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 Sabbath

Last year, a couple o friends invited me to join them for a Shabbat lunch in Paris. All details had been set in advance, as they would not pick up the phone that day. The food had been made the day before, and kept warm overnight on a special hot plate. When I came in, there was a shawl over the TV screen, and the table was set, beautifully. My friends were smiling and happy.

We shared a delicious meal together, followed by a song, prayer, and a reading. Then we discussed history, current affairs, literature. We went for a walk to the park, deep in conversation, contemplating ideas, observing people, remembering the past. I escorted them back home, then turned on my mobile phone, jumped into the metro, and returned to my Goy life.

One of the beauties of Judaism, as I’ve seen it practiced and described, is the concrete clarity of the rules guiding daily life. On Shabbat – from nightfall on Friday to nightfall on Saturday – you shall not work. Rules debated over centuries define activities allowed and forbidden. What remains is not a vacuum of boredom or mindless ritual. The day we spent together had books, friendships, reflection, and joy.

I often struggle to rest. The idea of a Sabbath is appealing. But I find the boundaries of my work so fuzzy that I can’t imagine what it would exactly look like. Without the strict rules of a religion, not only guiding me, but also creating collective meaning – I find it difficult. I stayed in bed this morning, leisurely read books for my thesis, exchanged a few messages on Facebook, watched ‘Empire Strikes Back’, and wrote this piece. Next, I’ll be heading to a birthday party. I feel reasonably rested, but not certain this was a proper Sabbath.

On blocks

Sometimes, when we work with our minds, whether it’s writing, research or design, we get stuck.

It’s a recognizable feeling, both mental and physical. The back starts to hurt, the jaw clamps, the shoulders and arms tense up. Ideas no longer flow, but sentences or words, to-dos and cliches, echo like earworms inside the brain. We look for distraction, social media, chats, games, or good old food and drink. Walking or stretching should fix it, but most often, it doesn’t. And the pain continues.

In teams, I’ve seen it happen. Tension grows, aggressivity threatens. The solution is always to name the problem, move bodies around, and seek another way of interacting. Drawing often works, or dancing, singing. Let the dynamic change, make space for new collective patterns to emerge.

But alone, I struggle more. The tension is different, it lacks the urgency of potential aggression – carries no more than a dull sense of annoyance towards the world and the self. And so, it lingers.

I wonder today, whether the work of the mind could be compared to that of polishing wood. As we pass the file on our ideas, sometimes we meet a knot, a solid block hiding in the grain, where things don’t flow. This is where we get stuck. If we keep on pushing, we might hurt ourselves, or ruin the whole work.

So what should we do? We could start by acknowledging that knots are a crucial element in the fabric of our minds. And when we meet one, rather than grudge and grumble, celebrate this encounter with a something solid in the fleeting fabric of our thoughts. Gently caress it with our inner hand, feeling its shape, letting it be. And over time, as we learn about our different knots, decide whether we should circle around it, or forcefully cut through.