Skip to Content

Writing in No-Man's-Land

Me and The New York Times

Trump is provoking like never before the question whether the rise of authoritarianism is a real possibility in America -- the “uncharted waters” we hear referenced a lot. Might this push literature into the literary no-man’s-land? In places that have experienced authoritarian abuse, this may be old-hat. This kind of literary and cultural evolution recalls for me the semantic thesis developed by Harvard philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt in his short little gem called On Bullshit, a book I love to cite. It opens with this line: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” Frankfurt writes, “The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instance of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.” Bullshit arises when “circumstance require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.” Frankfurt is a philosopher, so he ends his little book on the philosophical idea that “objective” reality is unknowable. If it exists at all, it certainly can’t exist in our minds. As this becomes evident, there’s a natural reaction that focuses on at least “being true to [one’s] own nature.” That is, there’s an impulse toward sincerity. Here's where the genial Harvard philosophy professor becomes relentless. If one is truly honest, one soon realizes human beings are no more “determinate” than life itself. “As conscious beings,” the good professor says, “we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them.” So what we like to call “identity” is a fluid, ever-changing thing. Identity is never frozen or permanent. It’s like mercury loose on the kitchen floor. “Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity is itself bullshit.”

On Bullshit and an authentic, no-holds-barred bullshit artistOn Bullshit and an authentic, no-holds-barred bullshit artist

This may be elitist mumbo-jumbo for a lot of people -- too “way out” -- especially among the religious right where The Soul is a concrete thing with values to evangelize and defend or the military where if you question or threaten our exceptionalism it's Our Way or Bombs Away! But elements on the left are equally as rigid in their beliefs that ideological identity is determinate and permanent.

story | by Dr. Radut