On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt
“Poetry is bullshit.” This is, regretfully, how I opened my call for submissions for this month on The Town Crier. In qualifying the statement by linking to Harry Frankfurt’s 1986-philosophical-essay-repackaged-as-2005-bestselling-book, On Bullshit, I was trying to suggest that writing poetry, like Frankfurt’s notion of bullshitting bullshit, is an activity not oriented toward ‘truth’ but toward persuading someone to listen. “It is impossible for someone to lie” or, of course, to speak truly, Frankfurt writes, “unless [s]he thinks [s]he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.” Producing poetry requires no such conviction and, to take Keats’s negative capability seriously, may even benefit from its absence.
This has implications for any consideration of ‘ethics’ in poetry, I thought, and so for a conscientious poetics. Especially so for a conscientious conceptual poetics that, while engaging in conceptual practices, opposes the socially irresponsible Conceptual acts, whose misappropriations and re-inscriptions (like Kenneth Goldsmith’s “The Body of Michael Brown”) can masquerade as the egoless re-framing of existing texts—as a kind of fidelity to the world of discourse as it is—and so as a kind of truth.
I loaded this statement—“poetry is bullshit”—not knowing that, just a week later, Natalie Wee would issue her own Town Crier call, for March, under the title “Post-Truth Politics and the Creative Craft.” I want to thank Natalie and the contributors to her theme: reading your posts reminded me, again and again, that I could afford to make flippant-yet-definitive claims about poetry’s disorientation toward the truth because I benefit from compounded privileges. An unironic faith in the ‘truth’ of postmodernism, an assumption of the general relevance of British Romanticism, and a conviction that I have a right to enter a contest of definitions: I’m certain that these have taproots in the unconscious sense of bodily safety and of entitlement to speak that I enjoy as a white, cis male in Canada. It takes time and effort to learn that you learn a lot more when you’re not speaking, and it takes even more time and effort to put that into practice.
I acknowledge this because it compels an important revision: poetry could be bullshit. On one hand, poetry could be described, in general, as an art produced through processes divorced from conviction in knowledge of the truth. But I’m certain—despite my very small window onto what and how poetry is—that it’s being written in many ways irreducible to bullshitting. On the other hand, poetry could be—if you shift your footing slightly—usefully read as bullshit. And then, if you find it ethically useful, you could write poetry under the sign of bullshit. Everything below sits under this earnest question mark: with ethics—particularly a situational ethics—on the table, could it be useful to think of poetry as bullshit?
Poetry as Bullshit
What Frankfurt does not mean by “bullshit”—and what I do not mean when I suggest conceiving poetry as bullshit—is that it’s essentially “pretentious” or essentially “unrefined.” Like poetry, bullshit can be an “exquisitely sophisticated” craft—even an “art”—and can, despite conventional wisdom, have motivations other than pretentiousness.
What Frankfurt does mean by “bullshit,” he finally comes to say, is a “statement … grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. 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.” At the period between these two sentences—as Frankfurt leaps Olympically from description to moralistic definition, from ‘a lack of primary grounding in truth’ to “indifference to how things really are”—his conception of “bullshit” could stop being useful for thinking about poetry.
Like poetry, bullshit can be an ‘exquisitely sophisticated’ craft—even an ‘art’—and can, despite conventional wisdom, have motivations other than pretentiousness.
After all, poets are not indifferent to reality. Saying this is as mundane as saying that poets are not, whatever Plato’s curmudgeonly attitude, liars. But if Plato was onto anything at all, then countering that poetry is “grounded” in truth seems both to accept Plato’s terms and to surrender the ground to him—that is, give up the potential threat that poets can pose to dominant systems of meaning by putting the category of truth into question. Thinking poetry-as-bullshit, if it’s going to be useful for those interested in making poetry and poetry communities more ethical, has to be thinking of poetry as having primary relationships to things other than truth.
What comes before Frankfurt’s final, moralistic precision—the bullshitter’s “indifference to how things really are”—is a glimmer of bullshit’s unique applicability to poetry and ethics. In an essay otherwise cloudy with the mould spores of etymology, Frankfurt’s centerpiece (taking up a sixth of the essay’s length) is his consideration of an anecdote by Fania Pascal on the subject of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s being a pedantic and condescending jerk: “I had my tonsils out and was … feeling sorry for myself. Wittgenstein called. I croaked: ‘I feel just like a dog that has been run over.’ He was disgusted: ‘You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.’”
What prompted Wittgenstein’s disgust, according to Frankfurt, was not that his friend was lying about feeling like a run-over dog but that her “statement” was a “misrepresentation,” was an attempt “to get away with” speaking as if she knew how a run-over dog feels, and so was “not germane to the enterprise of describing reality.” Even in this instance, though, when Frankfurt starts getting as snide as Wittgenstein, bullshit aligns with a cluster of terms central to poetry: not only simile and, by extension, metaphor; not only empathy but, in other words, appropriation of experience; and not only representation but, by necessity, something apart from mere description.
Reading Poetry as Bullshit
Would Wittgenstein have been as “disgusted” if Pascal, instead of making a “statement” likening herself to a run-over dog, had written a poem with the same semantic content? First, who really cares? He’s pedantic and condescending. But second, he probably wouldn’t have been. Despite not really enjoying the poetry of his contemporaries, he had a lot to say on the category, aphorizing in Zettel that poetry, “although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.” I assume, then, Wittgenstein would not evaluate poetic statements on the same truth criterion as he would most language.
We can and do read poetry at an eccentric equidistance from both truths and lies.
I think it’s fair to say that, in general, poetry is often read in ways that excuse it from having a primary obligation to truth. Poetry presents no inherent or common-sense distinction between the fictive and creative non-fictive, between truth and truth-oriented-lie. There’s no need to define some third-space of magic realist poetry, for instance, because the entire genre is, well, just that. To use a limit case: the widespread refusal to desist from reading Sylvia Plath’s poetry biographically reveals how critical prejudices influence which poets and poetries are read for their truth-orientation, but no critic who reads Plath’s poems as poems would entirely reduce them to diary. We can and do read poetry at an eccentric equidistance from both truths and lies.
If I was about to argue for the ethical value of considering poetry as self-referential, as “a closed system,” then Philip Metres’s take on documentary poetry would have me beat: the documentary poem, he insists, “invit[es] ‘the real life outside the poem’ into it” in order to “testify to the often unheard voices of people struggling to survive in the face of unspeakable violence.” This is a strong argument for poetry written under ethical imperatives to prioritize its orientation toward the truth.
There are, however, reasonable doubts that even documentary poetry is first-and-foremost journalistic (i.e., oriented toward truth). And there are also reasonable doubts that documentary poetry’s practices are distinct enough from Conceptual practices to effectively answer “the Goldsmith dilemma.” But even setting these doubts aside—taking Metres on his own terms—I find in Carolyn Forché’s notion of the “poetry of witness” a more convincing and compelling stance. In the introduction to her 1993 anthology, Against Forgetting, Forché explains that reading poems as testimony or “evidence” could actually preclude our consideration of their orientation toward ‘truth’:
[T]he poem might be our only evidence that an event has occurred: it exists for us as the sole trace of an occurrence. As such, there will be nothing for us to base the poem on, no independent account that will tell us whether or not we can see a given text as being ‘objectively’ true. Poem as trace, poem as evidence.
Forché develops this thinking in the introduction to her 2014 follow-up anthology, Poetry of Witness, insisting that the “[e]thical reading of such works does not inhere in assessing their truth value or efficacy as ‘representation,’ but rather in recognizing their evidentiary nature.” For Forché, the evidentiary is distinct not only from “representational” language, with its orientation toward “objective” or “juridical truth,” but also from “confessional” language, with its orientation toward “subjective” truth. Instead, the evidentiary “makes present to us the experience of the other. The poem is the experience, rather than a symbolic representation.” Ethical reading means “plac[ing] ourselves under and before the other” and “owning [our] infinite responsibility for the other” with the “understanding that humans come into being through relation.”
Forché’s 2014 follow-up anthology Poetry of Witness
This could be the ethical utility of reading poetry as bullshit: poetic statements’ relations to objective or subjective truths are far less important than their attention to the relations and responsibilities between people.
Writing Poetry as Bullshit
Why not just say “Poetry could be witness”? Because the poetry of witness is limited to critical apparatus—as Forché maintains in Poetry of Witness, “it is a mode of reading rather than of writing”—relegating poets and their practices to a kind of ethical purgatory where they must await critical judgment. It provides a potent critique of Conceptual poetry’s primary orientation toward the concept—an explanation for why this prioritization encourages socially irresponsible appropriation—but it doesn’t offer aims for writing poetry conscientiously.
But why say “Poetry could be bullshit”? After all, “bullshit” is a limiting concept, tied to Frankfurt’s regard for truth and his fundamentally anti-postmodern position. He elaborates this position in On Truth, an end-is-nigh follow-up to On Bullshit that argues, basically, civilizations fall when “‘anti-realist’ doctrines” (i.e., skepticism and critiques of ‘objectivity’ and ‘disinterestedness’) devalue a general regard for truth. In case you don’t think that’s absurd, let me say this: thinking poetry-as-bullshit doesn’t mean engaging in a general strike on truth-telling. I’m not even saying that literary criticism or literature in general shouldn’t engage in truth-telling and lie-correction—in calling things out as “bullshit” (to revert, for a moment, to the much simpler understanding of that term). This is a crucial and effective tactic, but it is only one tactic. And it is not poetry’s best tactic. What I’m suggesting is that poetry, because already regarded as non-truth and non-lie, could be uniquely situated to give the finger to dangerous lies while also refusing to engage them in a contest over whose truth is truthier.
A tactical refusal to play “the language-game of giving information” could be particularly important for a conscientious conceptual poetics. Conceptual poets’ misappropriations and re-inscriptions are egregious not for being ‘untrue statements’ but for the poets’ presumption of the authority to make statements on any subjects. (Vanessa Place’s re-Tweeting of Gone with the Wind, for instance, was unethical because she was “a white poet … attempting to reclaim the n-word” not because she wasn’t being ‘true’ to her source.) In this context, responding to presumption of authority by raising the banner of ‘truth’—okay, I’ll just say it: speaking truth to power—could allow those poets to retreat behind the notions of ‘objectivity’ and ‘disinterestedness’ that are, supposedly, so fundamental to their poetic practices.
… poetry, because already regarded as non-truth and non-lie, could be uniquely situated to give the finger to dangerous lies while also refusing to engage them in a contest over whose truth is truthier.
If conscientious conceptualism were to tackle this issue of authority, how could its poetry be written? Maybe like Carrie Lambert-Beatty’s notion of “parafiction” —a visual and performance art genre “related” to mockumentary and to superfiction but whose “strategies are oriented less toward the disappearance of the real than toward the pragmatics of trust.” Parafictions are intended, first, to ‘dupe’ audiences and be “experienced as fact” and, then, to facilitate
the deception’s discovery … allowing viewers to be caught in a ‘gotcha’ moment of having been fooled, to wonder uncomfortably at the status of the claims … made, or to go away in a strange kind of educated ignorance, their worldviews subtly altered …
Parafictions (such as Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s “Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit …,” also known as “The Couple in the Cage”) mimic sites and modes of authority well enough to “produce and manage plausibility.” Plausibility is not (like ‘truth’) a quality of a statement but is rather (like bullshit) a quality of that statement’s “encounter with viewers, whose various configurations of knowledge and ‘horizons of expectation’ determine whether something is plausible to them.” But, crucially, parafictions must also provide grounds for skepticism—gaps, holes, uncertainties, or evidence of unreliability—that call attention to authority’s tenuousness and provisionality.
Performance artists Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s “The Couple in the Cage”
This dupe-and-reveal of authority is the essential characteristic, the ethical cornerstone, and the resistive potential of parafiction. Without the reveal, parafiction is just impersonation or fictive art—just another lie. Consider the ghost story as a sustained, deliberate, and authoritative (‘I was there’) arrangement of certain events into a narrative and, for plausibility’s sake, a deliberate suppression of other relevant events. Or maybe, without the reveal, parafiction is just another truth. Consider historical narrative as a sustained, deliberate, and authoritative (‘I was there’) arrangement of certain events into a narrative and, for plausibility’s sake, a deliberate suppression of other relevant events. Through the lens of parafiction, with its emphasis on authority and interpersonal relations, the only difference between lie and truth is that the audience of one is composed mostly of skeptics and the audience of the other is composed mostly of believers. Without the dupe, though, the parafiction is just a kind of emergent truth, purporting to reveal some other dupe and replace it with the bare events.
The dupe-and-reveal calls attention to authority (destabilizing the fragile thing) and implicates an artwork in what we could call ‘the language-game of authority.’ This self-implication is necessary to implicate audience members’ credence for the authority that the parafiction invoked. So, it could be said, the ethics of creating parafiction is the art of performing one’s bullshit in full view. In terms of conscientious conceptualism, this could mean writing poetry that doesn’t just call out others’ bullshit but owns up to its own bullshittery, to the bullshit it inherits from the poetic traditions and communities in which it participates, and to the bullshit adhering to the poetic tools and practices it employs.
According to Lambert-Beatty, parafiction “prepare[s] us to be better, more critical information consumers” by acting as “an antidote to vanity” and leaving us “both curious and chastened.” This could be the most modest and most important aim of conscientious poetry. In other words, the possibility that poetry could be bullshit is a hope, really, that there’s ethical utility in popping a squat right here—out in the open.
Andy Verboom is from subrural Nova Scotia and lives in London, ON, where he organizes Couplets, a collaborative poetry reading series, and edits Word Hoard, a journal of creative and academic dialogues. His poetry has won Descant’s Winston Collins Prize for Best Canadian Poem, been shortlisted for Arc’s Poem of the Year, and appeared in Arc, CV2, BafterC, The Puritan, and Vallum. His chapbooks are Tower (Anstruther, 2016), Full Mondegreens (Frog Hollow, 2016), and Orthric Sonnets (Baseline, 2017).