With Noses Held High

Personal aspiration need not always lead to snobbery

Lívia Cristina L. C./Flickr
Lívia Cristina L. C./Flickr


Pretentiousness: Why It Matters by Dan Fox; Coffee House Press, 159 pp., $15.95

In high school, when I smoked clove cigarettes, watched Jean-Luc Godard films, and professed my love for a range of clichéd signifiers of sophistication, my classmates often accused me of pretension—an allegation I resented. The word seemed to imply an element of insincerity, of performance. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “pretentious” as a matter of “attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.” Say what you will, my tastes were genuine. I subjected my long-suffering and chronically unimpressed boyfriend to Breathless because I found it moving. I may have been insufferable, but was I really pretentious?

These days, “pretentious” is a go-to, catch-all disparagement—fussy restaurants serve pretentious fare, and flowery prose is pretentious fodder. But was it always a term of denigration? Dan Fox, the co-editor of frieze magazine, examines the history of the concept and how it evolved into such a ubiquitous accusation.

Fox’s definition of pretension is imprecise, and it takes him 50 pages to clarify. “We expect a consistency between a person’s appearance and their manner,” he observes. Pretension consists in the “inconsistency in these appearances.” But there are many kinds of thwarted expectation, not all of which involve pretension, and Fox goes on to qualify with another, perhaps conflicting definition: “Pretentiousness resides in someone’s lack of awareness that their ambition might exceed their capability, or inability to laugh about one’s own limitations.”

So which is it, friction between expectation and reality, or an inflated sense of self-worth? Fox’s array of examples, ranging from theater, politics, and pop music to advertising and contemporary art, paints a picture of pretension so mutable as to seem almost meaningless. It’s not immediately clear, for example, what David Bowie has in common with the names of drinks at Starbucks.

With the exception of advertising, which perpetuates the “delusion” that we can achieve “personal betterment through acquisition,” and social media, which encourage us to affect positivity we don’t feel, pretentiousness in all its manifold iterations comes off as a uniformly positive phenomenon, a posture that gives us license to reinvent and challenge ourselves. “To accuse a person of pretension is a refusal of permission for that person to construct their own identity, a process that may well be true to how they see themselves,” Fox writes. “To demand they be ‘authentic’ to their social circumstances is a form of social control.” Calls for “sincerity,” then, aid and abet complacency in the face of injustice. Pretension, Fox argues, irritates us only insofar as we care to preserve the existing distribution of privilege.

Fox’s argument hinges on his conception of pretension as something deployed by the upper classes to chasten the proletariat. “To suggest a person is pretentious is to say they’re behaving in ways they’re not qualified for through experience or economic status,” he writes. But a charge of pretension is also one of the few effective indictments of wealth’s effete refinements, and thus one of the underclass’s best cultural weapons. Fox briefly acknowledges this without accounting for it, devoting only a few sentences to the phenomenon of the “inverted snob” or the “prolier-than-thou” without exploring the perverse reasons why the rich might want to appear ordinary.

If we accept Fox’s prior suggestion that pretension is usefully transformative, can we also accept his conviction that certain sorts of pretension are particularly objectionable? He endorses contemporary art and many types of theater, for example, but thinks that “social media’s structures of engagement” are deceptively “tuned to ‘likes’ and emoticon hearts” and that advertising incites overconsumption. Why should we condemn these particular types of performance any more than we condemn any others?

In general, Fox has difficulty accounting for blameworthy acts of pretension. “You are either ‘convinced’ by it, because it agrees with criteria familiar to you, or you call it pretentious,” he writes. This conclusion, however, leaves no room for acceptable condemnations of deceit or appropriation. My adolescent intuition that pretension entails misrepresentation—a discord not between truth and expectation but between appearance and reality—seems apt, even now that I’ve renounced my affinity for French New Wave. There is a difference between creative posturing and outright lying.

And besides, aspiration need not involve pretension. We can imagine ambitious futures for ourselves without pretense. “Pretentiousness defines a degree of dislocation between our circumstances and the image we are trying to pro-ject,” Fox writes. But self-transformation is often a matter of evolving such that our appearances more accurately reflect our experiences, not a matter of performing or pretending.

Fox rightly laments that “pretentiousness” has become an inflated insult, levied at everything we’d like to write off as elitist. He makes the astute observation that the “accuser rarely itemizes both what is being aspired to and just why it is that the subject in question fails to make the grade.” But this suggests that more, rather than less, precision about pretension is in order—something that Pretentiousness does not supply.

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Becca Rothfeld is a freelance critic and masters student at the University of Cambridge. She will begin her PhD in philosophy at Harvard this fall.


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