Be Pretentious!


To pretend is, etymologically, to put one's effort toward something - the Latin tendere is also where we get "tense," "tension," but also "tender."  For most of the history of the English language, a pretender referred exclusively to a person who laid claim to something, usually a noble or royal title - a "pretender to the throne."  Whether or not this claim was true was irrelevant.  A person who really was the heir of the British Monarchy was just as much a "pretender to the throne" as a person who falsely thus claimed.  But later (presumably because the winners write the history books) pretense acquired the connotation of a false, or imaginary, claim of nobility, and finally came to mean imagination itself - the realm of dreams, of hope, of yearning.   

Thus a person who shames you for being pretentious is telling you to know your place.  They're telling you not to try to give any creative meaning to your own experience, but to accept the role that has been given to you.  Don't be too stylish, too knowing, too presuming, too fancy, too ambitious, too open-ended, too clever.  Being pretentious is akin to being "uppity".  I think of William S. Burroughs's Exterminator: those roaches are getting downright arrogant.

Hegel writes, "Evil resides in the very gaze that perceives evil all around itself."  Some people see pretension everywhere.  If anything, I think our culture isn't pretentious enough.  Or, to put it differently, it lacks the loftiest kinds of ambitions.  The USA - and the world culture that the USA has imposed through imperialism - is maddeningly unpretentious.  Nothing is less pretentious than a McDonald's Quarter Pounder with Cheese.  Indeed, our culture scorns and marginalizes pretension - which results in a general flattening of culture, and also stunts the growth of those who do try to create something ambitious, making them grow crooked in their resentment toward the mind-deadening mainstream.

I've written before that America is thickening.  That's true, and you can see hopeful signs of awakening pretension here and there - Breaking Bad, the Sopranos, Charlie Kaufman, David Lynch.  But we still have a long ways to go.  Iranian cinema is not afraid of pretension.  Where is the American Abbas Kiarostami or Forough Farrokhzad?  What American movie has the balls to recite a poem?  For that matter, it's not uncommon to see people reciting poetry during the nightly broadcast of television news in Arabic.  Islamic civilization is more pretentious than Western civilization, and thus superior to it.

If you live in a pretentious culture, occasionally finding something unpretentious can be a wonderful breath of fresh air.  But when you live in a culture that lacks pretension (or, to put it differently, lacks imagination), where every single thing has been flattened to mediocrity and obviousness, this can be completely suffocating.

What is the opposite of pretension?  Condescension.  There's nothing more obnoxious and insulting than folksiness - when the elites dumb it down and water it down for the unwashed masses, and try to maintain the illusion that they are "jes' folks," the same as you and me.  Folksiness is not only flattening and repetitive and boring (the whole point of folksiness is "everybody is all the same").  It is also just obviously fake, at a level you can feel in the pit of your stomach - the kind of fake you can taste.  Think of George W. Bush pretending to be a Texan farmer, putting on his costume cowboy hat and clearing brush, when everybody knows that he's the son of the elder Bush, who was the head of the CIA before he was president.  W. was born in Connecticut as an scion of the legendary New England Bush and Prescott banking families. Who did he think he was fooling?  

Of course the Democrats indulge in folksiness just as much as the Republicans or even more so, in even smarmier and more nauseating ways.  For instance, the biggest problem with the cast of "Pod Save America" is their relentlessly condescending attitude.  It's so grating to listen to them calmly and patiently explain things to their audience, as if speaking to a child.  They're always focused on "framing" and "messaging" - and then they use that framing and messaging themselves.  It's as if the Wizard of Oz had the curtain pulled down and then continued to operate his giant puppet as if nothing had happened - giving up the game without giving up the game.

Unstated but present in elite condescension is the implication that the working class are working class because they are stupid - not because they are oppressed.  In reality, the working class are generally smarter, harder working, and more knowledgeable than their overlords.

It's best to be straightforward.  But straightforwardness is a perfect balance that is difficult to maintain against the constant swirling pressures pulling you one way or another.  If you're going to err, err on the side of pretension, rather than condescension.  You never can understand your audience perfectly, and you're making up your image of your audience as you go along.  Pretension is a kind of compliment to one's audience.  Better to talk up to what you hope people can be, than to talk down to what you insultingly assume they are.

I can certainly understand people's reluctance to be pretentious.  We are all afraid of having our pretensions demolished.  This is a fear that has been drilled into us, through the myths and legends and stories that are told to us.  According to the stories presented by Plato, Socrates demolished the pretensions of the sophists, those teachers supposed to know.  Millennia later, Wittgenstein similarly skewered his contemporaries, at least according to his admirers.  We all know the story of the rebel Jesus, even as a child, knocking the scholars of the temple down a peg.  Buddha, Lao Tzu, Zhuangzi, Bodhidharma and many others are portrayed as deconstructing pretensions.  And anybody can skewer the pretensions of modern or contemporary art.  Indeed, it's much easier than appreciating it, which takes work.  But modern art began as a rebellion against the pretensions of earlier artistic standards and traditions.  Atheists and the religious both see their opponents as pretentious.  Scientists and anti-scientists alike are opposed to pretension.  Everyone wants to skewer; no one wants to be skewered.  Fair enough.  If you want to keep your head down and avoid all possible criticism by remaining silent, good luck - though there's no guarantee that this really will prevent people from criticizing you.  By the same logic, perhaps it's better not to exist at all.

Pretension takes something - precisely, pretension takes courage.  To live is to risk.  Courage means the willingness to be vulnerable.  It feels dangerous to assert anything - and especially something different from what most other people agree on, what they may not understand or recognize or acknowledge, what they may even hate and fear.  Consciously taking this risk, and accepting the consequences, is worth it, for pretentious failure is more meaningful than unpretentious success.

Okay, sure, yeah: you've got impostor syndrome.  Well, dare to be pretentious.  The fear that is holding you back from being pretentious is the fear of someone pointing out that beneath your pretension is stupidity.  So another way of saying, dare to be pretentious, is to say: dare to be stupid.

The ultimate pretension is the human ego itself.  The human ego itself is just pretend.  The self is asserted without justification.  And there is no logically airtight way to justify your existence. 



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