Zarathustra in Disneyland - How Postmodernism Poisoned the Well

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Synopsis

No, you are NOT entitled to your own Nietzsche. And, no, you are NOT entitled to your own “science”. When intellectuals “defend their narratives” rather than persuade the truth, we are all in deep trouble.

A certain “Molotov cocktail like” version of postmodernism and post-structuralism in its diluted, twisted and oversimplified version has become the very fabric of the current intellectual and cultural milieu. An agenda based on narratives, separated only by plausible (often tribal) aesthetics has produced a legion of “skimmers”, people who do not bother themselves with deeper meaning, who confuse semantics and aesthetics with ethics, who think that sensationalism is a form of “critical thinking”, have sadly dominated the current discourse. You can find skimmers everywhere, from poor journalists to self-proclaimed “leaders” (in business, politics or the self-help industry). Unfortunately, they are also present in academe (which spells a lot of trouble for this institution itself).

One might ask, who truly cares about “postmodernism”? Isn’t it just some obscure philosophical construct created from the perspective of a dusty philosophical armchair? Is it possible that a school of thought can influence the way we think outside of the Ivory Tower? Well, in fact it, already does. Not because everybody reads Derrida and Foucault (almost no one does), but because every culture has its preferred, “fashionable” way of looking at things; and, postmodernism provided a framework to absorb a new, technology-filled (somehow foreign) reality. A dilution of deep meaning and common sense overlapped perfectly with the new commanding presence of Internet and social media. “Simulacra” (aka representations, imitations of people and things) became a new reality; “narratives” are the permanent, non-removable lenses we see the world through. “Storytelling” became more important than telling the truth; the individual disappeared in a shadow of his/hers own pre-assigned “identity”; popularity became a compass for inquiry. We let the world of symbols “unglue” us from reality on a large, unprecedented scale. Even without realizing it, postmodernism took a strong hold on many aspects of our present affairs. It affects the way we think of ourselves, the way we communicate with each other and the very way we carry on exploration and knowledge building.  But, let me start from the very beginning.

1. The difference between interpretation and adaptation

Hegel pointed out a long time ago “the owl of Minerva flies at dusk”. It is indeed extremely difficult to point out and perceive our shortcomings in real time; we are usually better at this when we gain some distance from what we’re analyzing; wisdom often occurs after the fact. But, I believe for keen observers, certain symptoms of toxic “post-modernistic grip” have been detectable for quite some time.

During my research on American interpretations of Nietzsche, my jaw dropped at the realization of how deep postmodernism had sunk into academic culture. My work was centered on two main goals: I diligently tried to present a wide range of various interpretations of Nietzsche’s philosophy in contemporary American thought, but at the same time, due to cultural differences between Europe and America, I had to sketch some principles, provide a description of a different setting of the “American academic routine” for my European audience. The second part of my inquest fell into the category of etiology of philosophy (1). It is good to remember: all humanistic interpretations are drawn upon common, culturally set and established rules of thinking; there is an inescapable presence of certain value preferences, and/or judgments in words we choose to describe meanings with. In different cultures and different times and settings, we exhibit a particular way we ask questions (a certain way we interrogate our repertoire of information). To put it in more “human language”, intellectuals travel in herds. This is exactly why we can separate successfully the Dark Ages from the Renaissance, Romanticism from the era of Enlightenment, etc. “Schools of thought” create aftershocks in the way we all construct our worldview. They pick and elevate some intrinsic aspects of reality which require our special attention in the moment. Etiology of philosophy has a humble epistemological status (claims cannot be easily generalized) and, yet it provides a roadmap for understanding important undercurrents guiding interpretations in humanities.

Nietzsche’s philosophy is an exceptionally good proxy for analyzing wider cultural phenomena. His thought is a type of Rorschach test; it is emotively charged (you either love it or hate it). His aphorisms are vague enough to open the door for a sufficient amount of “personal input”, but at the same time Nietzsche’s work is NOT just poetry!

Despite the fact that Nietzsche contradicts himself at times, if you truly study his work, read it all carefully and chronologically (2), you will be amazed by the consistent development of certain powerful motifs; he cleverly pondered over the concepts of life and power, you see his perspectivism (not relativism!) as a voice in discussion with traditional epistemology; you see the robust ethical value of amor fati and eternal recurrence (which yielded together are a subtle kind of “value ethics”). Nietzsche’s work amounts to a profound philosophical statement, which can only be grasped by diligent and careful examination. If one just “picks and chooses” from a random collection of his quotes, we end up with a “Hollywood version” of Nietzsche, which is wittily depicted in the video below:

There is a significant difference between “good” and “poor” interpretation. Imagine Nietzsche’s philosophy as a set of building blocks. Many thinkers put the parts together in a new, surprising way and this is a great thing. A regardful and thoughtful analysis of the text is the whole point of any interpretation; paying more attention to certain aspects of Nietzsche’s thought often helps us to understand his work better. The problem starts when one uses Nietzsche’s words to support an agenda, which is utterly foreign to the spirit of the original text; when “combing through quotes” in a search for confirmation goes wild, and in lieu of a better understanding of philosophy, we end up with a monologue of the interpreter. Here is where interpretation stops and adaptation starts. What I argue here is that adaptations (via poetical license, licencia poetica) belong ONLY in the realm of ART, not in science, not in philosophy, not in journalism. “Adaptation” in every meaning of this term requires alteration of the structure, while interpretation is an act of explaining, re-framing aimed at better understanding. In the popular version of postmodernism these two terms: “interpretation” and “adaptation” got peculiarly equalized and glued together, which causes damage and the trivialization of discourse on a large scale.

Nietzsche - a good European

“But we who are neither Jesuits nor democrats, not even sufficiently German, we good Europeans and free, very free spirits, we have it still, the whole need for the spirit and the whole tension of its how! And perhaps also the arrow, the task and, who knows? the target…” - Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil, Preface)

For some mysterious reason, Friedrich Nietzsche is quoted in almost every self-help, pop-psychology book on the market these days. So, let me make it clear: despite the current “propaganda” it is good to remember that Nietzsche was not a yoga teacher from Santa Barbara; he was actually born in XIX century Europe. The lack of proper historical perspective in American thought was always somehow off-putting for Europeans, who consider (in general) American interpretations of classical philosophers as often too detached from the original. I disagree with that. I think a large part of the general misunderstanding is that Europeans don’t fully understand Pragmatism, an “American way of thinking” which historically speaking has colored the landscape of interpretations here.

Alexis de Tocqueville (3) said a long time ago that Americans don’t study philosophy, they try to practice it; that they don’t resort to pre-cut notions served by tradition or religion, but are more concerned with their own understanding. Whatever Americans assimilate they make it their own, including philosophy. Even interpretations of less ambiguous philosophers, like Immanuel Kant, were more a-historical here: Noah Porter, James McCosh, Laurens Perseus Hickok, then James Marsh, Horace Bushnell, Ralph E. Emerson, were looking for strictly “practical” solutions in Kant’s moral philosophy. Then the reception of Hegel had surprisingly similar traits: thinkers from “St Louis” like William Torrey Harris and Henry Brokmeyer were using Hegelian dialectics to find a way to rebuild the country after the Civil War.

“American culture is based on experience” (4) and its native Pragmatism (5)  supports an attitude where thinking is always “goal-oriented” and concerned with practical application of knowledge.

In opposition to many European thinkers, I think that Pragmatism (although difficult to define) was a one of the most fascinating and fruitful new attitudes in the recent history of ideas. With its respect towards science, and keen eye towards reality, it opened the door for the steady growth of knowledge and its realistic applications.

So, let me express here loud and clear: I’m not single-handedly against bold, a-historical, out-of- the box interpretations of Nietzsche. Quite the opposite is true; his thought invites them and if properly justified they add rather than subtract to the understanding of his philosophy. Therefore, before I start bewailing please let me briefly mention some great interpretations (NOT adaptations) present in current American thought.

Bold and beautiful

Historically speaking, Arthur Danto’s interpretation (Nietzsche as Philosopher) ignited the discussion on the compatibility of Nietzsche’s thought with analytical tradition. Nietzsche could be understood as a proponent of the pragmatic theory of truth. The discourse on Nietzsche’s perspectivism and the concept of truth (see Maudemarie Clark , Peter Poellner) subsumed Nietzsche’s thought as part of the modern epistemological discussion. Cornel West (1985), among many others, in a similar spirit, reminded us that Nietzsche was a fiery critic of metaphysics, and an apt detective of perennial nonsense and pseudo problems in philosophy. The interpretation of Nietzsche as a philosophical naturalist presented by Brian Leiter is one of the most informative and comprehensive interpretations of Nietzsche to date, and will be recognized as canonical by many. Similarly, Nietzsche’s interpretations in the spirit of evolutionism by John Richardson in Nietzsche’s New Darwinism, where the author claims that the present day understanding of natural selection and the concept of “will to power” (if understood naturalistically, not mentally) can and should be allied, provided timely and clever reading of Nietzsche’s thought.

Richard Schacht describes Nietzsche’s philosophy as “the anthropological awakening” and his books are representative of a post-pragmatic approach. Philosophy was made by and for people, and the true strength of Nietzsche’s cerebrations is that he reminds us about it repeatedly. The concept of perspectivism in this account is described as a “human” way of thinking. Uncovering the consequences of the fact that morality and values are anchored in society is supposed to encourage self-awareness and lead people to take more responsibility for shaping human affairs.

Robert Solomon used to speak about Nietzsche in a similar, “collegial spirit” (Living with Nietzsche). He points out that Nietzsche’s philosophy is a type of practical ethics; he draws a plausible parallel with Aristotelian virtue ethics (both philosophies have the same telos, which is unveiling a human’s full potential).

Nietzsche indisputably influenced classic Depth Psychology, and his way of theorization is still a vivid inspiration for today’s psychiatrists/psychologists. Interpretations like the one provided by Kristen Brown (Nietzsche and Embodiment) explores mind-body-language-consciousness relations drawing inspiration from Nietzsche’s writing and combining it with contemporary debates (non-dualism theory).

This is only a small sample of books and subjects which might be considered “a-historical” in Europe, but they perfectly “hold water” and are indeed exhaustive and comprehensive approaches to Nietzsche’s thought.

The “fast and loose” invasion

But, unfortunately during my research I’ve also stumbled upon a multitude of Nietzsche’s “interpretations” which give me pounding headaches, books that in my opinion do not belong in an academic environment because they do not provide interpretation; they are adaptations and have very little to do with philosophy itself.  Many refer to them conspicuously as “pluralistic” interpretations of Nietzsche. They are not merely a-historical; they lack fidelity towards the original text. Before a postmodern invasion, they would be dismissed as non-academic, unqualified to be considered “a philosophical interpretation” of any kind. And yet, in this new cultural milieu, in which adaptation equals interpretation, they thrive and multiply.  I suspect that some claims made by Alexander Nehamas (Nietzsche: Life as Literature) were pulled mindlessly from his account and subsequently sparked “the movement”.  If one concentrates on just one aspect, and begins treating Nietzsche’s philosophy as “a literary creation of character” (rather than a coherent philosophical position), all hell breaks loose. Everything becomes a matter of ‘aesthetics”, and subsequently epistemological aspects of thought are intentionally ignored. As Bernd Magnus described: the boundaries between philosophy and literature are erased (6). And, a tidal wave of “fast and loose” interpretations proceeded to make their way into the academic environment.

You can find books describing Nietzsche as a “fierce proponent of democracy” (yet, “individualism” is not an immediate prepotency towards democracy) and Nietzsche as a feminist (this took some “tweaking” of the definition of feminism for sure). Recently, I found out that Nietzsche had some very strong opinions about the election of Donald Trump. At this point I knew postmodernism, with its “pluralistic interpretations” of EVERYTHING is welcomed even in the academic environment. The standard of interpretation was lowered to the level of “adaptation”, and it seems escape our scrutiny that this is not a minor “adjustment”. It is a huge leap from an attempt to understand better, to using parts of any original text to express the views of an interpreter (not the original author).

Pluralistic interpretations of Nietzsche gave me a taste of this quite unusual, but rapidly spreading practice: the permission to mindlessly blend topics and threads (in this case, philosophy and literature). Everything has become “just a story”, so naturally literary composition became a virtue (it is a big, yet sneaky jump from aesthetic to ethics). The residual “truth” is moved into the realm of a personal (or group) taste; we are encouraged to judge everything by its appeal, by its “composition” and subsequently by its label. Afterwards, anything well written (aka, “tells a good story”) or is “inspiring” (moves the audience by its appeal) is considered the most desirable. It is concerning how divorced we are from the very principle of philosophy here, despite many twists and turns, the telos of philosophy was predominantly the same: to search for the truth and essence of things (via episteme), not for the beauty and style (delivered by doxa).

Philosophy is a hi-abstract endeavor, and many mindless attempts to treat it otherwise backfire. In the case of postmodernism in America, some consequences of an extremely literal understanding of European thinkers produced simply absurd conclusions. “Deconstruction”, which is a cornerstone of both poststructuralism and postmodernism, is just like Duchamp’s “Fountain” in the space of an art gallery; it is meaningful and thought provoking only once. European post-structuralism was a purely intellectual game, which was designed for a theoretical environment, not for application. What so many American thinkers overlooked was a proper historical perspective, which sometimes is necessary to comprehend many terms used in humanities. The European post-structuralism was a hiccup after an intellectual struggle to “process” atrocities of war and two totalitarianisms (Nazism and communism). What Foucault meant as a metaphor- “standing against Truth and Power” - should be put in proper context, not implemented. What Baudrillard described as “simulacra”, the world as “symbols” should never be treated literally. And yet, in the US both concepts, truth and power, became “dirty words” almost overnight.  You can’t talk about them without getting in trouble. In the US, on soil primed by a-historical pragmatism, non-selective postmodernism just run amuck.

2.  The HYPE

“The point of asking questions is to find true answers; the point of measuring is to measure accurately; the point of making maps is to find your way to your destination.”- Daniel C. Dennett (Postmodernism and Truth) 

Many philosophers (including Daniel Dennett quoted above) were sending warnings against the “trivialization of truth” perpetuated in postmodernism. Not many listened. We replaced “truth” with competing, more equal narratives and consequently we opened our minds so wide that our brains fell out.

In the long run a “fast and loose” attitude is a serious problem, not only for the humanities but also for science. The credibility of scientific research has already taken multiple hits; the replicability crisis described by John Ioannidis is only one of them. There is, definitively, a glitch in the system of scientific research (perpetuated by a questionable reward system, aggressive efforts at “popularization”, politics between research centers, etc.)

But, the crisis has a human side as well; at some point, we all have consented and became used to a “pluralistic interpretation of science”, a practice based on “adaptation” of various aspects of research for some type of personal gain. The hype, chasing headlines, spinning the results of minute studies, are the practice routinely used by journalists and “popular authors”.  But, I have to point out, some researchers are jumping on that wild wagon as well. One might think it is good to satisfy the public’s need for scientific explanation, but in fact, at the same time, tremendous damage is done. The credibility of scientific research is diminished.

Science is a process, long and tearful, full of detours and setbacks. A small study is usually just a teardrop in the ocean of a systematic effort to understand BETTER. Instead of communicating this important truth with the public we have a mass production of books “based on science” with a shelf-life shorter than French cheese. Like in the video posted above, in which Nietzsche in popular culture has nothing to do with his own philosophy, “science” in popular culture became a caricature of itself.

Can you see how this “dilution” of the meaning of the scientific effort backfires? It manifests itself in a growing anti-science attitude. Public perception of constantly changing claims “backed by science” qualifies all of them as simply “unreliable”! Take it from a long time public relations person: hype which does NOT deliver promised results produces skepticism, and in the long run backfires.

The “fast and loose” attitude, a certain “Kardashianization” of research in social sciences, in which personal interest becomes more important than the mission of science itself, is both dangerous and fruitless. We have a factory producing new catchy words running at full throttle, yet our understanding of things is not getting materially better. Some might even argue that academe is systematically detaching itself from a solid sense of reality.

What we have neglected to notice is that if we divorce ourselves from the concept of truth (as predicted by Dennett), some other related, extremely important constructs will follow. If there is no truth, there is no objectivity, and integrity stops being a fundamental virtue; “popularity and outreach” reign over scrupulous attention to details, so extremely important in the scientific process.  Fast and loose “knowledge” building has already derailed objective journalism; it sells “popular books” from which nobody learns anything important, but it should not be accepted as the standard in the academic environment.

 “A fish rots from the head down”

We live in the era of fragmentation. A sharp specialization in sciences is often needed. But, we have to keep in mind that even in the realm of one discipline there is a big difference between “small picture” and “big picture” claims. We cannot mix and match quantifiers as we please. Let me repeat again: even the smallest study matters if it's done correctly, but many of them can’t be generalized (universalized) into ready-made “theories” aimed solely at media attention. By hyping and over-poeticizing science, we only gain the illusion of knowledge, while at the same time we misuse science and degrade its prestige.

In addition, due to a somehow solipsistic component in this constant “creation of a character”, some have developed a curious sense of ethical superiority over the rest of the population. I truly cannot understand the reason why? It is not even moral intellectualism as described by Socrates, because questioning knowledge is “out of style”! Making sense is perceived to be an accidental by-product of “production”. We became accustomed to people using both science and philosophy to peddle claims for their pre-selected audience (for the sake of their our own “image building”).  Researchers seem to perfectly ignore “skimmers” in their disciplines (people who misuse the discipline for the sake of their own gains), but get oddly agitated if the reality goes against their own theoretical models. The reaction of many intellectuals to the results of the last election is the perfect example of it.  

And, another paradoxical unintended consequence emerged: even in the academic environment, we move away from debating. Personal narratives took over and for some reason we started to feel obligated to “defend” them rather than discuss points of view and learn from each other. Nobody’s “truth” is “better” than my truth; the door to utter solipsism and tribalisms was opened and the space for the productive exchange of ideas is dramatically limited. If all narratives are equal, there is no point in searching for anything beyond them; the only obligation we have is to protect our own. We are no longer offended by a lack of precision or thoughtlessness in argument, but we are very easily offended “personally”.  I believe this new value system is directly related to the postmodern description of the world, with an optics focused solely on “a persona” rather than on any other greater good (science, true knowledge, the truth; all, as described by Foucault are the sources of unwanted “power”).  

The diagnosis of the current state of Universities provided by Jonathan Haidt is spot on (see video HERE); we forgot what is the true telos of science and education. In academe, we created a peculiar culture of “victimhood”, which is completely counterproductive. If you name everybody “a victim”, true victims will never be apparent. Simultaneously, you weaken self-esteem, and fail to provide the appropriate tools for the next generation of students who need to develop both toughness of character, and the most comprehensive knowledge available to become fully functional, respectable leaders in future society.

Academe is not Las Vegas; what happens in academe sometimes does not stay in academe. We learn certain values in the academic environment on the simplest of levels. If nothing else, we learn how to verify information for the sake of proper functioning in real life. The current academic culture is built upon traits and values of Nietzsche’s greatest nightmare. What he despised more than anything is a society built upon a herd of mediocre, depth lacking, fragile individuals driven by resentment. He saw it coming, but I think today we have exceeded his wildest expectations.

Intellectual Disneyland

Profound philosophy and good science are both about bursting the bubbles of our preconceptions. They do it by an ongoing process of experimentation, constant interpretation of reality, which consequently expands human knowledge about the real world. Paradoxically, a postmodern paradigm very poorly describes human reality. While constantly concerned with the “a-typical” and the “personal”, it loses grip on what is substantial, therefore, its claims are in fact more rigid and impossible to universalize. People and their ideas float in hot air and resemble one dimensional cartoon characters rather than complex, grounded human beings. Universities are turning into Disneyland, where “safe spaces” and the “college experience’ is more cherished than the very transfer of knowledge and the building of critical thinking skills.

Sometimes I chuckle imagining Nietzsche attempting to give a lecture at a modern day American university. He would have broken every “blasphemy law” in his first sentence; he would likely cause massive panic attacks and would probably end up in jail. And yet, battalions of postmodernists, pop-psychologists, and self-improvement guru’s quote him without a shadow of reservation. It all would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad; we are more concerned with decorum than we are concerned with learning; we lost the compass of intellectual integrity.

I’m fully aware of the fact that implemented postmodernism can only “flourish” in the current era of full accessibility to information. The very fact that we can “google” every term ever created gives many a false sense of “knowledge”. It is important to remember that Nietzsche has nothing to do with it; he encouraged questioning knowledge, but he was never fond of shallow approach to knowledge building. He describes the process in his essay “On the Three Metamorphoses” from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. First, on our way, we became “a camel”, we gather an enormous amount of information, so much of it that we kneel under its weight and might. Then, we became "a lion", a disruptor, a lone fighter for freedom; and, we learn how to defend our own point of view, how to resist the illusory comfort of conformism and complacency (which is particularly dangerous for these who gather a lot of knowledge). A person becomes “a child” only after going through the first two phases; “a child” learns how to enjoy the act of creation (and how to say “yes” to life).

Paraphrasing Nietzsche by using the same metaphor: in today’s “applied postmodernism” the first two steps are intentionally skipped as not important. A person who is “a child” emerges FIRST. Without these two critical steps, without the camel’s knowledge, nor lion’s courage, a child is taking the lead. He/she plays with everything, pretending in some imaginary world that it is an act of “creation”. Sadly, it rarely is. Blind experimentation and deconstruction without pre-existing knowledge can only be qualified as mere child’s play aimed at the amusement of like-minded comrades, hence so meaningless for the rest of us; it all gets forgotten the next day.

So, please, for those who feel tempted to mindlessly quote Nietzsche, read some of his philosophy first. If it is too much to ask, I recommend pondering over one question: “why do you feel the need to quote Nietzsche at the beginning of your chapter at all?" To add some gravitas to your thoughts, perhaps? Here it is: the sobriety, the austerity in a search for the true meaning is what real philosophy is all about.  This heavy-weight, highly abstract way of thinking is often timeless, because “it touches a nerve”; it says something important, not easily accessible and yet profound about human nature without filters and fillers.  It resists the temptation of preaching to the choir; it is aimed at uncovering the truth.  Nietzsche was a master of detecting bullshit (he turned on its head the common understanding of many core concepts).  Nietzsche was a label destroyer, and he had the courage to take on the biggest one of all, “good and evil”. Nietzsche was dialoguing with Antiquity, with an entire history of philosophy, with psychology and religion, not with CNN.  So, if you use his words merely to add some “zest” to your personal soliloquy, think twice. For somebody who actually knows his work, the effect of this “forced coupling” might be more comical than profound.  

Postmodernism does not provide a sustainable and productive paradigm for knowledge building. In its frivolity and uncanny taste for excess and emotional fleur, it resembles rococo (the last part of Baroque). Thankfully, after each era of exorbitance we tend to return to more disciplined and prudent ways of thinking. Let’s all hope for a solid swing towards a neo-Enlightenment in our immediate future. We are in desperate need of some good, old-fashioned REASON here.


Footnotes:

(1) “etiology of philosophy”, an attempt to conduct a preliminary analysis on causation, origination of thought in certain place and time in history.

(2). If one is serious about providing a comprehensive interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy it is recommended to read Nietzsche’s work in his native language, German An example of the most common source of interpretational misunderstanding caused by translation: the word “experience” in Nietzsche’s work translates into English from two different German words: Erlebnis (short term, more immediate experience) and Erfahrung (more profound experience, a part of our life-journey “fahre” means “travel”. If one neglects this subtle but important distinction, Nietzsche’s writings appear to be more “hedonistic” than they are for somebody who reads the original.

(3) see Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835), p.3.

(4) See John Dewey’s definition of pragmatism in The Century Dictionary Supplement), and William James’s expression: “the world of pure experience” in his Pragmatism (1907). Also John McDermott (1986, 1987)

(5) Richard Rorty (1982) claimed many times that pragmatism is a philosophy of American civilization.

(6) Bernd Magnus  said: „These seven elective affinities...are, first, perspectivism; second, the diagnosis and critic of binarism, along with the metaphysics of presence; third, substituting genealogical narratives for ontology; fourth, diagnosing the power/knowledge connection, as well as the structures of ideological domination; fifth, erasing the boundaries between philosophy and literature; sixth, the disarticulation of the self; and seventh, the self-consuming, self-deconstructive character of Nietzsche’s own discourse and categories.” Nietzsche-Studien, 8 (1989), 304-5)

Article Featured Image @Mirosław Ryszard Makowski

Tags: adaptation, enlightenment, interpretation, milena z. fisher, narratives, nietzsche, philosophy, post-structuralism, postmodernism, science popularization, skimmers, storytelling, the truth

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