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Fr. 684

November 13, 2015

A third post from Green, and last of those we shall comment on, concerns the bullshit epidemic in humanities and social sciences writings, particularly at the level of titles. As our own topic of predilection, self and identity, treads a fine line between the opaque and the unverifiable, it is all the more important to put this inquiry’s central claims to the test.

Green’s diagnosis begins by drawing on relevant works by Frankfurt and Cohen, whose positions he summarizes thusly:

For Frankfurt, bullshit is characterised by its intentional indifference to the truth. Bullshit may be false, or vague, but it’s all the same to the bullshitter, who doesn’t care whether what he says is true or false, so long as he is filling the airwaves. (Frankfurt notes that there is a lot of such bullshit in politics, but I hear plenty in seminars too.) Cohen’s bullshit is non-intentional. It is a kind of hopeless obscurity—bullshit is unclarifiably obscure. Operationally, one can test for Cohen bullshit by adding (or removing) a negation sign to a proposition. If that makes no difference to its plausibility, then it is probably just bullshit.

Let’s take two example sentences to subject, first, to the Frankfurt test and, then, to the Cohen.

A grammar of identity aims to help the person articulate her collateral commitments, cognitive context, individual presuppositions, etc., before an audience.

The tools afforded thereby ease the self-articulation of identity and help to restore mutual understanding in political discourse.

In a word, the Frankfurt test checks for truth-orientation, i.e. whether the position aims at making sense of a situation. If our aim is to make explicit an implicit in order to advance or reestablish discourse, then a grammar of identity had best take full measure of that implicit, be it individual or discursive presupposition. A priori, we pass the Frankfurt test.

As to the Cohen, the determining factors proves the subject’s obscurity, i.e. whether its content can in fact be explicated. If by grammar we mean “identity formation models”, by identity “(un)conscious self-image for self and others”, by commitments, context and presuppositions “beliefs, network of beliefs and prerequisites of such beliefs”, by self-articulation “expression by a person before a public”, then the collection of terms remain capable of explication in both more complex and simpler terms. Moreover, a negation could not be added to the claims above without changing their a priori truth value. Again, we seem to pass the Cohen test.

Yet Green further seeks to establish his own test for bullshit, and this of a relational kind in titles:

(A) Agency, Structure, and Power: The Milk-Marketing Board of Ruritania, 2007-2009
(B) Realising the Juridical: The Roman Law of Dogs in Later Imperial Sources

These titles are, in an obvious pre-theoretical sense, utter bullshit.

Now, a casual observer might think it is only the title before the colon, what I will call the ‘ante-colonial trope’, that is bullshit.   A tempting hypothesis. Certainly the terms ‘structure’ and ‘juridical’, in the senses of (A) and (B), often suffice for a diagnosis of bullshit.  But the deeper bullshit here consists in the relation between the ante-colonial trope, with its clouds of absurd puffery, and the subtitle, the little intellectual fart, that follows. Bullshit titles thus exhibit a kind of relational bullshit.

More simply, such titles are bullshit precisely in that a disjointed or misleading relationship establishes itself between the title and subtitle. Specifically, a hopelessly general title seeks to obscure its generality by including an overly specific coda. Although Green objects to the hopelessly general title, with all its buzzwords, as bullshit of a familiar kind, he wishes to draw particular attention to the malfeasance which can arise in the interplay between the title’s different parts.

The question is then whether “In search of self: Crafting a grammar of identity” itself falls prey to relational bullshit. Certainly, there does not seem to be the general-specific interplay that we see in Green’s examples, but “self”, “grammar” and “identity” could be considered buzzwords of a structuralist or politico-theoretical sort. But the relata themselves can be further submitted to the Frankfurt and Cohen tests.

As our answers to the Cohen test have already been given above, we will content ourselves with a renewed application of the Frankfurt. Is self a truth-oriented object? Yes, if we consider that there are better and worse explanations of self. And a grammar of identity? Yes, so long as it seeks a more accurate correspondence between fact and descriptive tools.

On all three counts, our project would seem to meet with at least a provisional pass.

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