Against the Machine is concerned with the way that the popularity culture of the internet leads people to package and perform their selves. Why is this a problem? Siegel's answer relies on a set of oppositions:
--between fabricated and authentic
--between public and private
--between calculated and uncalculated
--between crafted and uncustomized
--between popular and singular
--between childish and adult
His critique, then, operates by prioritizing the latter term over the former, without explaining why the latter is to be preferred. Here's an example:
You remember high school. Everybody wanted to be liked by everybody else ... Yet you didn't just mold yourself to other people's interests, talents, or skills. You used your own interests, talents, and skills to gravitate toward--and attract--people who shared them. And out of the conformist cliques based on some type of talent or skill would come the perfection of that talent or skill. Then came work, and accomplishment, and rewards, all of which reduced the pressure to conform almost to the point where it didn't exist . . . You became an adult.
I wonder who and when and what Siegel has in mind. He certainly doesn't have in mind the sociology of the fifties and sixties that worried about conformism and organization man. He doesn't have in mind Marcuse and his critique of repressive desublimation.Over the past few decades, there have been lots of layoffs throughout various sectors of the economy. I bet most of those folks don't feel like they got the rewards Siegel mentions, particularly those in blue collar jobs. And what about people who don't work outside the home? And even for those with recognition and rewards, isn't there pressure to conform? Pressure that we put on each other?
At any rate, Siegel thinks that popularity culture means conformism, people don't become unique adults but strive for popularity for its own sake. He writes:
And driving the gospel of popularity is an appeal to each one of us to replace the inflated icons with an inflated sense of ourselves--whether we have talent and discipline or not. Web culture's hatred of the famous figure often comes down to an indiscriminate mania for access to what other people have and we don't. It's not the gaseous star we dislike; it's the fact that he possesses a status and authority we feel we deserve.
Siegel refers to web culture, but the discussion leading to that point is primarily about television and film, and the awfulness of reality tv over and against earlier television like All in the Family and Roseanne that always had a social dimension (I wonder what he thinks about My Favorite Martian and The Brady Bunch). Here's the problem: Siegel writes as if the primary emotion in popularity culture were envy. If one thinks that the democratic impulse is necessarily enviousness, then one would agree with this. But what if the 'inflated sense of ourselves' is better than this, what if it is a kind of egalitarianism that recognizes the luck and contingency in who gets the goodies? Talent doesn't always rise to the top and the top are often not very talented. Another way to put it: the top doesn't deserve status and authority. Why should Siegel, or anyone, be threatened by the fact that millions want to sing and write and make art and take advantage of the opportunity to do this and to share what they've made? It must be that the threat to cultural authority is too scary. After all, no one forces us to watch American Idol and read blogs.
Siegel (suffering from authoritarian personality disorder, perhaps, or maybe his own inflated sense of himself?) thinks that
Culture needs authoritative institutions like a powerful newspaper; it needs them both to protect its critical, independent spirit and to make sure that culture's voices get heard in the louder din of more powerful economic and political entities ... a newspaper is a lot less biased--for all its commercial pressures--a lot less susceptible to hostile influences than the unchecked ego and will of a single blogger.
Notice the move from culture's voices in the plural to the unchecked ego of a single blogger. Siegel makes a newspaper comparable to one person rather than to multiple blogs. After Judy Miller it's pretty hard to take the point about bias seriously--and also unnecessary, as anyone with a bit of knowledge of the history of journalism knows, newspapers and broadsheets were formerly strictly identified with specific parties and points of view; the idea of objective journalism is a recent development that overlaps with the rise of journalism programs and a professional class of journalists.
In this vein, Siegel repeats a bunch of old criticisms: the internet hates expertise, blogs are not accountable for what they post, stuff changes too much. He even writes that 'the blogosphere gets nary a critical paw laid on it.' This is just nonsense, particularly sense none of the criticisms Siegel makes are original. One of the most annoying:
Blogs are in the vanguard of the popularity culture. They must sound more like everyone else than anyone else is able to sound like everyone else.
Siegel seems unaware of the fact that there are multiple groups, clusters, archipelagos, topics, or carnivals. He writes as if there were no difference betwee, say, Spurious and Gawker or Infinite Thought and Little Green Footballs.
I was going to try to recap his discussion of personality--but there's not enough of a there there. He simply repeats the old lament of people not being physically present to each other, which he says leads to a sense of unlimitedness of being a person without end. Why? Because "just being on line means that you are communicating with everyone in general." Not true with email or chat. Not true when commenting on a blog. Not true when writing a post--one doesn't presume an audience of everyone. But then again Siegel doesn't think that writing online is even writing--why, because "you lack the autonomy and detachment that accompany the act of writing." He doesn't provide any support for this point. It confounds my sense of writing, particularly insofar as I don't think of my own writing in terms of autonomy or detachment. The best writing days are those in which four or five hours vanish and I don't notice it.
I can't recommend Lee Siegel's Against the Machine. But I'll still probably write a few posts about it because the ways that it gets things wrong could be useful.
Two aspects of the book that I can't stomach are clearly matters of taste. Others might actually appreciate them. First, I hate the overuse of second person. Since Siegel's observations are so contrary to my own sense of things, the second person installs onto me a set of views I don't have. This gets increasingly annoying. Second, the book provides next to no evidence for empirical claims. For example, he claims that the fact that MySpace and YouTube are owned by giant conglomerates causes more and more "users on these sites" to "operate with an eye to material advantage." That is an empirical claim. But where is the evidence for it? I can believe it's true--but it needs to be supported with actual evidence.
In this same vein, there are all sorts of claims for how 'the audience' identifies with figures on a screen, all sorts of claims regarding identity, all sorts of claims implying that no one has ever criticized the internet. Siegel seems unaware that there are academic literatures, real existing empirical research, on these topics (he is aware of Alvin Toffler's futurism, Fred Turner's book on Stewart Brand, Chris Anderson's long tail, and Malcolm Gladwell's tipping point, which he hates with unfathomable intensity). Weirdly, Siegel's lack of substantial research mimics what he criticizes--the sloppy work and opining of bloggers and wikipedians--even as it fails to achieve the level of citation and detail that characterizes the best work by bloggers and wikipedians. One might excuse Siegel because he is a journalist. But if this is an example of "what criticism used to aspire to in terms of range, learning, high standards, and good writing," (a jacket blurb from David Rieff) then I'll take blogs any day.
Siegel's argument is simply structured. He takes the old debate over high culture versus popular culture and maps onto this debate a distinction between popular culture and internet culture or "popularity culture" (while Siegel's primary target is the internet and blogging, to make his case against popularity culture, he criticizes American Idol and pornography). The opposition didn't hold up then and it doesn't hold up now.
The last thing a budding young songwriter wanted to do in 1964 was write an imitation of "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
This is news to me. I had thought that the success of popular songs was formulaic, that producing a recognizable hook is challenging, and that imitating previous successes could lead to a hit.
But for Siegel popular culture is characterized primarily by originality, excellence (rooted in skill), authenticity, and authorization (attributes previously associated with high culture). Extending from television shows like Friends, popular musicians like Elvis, all the way to "abstract expressionism, cool jazz, film noir, beats, and hipsters," popular culture, for Siegel, is characterized by disciplined work, struggling toward originality, in the setting of a field clearly defined by predecessors and traditions. In contrast, rather than striving to be original, popularity culture aims toward reproducing originality. Siegel writes:
Whether in high or popular art, originality creates a new experience for its audience, whereas a quirk is a novel distraction ... A quirk attracts attention. Originality holds it.
What's wrong with this view? First, Siegel uses newness and stickiness as primary values despite the fact that he argues against these values throughout the book (he also has a hard time with this insofar as he acknowledges that collages and remixes can be original). Second, the idea of a new experience is too vague and slippery to be useful here, especially with respect to cultural productions. This is in part because, third, the copy is prior to the original. The presence of a copy is what makes an original an original.
Siegel's mapping of a distinction between popular and popularity culture onto the old binary of high and popular culture is accompanied by a second argument regarding identity and interiority. That is to say, the problem of popularity culture is a problem for subjects. Siegel is worried about the "packaging of interiority" an innovation that is the "driving engine behind web culture." Thus, one of his major foci in the book is the "Internet's standarized language of performing, packaged selves."
The notion of packaging interiority presumes the prior existence of a constant, manageable self or subjectivity. It is as if a blogger can capture and present herself to others, as if this self exists in a coherent way, that this coherence is prior to its expression, and that this expression is without ruptures and remainders. It seems like Siegel may be the last writer living in Brooklyn who has never been in analysis. Or that he's not read much psychoanalysis or sociology, for example, Goffman's discussions of the presentation of the self in everyday life; self-presentation, packaging, performativity, are not unique to the internet.
Siegel cites Christopher Lasch on the narcissistic personality and, not surprisingly, finds such narcissism rampant on the internet. So he depicts image uploading as an attempt to get noticed (rather than say a way to share vacation photos with friends) and "consumed" by strangers. He writes:
Your playful leisure time acquires the rational, calculating, self-conscious quality of labor in the marketplace. ... Demassification has made areas of privacy and intimacy that always stood apart from the marketplace part of it. The saddest personal experience, the most outrageous sex act, the most blatant insult, gets "produced" as a video clip or blog entry for worldwide consumption.
Siegel assumes that blogging and participating on social networking is only and necessarily undertaken as an act oriented to a 'worldwide audience.' He assumes, in other words, a mass media model for networked media. This is a problematic assumption for various reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the majority of teenagers participating in social networking sites restrict viewers to friends. Another reason the assumption is wrong: language differences, interest differences, topic differences. The kind of 'production' that irks Siegel is commodity production, the packaging of selves and experience. But the presentation of a self or experience, no matter how banal, is not necessarily commodity production (like, academic articles are not commodities; local theater productions are not commodities; stories written by school kids are not commodities).
In my next post, I'll take up the problem Siegel associates with packaged selves.
Table of Contents:
"We are all torturers now": Accountability After Abu Ghraib
Timothy V. Kaufman-Osborn
Necessary Interruption: Traces of the Political in Levinas
Lethal Freedom: Divine Violence and the Machiavellian Moment
Event or Exception?: Disentangling Badiou from Schmitt, or, Towards a Politics of the Void
Imagining Extraordinary Renditions: Terror, Torture and the Possibility of an Excessive Ethics in Literature
Critique of Abysmal Reasoning
Imperialism and the Intimate Self
Robert Lee Nichols
Escaping the Cult, Recuperating Victims
Reason and Revolution Redux: Antonio Negri's Political Descartes
Robert T. Tally
Why is it that blog posts and comments are so often described as "inflicted" on the rest of us? It's like 'the rest of us,' everyone in the entire world, are victims of what is written on a single blog, in a single post, in single thread. How is it that the world became the victim of bloggers, and not just some specific blog, blogger, or group of bloggers, but bloggers in the abstract inflicting themselves on a victimized people in the abstract?
The general language of victimization around bloggers inflicting their boring lives, their busy lives, their sex lives, their stupid pet videos, their speaking dates, their naked photos on the rest of us is not a version of the criticism of rapid political bloggers or snarky celebrity bloggers all working round the clock to attack their specific targets. It's different, a criticism that sees blogging per se as an activity that victimizes and harms regardless of the content. Harm is an element of the practice, embedded as a feature of the platform, like a link or tag.
Fortunately (for all of us, really, for the entire world), Zizek (a superhero if there ever was one) has provided the analytical tools necessary for grappling with this conundrum (maybe like Indiana Jones' whip, although Dr. Jones can't quite be classified as a super-hero; weird how Superman doesn't seem to use tools at all, like if tool use is somehow constitutive of being human then he is posthuman). Contemporary mediated subjects are fragile, narcissistic subjects, perpetually commanded to enjoy. Without stable points of symbolic identification, they tend to oscillate between the imaginary and the Real, crafting their ever adaptable, morphing, trendy identities yet necessarily under threat by the success, presence, enjoyment of others. Commanded to enjoy, yet unable to, they see others as enjoying when they can't. The others must be stealing their enjoyment...
So, if bloggers weren't inflicting their stupid stuff on the rest of us, the rest of us would be out enjoying, having a a great time (like the episode of the Simpsons when they didn't have television). We would be honing our writing, not reading the half-assed thoughts of idiots. We'd be making real art, not looking at stupid cat videos. We'd be spending time with our family, not chatting with strangers on social networking sites.
The structure of the language of infliction, then, rests on the premise of fragile, narcissistic people, threatened by the presence and enjoyment of others, preoccupied with the worry that others' lives are more meaningful or fun than theirs. And, when they read our blogs and discover that our lives are really not worth having been read about, then they are furious, outraged--why did you waste my time? Why did you take my precious?
It is clear in retrospect that 1968 did not bury European capitalist democracy or American imperialism. It did, however, set in train the death and burial of the Russian and Chinese revolutions and of communism in western Europe. A fine example, indeed, of the cunning of history.
Average CEO compensation grew by 3.5 percent last year despite slowing economic growth, falling profits and mass layoffs, according to an Associated Press review published Monday. The review found that the S&P 500 CEO received an average yearly compensation of $8.4 million, up $280,000 (an average raise that is the equivalent of six times the US median household income) during 2006.
The data render ridiculous those apologies for social inequality resting on the idea that CEO pay is linked to ‘performance’ in some meaningful way. The Associated Press review found that “CEO pay rose or fell regardless of the direction of a company’s stock price or profits.” The report also notes that half of the 10 best paid CEOs—who collectively hauled in half a billion dollars last year—presided over companies whose profits shrank “dramatically.”
A Senate investigation has concluded that top Pentagon officials began assembling lists of harsh interrogation techniques in the summer of 2002 for use on detainees at Guantanamo Bay and that those officials later cited memos from field commanders to suggest that the proposals originated far down the chain of command, according to congressional sources briefed on the findings.
The sources said that memos and other evidence obtained during the inquiry show that officials in the office of then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld started to research the use of waterboarding, stress positions, sensory deprivation and other practices in July 2002, months before memos from commanders at the detention facility in Cuba requested permission to use those measures on suspected terrorists.
The reported evidence -- some of which is expected to be made public at a Senate hearing today -- also shows that military lawyers raised strong concerns about the legality of the practices as early as November 2002, a month before Rumsfeld approved them. The findings contradict previous accounts by top Bush administration appointees, setting the stage for new clashes between the White House and Congress over the origins of interrogation methods that many lawmakers regard as torture and possibly illegal.
I can't do it anymore. I give up.
The demands of kids and work are too much and I fail at both. I'm getting nothing done and more and more calls and pressures and demands for something. Stupid stuff like 'a synopsis for the marketing people, the catalog' and 'just one more pass through' and 'an additional bibliography' and 'find a reviewer for this one' adds up; when each takes at least an hour, where can I take the hour from? Even friends are too much to bear: here, just read this one thing; or, when you have an extra hour, take a look at this. WTF? Extra hour?
Last week: I'm 10 minutes late picking up a kid from a party--the last parent there. My kid in front of the building in the dark, waiting, while the host parent keeps asking where I am. This week: in and out of meetings to a get a kid to soccer. 3 minutes after I've dropped him off, practice is canceled. Someone else, annoyed, brings him home. But I'm in a meeting--which also means I can't make some informational session on advanced math at the middle school. Yesterday: I scramble to get dinner together so that the kids can eat between 6:30 and 7:00--the time gap between practices and rehearsals. I get a call at 6:20--there's pizza. We'll eat here. Then ten minutes later: can you bring money for the pizza?
My fourth grade daughter wanted to walk home from school. It's a half day. 45 minutes after school was out, she wasn't here. I panicked. But only really lost it after she showed up.
Anyone who does not support this measure is a fascist. I mean this seriously and literally. The true measure of where the US as a country is is now before the House.
Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) introduced 35 articles of impeachment against President George W. Bush late on Monday during a speech on the House floor.