J’accuser: Lee Siegel

Photo: Christian Oth

It’s been more than a year since pugnacious cultural critic Lee Siegel was temporarily suspended from The New Republic for posting anonymous comments on its blog, under the name “Sprezzatura,” defending himself against other commenters (“brave, brilliant, and wittier than [Jon] Stewart”), and he says he’d rather you forget the episode. But it takes up a chunk of the introduction to his new book, Against the Machine, an impassioned polemic attacking the culture of the Internet—including, of course, its easy anonymity. He spoke with Boris Kachka.

Is this something you wanted to address before the whole “Sprezzatura” thing?
I’ve been wanting to do it for a couple of years. I brought up the idea of a book with my agent; she wasn’t interested. At the time, everyone was very wary of taking on the Internet.

But won’t some readers consider this book sour grapes, in light of what happened?
I just wish people would get over the whole thing. I don’t think it’s really that big a deal, in the context of everything else that’s happening in the culture. But I’m glad you brought that up, because I didn’t use Internet anonymity to pursue a secret agenda, I used it to protest anonymity, and no one wants to concede that to me. I did it as a prank, and a provocation, strictly out of exasperation. By the time someone said that I wanted to fuck a child, I thought, you know, enough of this.

All right, so what else do you have against the Internet?
I love the Internet, I’m on it all the time. I couldn’t have written the book so quickly without it. But I think that its claims for greater social connectivity are a sham. I don’t think it’s making people more connected than they were before, not at all.

But still, when you say shopping on eBay is “an absolute, totalizing experience that fills your mind and appropriates your will,” isn’t that taking it a bit too far? I’d rather be on eBay than at most malls.
There are times when I love to go out and buy myself a beautiful new shirt. If you’re going to blow off some steam, to try on a couple of nice jackets—you’re in a social experience. You can daydream, talk on a cell phone …

You’re clearly no fan of YouTube, either. Is this an attack on amateur participation in the culture?
I love the idea of the amateur—that’s what popular culture is all about. But what the Internet’s doing is professionalizing everyone’s amateuristic impulses. Everybody wants to jump into the big time and be recognized and “go viral.” They’re not taking the time to just have fun. There’s so much caution, so much derivation.

So how would you improve the Internet?
There needs to be a Pauline Kael of the Internet. People need to write critically about this thing. Look at Virginia Heffernan’s column in the Times Magazine. Isn’t it ridiculous? It’s just one pandering hymn after another, and you don’t have that when people write about film, TV, books, art, theater. It’s almost as if she’s been told by the marketing people that this is the niche they should appeal to now.

You spend a lot of time in the book attacking other writers. Are you scrapping for another fight?
Part of the problem nowadays is that people don’t mix it up with anybody. The idea is to play it cool and let people go negative, as they say in politics, and just let it peter out because in ten minutes something else will come along. I would love it if someone attacked me substantially—not hurling the Sprezzatura stuff.

Wasn’t not letting things go what got you into trouble in the first place?
I react very badly when mediocrity throws a tantrum of entitlement. And that’s what those people were doing.

Siegel on Everyone Else

Malcolm Gladwell
“[The Tipping Point] popularized the idea of popularity as the sole criterion of success … Adapted for television as American Idol.

David Brooks
“Actually believes, on the evidence of mere appearances—as if hypocrisy did not exist!—that a businessman devoted to making money can at the same time be a person revolted by a life spent pursuing money. Brooks rested his argument on the flimsiest of premises … ”

Douglas Rushkoff
“Paid to tell corporate executives who live in terror of an uncertain future exactly what the future requires. But why are they in terror of the future? Because people like Rushkoff tell them that the future consists solely of the Internet, whose true esoteric nature only Rushkoff can explain.”

Steven Johnson
“Rushkoff’s rival techno-hustler … locates, with pretentious adolescent verve, the sources of the Internet in the Victorian novel, medieval urban planning, and silent film … ”

Wired co-founder John Battelle
“Can only understand Veblen in the context of commerce and the Web.”

Ana Marie Cox
“When [Cox] wanted to draw attention to herself, she used the word ‘cunt’ to make a point.”

Slate.com (after the Washington Post Company bought it)
“Penetrating … commentary has given way to a pandering tone of adolescent caricature and distraction.”

Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob
Spiegel & Grau; $22.95

J’accuser: Lee Siegel