Rough Beast, issue bullshit, smells a lot like bullshit: finger pointing bullshit, self-defeating bullshit, desperately searching for an edge bullshit, relentless intellectualizing of the mundane bullshit, educated white males on soapboxes bullshit. But this is not a deliberate attempt to bullshit you, nor an attempt to charm you with cleverness or cuteness, nor do we condemn bullshit and those who produce it. Everyone shits, everyone bullshits, and the first sign of a lost-to-the-world bullshitter is the denial or ignorance of his own stink.
The trick is how to tell shit from Shinola. My dad likes to tell a joke about a Russian czar travelling over land with three servants. They come upon a brown pile in the road that they believe is shit. The czar sends his first servant to get a better look. Looks like shit. He sends the second servant to smell the pile. Smells like shit. The third is sent to taste. Tastes like shit. The czar shrugs his shoulders and steps around the pile. Must be shit then.

The following writers have spotted bullshit, taken a closer look at it, smelled it, and tasted it. Their work is a digestion of sorts, evidence of the dirty effectiveness and dirty beauty of all life. In light of our ability to devour culture and content so freely, digestion is the valuable throughway between consumption and creation. Matter and resources are converted into energy and waste; the system is closed, nothing lost forever and nothing brand new. Look closely enough and the parts (matter, energy, resources, waste) and the processes (creation, consumption, digestion) both lose their shape. The labels fall away until the energy is the matter is the resource is the waste is the consumption is the digestion is the creation is the ethos is the pathos is the logos. Everything is as old as stardust, and we’re here in the sandbox, reorganizing and repurposing, offering up ever-renewed visions of the world.+


2014: Joey Horan lives in Seattle and works for an alternative-to-jail court.


don’t bullshit ME


In Bob Rafelson’s 1970 film Five Easy Pieces, just before the canonical chicken sal san diner scene – ‘You want me to hold the chicken?’ ‘Yeah. I want you to hold it between your knees!’ – Jack Nicholson’s character, Bobby, and his waitress girlfriend, Rayette, pick up two stranded women from the side of the road. The two travelers, Palm and Terry, say that they were on their way to Alaska when the steering in the car they’d just bought – ‘brand new from a used car lot’ – cut out on them. Bobby, curious about the destination, asks if the women had planned on vacationing in Alaska. Terry says no and explains that Palm is convinced that life there is cleaner, sparking a long discourse by Palm on the social evils plaguing the world.

Concerned with far more than hygiene, Palm’s claim is about a physical and metaphysical uncleanliness she sees threatening society. It centers on a loosely Marxist critique of capitalist consumerism –

I got depressed, seeing all the crap. And the thing is, they’re making more crap, you know? They’ve got so many stores and stuff and junk full of crap, I can’t believe it . . . Pretty soon there won’t be room for anyone. They’re selling more crap that people go and buy than you can imagine. Oofh! Crap! I believe everybody should have a big hole where they throw in all this stuff and burn it.

– but her big sticking point is filth. All of the garbage inevitably produced in the wake of this extreme consumption has contaminated and begun to overtake society. Filth is what she sees now, filth everywhere, empty bottles, crap, billboard crap advertising more crap, all of it progressively making everyone filthier and filthier.
Filth, people being dirty, is at the root of all societal problems, she continues – ‘I think that’s the biggest thing that’s wrong with people. I think they wouldn’t be as violent if they were clean, because then they wouldn’t have anybody to pick on . . . Not dirt. See, dirt isn’t bad. It’s filth. Filth is bad. That’s what starts maggots and riots.’

But just as she’s gotten into high gear – and really, we’ve got to give her credit for the rather impressive thematic tour she’s made – she cuts herself off. She leans up from the back seat and tells Bobby to follow the truck in front of them. Truckers, she says, always know the best places to stop.

That’s an old maid’s tale.

Bullshit! Truck drivers know the best eating places on the road.

Salesmen and cops are the ones. If you’d ever waitressed, honey, you’d know.

Don’t call me ‘honey’, mack.

Don’t call me ‘mack’, honey.

I wouldn’t be a waitress. They’re nasty and full of crap.

You better hold onto your tongue!

(giving her the finger) Hold onto this.

Just one minute, you! Don’t you ever talk to me like that!

Shut up! All of you!

At this point, the scene has unfolded into a miniature masterpiece of self-reflexivity, every element in harmonic concert with the next: during a drive down a highway lined with advertisements for crap and full of trash in the median, a lecture on societal filth is jarred from the theoretical and falls into the concrete when Palm levies charges of bullshit against Rayette’s conventional wisdom. Rayette becomes an accidental exhibit of Palm’s argument as the latter asserts that the root of Rayette’s bullshit lies in her being, as a waitress, full of crap – that is, filth incarnate.

Palm’s logic links bad information to crappy people, something I heard my father once do when explaining the importance of a good bullshit-meter. Sensitivity to bullshit, he explained, achieves two things: not only does it reject the validity of a claim, it, more importantly, also signals a judgment about the character of the person making the claim. Or, in Palm’s language, it’s more than just dirt, something that occurs naturally; it’s about the condition of being dirty, it’s about filth. Bullshit, not merely a satisfying expression of frustration, deals in terms of truth and justice. Sensitivity to it requires not only a consideration of the veracity of questionable statements but also a criticality toward the sources of the statements.

Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton, makes a similar point in his essay, ‘On Bullshit’. Bullshit, Frankfurt argues, is something deliberately misrepresentational, a statement ‘not germane to the enterprise of describing reality’ despite purporting to inform just that. Bullshit is more than a lie, it’s fakery on top of falsity – a non-truth engendered as truth, yes, but moreover, a speaker indifferent to the misrepresentation. Whereas lying is only about deliberately passing off falsehood as truth (communicating something other than a believed truth) bullshit, Frankfurt concludes, is about being wholly unconcerned with how things really are. A lie and then some, bullshit is about getting people to believe the way you explain how things are: the bullshitter’s ‘only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.’ Deception as such isn’t the bullshitter’s chief aim. Bullshit is first and foremost a question of utility – one bullshits only until the audience agrees or signals that they have been convinced.

All well and good but, in a world of Google, is this even a concern anymore? Aren’t we living in, like, a post-bullshit society? When Frankfurt points out that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, something that defined much of 20th-century intellectual discourse, was essentially a project to identify and remove forms of non-sense, i.e. bullshit, from our thinking and speech, I begin to wonder if this isn’t only a 20th-century problem. When I first watched the scene in Five Easy Pieces, I wondered if it didn’t date itself through the eccentricity of Palm’s claims. Were Palm to begin her diatribe in the back of a car or a bar today, she wouldn’t get half as far before someone whipped out a smart phone and started checking her facts: no, Alaska is still contaminated from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in ‘89; no, hyper-hygienic America has witnessed more acts of random and indiscriminate violence in the last decades than any other first-world nation; no, maggots and riots have nothing to do with one another. Or whether Palm wouldn’t have skipped the whole tiff with Rayette and just googled something like ‘are truckers better yelpers than salesmen’. If only there had been a smart phone in the back seat with Palm, she could have called Rayette on her bullshit with a little more empirical superiority!


Or perhaps not. To investigate the possibility of a post-bullshit existence, let’s fast forward a bit. I’m at dinner with friends in a place touting the best burger in Berlin (no bullshit: at least two third-party blog posts on the internet corroborate the claim). There’s a bottle of Heinz ketchup on the table, and someone asks the trite question about the 57: what does it stand for? One answer – there were originally 57 varieties of ketchup produced by Heinz – is followed by another – Heinz was originally a pickler and grew 57 different species of cucumber. Feeling confident after a few drinks and in the wake of having conquered the enormous burger (which may not have been the best one I’ve eaten in the city, so maybe bullshit?), I claim with a good deal of certainty that it refers to the 57 tomatoes required to produce a bottle’s worth of ketchup. As if I had any authority to say it. I take the bottle in my hand and immediately notice the word ‘varieties’ beneath the 57. I try to backpedal.

So my answer is a bluff, straight bullshit, although I had heard the 57-tomatoes-per-bottle bit before. I wasn’t spouting things off the top of my head, just copping someone else’s bullshit as my own.

I hoped the mistake would blend into the noise of the table and that the conversation would veer elsewhere, but across from me, Roger – 57-pickles theorist – pulls out his phone to verify. Heinz 57, he reads from Wikipedia, is a marketing campaign begun in 1896 after H. J. Heinz saw a billboard advertising a shoe shop with ‘21 styles’ and liked the ring of it. The 57 was chosen randomly. Heinz explained the choice alternately and inconsistently as a combination of his and his wife’s lucky numbers or as an attempt to subtly influence customers using what he believed was the universal attraction of the number 7. In other words, the 57 is bullshit.

This isn’t very encouraging for the post-bullshit theory. The certainty (‘certainty’) brought by ubiquitous access to Google corrects our bullshit only to reveal more bullshit. Bullshit all the way down. Despite whatever potential optimism I might have had about remedying the problem of filth by having iPhone-and-Google bullshit meters commonplace, it seems like we’ve arrived back at Palm’s worry all over again – everything is filth – this time with a search bar to certify that the shit is, indeed, shit.

But I think there is another factor that makes the contemporary situation distinctly more odious than the consumerist-capitalist crap that riled up Palm. Not only do our daily habits of internet use confirm the bullshit that already surrounds us, our specific devotion to the internet’s myriad forms of social media over the last decade has resulted in overwhelming new opportunities for bullshit: wholly new stages for deliberate misrepresentation made available to us on a very personal scale. And further, through their prevalence and pervasiveness, social media allow us to indulge in these new forms of bullshit with extreme ease and rampancy. The days of bullshitting the number of beers one drank last night or the length of that fish caught last weekend seem innocent in the face of the insidious ability to bullshit one’s own personality and entire identity through the meticulous curation of a Facebook profile or a Twitter account or an Instagram filter, and not just in the extreme ‘catfish’ cases. Even a mundane use of social media encourages a bullshit of discrepancy. It is a bullshit that arises from the inconsistency between the controlled, linear, and, most of all, easily shareable narrative of a Facebook timeline and the inconstant, schizophrenic, messy reality of our physically situated personalities. The bullshit of social media occurs when we forget this discrepancy, grow complicit with these artificial narratives as proxies for real people, and begin to conflate the two. Whether it’s because we’ve grow lazy or numb, we become indifferent to the misrepresentation of self that pervades our own and others’ behavior online.

Dig a little deeper and one finds a disturbing societal precondition for the complacency and tolerance we demonstrate toward this misrepresentation. While social media certainly promote this bullshit of consistent, coherent personal narrative, it’s worth mentioning that younger American generations (namely, mine) have been more or less trained since childhood to present and understand themselves in terms of neat, prepackaged, cultivated categories. Which is to say: I see little difference between the discrepant trouble of social media and the forest of static, indelible, and reductionist alphanumerics that one accrues from primary school onward – GPA, SAT, MCAT, GRE, BS, MFA, PhD, INTJ, CV, $$$. Both create a dialectic between an individual’s purported capabilities and her unique and unpredictable capacity to exercise them. Each of the numbers signals another opportunity for personalized misrepresentation or misdirection, another opportunity for expectations and assumptions that cannot, in their fixed precision, reflect the complete, uncertain, ever-changing individual. Each of these capital letter acronyms is an outlet for what Frankfurt would describe as bullshit’s essential catalyst: claims and opinions on topics that exceed our capacity for knowledge. One cannot simply reduce a life down to a decimal place. The conclusion to Frankfurt’s piece, while perhaps pessimistic, makes crystal clear the fundamental bullshit inherent to both the narrative templates proffered by social media and the numbers and letters we boast on our CVs:

. . . there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things.

Thus, the profiles we deal in, be they on a website or on a cover letter, are little more than definitional bullshit.

What we are left with is a cultural climate of discrepancy in personality – virtual vs. actual, numerical vs. performative. Combine this with the ever growing Googley-ness of our day to day – with an awareness that the means to expose this discrepancy is lurking in every purse and pocket – and we have a perfect storm of bullshit. Not only do I engage in constant (albeit often inadvertant) misdirection regarding my identities, I suffer from an acute and persistent paranoia that my real capacites will appear and contradict the artificial ones. The paranoia is exacerbated by the social-media megalomania that catalyzes it in the first place, a megalomaniacal paranoia akin to a dictator who begins to suspect that everyone is a rival plotting against him. It’s a vicious cycle of egoism and insecurity.

Observations of this phenomenon have become commonplace. Karl Taro Greenfeld describes the environment that conditions this information-bullshit paranoia in a New York Times opinion piece titled ‘Faking Cultural Literacy’ from the end of May this year:

What we all feel now is the constant pressure to know enough, at all times, lest we be revealed as culturally illiterate. So that we can survive an elevator pitch, a business meeting, a visit to the office kitchenette, a cocktail party, so that we can post, tweet, chat, comment, text as if we have seen, read, watched, listened. What matters to us, awash in petabytes of data, is not necessarily having actually consumed this content firsthand but simply knowing that it exists — and having a position on it, being able to engage in the chatter about it. We come perilously close to performing a pastiche of knowledgeability that is really a new model of know-nothingness. . . . Whenever anyone, anywhere, mentions anything, we must pretend to know about it. Data has become our currency.

And The Onion (perhaps bullshit at its absolute finest) captures the upshot in a headline at the end of January, ‘Report: Today The Day They Find Out You’re A Fraud: Sources are confirming that everyone – absolutely everyone – will finally figure out today that your entire life is a desperately fraudulent joke, and that you yourself are nothing more than a charlatan and a hack.’



So many internet sources packaging so much information for easy consumption in a data-greedy world. So many outlets of social media allowing so many varieties of a precisely tuned self-narrative that are all only so many distortions of reality. So many dinner guests pulling out so many iPhones to double-check the origin of so many Heinz 57s.

We have become the simultaneous subjects and objects of bullshit: seemingly endless methods to bullshit others and seemingly endless numbers of tools that catch us in the act of doing it. What does this equate to? We’re all full of crap and everyone knows it.

So then is it worse now than it was for Palm? Have we indeed experienced an increase in bullshit in the years following the advent of things as arbitrary as the Internet or social media or standardized tests?

Frankfurt contends no: ‘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.’

Or, Prof. Frankfurt, why don’t we just google it? With Google’s handy data mining service, N-Gram, which searches for terms across the handful million books that Google has digitized, we can finally get our hands on some hard facts re: the state of things. We’ll produce two rough plots, one tracking the use of the term as an expletive, the other tracking bullshit’s appearance in the context of duplicity and misrepresentation.



However we are supposed to interpret the chart*, it doesn’t bode particularly well. Bullshit(untruth) overtakes bullshit(expletive) sometime in the early 90s (February 1, 1994: Green Day release Dookie?) and begins a markedly steep climb at the end of the century (dot com boom?). Whatever the reasons, it would appear that Palm gets her vindication here over Frankfurt: Google says so! There is more bullshit plaguing our existence now than there was before, or we’re at least talking about it more, maybe even swearing about it more. As far as bullshit is concerned, we appear to be getting both angrier and more deeply buried in untruths. I wouldn’t be surprised if the two are linked. Google ironically reminding us again that it might in fact just be bullshit all the way down.

But if the all-knowing Google (among many other sources) has fifty ways to confirm Palm’s suspicions that bullshit is on the rise, then a question more on-the-nose might be: what does it matter if the graph signals our inevitable burial in bullshit? If everything is bullshit, does the worry about ‘is it bullshit or not’ continue to make a difference anymore? Won’t it all just be indistinguishable? A ‘this is water bullshit’ sort of thing?

This ubiquitous bullshit conclusion appears, at first glance, to share a dangerous border with nihilism. Frankfurt holds this sentiment and remarks in his conclusion that the bullshitter is a greater enemy to truth than the liar. Whereas liars oppose themselves to the truth and defy the authority that truth demands, the bullshitter, Frankfurt claims, neither rejects the authority of truth nor sets himself against it; the bullshitter ‘pays no attention to it at all.’ Frankfurt writes that, ‘Through excessive indulgence in [bullshit], which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person’s normal habit of attending to the way things are may become attenuated or lost.’ From this standpoint, burial in bullshit would result in constant manipulation from all forms of rhetoric and, moreover, a slowly loosening grip on reality. It’s a fair point. But I think the truth about contemporary bullshit is more nuanced than brute nihilism or lost reality in two very important respects.

First, I’m not convinced that everything is bullshit for the simple fact that, like Palm, Roger, and Frankfurt, we get frustrated and angry at bullshit’s pervasive, nonchalant disregard for the truth. To do this requires a dialectic, something decidedly non-shit against which we can compare and identify the real shit. Our capacity for response in itself gestures to some kind of ‘real’ that we can sense and sense that bullshit is not.

Second, and more importantly, that we can call bullshit on bullshit suggests that it has an inherent significance as bullshit. Bullshit signifies something. We make a big deal out of bullshit. We expose people over it. We are ashamed of our own. We are moved by it, and we, bullshitters that we are, move it. Bullshit has consequences and effects. It achieves very humorous (e.g. Onion satire) and very terrible (e.g. megalomaniac paranoia) results. Misrepresentative garbage or not, the phenomenon of bullshit belongs to the real. It is significant.

Bullshit deserves to be considered and examined precisely because we can recognize that we don’t like it and yet we can hardly defend ourselves from it, from others’ bullshit and from the bullshit we produce ourselves. Given the notorious difficulty of presenting one’s identity as a consistent totality, bullshit as inconsistency in behavior and thought – whether exacerbated by something like social media or overexposed by a search bar in every jeans pocket – translates into an indelible mark of being a human. So when Palm links problematic ideas to crappy people, her claim is tantamount to a tautology.

The balance here is tricky. One would be naive not to think that life isn’t actually about learning to deal with and have patience with – and even fall in love with – crappy people (this writer the crappiest). But we can appreciate Palm’s worry that the world is being overrun by nonsense bullshit (verbal, commodified, aesthetic, pseudo-scientific, buzzfed, whatever) propagated by careless bullshitters and enabled by people who don’t know their bullshit meter from a hole in the ground. But precisely on account of Frankfurt’s link between human identity and essential misrepresentation, I hesitate to assert that any product of human culture or artifice isn’t, at some level, going to reveal fakery, inconsistency, bullshit. If we avoid nihilism by casting bullshit (or at the very least, its effects) as a big deal, then we have to be willing to acknowledge that our own big deals might also be bullshit.

I’m not bothered by this wager. Whether or not we’re up to our necks in bullshit has no bearing on our ability to cultivate things that captivate us or produce things whose beauty astounds us. While there may be many voices and positions that critique bullshit, I’ve yet to encounter anything that points to a mutual exclusiveness between bullshit and human interest or aesthetic beauty. (Frankfurt himself talks about the ‘art’ or ‘craft’ of bullshit.) You might even say that the great ambiguity of bullshit is its remarkable potential to produce the things that we call extraordinary. What is Warhol talking about if not deliberate misrepresentation when he describes art as ‘whatever you can get away with’? Now isn’t that some bullshit?

Maybe not. I’m not sure the distinction is entirely productive.+

*Thanks to Boris Igic for providing the original inspiration for the N-Gram and helping to get the variables straight.


2014: William Stewart lives in Berlin and works at Studio Olafur Eliasson.


Kunegunda Kunstdottir Kosmically Klouds Up & Kashes a Kheque



Kune Kunstdottir herself had gone missing just minutes ago, but no one noticed yet. So far it had only gotten to Double Anal requesting a video chat. His ‘’Sup?’ simply waited in a queue of text boxes on her terminal. On his handset, Kune’s cursor registered as an ellipsis, pausing long enough for his taskmaster’s heart to go slightly wild… Say what you’d never say to me, Kune… then Double Anal waited in his seat twice as long as protocol before: ‘?!?’

Of course there weren’t ‘doors’ on the Work Pod. When young ‘nauts slipped out back to fill their helms like the gasmask bongs of their schooldays, no screen door slapped a Doppler echo behind their float off. The small ship was instead perforated with Acconci Holes, which sucked in potentially catastrophic space junk, passed it through the interior, and out again via an opposite wall, antipodean-style. A culture of disappearance scams and pranks grew among the ‘nauts. Illegal cell phones passed into infinite nonexistence the moment the supervisor, Double Anal, entered a task chamber, or various team member’s members poked out of the shell when one of their brothers was spaceside on wrench duty. Because everything on board could be dangled by string or Velcro into the unknowable, nothing gone missing was reasonably expected to be found. Nothing was lost in space, but it was loose.

Acconci Holes are comprised of a frame and a film. The taut emulsion casts the slightest orange pale on the outside world with the uncanny effect that outer space always appears filtered, slightly old, nostalgic, as if calling up memories of Papa carrying you on his shoulders towards Orion’s Belt. This film is called the Mucus Membrane. Bookish ‘nauts will tell you this nomenclature is an effort to naturalize a structure so maddeningly contrary to Terra-based experience. The term is, in fact, an homage to the aphlegmatic and flemmy speech of its inventor about whom it was said, ‘word is born.’

Kune is in a storage closet, nearly empty of stuff due to the previously mentioned hole situation. Because of this, the room was perhaps the spacecraft’s most spacious, barren and calm, with a wall-sized Acconci. Set it and forget it. ‘Nauts would leave junk, incriminating documents, ill-fitting official workwear, etc. perilously close to the hole in expectation that the pod would soon enough go turbulent and the junk would go gone.

She stretches out like a Marin yogini. Her exercise is being digitally recorded, but won’t be screened until afterwards. Management will treat the footage as a deposition. Creepsters will play it off the server, tagging it: morbidgonzo nocloseups moonshot spaceritual sexysilhouette kune kunegunda kunegundakunstdottir. In this sense she was an everyday normie of the Adjacent Future, nude and ‘on tape’.

Observed from behind she appears to be straight chilling out before the dark, star-glittered vista of the closet wall. Front-facing, and so off-camera, she leans into the wall of mucus and holds the position. This is disgusting and becomes lethally dangerous as her nose and mouth push through the surface. Having passed from wet suffocation into dry drowning, she breathes in nothing, except possibly ‘star stuff’ which would take millions of years of evolution before being life-giving. She gasps, her diaphragm seizes, she gets rigid, and she holds. Poor Kune has taken this unsanctioned break from work to have a total breakdown and intends to die before she gets in trouble.

So far little is known about her internal life and what may have dragged her into this awful circumstance. Something could be made of the fact that Kune was just then similarly in the dark. She had moved purposefully away from her desk, a fatal thought appeared, and she took the samurai’s seven steps into the nascent plane of absolute Real Action. Now, she was learning incredibly fast. It was as if she had opened up and exposed herself to an alien intelligence lurking just around the corner from the closet hole. This predatory consciousness looked up, flicked its cigarette to the curb, and met her gaze with hungry eyes. Yes, she was downloading weird shit super fast. It was pink laser learning.

She knew presently that she wanted to live. She pushes harder through the mucus to take a bigger bite of the void. Her face and shoulders burn from the cold like a liquid nitrogen acne treatment. Space is a skin-peeler. A youth’s worth of bummed-out pimples and ignored warts evaporate on touch. In one delicious move she’s all the way into it. She gets it, whole.

This has been the first nude spacewalk. The immediate judgment is total success, but it’s only been a few seconds.

It’s now that Double Anal bursts into the room. Not knowing what to do he takes a second look at his handset with its live surveillance feed of what’s plain to his eyes. Kune is on the wrong side of the Acconci. She’s freezing into a fetal ball, gyro-spinning ultra fast around her core, and a frightening grin is ripping itself off her face. Feebly he reaches out to her with a mop handle that shatters instantly at contact with her churning celestial body. Another guy is there, Curly Budz. He was Kune’s bunkmate and lunch partner. The mop bucket is in his hands, but he doesn’t think to take his escape and start puking. Both men will shortly wonder how much time passed before Kune first imploded and then exploded into a warm colored puff of mist.


ZLOOOOOOOOOOSH! Kune had nodded off from all the spinning and when her head bobbed up awake she noticed she no longer had one.

She had been asleep for a beat. Her mind had dreamed a bit too much for how long it was, and whatever substance there had been to it was gone now, as her attention was rapt with the fact of her missing body. All the fluids inside her had atomized and sprayed out of her every pore, nostril, ear canal, butthole, and tear duct. With her spacewalk suicide she achieved a zero state where all that is solid melts into air. Spectacularly, the center holds in her now decentralized form. Brain fluid, urine, bile, trace hormones, and so on hang together as a nebula the size of a Mazda Miata. Its smell surprises her: the scent of a human completely averaged out and well-mixed, a stink, almost a skunky perfume, cannabinoid and malty with vinegar Mother. Before all this, sense memories of odors, tastes, and touches had reliably emerged from a personal past too infantile and so unpersonal that Kune had often found herself triggered into reveries of a cheerio crusted to her bib and then its staleness in her mouth or the dull stink of a rubber suction cup on her baby chest while laying in a crib, or an armrest, in a hospital, or at home, maybe her great-aunt’s, she’d have to ask her mother to be sure of anything. But the way she smelled herself now, and the way she touched her own every grain with a viscous caress only reminded herself of herself just then. She reclines and luxuriates.

A day passes for her as Kune the Kloud.



Curley Budz was laid out on his bunk slab. Like every night, the flat-file bed system had slid open, received him, and the drawer shut him inside. At the closing, the low rumble of sheet metal wobbling false-signified a thunderhead bringing a downpour. But it was muted, a county and many hills away, and would never hit. Sleeping through a storm would be a well-known comfort right now.

Curley turned onto his side and looked out the personal-sized Acconci on the wall side of his drawer. It was like a little portal window in a ship. Back at the university an elderly and patrician professor had told him that he “really must” travel in a private room on something “at least” as good as the Queen Mary if he was going to bother with crossing the Atlantic and going to Europe. A summer internship on the work pod had turned into a job even as he maintained the most tenuous of part-time status at the school in Iowa. Now he had been to space and crossed over the Atlantic and Europe five times a day.

He ashed a joint in the hole. Friends who had quit pot at bedtime told him that after a few weeks they started dreaming again. Curley was waiting for sleep to come so he could blank out.

Today was singularly awful for him. Nearly everyday prior had seemed a contender for the worst yet ever. That would be until Kune slid into the drawer above him, and then they would chat for a bit with their voices softened by the aluminum sheets between them. The friends would gross each other out or essentially narrate a whole day of time-wasting on the web or just bitch sesh. Anecdotes turned to non-sequiturs and soon she was talking in her sleep. Hearing her mumble and dream was like walking down the street when someone fabulous crosses you going the other way chatting on the phone. You catch enough of one side to wonder: What world is that? What’s its number? How can I set up a van full of gear, follow her, and phone freak her conversations all day every day? And she laughed in her sleep. It was in a deeper voice than in her waking. You could hear her bare teeth in it. And her sleeping body rolled constantly. Deep in the night her feet kept a rhythm with rabbit kicks into the metal slab cot and the storm system would hover above his noisy tin shack. She was so wonderfully loud. She was so active.

Since Kune blew herself up that mid-morning her debris had hung in a shallow orbit around the work pod. Double Anal tried to relieve everyone by informing them of the truism that “space sifts smooth, soon enough”. Throughout the afternoon he sent out a folder full of official messages, CCed and urgent. There was a grief consoling FAQ and a hotline available for full-time permanent employees. A reminder that the no-smoking policy will be observed even in this time of grief, if only to respect the integrity of Ms. Kunstdottir’s remains. Forwarded from HR in Pittsburgh, a video called “Workplace Suicides: Don’t Do It”. Attached to an email announcing the cancellation of unessential evening shifts was an infomatic link for Kune’s memorial, held tomorrow during lunch hour. ‘You’re Invited!’

Through his Acconci, Curly observed what had been Kune pass through his field of view. It caught the sunlight that was now bending around the rim of the Earth below. A double corona lit up before him as Kune and the weather above the Indian Ocean caught fire. Two prism filaments pulsed and went out. Then it was blue skies below and Kune gone round the hull. Curly held in a drag, brought his lips to the Mucus Membrane. His kiss sent a little purple cloud into space that was immediately sucked into Kune’s slipstream and disappeared.



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When the drawer above him slid shut with a closing bang, then again when the aluminum sheets registered the weight of someone settling into bed, Curley immediately awoke. ‘Helloo-oo-oo?’ He raised up on one elbow and pulled his head back as this sad howl whimpered into the upper compartment.

Silence. Then Curley heard a body turn over to face him through the floor. Another silence. Then a distant muzzled voice said, ‘Is it you?’

‘It is . . . I . . . You’re . . ’

‘You sleep with the light on . . .’

Curley thought of the rim of light that edged the gaps in the frame of his drawer when the Acconci was turned towards the dayside of the Earth or the Sun as it was now.

Again the voice burbled through the floor, ‘The electricity has been out… off… I came down to fetch a book.’

‘To read in the dark?’

Then Curley heard the body roll towards the wall. While the metal thundered, a hand-headed eel exited space and entered his bunk through the Acconci. Almost simultaneously, Curley felt his face palmed and pressed down, fingers inside his shirt pinching, a brush down his torso until its reach was at full extension. Then it was under his pillow, grabbing. It recoiled out the hole taking Curley’s personal journal along in its clenched maw.

Completely freaked, Curly pushed his drawer open and leapt to his feet in the corridor. To keep the bed system from falling over, only one cot can be opened at a time, so depending on how non-spectral what had just happened was, he may have contained the bunk invader. On the wall opposite, his pager hung on a hook. It was cheeping. Instinctually Curley slipped it on his wrist as he read a message left by Double Anal: ‘A-hem.’

This was followed by a couple kicks from inside the top drawer, and a duplicate message in all caps.

Curley shut his drawer and the action seemed to push Kune’s open above it. The boss sat upright on the cot. He held a pillow between his knees and chest. He was backlit by an Acconci in Kune’s compartment, and so his expression and mood was unknown, but his posture seemed exhausted.

‘Double Anal. The fuck?’

‘DONALD ALLEN.’ And a notch lower, ‘Donald Allen.’

‘OK. What the fuck, Donald Allen?’

‘I need to understand what happened today. I need to understand because I’ll still be here tomorrow. At the memorial, I’ll have to explain to everyone why she did it. The ‘nauts want to know why. Space is deep, but I’ll find the bottom of it.’

‘Was there always a hole in Kune’s chamber?’

‘You think?’ Donald Allen laughed a little. ‘You think I’m hiding a bore drill in my night sweats? A mucus spreader? You stupid?’

‘She never mentioned it.’

‘She mention a diary? I need to read it. I’m going to read it and sleep in her drawer tonight. She and I had a close connection, very similar subconscious stuff going on. It would take very little for our dreams to overlay, I imagine.’

‘But you took my journal.’

‘I told you. It was very dark. Maybe she kept her diary on the outside, velcroed? I was just ‘grabbing black’, as one does. Mr. Budz, aren’t we all… reaching out in the darkness? As far as I can tell whatever lines you’ve written down will only be a few feet off from what Kune may have put down herself. Hot on the trail.’ Donald Allen lay down in bed. He turned on a head-mounted reading lamp. ‘Slip me in, will you? Tuck me.’

Curly obliged and put Donald Allen down for the night. Both drawers hummed in blue daylight spilling out the edges. He imagined a happier time that never was. Kune and him getting ready for Spring Break, 2-for-1 at the tanning parlor.

As he left the Sleep Archive, a chirp from Donald Allen: ‘Did I take too long to reply?’



It was early morning when Curley finally threw his body through an Acconci and killed himself instantly. One finds his footfalls matching those of another passerby, and a day is spent going wherever the other, steps ahead, has determined. Night comes quickly, and you’re in a strange quarter, or more likely, outside her house. There’s a last peek into the window, a final photograph, and the following piece has been performed.

A regrettable facet of a copycat suicide is its modesty of gesture and refusal of authorship. Curley approached death not in the manner in which he was born, but dressed in the jammies provided by his employer. Kune took a skinny dip, Curley waded-in still wearing his t-shirt. For reasons we know nothing about, this decision to enter space fully clothed, but without a spacesuit, resulted in Curley’s body blowing apart before it had even frozen. He did not atomize. If he had only known, he could have instead lain down and dreamed. Then he would have passed from one dream into the next. But time was running out. In another hour he would have had to report in to work, and that never would have been long enough for him to learn the impossible reality of Kune’s failed death. But he could have sat on the floor, or better still, in bed, laying there whimpering and alone, confused and defeated. He could’ve carried on living like that, instead he chose the comfort afforded to those who run amok. The End.

There is no sound in space, and so Kune the Kloud had no way of hearing the explosion that had taken place on the other side of the pod. The tiny flint spark of Curley’s explosion was only momentarily visible by dint of the complete black that occurred when the pod and earth aligned, a phenomenon since named Curley’s eclipse.. But this was also remote to Kune. It was an hour later when on a whim her gaseous mass rolled backwards around the janitorial wing. The particular arc of that section of the pod pleased her, and she had immediately learned to trace it with her shifting form. Having done this, she discovered the soiled sweat suit and tube socks that still held inside some of Curly’s remainder. She was disgusted not only by the grizzle but by the lumpy corporeality of the mess surrounding her. The wreck of Curley touched thousands of her nodes simultaneously. Had she known it was him, she would have shivered from the irritant but stayed at his side. But she had breathed in the smoke of a burning brush pile with poison ivy mixed in the leaves. She had put ear drops in her eyes. There was thrush in her mouth and yeast in her vag. Being around Curly became unbearable in no time. Kune further dispersed herself.

Dissipated into a thin atmosphere encircling the whole pod, Kune the Kloud wasn’t really happening anymore. Sensations were vague and she wasn’t certain that she was feeling much more than one whisp of herself at a time. Whatever she was thinking bounced from grain to grain in echolalia. There was an aching and a dimming. Then the entirety of her collapsed through all of the Acconcis and she was back inside.

A peculiarity of the HVAC system onboard causes all dust and particulate to collect in the family bathroom near the fitness center. Someone had found Kune in there, at that stage only a reconstituting jelly, on the floor next to the toilet. No one thought it was a good idea to move her, because no one understood what had happened and was happening to her, but lying there she was close to dripping away into the drain. So Kune was raised off the ground and placed on the foldout diaper changing station. Weeks pass, she hardens up, stops gooping everywhere, and develops a fully functioning hairstyle.

Looking nearly normal and feeling totally weird, she’s back at home in Illinois. There’s a standard settlement that resolves her work grievances. Part of it is an offer to pay for school or job training. After a campus visit, Kune cuts a cheque. She is brought in for accelerated orientation, and then enrolls as an at-large online student at the Art Academies International – Cook County. The envelope of her body had been slit open, her mail had been read by Creation itself, and, resealed, she was returned to the post box. Until now, has history ever known a correspondence student with greater potential?+


Andy Roche is an artist and lecturer living in Chicago.


exiling waste: on Wastepaper Modernism

Joseph Elkanah Rosenberg in conversation with William Stewart


Joseph Elkanah Rosenberg teaches in the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His research interests focus on 20th-century British, Irish, and American fiction and his first book, Wastepaper Modernism: Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Ruins of Print, will appear soon. William Stewart interviewed him over email.

WILLIAM STEWART: Your forthcoming book is titled Wastepaper Modernism: Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Ruins of Print – can you unpack that? The name is ambiguous, suggesting both an interest in ruined print (i.e. wastepaper) and the ruin of print (i.e. paper, printed matter as waste). Are these examined together in the book or is the project after something else altogether?

JOSEPH ELKANAH ROSENBERG: The short is answer is that I’m interested in both paper as a waste product – scraps, crumpled balls, tattered posters, and other papery debris – as well as the process by which it comes to be wasted. Or, to be specific, I’m interested in the literary imagination of these things. What I do in Wastepaper Modernism is examine a kind of obsession with destroyed print that haunts the modern novel from roughly the late 19th-century on. The modern novel is filled with images of wastepaper that, I think, tell us something about how fiction’s relationship to its own media begins to change around the turn of the century. Compulsively picturing the rotting of its own pages, the modernist novel seems anxiously aware of its own eventual decay. This obsession is, I think, at least in part a reaction to the emergence of new media technologies and art forms, like the cinema and the phonograph. Confronted with the new phenomenon of media that can actually record life and not just represent it through printed words, the novel becomes anxiously aware of its own scrappy materiality. It’s for this reason that wastepaper tends to appear in modernist fiction at moments of representational failure, or at least when representation is threatened – when the descriptive capabilities of language breakdown, the novel imagines instead the material decay of its own pages.

But wastepaper also tends to appear in the modernist novel in the place of something lost. For instance, in Henry James’s late fiction, when a character can’t recall some crucial memory there’s inevitably a description of some kind of wastepaper: a crumpled telegram, say, or a peeling billpost. In D.H. Lawrence’s Sons & Lovers, the first thing that’s described after Paul Morel’s mother dies and his lovers all leave him is a scrap of paper blowing along the pavement. We’re told that it reminds him that he’s alone. In both cases, wastepaper acts as a kind of material remainder – a left-behind thing that both emblematizes and takes the place of what has been lost. And of course it’s wastepaper that will show up at these moments, because it is, inevitably, the novel’s own material remainder – the thing that will remain when reading is over.

WS: Why is your discussion called ‘Wastepaper Modernism’? What makes this a distinctly modern phenomenon, besides the fact that you concentrate on modern literature? Is it that post-modernism would try to piece all the ruins together and say that it’s not actually waste but production, and that the iGeneration can’t understand wastepaper because everything is already backed up on its hard-drive?

JER: Before I get into what is uniquely modernist about this obsession with wastepaper, I should say that literature has always had an uneasy relationship to its own pages, even prior to the invention of the page. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, ends with Gilgamesh inscribing his story into the walls of Uruk – a city that the reader knows is going to be destroyed. So the epic literally ends with a premonition of its own material ruin – even Uruk’s eternal columns will eventually crumble. Paper, being considerably more fragile than stone, comes with its own set of difficulties. As a material form, it’s inherently ephemeral – we describe something lacking substance as ‘paper thin’.

There was a fantastic treatise written sometime in the 15th century by a monk named Johannes Trithemus called De Laude Scriptorum [In Praise of Scribes] in which he derides the then ‘new media’ of paper as a kind of ersatz parchment subject to a quick decay. Such a prejudice against paper as insubstantial and ephemeral lasted well into the 19th century.

In his history of the French Revolution, Thomas Carlyle derisively refers to the revolutionary 1790s as a ‘Paper Age’ marked by bank-paper that has no real value, and book-paper that holds no real ideas. For Carlyle, paper’s ersatzness has corroded into a fully infectious degeneracy in which paper counterfeits things of real substance. And of course, it’s at this time that, along with the industrial revolution, we have the mass-circulation of paper – city streets become clogged with posters, newspapers, and all kinds of printed litter. And the 19th century novel (especially Dickens) is wastepaper mad – think of Krook’s warehouse of tattered documents in Bleak House or the reams that fly through the circumlocution office in Little Dorrit.

At the birth of modernism, paper is both materially ephemeral and physically omnipresent. But whereas for Victorians like Carlyle and Dickens, paper’s ephemerality devalues meaning, modernist wastepaper resists meaning. I’ll try to explain what I mean. The paper scrap that blows in front of Paul Morel may remind him that he’s alone, but it does so in a rather roundabout way – it’s not as if it’s a photograph of his mother. Rather, it reminds him that he’s alone because it’s hollow matter – it has no message to convey, it’s pure detritus. Like Paul at the end of the novel, it’s been emptied of anything meaningful. Modernist wastepaper is both a medium and a mess – a left-behind ruin of communication that ultimately communicates nothing more than the lack of communication. It fits in perfectly with modernism’s general fascination with failure, but also stands against its (at least occasional) desire for transcendence.

Postmodern wastepaper is, as you suspect, a much more productive thing – William S. Burroughs cutting up old texts to make new texts, B.S. Johnson reshuffling the pages of his novel, that sort of thing. They’re not quite piecing the ruins of print together, but they’re definitely giving waste a use value. Modernist wastepaper is utterly useless and completely unproductive!

As for the iGeneration, I think there’s something about our relationship to screens that is fundamentally different than our relationship to paper. The book is site-specific in a way that a screen is not. I should say that this thought is a bit counterintuitive. The literary critic F.W. Bateson famously once asked ‘if the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where is Hamlet?’ We tend to think of literature as having its true existence on some kind of astral plane – it doesn’t matter whether you read Hamlet in a folio or paperback. That’s just the hardware. But, of course, it’s only through the hardware of the page that we encounter a text. More than any other substance, paper moves and mediates between information and matter, between idea and thing. Reading a book, we lose track of the material on which it is printed. Noticing that material means diverting our eyes from the text and ceasing to read. And yet paper is entirely vital to the circulation of literature – it’s what books are made of – and there’s much to be said for reading’s sensory pleasures (the musty smell of old glue and ink, the crackling whisper of rustling pages, the dry scrape of paper against the fingers). In other words, the printed text has a kind of fluctuating materiality – both present and not present – which I think helps explain why the appearance of wastepaper in a text is so uncanny.

With screen media, information and matter have a clearer relationship – screens are projected on, not imprinted. A screen is a kind of vessel that contains images; printed paper has had words permanently scratched into it (we will briefly ignore pencils, though they too can leave a trace). To put it another way, while with computers you need certain hardware to run your software, the software nevertheless has a kind of independence from the machine. Print and paper are more problematically entwined.

WS: To expand my second question: does your book have any ramifications for the present state of affairs in which physical print seems to be increasingly endangered by digital text? Is there something significant about the existence of a printed form capable of being ruined that we lose through the surfeit of digital written forms? Do we lose something more than symbolism in the knowledge that blogs are never in danger of being burned?

JER: Well, while a blog may never be in danger of being burned, a computer certainly is. We all tend to think of electronic information – especially since the advent of ‘cloud’ storage – as having a kind of ethereal existence independent of physical machines. And in a sense it does. But this doesn’t mean that the information isn’t being stored somewhere. I know that I just said that software has more independence from hardware than print has from paper, but it’s not total freedom. Who hasn’t suffered from a corrupted hard drive? A few months ago, I had to have mine completely replaced because it apparently choked to death on dust. And who hasn’t come across a 404 error on the internet? ‘Server not found.’ In other words, the machine on which the website is hosted can’t be physically located. All this to say that as long as information is conveyed through matter, it will always be subject to decay. Cloud or no cloud, the internet depends on physical devices that will ultimately wreak their revenge on whatever we store on them. What I think we’ve lost is a sense of ecology. Because we don’t think of our devices as storehouses, we have a far more casual relationship to them. I have to replace my laptop every few years. I haven’t yet replaced my copy of Ulysses. Somewhere out there is a landfill filled with circuit boards, hard drives, and unloved old iPhones. We haven’t lost any waste, we’ve just exiled it from our view. Which of course allows us to make more of it. If anything, electronic media is the most wasteful technology of all. Unlike a Kindle, a book is recyclable. How long will it take for our piles of electronic waste to biodegrade?

As far as the threat of eBooks and the seemingly inevitable death of paper, I remain thoroughly skeptical for a number of reasons. One thing that I try to show in Wastepaper Modernism is that paper has been dying since the moment it was born, and there have always been worries about the ramifications this has for literature. These are not new concerns. It seems to me that the biggest stumbling block for eBooks is the question of ownership. From what I understand, when you purchase an eBook for your Kindle what you’re actually buying isn’t the text itself but rather a license to view it on your device. So who owns the text? And what will happen when your Kindle dies? Or when Amazon decides to phase out the Kindle in favor of, say, the new and improved Spindle or Twindle or Findle? Do you need to purchase a new license for your new device?

As it stands now, eBooks, though indisputably popular, aren’t really a medium unto themselves. Rather, though this is probably going to make me sound like Trithemus, they’re an ersatz product – a cheap replica that tries and fails to do what real paper does. The more e-readers like the Kindle try to replicate paper by allowing the reader to virtually turn pages, the more they advertise their screens as ‘paperwhite’, the more they reveal themselves as a counterfeit. As far as I know, while there are plenty of works only available as eBooks, no one has tried to create a genre that depends on the e-reader.

The truth of the matter is that computers already a have a medium-specific form of narrative – video games. It’s here, I think, that the computer’s literary future lies. And while video games will inevitably change the way paper-based narrative is told, it won’t replace the novel or poetry any more than the old new media of the cinema and radio did.

WS: I could also see how a discussion of wastepaper might carry an unfairly negative connotation. We’ve talked before about Dominique Laporte’s History of Shit, a central theme of which is that the development of individuality is closely linked to the implementation of sanitation systems in modern society. Slavoj Zizek echoes this link between our identity and waste during his interview in the film The Examined Life when, standing in front of a garbage processing facility, he says, ‘This is where we should start feeling at home. Part of our daily perception of reality is that this disappears from our world . . . But the problem is that trash doesn’t disappear.’ Is your book interested at all in this relationship, in the way that the wastepaper can play a role in revealing something about the nature of the wasters?

JER: I remember that scene. Zizek, like Oscar the Grouch, looks totally at home in a rubbish heap.

In any case, both Zizek and Laporte have their intellectual roots in post-Freudian (specifically Lacanian) psychoanalysis. And one of the major psychoanalytic ideas that has remained pretty stable over the past century is that the self is always defined by what it rejects. In other words, we become ourselves through an act of wasting. This is why Laporte sees the idea of the private citizen as arising with the invention of sanitation. Or, to be specific, a 16th-century French law requiring that human waste be disposed of in the home, not thrown into the street, which he sees as marking the invention of privacy. The difficulty is what we then do with the waste matter we reject – Zizek is right, it doesn’t just disappear.

Paper poses a similar problem. The pages we discard or leave behind make up a kind of psychic residue. We record our innermost thoughts in diaries, our confidences in letters; even a discarded shopping list can reveal uncomfortable psychological truths! I think this is why so many writers had a rather ruthless relationship to their own bookkeeping. Henry James, for instance, regularly burned his correspondence. While on one level this suggests a certain worry about posterity, I think it also tells us something about how we relate to our own mental waste. Where our formal pages show us at our best, wastepaper reveals our true selves in all their scrappy reality. I think this is another reason why when wastepaper appears in the modernist novel it tends to clog or obstruct stream-of-consciousness narration – it’s a residuum of the self that can’t be reabsorbed.

I should say, though, that while we may have an uneasy relationship to our own waste, our relationship with the waste of others can be even more weird. Portia Quayne, the orphan heroine of Elizabeth Bowen’s wonderful novel The Death of the Heart, collects all the junk mail her guardians receive and stuffs them into her escritoire. They provide her with a kind of illusion of love: look at all those letters, I must have so many friends! In other words, she fabricates an imaginary social world out of other people’s waste. Of course, this infuriates her guardians, who in the process of cleaning up Portia’s mess of letters discover – and naturally read – her diary, which has all sorts of disastrous consequences (namely, the disillusioning of all of Portia’s fantasies). All this to say that there is a close link between our waste and our self-illusions, and the relationship isn’t necessarily a happy one.

WS: Imagining one potential ‘opposite’ of wastepaper might be to think of an archive, where nothing is discarded as waste, but rather everything is given an order and a place. Jacques Derrida characterizes the idea of the archive in terms of hegemony, commanding institutional authority in order to protect the users of the archive from the unregulated and the uncertain. If this is an accurate portrayal of the ideology of an archive, how might waste paper represent a type of liberation through entropy?

JER: Interesting thought there, William. I really like the idea of wastepaper as an entropic force that threatens the archive’s hegemony. This being said, it’s an entropy that the very process of archivization produces.

From what I remember, Derrida makes the argument in Archive Fever that archives have historically been a tool of state power, a point that was earlier made by Michel Foucault in The Archaeology of Knowledge. Foucault calls the archive ‘the system that establishes statements as events and things’. Cataloguing, in other words, is inherently historiographical and inherently political. By giving documents an order and a place, the archive transforms the mess of the past into an official historical record. The word archive comes from the Greek arkhe, which means to govern – the arkheoin was the home of the chief magistrate, in which all the important state documents were kept. Like individuals, governments have a highly selective memory. While everything within a national archive is of course deemed important, what’s left out – what is, in other words, deemed waste – can be very telling. And this doesn’t just apply to atrocities that a state may wish to cover up, but to things as seemingly banal as paperwork. What could be more disillusioning to a nation’s brilliant image of itself as a shining beacon of freedom than heaps of forms relating to public zoning?

All this to say that while everything within an archive might have an ‘order and a place’, such cataloguing is only made possible through an act of waste (or, more politely, exclusion).

I should be clear, though, that this isn’t necessarily a sign of censorship, state control, or other kinds of deviousness; it’s simply how libraries work. They have to be selective: archives are physical spaces holding physical objects, and no library can grow quick enough to store all the documents we daily publish. Archivists and librarians have the horrible task of determining today what the future can afford to forget.

Nowhere is the relationship between the archive and its waste better demonstrated than in Jorge Luis Borges’s story ‘The Library of Babel’. Borges’s story imagines a total library that contains in its infinite collection of books every possible combination of the letters of the alphabet. Which, of course, means that in addition to holding all information that could ever be useful, the library also contains a lot of gibberish. The books are completely useless to their readers – rubbish, in other words – which leads to the rise of a cult of ‘purifiers’ who routinely destroy the nonsense books as they search for readable literature. All this to say, waste is built into the archive itself – indeed, the archive itself is a kind of managed wasting.

As far as wastepaper presenting a kind of liberation through entropy, I think I’d rather say that wastepaper simply reveals the processes of destruction and waste that the archive exploits. But then again, even archives routinely cull their own material. Perhaps wastepaper is a sign of the decay that even the archive will eventually succumb to. I need hardly tell the editor of a journal entitled Rough Beast that the center cannot hold for long.

WS: I once read a discussion on the 16th-century father of the essay, Montaigne, that situated him within a crisis of information: thanks to the advent of printing and the rapidly growing availability of books that occurred during his lifetime, he was ‘saturated with more knowledge than he could ever hope to understand as a coherent whole’, as Dudley March writes. In response, Montaigne abandoned as impractical all attempts to comprehensively organize the chaos of his experience, instead using his essays to piece together a psychological collage that was as idiosyncratic as it was incomplete. Four hundred years later, this sentiment would appear again at the end of T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land: ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins.’ Eliot’s allusion-laden poem, mocked by many contemporary reviewers as a parade of citations, juggles a difficult ambiguity: threatened by the information vortex that typifies modern existence (a vortex that Montaigne already felt in the mid 1500s), we seem to be trading waste for waste. Our only defense against the over- whelming totality of human experience that will surely tear us to shreds is to find refuge in whatever shards of the past we can gather around us and work into some pattern or narrative of significance. It seems like, as historically-situated and historically-conscious beings, we’re wastepaper either way. Do you think there is some historical essence that is illuminated when thinking about wastepaper? To be coy: is history wastepaper, and is wastepaper history?

JER: Again, my answer is both – history is wastepaper and wastepaper is history. As your mention of Montaigne makes clear, ever since the invention of the printing press (and probably earlier) we’ve been subject to a kind of vortex of information.

This really came to a head in the mid-19th century with the mass industrialization of print. Of course, it wasn’t just a case of there being too many texts to process – the vortex a problem of matter as much as it is of information. Dickens, for instance, regularly portrays London as a city clogged with rotting printed debris: bill-posts, flyers, newspapers, ticket stubs, cigarette papers, and other kinds of ephemera. In one piece he wrote for his journal, Household Words, he recounts meeting the King of the Bill-Stickers who lives in a kind of hut made out of putrid, decaying print. Dickens describes the King’s litter as presenting a kind of risk of contamination, as if it threatens to reduce all printed matter into waste.

It’s tempting to read The Waste Land as a kind of poetic staging of such a threat – in shoring together all of these fragments, the wandering ‘I’ of the poem ends up subjecting them to the ruin he fears. Whenever I teach the poem, I try to get students to see it as being as much about the wasting process as any specific kind of waste. Waste is something that happens in the poem – an active breakdown of distinctions between meaning and unmeaning. Indeed, the poem is far more ambivalent about waste than many readers have claimed (including Eliot himself, at least after his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism). At one point, the voice of the poem laments the fact that the Thames is not littered with ‘sandwich papers’, ‘cardboard boxes’, and other papery debris. Eliot clearly wants his waste.

To return to the question of wastepaper as a kind of history, I think it’s important to remember that the distinguishing line between rubbish and relic is rarely a neat one. In a report on Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee that he wrote for an American magazine, Henry James offers an account of a double-sided ‘historic page’ made up of a presentable recto and a sordid verso. The presentable recto is all the pomp and circumstance of the great occasion; the verso, however, is all the mess and debris left in its wake. That James figures this relationship as being two sides of one piece of paper makes the point beautifully: waste is the necessary backside of our historical consciousness.

WS: I notice in myself an embarrassing inability to get rid of any piece of paper that I’ve written on, and scribbled-on scraps are constantly falling out of my notebooks and journals because I don’t know what else to do with them. Since writing this book, have you become at all preoccupied with your own ‘wastepaper’? What’s currently inside the wastebasket at your desk?

JER: As I tend to write notes on whatever is immediately close to hand – old envelopes, bills, newspapers, articles – it can be a bit tricky for me to distinguish my waste from my work. I suppose, given my research topic, this is only appropriate. In any case, as my cat tends to ruffle through the rubbish, I’ve had to get rid of the wastepaper basket in my home office. Which of course means that my filing cabinets are a mess.+


Joseph Rosenberg is a professor in the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.


recursive grammar


In 2007, McKinsey & Company, in partnership with the University of Chicago, quietly established an experimental research team called the Center for Actionable Metaphysics (CAM). The program’s stated goal was the application of highly theoretical language models – whose circulation, up to that point, had been confined mostly to university academic departments – to the production of new insights in the interface of business, language, thought, and reality. The program’s founders argued that, through a greater understanding of language’s function in a business context and of the correspondence (or lack thereof) between that language and the processes it described, McKinsey would gain a competitive advantage over its peer firms. The first hires for the Center came from the University of Chicago, although McKinsey quickly began recruiting postgraduate students from the philosophy, literature, linguistics, and computer science departments of other elite universities. Candidates for CAM were recruited from as far as Oxford and École Normale Supérieure.

CAM’s unorthodox, interdisciplinary approach drew a good deal of criticism from the outset. Detractors claimed that experts in outdated 20th-century ordinary language philosophy or post-structural neo-Marxist criticism could make no possible contribution to the practical field of management consulting. Most of those within the other Big Three consulting firms (and even many within McKinsey) referred to CAM dismissively as a ‘meta-consulting’ department. But the co-founders of CAM, Jonathan Scarborough of McKinsey and C. Quentin Doyle of the University of Chicago, insisted that their brainchild was much more than that.

‘Management consulting has been practiced in exactly the same way since the strategic management explosion fifty years ago,’ said Scarborough, then vice president of business development at McKinsey. ‘It has been plodding along. But what we’re doing is going straight to the very foundations of consulting and asking the big questions. What is consulting? What are we really doing when we say we are consulting, and what could we be doing? How well do our current models actually attend to the reality of what’s out there, and how could we improve them by insights from the social sciences, humanities, and computer science?’ Scarborough claimed inspiration from the canonical Bernie King, a pioneering consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton in the 1960s and 1970s who shunned complacency with standardized practices and continually sought to reinvent the industry. Scarborough received an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and worked for seven years at McKinsey before taking a year to travel to India and study yoga under Swami Vishnudevananda. After that, he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, writing his doctoral dissertation on phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. He returned to McKinsey in 2005.

Doyle, for his part, proceeded straight from undergraduate to graduate studies in philosophy; his dissertation was an attempt to reconcile Jacques Derrida’s concept of différance with the positivist account of language. Doyle, whose father was a banking magnate, also had strong interests in political and economic theory, particularly the thought of the Frankfurt School. Soon after receiving his Ph.D., Doyle entered into a tenure-track position at University of Chicago’s Center for Contemporary Theory. He and Scarborough connected in 2005 at a conference and bonded over their similar interests in avant-garde modes of thinking and the possibilities for creative upheaval in the corporate world. Soon thereafter, they conceived of CAM. Doyle described the impetus for the program thus: ‘It’s likely that the current theories about supply chain management, staffing models, or what have you are not as objectively true as people think. We are out to examine the social structures conditioning these theories with a critical eye, using contemporary theoretical frameworks and aided by computer modeling. We’re looking for the frontier of consulting theory—the ‘what’s next.’ If we’re successful, we could revolutionize corporate America as we know it — or, who knows, even the world.’

CAM saw some mild short-term success, including the invention of a computerized method for quantifying the degree of actionable intelligence vs. cant in a consulting case study (i.e., the ‘uv-Index’). Scarborough and Doyle saw this and their other early successes as only simple tools developed as steps along the path, but they were never to see the major breakthrough they sought. CAM faced budgetary difficulties due to the skepticism of board members; furthermore, it struggled with heavy attrition rates almost from the outset, resultant from usually one of two causes. First, many of the postdoctoral students hired by the program began to suffer mental breakdowns in which they complained of insomnia, loss of appetite, futility or lack of meaning, and increased inability to make sense of simple phrases. Second, among a separate group of hires from academic backgrounds, the rate of horizontal movement from CAM to other departments was abnormally high. Many of these employees expressed a desire to increase their financial intake and pay off student loans they had accrued over their years of study. Often these same students would express disillusionment with CAM as well as their previous fields in strong terms.

A few in this second group made their criticisms public through newspapers or magazines, which contributed to unfavorable representations of the program in mainstream business literature. When a former employee of CAM who had suffered a mental breakdown died from a seizure while in the hospital, there was a strong public backlash against the Center. Representatives of CAM denied all liability, claiming the employee had had a pre-existing condition, and the family declined to press charges. Nevertheless, CAM shut its doors in 2010 at the request of McKinsey’s board. Scarborough and Doyle maintained that they had been making progress toward a breakthrough in what they called ‘management epistemology’, but went separate ways after CAM’s closing.

During its term of operation, CAM issued each new employee a handbook of standard techniques and theoretical frameworks utilized by the Center. The following is a glossary of common terms and references used by CAM employees in their day-to-day work that was appended to the handbook.


Appendix: Toolbox of Lenses

Glossary of Commonly Used Terms at the Center for Actionable Metaphysics



Abstraction Ladder,

a scale quantifying degrees of abstraction from Actual Concrete Reality. The term was popularized by the Canadian-born, Japanese American semanticist and United States Senator, S. I. Hayakawa, in his 1949 work Language in Thought and Action. Hayakawa’s example of the abstraction ladder as applied to a cow is as follows:

  1. The atoms, electrons, etc. that make up the cow (this is the process level, i.e. ACR)
  2. Sensory perceptions of the cow, which omit many of the process-level characteristics of the cow
  3. ‘Bessie’ – the proper name given to the individual cow (cow1), which omits reference to many of the perceived characteristics of the object
  4. ‘cow’ – the word that stands for the characteristics common to cow1, cow2, cow3, etc., leaving out characteristics peculiar to specific cows
  5. ‘livestock’ – refers to characteristics cows have in common with goats, pigs, chickens, etc., leaving out characteristics peculiar to cows
  6. ‘farm assets’ – refers to only the characteristics in common with other salable items on a farm
  7. ‘asset’ – refers to only the characteristics in common with other items of property
  8. ‘wealth’ – refers to only the characteristic of value

The Abstraction Ladder conceives of abstraction as a process of subtraction, in which attention is focused on certain qualities of the object while others are ignored. Hayakawa’s constructs his Abstraction Ladder with 8 levels, although the number is arbitrary (and as such, the ladder can be conceived as a spectrum). Others have disputed the inclusion of levels one and two in the Ladder, arguing that abstraction is a quality of language alone and, as such, cannot be applied to either the process level or sensory perceptions. Hayakawa chose the ‘ladder’ metaphor to illustrate his argument that effective writers move frequently up and down the Abstraction Ladder, rather than stay at one or two levels.1

Notable in Hayakawa’s theory is the subjectivity and moveability of ACR. ACR corresponds only to the specific process level in a given discourse; ACR and the process level only signal the last level of abstraction a person is willing to admit. Simply locating, for instance, atoms at the process level of a Bessie the cow does not necessity any absolute quality of that process level. One could very easily instead name electrons and neutrons as the process level and ACR or, in the other direction, Bessie’s cells and organelles, i.e. the level immediately below the last elements of the cow that are accessible to sensory perception.

Contemporary speculative metaphysics has devoted a great of deal of effort to this conundrum and the apparent indeterminateness of an object’s reality.2

This is a diagram of the Abstraction Ladder as originally printed in Hayakawa’s text.3

See also Actual Concrete Reality.


1 Hayakawa, S. I. Language in Thought and Action. 5th Ed. New York: Harcourt, 1991.

2 See specifically Graham Harman’s ‘object-orient- ed metaphysics’ and his critique of the ‘undermining’ and ‘overmining’ of objects. Graham Harman, ‘Object-Oriented Philosophy’ (1999). Towards a Speculative Realism. Hants, UK: Zero Books, 2009; Graham Harman, The Quadruple Object. Hants, UK: Zero Books, 2010.

3 http://www.rijnland- algemene_semantiek/ hayakawa/ch10_abstraction-ladder.htm Retrieved 03 September 2008.


Actionable Intelligence

  1. Information with direct implications for practical action, i.e. information with immediately apparent use-value. The phrase derives from the legal term ‘actionable’, meaning possessing sufficient factual evidence to justify a right to sue to obtain money, property, or the enforcement of a right against another party.
  2. Within business consulting circles, information that can be acted upon to boost a company’s strategic position against industry peers, either by launching a pre-emptive strike or by preparing a counter strategy. Examples include intelligence on the competitor’s price range, marketing budget, target demographic, advertising campaign plans, or product improvements. Overly aggressive attempts to gather actionable intelligence from competitors may be illegal and constitute corporate espionage.

The phrase entered management consulting parlance in the 1970s via defense contractors from Booz Allen Hamilton, who repurposed the term from military clients. The term was in common use among commanders in the Vietnam War to refer to the necessary background information that would enable forces to deal quickly and efficiently with a particular situation (example: ‘Bravo Leader, we’ve got a load of napalm coming in and need actionable intelligence on enemy’s location pronto.’) Bernie King, a consultant at Booz Allen in the 1970s who went on to serve as the Chief Information Officer for the U.S. Navy, often eviscerated subordinates who provided him information that was not actionable, due to density, complexity, or lack of clear connection to ACR (see also ‘Actual Concrete Reality’). Playing on a quote from Karl Marx, King famously told an audience at a national management consulting conference, ‘So far, consultants have only interpreted the corporation, in various ways. But the point is to change it.’1

1 Bernie Koffman, TRANSCRIPT, National Management Consulting Conference, South Western District, Wichita, KS. 14 April 1978.


Actual Concrete Reality (ACR),

the designation of the metaphysical domain to which Standard Consulting Jargon (SCJ) ideally corresponds. Objects within the domain of ACR need not be material (i.e. possessing mass), but are characterized by delimitation to particular coordinates or ranges in space and time. As such, definite nonmaterial substantives such as events and processes fall within ACR.

Ideally, SCJ is drawn from the observation of phenomena in ACR, and thus reflects those phenomena accurately. However, the work of early phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger (though from conflicting standpoints) strove to demonstrate the theoretical impossibility of any exhaustive knowledge of ACR, as our knowledge of concrete particulars is based entirely upon sensory perceptions (2nd level of Abstraction Ladder), and those perceptions are further shaped by the language (3rd level of Abstraction Ladder and above) used to organized them into actionable knowledge. Knowledge thus stands at two removes from ACR, and the predominant philosophical theories of the 20th century show that SCJ in fact shapes our conceptions of ACR, rather than the other way around. A further implication is that SCJ need not correspond to anything that exists in ACR.

See also Abstraction Ladder, Standard Consulting Jargon.


Bogdanov Affair,

a scandal surrounding a series of theoretical physics papers published by brothers Igor and Grichka Bogdanov in 2001 and 2002.

Igor and Grichka Bogdanov have been widely known in France since 1979 as the hosts of the popular television shows Temps X and Rayons X, which deal with topics in popular science and science fiction. Both brothers began working toward doctoral degrees in physics at the University of Burgundy (Dijon) in 1993. Grichka received a Ph.D. in mathematics from the university in 1999, though only after being ordered to rewrite his thesis and deemphasize the physics content. Around the same time, Igor failed the defense of his physics thesis, but was allowed to obtain a doctorate on the condition that he publish three peer-reviewed journal articles. In 2001 and 2002 the brothers jointly published five papers in peer-reviewed physics journals, including Annals of Physics and Classical and Quantum Gravity, and Igor was awarded a Ph.D. in theoretical physics in 2002.

The controversy was ignited by University of Tours physicist Max Niedermaier, who sent an email to University of Pittsburgh physicist Ezra T. Newman suggesting that the Bogdanovs’ Ph.D. theses and papers were ‘spoof[s]’ created by throwing together string theory and theoretical physics jargon. After American mathematical physicist John Baez created a Usenet forum about the Bogdanov papers, they were denounced as incoherent by most physicists who read them. Baez called the papers ‘a mishmash of superficially plausible sentences containing the right buzzwords in approximately the right order. There is no logic or cohesion in what they write.’1

Baez and others suggested the Bogdanov Affair was a ‘reverse Sokal hoax,’ referring to the 1996 publication of a fake paper by Alan Sokal in a cultural studies journal. Unlike Sokal, however, the Bogdanov brothers continued to defend the legitimacy of their work. As such, most saw the papers as a disingenuous attempt by the TV-host brothers to gain credibility within the scientific community. It has, however, also been suggested that the Bogdanovs were deluded by their own jargon into believing their work was meaningful. Describing the Bogdanovs’ attempts to defend their work, New York Times reporter George Johnson writes that it was ‘like watching someone trying to nail Jell-O to a wall’, for the Bogdanovs had ‘developed their own private language, one that impinges on the vocabulary of science only at the edges.’2

See also Sokal Incident, Recursive Grammar Obfuscation.

1 John Baez, ‘The Bogdanoff Affair’ (2006). Retrieved July 14, 2009.

2 George Johnson, ‘Ideas & Trends; In Theory, It’s True (Or Not).’ New York Times 17 November 2002.


Bridging-Bonding Spectrum,

theoretical framework proposed by political scientist Robert Putnam in the 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community to distinguish between social networks that bring together people of different sorts (bridging), and social networks that bring together people of a similar sort (bonding).1 The former may be exemplified by mixed-race youth sports teams or heterogeneous civic leagues such as the Red Cross, whereas the latter may be exemplified by niche online chat rooms and homogeneous civic leagues such as the Ku Klux Klan. The distinction is conceptualized as a continuous spectrum because, in practice, many groups serve both bridging and bonding functions, although networks can be classified as falling closer to one end of this spectrum or the other. Putnam argues that bridging vs. bonding ‘is an important distinction because the externalities of groups that are bridging are likely to be positive, while networks that are bonding (limited within particular social niches) are at greater risk of producing externalities that are negative.’

For a discussion of Bridging-Bonding Spectra in the context of consulting techniques and jargon theory, see Tribal Theory of Jargon.

1 Robert D.Putman, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000)


Consulting Circle,

a tightly bonded subcommunity formed for the purpose of exchanging insights (whether actionable or not) couched in highly specialized language signifying expertise in a given subject field. Species of consulting circles include management, health, legal, scientific, literary, theological, etc., as well as further specialized subspecies (i.e. IT management, quantum mechanical, psychoanalytical, etc.).

See also Jargon-Bound Tribe, Standard Consulting Jargon.


Crucial Active Ingredient (CAI),

a non-official term within corporate consulting circles used to designate the functional element within or inseparable from an environment of accidental or incidental interactions. The term, borrowed from pharmaceutics, first appeared in the mid-1980s in water-cooler and locker-room conversation among consultants specific to the health care industry, though it quickly spread to all branches of the profession via development conferences and cross-profession managerial training. By the early 200s the concept of the CAI had become fully incorporated into SCJ, even used colloquially by senior-level analysts and managers. Most often, the term is applied to a nounified process at play within a given case (example: ‘The Crucial Active Ingredient of GE’s success was codification of tacit knowledge’), but can be applied to designate a particularly indispensable team member within a group setting. In certain small firms concentrated in the Wichita, KS metropolitan area, CAI has developed into professional slang equivalent to baseball’s ‘MVP’, used to designate a teammate for whom a promotion appears imminent.


The Dada Engine,

a computer program written in C that uses recursive transition networks (RTNs) to generate random but grammatically correct text, such as meaningless, pseudo-academic essays.

Designed in 1966 by Andrew C. Bulhak, a computer scientist working at Monash University in Melbourne, the program reads a text file script that defines a system of RTNs, executes the RTNs by randomly selecting among the alternatives, and prints the resulting text. Because it functions by inserting alternative word choices into a predefined grammatical structure, the Dada Engine has been likened to a sophisticated and computerized Mad Libs.

Bulhak most famously applied the Dada Engine to the creation of faux-academic essays in the humanities. This project, called the Postmodernism Generator, is still extant in slightly modified form at In his report on the project, Bulhak relates anecdotes about graduate students and professors in the arts who read several paragraphs or even a page of a Dada-engineered essay before noticing anything amiss.1

Excerpt from text script defining the grammar of the Postmodernism Generator:

sentence2 : assumption” “implies-that result”.”
| intellectual”uses the term ‘”term”‘ to denote “concept-desc”. ”
| justifier”we have to choose between “term” and “term”. ”
| “the “main” theme of “work” is”concept-desc”. ”
| intellectual” “promotes” the use of “term” to “imperv-vp”. ”
| plural-numeric-adj” “abst-noun>pluralise abst-description” ” exist”. ”
| sentence-about-citable-artist(v-citable<<citable-artist)
| “the subject is “neut-verb>past-tensify” into a “term>strip_the “that includes” big-abst-thing” as a “big-singular-thing”. ” ;

Excerpt from output of the Postmodernism Generator:

If one examines postconstructivist patriarchial theory, one is faced with a choice: either reject the neoconstructive paradigm of reality or conclude that discourse comes from the collective unconscious. If postconstructivist patriarchial theory holds, we have to choose between the neoconstructive paradigm of reality and Sartreist absurdity. Thus, an abundance of theories concerning the difference between art and society may be revealed.2

The Dada Engine is most effective in producing realistic-looking texts within genres that typically make use of what are called recursive grammars. For instance, the Dada Engine and similar programs have been used to generate convincing replicas of legal jargon, religious materials, psychiatrists’ speech, rantings of paranoid mental patients, New Age pseudoscience pamphlets, and mathematical equations. Bulhak writes: ‘One pattern which has emerged is that abnormal modes of human communication, whether they be so by being restricted to a particular specialist field of discourse (such as mathematics or gender studies) or by being typically the result of mental illness, are easier to replicate than normal communication.’

See also Recursive Transition Network, Recursive Grammar Obfuscation.

1 Andrew C. Bulhak, ‘On the Simulation of Postmodernism and Mental Debility Using Recursive Transition Networks’, Dept. of Computer Science, Monash University, 1996.




a French term coined by philosopher Jacques Derrida, deliberately homophonous with the word différence. Différance plays on the fact that the French word différer means both ‘to defer’ and ‘to differ’. In the essay ‘Différance’, Derrida indicates that différance gestures at a number of heterogeneous features that govern the production of textual meaning. The first (relating to deferral) is the notion that words and signs can never fully summon forth what they mean, but can only be defined through appeal to additional words, from which they differ. Thus, meaning is forever ‘deferred’ or postponed through an endless chain of signifiers. The second (relating to difference, sometimes referred to as espacement or ‘spacing’) concerns the force that differentiates elements from one another and, in so doing, engenders binary oppositions and hierarchies that underpin meaning itself.



a language game employed in the service of highly complex and technical physical or mental tasks, typically by members of a subcommunity that is responsible for the task.1 Most jargons are recursive grammars, except in rare instances of extremely large and well-developed jargons, or jargons which verge on incorporation into ordinary language.

See also Language Game, Ordinary Language, Recursive Grammar, Standard Consulting Jargon, Tribal Theory of Jargon, Use-Value.

1 Ed. note: This definition has been challenged by British philosopher and sociologist Agnes Geoffrey, who argues that jargon’s use-value is negligible and therefore jargon is a language game that primarily serves as a social marker for a Jargon-Bound Tribe.


Jargon-Bound Tribe,

a subcommunity with an identity predicated primarily upon its access to specialized knowledge or expertise, and which uses aptitude in a specialized language game as the sole or primary bonding mechanism and qualification for membership.

Includes the various consulting circles or subcommunities.

See also Consulting Circle, Standard Consulting Jargon, Tribal Theory of Jargon.


Language Game,

  1. (Also ‘secret language’, ‘ludling’, or ‘argot’) A system of manipulating spoken words to render them incomprehensible to the untrained ear. Language games are used primarily by groups attempting to conceal their conversations from others. Some common examples are Pig Latin, which is used all over the globe; the Gibberish family, prevalent in the United States and Sweden; and Verlan, spoken in France.
  2. A way of working with signs, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, that is simpler than the highly complex forms of an ordinary language. The concept of language games was developed by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his 1953 book Philosophical Investigations.1 An ordinary language can be regarded as consisting of many smaller language games, interlocking with and embedded within one another. One language game may call another language game, as in a recursive transition network. However, each language game is a complete system of human communication in itself, rather than an incomplete part of a language. Wittgenstein illustrates this point by comparing a language game to the entire system of communication among a primitive tribe.

See also Recursive Transition Network.

1 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)



the formation of a substantive out of non-substantive verbal elements (such as verbs and adjectives), or out of a combination of two or more previously existing substantives or non-substantives. Nounification is encouraged in standard consulting practice in order to give newly coined terms a feeling of weight in the subject’s mind and to encourage recall of said terms, facilitating the terms’ incorporation into SCJ. Examples of nounification: ‘Codification of Tacit Knowledge’, ‘Crucial Active Ingredient’, ‘Cultural Studies’, ‘Nounification’, ‘Ordinary Language Analysis’. (Note: Gerundives, such as ‘Diversifying Stakeholder Portfolios’, also qualify as nounification, and are heavily favored among management consulting circles when coining new terms). Because the nounified term is couched as a substantive, nounification sometimes creates confusion by suggesting that an object exists in ACR that corresponds to the newly minted noun. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called this ‘one of the great sources of philosophical bewilderment’, as when one asks ‘What is length?’, ‘What is meaning?’, etc., one can’t point to anything in reply, yet one feels that one ought to be able to point to something.1

1 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Preliminary Studies for the ‘Philosophical Investigations’, (The Blue and Brown Books) (New York: Harper and Row, 1958)


Ordinary Language,

language used in a way widely understood and recognized by a society, as opposed to unorthodox or specialized usages (see also Jargon, Language Game). Ordinary language may be defined as language used in such a way that it would not require definition or clarification when used with an average person competent in that language. As such, ordinary language is a subjective and local term, identified in practice as any usage that a person competent in that language understands immediately and intuitively, seemingly without thinking about the meaning of the words.

Ordinary languages undergo change and development naturally in a way analogous to evolution in biology. At any given time, individuals may use words in ways different from the ordinary usage, and some of these mutations may be picked up by segments of society. Over time, these mutations might even work their way into the ordinary language of the society as a whole. However, these changes are typically very slight and are introduced by small degrees over time, so that they are imperceptible to most observers. When a change is fast enough or radical enough, the new usage is not considered part of ordinary language until its use becomes common and unsurprising.

By definition, ordinary language is sufficient to the tasks and communicative needs of daily life in a society, but the ability of ordinary language to fully describe an external reality is a subject of ongoing debate. Virtually all scholars agree that ordinary language has expressive limits, but different theorists put those limits in different places. For instance, a relatively uncontroversial example of ordinary language’s failure to fully describe reality without jargon (in this case, mathematics) is in the field of quantum mechanics. A more controversial and long-standing argument, however, is ordinary language’s ability to reach and grasp the epistemological underpinnings of knowledge.

See also Jargon, Language Game.


Private Language, 

language consisting of signs understood only by the entity that creates them. According to ordinary language philosophy, the meaning of a sign is its use; in the case of a private language, then, the meaning of a sign is whatever use that sign serves to the entity that creates it. To qualify as a private language, the sign-giver must be the same entity as the sign-receiver – for example, an individual may create a sign to himself at some point in time so that he may receive the sign at some point in time later, allowing him to remember a certain idea (the signified).

A private language is the definitional antithesis of ordinary language – whereas terms in ordinary language are defined dynamically and collectively through their general use, terms in a private language are defined solely by the sign-giver/receiver. As such, a private language is useless (i.e. meaningless) to anyone other than the sign-giver/ receiver. The moment the sign-giver/receiver explains a term in the private language to another individual, the term ceases to be part of a private language and becomes part of a specialized language – a jargon.

Private language is the extreme limit of jargon – in which the subcommunity of persons privy to the jargon numbers exactly 1. Whereas in any communal language (including jargons), a use value (uv) can be assigned to a given piece of language based on the degree to which it corresponds to the community’s perception of ACR, no one can determine the use value of a private language except for the individual who creates the language. For all practical purposes, then, beyond that individual, the uv of a private language is absolute zero.

See also Ordinary Language, Use Value.


Recursive Grammar

  1. In computer science, an informal name for a grammar (set of rules for generating sequences of strings) that contains functions that call themselves. This results in a loop that performs the task (generation of a sequence of strings) by performing smaller versions of the same task and combining the results.
  2. In linguistics, a narrowly defined grammar (set of rules for the production of meaningful sentences) that results in the frequent repetition of similar textual formulations. A recursive grammar consists of both words (or phrases) and the syntactical conventions that govern them. Due to its limited scope, a recursive grammar can be easily learned and mimicked by humans, or written out in the form of a recursive transition network that gives rules for the automatic production of text conforming to that grammar.

See also Recursive Transition Network, The Dada Engine.


Recursive Transition Network (RTN),

a method for completing a task, such as the construction of a fragment of text, by performing subtasks in a particular order. An RTN is often illustrated by a directed acyclic graph resembling a flowchart, consisting of nodes and paths. Douglas Hofstadter demonstrated the use of RTNs to generate meaningless but grammatically correct English-language text in the 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid1. In the case of constructing text, the nodes of a RTN diagram may represent fragments of text to be emitted or other RTNs to be performed (RTNs may be embedded within other RTNs).

A set of RTNs may be written in the form of a grammar, with each RTN represented as a rule. Figure 2 shows the two RTNs from Figure 1 in the form of a grammar.

sentence:: preposition [€ | adjective] noun verb
noun:: “large” | “shiny” | “green”

1 Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (New York: Basic Books, 1979)



a protocol for corporate rhetoric promulgated among consulting firms beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s. McKinsey, the Boston Consulting Group, and Booz Allen Hamilton were among the first groups to implement the strategies developed in cooperation with the Harvard Business School. A meager quantity of secondary literature exists on the ideological origin of results-orientation, most positing roots in Weberian post-Calvinist and positivistic American capitalism (e.g. bottom-line, loss, profit).



Social Text,

a journal of postmodern studies, most notable for publishing in the 1996 Alan Sokal’s ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. The article challenged the hegemony of the scientific method over the Western mind and called for a new paradigm of the science-progressive politics hybrid. Despite concerns about the quality of the writing, the editors, published the article in full in the ‘Science Wars’ issue. After publication, Sokal announced that the article was complete nonsense, intentionally written so. Social Text claimed that, because they normally did not carry out a peer review with their publications, Sokal’s actions were a fraudulent betrayal of their trust. The journal has since established a peer review process.

See also Sokal Incident.


Sokal Incident,

a scandal involving New York University professor of physics, Alan Sokal, and Social Text, a self-described ‘journal of postmodern cultural studies.’ Sokal submitted an article titled ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Tranformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’ to Social Text, which subsequently published it in its spring/summer 1996 ‘Science Wars’ issue. The article challenged the hegemony of the ‘the (so-called) scientific method’ over the Western mind and suggested the creation of a new paradigm of science guided by progressive political theory.1 Soon after its publication, Sokal published an article in the journal Lingua Franca announcing that the article was a hoax, intended to reveal what he saw as a lack of intellectual rigor in American academic humanities departments.

Through the use of buzzwords from progressive political theory (i.e. ’emancipatory’, ‘late-capitalist production relations’), Sokal crafted the article to be particularly attractive to the community of progressive academics that he believed had become intellectually lazy through their embrace of epistemological subjectivism, and through the use of obscure technical jargon (i.e. ‘quantum gravity’, ‘morphogenetic field’), he lent the article a superficial air of scientific credibility. Sokal claims, ‘Nowhere in [the article] is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.’

The incident touched off a controversy in academic circles that gained some mainstream media coverage. Well-known French philosopher Jacques Derrida became linked to the incident in public consciousness, mainly through newspaper and magazine coverage that portrayed him as discredited by the Sokal hoax. Sokal accused Derrida of scientific incompetence in the English edition of a book following up the incident (co-authored by Jean Bricmont), but deleted the accusation from the French edition and denied it had ever existed. Derrida responded with an article titled ‘Sokal and Bricmont Aren’t Serious’ published in Le Monde, which accused Sokal of intellectual bad faith for the deletion. It also lamented that Sokal had resorted to a ‘quick practical joke’ and ruined the chance to carefully sort out controversies over scientific objectivity.2

As peer review was not part of Social Text’s editing process at the time, the editors decried the article as deceptive and fraudulent, saying that Sokal had betrayed their trust as academics. Sokal admitted to such a breach of trust in the Lingua Franca article revealing the hoax: ‘Of course, I’m not oblivious to the ethical issues involved in my rather unorthodox experiment. Professional communities operate largely on trust; deception undercuts that trust.’ Social Text has since adopted a peer review process.

See also Recursive Grammar Obfuscation.

1 Alan D.Sokal, ‘A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies’, Lingua Franca, retrieved July 7, 2013.

2 Jacques Derrida, Paper Machine (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005)


Standard Consulting Jargon (SCJ)

  1. The customary jargon utilized by a professional consulting circle (management, legal, quantum mechanical, etc.) to communicate expertise.
  2. In particular, the jargon customarily utilized by the management consulting subcommunity in order to communicate actionable intelligence to others within the business community.

Ideally, SCJ provides a theoretical framework with which to describe phenomena in ACR that ordinary language cannot adequately describe. At times, however, consulting circles have made SCJ into an object of derision by extending its use to phenomena that ordinary language is perfectly capable of describing. SCJ can even decay into a distortion or obfuscation of ACR. Several events in recent history (see Bogdanov Affair, Dada Engine, Sokal Incident) have demonstrated not only the potential for SCJ’s failure to correspond to any objects or events within ACR, but also the astounding tendency of such failure to elude detection by members of consulting circles (i.e. Jargon-Bound Tribes).

See also Jargon, Language Game, Ordinary Language, Recursive Grammar, Tribal Theory of Jargon, Use-Value.



Tribal Theory of Jargon,

a school of linguistic theory founded by British philosopher of language and sociologist Agnes Geoffrey. In Tribalism and the Theory of Jargon, Geoffrey argues that jargon functions primarily as a signifier of membership in a particular subcommunity.1 The subcommunities for which jargon serves as a signifier, called Jargon-Bound Tribes, exhibit most or all of the sociological characteristics of a tribe (strong in-group loyalty, intricately entwined social relationships persisting over a period of many generations, limited awareness of alternative social patterns, tendency toward xenophobia), with the added characteristic that these subcommunities are typically bonded most strongly by their identification with specialized knowledge or expertise. Jargon, by definition, is practiced by niche communities, and it reinforces the ties within these communities while setting them apart from those who do not understand the jargon. As such, jargon serves a bonding function on the Bridging-Bonding Spectrum. By contrast, ordinary language may serve either bridging or bonding functions.

Geoffrey challenges the conventional notion that jargon is primarily a means of expressing highly complex, technical ideas more effectively, or expressing ideas that cannot be expressed in ordinary language. Through analyses of English texts chosen at random from academic journals in law, medicine, business, and the humanities, Geoffrey demonstrates that at least 70% of jargon could be expressed more concisely (with fewer words) or more clearly (with fewer ambiguities) in ordinary English, without losing anything in precision. (For this analysis, jargon was defined as terminology that could not be understood by 9 out of 10 respondents in a random survey sample of the British public). Geoffrey concludes that If the majority of jargon does not have a use value greater than that of its ordinary language counterpart.

To fill the vacuum left by the elimination of use-value as an explanation for jargon, the tribal theory of jargon posits that jargon can be defined as a system of language designed (intentionally or not) to reinforce social ties of a subcommunity whose identity is predicated primarily upon its access to specialized knowledge or expertise. When one uses a subcommunity’s particular jargon, one implicitly agrees to abide by the rules of that jargon, which is a closed, formal system. Entering into the rules of a jargon is akin to entering into the laws of a community, so much so that jargon and community go hand in hand. A true jargon, the theory holds, is impossible without a community.2 The connection between jargon and the community also explains why the legal profession possesses the jargon par excellence — jargon expresses the mores of a civitas as much as its laws do, and in fact jargon is the instrument of the law.

When an individual enters into a jargon, the individual signifies a relationship of trust with the subcommunity. For that reason, an individual who uses a jargon to subvert the community that the jargon supports may suffer retribution or ostracization from that community. In Tribalism and the Theory of Jargon, Geoffrey finds powerful support of this notion and of his whole thesis in the hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal on the academic community in 1996. The cultural studies journal Social Text published an article that Sokal had written intentionally using standard academic jargon to mask a lack of meaning or sense in the article. After the ruse was revealed, Social Text accused Sokal of committing a fraudulent betrayal of their trust. This suggests that Sokal breached an unspoken agreement of the kind that the tribal theory of jargon posits, created by virtue of entry into a jargon.

See also Bridging-Bonding Spectrum, Jargon, Jargon-Bound Tribe, Language game, Sokal Incident.

1 Agnes Geoffrey, Tribalism and the Theory of Jargon (London: Cambridge University Press, 1998)

2 Ed. note: Here the theory draws on the philosophy of Wittgenstein, who argued that the meaning of language is reducible to its use in a community. Jargon is an example of a Wittgensteinian language game, in that it is a simple but complete system of communication that functions within an ordinary language. ‘When the boy or grown-up learns what one might call special technical languag- es, e.g., the use of charts and diagrams, descriptive geometry, chemical symbolism, etc., he learns more language games. (Remark: The picture we have of the language of the grown-up is that of a nebulous mass of language, his mother tongue, surrounded by discrete and more or less clear-cut language games, the technical languages.)’ Ludwig Wittgenstein, Preliminary Studies for the ‘Philosophical Investigations’ (The Blue and Brown Books) (New York: Harper and Row, 1958)



Use Value,

  1. In Marxist economics, the utility of consuming a good; i.e. the want-satisfying power of a good or service. Use value is distinct from exchange value (the value exchanged for a good in the marketplace) and from value (the amount of human labor required to produce a good). Marx emphasizes that the use value of a labor-product is practical and objectively determined, i.e. it inheres in the intrinsic characteristics of a product that enable it to satisfy a human need or want.
  2. In ordinary language philosophy, that which gives a word its meaning. Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the major proponents of ordinary language philosophy, writes, ‘But if we had to name anything which is the life of the sign, we should have to say that it was its use.1 Because words are used in myriad ways that bear family resemblances to one another but do not necessarily have a single defining feature or set of features in common, the meaning of a word is fuzzy and cannot be established with sharp boundaries. Wittgenstein also uses the term ‘grammar’ synonymously with ‘use.’
  3. A logarithmic scale describing the relationship of a given element of SCJ to ACR. An element within SCJ with a use value (uv) of 1 is considered a pure reflection of ACR, measured against the pre-calculated grasp that an average client has of ACR. uv-departments are still considered within corporate consulting circles to be highly speculative, and outside of the Center for Actionable Metaphysics, none of the larger American consulting firms has attempted to implement a system of uv gradation in practice.

1 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Preliminary Studies for the ‘Philosophical Investigations’ (The Blue and Brown Books) (New York: Harper and Row, 1958)




Josef Kuhn researches policy advocacy and writes fiction in Washington, D.C.


amongst these trees, night by night, through the whole land, did shew themselves an infinite swarme


The African terminal at Brussels International tests a weary traveler’s preparedness for his destination. There’s the crowded bus that ships him off to the deserted and dusty wing where the planes fly exclusively south. There’s the wait. There’s the one gift shop selling “authentic” African key chains promising the carefree beauty of bright smiles and open arms beneath swaying palms. And most of all, there’s not much food. After being trapped in the terminal for six hours, I managed to scrounge a single slice of microwaved pizza, gratuitously accompanied by two glasses of beer.

The experience in the African wing functions as an astoundingly-apt microcosm of that continent from which arriving passengers disembark as suddenly as the departing disappear down the jetway:

  • The airport bus to that nowhere of a terminal anticipates many a tightly-packed, tied-together, room-for-five-but-fits-twelve bush taxi.
  • The gift shop foreshadowed the tourist’s Africa and the foreigner’s perpetual, unshakeable status as a ‘whitey’.
  • The microwaved pizza (which I would kill for now) represented the last taste of the familiar, just like the good, dark Leffe: take it now before it’s too late.

As the end of my six-hour purgatorial layover in the terminal neared, the pizza, beer, and previous 24 hours of air travel left my stomach bothered. I went into the men’s room to use what would be the last running toilet available for the next two years. It was a nice toilet, too: automatic flush, thoughtful seat covers. Having appreciated the com- mode’s craftsmanship, I sat for a while, but nothing passed. I gave up and washed my hands. As if to taunt me, a blinding stench involuntarily escaped my nethers while I stood at the hand dryer. A man entering the restroom walked right into it.

He’s Belgian, I decided. This means he lives in a first-world country and therefore no apology is required for my temperamental bowels because I am leaving for a two-year journey in a not-first-world country in West Africa, and also I will never see him again.

Nope. He turned out to be a fellow American, also on the same flight south to the continent of endless tales of uncomfortable transport, perpetual labeling, alien foods, and uncontrollable bowel movements.

When the flight finally touched down on the continent’s southern coast, we felt the air rest on our arms and pool on our lower backs. Over the course of the coming days and our orientation into life as members of the Peace Corps, we felt the genial hands of foreign greetings. We felt welcomed. We felt informed about how not to eat with our left hands, how to greet ‘Good Evening’ in the morning, how to mount a moto without burning your leg, and how to use a squat latrine.

In that moment, though, stepping onto the tarmac, I just felt the need to find a toilet.


To my irritation, my digestive tract continued to feature prominently in my personal adjustment to the Dark Continent.

After my first few days of orientation in the city, I traveled north by bus to the village I’d be calling home for the next 24 months. I arrived after sundown and was led to my new room by kerosene lamp. In the darkness, a nearly invisible hand demonstrated how to lock the door and the metal shades, hang the mosquito net, and how to bathe with a bucket in what was called the douche. I slept well, occasionally waking to rainfall on the tin roof and a bat returning home to the rafters.

In the morning, I was greeted by a stunning view from the porch. A mountain range stretched across half the horizon reflecting a valley of wavelike savannah checkerboarded by leaning rows of maize. I rolled off the straw-stuffed mattress soaked in sweat, grabbed a bar of soap and a bucket of water and headed to le douche.

With three walls and a tree branch for a ceiling, the douche offered the same view as the porch: mountains on the horizon and, in the immediate foreground, a field of early-rising laborers. Trying not to make eye contact with those holding hoes, I removed my underpants. At the bottom of the wall opposite the opening, there was a hole for the water to flow after it had been dumped from the bucket over my soaped, sunburnt, and exposed body. It was also through this hole that I decided to relieve myself.

This seemed like a relatively appropriate decision, as le douche resembled a latrine I had used down south during orientation. In the city, if you weren’t micturating into a non-flushing toilet or on the side of the road, you were aiming at a hole where the wall meets the floor. De- pending upon the slant of the floor, a bucket of water was available to ‘flush’ once finished. All things considered, le douche was demonstrating an impressive versatility.

But I wasn’t finished. My intestines grumbled, and I recalled a question I posed in line at the bar in the city: What do you do if you have to do more than just piss? A friend pointed to the bucket of water used for flushing. The logic seemed obvious, and I left les toilettes satisfied in knowing how to handle the situation whenever it would arrive.

It arrived as I was lathered in soap. Halfway through my bucket bath, I desperately needed to do more than just piss. I recalled my friend’s instruction and then did a quick set of calculations involving the angle of the floor, the size of the hole, and the audience in the field. The answer seemed pretty clear, and I decided to put on a show.

Squatting as close to the hole as I could without sitting, I was thankful the deposit was solid – a rarity for first time visitors to the continent. Feeling much better, I ‘flushed’ with the bucket of soapy water. Maybe I had misjudged the versatility of le douche. Half of the wet party set up cramped residence just inside of the drain hole, while its friends refused to budge. Something wasn’t right. I had been told that this

was the way it is done. Someone was wrong. And unless I made some very quick decisions, everyone who planned on using le douche in the immediate future was going to have to come to terms with this wrongness.

The sun and temperature began to rise, and I needed to act fast. Wrapped in a towel, I used a couple of sticks and fished my deposit out from the clogged drain and transferred it to the bush, balancing it between the sticks as if I were a participant in some Asian egg race.

The crisis of the douche successfully averted and my hoeing audience replaced with the still, green embrace of nature, I was overcome by a sudden calm. The bush, it suddenly dawned on me, was a far more appropriate place to answer nature’s call than the douche. Why hadn’t I come here in the first place? Here, I had privacy and I had shade, I was affirmed as both a dignified human and a creature of nature.

It was there, in the protected isolation of the bush, that I went for the rest of the week to address all my needs that involved more than just pissing. Knees to armpits, pants to ankles, I watched ants craw curiously over yesterday’s lunch. Behind the baobab, between the acacias, a breeze would cool me as I, squatting, laid claim to the territory and connected with the terrain. Squatting in the bush, I linked, in a brutally honest way, my cycles of growth and decay with that of nature’s. In the bush, I was a man at home.


Six days and five squats into the week, I was interrupted by an intruder. Maman, who ran the school, came to kindly and unabashedly inform me that, There’s a w.c. là-bas! pointing beyond the field and behind the trees. She seemed unfazed at my current state of indisposition and that I might be able to consider her suggestion more clearly when I had something buttoned around my waist. I know, I lied staring up at her.

For the rest of that second week at the dormitory, to please Maman, I squatted in the four-walled, locking-door latrine built above a pit. I wasn’t mad that she walked in on me visiting the bush bank. In fact, I was impressed how she did not hand me shame for not having asked earlier. But truth be told, I had been rather enjoying myself out there.

In the bush, I was king of the castle and an ant-loving philanthropist. In the latrine, I was a displaced despot, an imprisoned primate. On each visit to my cage, I sulked past my forbidden domain remembering the times that were. Swatting away flies and holding my breath from the rising fumes, I thought about what would happen if the floor fell in. I thought about how far I had come. I thought about the pizza. Then, like a bitter memory falling onto a happy moment, an impact echoed up from eight feet below, and it was then I knew I’d forever miss my bush shits.


Twenty months later, knees to armpits, I’m still here. I have done more than just piss in a bowl, a plastic bag, under a mango tree, on the side of the national road, and once a month in a western-flush toilet. I am no longer ashamed to speak of it, and my fellow in-country Americans are not embarrassed to recount their bathroom misadventures. It fills one-third of our conversations. Perhaps you, reader, are disgusted or uninterested in this business of our business. But we learned as children that everyone poops, and I pity those who haven’t squatted in the bush, who haven’t been fortunate enough to experience the body’s curious nature against the wild backdrop of the earth’s.+


Tom Martenstein has spent the last two years among the Natemba people of Tayakou, Benin, serving as a member of the Peace Corps.


on the competitive advantages of faking it


1. Press One For Binary

In late April, a link appeared in my inbox to an interactive infographic titled Is your job at risk from robot labor? Check this handy interactive. It sounded just interesting enough to merit a new tab. Written by Nikhil Sonnad and published on, a web-only economics and business news magazine that I follow sporadically, the piece offers readers a ‘handy’ method for gauging their superfluousness in the brave new world of computerized everything. The graph charts some 702 occupations in the United States, with ‘likelihood of becoming automated’ (in percentage points) along the x-axis and ‘median wage’ up the y. My previous profession of investment analyst did not make it on the list, but the marginally related ‘personal financial advisor’ did, with an unsettling 57% chance of automation. Looks like I dodged a bullet there.

The infographic provides a link to the research on which the chart is based, which explains what a 57% (or 1% or 100%) likelihood of automation actually means. The Future of Unemployment (2013) by economist Carl Frey and robotics expert Michael Osborne of Oxford University neatly recaps the historical relationship between ‘technological revolutions and employment’, introduces a ‘novel methodology to categorise occupations according to their susceptibility to computerisation’, and applies this methodology to ‘702 detailed occupations’. In their words:

Our paper is motivated by John Maynard Keynes’s frequently cited predictions of widespread technological unemployment ‘due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour’ . . .

The percentage probability that the infographic assigns to each profession is roughly based on the proportion of tasks that job requires that conceivably could be done by a computer or a robot. Notably included are sophisticated, non-routine tasks requiring acute perception, delicate movement, and even the ability to learn on the job. Similar to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s bestselling The Second Machine Age (2014), Frey and Osborne paint a picture of the 21st century as one in which the technological revolutions of the 18th–19th centuries (in which machines supplanted humans in the making and manipulating of matter) and the 20th century (in which machines supplanted humans in the making and manipulating of information) are eclipsed by the rise of cheap, omnipresent computing power. Machines no longer simply convey and regurgitate records of human affairs, but are also active in interpreting and responding to a world about which they have an ever-expanding ocean of data. Computers in server farms and homes and pockets now contend in the previously wholly human arena of ‘thinking’, putting at risk the employability of vast swathes of the human race.

2. A Mind Is a Terrible Thing To Waste

The abrupt emergence of a threat to the human brain’s qualitatively distinguished cognitive abilities is interesting. Computers are nothing new – we’ve had them in one form or another for decades now. The fantastic thinking machine was a favorite muse among science fiction writers post World War II. Writers imagined mechanical minds endowed with the faculties of speech, thought, and independent locomotion to rival that of their human masters. But while these colorful portrayals of animatronics may have seemed naively optimistic even as late as the dawn of the new millennium, this is now no longer the case. All of a sudden, computers are driving cars and reading bad handwriting – tasks previously thought to lie squarely outside the realm of computability.

What’s changed? Not the fundamental principles upon which computers and programs are built, but rather the sheer quantity of data that is now available and the abundance of cheap, fast processing power with which to parse it. As Brynjolfsson and McAffee put it, ‘Sometimes a difference in degree (in other words, more of the same) becomes a difference in kind . . .’ Computer science hit a critical threshold around the middle of the last decade, and suddenly computers were starting to tackle non-routine cognitive and manual tasks. And according to many in the intellectual world, including the authors referenced here, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

If we follow Brynjolfsson and McAffee’s premise that the capacity for computers to ‘think’ is a fundamentally quantitative problem that ultimately affects a qualitative change, the inevitability of singularity – which describes the point at which artificial intelligence meets or surpasses that of the human – is hardly questionable. Computers and their programs will continue to gain processing speed, comprehensiveness of available data, and intricacy of algorithms with which to handle that data. Ignoring the larger social implications of this idea – such as the rapid concentration of productive capital this could entail and the ever-widening wealth gap that would follow (if left unchecked by policymakers) – on an existential level, what will happen to us once we are forced to hand the baton over to the machines?

Answers to this question range from the fantastically utopian, such as arguments toward a post-scarcity economy, to the frighteningly dystopian, resembling a Matrix-esque machine uprising like the sort Stephen Hawking and three other scientists predicted in a recent article in The Independent, warning of the potential for the human race to be undermined by the same advanced, self-improving artificial intelligence it created. More likely for the immediate future, this trend of ever more ubiquitous thinking machines with ever more human capabilities will continue, throwing ever more wrenches in the workings of the economy, a la Keynes’s prediction.

We should no longer be surprised by announcements that a computer can now do this or that thing better than a person, or that entire industries find themselves rendered obsolete overnight by a couple of kids and a smartphone app. I am certainly not the first to suggest that you (or, at the very least, your kids) should probably learn to code. The second machine age is upon us, requiring us to rethink every- thing from the way we educate ourselves to the very nature (and value) of consciousness.

3. Glossolalia

Or perhaps if you want to thwart the coming computer doom, you should learn to speak in tongues.

Although a computer is currently capable of verbally conducting business transactions with me over the telephone, and though I have no doubt that within my lifetime a robot will be able to perform surgery autonomously and better than any human surgeon, it seems highly unlikely, however, that a computer will ever be able to convincingly beseech God on my behalf in a spiritual language.

But why not? Why is speaking in tongues an inconceivable activity for a machine to perform successfully, even once machines have far surpassed our wildest dreams in terms of power, subtlety, and awareness? Whereas a human preacher uttering nonsensical sounds in front of a congregation performs a valuable service for them, we would describe a robot doing the same as . . . well, emitting nonsensical sounds. There is something inherently different between the human’s and the robot’s performance of the same task. One is (according to the faithful) valuable and the other useless, even when the robot could do it ‘better’ than the human – that is, include a more random selection of syllables (human preachers have shown to be biased toward using syllables from their native languages).

Addressing God through a string of meaningless syllables is an example of a task that will always require a human performer. For believers, the objective meaning-bearing value of glossolalia is not important; presumably, any intelligibility of the speech would actually undermine the exercise. It’s the fact of the phenomenon that counts: the human-ness of the preacher is key. In fact, guardians of any spiritual system that associates human consciousness with the presence of a soul will not find themselves replaced by robot labor. I am reminded of a scene in George Lucas’ THX 1138 in which the protagonist, troubled to find himself in a sterile, dystopic police-state, seeks spiritual consolation at the fully automated Unichapel, and finds no relief whatsoever. Though they (surprisingly) didn’t make it onto Nikhil Sonnad’s infographic, tongue-twisting bible-thumpers everywhere can rest easy for the moment.

4. The Truth Is Beside The Point

So the answer to Nikhil Sonnad’s worry about replacement by robot labor seems to lie in functions defined by the humanity of their performer. It is a human that must render moral judgments and compete in the Olympics, or else we would not accept the judgment or the victory as valid. A belief in the primacy of the human would mean that there exist certain activities, the performance of which is essentially human.

Yet I find this rationale circular and deeply unsatisfying. It risks relegating ‘humanity’ to the performance of a ceremonial role, playing the reflection in the mirror of itself, all the while the ‘real’ work is being carried out quickly and quietly around us by automated servants. Worse still, it would suggest that we should exclude the precision and efficiency of robotic hands and computers brains in order to serve the ego of a weaker, error-prone human. One should have a bit more faith in human resilience and resourcefulness. A quick consideration of previous technological revolutions, ones that also ‘threatened’ us with obsolescence, reveals that these ‘threats’ only stimulated us to find better uses for our time. Why should it be any different this time around?

Brynjolfsson and McAfee, enthusiastic about the potential of machine thinking, believe the same. Their ‘recombinant’ view of innovation argues that progress occurs primarily as a result of the productive recombination of existing technologies, rather than the development of completely novel ones. And what remains constantly critical in this model? The human faculties of subjective judgment to evaluate which of those recombinations are productive and valuable and which are not. But when Brynjolfsson and McAfee propose that progress in the 21st century will be driven by having ‘more eyeballs looking at challenges and more brains thinking about how existing building blocks can be rearranged to meet them’, they fail to provide a rationale why computers could not take over these tasks as well.

I have a hunch that the answer lies in our inability to think as rationally and comprehensively as computers can. Brains are messy, cobbled-together solutions to an evolutionary and bio-chemical problem that is perpetually being redefined. Limited in our ability to operate on large sets of information at any one time, limited in our ability to rapidly process and interpret multiple streams of input, we rely on heuristics and improvised pattern-matching to create complete a picture of the world from thoroughly incomplete and fragmented sources of information. The very sources of so many of our mistakes in reasoning – we generalize, we fill in gaps, we overlook blind spots, we invent unsound but comprehensive narratives – are demonstrations precisely of the ways our mental capacity surpasses that of a computer. In the search for revolutionary and innovative recombinations of existing building blocks, the computer’s rationality and ruthless thoroughness can be a hindrance – what is needed are the half-assed ideas pretending to be watertight, the kind of stuff only produced by the human mind.

Which sounds an awful lot like the ‘bull session’ described in Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, where participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others might respond, without it being assumed that they are committed to what they say. . . . The main point is to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion. . . . The statements made in a bull session differ from bullshit in that there is no pretense that [the usual connection between what people say and what they believe] is being sustained. They are like bullshit by virtue of the fact that they are in some degree unconstrained by a concern with truth.

Frankfurt’s description of the bull session depicts it as a frivolous, inconsequential activity that drunken males engage in out of sheer boredom. To me, however, it seems there is value to be mined in the temporary suspension of strict correspondence between words, reality, and belief. To the extent that creativity has to do with the ability to connect seemingly unrelated ideas in novel ways, an unwavering attachment to the literal truth of statements may be counterproductive to the creation of new ideas. What the participants of a bull (or brainstorming) session are doing is replacing the criterion of truth with that of plausibility in the hope of productively revealing some deeper, underlying pattern to their ideas. There are times, in other words, when the truth is beside the point, a lesson that is difficult, if not impossible, to teach our literal-minded machines.

So I am optimistic about the prospects for the human in the age of computerized everything. Because if there is one thing that you cannot computerize, it’s our uniquely human ability to be irrational, unpredictable, idiosyncratic; to make it up on the fly, and then, wading back through the mess we’ve just made, pick out that nugget of an idea that’s not half bad. In other words, to bullshit.+


Yiliu Shen-Burke was living in Berlin and interning at an architecture firm when he wrote this piece. Now he is pursuing a master’s at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.