First Person

Lee Siegel, author of Against the Machine, introduces "First Person" by discussing what it means to write in the first person on the internet

November 1, 2007

There’s a passage in my forthcoming book, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, where I describe the first-person nature of blogs as “a firewall against sympathetic feeling.” So perhaps I should be super-cautious about appearing on a blog called “First-Person.” But one of the main arguments of my book is that the first-person isn’t what it used to be.

Nowadays, the individual has learned to retail his privacy as a public performance or a public transaction. The self-dramatizing style of the memoirist has become the dominant literary expression of our day, escaping from the pages of books into garrulous emails, blogs, and videoblogs. We don’t intimately confide our interiority. We carefully craft it for public consumption. We bring our selves to market the way farmers bring heads of lettuce to market.

The packaged self has been a long time in the making; technology didn’t create this new condition. But on the internet, technology has engineered an ideal environment for the packaged self to thrive. It has manufactured a place where all activity – even play – is submerged in the work of self-selling to such a degree that it becomes nearly impossible to avoid the realms of business and commerce.

My research for Against the Machine brought me to online venues like Ebay, Jdate, and Second Life, where my avatar, Delbert, found himself behind the wheels of a sports car, which he promptly smashed into the side of a mountain. It also got me to some sites that are, in the parlance of the medium, NSFW (for research!). But it also allowed me to trace this transformation through a half-century of “offline” cultural evolution: from some very prescient postwar thinkers to the shallow boosterism of the so-called "futurists"; from the rise of method acting and the close-up to the advent of reality television; from the business-first cheerleading of some of today's most popular journalists to the still relevant skepticism of critics like Christopher Lasch. Researching this book, thinking about it, and writing it certainly allowed me to escape my own first-person for a while and to throw myself happily into the world of ideas and their consequences, and to confront The Machine -- that confluence of business and technology that serves the interests of business and technology, while moving us further away from the precious human values that sustain us.

By the time I was finished, I was able to see an alternative destiny for the Internet, a day when the Internet itself would be used to combat all the glib, slick, utilitarian forces that are now shaping it. A day when the Internet would retain its speed, and relevance, and pith, yet fulfill its promise of greater intimacy and humanity instead of betraying it; a day when journalists could stop worrying about being left behind by technology and speak truth to their modems; a day when technology would be an aid to cultivating your private self, rather than a snare for losing it. Internet users of the world unite! You have nothing lose but (some of) your links.

One other thing. I started off by saying that the first person isn’t what it used to be. For the most part, that is. It’s been my good fortune to find a home for my own first-person with a publisher that gets the present moment in all its perplexity and complexity, while approaching it under the aspect of a very old sensibility. A culture critic, if he wants to be taken seriously, has to be careful about the company he keeps. I’m happy and proud to see my “I” appear on Spiegel and Grau’s inaugural list, where intimacy and humanity seem very much alive.

Lee Siegel is the author of Against the Machine, coming January ‘08.