I recently picked up a copy of Harry G. Frankfurt’s 2005 essay “On Bullshit” at one of my favorite used bookstores. I had read this not long after it came out, but it was good to spend some time revisiting the theme he addresses -the bullshit our culture finds itself mucking about in, and what exactly bullshit is from a philosophical perspective. Nine years later the essay is just as pertinent. There seems to be no shortage of the stuff, whether its just your average poop, or grand politcal crap slinging.
Harry asks the important question, “Why is there so much bullshit?“, and answers, “Of course it is impossible to be sure that there is relatively more of it nowadays than at other times. There is more communication of all kinds in our time than ever before, but the proportion that is bullshit may not have increased. Without assuming that the incidence of bullshit is actually greater now, I will mention a few considerations that help to account for the fact that it is currently so great.
“Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated by whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled -whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others- to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinion’s and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.”
Certainly the proliferation of blogs -such as this one, laden with my own BS- and the lower barriers to publishing created by the widespread utilization of computer technology up the ante on the crap quotient. Add to this the fact that the world population now has a higher rate of literacy, more people reading, more people writing, and the amount of printed bullshit, aside from that discharged out the mouth, is sure to see an increase.
Could it be though, that within the fecal matter which most abhor, is a hidden resource? At a time when the soul of the west is barren, when our inner landscape has eroded, when the things which bind us together are under assault from materialist nihilism, absurd reductionism, and the corrosion of conformity, what we flush down the collective crapper may very well be what is actually needed to restore the inner and outer landscapes from their current state of gross misuse and waste.
To see how this might be so we must first check in with some deities and myths related to cattle. Bullshit, might after all, have a divine providence.
“Don’t plug the Cow-a-bunghole, dude.” -Bart Simpson
Instead, let it rip.
Cattle have long been part of the sacred terrain of humanities shared mythopoetic landscape. From the caves of Lascaux where our ancestors traced images of bison onto the walls, to the earliest written mention of cows being sacred in the Rig Veda, the cow has been seen as a symbol of wealth and fertility since ancient times. The Irish based their national epic around the favorite past times of cattle raiding as documented in the Tain Bo Cuailnge or Cattle Raid of Cooley.
It is not surprising that there have also been a number of cow and bull related deities. Kamadehenu is a Hindu bovine-goddess, not worshiped independently as such, but honored in the general reverence for cows within Hinduism. In ancient Egypt there is Hathor, who is depicted with cow horns in which is set a sun disk with Uraeus serpent. Isis is also at times depicted with cow horns. Apis is another Egyptian deity who took on the form of Bull. Mithra is the guardian of cattle, and in his later Roman form was shown as slaughtering a bull to bring to a banquet with Sol. Let us not forget the Golden Calf made by Aaron for the Israelites while Moses was up on Mount Sinai communing with Jehovah. The bull was sacred in Crete, in Cypress, the list goes on and on.
The life giving status appointed to the cow and related cattle species is not only from the flesh and dairy they provide, but from the from the foliage they graze upon being digested in the four separate chambers of their stomach, and being pooped out as a powerful manure to keep the soil healthy. This prima materia is rich in minerals. Besides being spread on the fields to ensure a bountiful harvest, while simultaneously providing food for other animal and fungals species, cow dung is also used as a source of fuel, the dried patties and cakes being burned. Buffalo chips and meadow muffins must surely be another form of manna.
Not only is bullshit sustainable, but holy.
In my own personal lexicon of symbolism shit represents the nigredo phase of alchemy. The time when everything is decomposed and putrefied. Depth psychologists have equated this with the dark night of the soul. Yet within all this mushy-stinky matter, this shit, is the very stuff of life, fertile and if composted, gives life and strength. This concept of taking crap material, and making into something that is good was explored in music by post-industrial group Coil on their 1984 album Scatology.
One reviewer said Coil made “good music, from shitty sounds“. The cover of the album shows an ass framed inside an inverted cross. The inside shows pictures of John Balance and Peter Christopherson lurking around a sewage treatment plant, “Sleazy” Peter’s hand covered in liquified filth. To me this picture shows the musicians as having something more powerful than the Midas touch. It confronted the biophobia so prevalent in society today, and showed the glory that can be found in the study of shit. The album had emerged out of the inspiration the couple found in their bondage and S&M practice, Sleazy often tying John up to the toilet. This approach, which revels in the by-products and wastes of our humanity, is one way to go about revitalizing culture in an age when it has all gone to shit. This is the work of the bullshit artist. It is the special province of those who would call them self a commissioner of the sewer.
A BRIEF DETOUR TO THE PISSOIR
As an antidote to purely visual art, Marcel Duchamp pioneered the field of readymade art. According to Andre Breton and Paul Eluard’s Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme, a readymade is “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” The practice of choosing an object was part of the aesthetic decision. In his quest to get away from himself by choosing prefabricated items, we see both influence and similarity to the working methods of John Cage, who also strove to take himself out of the art, through the use of chance operations.
The readymade’s of Duchamp show cleverness and humor and open the viewers eyes to seeing everyday things in new ways. By placing his piece Fountain, a urinal signed with the moniker R. Mutt, in a gallery show he questioned the idea of art itself, and showed that it isn’t always about what you make with your hands, but with how you frame an object, or assign meaning. Playing with meaning, reframing events, words, or whatever media you are working in, is part of the job of the bullshit artist.
(The work of Marcel Duchamp will continue to receive coverage inside the pages of the avant-garde grimoire.)
THE ART OF BULLSHIT
The urban dictionary says a bullshit artist is “a deceptive fuck that gets off on selling people worthless info as if it were fact.” This is why, as an artist, you have to know your shit, and be able to bullshit. Knowing your shit helps you put power into your work. Being able to bullshit might get your work into a gallery, or some other forum advantageous to for you to float a piece. If you want to be able to roll like banker, double-count and inflate the net value of what you think a piece of art, performance or what have you is worth. Distort the measurement of supply and demand, to create a speculative bubble around your creation. Reel people in and baffle them with bullshit. They’ll thank you for it later.
COMMISSIONER OF SEWERS
I got My Education in dreams. For years I had dreams of looking for something in sewers. I later realize the sewers were manifesting as part of an Underworld initiation experience. The Archangel Gabriel appeared in the guise of my high school friend Gabe Moses, and helped me find a piece of myself that was lost in the sewers. This was a bit of spontaneous soul recovery. Sewers are places we might lose a bit of ourselves to, if we’re not careful about what we are flushing away. It is good to get to know the guardians of these inner places. William S. Burroughs set himself up in the sewers as a commissioner.
This little essay has humbled my question on how freedom is expressed in a democracy. It is the spokesman of how to use sewers as a place for piping-in power. The crooked stink of ambition is smelled on the shirtsleeves of our presidents. The Sultan’s have ruptured the intestines of America, all for the price of an orgy. The personal sewage of opinion is a condition of democracy. It is best to secure dirt on the governor, to get pictures of him smoking the sheriff’s reefer with the Sultan’s. In the afternoon we stop by the majesties house to make friendly deals. It is time to blow the virtues of Richard Nixon, a vital folk hero who revered the skepticism of the United States public. We will no longer cover up under-the-counter deals, but give free reign to bourbon snorting, cigar swilling, fat ass politicians. No skill is required.