Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Notes & Comments

The Impotence of Being Clever

When did cleverness become such a nuisance?

Alexander Stern

Shutterstock, Inc.

“I am sick to death of cleverness,” wrote the very clever Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest. “Everybody is so clever nowadays.... The thing has become an absolute public nuisance.” The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was tormented by the thought that he was “merely clever” and criticized himself and others for valuing cleverness over genuine wisdom. Søren Kierkegaard, who placed a genuinely religious life before a merely aesthetic one, wrote that “the law for the religious is to act in opposition to cleverness.”

Is there really something wrong with being clever? Even if it can get on our nerves sometimes, its associations remain overwhelmingly positive: Cleverness is seen as a source of not just amusement but insight. Nonetheless, many will identify with Wilde’s complaint; the cleverness that proliferates in public life today is a nuisance. Our popular media are drenched in contrived knowingness and irony. And cleverness has become something like a currency online, where hordes of commenters and commentators compete for likes and subscribers with world-weary analyses and smug jokes. What should we make of this apparent degradation?

Let me start by trying to define cleverness a little more narrowly. We tend to use it in two related ways. The first is to mean brilliant, sharp, and insightful in a way that others might miss. A “clever” solution is not just effective but demonstrates imagination and a kind of a command of the situation. It arises out of and reveals a different, more imaginative way of understanding a problem. When Albert Einstein resolved fundamental problems in physics, his solution was clever insofar as it upended assumptions about space and time that people didn’t even realize they were making. We also use clever to mean something like witty. Like a clever solution, a clever remark reveals command and control. There is a detached, isolated composure with which the clever individual can survey the whole scene and make connections others can’t. In both instances, cleverness implies dexterity—an ability to get a grip on the world from the outside. Indeed, the word derives from an East Anglian word, cliver, meaning “expert at seizing.”

There is, then, an affinity between cleverness and the outsider. The clever individual is often aloof, whether by choice or by circumstance, and uses this alienation to advantage. The diffusion of cleverness in modernity is, therefore, closely connected to the diffusion of alienation, as well as to the emergence of a number of alienated character types found in both fiction and reality: the private detective, the comedian, the flâneur, and, most recently, the social media poster.

The detective is clever in full, solving mysteries in ingenious fashion and tossing off witticisms while he’s at it. As many critics have noted, the detective is a modern archetype. He is an isolated mercenary, holding himself above conventional attachments. He is thrown back on himself and doomed to create his own morality or code, and he regards official institutions, especially the police, with the utmost skepticism.

More than the stereotypical scientist or scholar—whose intellectual passion and naivete make him, for all his putative rationality, quite unlike reason itself—the detective personifies the cool, analytical dispassion of rationality in the human world: He is cold and calculating. He takes measures to keep himself outside the world while analyzing it. He is never caught off guard, and he’s never wrong.

Very often, this kind of cleverness comes in the form of seeing through illusions. Take this remark from detective Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely: “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat, and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.” It is this jaded, but realistic, irony—often in the face of visions of consumer luxury or romance—that gives rise to both the detective’s analytical ability and his clever brand of humor.

But this kind of cleverness that cuts through illusions can become its own kind of illusion. This possibility was realized in the neo-noir films of the 1970s and 1980s. Neo-noir detectives tend to be too clever by half. Whereas Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe dispatches effortlessly witty judgments, the cleverness of Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes in Chinatown is more defensive, strained, and vulnerable. After he is fooled by an impostor who hires him to tail a man she says is her husband, then threatened with a lawsuit by the real wife (played by Faye Dunaway), Gittes comes to her house, where he learns she’s unexpectedly dropping the suit. “Hollis [the husband] seems to think you’re an innocent man,” she tells Gittes. “Well,” he responds, “I’ve been accused of many things, Mrs. Mulwray, but never that.”

Gittes’s cleverness functions more as a cover for vulnerability than evidence of invulnerability. And it is far less successful: It tends to betray insecurity in the course of covering it up. Think of the way adolescents try a knowing remark to project worldliness when their egos are threatened. Similarly, neo-noir detectives’ attempts to connect the dots, far from exhibiting rational command from outside, are overconfident, easily confused, and frequently end up making things worse. Gittes’s actions inadvertently cause Mrs. Mulwray’s death. The film’s defeatist final line, “It’s Chinatown, Jake,” suggests the impossibility of understanding, much less fighting, the forces of irrationality and evil that plague the city. Gittes’s cleverness is an ineffective balm, offering the simulation of rational control under irrational conditions.

This defensive cleverness can be used not only to beat a retreat to higher ground but to reframe forced alienation as higher ground. This explains, at least partially, the success of a certain strain of Jewish humor in America. Forced outsider status is turned into an analytical advantage and exploited for laughs. A Woody Allen short story, to take one example, features a protagonist who has “suffered untold injustices and persecutions because of his religion, mostly from his parents.” “True,” Allen writes, “the old man was a member of the synagogue, and his mother, too, but they could never accept the fact that their son was Jewish.” Both the Jew’s position as an outsider and the mainstream culture that may, seemingly out of nowhere, turn on the Jew at any time are absurdly exaggerated here and defanged by analytical cleverness. Just as the detective’s cleverness restores order to chaos (at least apparently), the Jewish comedian’s cleverness can restore humanity in the face of dehumanization.

In Woody Allen’s films and perhaps most clearly in Seinfeld, Jewish alienation became mainstream. In Seinfeld, alienation from WASP social mores and practices bleeds into an everyday alienation from society itself. George Costanza’s myriad paranoid anxieties about navigating work, romance, and consumerism are relatable (if exaggerated) not just to Jews but to any American urbanite. (As Lenny Bruce put it, “If you live in New York, you’re Jewish.”) The show’s cleverness defangs not anti-Semitism, but a fundamental anxiety of American-style individualism: namely, that we’ve become unmoored from any genuine communal context. The show constantly cuts that anxiety down to size by generating clever jokes out of the mundane dilemmas faced daily by disconnected operators in such a culture, especially around their inability to form and maintain genuine romantic relationships.

Take Elaine’s concern about the social consequences of breaking up with an older man who has just had a stroke. She tells Jerry, “I’ll be ostracized from the community.”

Jerry: What community? There’s a community?

Elaine: Of course there’s a community.

Jerry: All these years I’m living in a community, I had no idea.

It is no mistake that Seinfeldian cleverness tends to thrive in spaces like the airport where the individual is most atomized and the absence of community most palpable. In the airport, people are removed from any context in which they might have real social connections or any purpose at all, aside from waiting. They are held captive in an antiseptic, controlled environment with no escape and nothing to do but consume and gawk.

The airport is one of a number of modern spaces—the shopping mall, the stadium, the waiting room, the amusement park—that reduce the individual to a minimum of subjectivity, or at the very least strive to make that subjectivity irrelevant. As a passenger, a shopper, a “guest,” you are not quite yourself, but become something like the faceless figures in architects’ three-dimensional renderings of these spaces. There is even something carceral about these environments, as Michel Foucault recognized, insofar as their architecture imposes a physical discipline upon the guest even as he or she is catered to and entertained.

German social theorist and critic Walter Benjamin associated this forced passivity with the figure of the flâneur. For Benjamin, the flâneur, or “man of the crowd,” is someone looking to escape himself, yet without joining a community. “Uncomfortable in his own company,” he lurks on the periphery of new modern environments like the fashionable boulevards, gambling halls, or Paris’s enclosed shopping arcades. The flâneur takes an almost erotic pleasure in his own self-presentation, estrangement, and anonymity, which give him a sense of dominance over the scene. As Benjamin’s friend Siegfried Kracauer wrote in an essay on the hotel lobby, another such anonymous space, “pseudo-individuals” pose for each other like “ungraspable flat ghosts.” “The presentation of the surface strikes them as an attraction; the tinge of exoticism gives them a pleasurable shudder.”

But the flâneur remains unfulfilled, his sense of command belied by fecklessness. According to Benjamin, the detective story emerges as a kind of fantasy solution to this situation. The detective story brings the unsatisfied exotic charge of these anonymous spaces to life and ends feelings of passivity. As a detective, the flâneur is finally allowed to make good his felt command over the situation by putting his observations to some use. “If the flâneur is...turned into an unwilling detective,” Benjamin writes, “it does him a lot of good socially, for it legitimates his idleness.” The flâneur-turned-detective becomes useful to the community without having to enter it. His cleverness arises from the same impulse as that of the self-protecting comedian: to seize the world from outside and redeem alienation without having to sacrifice its pleasures.

The flâneur, the detective, and the comedian are precursors of the practitioners of the online cleverness that has become such a nuisance today. The Internet is a spaceless airport. Like passengers in an airport, its users are fundamentally idlers. They occupy themselves with browsing—both the objects available for consumption and their fellow consumers. They are placed in a similar but even more extreme position of impotent omnipotence. The world is at their feet, but they cannot really act in it except to pose and acquire. At the same time, the Internet enables control of people’s movements and desires in a way the airport could only dream of. All this naturally prompts a desire to wrest back some semblance of control.

One way is to replace passive browsing with active detective work. Internet detectives are forever alert to scams and conspiracies. Launching deeply researched accusations against hucksters, hacks, grifters, trolls, bots, propagandists, and purveyors of misinformation becomes a tactic for legitimating one’s own idleness. These detectives turn the largely meaningless detritus of information overproduction into genuine evidence. They give rational meaning to the Internet—whose absurdity and meaninglessness might otherwise be intolerable to the people wasting away there.

Another way to redeem passive lurking is by making a clever joke that shows that you are above the whole thing. Twitter’s quote tweet function, especially, enables users literally as well as metaphorically to appear above the conversation and to cleverly one-up their opponents from this privileged position. The game, in effect, is this: Who can appear the most above it all? But the circumstances of posting—alone at the controls with no one around but everyone watching—all but guarantee that posts are alloyed with insecurity, however clever they might be. Like the too-clever detective whose need to exhibit command tends to result in more chaos, the clever poster’s attempt to stand above the medium’s stupidity merely reveals dependence on its meager pleasures. Cleverness devolves from the output of analytical acuity into a transparent show put on to allay the anxieties of passive consumption.

Kierkegaard identified something like this tendency in his critique of nineteenth-century cleverness. “Human beings,” he wrote in his journal, “become increasingly clever in an evil sense…even to the point of proclaiming in objective fashion the objective fact ‘that it is a rotten world’—proclaiming it in a way that flatters the world, the assembly they are addressing.” Kierkegaard was condemning a form of Christianity that, he thought, in its attempt to grasp, and condemn, the world from outside, ends up as a performance within the world—even, perhaps, a core part of its dysfunction.

Kierkegaard associated cleverness with what he considered inferior forms of life—the aesthetic and the ethical—in contrast to the genuinely religious life, which was for him not a matter of dogmatic belief but an embrace of the absurd and the suffering that characterizes human life. Both the aesthete and the moralist use forms of cleverness to evade such suffering. For the aesthete, repartee, seduction, and diversion provide relief from the absurd. The moralist rejects the aesthete’s life of amoral trivia by claiming to have figured out right and wrong. But for moralists, life eventually becomes a project in self-righteous rule following, and, in the most extreme cases, a series of crusades driven by unyielding conviction. For Kierkegaard, both attempts to secure a grip on things from outside—whether through enjoyment or censure—amounted to evasions designed to create the illusion of control and keep the absurd at bay.

Kierkegaard’s solution—taking a leap of faith ungrounded in any kind of rational control—may be unsatisfying. But Kierkegaard was asking his readers not to abandon the joys of wit or judgments of right and wrong, but instead to see their temptations and their limits. He was advocating a humbler form of cleverness that acknowledges the bounds of human reason and our tendencies toward evasion and self-deception. Rather than another step away from the world, such a cleverness might be a step toward genuine wisdom.