Wednesday’s Child: Bullshit Titles

One low grade, but pervasive, source of woe for today’s academic is bullshit titles.

The leading works on the philosophy of bullshit are Harry Frankfurt’s path-breaking, On Bullshit and G.A. Cohen’s brilliant essay, ‘Complete Bullshit’. A comment on each before I expose another kind of bullshit.

For Frankfurt, bullshit is characterised by its intentional indifference to the truth. Bullshit may be false, or vague, but it’s all the same to the bullshitter, who doesn’t care whether what he says is true or false, so long as he is filling the airwaves. (Frankfurt notes that there is a lot of such bullshit in politics, but I hear plenty in seminars too.) Cohen’s bullshit is non-intentional. It is a kind of hopeless obscurity—bullshit is unclarifiably obscure. Operationally, one can test for Cohen bullshit by adding (or removing) a negation sign to a proposition. If that makes no difference to its plausibility, then it is probably just bullshit. (Try this one at home: ‘Performativity cannot be understood outside of a process of iterability.’)

I believe that there is also a third kind of  bullshit, though it is probably best not to call it Green Bullshit. This bullshit is familiar from a certain kind of book or article title.   A couple of examples should be enough. Since I don’t want to ruin anyone’s career (including my own) I’ll just make up them up.

  • (A) Agency, Structure, and Power: The Milk-Marketing Board of Ruritania, 2007-2009
  • (B) Realising the Juridical: The Roman Law of Dogs in Later Imperial Sources

These titles are, in an obvious pre-theoretical sense, utter bullshit.

Now, a casual observer might think it is only the title before the colon, what I will call the ‘ante-colonial trope’, that is bullshit.   A tempting hypothesis. Certainly the terms ‘structure’ and ‘juridical’, in the senses of (A) and (B), often suffice for a diagnosis of bullshit.   But the deeper bullshit here consists in the relation between the ante-colonial trope, with its clouds of absurd puffery, and the subtitle, the little intellectual fart, that follows. Bullshit titles thus exhibit a kind of relational bullshit.

Note also that the subtitle, while suggesting a work that is careful, controlled—small, even—itself need include no bullshit. Since bullshit titles, in the present sense, are relational, you may think that a trivial point. How could there be relational bullshit in one of the relata, taken its own? But this ignores the possibility of nested bullshit relations, and the possibility that the subtitle itself might also contain non-relational bullshit of the Frankfurt or Cohen sort:

  • (C) Queerying the Performative: The Iterability of Irritable Drag Queens after Obergefell v Hodges

It is important to distinguish bullshit titles from merely stupid titles (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus), cutesy titles (Justice for Hedgehogs) and clunky titles (Prenuptial Agreements and the Presumption of Free Choice: Issues of Power in Theory and Practice). Clunky titles in particular are sometimes mistaken for bullshit. The distinction is subtle, but one indicator is that, in the clunky, what sounds like an ante-colonial trope normally appears in retrograde position, and does not have the fart-concealing function of the classic trope. Instead, it merely functions as a lame comment on, or irrelevant elaboration of, the main title.

I conjecture that there are relationships, causal and perhaps conceptual, between truth-avoidant bullshit and obscurantist bullshit on the one hand, and relational bullshit on the other. But that requires further research. So too why there is so much bullshit (of all kinds, really) in the social sciences and in law. Perhaps readers can help with that.

For now, following in the footsteps of the Buddha, ‘I teach only suffering and the end of suffering’. Extinguishing the special kind of suffering that is bullshit is complex, but here is a simple path to reducing it. No subtitles. Ever.

In particular, never allow doctoral students to use subtitles. Either there is good reason to study three years of decisions of the Milk-Marketing Board or there isn’t. (By ‘good reason’ I mean dissertation-wise. It’s a low standard.) If there is, they should have the courage of their convictions and make the subject their title. If there isn’t, do not allow them to waste their intellectual careers on trivia and then package it up in a bullshit title. That just brings more woe into the world.

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19 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Child: Bullshit Titles

  1. In view of the fartacious character of the subsequent, I think the antecedent should perhaps be described as ‘antecolonic’ rather than ‘antecolonial’. Just a small enemdation, sorry emendation.

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  2. Bah. That title “performativity….” is not hard to understand if you think for 30 seconds. “Performance essentially involves repetition.” Is that true or not? Dunno. But it’s pretty obviously a claim that may be either true or false. It may not be interesting or significant, but that’s not what you are claiming about it. The most pernicious effect of all of the “bullshit” talk is that it ends up being cover for people who don’t take the time to think about what someone is saying but want an easy way to engage in argument from sneering.

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    • I thought it meant “you cannot understand whether or not a thing can actually be done unless that thing is broken down into a series of steps”. Which, firstly, is obviously wrong: some steps have to be atomic; and secondly might seem to suggest that if you understand the steps, then you understand the whole thing – also wrong.


  3. Re C’s suggestion. I agree that ‘“Performance essentially involves repetition” is not bullshit. It is merely false. I would not have chosen it as an example, at least not for this Wednesday’s Child.

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    • I think C’s point is that the obscurity of the example is not unclarifiable, hence it is not a good example of Cohen bullshit (as opposed to merely pretentious writing). Unless you think C’s gloss fails to capture the (non)meaning of the original.


      • Correct; I do not think that is a good paraphrase of the original bullshit. It’s a heroic effort to render it non-bullshitty. (A bit like Charles Taylor on Hegel. 🙂 )

        It may also be worth mentioning that Cohen’s test, as I understand it, is not one of the falsifiability, let alone the meaningfulness, of an expression. (I am not sure whether you are assuming this, but some other commentators clearly are.) Cohen takes it for granted that bullshit can be meaningful, and so far as I am aware, he never endorsed falsifiability as a criterion for meaning or empirical content or anything else. (But that is just from memory; I’ll check.) We are to take the bullshit-proposition and see whether its denial would make it more or less plausible than its assertion. If it isn’t then it’s just bullshit. Now, the proposed translation fails this test, and is clearly not bullshit. It is very much less plausible than its denial. (There can clearly be one-off performances.) Indeed, it is so obviously false that, when pressed in such directions, Butlerians (for it is from JB that I take this particular piece of bullshit–though she has lots of other offerings) expressly deny that the profundity of the original proposition is captured by anything so mundane as the proposed translation. And in that, I think, they are right.

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  4. Wouldn’t ‘the bullshit of entitlement’ be better label of this sort of thing than ‘green bullshit’? After all it is neatly self-referential. It suggests a large theme which it does not really address.


  5. One point to Charles Pigden for noting the self-referential character of Wednesdays Child! But one point off for thinking that suggesting a theme and then not seriously addressing it is bullshit. So that’s nil:nil.


  6. I wanted to get mad at the snarky “anti-colonial trope” remarks in the piece, but the piece so funny and clever that I’m simply unable to do so. Well done!


  7. Oh, come on. Writing witty, bullshitty titles is one of the few pleasures of academic life. I always liked this one, for example: “Doing Logic with a Hammer: Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and the Polemics of Logical Positivism”. The title is evocative and the article was a great read. I for one appreciate the stylistic choice. Becoming an expert on an esoteric subject justifies at least a bit of swagger.


    • Terrific title. Not really type 3 bullshit though, in part because it is so witty. The core idea is that the bullshit title consists in ludicrous, jargon-laden puffery, the function of which is to conceal an absurdly narrow, or recondite, or crushingly dull subtitle which is a fairer description of what the work is about.


  8. I’m not sure this is really about a relation between the two halves of a title. Needlessly puffy main titles are bullshit, and needlessly elaborate subtitles are also bullshit. But that’s only because the name has to match the content, not because of any mismatch between title-parts: a mismatch is just a sign that at least one part of the title is loaded with ordinary bullshit.


    • That’s an interesting conjecture. I do see that in the fictional examples the title is itself (“always aready”) bullshit. My own feeling, though, is that the comical grandiosity of the (possibly monadic) bullshit of the title is *superadded* to the relational bullshit of such a grand title being affixed to a puny bit of scholarship. Think of it like this. Suppose you see a really crappy cheap-ass, large tattoo on a guy’s bicep. That’s bullshit. Now: suppose further that he is not at all hot, and has skinny arms. Doesn’t that make the bullshit tattoo even more ridiculous?


  9. Sometimes relational bullshiticity isn’t confined to the title but extends to the body of the work. You see this a lot in the social sciences, especially in papers reporting ethnographic or other qualitative empirical research. Academic convention demands that the empirical stuff has to be dressed up with a discussion of ostensibly relevant theory. The relational bullshiticity is not reducible to that of either part of the work. Sometimes you see a pointless “theoretical” discussion dripping with globs of pure (Cohen) bullshit stuck onto a fascinating, lucidly written empirical report. Sometimes a pointlessly trivial empirical finding serves as peg on which to hang an excellent little theoretical essay. Occasionally both aspects are ok but the paper is a specimen of relational bullshit because neither part illuminates or is illuminated by the other. This kind of relational bullshit is a kind of Frankfurter bullshit. The point isn’t to tell the reader about the subject matter of the paper but to signal something about the author.


    • This strikes me as correct–thanks, I hadn’t thought of it that way.

      I agree entirely that lots of ‘fascinating, lucidly written, empirical’ work is marred by ‘a pointless “theoretical” discussion….’ I see the same thing in law all the time: a fascinating, clear, intriguing account–say, of the Roman law of dogs–is draped in pointless, inert (and often inept) theoretical discussion.

      I also had not considered your last point–that the function of such titles is not really to conceal the character of the subject but instead to ‘signal something about the author’. That makes sense. Whenever I see the words, say, ‘structure’, ‘performativity’, ‘juridicality’, ‘governmentality’ etc in titles I do indeed assume that the author wants everyone to know ‘where he is coming from’. So it’s often just a dog whistle, a call to the loyal pack, to signal –even if the real subject is the Ruritanian Milk-Marketing Board–that it is in tune with Big Ideas and, as important, completely Safe to Read: there will be nothing here that you haven’t seen before.


  10. I can see one justification for subtitles: someone wants to indicate what they have studied and why they have studied it (or at least: why anyone might want to read it). The milk marketing board of Ruritania is interesting for students of agency, structure, and power and to students of advertising history for different reasons. But a proper sentence would do just as well. Perhaps the real problem is that they are trying to compress what needs to be a long title into something much shorter.


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