Coverings and Cover-Ups: The Art of Bullshit
The Princeton philosopher Harry’s Frankfurt’s short book On Bullshit has, especially in the Trump era, become topical again. Frankfurt distinguishes the liar from the bullshitter by arguing that the former tries to hide the truth while the latter is not in the truth game at all.
The bullshitter, says Frankfurt, “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” Frankfurt concedes that the bullshitter may be a liar on a meta-level as he hides from us his indifference to the truth; to the extent that the bullshitter takes his own bullshit seriously, he engages in a kind of self-deception.
Frankfurt thinks that we seem to be less offended by bullshitters than by liars: we feel outraged if we feel we are being lied to, but “we are more likely to turn away from [bullshit] with an impatient or irritated shrug than with the sense of violation or outrage”, he writes.
In an article in the New Republic, the philosopher Jonathan Lear probes Frankfurt’s account, and notes that Frankfurt fails to realise the implications of the dialectic of bullshit for the value of truth more generally. Lear argues that bullshitting may at times be worse than plain lying because it threatens to devalue the social currency of truth.
Lear asks why we should care whether or not the bullshitter himself cares about the truth: if we are being deceived either way, what’s so important about the bullshitter’s indifference to the truth?
After all, the liar shows a similar disdain. Lear argues that the bullshit artist - he who engages in the dialectic of bullshit - differs from the ordinary bullshitter not only in being indifferent to the truth, but by putting “his indifference on display”.
Lear writes: “Since nothing is hidden - the bullshit has in effect been declared to be bullshit—the only thing that can sustain it is the bullshit itself. I am surprised that Frankfurt overlooked this phenomenon, since instances of it are not all that difficult to find in the academic world.”
Instances of this dialectic of bullshit are available in our local academic context: when an invited speaker to a lecture on academic freedom is disinvited and we are told that allowing the speaker to deliver the lecture "might retard rather than advance academic freedom on campus”, we are in the domain of bullshit.
When works of art are covered, boarded up, or removed for ideological purposes, and we are told “this is not censorship”, we are in the realm of bullshit. Representatives of institutions of higher learning cannot seriously think that any rational person will be persuaded by these claims; the indifference to truth is put on display in an elaborate game which we are asked (or cajoled) to join.
We are told to suspend common sense, to abandon our commitment to truth and principle, and to enter into a Marx Brothers’ realm of fantasy. Groucho asks: “Who are you going to believe - me, or the evidence of your own eyes?” Those engaged in the dialectic of bullshit want us to believe them despite the evidence, to accept a Faustian version of credo quia absurdum. To use another metaphor, in the dialectic of bullshit, everyone - including the bullshitter - knows the emperor is naked, and he knows that we know, but demands that we marvel at the robes nevertheless.
Or, in the case of Willie Bester’s Sarah Baartman sculpture, applaud the robes as though they adorned the work of art instead of covered it up, in violation of the rights of the artist. The sin of the bullshitter is that she attempts to deceive us; the crime of the bullshit artist is that he asks us to deceive ourselves.
Because bullshit is an elaborate game, the language often reflects this. Diane Victor’s painting Pasiphaë was boarded with plywood. An attempt to disguise the censorship as curatorship was phrased thus: “Some may think the work is being censored, others – we would hope – will understand that a temporary restriction of view makes for another mode of seeing the work, less flat and obvious, more thoughtful and imaginative. So the exercise should be read as an essay in creative curation, and strictly part of the dynamic process of engagement underway.”
The “curatorship not censorship” claim is again defended here, using language that is similarly mangled: “Coherence of context is hard to maintain as it is, and made even harder because, unlike in a gallery where an audience chooses to go (or not) and provides a certain predictability, the composition of an audience at a university is much more diverse and unpredictable. Because of this unpredictability, intentions are hard to grasp immediately. An artist may have the best possible intention at a particular time, but when this time passes, the residue of the action may clash with what exists in a contemporary context.”
Another indication we are in the midst of a dialectic of bullshit is that the narrative constantly changes. We were initially told that artworks were removed for their own protection: “UCT reiterates that no artworks have been banned. The 70 or so artworks have only been removed or covered for safekeeping given the protests in February last year in which some 23 artworks and portraits were destroyed. This was necessary in line with the primary custodial responsibilities of the university for works of art in our care.”
The safekeeping narrative was then replaced by this: “We are creating spaces for engagement and discussion. Work is not being censored or permanently taken down.”
Later, when art was indeed taken down, this morphed into: “Many of the artworks mentioned in one of the pieces have been removed from the campus, but not in an act of censorship as claimed but rather to open a dialogue regarding the place of artworks on campus.”
“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive.”
The truth is that this “dialogue” has supposedly been going on for two and a half years, without much actual dialogue and no satisfactory resolution. The 75 censored paintings were removed in March 2016, and none has been returned to display.
Pasiphaë was boarded up in April 2016, and removed two years later, casting doubt on UCT’s repeated claims that the art removals were merely “provisional”. When asked for an explanation, UCT responded that this removal had already been explained in documents released a full two years earlier! Incidentally, the University did not reveal that one of those documents, the report of the Artworks Task Team, was made public only through a Promotion of Access to Information Act request.
Despite UCT’s claim that the “university is a space where debate is welcomed”, what counts as “debate” at UCT apparently does not include the robust exchange of opposing views. At a recent panel discussion with Willie Bester on his Sarah Baartman sculpture (now also disappeared after being covered for three years and a brief recent showing on the Hiddingh Campus), not one of the other panelists—Senior Lecturer Nomusa Makhubu, University Librarian Gwenda Thomas, Convocation President Lorna Houston and student Qondiswa James—defended Bester’s moral or artistic rights. Is this what UCT means by fair debate?
Rising alone to defend himself and his work, Bester said:
“I am not going to be happy if a solution is found for only my piece of sculpture. I think it’s an insult to what I stand for and also an insult for the collection. My dream was to contribute to a better society. We have to share the space and not come and dominate as in the past. I’m not going to stand for that, and I’m not going to be at peace as long as other things are boarded up.”
He has been ignored.
The dialectic of bullshit is extremely serious because it is an attack on truth; it demands complicity from the rest of us, and raises serious ethical questions about the nature of integrity. As Lear notes: “The bullshit artist in effect says, ‘This is bullshit, but you will accept it anyway.’” But once we have accepted bullshit, we stop caring about what is true and what is false. Facts are replaced by ideology as we become “detached from the real”.
Discussing life under an ideology that depended on endless piles of bullshit, the Czech dissident, and later president, Vaclav Havel wrote:
“Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”
However, Havel also offered the antidote to this kind of existence: “living within the truth”. Human beings can, he wrote, “find the strength in themselves to express solidarity with those whom their conscience commands them to support. In this revolt they step out of living within the lie. They reject the ritual and break the rules of the game”.
So, let us defend the rights of the UCT artists—Diane Victor, Willie Bester, Breyten Breytenbach, Richard Keresemose Baholo, Lucky Sibiya, Pippa Skotnes, Andrew Tshabangu, Karina Turok, Sue Williamson and all the rest—and reject the bullshit that they have not been censored. In this “elementary revolt against manipulation”, we can, in Havel’s words, “straighten our backbones and live in greater dignity as individuals”.
Elisa Galgut teaches in the Department of Philosophy at UCT, William Daniels is a former UCT librarian