Tag Archives: Lee Siegel

Against the Machine

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob [Amazon, Bookshop (Random House new edition), Publisher (Random House new edition), Local Library] by Lee Siegel.

Siegel Against the Machine

I made two errors in selecting this book to read. First, I confused the author with the other Lee Siegel, Indologist and novelist, who I thought could have some interesting things to say on this topic, as any contemporary intellectual might. This Lee Siegel is however a journalist, reviewer, and culture critic with a history of work at Slate and prominent US print periodicals. Second, I failed to notice that the book was published in 2008, making it as much a matter of historical interest as contemporary analysis, with respect to circumstances on the internet. It was slightly prior to the first Avatar movie–which it instances in discussing the increasingly immersive qualities of media, after a rather puzzling and factually dubious digression about the effects of “method acting” on media culture (114).

Still, without much in the way of overt prognostication, the book was in some respects prescient. The “Electronic Mob” of the subtitle mostly predated the (today still steeply increasing) usage of “Twitter mob,” as that platform was then in its infancy and didn’t even rate a mention. Instead, the cutting-edge internet landscape in this book consists of now-matured (if not in some cases decrepit) platforms such as MySpace, YouTube (not yet acquired by Google), Second Life (now relevant as a de facto Metaverse beta trial?), eBay, and Match.com.

Seigel positions himself squarely against “Internet boosterism” that trivializes the social and cultural hazards of the ‘net while advancing claims for it to enhance freedom, democracy, “self expression,” and choice. He remarks convenience as the sole genuine benefit of ‘net use. He has a cast of “booster” futurologists and pundits whom he excoriates, and these include Alvin Toffler, Stuart Brand, David Brooks, and Malcolm Gladwell, all of whom are fair marks I think. But he seems to err in targeting Douglas Rushkoff–a conspicuous critic of ‘net “social media”–confusing some of Rushkoff’s diagnoses of internet culture with blithe endorsements. (On p. 84 Siegel doesn’t allow for the possibility that Rushkoff’s “eerie mechanistic idiom” and “outlandishness” might have been calculated to produce the negative reaction towards ‘net indoctrination that Siegel experienced reading it!) Like the old-line cyberpunk Rushkoff, Siegel objects to “the commodifying of ideas and emotions behind hyperbole about liberating avenues of fantasy and play” in characterizations of the internet (36).

He claims that the 20th-century broadcast media which addressed the masses were not yet the “mass culture for the first time” manifested in an internet which surrenders itself to the banalities of sensationalism, hyperbole, and fraud (74-9). He wants to draw a bright line where ‘net-driven culture leaves behind merited fame in favor of “viral” popularity, and he objects to the ubiquitous metaphor: “It depresses me to equate illness with success even in a quotation” (105). Ruminating on the internet devaluation of expertise in culture, Siegel uses medicine as his counterpoint: “That’s why you never hear about the Internet causing a ‘revolution’ in law or medicine … Professions and trades require training. You could not have the equivalent of Jay Rosen creating ‘citizen heart surgeons'” (139). He thought medicine was immune to the assault on expertise! And now a non-metaphoric pandemic virus has killed millions, many of whom refused the preventive measures supplied by establishment medicine, in favor of “doing their own research” on the internet.

Ever so briefly, Siegel brushes up against the hazard of epistemic closure, where “users customize their news sources so they only read news that suits their own interests and tastes” (109), which a reader might be tempted to dismiss as a mere extension of the general human failing of confirmation bias. He misses how this failing can become catastrophic when covertly reified through Google page rank, Facebook feed algorithms, and other subtle devices of surveillance capitalism. Indeed, the surveillance dimension escapes him altogether, and he doesn’t acknowledge the rational, defensive role of internet anonymity in the face of unregulated corporate control.

Against the Machine places a premium on its exploration of the subjective isolation of the ‘net user, with introspective passages about what it is like for Siegel to sit down at his computer and what it is that he is doing and trying to do when he interacts with the ‘net there. As a professional writer, it seems he was unable to perceive the extent–even in 2008–that the main interface for ‘net users had shifted from laptop to smartphone. The nowhere of the internet is now more everywhere than before. When he contrasts the transactional, ulterior nature of internet experience with the exploratory nature of a walk in the park or browsing in a bookstore (174-5), he seems not to have imagined that the internet could so colonize the quotidian that the walker in the park would be listening to a podcast, or the bookstore shopper checking her phone for a recommendation she had read online. (Nor does he seem to have experienced the aleatory pleasure–no matter how contrived–of “surfing” the ‘net!)

This book-length essay interestingly complements the recent and widely-hailed article in The Atlantic by Jonathan Haidt, “Why the Past Ten Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” Haidt’s piece is a retrospective on the damage done by social media, justifying and amplifying many of Siegel’s indictments, such as those regarding “virality,” the commodification of private life, the erosion of social institutions, and the magnification of hate and outrage. Haidt, like Rushkoff but unlike Siegel, also pays particular attention to consequences for the children of the 21st century, for whom the ‘net has been an inescapable ingredient of social and emotional development. Another point emphasized by Haidt (which Siegel touches far more incidentally) is the fact that ‘net discourse overrepresents the whitest, most affluent, and most ideologically rigid (whether “conservative” or “progressive”) participants.

No one encountering even just the title of Siegel’s book should expect anything other than a jeremiad. His defense of inherited media institutions (despite their complicity in the internet developments he decries) often makes him seem like a reactionary, and some of his arguments are a bit muddled. But most of his concerns have been borne out by the dismal developments of the last decade and a half, and the book is written thoughtfully enough that almost any given paragraph could be meat for earnest intellectual argument. Despite it being not at all the book I had thought I was reserving at my local public library, I thought it was still worth my time to read.

Love and Other Games of Chance

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Love and Other Games of Chance: A Novelty by Lee Siegel.

Seigel Love and Other Games of Chance

It is an unusual thing for me to review a book without having first read it cover-to-cover, but Love and Other Games of Chance is an unusual book. It is a piece of Lee Siegel’s para-autobiographical fiction project that comprehends Love in a Dead Language and Who Wrote the Book of Love?, and it details the life of “Siegel’s” alleged genetic father, who was raised in a circus family in California, advancing from snake-boy to sharpshooter, traveled the world from India to France, and recounted his many loves in a manuscript that this book purports to publish. 

The book is in 100 short chapters, keyed to a board for a game of snakes & ladders. The overt implication is that a reader might use a conventional die to “play” through the book. After reading Chapter 1, roll the die and move on the included board, suffering the effects of any ladder or snake thus reached. Then read the chapter for the resulting space, and continue. So I did. I probably read thirty to forty chapters in this fashion, mostly in an ascending sequence on a first rapid pass up the board before I encountered my first snake. 

Although I enjoyed everything I read, the book did not benefit from the lack of narrative continuity introduced by my reading procedure. As much as my attempt was in the spirit of the book, I would not recommend this method to other readers. After several months of intermittent engagement with the book, I’m shelving it to await a more conventional reading in the future.

Who Wrote the Book of Love?

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Who Wrote the Book of Love? by Lee Siegel.

Lee Siegel Who Wrote the Book of Love?

Who Wrote the Book of Love? coyly straddles the line between memoir and novel. Author Lee Siegel admits in a prefatory note regarding his book’s protagonist Lee Siegel that “so many of our experiences are … identical,” but there are parts of this book that are certainly fictional. I was so entertained by Siegel’s account of the volume In the Beginning: A Child’s Book about Grown-up Love by Dr. Isaiah Miller, that I mentioned it to my Other Reader, thinking that it must be real. But she quickly used the ‘net to demonstrate that the only traceable references to it originated in Siegel’s book! I maintain, though, that my confusion was understandable, given the many references to actual culture and events of the 1950s that fill this book.

The structure of the book also belies a certain measure of artifice if not invention, in that it has five chapters (corresponding to the five chapters in the lyric of “Who Wrote the Book of Love” by the Monotones, as well as the five chapters of Miller’s In the Beginning), each divided into two years, and thus perfectly spanning the integral decade of baby-boomer childhood.

Siegel’s childhood takes place in a well-off Jewish enclave in Beverly Hills. His father is a physician and his mother is an actress, and he attends the curiously-named Ponce De Leon Elementary School until delivered to Beverly Hills High School in “Chapter Five, She Loves You, and All Your Dreams Come True.” The confessions of a childhood quest for love and/or sex are complicated only slightly by Cold War paranoia and the vagaries of US mass culture. Siegel and his cigarette-smoking pals tutor each other ignorantly through puberty, the reader is introduced to each of the girls in the series of his infatuations, and the story culminates in the exposure of the erotic origins of his cacoethes scribendi.

I’ve previously read one other of Siegel’s novels (Love in a Dead Language) and one volume of his scholarship (Net of Magic), and he has yet to disappoint. [via]