A Brief Descent into Meanspiritedness, but Not Without Purpose

Those folks over at uber.nu really bug me. The bitterness that fuels that site is almost beyond belief, the deep contempt they hold for everyone else on the web, especially everyone better-known than them. If the site has a message, this is it: we are just as funny and smart as various other people you probably know more about, but not only that, we're more cynical also! And since those other people are famous for their cynicism, let us be famous, too! Shower that fame, that money, that gratuitous sex upon us! And yet we are not famous, oh woe. Perhaps we are deep losers, as loserly as those we mock. Yes, we are stupid and unimaginative, but no more so than Suck and Feed and McSweeney's, see how brilliantly we lay bare the shabbiness of everyone, sparing not even ourselves. That part about the fame and the money and sex is just a joke, just a way of imitating their irritating style, we're the only ones beyond that foolishness. So why are those jerks getting all the attention?

Round and round it goes, the cycle of bitterness and loathing. Very Dostoyevskian, actually. In a simpler day, there would have been an easy dismissal for these folks: that they were self-obsessed parasites barnaclinging to the hulls of genuine cultural ships. That case can't be made, though, for the reason that the sites and personalities the Uberites are going after are themselves cultural lampreys, after a fashion, sites that specialize in a self-conscious tearing down of anything more well-established themselves. To be precise, the very reason that the Uberites are exempt from this criticism -- that their targets are also self-conscious media snipers, and therefore not on any higher plane of existence requiring ethical defense -- makes clear why this argument has always a bad one: McSweeney's and Suck are, by and by, worthwhile endeavours. There is room in the media landscape for these strange predators, picking off the weak and the elderly from the mass media herds, and the argument that Uber's very form renders it suspect falls apart when seen in this light.

Rather, I think, the problem is that McSweeney's and its ilk are doing something at least marginally interesting and useful and that Uber is just so much cultural navel lint because of this fact: the content of its criticism is identical to that which it criticizes, which makes the criticism itself pointless. Uber is not a value-add, there's nothing new to see here, just some slacker-ass whining. The self-deprecating ironic detachment-cum-ironic-mimesis that motivates the first-generation sites is something new; there is a break between imitator and imitated, something qualitatively different. This is Dave Eggers' contribution to modern arts and letters, I think: he brings an unsparing introspection to his own self-obsessed relationship to modern existence. There's a hall-of-mirrors empty quality to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, yes, but this is also part of the point, he advances also the interesting -- and I think genuinely novel -- thesis that this self-obsessed desire for self-fulfilment through the reflected introspection that fame offers is the natural limiting tendency of life these days. The entire population of the world and their collective attention and overlapping connections ("the lattice" is the term Eggers uses) is to become the required mediating term in his self's knowledge of itself.

It's damn hard to add anything more to this line of analysis, and say something more in the same vein. The mcsweeneys.net site adds something new: it drives towards this synthesis, holding the ironic Self and the serious Other together by engaging in straight-faced parody, perfect imitation, reaching for every joke it can while refusing to admit that there is a joke. You learn something about humor, about the world, about style, about self-consciousness, by reading mcsweeneys.net. And among parodies of McSweeney's, the mcsweeneys.org site adds something new: it picks up on the self-annihilatory tendencies latent in the mcsweeneys.net site, the rhetorical gap between McSweeney's and the Eggers self-analysis, and it completes the McSweeneys's statement, pushes things forward to the point where authorship and identity come unbound, where the perfect sincerity that McSweeney's professes destroys itself utterly. By reading mcsweeneys.org, you realize something about mcsweeneys.net, about everything you learned or thought you learned from reading it.

So while it is possible to add something to this whole "discussion," as it were, Uber.nu adds nothing, other than, perhaps, a dash of the color red. If you rip into a regular celebrity in this way, you perhaps are saying something interesting, you are bringing outside perspective and self-awareness to a situation perhaps devoid of useful introspection. If you rip into Dave Eggers in this way, you are saying nothing interesting, because Eggers himself has already said it about himself. And this is ultimately the problem: it's more fun to read Eggers than it is to read the Uberites, whether the subject is the world at large or Eggers himself. He's a better writer, more perceptive, more articulate, and fundamentally, far far more original. Say whatever else about Eggers you will, it's more than just an issue of relative fame that Eggers doesn't need to write about the Uber.nu people in order to find something interesting to say -- whereas they can't even find something to say when they write about Eggers.

More generally, this is an important issue, and one I'm trying to put together a new set of thoughts on: what is the right way forward. There is no way to make sense of modern media, of modern culture, of modern politics or economics or society or anything, which does not acknowledge and deal with issues of irony and sincerity, of self-consciousness and parody, of the strange dynamics of self-affecting systems and the uneasy interplay between positive and negative feedback. My old thoughts on the matter, while still close to my core of belief, aren't so useful in the new context of the world. People like Eggers and House of Leaves author Mark Z. Danielewski and Weird Like Us author Ann Powers are so redefining the landscape that a lot of my old thoughts about transcendence in the small through an embrace of irony seem, well, sort of outdated.

My latest thinking -- and this is all extremely tentative, let me say up front -- is that now is the time, more than ever, for extremely clear-headed thinking. Not because we need to embrace simplicity and repudiate irony (sorry, David Foster Wallace, I still don't buy your claims); there is no way back, never has been. But rather, because we've brushing up against the perfect vanishing-points of Eggers-level ironic introspection, I think we're as close to the black hole as we need to get in order to pull off this gravitational slingshot. It's time to start paying very close attention to the exact workings of this stuff, of the dynamics involved, of the levels of representation and self-representation. Because if we can sort out enough of the details -- and these things are, I'm discovering, almost painfully difficult to think through, due to all the loops and false loops and self-reference -- we can start coming up with rutters through these tricky shoals, start codifying and understanding the tactical use of irony, start trying to use these amazingly complicated but also amazingly powerful forces to accomplish that which needs to be accomplished. Douglas Rushkoff's Media Virus is the book I've read that comes closest to expressing what I'm thinking of, but his actual examples and recipes for action were orders of magnitude too simple. The point is that working to cause positive change in a system which is profoundly self-affecting in a thousand different ways will require extraordinarily subtle analysis, and that I think we're reaching the point where that analysis is both profoundly necessary and perhaps almost possible.