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Elite pretentiousness

William Buckley, a pretentious asshole
William Buckley, a pretentious asshole clown

The following is the beginning of an essay I wanted to write years ago on the concept of pretentiousness, a phenomenon the ubiquity of which stunned me. And it seemed to me that looking at the world through that lens could be pretty interesting, if the essay were done well. I quickly gave it up, though, in part because I knew no publisher would want anything to do with something so idiosyncratic, nor, in general, with any probing critical analysis of intellectual and mainstream culture. (But also because, to be honest, the dimensions of the project daunted me, and I doubted my ability.)


Thoughts on Pretentiousness

Excluding the sciences, the history of abstract thought can almost be called the history of reflections on interesting concepts. Whether truth, reality, God, knowledge, justice, goodness, happiness, freedom, beauty, love, art, or even “camp,”[1] dozens of pithy concepts have captured the attention of the reflective. Even people not prone to contemplation are on occasion, in receptive moods, seduced by the mysteries of such ideas as love or God or truth or “existential meaning.” They debate them eagerly, show stubborn commitment to some particular conception, momentarily care about the musings of a Plato or a Kant or a Nietzsche. Evidently the human mind is drawn not only to abstract reflection but to thinking about words, or rather about the conceptual implications and limits of particular words. It can be fascinating to examine how we use words, and what meanings are hidden in their etymologies or conceptual overtones. It’s odd, then, that in thousands of years of word-dissection, few people have devoted much attention to one of the most pithy and revealing concepts of all: pretense, with its derivative pretentious. The derivative form is more common, as it aptly characterizes an enormous range of human behavior. The profundity of this concept has rarely been appreciated, nor has its potential to shed light on human psychology, institutions, social structures, the norms and roles—largely class-determined—that structure social life. The word’s significance is suggested by the fact that it is closely related to such fruitful and enigmatic concepts as authenticity, sincerity, and even the self (and self-deception). More distant relations include, as we’ll see, authority, conformity, status, elitism, and classism. In fact, it turns out that society itself, in its many dimensions, is refracted through this deceptively humble concept of ‘pretentiousness.’ An analysis of it is, therefore, overdue.

What we’ll discover is that pretentious behavior is not only silly, comical, or parasitically elitist; it is, or can be, downright pernicious. Far more common than people realize, it has always served to uphold authority, hierarchy, the status quo, and class stratification. It is intrinsically, and in its social consequences, anti-democratic; it is anti-rational and antithetical to clear communication; it is deeply deceptive, dishonest, artificial, and obscurantist. In its social effects, it is indispensable for giving a patina of dignity to the collective conformism and submissiveness that cohere authoritarian institutions. To the same degree that freedom, reason, and democracy are values to be fought for, pretentiousness is something to be fought against. It will, however, remain widespread until exploitative class structures are themselves eradicated, for, indirectly, they produce it and always have.


To begin, let’s consider some examples of pretentiousness. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us the word means “to attempt to impress by affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed.” The buffoonery of intellectuals is an inexhaustible treasure house, a constantly expanding museum, of pretentiousness. From graduate students to senior scholars, from postmodernists to traditional conservatives, from art critics to mainstream “policy analysts,” the glue that holds the intellectual world together is pretentiousness. Certain public intellectuals personify the quality. The famous conservative William F. Buckley is the example that comes immediately to mind, with his faux British accent, his semi-aristocratic demeanor, his speaking-through-his-nose, his cultivated self-assurance amounting to pomposity—a clownish smugness, snideness, smarminess—his exaggerated use of fancy words, his frivolous treatment of intellectual debate as a game of one-upmanship, and the very aura of decadence and literary-cultural rot he emanated like a fin-de-siècle fascist. He was the epitome of the elite culture Noam Chomsky encountered in his students days at Harvard:

I remember [Chomsky says] there was a lot of anglophilia at Harvard [in the postwar years]—you were supposed to wear British clothes, and pretend you spoke with a British accent, that sort of stuff. In fact, there were actually guys there who I thought were British, who had never been outside of the United States. If any of you have studied literature or history or something, you might recognize some of this, those are the places you usually find it. Well, somehow I managed to survive that, I don’t know how exactly—but most didn’t. And what I discovered is that a large part of education at the really elite institutions is simply refinement, teaching the social graces: what kind of clothes you should wear, how to drink port the right way, how to have polite conversation without talking about serious topics, but of course indicating that you could talk about serious topics if you were so vulgar as to actually do it, all kinds of things which an intellectual is supposed to know how to do. And that was really the main point of the program, I think.[2]

Incidentally, the famous televised debate between Chomsky and Buckley in 1969 on the subject of the Vietnam War (which can be watched on the internet) is intriguing not for the drubbing Buckley received but for its dramatic presentation of the contrast between two archetypes of the intellectual: the perfectly unpretentious, facts-focused, plain-spoken, self-effacing Chomsky and the winking, smirking, joking, performing, prevaricating, spectacle-focused Buckley. These two people were inimitable exemplars of the types; most intellectuals fall somewhere in the middle, with at least some interest in facts and rationality but with a pronounced predilection for pretense as well. I’ll return to this important contrast later.

Just as the political right wing has its pretentious intellectuals, so does the left. Slavoj Žižek, perhaps, exemplifies the latter. One might say that Buckley and Žižek represent two kinds of elite snobbery and decadence, which however overlap and have much in common because ultimately they’re part of the same world: Buckley belongs to the crowd of explicit power-worshipers, sycophants, courtiers who hop back and forth between New York and Washington to attend the dinner parties and cocktail parties and lunches with senators—the crowd of “power-loving stablemate[s] of statesmen,” as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. summarized Alfred Kazin’s portrait of him (Schlesinger) in New York Jew (1978), as contrasted with Richard Hofstadter’s type of “pure, dispassionate, incorruptible scholar.”[3] (Schlesinger had enough self-insight to recognize the portrait as a faithful one.) Žižek, on the other hand, represents the herd of postmodernist intellectuals, some of whom, like the self-caricature Bernard-Henri Lévy, mingle with the rich and powerful—and most of whom, I suspect, would like to—but who as types are defined by their ostentatious intellectual posturing, their facility for saying something without saying anything, and their basically idealistic (in the anti-materialistic sense) and unrealistic interpretation of the world. Žižek is not as bad as it gets with these people, indeed is critical of some aspects of postmodernism; but his methods, his interests, his ideas and ways of presenting them, and his intellectual progenitors (notably Jacques Lacan) all define him as deeply postmodern. To throw together a miscellany of references to psychoanalysis, philosophy, history, religion, literature, pop culture, economics, Marxism, and vulgar humor (jokes and anecdotes), and to pretend that something incredibly profound is being said, is to create—to quote the title of one of Žižek’s books—a truly “sublime object” of pretentiousness. Whether or not one tries to dignify the product with the term “bricolage,” it’s clear that what is going on is mere play, not serious or rigorous explanation. And yet thousands of people attend Žižek’s talks and earnestly take notes, treating with decorous academic seriousness this entertainer and professional provocateur-of-liberals. The contrast between appearance and reality is stupefying—a splendid example indeed of “postmodern irony.”…

[1] See Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” (1964).

[2] Peter Mitchell and John Schoeffel, eds., Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 238.

[3] Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Journals, 1952–2000 (New York: Penguin, 2007), May 7, 1978 entry.


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