¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Really, four Golden Globes for the The Social Network? Where to begin? The pathetically adolescent representations of women, and of Harvard’s social scene? The tedious plot that tries to make melodrama out of routine capitalist behavior (Rule #1 for capitalists: claim collective labor as yours alone – a corollary of which is that if there’s more than one of you, it’s pretty much inevitable that you’ll all end up suing the bejeezus out of each other)? The fact that Cringely’s Accidental Empires offers a vastly more accurate, psychologically insightful, and more entertaining picture of life in the heights of digital capitalism? I’ll admit I enjoyed bits of the movie, Jesse Eisenberg’s performance especially. But this much adulation just bugs me.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 OK, my annoyance is outsized, perhaps. So when I calmed down and really thought about it, I finally realized that my beef with The Social Network is of a piece with my feelings about a lot of American liberal legal dramas, ever since David E. Kelley’s Ally McBeal. And thinking even further, it’s not as much about the legal dramas themselves as it is about what their popularity tells me about American liberalism. Specifically, I’m bugged by what liberals think about law.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 I’ve been writing about liberalism and law in various ways throughout my career, but it’s also in this chapter of The Net Effect. Americans tend to be in love with a particular idea of law. Liberals tend to think it’s intriguingly complicated – hence all the “hard cases” upon which most of Sorkin’s drama hinges – where conservatives tend to think it is, or should be simple, i.e., there are good and bad people, and straightforward laws which should be applied in a straightforward way (which is why conservatives probably prefer Tom Clancy to Sorkin or Kelley). But both sides share a notion that the law is a set of ideal principles, a set of guiding abstractions, as if it were mathematics for social life. The RIAA thinks there’s an ideal of clearly bounded property, and so sharing music online is, very clearly, theft; open source advocates often speak as though their relevance to free speech is just as clearly self-evident.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 But really, law, for all its power, is murky, shifting, unstable. It’s more like culture than like math. But it’s culture with teeth: it kills people, it makes some rich and others poor, and so forth.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Here’s a quote from Foucault: “This type of [analysis] does not undertake to gauge history, unjust governments, or abuses and violence by the ideal principle of a reason or law; on the contrary, it seeks to awaken beneath the form of institutions and legislations the forgotten past of real struggles, of masked victories or defeats, the blood that has dried on the codes of law.”
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 All those clever legal actors (in both senses), are all actually busy disciplining and punishing, and being disciplined and punished themselves, and not just in relationship to partners and girlfriends. It’s gruesome and consequential stuff; there’s dried blood in their file cabinets. From Ally McBeal to the West Wing to Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg, to that whole crew of skinny neurotic meritocratically rewarded characters with great cheekbones that have been walk-and-talking across our screens for the past twenty years – they allow us to forget this. And it bugs me.