The Pseudo-Intellectual Placebo Effect

To take my critique on the sorry state of pop culture criticism a little further, it’s worth noting that this checklist-crit and surface skimming undermines one of art’s great gifts. I’ve written much before about the decline of deep introspection, and the cost of that decline; art is another avenue back into introspection. Developing a robust understanding of a true masterwork requires burrowing deep into yourself and confronting that which we purposefully keep hidden from ourselves for 95% of our waking moments. Art makes looking at this stuff more palatable because you’re doing it hand-in-hand with the artist. This is what David Foster Wallace called the “conversation around loneliness” that drew him to literature.

Art makes it easier, but this sort of thing is difficult and scary under even the best of circumstances. Which is why checklist-crit offers an alternative: the illusion of deeper understanding without any of challenge. Sometimes I find myself wondering if this streak of pseudo-intellectualism is more anti-intellectual and pernicious than mere stupidity.

Incidentally, this is why I find the work of public pseudo-intellectuals like Katie Roiphe, Simon Critchley and Alain de Botton so offensive. They provide an opportunity for the educated and relatively well-off—those with the free time, the tools, and the luxury to spend many hours going deep within themselves—to marvel at their own erudition without accomplishing anything at all. It’s like Vitamin Water; we drink it for the taste and the image it projects of a health-conscious yuppie, when in reality we’re just consuming another overpriced sugar drink.

Meanwhile, Tony Judt is dead.

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