opinion : Alwyn Lau

#MyŽižek: The value of bullshit in the world

Alwyn Lau

SEPTEMBER 4 — Ideology is whatever remains after we “cut the bullshit.” — Slavoj Žižek

I recall listening to a self-proclaimed management expert rattle on and on about processes, methodology and benchmarks.

In between praying that either a) the sky would swallow her up or b) it would swallow me, I realised this person wasn’t merely clueless about the realities of what she was yapping about: She was also talking and talking in order to conceal the fact that she had nothing to say.

Her forceful and “authoritative” articulations betrayed the fact that she wasn’t capable of anything beyond sprouting textbook (or, worse, Googled) responses to real-world and real-work issues.

The truth, of course, is that everybody would have preferred it if she simply kept quiet. Some of us even believe (rightly) that had she admitted she didn’t have all the answers that would’ve helped the situation more.

But no. Being the “management consultant” type, her public formula — one replicated a million times in corporate Malaysia — was “Corporate Talk + Fancy Powerpoint” = “Bullshit + Nothing.”

Amazingly, it is precisely the bullshit portion which earns people like her a ton of money. It is precisely the bullshit factor which keeps many businesses operating. Completely eradicate bullshit in the business world and the economy would be in real trouble.

It’s like Donald Trump’s tweets. Not even his biggest supporters will claim that the present POTUS has a gift for articulating what’s on his mind, let alone doing so with 140 characters or less.

So you get confusing and bizarre messages which have become a goldmine for organisations like CNN to take pot-shots at Trump (see note 1).

The irony, though — and this is my point — is that the Trump phenomenon demonstrates the “power” of bullshit such that were the Donald a better/nicer person than what the left-leaning media makes him out to be, it’s likely he would NOT have won the election.

The negativity and scandalous nature of Trump’s personality and (frankly) nonsensical comments have produced a political anti-ambience so forceful I’m not sure his supporters would even want him to change i.e. bullshit is powerful and it makes a difference.

Negative Philosophy 101

But what is bullshit, exactly? (For the slower readers among us, I hope you know I’m not referring to the excrement of bulls; for the kids among us who find it hard to understand, just give it a while — you’ll get there.)

Is bullshit something real? Logically, bullshit is not a positive feature. One cannot have a set of, say, “actual things” like cars, food, buildings, then add bullshit into it.

Bullshit is like the number -3. Sure, in theory there’s a “figure” there but it’s, c’mon, bullshit, isn’t it? Seriously, how does something like “-3” exist beyond a Maths textbook? What the heck is a negative integer in real life, anyway?

The answer, of course, is that a negative number is less than nothing.

Imagine the world in front of your eyes as a screen. Now, stick your fist out and punch through the screen (kids, don’t try this at home). You are not going into “another world”; you are merely opening up a lacuna in the present one.

Alternatively, it’s the difference between, say, being alive, being dead and being undead. Only movie morons believe that zombies and vampires are “nothing but dead people.” Hell, no. They are “less than dead people”; they are unliving (or undying) in a state which produces very “live” effects (at least on camera).

Ditto, the “management consultant” and Donald Trump’s tweets. They are less than nothing. They embody bullshit in the sense that they actualise a subtracted reality which, for better or worse, has very real effects.

To employ a modified version of a famous Žižekian joke, there was a guy who walked into a restaurant and asked for fried rice with chicken. The waiter told him, “Sorry, sir, we have run out of chicken. Are you okay to have fried rice without chicken, or would you prefer to go to another shop where they sell fried rice without lobster?”

The waiter was, of course, being sarcastic as hell but the point here is that even though a “fried rice without chicken” and a “fried rice without lobster” are identical in a positive sense, the two negativities are not alike. To mention “fried rice without lobster” is to introduce something new into the equation.

Likewise, Bullshit is not Something but it’s not Nothing either. Or, rather, Bullshit is Nothing existing in a different modality.

Life “as we have it” is not flat. It is shaped by that which is not life; that which is, in fact, bullshit. There is something missing in life alone which we can’t fill using its “positive” and “actual” features — hence, we need bullshit.

Is this all just bullshit?

What’s the relevance of all the above? Don’t we already have enough of bullshit? Do we need to theorise further about it?

The phenomenon of the sub-ontological presence of bullshit alerts us to the possibility of a negative and mysterious-but-not-that-mysterious dimension to our social, cultural and even political universe. Our world isn’t merely 4D or 5D; it’s also BS-D.

As with our “normal” world, the world of Bullshit isn’t intrinsically Good or Bad. As mentioned, some corporate frauds are walking bullshitters but, astonishingly, we still keep paying them sky-high salaries. Then again, a substantial number of Americans believe that Trump’s straight-forward BS was a necessary corrective to the political correct BS of the Democrats he defeated.

So, yeah, we fight BS with BS (see note 2).

Finally, we can never live without bullshit. Consider any leader who says to you, “Okay people let’s cut the bullshit” — you’d be wise to be wary of everything he says that comes after that statement.

Note 1: I wonder if Trump’s detractors are giving him way too much credit in that they assume his social media remarks are made with 100 per cent thought and intentionality behind them. Surprise, surprise: America’s First Gentleman is a master deal-maker, salesman and negotiator, not a seasoned keyboard warrior. And surely, we all know that key ingredient that sales people need to possess? The ability to bullshit like a boss.

Note 2: Unfortunately, often our personal BS gets the better of us and spawns a billion-dollar industry replete with its gurus, rituals and pills. It’s called depression.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.