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The fraudulence of status

King Louis XIV
The magnificent fraud Louis XIV.

[The following is an excerpt from this book.]

In order to determine someone’s intellectual or artistic integrity and acuity, a simple test is available. It has to be supplemented with others, but it’s useful. If in any context you can tell that someone is responding to a set of ideas or a work differently from how he otherwise would have on the basis of who produced it, you know he lacks integrity as an intellectual or an artist. If it’s clear that he dismisses a work or an idea because it wasn’t produced by a person with the proper credentials, the proper status or fame or institutional qualifications—or, conversely, if he positively values a work because it was produced by such a person—you can write him off as shallow or a fake. I’m talking particularly about people who, as judged by society, are supposed to be the “experts” in some given field, in other words academics, artists, critics—the arbiters of taste and “truth.” If they show any snobbery or credentials-worship or groupthink, you know immediately that, to that extent, they’re charlatans and frauds.

By this standard, unfortunately, the large majority of intellectuals and artists are, to some degree, frauds. They value institutional conventions more than genuine merit. An art critic will extravagantly praise some silly painting with a respected name attached to it and ignore a nearly identical painting by an unknown. So then you know: “Buffoon.” An academic philosopher won’t care about original ideas he reads in a student’s paper but will be terrifically impressed by unoriginal or simplistic ideas he reads in a book by Foucault or some lesser-known colleague. “Buffoon.” Since institutions function by virtue of groupthink and snobbery, it’s no surprise that most people (at least among the higher-ups) in a given institution are groupthinkers and snobs.

One sees it constantly. It’s the very air one breathes in any elite institution. To give a random and perhaps subtle example: years ago I attended a literary conference for a few days and took these notes:

There are public readings every night, usually by the famous writers here. Ravi Shankar, Alexander Chee, Josip Novakovich, Katha Pollitt (annoying liberal feminist). But last night and tonight, readings by students. Much less well-attended, of course, than the celebrities’ readings. But they’re more enjoyable, more affecting. All these diverse people, many of them shy and worn down by life, all talented, all sharing their private lives with strangers. Brought together by a love of something the culture doesn’t love; the only common denominator a love of writing. People not famous, writing on faith. Predictably none of the famous people attends these readings, only a few students. But they’re so much more powerful than those other readings! Far more intimate, certainly more transporting because no ego is involved and no books outside waiting to be bought, only mysterious pasts like that woman whose every piece is about her son Simon who died young and those women who read quietly with head bowed low, their writing wonderful. What has brought them here? What pasts? Most of them won’t be successful authors because few people have the right luck and connections, but they continue writing anyway on faith.

At the celebrity readings the audience is duly appreciative, basking in the presence of fame, applauding the sometimes idiotic selections on display. (For example, Katha Pollitt read a piece that related her experiences with a small group of Marxist activists; most of it was devoted to glib jokes at their expense, which duly elicited laughter from the audience.) The whole charade, with all the glamor and self-congratulation and two-minute-long introductions of each writer, repulsed me. Such artificiality! Any of the poems and stories written by the students could have been read and would have received the same applause; people would have been clamoring to buy the book, would have wanted autographs—although, actually, those reactions might have been relatively justified, since some of the students’ work was better than the celebrities’.[1] Only in the later, sparsely attended student readings could one escape the snobbery and credentials-worship.

Evidently there is something about “high status” that brings out human mediocrity. –For one thing, the spectacle of it all, of the cultural world, is supremely vulgar. Few people are more vulgar than an intellectual trying to get noticed. Just think of the Slavoj Žižeks dancing for the cameras, clamoring for attention, costuming themselves (sometimes literally) in whatever garb will provoke a response from the culture industry. Fashionable decadents, clownish self-promoters, actors on the stage of a (now) dying civilization. Such as when a Žižek makes it his mission to offend the delicate sensibilities of his liberal intellectual friends—declaring, for instance, that “the problem with Hitler was that he wasn’t violent enough.” “What?!” the culture industry duly gasps, playing along by pretending to be aghast. “Well,” he gives his prepared response, “Hitler’s violence didn’t fundamentally challenge the system, and in this sense Gandhi was more violent than Hitler.” Ah, good point, great contribution, way to contribute to rational discourse—let’s play on the meaning of “violence” and twist it around to provoke our liberal friends and capture the headlines of a bored intellectual world, since the only thing that matters is getting noticed. These people, these insular attention-whores of the elite—and, more generally, all the herd of pseudo-intellectual upper-crusters and middle-crusters who in their parasitic boredom take them seriously, just as they take seriously (or play the game of taking seriously) all and only those who have the stamp of some elite institution’s approval on their forehead—as though the whole charade of status, recognition, riches, resumé-padding, curricula vitae, means anything!—should be seen not really as autonomous and dignified human beings but more as institutional byproducts, waste products of the culture-factories. Such a huge industry with such huge profits is bound, after all, to produce a titanic volume of pollution.

What all this phony status-worship amounts to, in short, is anti-democracy. We don’t live in a democratic world, which is just to say we don’t live in a human world, a world based on individuality, morality, clear communication, and rationality. We live in an institutionally structured world—what’s worse, a world structured by capitalist institutions. Integrity and merit will rarely be rewarded in such a world, and democracy will barely exist.

In a sense, though, these reflections should be a comfort to the millions of people who unjustly suffer from a lack of recognition, whether they’re talented artists or dedicated activists. Their lack of recognition, far from proving their lack of worth, can be thought of as an indication of it, since what civilization values is pretense and fraud. And highly “successful” people should ask themselves what their success suggests about them, and whether they too, like so many others, are living an inauthentic existence.[2]

[1] I don’t mean my own, which wasn’t great.

[2] On the notion of authenticity, see Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971).


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