December 14th, 2005


Pseud's Corner

I joined the throng of congratulation when Rhodri Marsden announced, with typical English self-deprecation, that, despite not knowing how to operate a PC, he'd landed a job as technology columnist on British daily newspaper The Independent. After all, I could identify — I too, despite not knowing how to operate a PC, had recently been plucked from the obscurity of blogging and given my own tech-themed column at Wired News.

But the truce between old sparring partners couldn't last long. Yesterday Rhodri attacked—sorry, gently ribbed—my latest column for Wired under the heading "Pseud's Corner". For those outside the UK, Pseud's Corner is a regular column in satirical magazine Private Eye which rounds up samples of the most pretentious writing on offer in any given week. Interestingly, this week the column makes fun of two types of "pseud", liberals and black people: a Guardian reader is mocked for searching for a "primitive" holiday home and African-American academic John P. Pittman is mocked for an essay on "Hip Hop’s Dialetctical Struggle for Recognition" (whether the spelling mistake is in the original or added by Private Eye is unclear, since the magazine spells Pittman's name wrong too).

If being a "pseud" makes you inherently un-British, or at the very least suspiciously un-conservative, calling pseuds out is a thoroughly British activity. In fact, even the word "pseud" is British-only slang. It comes, of course, from the phrase "pseudo-intellectual", and the idea is that someone who's claiming to be an intellectual isn't actually anything of the kind. The reduced word tends to get used, though, as an all-purpose attack on intellectual aspirations of any kind, since, to some mentally phlegmatic Brits, any reference to something difficult or demanding is, in itself, a kind of fraud, imposture or imposition. Thanks to the minor-differences struggles that have defined English cultural identity, perhaps intellectualism is seen as a bit "French". Or perhaps it's a gauntlet thrown down, a challenge which demands either engagement or some sort of denunciation. (The weird thing is that Pseud's Corner candidates are often also the very people who end up in Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey, flying the flag for British cultural identity, like the verbose, Italian-influenced Shakespeare. Sometimes the trip from Pseud's to Poet's Corner takes a while, though; the scandalous erotomane, poseur and political activist Lord Byron died in 1824 but wasn't memorialized in Westminster Abbey until 1969. At that rate, expect Harold Pinter to show up there in 2150.)

I think Rhodri's reaction to my column (well, to my description of it on my blog; he claims he wasn't able to read the actual column because the Wired site crashed his browser) is very telling, though. Rhodri and I are both British, and both write a lot of journalism (as well as being indie musicians). But I write exclusively for American publications, and Rhodri writes for British ones. America and Britain are, in the old but true cliche, two cultures divided by a common language. I really doubt that I could write for a British publication, just as I doubt Rhodri could write for an American one. If I had to sum up what the division between American and British journalism is all about, I'd say that America is Nietzschean and Britain is postmodern. Hello, Pseud's Corner! I'm not afraid any more! Americans are "Nietzschean" because they're interested in power, and unafraid of seriousness. They're also quite prepared to pose as something they're not, to remake and remodel themselves, to be boastful, to be utopian, and admit to optimism about the future. I'm going to watch Rhodri's Cyberman column with interest, because I find it quite hard to imagine a technology column without a positive view of artifice, optimism, a certain Panglossian tech-utopianism, and a certain boastfulness.

Britain is much less serious, much more postmodern than America. Sometimes it resembles a floating Butlins Holiday fun camp with marketing by Virgin and in-jokes by Graham Norton. I won't knock this too much, because in many ways, and increasingly, I think Britain—with its self-deprecation, its insular self-referentiality, its inverse narcissism, its ultra-marketing and ultra-postmodernism—resembles Japan, that beloved mirror image of my hated island home.

"I'm not saying Britain is less smart or sophisticated than the US," I said in my "official" response to Rhodri's pseud charges on his blog. "The layers of now-I-mean-it,-now-I-don't irony alone require a PhD to sort through, and it's all tremendously postmodern and meta and referential (even if it's only to TV shows that only Gen Y British people know about... Cyberman is a Dr Who reference, right Rhodri?). Trouble is, when you get down to what's being said, it's often a little lecture on marketing, leavened by some TV Cream / pub quiz pop culture in-jokes. And, frankly, if we see this British style as postmodernism gone mad (references to references, ironies upon ironies, the collapse of high and low culture, and a bit of clever marketing as the bottom line), then it's just as pretentious as telling people what Descartes said in "Meditations on First Philosophy"... and possibly even more so."

The day after tomorrow I fly to Paris for a meeting with a publisher who's offering me the chance to write my first novel. I've never even got to the discussion stage of such a deal with a British publisher. For some reason, my writing only goes down well in countries pseudy enough to have had revolutions and become republics.