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Lecture 05: Interpretation and Bullshit


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Slideshow for the fifth lecture in my summer course, English 10, "Introduction to Literary Studies: Deception, Dishonesty, Bullshit."

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Lecture 05: Interpretation and Bullshit

  1. 1. Lecture 5: Interpretation and Bullshit PATRICK MOONEY, M.A. ENGLISH 10, SUMMER SESSION A 29 JUNE 2105
  2. 2. Some interpretive problems “literature involves both properties of language and a special kind of attention to language.” (Culler 56) ● By this, Culler means to suggest that for something to count as “literature,” it needs to both – be (socially) designated as “literature” (we must pay “a special kind of attention to [its] language”), – use language in ways that support this additional attentiveness and make them “pay off.” ● We’ll read Culler in more detail on this question in week 6.
  3. 3. What is “meaning”? “So, we have the meaning of a word and the meaning or provocations of a text; then, in between, there’s what we might call the meaning of an utterance: the meaning of the act of uttering these words in particular circumstances. What act is this utterance performing: is it warning or admitting, lamenting or boasting, for example?” (57) “We have different kinds of meaning, but one thing we can say in general is that meaning is based on difference.” (57)
  4. 4. “A language is a system of differences. […] What makes each element of a language what it is, what gives it its identity, are the contrasts between it and other elements within the system of the language.” (58) “For Saussure, a language is a system of signs and the key fact is what he calls ‘the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign.’ This means two things. First, the sign (for instance, a word) is a combination of a form (the ‘signifier’) and a meaning (the ‘signified’), and the relation between form and meaning is based on convention, not natural resemblance.” (58) “A language, Saussure insists, is not a ‘nomenclature’ that provides its own names for categories that exist outside of language.” (59)
  5. 5. “The linguistic code is a theory of the world.” (60) “Language is not a ‘nomenclature’ that provides labels for pre-existing categories; it generates its own categories. But speakers and readers can be brought to see through and around the settings of their language, so as to see a different reality. Works of literature explore the settings or categories of habitual ways of thinking and frequently attempt to bend or reshape them, showing us how to think something that our language had not previously anticipated, forcing us to attend to the categories through which we unthinkingly view the world. Language is thus both the concrete manifestation of ideology—the categories in which speakers are authorized to think—and the site of its questioning or undoing.” (60-61)
  6. 6. Hermeneutics and poetics “Poetics starts with attested meanings or effects and asks how they are achieved. (What makes this passage in a novel seem ironic? What makes us sympathize with this particular character? Why is the ending of this poem ambiguous?” (62) “Hermeneutics […] starts with texts and asks what they mean, seeking to discover new and better interpretations. Hermeneutic models come from the fields of law and religion, where people seek to interpret and authoritative legal or sacred text in order to decide how to act.” (62)
  7. 7. “The ‘about’ game” “interpretation may ultimately involved playing the ‘about’ game: ‘so, what is this work really about?’ This question is not prompted by the obscurity of a text; it is even more appropriate for simple texts than for wickedly complex ones. In this game, the answer must meet certain conditions: it cannot be obvious, for instance; it must be speculative. […] What are commonly seen as ‘schools of literary criticism or theoretical ‘approaches’ to literature are, form the point of view of hermeneutics, dispositions to give particular kinds of answers to the question of what a work is really ‘about.’” (65)
  8. 8. Some positions on truth in The Children’s Hour Let’s take a look at the end of Act II, scene ii (pp. 46-49 in particular). What is The Children’s Hour “about”?
  9. 9. “To articulate, more or less sketchily, the structure of its concept” Some (quick) things Frankfurt says about bullshit: – it’s a term sometimes used quite loosely (“a generic term of abuse, with no specific literal meaning”) – There are multiple words (“humbug,” etc.) that are more polite while being rough equivalents. “The difference appears on the whole to have more to do with considerations of gentility, and certain other rhetorical parameters, than with the strictly literal modes of significance that concern me most.” (5)
  10. 10. Black’s definition of humbug HUMBUG: deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes. (6) – Frankfurt then gives an extensive reading and commentary on this definition (7-18). – Much of what Frankfurt does with this definition is establish it as a basis for his later discussion of bullshit throughout the essay.
  11. 11. ● With humbug, misrepresentation occurs not only in relation to an actual state of affairs (as with lying), but also makes an implicit misrepresentation about the contents of the speaker’s state of mind. “It is clear that what makes Fourth of July oration humbug is not fundamentally that the speaker regards his statements as false. Rather, just as Black’s account suggests, the orator intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself. He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is what people think of him. He wants them to think of him as a patriot, as someone who has deep thoughts and feelings about the origins and the mission of our country, who appreciates the importance of religion, who is sensitive to the greatness of our history, whose pride in that history is combined with humility before God, and so on.” (17-18)
  12. 12. What Max Black misses “there is something more to be said about this. 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 that resists or eludes the demands of a disinterested and austere discipline.” (23)
  13. 13. “Now assuming that Wittgenstein does indeed regard Pascal’s characterization of how she feels as an instance of bullshit, why does it strike him that way? It does so, I believe, because he perceives what Pascal says as being—roughly speaking, for now—unconnected to a concern with the truth. Her statement is not germane to the enterprise of describing reality. She does not even think she knows, except in the vaguest way, how a run-over dog feels. Her description of her own feeling is, accordingly, something that she is merely making up. She concocts it out of whole cloth; or, if she got it from someone else, she is repeating it quite mindlessly and without any regard for how things really are. “It is for this mindlessness that Pascal’s Wittgenstein chides her. What disgusts him is that Pascal is not even concerned whether her statement is correct. […] Her statement is not ‘wrought with greatest care.’ She makes it without bothering to take into account at all the question of its accuracy.” (29-30, 31) “Her fault is not that she fails to get things right, but that she is not even trying.” (32)
  14. 14. The excremental metaphor “Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob? Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined? The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this. Excrement is not designed or crafted at all.” (21) “Just as hot air is speech that has been emptied of all informative content, so excrement is matter from which everything nutritive has been removed. Excrement may be regarded as the corpse of nourishment, what remains when the vital elements in food have been exhausted.” (43)
  15. 15. And so then … “What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.” (53-54)