Friday, August 9, 2013

Poseur Alert about Poseur Alert

I have been thinking of writing a blog post about Dominic Pettman's wonderful review of Michael Marder's Plant-Thinking. I might still, but I instead I feel compelled to write about something else. I noticed today that Andrew Sullivan has listed the review as part of his poseur alert series. For those not familiar, Sullivan occasionally quotes something, and usually without commentary, labels it a poseur alert. As he has explained, "Poseur alerts are awarded for passages of prose that stand out for pretension, vanity and really bad writing designed to look like profundity." And sometimes I agree, like Colin McGinn's horrible justifications for his sexual harassment. But usually it just refers to some subject being subjugated to intellectual interrogation that Sullivan does not believe merits that attention. Often done in the cadences of American cultural and media studies, and/or continental philosophy. So, not just Pettman, but also people like James Williams. You get the idea. One has the impression that if you gave Sullivan the collected works of Freud, he would scribble 'poseur alert' on their spines. Or, hell, he probably did that on the first critique of Kant. Here, I'll do it for him:

Poseur Alert

Our apprehension of the manifold of appearance is always successive, and therefore is always varying. Hence through apprehension alone we can never determine whether this manifold considered as object of experience is simultaneous or sequential. We cannot determine this unless something underlying in experience is there always--i.e., something enduring and permanent of which all variation and simultaneity are only so many ways (modes of time) in which the permanent exists. 

Actually, "pretension, vanity and really bad writing", hmm... .

And that is part of the point, here. It has been a trend of certain people to use what they feel to be bad writing to reject taking seriously intellectual positions. As someone who has done a lot of work on Judith Butler, I find this pretension beyond annoying. If I have to hear one more time that Butler won a bad writing award, I think I will lend them a copy of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, and say, "If you want some bad writing!". Look, I think writing matters. We should probably strive to be good writers (though, I think I have bigger spectrum for styles that count as good), but the quality of writing is not an intellectual reason to denounce a thinker.

Lastly, there is no way to write a post on poseur alerts, without doing something that looks like a poseur alert, so here is mine.

Whenever I hear the word poseur, I am immediately transported back to high school. I was a teen in the 90s, of the goth/punk/glam variety. It was a common insult in those groups to refer to other people as poseurs. Basically, we had grown up before Hot Topic, listening to Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson. As we got older we discovered The Cure, Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, etc. This all seems so terribly silly now, but what comes next is even sillier. We of course labeled as poseurs all those younger goths who shopped at Hot Topic, and listened to Korn and Slipknot and whatever else it was they listened to. This is was a time period when a band you heard of the day before, you used to look down your nose at someone who haven't already heard of them. What, you like NIN but you haven't heard of Skinny Puppy?! That sort of thing. See, calling someone else a poseur was all a part of the pretension of that subculture; it was all a part of boundary maintenance and hiding our fears of incompetence. When I hear grown people refer to someone as a poseur, I can't help but immediately think, What are you afraid of?.  This is clearly not just a problem of Andrew Sullivan, but of a broader mentality that attacks certain styles of writing. You know the kind I speak of.

Though, the fact that Andrew Sullivan once included himself in the poseur alert was nice. I still thinks he should stop calling people poseurs, and just go listen to some Nine Inch Nails (or, whatever).

Update: Hi Andrew Sullivan readers! I will add that I appreciate his tendency to post dissents on his blog.

3 comments:

matt said...

I was a metalhead teen in the 80s. For us, the "hair metal" bands such as Poison and Ratt were the poseurs, whereas Iron Maiden and Metallica were the real deal. The band Sacred Oath even had a song called "Posers [sic] Must Die."

I usually agree with Sullivan's poseur alerts. Good writing is clear writing. Academic/critical writing is often the opposite, with its convoluted clauses and overuse of jargon. I received my BA in English. Why didn't I go for my MA? Because the graduate system felt like one giant circle jerk: academics writing only for other academics, desperately trying to be more obscure and impenetrable than the next guy.

Intelligent discourse is self-evident. It doesn't need to be dressed up with flowery prose or complicated syntax. Good writing is clear writing.


Karl Steel said...

Hi Matt -- come back to reading critical theory. Lucid prose is in nowadays. Read more Pettman, for example. Or Jane Benett, Ian Bogost, Stacey Alaimo. If Homi Bhabha scared you off, they'll welcome you back.

Scu said...

Yeah, attacking Pettman was one of the weirder parts of all of this.