Proudly pretentious.
February 10, 2016 12:38 PM   Subscribe

"We accuse someone of pretentiousness to call out false authority and deflate delusions of grandeur. But we’re also using the word as a tool of class policing: a way to tell a person to stop putting on airs and graces." Dan Fox, Why I'm pretentious and proud of it

A longer excerpt from his book, Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, has also been published in the Guardian.
posted by peripathetic (47 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't think I would consider myself pretentious, but I definitely feel like I'm still the weird kid in high school even at 39. We have a Monday morning meeting every week and the opening roundtable is about our weekends. I always feel faintly embarrassed by saying things like, "We did our radio show as per usual, watched Italian films from the 60s, played Smash Up, and went to an art auction for charity, where we scored some really cool weird art for our house!"

But then, people contain multitudes.
posted by Kitteh at 12:51 PM on February 10, 2016 [13 favorites]


In my book, pretension's fine, as long as the beam or slab is protected from the elements and water infiltration.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:52 PM on February 10, 2016 [25 favorites]


Pretentious is the woman at my library's book club meeting who name-dropped Foucault and Derrida for no germane reason and smugly declared that people from small towns "just don't think."
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:56 PM on February 10, 2016 [14 favorites]


I love this:
As musician Brian Eno observed in his 1996 diary A Year With Swollen Appendices: “The common assumption is that there are ‘real’ people and there are those pretending to be something they’re not. There is also an assumption that there is something morally wrong with pretending. My assumptions about culture as a place where you can take psychological risks without incurring physical penalties make me think that pretending is the most important thing we do. It’s the way we make our thought experiments, find out what it would be like to be otherwise”.
posted by D.C. at 12:57 PM on February 10, 2016 [41 favorites]


Maybe it's because this is coming from a British paradigm, but as an American I've always understood "pretension" to be a conscious attempt to convince others of your intellectual/aesthetic/moral superiority.

It's the person in The Card Cheat's example who name-checks people or movements or ideas not because they're germane to the conversation but to show you they know them. The person who casually sprinkles their conversations with French or Latin or some other language they know the other participants don't know. The person who makes sure you only see ever see them consuming difficult or complex books or films or music that they know you probably don't know. The person who obviously runs every comment through a thesaurus so you can see they use "big" "smart" words when they're not appropriate to the context.

It's not about them daring to rise above their station, it's about them making a show of being smarter and better than you, and often purposefully putting you down. They get to shake their heads or act mock surprised that you've never heard of/don't know what they're talking about.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:04 PM on February 10, 2016 [28 favorites]


America sure isn't as above class as some people claim, but class seems to work really differently in the U.S. and Great Britain. This essay seems to be very embedded in the G.B. version of pretension.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:08 PM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


What's up with all the fuckin' Fawlty Towers namedropping in this article, this dude some kinda PBS-watching anglophile?
posted by Greg Nog at 1:18 PM on February 10, 2016 [10 favorites]


Pretension is a way of breaking the rules of the game, but these rules vary by context. In the right crowd, referencing relatively obscure people or concepts can be fine, and a form of social play. But in another context it can, even coming from a place of sincerity, become an aggression. You have to adapt to your audience.

On the other hand, accusing another party of pretension can be justified, but it can also be a way to sanction another form of rule-breaking, such as acting "out of class".
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:20 PM on February 10, 2016 [6 favorites]


As someone who has been accused of being pretentious once or twice, I've always assumed that it was a term used by people who are not particularly intellectually curious not because the accuser believes that the person is faking an interest in Proust or classical music or post-Impressionism or whatever, but because the person actually is interested in those things, and the accuser doesn't understand why. The simpleton is unable to comprehend that someone might find intellectual matters interesting, and assumes that anyone who claims to find them interesting is lying to appear superior.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:20 PM on February 10, 2016 [9 favorites]


Don't you know you're the only real person and everyone else is just faking it?
posted by The Whelk at 1:21 PM on February 10, 2016 [13 favorites]


I was a big fan of Progressive Rock as it was known when I was in high school/college in the early '70s (and I'm still tickled that Yes' Jon Anderson retired to a location near me), but I had no delusions and called it Pretentious Rock myself.
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:28 PM on February 10, 2016


Don't you know you're the only real person and everyone else is just faking it?

Could be taken verbatim (how pretentious!) from that Dystopian YA Novel Twitter account.
posted by tobascodagama at 1:36 PM on February 10, 2016


People occasionally accuse me of being pretentious, and I wonder - what on Earth do they think I am pretending to be?
posted by louche mustachio at 2:09 PM on February 10, 2016 [8 favorites]


"I was a big fan of Progressive Rock as it was known when I was in high school/college in the early '70s (and I'm still tickled that Yes' Jon Anderson retired to a location near me), but I had no delusions and called it Pretentious Rock myself."

Yeah, I'm going to have to assume that people describing a difference in use between US and UK "pretentious" must be onto something, because otherwise the essay seems to miss why "pretentious" is often an apt descriptor. I think prog rock is illustrative — a lot of the pretension there comes from the idea that prog rock is better than trad/roots/heavy rock because it uses modern instrumentation with a soupçon of classical composition styling, implicitly making an argument that quality is based on mimicking upper class formalism in aesthetics and that composing "suites" of rock "movements" is "progress" from earlier forms. It's implicitly arguing for a hierarchy of form over content, and that's what makes a lot of prog rock and related criticism pretentious.

The essay is right that complaints about pretension often root themselves in equally problematic concepts of authenticity, but without addressing valid parts of how "pretentious" is leveled as a critical charge, it ends up as one of those #SlatePitch counter-intuitives — "Being pretentious is really great!" At least on this side of the Atlantic.

(And possibly that side as well — the Fawlty Towers reference ignores that Basil is constantly pretending to be classier and more cultured than he is, and locates pretension as a subset of vanity. Missing that point seems to compromise his use of the example. Or maybe he just didn't think he could sell a book called "Why I'm Vain and Proud of It.")
posted by klangklangston at 2:17 PM on February 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


didn't we have this like whole movement already with the whole New Sincerity

like, getting rid of the cultural capital of being ironic, apathetic, and politically disinterested in favor of doing things that make us happy even if those things mean writing huge and pretentious texts with a million footnotes or listening to nasally indie music written by English and theatre majors
posted by runt at 2:19 PM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


Pretentious is the woman at my library's book club meeting who name-dropped Foucault and Derrida for no germane reason and smugly declared that people from small towns "just don't think."

In a perfect world this would be the opening scene of a horror movie in which she is sacrificed to the vengeful god of small towns.
posted by poffin boffin at 2:34 PM on February 10, 2016 [16 favorites]


People occasionally accuse me of being pretentious, and I wonder - what on Earth do they think I am pretending to be?

With that handle? Gomez Addams.
posted by Leon at 2:50 PM on February 10, 2016 [9 favorites]


Pretentiousness is a real thing, and often a real bad thing. A lot of man- and other -splaining is pretentious, in that people are literally pretending to know things they don't.

But there are a lot of people who toss the word around casually, describing not just people but things as 'pretentious,' and I'm pretty sure that most of them are just projecting. They often don't seem to believe that someone could appreciate something they don't. It's a weird kind of either insecurity or obliviousness or something, I think, where anything they don't immediately understand is some sort of elaborate hoax.

But I'm pretty sure most adults have some sort of acquired taste that they value. Something they've spent time and effort on understanding and appreciating better. I guess the class issue comes in when an appreciation for opera is considered pretentious but an appreciation for NASCAR isn't.
posted by ernielundquist at 3:05 PM on February 10, 2016 [6 favorites]



People occasionally accuse me of being pretentious, and I wonder - what on Earth do they think I am pretending to be?

With that handle? Gomez Addams



Perfectly acceptable.
posted by louche mustachio at 3:25 PM on February 10, 2016 [6 favorites]


Damn straight.
posted by Leon at 3:36 PM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


Feeling this. "Pretentious" kind of slots in alongside "hipster" for me as one of those words that people use to make complaints which are couched in their own insecurities.
posted by EatTheWeak at 3:43 PM on February 10, 2016 [8 favorites]


Don't you know you're the only real person and everyone else is just faking it?

Isn't it mostly the other way around? Everyone else is real and I'm the only one just faking it.
posted by straight at 3:55 PM on February 10, 2016 [3 favorites]


Brian Eno made an even more interesting comment on this subject in an old interview, where he (paraphrase) said something on the lines that accusations of pretension were artifacts of The Class System, made by people who were scolding their social lessors to "know your place". (Eno can also actually be really pompous and annoying sometimes, so I have mixed feelings, as always;)

I thought that the original context of the word "pretense" was the kind of social-climbing/forged-titles common in Thackery novels... and of course, there really is no rational reason why the Aristocracy should keep the false privileges that they enjoy, so in these books, you should try to make it and fake it if you can do it.

...and smugly declared that people from small towns "just don't think."

In her defence, when I grew up in farmville, hatin' on book-learnin' really was a thing. Not for everyone, but not uncommon.
posted by ovvl at 4:13 PM on February 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


The simpleton is unable to comprehend that someone might find intellectual matters interesting, and assumes that anyone who claims to find them interesting is lying to appear superior.

Maybe I haven't slept enough, but...you're fucking with us, right?
posted by Hoopo at 4:45 PM on February 10, 2016 [5 favorites]


Eno can also actually be really pompous and annoying pretentious sometimes

hm

(year with swollen appendices is my most treasured written possession)

I think 'hipster' and 'pretentious' (and, hell, 'SJW') are like all words that are habitually used as social weapons - they wouldn't be good weapons if they didn't have some truth to their implied critique.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:56 PM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


As part of my ongoing negotiation with pretension, I find it useful to include some counterbalancing postension and evoking, if possible, a strong suggestion of weariness.

*sips whiskey, recumbent*
posted by mrjohnmuller at 5:00 PM on February 10, 2016 [3 favorites]


I must live at some weird intersection of things, because I've been accused variously of being both too pretentious and to conventional. After enough years on this earth, you slowly start to realize everybody's just making shit up.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:04 PM on February 10, 2016 [6 favorites]


Yuk. This guy sounds awful. Here is the dictionary definition of pretentious:

1. characterized by assumption of dignity or importance, especially when exaggerated or undeserved
2. making an exaggerated outward show; ostentatious.
3. full of pretense or pretension; having no factual basis; false.


#1 is a subtle distinction, but it's a really important one. Because it is the ingredient missing from all of these things that the author labels as "pretentious":

- to speak another language because it’s a mark of education
- a person talking about how much they’re enjoying reading the latest Jonathan Franzen novel
- taking a cultural interest in the world beyond your own country’s shores
- an interest in experimental literature, avant-garde music, modernist architecture, or fashion design
- an amateur having a go out of enthusiasm.
- a willingness to make an effort and possibly fail

These things can be pretentious, IF the person doing them is doing them with an exaggerated or undeserved assumption of importance. It seems like the author is totally missing that and it is a really crucial distinction between whether or not someone is being pretentious or just acting out of genuine interest, enthusiasm or curiosity (all good things!)

Jonathan Franzen books are not inherently pretentious, nor is fashion design or avant-garde anything. They may be associated with snobbery or pretension but that's just because people have made them that way. Shakespeare could also be considered pretentious, but he was straight up lowbrow culture in the 19th century. Interests are not what makes a person pretentious, the attitude the person takes towards them is. And unless I'm reading it wrong, the author doesn't really seem to make this critical distinction.

to charge a person with pretension is to accuse them of behaving in ways they are not qualified for, because of their economic circumstances or educational background (She can’t possibly have an interest in modern art, because she grew up on a council estate and it is pretentious for her to believe she can expand her horizons — her interest surely must be an affectation.)

I mean, again, he's getting the "exaggerated outward show" part here while totally missing the "assumption of dignity or importance" part. I get that while some people may take this attitude, I generally don't think people would look at someone who has a genuine desire to better themselves or take up an interest (stemming from a love of learning, curiosity or a desire to have a better life) and accuse them of being pretentious. I think that holds true in both the US and in Britain, even knowing what I do about British class culture.

To me, this whole thing just reads a little like a guy projecting his class anxiety onto everyone around him as well as a big justification for being kind of an asshole.
posted by triggerfinger at 5:17 PM on February 10, 2016 [13 favorites]


I generally don't think people would look at someone who has a genuine desire to better themselves or take up an interest (stemming from a love of learning, curiosity or a desire to have a better life) and accuse them of being pretentious.

No, this does totally happen in small rural and economically distressed communities. I think your comment might be partly right, but I also think there's something to the argument. People use "pretentious" in lots of ways that aren't strictly true to the denotative meaning of the word. One of its connotations is definitely "putting on airs," so it doesn't seem unfair to say it's used as a class policing tool, among it's other more or less precise uses.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:27 PM on February 10, 2016 [9 favorites]


I do agree with him that there are class imprecations on both ends - for example "classy" is a word used to police the behavior of people - primarily women and often black women - and the specificity of class markers can be jaw dropping. I think the underlying issue is how authenticity is positioned as an indication of moral superiority, though, and how that interacts with what class people presume one comes from, modified sharply by race and with different intra-racial markers than might exist extra-racial.

I read the insult "pretentious" being about a person being insufficiently authentic. A lot of the edge of the hipster insult as originally conceived was about middle class youth mimicking the class markers of blue collar and poor people, and the insult was that it was inauthentic, not that it decreased the resources for the people who needed them (if everyone shops at thrift stores, the quality items get thinned out quickly). If you watch a lot of how people insult male geeks as well, often there is an underpinning of "this is affected", i.e. this is inauthentic rather than speaking to anything more significant.

I was really struck with how in Beyoncé's latest release, Formation, she is positioning herself in terms of her authenticity as a Southern Black Woman with Black and Creole ancestry and how she is choosing to respond to people who critique her actions and appearance - and a lot of the pushback is along exactly those lines of questioning her authenticity and honesty about who she is (within the limited black critique I've seen; the white critique is almost overwhelmingly "OMG YOU GOT BLACK IN OUR SUPER BOWL" racism). I have no personal experience like any of the ones she talks about in the song, but I'm drawn to the power and defiance she expresses through the use and re-imagining of significant cultural markers while very aware of the fact I had to look up a bunch of the words in order to understand the song!

Issues of authenticity are central to our understanding of ourselves, our cultures, and how we interact with each other and accusations of inauthenticity or pretension is one of the ways some people attempt to control other peoples' behavior and access to certain types of art and expression.
posted by Deoridhe at 5:30 PM on February 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


It strikes me that the definition of "pretentious" is like porn, where you know it when you see it.

But can we all at least agree - Hyacinth Bucket is pretentious, right?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:37 PM on February 10, 2016 [6 favorites]


I've always seen pretentiousness as malicious privilege, so I'm surprised to see it as class policing (at least in the sense of calling someone pretentious in an effort to get them to accept their 'lower station'). When you point out your French was perfected during your study abroad, you aren't trying to rise above your station, you're trying to remind someone you're above theirs. That you take for granted something that most people don't.

And as triggerfinger points out, there are ways to tell that story without those ugly insinuations. But it takes social finesse. You'll always have a blindness that your experience is ordinary, and without social awareness, it will sound like people without that experience or hobby are somehow flawed. The comment about "how is it my fault people aren't intellectually curious" is pretty evident of that kind of flawed thinking.

It's ridiculous to think that many people are intellectually curious about the things I'm intellectually curious about. There's just too many things to be intellectually curious about. You have to decide to ignore billions of interesting bits of study even if you could just faff around being intellectually curious 24/7.

It's nice to find people with similar interests. But trying to put it on other people that they don't is just ridiculous.
posted by politikitty at 5:44 PM on February 10, 2016 [3 favorites]


Maybe I haven't slept enough, but...you're fucking with us, right?

let's stuff him into this wicker man just in case
posted by poffin boffin at 5:59 PM on February 10, 2016 [9 favorites]


It's the person in The Card Cheat's example who name-checks people or movements or ideas not because they're germane to the conversation but to show you they know them. The person who casually sprinkles their conversations with French or Latin or some other language they know the other participants don't know. The person who makes sure you only see ever see them consuming difficult or complex books or films or music that they know you probably don't know. The person who obviously runs every comment through a thesaurus so you can see they use "big" "smart" words when they're not appropriate to the context.

It's not about them daring to rise above their station, it's about them making a show of being smarter and better than you, and often purposefully putting you down. They get to shake their heads or act mock surprised that you've never heard of/don't know what they're talking about.


But this kind of thing is completely unfair and another example of mobility-checking.
Someone who talks about people or movements that you think aren't germane to the conversation, but maybe they do, or maybe they have just learned about it and are excited to share something they're passionate about.

Someone who sprinkles their conversations with languages they "know the other participants don't know"? Have you been multilingual? Do you have friends who are multilingual? You switch languages when you switch ideas, or when a concept has a good expression in one language but not another. And everyone does it. When's the last time you talked about schadenfreude? But that's cool, because most nerds know about it, right? Except that some people don't. You're not consciously thinking "man I want to drop this word into it", you're thinking "this word is better for the situation."

Someone who you only see consuming difficult or complex books or films or music? They do not necessarily "know you probably don't know." Because people are not aware of other people's media consumption in that way. They are engaging and consuming what interests them. Sometimes what they've been exposed to by others. It's not some kind of obscure put down.

And who gets to decide what "big" "smart" words aren't appropriate to the context? People use the language of the environment they spend the most time in. Readers, especially readers who engage with complex books a lot, are going to have their language affected by the language they read. It's a natural thing about how we as humans adapt to language.

Honestly, it's the idea that anyone who is doing something that is "higher class" than you feel you are doing MUST be doing it to show you up, because they CAN'T be doing it for their own enjoyment, that is exactly what this article is about.
posted by corb at 6:48 PM on February 10, 2016 [11 favorites]


I hesitate to tell this story because I think I'd be skeptical of it if someone else told it. I swear this is true, though.

I was talking to this guy once about movies, I mentioned a director I liked, and he explained to me that I was just pretending to be able to tell who directed a movie, and that the only legitimate preferences were for actors and genres. He was pretty agitated about it.

And here comes the implausibly ironic but I swear true part: This same guy had a smallish ranch house, most of which was relatively normal looking, but he had converted one room into a library. It had a couple of uncomfortable looking leather chairs in the middle and then a bunch of bookshelves with random books (no paperbacks), including Readers' Digest Condensed books, and he had fox hunting prints on the walls. I knew this guy for a while, and the only books I ever heard him talk about were those self-help books about how to be successful. That room took up a good chunk of his available living space, and I'm pretty sure the only purpose it served was pretense.

That was the most cartoonish example I've seen, but I've known plenty of other people, too, who thought that entire categories of things were inherently pretentious and that anyone claiming to like them was full of shit. If you don't believe me, go start a discussion somewhere about Rothko or Mondrian. It's common enough that there's always someone nearby to inform you that non-representational art is a big hoax and that people are just pretending to like it.

And they all have fox hunting prints in their libraries.
posted by ernielundquist at 7:09 PM on February 10, 2016 [10 favorites]


Hi hi hi, I'm here! That's all. Gonna go pretend I can read the thread now.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:16 PM on February 10, 2016 [16 favorites]


I really don't think the matter really is about class, so much as the fact that the jejune masses are unable to either understand or tolerate a personage of superior discernment and accomplishment. But it's a burden we must bear, because as they say, le poisson mange panais l'intérieur de mon nez
posted by happyroach at 7:28 PM on February 10, 2016 [5 favorites]


Everything interesting is at least a little bit pretentious.
posted by maxsparber at 7:45 PM on February 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


It seems most people have a Keeping Up Appearances kind of pretension in mind, which kind of ridiculous social posturing had led to the development of a just folks shibboleth. The essay is actually talking about another kind of pretensiouness typified by the somewhat affected art student whose aspirations may exceed her grasp, but not infrequently she may also be trying to distinguish herself from others who don't know and don't care. As the last couple of comments point out, what's wrong with showing off a little bit, and anyway, who doesn't? Don't tell me that, just to pick out the opposite end stereotype, some guys discussing guns and pickup trucks won't try to impress everyone within hearing of their knowledge.
posted by blue shadows at 8:34 PM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


Look, you fancy people: all I know is Frasier Crane is my personal hero.
posted by The Hyacinth Girl at 1:39 AM on February 11, 2016


Maybe I haven't slept enough, but...you're fucking with us, right?

let's stuff him into this wicker man just in case
posted by poffin boffin at 7:59 PM on February 10


Ever since we put poffin boffin in charge of the wicker man the harvests have been bountiful as fuck.
posted by louche mustachio at 3:53 AM on February 11, 2016 [14 favorites]


After living in the UK for the past 10 years, I'd say you can never underestimate the power and rigidity of the class system, which is older than most people think. It's always saddening to see a young person feel their excluded from something because they suspect it's "posh".

On the other hand, in the USA people act as if there isn't a class system, when anyone raised there knows that isn't true, either.

Pretentious in either scenario should be taken as a compliment as far as I'm concerned.
posted by Hickeystudio at 4:17 AM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


"Everything interesting is at least a little bit pretentious."

Bullshit.
posted by klangklangston at 1:25 PM on February 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


Oh, look who thinks they know best about interestingness.
posted by maxsparber at 1:52 PM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


Don't class-shame me.
posted by klangklangston at 1:52 PM on February 11, 2016


I can no longer tell who is putting on airs.
posted by maxsparber at 1:53 PM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


AKA How thinking I'm being an ass shows your own moral failings: an essay.

The internet is filled with these. At least the better ones are usually the provocative headline but really more about pointing out the shades of grey in whatever behaviour is under discussion. Too often though, there's a brief acknowledgment that this can be a real issue, but surrounded by numerous justifications for the author's behaviour to not be thought of negatively because it's morally wrong to do so.

It's from a book justifying the entire concept, though, so of course it's trying to instigate a response. The longer form might be more reasonable, but just because you can mount a defense against an accusation doesn't mean it's unwarranted.
posted by gadge emeritus at 6:00 PM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


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