Intellectual labour – on bullshit

As we get out of lockdown, and my PhD comes to an end, I will share a short series of posts, write-ups from past notes and drafts, on the art of writing and the nature of intellectual labour.

The English languages likes a certain fuzziness in its use of words. The French are more literal: language must stick to the world. Is it because the French study philosophy, and philosophy is all about defining the properties of things, elaborating the clearest possible language? It is a general trait of French thinking then, that things have to be “clear” – what people sometimes call Cartesian?

When my Ozzie partner and I were living in Paris, he used to say “French people are so earnest”. He was giving English classes then, as Australians do, helping insurance brokers speakers better English. This took the form of simple small talk, with questions like “do you like the mountain or the beach more.” And he was constantly complaining to me: “They all say it depends! Of course it depends, but can’t they just, I don’t know, take a side for the fun of it?” This response came out as a desire to say the truth, but Philip was shocked. He went on to describe “debating”, an adversarial practice where two teams of three people compete to support or rebuff a ‘contention’: I had never heard of it before.

Reflecting back, the practice resembles what Harry G. Frankfurt’s describes in his book On Bullshit. A “bull session” is a conversation among men where they “try on” various identities and opinions. Bullshit being defined as “thinking that you’re not fully adhering to”. I heard of similar sessions from my father and Italian ex-boyfriend – how at the family table in the Mediterranean, you would embrace a certain point of view, opposing somebody else, just to mark interest. On the opposite, another ex-boyfriend, who was from Western France, would always say – this is not exactly how it is, and methodically, slowly, try to refine the use of the adjectives and nouns, until, collegially, a perfect definition of the issue was found.

In one of his essays, Alain defines French-ness as characterised by a deep sense of necessity. French women don’t get fat is based on a similar premise – nothing excessive. Our training in philosophy is about that same sense of necessity: defining concepts, slowly, methodically, developing a sense of speech that is clear and appropriate.  Using the necessary words to describe a thought – no more, no less. Translation plays a big part in that intellectual training: it’s not about debating a point, but finding the exact correct words and syntax.

This sense of necessity applies to language. No bullshit. Bullshit, however, is much more developed in the anglo and Mediterranean worlds, and goes together with a sense of humour – building a character, saying things that obviously aren’t true. We studied Lewis Carroll and the nonsensical school at university. There is no French equivalent for nonsense. Why would you say something that makes no sense?

But so, why do we engage in bullshit? Says Frankfurt, you see bullshit when people are asked to speak or have opinions in matters they don’t really know about. Asking everyone’s opinions will lead to bullshit. Just as pursuing sincerity (truth to oneself) rather than truthfulness (truth to the world) leads to bullshit. When I was in high school, and we were writing essays, the general rule was ‘your opinion does not matter’. I was trained to think against debating. And probably became a better thinker for it.

On conditional and absolute needs

In the comment thread of a presentation on slideshare, I read the following: “Thank you Grainne. It is very interesting, but I need to know where it has been published? Conference, journal, etc? Many thanks.” This message was sent from an English University two years ago, and never received a reply.

Academic institutions impose a number of constraints on scholars. Career progress depends on published research, and the process of peer-assessment includes strict referencing guidelines. These and other requirements certainly constitute a hassle. They slow down the production and dissemination of knowledge. Yet this does not suffice to make them evil. Setting structures to moderate haste may count as a form of wisdom.

More concerning is academics representing these arbitrary constraints as absolute. Not ‘I would like to acknowledge your work, make you part of the conversation, and for that, I need to gather the details required by the process.’ Just – ‘I need to know’.

Yesterday, I was talking with two colleagues about a potential joint project, which involved practical applications. The conversation then lingered on publication opportunities in a peer-reviewed paper – ‘it’s part of what we’re supposed to do’, said a colleague. ‘It’s not part of my KPIs’, I replied. ‘I’m not in a tenure track, nor am I interested in one. I don’t have to do it.’

We live surrounded by many demands, most of them conditional, but presented as absolute and universal. Let’s clarify the difference, always. Articulating a clear if-then may be the first step on our path to freedom.

On work

What is work? We’re now using this verb/noun to describe all sorts of activities. But where exactly does ‘work’ start, and where does it ‘end’? As we look closer, the boundaries blur.

For some of us, work occurs in a fixed period of time – 9-to-5, or the duration of a shift. But even so, reading emails on the tram, filing administrative papers, is that not work? And if we move a step further, what about cleaning the house or buying groceries? Some people do that as ‘work’, for others; and when we clean our own bathroom, or fill our own fridge, is it suddenly no longer ‘work’?

But as the category grows in all directions, holes appear at the core. The pauses of course – lunch, coffee, toilet; social media, personal emails – they occur at work, but are they ‘work’? What about those extra ten, twenty, thirty seconds or more we give a fleeting thought or feeling between tasks – is that ‘work’? And leisurely peeling carrots with pleasant music on, or a stroll to the market with a loved one – is that ‘work’?

We define ourselves largely by ‘what we do’ – by ‘work’. Yet ‘work’ is more elusive than we like to think, more diffuse, more diverse. And the more independent and creative our activities are, the more boundaries blur.

Maybe we need a new vocabulary to better capture the complex interplay between our activities, the value we create and the communities we form. One, maybe, that would better capture the oscillating nature of work and rest, the constant breathing involved in all continuous human activity.

Now articulating this, would that be work? Is research or study work? And as I write this, am I working?


I started a new productivity routine lately that’s working very well for me – and I thought I might share it with the world :-). It’s a simple three-step process. First, every morning, I write a list of the things I want to get done during the day on a new page in a journal. I try to frame these things as activities rather than results – sometimes adding a time limit, e.g. 30 minutes of writing business plan, or writing xx story. This may seem counter-intuitive, but I found that focusing on the goal can freeze me, or cause me to spend way too long on a task, trying to reach a level of perfection beyond what’s required. Conversely, focusing on the process relaxes my brain considerably, and leads to better results in shorter timeframes.  Then I prioritise these activities, labelling each 1, 2 or 3. I work different jobs, PhD research, running a non-profit, personal writing, and incidental other tasks, and I try to balance these components of my professional life – in particular, I make sure at least one writing activity gets priority 1. This, again, has a relaxing effect: it allows me to give myself a large number of tasks for the day – visualising high productivity – but eases the pressure to get everything done, and more, to perfection. I’m only strictly accountable to priority 1. Finally, during the day, I check up on my task list – tick what I’ve done, half-tick what I touched on. Before lunch and again at 2pm, i refocus and, if I haven’t attended to them yet, ensure I complete at least my priority 1 tasks. This is particularly valuable for my writing: now I no longer find myself tired, at the end of the day, feeling sorry that, yet again, I got caught up in things and didn’t take the time to progress a story or edit a blog post.  Let’s see whether this keeps working over time – for now, I love it and strongly recommend!

That’s fine

We all have our linguistic pet hates. I have written before about my thoughts on ‘busy‘ people. Now I’d like to share my feelings about  ‘that’s fine’.

When you tell somebody that, no, you won’t do some extra favour they asked for, and they reply ‘that’s fine’, as if you were somehow holding on for their permission before exercising your freedom to refuse.

When somebody asks to meet you at the last minute, you say you’ve got other plans already, and they reply ‘that’s fine’, as if you somehow owed it to them to be constantly available, but they granted you permission for this one time to honour previous arrangements.

When you’ve been struggling with a piece of work or an assignment, as other responsibilities have come piling up, you tell your colleague or boss that you might need to reconsider scope or deadlines because you can’t really see yourself finishing the task to the level expected within the delays expected, and offer a clear, workable alternative that will not compromise the whole edifice – and they reply ‘that’s fine’, with no further word of support or encouragement – superbly granting you their blessing for that solution you found.

Please, find something else to say. Please don’t ‘that’s fine’ me.

Is happiness red or blue?

A friend just shared this link on their facebook page: ten simple things you can do to be happier, backed by science. The list is familiar: exercise, sleep, help others, smile… and presents itself with the self-evidence of things often repeated, and backed by scientific quotes and images.

However, looking just a bit further into it, I have to admit a degree of confusion as to my best pathway to happiness.

On the one hand, I’m encouraged to ‘exercise more’, because “We’ve explored exercise in depth before, and looked at what it does to our brains, such as releasing proteins and endorphins that make us feel happier, as you can see in the image below.”

Ten Simple Things You Can Do to Be Happier, Backed by Science

On the other hand, I’m told to meditate because “Meditation literally clears your mind and calms you down, it’s been often proven to be the single most effective way to live a happier live. I believe that this graphic explains it the best:”

Ten Simple Things You Can Do to Be Happier, Backed by Science

So what is happiness? Blue brain, or red brain? Mr scientist, help me here!

Is this an invitation – or a sales pitch?

Today, I declined an invitation.

The whole thing was a bit awkward: a Chinese lawyer made contact on linked-in a few months ago, and exchanged a couple of messages with me. He’s trying to bring together recently arrived investors from China with a range of Mandarin-speaking Australians to better understand the new country, form contacts, and integrate. I felt honoured that I was invited – but, ultimately, not extremely surprised. After all, I’ve been working in that space for a while now, and by some standards, probably did a decent job.

Unfortunately, when his assistant sent me the details for that event, it came with a hefty price-tag attached. Mind you – it’s held at a high-class venue, and the price tag may just be cost-recovery for them. Still, the whole package is beyond what I can reasonably afford. I tried to negotiate a discount – was offered one, but still beyond budget – and therefore declined.

I can have dinners any time, and I’ll probably get to meet these people somehow, but two things annoyed me with this little interaction.

First was the awkward back and forth, trying to negotiate a free seat. See, I was naive, and accepted an invitation before checking I wouldn’t have to pay. Then I found myself having to negotiate my way in – or out. It may be just a matter of cross-cultural misunderstanding, but when I accepted the first ‘invitation’ I did not expect I would have to fork in.

Words are deceptive, I know, and I should be warned. Asialink organise regular events for their alumni: last year, I went a few times, and it was a fantastic opportunity to meet people, exchange views, reconnect. This year, they started charging, and I stopped attending. The first time I received an ‘invitation’ from them, after coming back from China, I enthused – but scrolling down, discovered I would have to decline. Their functions have better food than I can afford to pay for.

Beyond the superficial annoyance at linguistic confusion, I am more deeply annoyed at the trend towards systematic ‘pay for service’. I guess it doesn’t fit in well with my current situation. Over the past three years, I have devoted many hours to cultural and educational work, and I have had numerous conversations, in Australia, China, and around the world, to build meaningful cross-cultural engagement. But the only way I was able to do that was on a volunteer basis – because cultural business models have been thrown upside down by the internet, because government cut funding for culture, because administrative silos excluded us from many pockets of funding, and because I haven’t been able to secure another stable source of income compatible with running Marco Polo Project.

I’m not sure how much the $50 or $100 that these various groups and organisations are charging for entrance contribute to their bottom line – if they’re the sign of tighter times – greedy managers – or just an ideological fad. But they certainly don’t fit in with my current circumstances. I hope the tide turns, but I fear a future where noone is invited anywhere anymore, because the logic of cost-recovery dominates everything. Our ecosystem will be the poorer for that.


When I ask people how they’re doing – especially work colleagues, but others too – many reply “busy”. I never quite understood what the word meant, but for a long while, I assumed it was an actual description of their objective circumstances: so many demands on their time that they cannot stop to think, more work than any human could possibly handle, various pressures, etc. And I developed a certain guilt, because I so rarely feel “busy” – never for more than a few hours anyway. I am a perpetual slacker, who lets others take the burden and goes off on a stroll? Should I make myself more busy?

Yesterday, at a friend’s birthday party, I heard the ‘b’ word mentioned again from another work colleague I don’t know very much. I decided it was time to ask, and I did “what does busy mean, I’ve never actually understood the word.” She had an interesting answer “when you’ve got so much to do that you don’t have time to answer emails, and feel a bit dizzy.” “Oh, I’ve never been in that state, or at least never for more than two or three hours.” She called me lucky – slightly peeved, or jealous? And left.

I reflected. When I was in high school, and then in preparatory class, I always finished my essays and assignments on time, even a day early. I may have been the only one. People saw me as a strange oddity. The feeling was mutual. We had three weeks to finish a paper, the paper took between 15 and 20 hours to finish. Surely, the right time to start was not the evening before. Yet half the class did, and a good third only got to it a few days in advance. I could see that I was the odd one out, and yet I thought – if you started on time, you wouldn’t rush at the end.

I’ve now realised it’s the same with ‘busy’. Surely these ‘busy’ people are in the state not because they do more than me, but because they live with a backlog of things to do – just like people (the same busy people?) live with a constant negative credit balance, and only use their income to pay off their debt. But when they finish something, they don’t do some extra time to scale down their backlog, they just mop around. New deadlines arrive, and pile up. So that’s what ‘busy’ means: I have a debt of things to do that’s running after me, yet I never get on to it. I over-committed in the past, and never took the pain to renegociate my load. People are waiting for me to do things, and I’m holding them back.

But it’s not only that. “Busy” people will make you believe (maybe they actually believe) that holding back others makes them important. There’s a dark side to ‘busy’ people, so let’s be suspicious of them – and let’s not pity them too much. Let’s laugh at their scuttling around; and if something’s important, let’s keep the “busy” people away from it.

British and Italian aesthetics

I discovered about British aestehtics one day, when driving through the mist in Wales. We were in the car, on a hill side, in very thick fog – we could only see a few meter ahead – and sheep were jumping out of the fog, and back into it, in front of the car. It was eerily beautiful.

I still remember that moment tenderly – and realised recently that it embodies a lot about British aestehtics. The half-seen, half-unseen. That mist, all-pervasive, that blurs outlines, and allows for a game of hide-and-seek with the world. I thought, the famous British reserve, the humour, the confusion in words and attitudes, this soft eye with the tear on the side. this shiftiness of the brits – it all comes from that mist-infused air, this constantly grey light, blurring outlines.

In contrast, the Mediterranean has sharp, terrible sun, pounding veritcal – but also complete, black darkness. A real sense of shade, as protection. Things are not half and half, they are either or. In the sun is how you show yoruself – the Mediterranean vanity – or the realm of caricature – the mask, imposed on you by this too visible world-stage, sun-drenched. In the darkness is where you keep your secrets – and you shed the most light on what you want to display – or what you will let others see, even as caricature.