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Sundries
...a sweatshop of moxie

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

On That Word You Can Only Say on HBO

Just ask Penn and Teller.

As you might've guessed by now, this is a blogpost on the book, On Bullsh*t (Harry G. Frankfurt).

Not quite a review of it, as well, frankly, it's a teensy book.

I started it at 12:20 AM sharp, and finished it at 12:44. If you count the 5 or so minutes I went to pat my dog, get a yoghurt, and brush my teeth, this means I read the book in 15 minutes.

This is the first reason why

Grand Total of Pages: 67

This is the second reason why

It presents a paper-thin thesis on the notion of bullsh*t, that lovely expressive North American phrase for...hogwash, blarney, codswallop, in no special order.

(Although I confess that my grandparents' generation had a much more elegant phrase: stuff and nonsense. Same idea, less poop)

Firstly, allow me to say that I was expecting some huge tome on the topic, and part of my disappointment may have to do when the librarian handed me my copy, and my subsequent inner-squeal of:

"You've got to be kidding me. I waited on hold for this since MAY? There are 20 copies of the book! How long does it take one to read this folio which Vanity Fair would be embarrased to churn out in a segment on Liz Hurley's upcoming wedding?? Dayum!"

There sure are some slow readers out there, as assuredly as there are cheapskates like myself.

The size of the book is inconsequential, although for U$9.99 one would think it would be marketed as a Sherlock Holmes-like monograph, which it more properly should be called.

Hey, the author started it. He's the one making a much ado about poo, as it were. Let's at least get our definitions right for it. It's a monograph.

Or is it an essay?

Consider that it has at most, 4 supporting arguments, similar to what one would expect on a GCSE or SAT examination, and even then, you only get 1 hour to write it.


  • Why do we use the word bullsh*t, as opposed to say, humbug or hot air?


  • Is bullsh*t just lying, or is there something else at work, and if so, what is it?


  • What would St. Augustine say about bullsh*t?


  • At the heart of bullsh*t is there merely lack of something (knowledge, e.g.) but presented as though we possessed it?

That's it. That's the whole book condensed into four short explorations. If this book took more than 1 hour to write, I want my tax money back.

As to item number one, this is the part where Ludwig Wittgenstein, that monarch of unravelling mis-usage of language, makes a querrelous appearance arguing that his hospitalised student's assertion that she felt like a dog which had been run-over was...bullsh*t. What did she know about dogs being run over? Was she a dog? How then could she know what it felt like to a dog to be run over?

Indeed. And what a tonic he must've been as you're strapped down with IVs and morphia-drips, listening to him chastise you about your bad word usage.

But so then bullsh*t includes hyperbole or simile which is nothing more than lying to make a point. It's the exaggeration, stupid.

As to item number two on the menu, and as following from item number one (the reader may be forgiven at this juncture, if he or she reaches for an egg-roll or fortune cookie), lying is obviously a big factor in bullsh*t, but why do we do it?

Doesn't a lie ultimately become worthless if the person you are lying to realises you are bullsh*tting them?

Why, even a masterful bullsh*tter, like say Liberace, can only bullsh*t for so long before people realise he's not out there to play Chopin, but to show off his bling-bling. Who would pay U$50 for a concert of his, when you could go to Tiffany's for free? You know?

And yes, I know he's dead, but my point stands.

Anyways, so on to item number three.

St. Augustine would not have liked bullsh*tting one whit, no sir.

He wrote up an essay about lying called, somewhat disingenuously, "Lies", which his editor must've forced on him after his original, "Lies, and the Lying Liars who Tell Lies, and that means you Genghis Khan, Liar, Pants on fire" was turned down.

In it, he mentions the eight lies which are the rubric of the category. The first seven examples of lies are bad enough, but it's the eighth which falls closest to bullsh*t. It is:

The lie which is told simply for the pleasure of lying or deceiving that is the real lie.

What St. Augustine is clearly saying is that though we all lie, some liars like to lie for the helluva it.

In our era, they would be called pathological liars, or as I like to call them, "Mainstream media".

These are clearly people we should have the deepest suspicion of, since they are evil, and possibly vote a straight party-ticket. Yuck.

The fourth and last item has to do with lying about possessing something which we know we don't possess, but palming ourselves as though we do.

Of course, this is the reason we humans have survived so long in this Darwinianly cruel world, but never mind.

Frankfurt here is at his winsome best when he ends the book with this memorable sally,

Sincerity is itself bullsh*t.

Lovely.

So not even when presenting something in as good a faith as we possibly can is still crapola. Why? Because it could be wrong. And being wrong is the key to bullsh*t.

Well, for pity's sake. Why didn't he say so to begin with, and not drag it out until page 67??

Here's a handy exercise in spotting BS.

When you are being told something, do you get a weird little feeling at the pit of your stomach, not unlike that of the time when you see your Mastercard statement?

Because charging something when you don't have money is the ultimate bullsh*t of them all.

(Other than telling one's spouse they look thin and young, obviously)

As long as we are unable to afford things, which is another way of saying, we want to have a Mercedes and pretend we're loaded whilst actually being maxed out on our credit-limit, there will always be a reason for bullsh*t in this world.

And I'm not so sure that's a bad thing either.

Who on earth wants to drive a Yugo?


ADDENDUM: I thought my ending was too cutesy, although the book deserved it, so here are some thoughts on BS: I think that bullsh*t is like any criminal activity -- and criminals commit crimes because at heart, they are optimists. I don't think there is a criminal or bullsh*tter alive that doesn't do what they do so as NOT be be able to get away with it. Yes, it may be self-delusional, but I repeat, it's the height of optimism to BS your way in life. The chances are against you that you will be caught out, and yet, still we do it. And so the conclusion must be that we do it, because more often than not, we get away with it. So...bullsh*tters are optimists and gamblers both? Yes. Sounds like fun people to be around, actually. Not like those nasty little saints, the silly do-gooders.

4 Comments:

  • Thanks to a reader who emailed me this link below, and his comments on my blog.

    How Fast Can You Read?

    Click on Faster or Slower to get the speed of the text that will be presented to you to read, in words per minute.

    If you set it at, say 530, and can't read the text, click on "Slower".

    I could read the small sentences which were shown, comfortably at 530, but could also read it almost at 100% at 670.

    This is nothing. JFK reputedly read 2000 words per minute.

    Geez, and I thought I was a fast reader.

    I have a long, long way to go before I attain that level of comprehension at those speeds.

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Tue Aug 09, 06:53:00 pm GMT-4  

  • You can't possibly think that post was more interesting than my pics :)

    I was in the 530-670 range too...probably got the complete sentence about 50% of the time at 670.

    By Blogger Jim, at Tue Aug 09, 08:45:00 pm GMT-4  

  • You can't possibly think that post was more interesting than my pics :)

    Ahh, an ulterior motive for dislike, surfaces.

    Well, you are right. It wasn't. But then I am fascinated by BS -- especially whether Zavagnin should start on not. :)

    Good job on the reading comprehension. But then, not to be expected anything else from a guy who got a perfect SAT score.

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Wed Aug 10, 01:23:00 am GMT-4  

  • Nah, just your daily reminder about the pics. I don't need an ulterior motive to snipe at your blogposts :)

    By Blogger Jim, at Wed Aug 10, 12:27:00 pm GMT-4  

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