Thursday, February 21, 2008

Sprezzatura & Lee Siegel

Have you ever seen these two together in the same place?

As city-states in the fifteenth century increasingly came under control of single families, the public man of Cicero was replaced by the figure of a courtier, someone who needed to defer to the ruler in public and wield their political influence behind the scenes. This covert power was symbolized in part by sprezzatura, ‘according to which the talented and humanistic learned person should make his or her accomplishments appear to be the outcome of unstudied nature, not art.’

The term sprezzatura stood out to me from an entirely different realm. Almost three years ago, New Republic columnist and blogger Lee Siegel was suspended and then fired for posting strident defenses of himself under the disguised persona of Sprezzatura. This was seen as a lapse in ethics, yet even today, as Siegel debuts a book written while on suspension, the exact nature of these lapses isn’t altogether clear.

Unfortunately, the blogs in question have been deleted, but reports say that Sprezzatura’s ‘haughty, intemperate, somewhat panicked tone was a dead giveaway, particularly when coupled with his eerie allegiance to the blog-master ("You couldn't tie Siegel's shoelaces").’ As Siegel struggled to defend himself, one wonders exactly how readers were mislead by this false persona. ‘In the two online discussions where Sprezzatura most prodigiously manifested himself, he was, both times, busted by his fellow posters. "I would say with 99% confidence that 'sprezzatura' is a Siegel alias," declared a poster on one thread, while another crowed, "We see you, Lee. We see you."’

Bizzell and Herzberg write in The Rhetorical Tradition that during the Renaissance, the ‘historical relativity of truth began to be noticed in the study of classical texts’ and for these humanists, ‘rhetoric becomes the means by which history helps to shape usable truth. To be actively useful, the responsible citizen must express philosophical insights in language that is convincing in contemporary circumstances.’

And in a sense, isn’t this what Siegel was doing? His job was to write columns and blog entries that are convincing and generate discussion. By presenting an alter ego that is a supporter of his rhetoric, doesn’t he just create a self-fulfilling model? A reader would read a column and then see support for this opinion from Sprezzatura, and likely others. That reader might think, ‘This is supposed to be convincing, and it has worked on these people, so I guess it is good rhetoric.’ Siegel is shaping truth in this manner.

Sprezzatura also seems to be an apt alias for Siegel. He wields his power behind the scenes, disguising his identity, to further persuade readers that his position is the correct one, and that he is qualified to speak on these subjects.

I’m not trying to excuse his behavior; I think it generates many questions about internet ethics. People have gone to prison for trying to make money this way, esp. in the stock market. But this would seem to be one of the first battles in the ‘historical relativity’ of our times, and thus one of the first battles on what is truly good rhetoric in the internet age.

1 comment:

Deb said...

Ah, I'm replying quickly today while at the same time saying that your response was engaging and left me wanting more. It does not seem to be fully developed, in part because I'm unaware of the story (and it would be great to find some of the posts). So, even a bit more background or context could have helped. That said, I could say more but won't in order to demonstrate that I get it--why sometimes we don't always do things as fully as we would like.

Your comments at the end about the nature of such discussions is important. I think there is a need for studying commenting behaviors. This is one difference from f-2-f: I can take on 2 personas at once online in a way that I cannot in a public forum, such as an event.

Interesting. Makes me think. Wanted a bit more.