Monday, April 18, 2011

A Throwaway Post on Being Pretentious

I put something up on Persephone on BSG and Liberalism, and it's going to turn into a bit of series, but I have so much crap on my plate right now it might have to wait for another couple of weeks. I also have something planned on ghosts and Detroit (oh yes!). But something that I'm really realizing is that writing pretentiously takes some fucking time, yo. So here's a post. I say it's throwaway, but I'm sure we all think of it sometimes.

I struggle often with this term pretentious. My majorexboyfriend gave me shit for it all of the time. I was too pretentious, he said, no one can identify with me, he asserted, and after four years, I started to believe it. Thank goodness for Lady Blog and tumblr, full of wonderfully smart people who will pat you on the back for bringing Foucault into the situation, or else I'd be saying The Hangover was a great move (it's not).

According to, to be pretentious means to attempt to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed. According to that definition, what I write is not pretentious at all. I have the knowledge and the background to support what I say. I have read the cannon in political theory, I have been tested, and I have defended my work. I haven't risen to the level of PhD, but I know my shit pretty well. I don't think I am affecting anything at all.

Of course, there is another definition that is not addressed here, and that is the derailing definition. It's not yet in derailing for dummies, but the cry of pretentious is used to tell those who think deeper that they ought not to go there. The definition says that pretentious people affect knowledge that they don't have, which leads me to believe that if you call someone pretentious when they are calling out things like sexism or racism, you are saying that they don't know what they are talking about. What's more, pretension has a bad rap in society. Pretentious means Hyacinth Bucket, it means asshole fauxminists who talk the talk but don't walk the walk, it means people who talk down to others in annoying ways without regard for their experience. It suggests privilege and all things wrong with the academic life.

I also think that it disregards the good. You all know here that I am uncomfortable with pure theory at all times. Not to say that that's not useful. A critique of my BSG and Liberalism post suggested that I might want to crack open Locke and really read it again, and that's a fair point. High theory is incredibly important. It boils things down to essentials and in those essentials allows us to see the forest for the trees and come up with something really unique.

I've said this once before: I call this blog what I do because I want to say from the get-go that I don't know everything. I want critique. I want discussion. Locke isn't always right. I'm not always right. To say something is pretentious not only derails, it also takes us down a notch and plants our feet on terra firma and allows all of us to recognize where we get it wrong.

Pretentious is a Janus-faced creature. In mythology, Janus is the god of beginnings and transitions. Pretentious, I would like to think, dwells here: pretending to know what we don't know but also knowing enough to see the possible. With this definition, though, comes peril. To affect knowledge one doesn't have can lead to false conclusions, but the philosophical process is always tenuous. Derrida knows what he is talking about because he has read and studied, but some of what he says requires a double-take, a sense of questioning as to whether the conclusions make any sense. Should we approach anything we read with the idea that the person writing doesn't know what they are talking about?

Am I pretentious? I would hope that I'm always aware of this risk. I don't always know what I'm talking about. That said, doing this sort of work is important. After all, liberalism and representative democracy as we know it might not have gotten its start if not for a pretentious little text called the Second Treatise on Government.

Something that is not pretentious to clear your palate:
Wow. Just fucking wow.


  1. I wondered if there was a story behind calling your blog "pretentious." If we go by the dictionary definition, which is what I had in mind when I first came across your blog, I was impressed by your confident words. When you know what you are talking about (be it theory or empirical facts) and you bring it into the right conversation, it shows your depth of knowledge and understanding.

    What I consider pretentious is something I see a lot in academic circles, where many entitled grad students will constantly name drop Habermas or Derrida without actually providing any analysis. Also, god forbid you don't know a particular theorists (it could be because you are not in academia or because your training occurred in a different part of the world where different things are emphasized), then they look down on you. That to me is pretentious.

    I also think it is pretentious, in a negative way, if one were to bring up these theorist while, conversing with, say, my mother about gender. Especially if one didn't provide an explanation about who the theorists were, what they said and why that is relevant to the conversation. My mother has no clue about any theory and bringing it up in a conversation with her only serves the purpose of talking over her head. That would be a pretentious move.

    I had never thought of people being accused of being pretentious in order to derail the topic of conversation. Now that I think about it, it has happened to a few people I know. In fact, my ex used the same tactic with me a few times. I am going to watch out for this in future conversations.

    Love reading your stuff.

  2. Perhaps I should call it the most ironic blog you will ever read? But then irony is a difficult concept and pretension is more obvious and visceral, which, let's face it, grabs an audience more so than the word irony.