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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