13 Apr

Digital Equality and the Untuning of the World

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 04/13/09

Lee Siegel's most recent book, Against the Machine, is a pointed exploration of themes MARS HILL AUDIO addresses frequently: the centrality of the sovereign self in modern culture (and the dehumanizing effects of that sovereignty), the way technologies rearrange social relationships without our noticing the changes (or their consequences), and the erosion of forms of cultural authority. These are concerns that have emerged in other essays by Siegel, who has contributed regularly for the last decade to The New Republic, The Nation, and Slate. In this book, subtitled Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, Siegel's concerns about the consequences of cultural carelessness seem more closely defined, if sometimes overstated.

Siegel's range of cultural criticism is broad; his 2006 book, Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination, included pieces about J. K. Rowling, Saul Bellow, Jack Nicholson, Jane Austen, The Sopranos, and Dante. That same year, he wrote a cover story for The New Republic about Oprah Winfrey, Thank You for Sharing, a brilliant analysis of how Oprah had become such a powerful public figure by showcasing themes that resonate with certain dominant cultural vibrations. Having acquired cultural influence by reflecting certain values, her public presence further reinforces those vibrations, which snowballs her to remarkable social influence.

In the Oprah article, Siegel discussed two interrelated cultural patterns: the narcissistic preoccupations encouraged by the modern elevation of the self at the center of the moral universe, and the erasing of objective hierarchies of significance that accompanies that enthroned self. In Siegel's analysis, a large proportion of Oprah's diverse range of guests are united by their stories of struggle and survival, of suffering and growth—stories that serve a therapeutic purpose for viewers anxious about navigating the shoals of their own experience. While stories of growth through suffering sound redemptive, Siegel suggests that Oprah's paradigmatic stories encourage personal growth on terms established autonomously by each person. In other words, each of us sets out to become the self we choose to be, on our own terms. Our actions are meaningful not in the context of some overarching moral framework, but as episodes in the construction of that self-authenticating self. And we can find encouragement for negotiating obstacles in our way by empathizing with the plucky and resourceful guests on one of Oprah's comfy chairs.

But Siegel worried that a crucial capacity for moral reflection and evaluation was undermined by the empathy marathon in Oprahworld, which seems to be

a kingdom of mere sensations, in which no experience has a higher—or different—value than any other experience. We weep and empathize with the self-destructive mother, we weep and empathize with Sidney Poitier, we weep and empathize with the young woman dying of anorexia, we weep and empathize with Teri Hatcher, we weep and empathize with the girl with the disfigured face, we weep and empathize with the grateful recipients of Oprah's gift of a new car to every member of one lucky audience, we weep and empathize with the woman burned beyond recognition by her vicious husband. In the end, like the melting vision of tearing eyes, the situations blur into each other without distinction. They are all relative to your own experience of watching them. The fungibility of feeling is really a reduction of all experience to the effect it has on your own quality of feeling.

The implication here is that all powerful feelings are self-authenticating. According to the cultural ethos exploited and sustained by Oprah (and countless others), no one need regard any feelings as disproportionate, misdirected, or disordered.

The socially destructive effects of narcissism (and of the idea that the self is a project we create autonomously) are also examined throughout Against the Machine. In a chapter called The Me Is the Message, Siegel recalls Christopher Lasch's 1978 The Culture of Narcissism, and Lasch's concern about a rising tide of confessional writing evident in American culture. As Siegel notes, Lasch was worried that such self-preoccupation would create an inner sense of emptiness by exalting the self and cutting it off from reality. Such isolated self-scrutiny, packed with psychiatric clichés, made people so self-conscious that they felt as though they were performing their existence rather than living it. Siegel believes that what Lasch saw was the initial edge of a social revolution, and argues that the way Internet technologies have developed has enabled the advent of the first social environment to serve the needs of the isolated, elevated, asocial individual.

In Siegel's view, the connections made possible by this technology do not compensate for the disconnections it encourages:

[T]he Internet creates a vast illusion that the physical, social world of interacting minds and hearts does not exist. In this new situation, the screen is all that is the case, along with the illusion that the screen projects of a world tamed, digested, abbreviated, rationalized, and ordered into a trillion connected units, called sites. This new world turns the most consequential fact of human life—other people—into seemingly manipulable half presences wholly available to our fantasies. . . . What kind of idea do we have of the world when, day after day, we sit in front of our screens and enter further and further into the illusion that we ourselves are actually creating our own external reality out of our own internal desires? We become impatient with realities that don't gratify our impulses or satisfy our picture of reality. We find it harder to accept the immutable limitations imposed by identity, talent, personality. We start to behave in public as if we were acting in private, and we begin to fill our private world with gargantuan public appetites. In other words, we find it hard to bear simply being human.

Late in the book, Siegel describes the quasi-gnostic effect of Internet communications, observing that when you are online,

you don't have to be communicating with anyone in particular. Just being online means that you are communicating with everyone in general. . . . There are no physical reminders of where the other presences online begin and end. There are no concrete inhibitors. And because you are alone, without bounded people, or a definite environment, or delineated circumstances—because there is nothing to remind you that you yourself have limits—you can 'express' yourself out of the infinite conceptions you have of yourself. . . . Such absolute liberation from constraints is why anonymity is so widespread on the Internet, and why everything on the Internet tends toward anonymity: the hidden solitude of sitting before the screen, the spectral half-person presence of being online, the sense of yourself and of other people as having no boundaries. After expertise, authority, and merit have fallen away as obstacles, identity remains the last barrier to the vicarious, acquisitive, totally accessing, fully participating Internet will. Anonymity, you might say, is the Internet's ultimate identity. If you are not who you say you are, you can be anyone you wish to be.

Boundaries are a central idea in Siegel's book; not only the boundedness of identity and personal experience, but the proper boundedness of ideas. Early in the book, he observes that the Internet ideal of giving everyone a voice begs the question of whether everyone deserves—in every setting—the same hearing. The digital mechanisms and social structures that give everyone a voice can also be a way to keep the most creative, intelligent, and original voices from being heard.

Boundaries (along with hierarchies) are also implicitly in play when Siegel discusses the difference between being knowledgeable and being well-informed.

[K]nowledge means you understand a subject, its causes and consequence, its history and development, its relationship to some fundamental aspect of life. But you can possess a lot of information about something without understanding it. An excess of information can even disable knowledge; it can unmoor the mind from its surroundings by breaking up its surroundings into meaningless data.

In Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver observed that many modern people wish to know the truth, but they have been taught a perversion which makes their chance of obtaining it less every day. This perversion is that in a just society there are no distinctions. A just society—the conventional wisdom has it—will tolerate no elites, let alone honor them. This egalitarianism and its repudiation of cultural authority is the consequence of the blogosphere Siegel finds most repulsive. The Internet, Siegel claims, has created a universal impatience with authority, with any kind of superiority conferred by excellence of expertise. Created is an unwarranted verb: Weaver saw this impatience in the 1940s. But the Internet has certainly aided and abetted this tendency; its economic, social, and technical capacities make it ever easier for sheer popularity to replace excellence as the sole criterion of cultural value.

Siegel's greatest sin in the eyes of his critics is his insistence that culture should not be democratic. When he asserts that Not everyone has something meaningful to say, he is dismissed as undemocratic, an enemy of equality. But, as Richard Weaver warned, an undefined equalitarianism is the most insidious idea employed to break down society. . . . Thomas Jefferson, after his long apostleship to radicalism, made it the labor of his old age to create an educational system which would be a means of sorting out according to gifts and attainments.

One other observation of Weaver's seems to resonate with Lee Siegel's critique of bloggers, especially those who proudly dismiss the dinosaur of mainstream media as antiquated and enemies of universal access. Weaver noted I would mention here the fact, obvious to any candid observer, that 'equality' is found most often in the mouths of those engaged in artful self-promotion. These secretly cherish the ladder to high designs but find that they can mount the lower runs more easily by making use of the catchword. We do not necessarily grudge them their rise, but the concept they foster is fatal to the harmony of the world.

Posted by Ken Myers on 4/14/09