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Dear Dr. Kierkegaard,
All my life I’ve been a successful pseudo-intellectual, sprinkling quotations from Kafka, Epictetus and Derrida into my conversations, impressing dates and making my friends feel mentally inferior. But over the last few years, it’s stopped working. People just look at me blankly. My artificially inflated self-esteem is on the wane. What happened?
Existential in Exeter
It pains me to see so many people being pseudo-intellectual in the wrong way. It desecrates the memory of the great poseurs of the past. And it is all the more frustrating because your error is so simple and yet so fundamental.
You have failed to keep pace with the current code of intellectual one-upsmanship. You have failed to appreciate that over the past few years, there has been a tectonic shift in the basis of good taste.
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. Cultural artifacts existed in a hierarchy, with opera and fine art at the top, and stripping at the bottom. The social climbing pseud merely had to familiarize himself with the forms at the top of the hierarchy and febrile acolytes would perch at his feet.
In 1960, for example, he merely had to follow the code of high modernism. He would master some impenetrably difficult work of art from T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound and then brood contemplatively at parties about Lionel Trilling’s misinterpretation of it. 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.
But on or about June 29, 2007, human character changed. That, of course, was the release date of the first iPhone.
On that date, media displaced culture. As commenters on The American Scene blog have pointed out, the means of transmission replaced the content of culture as the center of historical excitement and as the marker of social status.
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. (In this era, MySpace is the new leisure suit and an AOL e-mail address is a scarlet letter of techno-shame.)
Today, Kindle can change the world, but nobody expects much from a mere novel. The brain overshadows the mind. Design overshadows art.
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. Inventors, artists and writers come and go, but buzz is forever. Maximum status goes to the Gladwellian heroes who occupy the convergence points of the Internet infosystem — Web sites like Pitchfork for music, Gizmodo for gadgets, Bookforum for ideas, etc.
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. This will highlight the importance of your cultural discovery, the fineness of your discerning taste, and your early adopter insiderness for having found it before anyone else.
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.
~from New York Times op-ed Columnist David Brooks - Lord of the Memes