Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Book Reviews: Bullshit

Here’s a Zen koan to ponder: how do you write about the prevalence of falsehood, misrepresentation, and obfustication in contemporary culture without running the risk of adding more manure to the pile?

When people talk about the limitless amount of bullshit flying around today, what they are talking about, besides outright lies and larceny, is the actual amount of information, the tons and tons of words, words, words that plague us from every box and broadsheet. The meaning of the phrase “spreading bullshit” has changed radically in the information age, with the angry emphasis shifting from the noun, with all its connotations of dishonesty, to the verb, which speaks of how overwhelmed, even buried many of us feel by the truckloads of unreliable information we confront every day.

In other words, it’s not the lies we’re fed up with (if anything, we’ve grown used to them), it’s the crushing weight of their numbers.

So, isn’t writing a book about the problem just another way of making the dung heap a little taller? Why bother? The best thing anyone concerned with the rise of bullshit noise pollution can do is shut the heck up, close the laptop and take a nap. But publishers are notoriously immune to deconstructive arguments, and altruism.

Two new books on the rise of good old b-s do little to siphon the wheat from the, ahem, waste, and do even less to make our world a quieter, less invasive place. Laura Penny’s Your Call Is Important To Us: The Truth About Bullshit is a long-winded blast that, at nearly 300 pages, has almost nothing new to say, while Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit is an academic wank-off that attempts to parse out, to pointless, angels-on-pin-heads precision, the many and varied distinctions between his philosophical definition of “true bullshit” and its alleged cousins, such as lies, fabrications, boasting, etc. Apparently, neither of these authors realized they were running to the floodtide with buckets of water.

Of the two, Penny’s is the most readable. Her attacks on everything from big box shopping outlets to the insurance industry are full of interesting factoids, clever one-liners, a fetchingly pure hatred of the powerful and rich, and a charming crabbiness that drives the book from one raging rant to the next.

Penny is a master organizer of useful political and social information. Her dissections of the pharmaceutical industry and governmental over-regulation, to pick two examples from her vast array of targets, are backed up with solid, footnoted journalism. Penny can make a case better than most Supreme Court Lawyers, but her nagging habit of undermining her own authoritative voice with homespun, Minnie Pearl like “just plain folks” observations and dated, Friends-era sarcasms makes her writing seem more tossed off than considered.

Despite all her valuable fact wrangling, Penny’s essays read like extended humour columns from small town newspapers - hardly a threat to the powers that be. And as much as she wants to be a crusading humourist like Michael Moore, Penny sounds like the Sun papers’ low-brow kitchen witch Christina Blizzard (in style, not ideology).

The other big problem with Your Call Is Important To Us is that, despite being written by a Halifax-based author and published by McClelland & Stewart - whose slogan is “The Canadian Publishers” - the book’s references are almost entirely American. A handful of Canadian political notes pepper the prose, but Penny’s best shots are saved for the Republican party, the US end of the Wal-Mart empire, Enron and other cheating American corporate elites, and George W. Bush. Another word for bullshit is irrelevance.

Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, however, will be highly relevant to people who worry about the splintered reasoning buried within Fania Pascal’s essay on Wittgenstein, or the use of the word bullshit as a verb in Pound’s Canto LXXIV. Cocktail parties all over the academic world must be fairly bursting with barbs and re-barbs!

The rest of us will just have to content ourselves with Frankfurt’s core argument, which only took me three hours of reference dusting to uncover – bullshitters lie because it’s fun.

For this they make you Professor Emeritus at Princeton? Has Frankfurt never seen The Music Man (same message, far fewer headaches)?

On Bullshit is a bathroom book for philosophy undergrads, and will end up the smartest little book in the landfill, right beside all those Herman cartoon collections and People magazines. I intend to put my copy in a composter, allegory be damned.