Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, by Dan Fox
In the interest of journalistic integrity, I feel that I should begin this review with a full disclosure. You see, I’m far from a neutral observer here. I have, as they say, skin in the game. It’s time to ‘fess up. I am pretentious. And a life spent in pretension is, as Fox observes, a life spent being read by others as performing, putting on what is inevitably seen as a “silly act.” This dramatic metaphor is evident throughout Fox’s essay right from his opening salvo, where he dissects the word “pretentious” etymologically—it derives from the “Latin prae—before—and tendere meaning ‘to stretch’ or ‘extend’,” bringing to mind the masks that the actors wore, or rather, held before them, in Greek drama.
Fox makes great play out of this strain of thought, trying with all his might to reclaim pretension from those who claim it as an insult. To be pretentious might be to don a mask, something which might “carry with it the sting of class betrayal” but equally, for Fox, the “anti-intellectualism” that is supposedly pretension’s opposite “is a snobbery just like anti-pretension.” For Fox, pretension is an inevitably loaded term which comes redolent with a complex of class neuroses specific to Anglo-American, and specifically British, society. After all, it was only in Britain that Pulp would have had a Top Ten hit with Common People, a song about “class dissimulation.”
But equally, Fox hobbles himself with the assertion that “pretension is always someone else’s crime. It’s never a felony in the first person.” Fox’s argument hinges on a dialectic struggle between pretension and authenticity (whatever that might be), but he doesn’t admit the possibility that one might be authentically pretentious. Pretentiousness argues vigorously against the notion that an afternoon spent reading Virginia Woolf might be less ‘real’ than an afternoon spent watching the World Cup, but what of the person who’d rather read To The Lighthouse than watch Tunisia play Luxembourg? Return to that disclaimer at the start. If pretentiousness is something that is “someone else’s crime,” what happens when one ‘fesses up to it oneself?
Fox is, one suspects, bang on the money when he talks about class, but there’s a lacuna where other considerations ought to be. Gender, sexuality and race are, by and large, noticeable by their absence. Fox writes that “code-switching is a white, middle-class privilege that ignores broader problems of gender, race and sexuality,” which may well hold true when it is a white, middle-class person doing the switching. But equally, when one doesn’t speak the dominant code as a native tongue (as it were), one inevitably finds oneself assuming a socially-sanctioned language that is, by and large, codified by white, middle-class people. Speaking “improper” English isn’t a problem if you look and sound like “proper” English comes to you naturally. The essay would benefit from a more in-depth discussion on the complex intersections of masking, and race and sexuality, of passing and trying to assume an “authentic” identity that cuts against the grain of dominant social mores.
For all those faults, though, Fox’s essay is a powerful call to arms, extensively researched and compulsively readable, challenging us to reclaim a kind of polymorphous cultural vitality that all too often gets shouted down. Pretentiousness is strongest when it discusses the pop music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and its inordinate, almost dizzying frames of reference—“All those books, films, images and sounds out there: pop told its audience that they belonged to them too. Go and take them, learn from them. You do not need permission from a higher authority.” This, in a nutshell, is Fox’s message to the world, and a mighty fine message it is, too.