Thursday, March 3, 2011

I'm No Fun at Book Club

As I say in the sidebar, once upon a time I went to graduate school for political theory. I’ve gotten a lot of flak for my specialized knowledge. I’ve been told that I really shouldn’t bring it up in polite conversation because it makes me no fun at parties. I intimidate people, apparently. And fellow pretentious people, it gets to me. I call this blog “The Most Pretentious Blog You Will Ever Read” in part to head off those criticisms and in part to make me seem less pretentious and well aware of the absurdity of some of the terms theoretical types like to use.

So now we come to story time. Last night I attended a book club meeting. It’s not a serious book club. It’s mainly women who want to get together once a month for wine and a nice dinner. The books are discussed in a very AP English class sort of way. The book in question last night was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. The following question was asked:
The teacher Lucy Wainright wanted to make the children more aware of the future that awaited them. Miss Emily believed that in hiding the truth, “We were able to give you something, something which even now no one will ever take from you, and we were able to do that principally by sheltering you. . . . Sometimes that meant we kept things from you, lied to you. . . . But . . . we gave you your childhoods” [p. 268]. In the context of the story as a whole, is this a valid argument?
 Everyone busily went about discussing preserving childhood and innocence. How their children ask about death and how they find strategies for discussing such things and how childhood in its idealized form is worth fighting for. All of these are valid points and contribute to the understanding of the book.

My mind, not at all occupied with the raising of children, immediately went to Nietzsche and his comments on monsters and abysses in Beyond Good and Evil. This has always been a useful way, to me, of approaching power that supposedly protects, but that in doing so, creates monsters. In other words, we live in a pretty messed up society, and government in many ways tries to protect us from gazing into the abyss of all of that nothingness by covering it up with platitudes of democracy and representation, and in doing so digs the abyss deeper. That’s a very brief treatment because I want to get to the point of this damn post.

In the context of the book-club and Ishiguro, I wondered if Ishiguro was not also offering a critique on meek liberalism. What if, I posited, Ishiguro is suggesting that we have these categories of Otherness and as a society we bear some collective guilt about this. The guilt I’m thinking about is not judicial guilt, but what I cheekily refer to as white liberal guilt, the guilt that causes us to distribute soup at the local soup kitchen once a year but not to do any real work into overcoming our own role in structural Otherness. This guilt causes the development of Hailsham and its very ineffective forms of allowing the clones personhood – a personhood that is never real and that always plays back into the system of Otherness. Does Hailsham, I asked, represent the tendency of liberalism to not really do much to allow freedom for our categories of Other?

And whenever you read Other, replace it with the word minorities when imagining this conversation. I used minorities rather than Other in the context of the conversation because I thought it was an easier-to-understand word, but I think it’s too fraught for this space, so prefer to go with Other in my own writing.

Pretentious people, this is not a way to make friends at parties. People will give you side-eye. I don’t think it’s because they didn’t understand the idea. I think it’s because that idea is very uncomfortable. It’s not polite to suggest the following:
  1. That we should be thinking about politics.
  2. That the political message is critical of left-leaning people who never take the time to explore their own contributions to shitty, shitty systems. 
  3. That you know more about literature than they do because you name-dropped Nietzsche.

But what is pretention? It’s putting on airs. Was I putting on airs? No. I had a genuine question and a genuine desire to discuss it. I brought a perspective that was valid and I think interesting. Was it appropriate in this context? Those who badger me for my airs would say no,that it’s not good to show your brains and your layered critiques because you could trouble the water. But isn’t that the point of all the philosophy I read? I don’t read it for intellectual masturbation. I didn’t quit graduate school because I didn’t like theory. I quit because I was sick of discussing real political problems with no intention of actually affecting change. A conversation like what I approached last night is far more rewarding to me than publishing in some obscure journal.

One of my tumblr friends told me “NO SHAME.” And they’re right. Absolutely right. This is not pretention. This is genuine interest.

I pulled back just after I got the side-eye, by the way. I let them talk about their kids. But the woman next to me went, “Huh. I never thought about it that way.” Suddenly we can all see the abyss.

Something that is not pretentious to clear your palate: Goodnight Dune


  1. For what it's worth, I would love to have this conversation with you, and somehow I have not read any Nietzche. Yet.


  2. We'll start a pretentious book club. We'll drink pretentious cocktails. And talk about things pretentiously. But it won't really be pretentious because we don't put on airs.