullshit job.” (Consider all the encomiums from Owen Jones and the like, secure in the sense that they do not have a bullshit job – and why? Because they know they are not liars. To which the response is: “No, Owen Jones, you are not a liar, but you may be a bullshitter.”) But it is not possible to read Geuss’s book this way. No doubt this is one reason why far fewer people will read, or even like, Geuss’s book. For what he is saying is that believing that your job is not a bullshit job does not prevent it from being a bullshit job.
What is Graeber’s definition of a bullshit job as adjusted by Geuss? Graeber’s original definition was that a bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless that even the employee cannot justify its existence, even though they feel obliged to pretend this is not the case. With the Geuss adjustment, the second and third clauses cancel each other out. The employee probably can justify the job, and so does not feel obliged to pretend anything. The employee has overcome any cognitive dissonance and so may go on to enjoy their bullshit job which is, therefore, not bullshit at all (in Graeber’s sense), though it is very evidently still a bullshit job (in Geuss’s sense), and emphatically so because it is involves bullshit (in Frankfurt’s sense). The adjusted definition of a bullshit job is therefore a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless that the employee has to bullshit in order to justify not only the job but also him- or herself.
With all this literature parsed, let us consider the current situation. The emergence of a novel virus and its attendant disease in humans, COVID-19, has been a black comedy of vast proportions. For the first time in world history, bullshit is universal. We are all – at last – speaking one language. It is not the language of law, or rights, or justice, or religion. Nay, it is the language of survival. But it is not real survival. It is apparent survival. And because it is not real, it is beyond truth and lies. The whole crisis has taken place in a beyond, a world of bullshit, in which people who do not care about the truth speak as if they are even more concerned with the truth than everyone else for a whole set of reasons of their own.
Let me be clear, and repeat what Frankfurt says. Bullshitters may tell the truth. They often do tell the truth. The virus does something. Vaccines certainly do something. But lockdown is basically bullshit. Masks are, by and large, bullshit: a consequence of it, a cause of it. Mandating vaccines is certainly bullshit. ‘Fact-checking’ is a clever way of avoiding admitting that bullshit is ubiquitous by drawing ostentatious attention to the truths uttered by bullshitters. We all know, for instance, that a truth out of context is bullshit. Statistics are often an important element of bullshit. Models are one form of academic bullshit. Behavioural science is another. We all know that when the Guardian says “Ivermectin is horse de-wormer”, it is not lying. Certainly not. But what the Guardian is doing is engaging in an amusing and alarming form of redescription which implies a lack of concern with the truth – the truth that ivermectin may be a highly beneficial treatment – and hence that it is bullshitting. (One wonders whether anyone will ever pay for ‘bullshit-checking’ websites.)
It is in this context that I think that it is important to offer a further definition, on top of Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit and Geuss’s improved definition of a bullshit job. The current crisis has only come to be what it is because of the number of people who have what we should call bullshitting jobs. A bullshitting job may or may not be a bullshit job. A bullshit job is only bullshit in so far as the person with the job has to bullshit in order to justify the job. A bullshitting job, by contrast, may be a worthy one – for instance, the job of Prime Minister – but is one which involves, in modern times, and especially in our exact times, the spewing out of vast streams of bullshit. And this bullshit is worse than the bullshit of a person with a bullshit job, because this bullshit covers everyone. It repaints the world. Some of the most important people in society have bullshitting jobs: politicians, journalists, modellers, advisors, administrators, and academics. Experts. Some initiate the flow of bullshit, the formers of opinion, and others maintain and perpetuate it, the repeaters of opinion: and they maintain it by not caring about the truth while all too ostentatiously caring about something which is aping the truth – for which our current word, laughably, is science.
The coincidence of everyone in bullshitting jobs spewing out the same bullshit means we have lived for 18 months in a world of bullshit. This is unique in world history. We have had religions and ideologies with ambitions to conquer the world. But nothing ever united everyone everywhere from Communist China to Capitalist United States of America until we arrived at the spectacular, beguiling, frustrating, all-encompassing world of bullshit which is the world entirely conjugated and declined, entirely constrained and mandated, by an innocent virus.
James Alexander is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.