Friday, 1 July 2016

Bullshit and the End Times.

Back in the late 18th and 19th centuries, there was a minor craze for contemplating The End, through the medium of vast, thought-provoking canvases of familiar landscapes. Europe's ruling élites were familiar with the ruins of Rome, aware of the parallels between that empire and the various ones they were constructing, and a small proportion of these chaps wondered if sic transit gloria applied to them too. 

One of these was Sir John Soane, who not only commissioned the enormous, Classical, Bank of England complex, but also commissioned Joseph Gandy to paint his new gaff utterly destroyed in some unspecified future.

Joseph Gandy, A Vision of Sir John Soane’s Design for the Rotunda of the Bank of England as a Ruin (1789)

Not that this taste for thrilling contemplation of destruction has gone: there's a rather distasteful aestheticisation of industrial decay known as 'ruin porn' in photographic circles, from Chernobyl to guided tours of Detroit. Then there's Ballard's Tales of the Near Future. 

Why am I thinking about this stuff now? Well, it's been a weird week. On Monday and Tuesday I went to Swansea to examine a PhD and ransack the bookshops of what Dylan Thomas called an 'ugly, lovely town'. Barely a new infrastructural development lacked an EU plaque, yet like all of Wales outside Y Fro Cymraeg voted to leave. I returned to lengthy emails and texts from colleagues and friends from all points on the political spectrum expressing feelings of devastation. One of my friends – a banker – has joined the Conservative Party to vote for the most ludicrous leadership candidate possibly to ensure that they become unelectable. Though looking back on this week, I'm not sure the Tories need the help. 

The Labour Party is ripping itself apart as the right and left wings, the MPs and the members, the pragmatists and the idealists, the capitalists and the socialists engage in a blood bath. Personally I'm stuck in the middle. I happen to agree with pretty much everything Corbyn believes, but I think it's true to say that he hasn't managed to engage in the day-to-day political trench warfare required in this appalling polity. His opponents, however, are awful: most of them are right-wingers whose own constituents defied them to vote Out, a lot of them have blood on their hands from Iraq, and they're precisely the kind of polished, remote, managerialists the public now hates utterly. 

Yesterday I went to London for a British Academy lecture on Writing Political Leaders, which turned out to be a chat with Michael Dobbs of House of Cards fame. I read the newspaper on the train. Stirling had plummeted. Investment had crashed. Farage had insulted his fellow MEPs to applause from Marine Le Pen, a halal butcher's shop was burned down in Walsall, a Polish cultural centre had been vandalised, and several people had been racially abused in the street. The Governor of the Bank of England had announced that billions would have to be magicked up to save the British economy following the vote. The Leavers were explaining that they never really promised to spend £350m a week extra on the NHS:

Actually, I agree: people are quite naturally reading the bus slogan as a continuous sentence rather than as separate sentences. Remember The Simpsons

Bart sees an advert for Itchy & Scratchy cells:
Commercial: Each one is absolutely, one hundred percent guaranteed to increase in value.
Voiceover: Not a guarantee.

As I entrained, Boris Johnson's rag doll Michael Gove announced he was standing for the leadership of the Conservative Party. As I detrained, I heard that Boris Johnson wasn't standing, the night after Mrs Gove the Daily Mail columnist accidentally sent a weird strategy email to a member of the public, which advised her husband on negotiating with Johnson. To her, the approval of Rupert Murdoch and the Mail's editor was of paramount importance: the actual citizens weren't mentioned. So we have a Tory lineup (this morning, anyway) of Sajid Javid, a Ferengi who believes only in the Rules of Acquisition and whose favourite book is Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and whose favourite film is the adaptation of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, Liam Fox who is essentially Major Corkoran from Le Carré's The Night Manager, Big Brother's keener protege Theresa May, Stephen Crabb the (he says former) homophobic bigot who is backed by his associates Malfoy and Goyle, Andrea Leadsom who is a wholly-owned subsidiary of various hedge funds and who likes to send her money away on holiday to some very discreet islands in the sun, and Michael Gove who looks like Pob, sold schools to his rapacious weirdo friends in business and assorted sects, and insisted to a Parliamentary committee that all schools could and should be 'above average':

Q98 Chair: One is: if "good" requires pupil performance to exceed the national average, and if all schools must be good, how is this mathematically possible?
Michael Gove: By getting better all the time.

Q99 Chair: So it is possible, is it?
Michael Gove: It is possible to get better all the time.
Q100 Chair: Were you better at literacy than numeracy, Secretary of State?
Michael Gove: I cannot remember.
The Remainers thought everything would be fine because chaps will do the decent thing. The Leavers never thought they'd win so didn't bother thinking about what might happen if they did. The financial sector is in meltdown (but will recover just fine even if it means stepping over heaps of our skulls). Labour is engaged in a protracted and cynical war and the government of the country is staggering from crisis to crisis like someone stuck in a wasp's nest who has forgotten where the entrance is. One of my friends pointed me to Harry Frankfurt's short book On Bullshit, in which he explains that there's a difference between liars, who at least know what truth is and orient themselves around it, and bullshitters, who speak according to the pressing demands of the moment without having even the regard for truth required to be a successful liar. As an analysis of our post-truth politics, it really works.

However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something. There is surely in his work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity which resists or eludes the demands of a disinterested and austere discipline.  
It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit. 
Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires…It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art.
The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor co conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction… He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are. 
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 personís 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. 

No wonder I'm thinking apocalyptic thoughts.

So yes, I went off to London for this Writing Politicians Event. Before that my cool and clever young cousin took me to a glamorous restaurant: we were the only customers who lacked a limo and chauffeur outside, and couldn't discuss our yachts. You could tell it was a great restaurant because despite being a decent cook myself I had absolutely no idea how the various dishes were made. Then we headed off to take in a matinee to cheer ourselves up. It was called The Truth, a French farce in which an incompetent adulterer discovers that his wife, lover and her husband (the protagonist's best friend, who is sleeping with his wife) are slightly more competent adulterers than him. Sparkling, well-constructed and feather light, it promised to be a grand distraction. Only it gradually dawned on me that it was a comical allegory of the British Ruling Classes. There's Boris, betraying his friend Dave. Here's Michael, betraying Boris… et cetera ad infinitum.

Then off I went to the British Academy, the only branch of academia outside Oxbridge that had hundreds of millions of pounds to spare, judging by its accommodation round the corner from Buckingham Palace. It was billed as 'Writing Political Leaders' and featured Dobbs talking to an Oxford Professor of Chinese History. I went because I'm researching politicians' writing at the moment and I had Dobbs on my panel at the Cheltenham Festival. I was hoping to meet other people researching the same thing, and also a tiny bit annoyed that I hadn't been asked to be part of the panel.

Turns out that it wasn't an analytical or academic event at all: it was a mutual love-in for old and young Tories, and my God the larval Tories were terrifying: 18-22 year-olds dressed as their great-grandfathers keen to learn how they too could be Francis Urquhart or Frank Underwood. Certainly a future Tory leader was in the crowd – probably one or two of them have joined the race this morning. It was also rather creepy that not a single female said a word throughout the 90 minutes. Margaret Thatcher was reverentially discussed (Dobbs candidly and admiringly said that she dispensed with his services ruthlessly a week before the 1987 election and Edwina Currie's books got a passing mention), but this was an event for, by and about the patriarchy. Still, on such a dramatic day it was interesting to be surrounded by Tories: they had nothing interesting to say on the subject (Dobbs: 'I don't know whether Boris and Michael are acting out of principle or for personal reason, it's usually the latter') but their very demeanour was instructive. Dobbs wheeled out the same anecdotes he had at Cheltenham and there were no interesting questions. Not exactly up to the level I expected from the British Academy but I suppose they're interested in maintaining links to power. And at least I learned that the field is still free for my amazing revelations…

Who knows what fresh horrors this afternoon will bring?

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