Saturday, 16 August 2014

Pretentiousness

Pretentious, Moi?
What is pretentiousness? How does it compare with pretension?

Much thinking, or, more precisely, theory, is pretentious and I could perhaps include this blog in this bracket. What is it that makes writing, speaking, creating, pretentious as such? What warrants something to be described as pretentious?

A pretension is making a claim to something which one may not normally, that is, in a normative and normalising sense, lay a claim to. For example, so and so has the pretension to be a classical pianist, that is, he makes a claim to being a classical pianist, which claim, and this is implicit in the word pretension, does not bear scrutiny or deeper analysis, perhaps, say, because he does not actually make his living by playing classical piano. 

Something or someone is pretentious when it or he makes a pretension, that is, pretends, to be better or more sophisticated than it or he is in reality which basically comes to covering over (ψεύδεσθαι) a lack of substance, a lack of genuine thoughtfulness - hence the expression pseudo, such as Michel Foucault's describing psychiatry as a pseudo-science, i.e. psychiatry makes a claim to scientific respectability and exactitude but in truth the pseudo-scientific veneer of modern psychiatry is merely covering over (ψεύδεσθαι) a lack of authentic scientific substance. Yet psychiatry is not targeted with the label 'pretentious' because pretentiousness is reserved for deeds and persons deemed to be outside prevailing moral standards. 

Pretentiousness, in other words, always contains an element of pretension, of pretence. In any and every case pretentiousness covers over a dearth of substance and quality. What is quality? Precisely the opposite of pretentiousness, that is, quality needs no covering over (ψεύδεσθαι), no pretence, since quality always speaks of and for itself. 

The fight against pretentiousness is, at the same time, a fight for quality. This is why Nietzsche saw mediocrity as a necessary precondition for quality, since mediocrity can and does act as a spur for the pursuit of quality, however unreasonable in real life terms such a pursuit may prove to be. 

To circle the circle then, we will say that for someone or something to be genuinely pretentious, and not merely said to be by hostile commentators, that someone would have to betray pretension, i.e. lay a claim to a quality which is not properly his and in so doing have the pretence to be better than he actually is in his shameless pretending to be above his station as a creative individual. 

In the case of writing, then, pretentiousness would consist in dressing up a simple thought in convoluted, theoretical language, which has the effect of obfuscating the writer's lack of authentic understanding, i.e. understanding rooted in the the ontological difference between Being and beings (Heidegger). 

To call someone's work pretentious is to call out their bullshit, so to speak, to force them to reveal their true colours, their true philosophical underpinnings, so that, by this dialectical and conflict-ridden process of pretension and calling out (λόγος πόλεμος ἐστιν), simple insights are gained which is part of that endlessly self-overcoming process which Nietzsche, Heidegger and myself call the rank order (see Rank Ordering and Writing and Rank Order), that is, the establishing of who may say what in which context since we are not all created equal and not necessarily worthy of setting up an everyman's tribunal to differentiate (κρίνειν) what is greater from what is lesser. 

The question of the rank order is synonymous with the problem of authority and it is no accident that in her collection of essays Between Past and Future, Hannah Arendt asked the question
"What is authority?"
or even
"What was authority?" 
given, and this is implied in that question, that the current social order does not satisfactorily resolve the urgent and pressing problem of authority, i.e. of who may say and do what when, leading to the opposite scenario of a society based on authority, namely, a society based on violence and coercion, if not manipulation.

As such the fight against pretentiousness is a healthy dialectical struggle for the bringing to light of thoughtful insights and, if I dare use the word, truths.

Let us conclude, then, with Heidegger (Contributions to Philosophy) that
"Truth is untruth." (since untruth, when challenged and rectified becomes truth) and hear this excellent snippet from his didactic poem Aus Der Erfahrung des Denkens 
"Thinking's case would be more auspicious if there were already adversaries [i.e. fellow rival thinkers vying for position] and not mere opponents [i.e. those who are only anti-thought]."
(which is also a way of saying that pretentiousness and the mediocrity which goes with it is absolutely necessary for the furtherance of truth, that which makes meaning possible).