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Friday, December 18, 2020

A few kind words about pretension

 

Is there anything to be said for pretension?

Simon During’s thumbnail review of Lisa Robertson’s Baudelaire Fractal used the word pretentious, and then semi-takes it back: “Because it’s not only pretentious, it’s jaunty too which undercuts the abstract flim flam.” (see on Facebook)

There is nothing more damning, in money culture, than pretension. Just as there was nothing more damning, in the culture of the nobility, than the Pretender – claiming an inherited office to which one has no bloodtie. Pretend comes from the Latin world for stretch – to stretch before, to hold something out. “Stretching”, here, is cutely caught up in an Americanism – the stretcher. To tell a stretcher is to exaggerate, or even lie. It is a word I associate with Mark Twain – there’s a sort of unconscious etymological narrative in Huckleberry Finn that makes the stretcher a fundamental part of the tale, which includes a Pretender – a false claimant to the French throne. A flim flam man.

When examining the semantics of the truth in ordinary language, few philosophers pause to consider stretching. As any child knows, though, you can take a realistic representation – a picture, say – and stretch it to make it funnier. When I was a kid, we would get silly putty, which came in a little plastic egg, and stretch it out over a comic book picture. Then we would peel it off and the picture would be imprinted on the putty. And then you’d have some fun stretching it.

Now here’s a toy for you mimesis freaks out there.

Pretension and stretching are bound at the hip. Jesus, in a Wittgensteinian mood, once asked: Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? The answer, in nature, is nobody – but social stature is a different matter all together. We frantically devise measures for that – from who has the longest yacht to who has the most publications. Within these systems, there develops quite a horror of stretching, which messes up ranking. And without ranking in neo-liberal culture, what do we have?

Yet if we are ever to get anywhere as aesthetic beings – and no matter how the money culture tries, it can’t reduce the aesthetic completely to the price system – we have to have some stretch in us. We have to pretend. We have to have pretensions. The critic, who also has to have pretentions, feeds on cutting down the pretensions of others – and in fact the critic represents our general tendency, in our small circles, to whack away at those who get too big for themselves, who stretch – but too much whacking and the field is bare. I immediately grow suspicious when I hear something described as pretentious, since I know of the innumerable things that are not pretentious that clutter our sensoriums day and night (I’m leaving, as a tip to the pretenders, here, the “s” on sensoriums – I’m def not writing sensoria!). And I know that there is an army out there waiting to pounce on poetry and art and leave a big dump on it – their grumus merdae. So I grow wary around that “pretentious” word.

Those who never stretch will shrink in the end, is my feeling.  Crying: I’m melting! I’m melting!

 

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