Last night my kids were watching the swimming championships on the tele and the National Bank ad came on. “You said you wanted us to listen. So we listened. You said you wanted better service: We’ve given you better service”. Or whatever it says.
Then we switched to John Clarke and Brian Dawe ending the 7.30 Report.
Why is John Clarke so funny? And why now?
A little while ago I discovered the little monograph “On Bullshit“. I think I ran into it on Kieren Healey’s recent post at Crooked Timber. But it’s received no play that I can see in the Oz blogosphere. It is of course very funny to have a retired academic philosopher of some standing dressed in his daggy clothes intoning with all the usual seriousness, with every second sentence containing the word “bullshit, bullshitter, bullshittee etc.
Is there more of it about these days?
I usually reach instinctively to press the button that says “you can’t be so sure its worse (or better) now” on such subtle cultural things. But I’m afraid I’m sure there’s lots more of it now. We’re swimming in the stuff. You can do degrees in it – PR that is.
For those who don’t want to go read the book, it’s very short as a book but still long winded and ponderous given its provenance, the essence of bullshit according to the author Harry G. Frankfurt is that the bullshitter is not a liar. The liar cares enough about truth to tell a lie. The truth matters to him. The bullshitter however doesn’t care one way or the other. He might be speaking truth or not, its of no consequence.
Here are a few random observations, and I’d be interested in the reactions of others:
1. Although Frankfurt made a big splash with the essay when he first wrote it –I think around 1986 – there’s not been (from my pretty casual inspection) a burgeoning literature on it. Though it’s a major phenomenon, there’s not a lot to say about it other than that Frankfurt is right. No doubt others have jumped into the fray, but I only saw reference to one other important paper Cohen’s “Deeper into Bullshit”.
2. Though of course puncturing the pretentiousness of bullshit is an old sport going back at least to Socrates, Orwell might have been the first to make a serious political project of identifying and opposing bullshit as the handmaiden of the corruption of political sentiment.
3. As already observed, John Clarke is the comedian of bullshit par excellence. His whole style exploits the hilarity of people saying ‘X’ when the truth could be ‘Y’, ‘X’ or ‘not-X’. His stylistic trajectory (or what I know of it) was this. He began with Fred Dagg reducing serious things to silly ones. I’ll always remember his history of Western Philosophy and Literature. “The French were a jumpy bunch of garcons at the best of times and none more than Rene Descartes who reckoned that he didn’t exist” . . . “The Russians experimented with the thickness of the novel and discovered that it could become very thick indeed”. But his metamorphosis came when he did the Farnarkling reports on the Gillies Report: a sports report of high hilarity in which the reporter’s overbearing and desperate assertion of the utter seriousness of his absurd words was the essence of the gag. This morphed very easily into his current format. Farnarkling was pure bullshit.
4. Kevin Drum had this to say about “a key characteristic of bullshit: not just that the bullshitter knows he’s bullshitting, but that the bullshittee also knows it. He may know it for sure, or he may just suspect it deep in his heart, but part of the essence of bullshit is that both sides implicitly recognize that the statement in question is, in fact, bullshit. In this way it acts like a compact between spewer and receiver, a shared secret that brings them closer together. Thus the piquancy of bullshit, as well as its popularity”.
5. The program Frontline was about bullshit. I remember the writers being interviewed saying that they had not got their insights from working in current affairs. Just as someone once commented that George Orwell didn’t understand the Soviet Union from experiencing it direct, but by having boarded at Eton, so none of the Frontline crew had seen current affairs from the inside. You don’t need to. You can see right through a program like A Current Affair by just watching at the front end with eyes to see (or perhaps I should say with a brain to see). Its bullshit piled up.
6. At the time of the ‘cash for comment’ scandal, I knew various people older than me who said “now Alan Jones and John Laws are finished”. I never thought it would hurt their ratings. It didn’t. When I was a kid in grade 5 I used to listen to Garner Ted Armstrong, an evangelist on the radio. I had been brought up by devout atheists and I didn’t really take in what I was being told as being true or false. I liked the cadence of speech, the simplicity and predicability of the positions taken, the compelling tone. People listen to talk-back radio or at least shock jocks like that. They don’t care if its true or not. They are being entertained. But I expect that paradoxically, if things get said as obvious truisms on those shows, it produces subtle shifts in people’s views, in what is thinkable and sayable and what’s not. It becomes possible. I guess Goebbels knew this.
All these thoughts lead me to the conclusion that the right response to bullshit (other than the passive one of letting it pass which will often be the appropriate thing to do) is comedy. Bullshit is funny. Listen to the plug for Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National at the moment. Talk about a hoot. A lot of the most hubristic acts of bullshit intimidate us to take them seriously, when they are in fact quite absurd. Having bullshitted a fair bit in my time, I reckon a belly laugh from the bullshitee is what the bullshitter fears most. When faced with the most hubristic bullshit (“Fran Kelly is there She’s there for you, asking the tough questions blah blah blah”) it’s the best we can do to respond to what’s being inflicted on us.