In 1966, Kurt Vonnegut advised his reader, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” As does much that he wrote, the line blends a dark, absurdist fatalism with the kind of psychological buoyancy one tends to find in embracing the absurd and fatalistic notion that the human condition is random, illogical, and destined to end in the grave. If nothing matters and nothing comes of it, then are we not free? Per the above, are we not free, therefore, to pretend as we choose—to be what we choose? In one sense, we stand warned: the pretense is all that there is, so “be careful,” choose carefully. In another sense, we find empowerment: the pretense is ours to author, so “be careful,” take care, adopt the responsibility of that authorship. Animate the pretension with intention—again, because it is all that there is. Broadly, this is a sentiment equally likely to embolden the nihilist, as it is the humanist. Vonnegut, at least in his prose, had tended toward the latter. So, in my own ideal aspirations, have I. In this, I believe we share an inclination to read the open-ended futility of the mortal exercise, not as an excuse to indulge cynicism, but as an invitation to cultivate hope. Following the above quote, if one pretends that it matters how one lives and what one believes, then it does matter.
For his part, and by way of a choice example, Vonnegut betrayed his own humanism within the Eugene Debs line he never tired of quoting—repeating it in no less than three published works—”while there is a lower class, I am in it…while there is a criminal element, I am of it…while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Debs, a labor organizer and the leading American Socialist during the early twentieth-century, was solidly middle class and generally (with an exception for the odd Sedition Act or two) he was law abiding. So, the depth of the empathy demanded by his politics and his rhetoric must have required a good deal of pretending. Debs pretended that the burdens of the the most wretched in society were his to bear. And so they were. He sought to extend to all Americans an invitation to similarly pretend. But the pretending was not to be just a thing of the middle class, as had been a fair amount of the reform impulse during that period. The wretched must also pretend. The laboring classes and the disenfranchised in society must pretend to deserve the rights and the responsibilities they sought. They must pretend to be worthy and capable of stake-holding, voice-having participation in the social contract. And so then, they must be.
The Bum in a Suit dresses not for the job he has, but for the job he wants. He pretends to be, in his true self, and to see, in the world he inhabits, the paradise he helps to cultivate by virtue of his manifest pretension. He democratizes class and taste, intellectualism and critical thinking—by coaxing these into the shadows they have been taught to avoid. He recognizes in the blogosphere, and in all the social spaces in the web, a carnival of mediated pretension. And he begins to grasp what is at stake. These are the new media; this is the new public sphere. And to step in: to blog, to tweet, to lurk, to up-vote, to post, to pin, to search, to share, or just to stare—is to cybernetically addend one’s identity. So, let the pretending begin. But animate the pretension with intention. Because if we do not…Google, Amazon, and Facebook have brought along a hatful of algorithms that are dying to pretend for us. And its not just the cybernetic extension of yours and my identities they would be authoring. If the demigods of the inter-webs are allowed to pretend long enough and hard enough, they may author us up a whole new society, from the top down. (for the sake of the rhetoric, let’s pretend that would be “new”—did someone say “not indulging cynicism”?) So, the Bum in a Suit blogs. And he pretends…carefully. He pretends it matters what he writes, because he wants it to matter. And so it does. He pretends the web is a democratic space, because he wants it to be. And so it is.