it’s good to know who you are

You are aware of the rules.

You want people to think you’re smart, but you never want to be seen as a self-consciously intellectual. You benefited from great teachers your whole life but you represent yourself as self-taught. You loved college but you now argue that college isn’t worth it. You might have a graduate degree, but never a doctorate, and you now represent your masters as some embarrassing thing you did in the past, its contribution to your earning power notwithstanding. You want to be known as well read, maybe even a reader, but not a reader reader. You want to have had exposure to “the classics” but not to be the kind of person who reads them now. You don’t mind being ignorant but you have stress dreams about appearing affected. You run all of your conspicuous cultural consumption through an exquisitely crafted defensive process, a mental machine that you are only partially in control of which eliminates from your cultural repertoire any commitments that risk being seen as showy, willfully obscure, or academic.

You are to be the kind of person who “overthinks it,” enjoying the protection of the preemptive irrelevance that term contains. You use the traditional literary analysis tools of symbolic reading and references, but you never apply them to actual literature, only pop culture– movies, or even better, TV. You will have a long conversation about the Christ allegory in Breaking Bad but would never dream of doing the same with “A Hunger Artist.” You rage against a high culture that no longer exists, but you are contemptuous towards anyone who has not absorbed a vast and subtle range of attitudes and opinions towards the middlebrow media you treat as scripture. You call True Detective operatic but disdain opera; you call violence in the latest Tarantino movie balletic but despise ballet. You are quietly patronizing towards people who enjoy CBS sitcoms and procedural dramas, but you are openly enraged by the notion that your cultural consumption should ever involve hard work. You complain that cultural disrespect towards video games and comic books narrows the realm of the possible and then insist that no one could ever read Gertrude Stein for pleasure.

More tragically, you want your life to have narrative and meaning, but you are so desperately afraid of appearing pretentious– the cardinal sin– that you have systematically eliminated from your life those aspects of it which were once most moving or treasured to you, to be rescued only, perhaps, when you become a parent, and can pawn off the work of being yourself as the work of making someone else.

We have entered a phase of the life of the mind and of culture that is the intellectual equivalent of “spiritual but not religious,” a time where everyone wants the social privileges that accrue to the smart but where no one wants to risk the social punishments that fall on intellectuals. Everyone wants to be sophisticated; nobody wants to be perceived as a sophisticate. They want to be cultured but never to be associated with what was once called “culture.” We lament ignorance but we are utterly corrosive towards the work of becoming smart. We love information; we hate to be taught. People have only those commitments that they can shroud in so many layers of plausible deniability that they can be discarded, when necessary, without real cost.

I can take all of it but the hypocrisy. I know that I’m a snob. I don’t think much of many people. I feel that way because I exist in the world, and I see the way that stupid people ruin the world every day. But I can deal with the choice to be ignorant. What I can’t deal with is the people who simultaneously deny the legitimacy of expertise while writing for publications that get millions of hits, who make feints towards egalitarianism while they are involved in the incredibly inegalitarian world of online writing, who are able to be seen waxing populist precisely because they are in decidedly non-populist environs. Don’t tell me that we’re all the same when You have to decide if you think being smart is better than being stupid, if you think education is better than ignorance. Then just live that and leave all of the bullshit kabuki out of it. If I have read you, you are no everyman. If I have read you writing about art and culture, congratulations, you are pretentious, even if you have assiduously restricted your analysis to topics covered by the AV Club and have mercilessly trimmed anything that might appear to take art, yourself, or your audience seriously. You are already pretentious, so please, drop the pretense. I cannot stand the fake, inconsistent populism. I can’t take it.

7 Comments

  1. I’ve come to think that fear of pretentiousness is a more toxic intellectual vice than pretentiousness. After all, pretentiousness is the mother of sophistication. I’m happy when I have a pretentious student.

  2. There’s nothing more pretentious than using the tools of high art/literary analysis to analyze high brow entertainment.

    For a country that prides itself so much on ‘individualism’, this is a remarkably herd like and gutless country. Nobody wants to ever stand out from the crowd. Because, what, somebody might laugh at you?

  3. I went out to a movie once, and after the movie my friend and I ran into an other acquaintance who had been in there so we got drinks together and discussed the film. I remarked that half the fun of seeing an arty film was being pretentious about it afterward, and the acquaintance gave me a stricken look and has never gone for a drink with me since.

    That said, I don’t think I agree with everything in this article. Especially the bit about making feints toward egalitarianism. Surely the world needs for some of the folks with large platforms to care about egalitarianism — who else will be more effective in promoting it? You might as well make fun of rich people who give to charity. And just because a person has gotten their influence or money by one route doesn’t mean they must treat that as the only route by which people should attain influence or money. In fact, lots of us have gotten where we are by routes which emphatically should NOT be the only pathways to success.

    1. Yeah, sorry, I don’t mean that the successful or prominent shouldn’t make appeals to/for economic or social egalitarianism. What I mean is that they shouldn’t claim the virtue of egalitarianism in a way that doesn’t make plain the fact that their own careers are derived from inegalitarian systems. Egalitarianism is good. Phony populism is bad.

  4. The scourge of the “snob”-lobbers has an unfortunate effect on the way we express ourselves, I think. If you have to defensively own the “snob” label just to preempt a populist critic, then we can conclude that the landscape of our collective preferences has already been contorted beyond recognition. You seem to say that the hypocrisy is the only problematic part, but I would go further and claim that the very act of policing what you say based on its populist or high-brow context is destructive. I think that the people who perform this policing, regardless of the audience size, are closeted egomaniacs who derive pleasure from re-pricing cultural capital so it’s totally worthless. On a more technical note, the word “pretentious” has always confounded me. It almost always conveys more information about the speaker than the target, because it has two reference frames built into it. Something can only be pretentious if somebody is both pretending and their performance is somehow disingenuous or false. People who accuse you of being pretentious never have to rationalize the accusation. It’s just meaningless bomb-throwing. I see nothing wrong with pretending; the performance is how we construct our beliefs and identity, and sometimes how we communicate important ideas. It seems deeply ironic that it’s more earnest to self-identify as a pretentious snob than to police them. I’m looking for an adjective to describe the populist police, but “fascist” is all I can come up with, and it seems the history buffs already own that one.

  5. “and can pawn off the work of being yourself as the work of making someone else.”

    That line was delightful to read.

  6. “You run all of your conspicuous cultural consumption through an exquisitely crafted defensive process, a mental machine that you are only partially in control of which eliminates from your cultural repertoire any commitments that risk being seen as showy, willfully obscure, or academic.”

    Sounds like the inverse of the dandy; both turn life into an exquisite piece artifice, but while the dandy tries to stand out, the subject of the article tries to blend in.

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