Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Pretentious AND Precocious

Whilst doing my "time" in Texas, an administrator at the school where I was working explained to me the Peter Principle and the theory of the Glass Ceiling. I would love to relate to you exactly why this discussion was appropriate, but I'm still not clear why or if it was. I didn't ask him to, but he did it. Anyway, I always thought the Peter Principle had something to do with robbing Peter to pay Paul or some such thing. Apparently that's Biblical. The Peter Principle is corproeally conceived - no divination whatsoever. The way that this administator explained the Peter Principle to me and my colleague can be summed up thusly: one only rises to one's minimum level of incompetence. Like I said, I don't know what the hell he was talking about. However, in reading through several of my writings for this blog and other non-existent "projects", I have come to realize that this same principle applies to not only my writing, but almost everything that I pursue in my life.

What I mean by this is that I am almost always trying to achieve something that is just beyond the reach of my abilities. Some people would call this ambition, others may call it arrogance, others still may call it a ham sandwich, but I don't know why anyone would listen to what a schizophrenic has to say anyway. (Note to self: I wonder what would come from letting schizophrenics review movies, books, television and music. I think there may be some problems inherent. It requires further thought.)

Anyway, the various sketches of possible blog entries, personal essays, goofy spoofy scenarios, etc. have in common one thing, other than their current status of incomplete: they are all outside my realm of expertise. Now, I'm not saying I have an expertise, because I don't. But if I were to have one - which I don't - it wouldn't be in writing about shit that I barely understand. True I tend to write about movies, music, pop cultural phenomena, etc. But what person doesn't have an opinion on such pedestrian topics? And does that person really fully understand what it is that their opining about? Hardly. But, it's when I try to find some deeper connection or meaning to these topics that I seem to flounder in the pools of Peter Principlean precociousness.

In the documentary Hearts of Darkness about the making of the film Apocalypse Now, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola says the worst thing you can be called is pretentious. He then goes on to say that there's a very fine line in art between doing something people will find artistically credible or egomaniacally pretentious. The same thing is probably true of anything done for mass consumption. But what certain quality makes one project more or less pretentious than the next?

When I was in film school the word my professors most loathed to hear from the students during our lengthy and sometimes brutal critique sessions was that something was "good" or "bad". Their hatred for such lack of critical commitment is understandable. But the other oft-used and much-loathed critical term was "cheesy". When asked why they hated this term, or any of the three offending terms, the professors would often cite the ambiguity inherent in the words themselves. What does good or bad mean and who dictates their meaning? Bear in mind these are the same people who would quickly call something "insincere" or "sentimental", neither of which have any real out-of-context critical value. If you say to someone that their project is insincere, then they may respond that insincere is exactly what they were going for and so they will be pleased.

What am I interested in is this: what is the defining quality that gives those words the negative or positive connotation with which they've been attached? Is calling something cheesy no less qualifiable than calling something sentimental? And further, is it really such a bad thing to be considered pretentious, or precocious, even if you are the one ascribing this quality to your own "work"? After all, there is no inherent negativity to these words. The negativity is injected by the user in any certain context.

I think it is valid to be inquisitive about things you don't understand, to attach meaning to things that isn't necessarily inherent, to find connections between things - academically or otherwise - whether or not it is "legitimate". Babies make sense of the world by a very similar process of trial and error. One would make sense of an alien culture using the same techniques, but maybe not in such brazenly outspoken way.

Most of all, though, it is meaningful to comment on things that are beyond one's realm of understanding. I think it is essential, even. However, it is in this discussion that we HOPEFULLY become more aware of what it is that we are exploring and somehow gain some semblence of understanding. It's a risk. You may seem precocious, pretentious, sentimental, insincere or cheesy - even to yourself. But at least you took the risk and maybe in doing so, you increased your minimum level of incompetence just slightly. And you are a better person for having done so. And, of course, by "you" I mean "me".

FYI: The so-called Peter Principle, according to http://www.bartleby.com -

"The theory that employees within an organization will advance to their highest level of competence and then be promoted to and remain at a level at which they are incompetent."

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