Making a selective effort to seek out the most obscure ideas, theories, thinkers, and books is, on the one hand, a sign of intellectual hunger. But a kind of ego-stroking tendency can suffuse this seeking too; the more obscure the material, the more self-satisfying it can feel to find it and tell others about it. The motive may be about trying hard to stand out as the knower of what others don’t know, and to be regarded that way by one’s peers. I think of this tendency as hipster intellectualism.
The obscurity that can feed the ego can be both what is consumed (created by others) and what one creates. What one consumes and then signals to others could be lesser-known, unpopular, or difficult-to-understand writers or academics, books, essays, articles, and ideas.
When it comes to creating the obscure that props up the ego, this typically involves writing in a way that is verbose, convoluted, and impenetrable. There can be an aim to signal that I, the writer, belong to a minority of people who can or want to read these higher-echelon thoughts, which are clearly evidenced by the special language used. Yet often, stuffing writing with technical and obscure terms – and writing tortuously what could be stated simply – is not based on necessity.
Being hard to understand is not the same as being intellectually advanced, despite the (understandable) proclivity to conflate them. The opposite, on many occasions, is actually true: obfuscation does not reveal a higher level of skill and intelligence but a higher level of rhetoric. Explaining the complex as clearly and concisely as possible in writing is (or should be) what is impressive. Being able to explain an idea in several ways for several audiences evinces a better understanding of that idea than writing that appeals to the smallest audience, namely, writing that seeks to impress through its inaccessibility, ambiguity, and shiny jargon. Good ideas should sit in as many minds as possible, not in ivory towers. As the French philosopher Henri Bergson stated, “There is no philosophical idea, however deep or subtle, that cannot and should not be expressed in everyone’s language.”
(I realise I may be doing, right now in my writing, what I’m criticising. That’s possible. But part of the reason I’m writing this in the first place is to identify and flesh out a tendency I may also be guilty of, which I want to be more aware of. The less ego-driven that writing is, the more that sincerity comes through. That’s ultimately how I would like to write: naturally, organically, with as few pretensions as possible.)
So, the allure of the intellectually obscure is twofold: what is unknown to the masses and what is hard to understand. This is not to say that a specific attraction to the esoteric and elaborate is without merit; this is often a positive sign – it can point to a desire for a deeper understanding of a subject or more intellectual stimulation in one’s life. On occasion, though, the motive may be different, or an additional motive exists: to feel the satisfaction – the sense of status – of knowing what others don’t or writing how others don’t. An ego based on the intellect often loves to feed on the obscure. This can be a way of protecting and promoting the ego.
Hipster intellectualism does, in a way, make sense from an evolutionary perspective. Acquiring and signalling knowledge – especially knowledge that others don’t have – would have, in certain contexts, proved biologically advantageous for our ancestors. This might include new discoveries of precious resources like water and food, or shelter. As a pro-social, tribe-oriented species, such information would be enthusiastically shared with fellow group members. Those who knew the not-well-known would then gain a certain level of status and reputation. Hipster intellectualism may thus stem from this facet of human psychology. The high value placed on discovering and sharing the obscure can still be based on the desire for status and reputation, even if the implications are no longer about the survival of oneself and those around us.
Furthermore, intelligence – and signals of it – provide several advantages, such as helping to elevate one’s social standing and attractiveness to potential mates. Writing in an obscure way could very well relate to this if the aim or impulse is to portray oneself as having a profound mind. However, there is a difference between being deep and seeming deep. As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science (1882), “Those who know they are deep strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem deep to the crowd strive for obscurity.”
When does a genuine fondness for the obscure and for writing eloquently cross over into hipster intellectual territory? The line between the two is fuzzy, really. Sometimes, the difficult-to-understand is just that. It is not always a reflection of an ego looking to secure itself. Some writing is convoluted simply due to poor writing skills; in other instances, struggling to comprehend a text is not to do with the writer showing off or lacking skill but is related to the reader requiring a certain background level of understanding, be that of the meaning of certain concepts or terms, a style of writing, or how an argument is formulated. Other times, however, the difference is obvious. The obscurity will stand out like a sore thumb, including to those well-versed in the subject matter.
Hipster intellectualism could also be more prevalent in some fields than others, in those fields that tend to attract a hipster mentality. Philosophy and the social sciences come to mind here. And it seems to be more common in academia than among those working in industry.
So what can be done to combat hipster intellectualism? I suppose you can always introspect as to the motivation behind certain intellectual interests. Does the interest come from an authentic place? Is the desire to impress and stand out involved? Reflecting on the way we talk about the obscure could be illuminating, too. Maybe we, without knowing it, get wrapped up in a kind of obscure one-upping or Obscure Olympics. When we want to share our obscure knowledge with others, do we hope for a particular reaction, one that strokes the ego? Or is the intention merely to add something to a conversation – be that in-person or online – that we think the other person might value and appreciate?
There’s not always an easy answer to these questions, of course. The nuanced position is that both authenticity and hipster intellectualism could exist alongside each other. Nonetheless, if authentic expression is the aim here, then being vigilant of the ego – in its hipster intellectual form – is helpful; once you notice it, you can then decide not to engage in this way of thinking. Giving up pride in knowing or expressing the obscure means that intellectual conversations no longer have to be a competitive activity, but instead can be genuinely collaborative, as they should be.