Pretension Through the Ages

Zeitgeisty NY Times columnist David Brooks has compiled a brief history of modern cultural pretentiousness in an Op-Ed last week, from which he launches into a tirade about the corrosive effect of rapid-cycling Internet media on intellectual rigor and genuine engagement in ideas.

Some of his points are a little awkward (“MySpace is the new leisure suit”? The iPhone is solely responsible for the media’s displacement of culture?), but this kind of cultural commentary is compelling in our current age of Facebooks and blogs and things, during our intellectually formative college years:

You must remember that there have been three epochs of intellectual affectation. The first, lasting from approximately 1400 to 1965, was the great age of snobbery... In 1960, for example, he merely had to follow the code of high modernism… A successful date might consist of going to a reading of “The Waste Land,” contemplating the hollowness of the human condition and then going home to drink Russian vodka and suck on the gas pipe.

This code died sometime in the late 1960s and was replaced by the code of the Higher Eclectica. The old hierarchy of the arts was dismissed as hopelessly reactionary. Instead, any cultural artifact produced by a member of a colonially oppressed out-group was deemed artistically and intellectually superior…

During this period, status rewards went to the ostentatious cultural omnivores — those who could publicly savor an infinite range of historically hegemonized cultural products.
It was necessary to have a record collection that contained “a little bit of everything” (except heavy metal): bluegrass, rap, world music, salsa and Gregorian chant. It was useful to decorate one’s living room with African or Thai religious totems — any religion so long as it was one you could not conceivably believe in.

Now the global thought-leader is defined less by what culture he enjoys than by the smartphone, social bookmarking site, social network and e-mail provider he uses to store and transmit it...This transition has produced some new status rules. In the first place, prestige has shifted from the producer of art to the aggregator and the appraiser… Maximum status goes to the Gladwellian heroes who occupy the convergence points of the Internet infosystem… These tastemakers surf the obscure niches of the culture market bringing back fashion-forward nuggets of coolness for their throngs of grateful disciples.

Second, in order to cement your status in the cultural elite, you want to be already sick of everything no one else has even heard of. When you first come across some obscure cultural artifact — an unknown indie band, organic skate sneakers or wireless headphones from Finland — you will want to erupt with ecstatic enthusiasm…

Then, a few weeks later, after the object is slightly better known, you will dismiss all the hype with a gesture of putrid disgust. This will demonstrate your lofty superiority to the sluggish masses. It will show how far ahead of the crowd you are and how distantly you have already ventured into the future.

If you can do this, becoming not only an early adopter, but an early discarder, you will realize greater status rewards than you ever imagined. Remember, cultural epochs come and go, but one-upsmanship is forever.

Ok commenters, no asking what the Wesleyan student body might gain from this.

NYTimes: Lord of the Memes

30 thoughts on “Pretension Through the Ages

  1. Anonymous

    Uh I’m completely engaged in current cultural trends, 2:18. For one thing, I frequently use these new Internet media things Brooks is ragging on. I also look beyond blogs and social networking for ideological growth. Maybe the “vapid lifestyle” comment was too judgmental, but I am annoyed at people being all “boo David Brooks is old and says certain things I don’t like, so I will totally ignore everything he says”.-12:05 pm

  2. Anonymous

    Uh I’m completely engaged in current cultural trends, 2:18. For one thing, I frequently use these new Internet media things Brooks is ragging on. I also look beyond blogs and social networking for ideological growth.

    Maybe the “vapid lifestyle” comment was too judgmental, but I am annoyed at people being all “boo David Brooks is old and says certain things I don’t like, so I will totally ignore everything he says”.

    -12:05 pm

  3. Anonymous

    David Brooks' political commentary is often solid, and I like how he tries to work basic ideas and classic works from political science into his columns, but whenever he writes about culture it's downright embarrassing. This piece is no exception. Where you've gotten your media (books, music, etc) has always held cache. Among the culturally sophisticated set shopping at certain book stores (before they were all forced out of business by B&N) was a signifier of how with it a person was, and there were music critics (John Peel, Richard Christgau) who to oppose was always an uphill battle. Basically, nothing has changed. But because Brooks is a square, he is unable to understand that.

  4. Anonymous

    David Brooks' political commentary is often solid, and I like how he tries to work basic ideas and classic works from political science into his columns, but whenever he writes about culture it's downright embarrassing. This piece is no exception. Where you've gotten your media (books, music, etc) has always held cache. Among the culturally sophisticated set shopping at certain book stores (before they were all forced out of business by B&N) was a signifier of how with it a person was, and there were music critics (John Peel, Richard Christgau) who to oppose was always an uphill battle. Basically, nothing has changed. But because Brooks is a square, he is unable to understand that.

  5. Anonymous

    See, 12:05, you had me for the first paragraph and then you went then you threw it all away by being full of yourself and unwilling to seriously engage with cultural trends in the present.

  6. Anonymous

    See, 12:05, you had me for the first paragraph and then you went then you threw it all away by being full of yourself and unwilling to seriously engage with cultural trends in the present.

  7. Anonymous

    Ok, the blanket group called baby boomers might be out of touch with younger people, but too many kids who were raised with the Internet are really full of themselves and unwilling to engage with ideas from the past. David Brooks has a really good point even if he phrases some things awkwardly, or if he rubs you the wrong way as someone immersed in consumer media culture and unwilling to take criticism of your vapid lifestyle seriously.

  8. Anonymous

    Ok, the blanket group called baby boomers might be out of touch with younger people, but too many kids who were raised with the Internet are really full of themselves and unwilling to engage with ideas from the past.

    David Brooks has a really good point even if he phrases some things awkwardly, or if he rubs you the wrong way as someone immersed in consumer media culture and unwilling to take criticism of your vapid lifestyle seriously.

  9. Anonymous

    Hahahah… I love his epochs. Everything was totally the same until, like, I went to college, man. It was far out. First counter-culture ever.Seriously, when the fuck will the baby boomers ever stop trying to be cool?

  10. Anonymous

    Hahahah… I love his epochs. Everything was totally the same until, like, I went to college, man. It was far out. First counter-culture ever.

    Seriously, when the fuck will the baby boomers ever stop trying to be cool?

  11. Anonymous

    yeah, he has a surprisingly good point for someone who is so hopelessly out of touch–“organic skate sneakers”?

  12. Anonymous

    yeah, he has a surprisingly good point for someone who is so hopelessly out of touch–“organic skate sneakers”?

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