"My Blackberry is hooked up to my heart with wires, and to my testicles. I'm on Amazon all the time, and when my [book sale] numbers go down, I get palpitations. When they go up, I get an erection." So began a very therapeutic evening at the New York Public Library with cantankerous author and "cultural critic" Lee Siegel. These days, Lee is critiquing the Internet and its "thuggish anonymity" with his book Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In conversation with him was Heidi Julavits, a fun-looking intellectual blonde and editor of literary magazine The Believer, tweedy novelist and large-bearded writer Nicholson Baker, and the NYPL's Paul Holdengraber, who had the required German accent. They were very patient people, and by the end of the evening, all would appear thoroughly exasperated with him.
First of all, I walked in late and thought I was in the wrong place, because names of German philosophers were being bandied about, someone named Schivelbusch. The conversation quickly moved to art movements: Cubism, pointillism. Then, a Harvard-dapper guy in a jacket announced, "Steve Jobs is our Picasso, alas, and Microsoft is doing the work of relativity... Jobs's sole interest in culture is making money." It was Lee Siegel. I was in the right place.
Siegel has written for Slate and The New Republic. It was when he got a culture blog on the New Republic website when things started to go sour: anonymous commenters ganged up on him, responding to his columns by calling him everything from an "assclown" to an "asshole" to a "shithead" to finally, a "pedophile." Oh noes!
Sprezzatura, Siegel's very own anonymous Internet identity, was born. He railed against the commenters on his own blog as Sprezzatura (you can tell he's so pleased with himself for picking such a clever handle) before getting caught and temporarily suspended. And he isn't sorry!
"The New Republic said, "This is our new policy, we're losing money, the magazine's on the block... I was writing for this magazine for ten years, and all of a sudden, the terms had changed!" he exclaimed, raising his voice.
"Assclown is a really funny word, though" said the bearded one, Nicholson Baker, quietly.
As for Slate? "I wrote for Slate for the money," Siegel sniffed. "I couldn't wait to stop writing for Slate. Everything was quick, and everything was cute... there was hardly any time for reflection." Sounds... familiar.
Holdengraber posited that the Internet is both "a curse and a delight," and that Siegel's book is mainly about online culture as a curse: Siegel believes we are all isolated and disconnected, and the internet gives the false illusion of community. It's the first medium to serve the "isolated asocial elevated individual," as Siegel says in his book.
And he's right in that assertion. It is depressing being online all day. Anonymity can and does bring out the worst in people. Snide emails calling you a "white trash cunt and the worst writer in the history of this website" (for example!) will most definitely leave you rattled, wondering what the hell you're doing and why. In all these things, Siegel is right.
However, in the future, everybody will be called an assclown on their blog.