From Paul Christensen “in praise of bluffing” published in “The Antioch Review” of Spring 1999

So how was I not to bluff, if all my heroes did it, and did it well? You know the measure of your spiritual depth by how well you bluff. Cowards tell little lies and fudge a lot; poets expand the radius of the lie into illusion and allusion, and dream more. Politicians grasp the pulse of an imaginary nation and pronounce in simple boring language things that everyone should know, and the bluff is therefore stale and usually unimaginative, underreaching. Most of them have given up the bluff and gone to the pollsters to learn the trite and cliched truth. Priests bluff according to formula and repeat the doctrinal gestures and elements so often it is no longer bluff but rote habit.

No, the bluff pure and ethereal is reserved for geniuses and mad people. No modern poem ever reaches the condition of pure bluffness. The poem is a sad little grocery list with a bit of ego linking up the potatoes and carrots. Everyone wants a practical lesson in life and living, and the poor little lyric bag of syllables serves us a dim copy of that desire, as tasty as a box of Stove Top Stuffing or Hamburger Dinner. Predictability is a passion of our times, and preordained answers are far more welcome than the unexpected twist. People ask stupid and unbluffable questions and begin nodding and coaxing out the expected language before you can answer. “What’s the best car to buy, huh?” The Chevrolet Metro has the best mileage, according to the news we all watched last night, and remember partly. “Uh huh, that’s right. That’s right, uh huh.”

We cannot bluff now because we all have a uniform, slightly squared-off consciousness shaped for us by the same media exposure. We all watch the same shows, listen to NPR, The Jim Lehrer News Hour, Morning Edition, and All Things Considered, and then proceed to have, not conversations exactly, but trading sessions. I say part of a fact and you supply the rest; I was picking my nose at some critical moment of Bob Edwards’s comments and missed something, and you were sitting idly and retained it. So we talk as if we put together a rehab unit’s jigsaw puzzle: a portrait of Art Linkletter’s house at nightfall, just as Lawrence Welk begins playing an old rerun on the tube.

We all see the same movies, eat the same food, hear the same music, and read the same books and magazines, so we live in a lit circle of shared cultural noodles and broth. And the diet is so cloying and indigestible that we hardly ever want to regurgitate our nightly consumption.

By disposition the majority would prefer to remain behind the fence of such shared common shallowness, such boiled news and pre-owned food. We go along inside used and tired minds, trading tokens of consciousness that we already own in duplicate and triplicate. Maybe that’s why conversation is dead in America; what’s there to say that’s new? Nothing much. I’m okay, are you fine, too? Yeah, sure. Bye now. Bye.

In my current research, I am looking at the pattern recognition and the ability to deal with uncertain information that characterises expertise, so the notion of bluffing as a manifestation of implicit pattern recognition is appealing. It resonates with the concept of confabulation as part of a normal epistemic process as described by Hirstein (2005) in Brain Fiction, and of using simple heuristics described by Gigerenzer (2007) in Gut Feelings, among others.

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