The Deep Space of Looking Smart
Is there a connection between looking smart and being smart? To dress well requires a certain awareness of how to put articles together. But is there a science to it? Or is it merely a quality that some people possess, while others do not, like intelligence?
You only need to look at the outfits of a college faculty to realize that self-awareness in the physical sense might not be the forte of academics. How strange to be so keen to know the world, but so dim with respect to looking in the mirror. Even Socrates’ self-knowledge was displayed via an unsightly “knowledge” of his own “ignorance” (perhaps because it was Plato who designed him).
In any case, looking smart has little to do with content. But, it would not be wise to conclude that it is therefore dumb. You cannot simply select a good look from a catalogue; you must also be good at looking to know what to select. You must have a heightened ability to see—to be an augur of “styling.” Styling a garment taps into its hidden destiny.
The praise of “looking smart” is given on the suspicion that behind an outfit there lies an intelligent author—someone who understands design. The author’s agency is not located in any piece of the outfit, but somehow in the carriage of the whole—the way it is worn.
While this way—la mode—may be the lone cog that moves the fashion industry, to “look smart” in academia is actually an insult. Like the black turtleneck, elbow patches, and thick glasses of a stodgy intellectual, looking smart bears a whiff of pretentious narcissism.
The problem is supposed to be that external qualifications are a poor indicator of internal power. You “can’t judge a book by its cover.” But this is itself a fashion statement. Indeed, the trope that heady intellectuals have no time for fashion is most powerfully hypocritical, when they shallowly judge the depth of others by a list of accessories: degrees, articles, and facts.
Academia is as focused on the phenomenon of the supposed “intellect” as the fashion industry is focused on the phenomenon of the supposed “body.” You could argue that the two are in reality not separate worlds at all, and that their separation is based on a fashionably-misguided intellectual distinction.
Then again, even in a very complicated article, the guts of a thought are accessed in an indirect fashion. The point is to elicit a kind of understanding in the reader—an understanding that isn’t in the text, just as the selection of the appropriate textile isn’t in a closet. Collecting facts is in this way similar to collecting shoes. The point is not the collection, but how it is presented. Select your facts and your shoes wisely, for selecting is a power that is not equivalent to the result.
What has this to do with space? Like the power of the intellect, space is not something you can hold in your hand or point to. It is not a fact. It is the room that makes possible the synapse of recognition—a deep space between lines and threads that grounds appearance, but never appears.
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