The Class Wounds of a Jewish Upstart

The Social Network is many things, but mainly it is a dazzling polemic. Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter Sign

The Social Network is many things, but mainly it is a dazzling polemic.

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Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher have performed an ingenious feat. They have used the old-fashioned medium of film, now under siege by the digital culture, to expose Facebook’s manipulative culture of seeming self-exposure. When Mr. Sorkin told New York magazine that “I don’t want my fidelity to be the truth; I want it to be storytelling,” he was cleverly turning the tables on Facebook. With its perpetual invitation to treat other people as levers in a game of social climbing and control, Facebook puts reality up for sale to the most potent imagination.

Any reproach Mr. Zuckerberg might make to Mr. Sorkin for fictionalizing his life and portraying him in an unflattering light would crumble under the irony of Facebook’s culture of self-fabrication. In the film, the Zuckerberg character’s retort to a lawyer who is deposing him in one of the two lawsuits he is involved in, a caustic quip to the effect that everyone lies under oath, reflects the profitable temptation to play fast and loose with the truth that is at the heart of Facebook’s universe.

But Mr. Sorkin is a master storyteller, and he is not simply laying bare Facebook’s disconnected claims of connectedness. He is portraying the very social complexity that would provoke someone to not only invent the sanitized, asocial context of Facebook, but impel someone to join it.

Much has already been written about the film’s opening scene, in which Zuckerberg is rejected and  humiliated by a girl, resulting in the Wound that leads to revenge and triumph. But the even more fundamental factor in the birth of Facebook is the social atmosphere of Harvard.

Or, to put it more precisely, Harvard is its social atmosphere. In Mr. Sorkin’s hands, the school’s fabled academic prestige is merely a pretext for the manufacture of perfectly tuned social animals, trained and conditioned to succeed at all costs. The social interactions of Mr. Sorkin’s Harvard kids are not conversations. They are impossibly self-conscious annotations of a conversation while it is happening, as if to act and speak spontaneously were to risk losing control and therefore to risk losing altogether. Each interlocutor has mastered the particulars of seeming to socially interact while secretly pursuing his own agenda. In Mr. Sorkin’s vision, Facebook’s calculating, commodifying framework is derived from the soulless social maneuvering that characterizes America’s most elite university, which is a training ground for American elites. On the one hand.

On the other hand, Zuckerberg doesn’t only embody the typical Harvard undergraduate’s consuming anxiety to win no matter what. He also embodies the typical Harvard outsider’s anxiety that he won’t win at all. Whereas the learned conventions of Harvard gentility hide the Darwinian panting, the unfiltered Zuckerberg flings the reality of that ruthless ambition in the face of social artifice. He is the Harvard Jew at war with Harvard’s WASP decorum.

I realize how anachronistic that distinction sounds. Harvard’s WASP mandarinate long ago gave way to formerly proscribed outsiders, in particular the Jews. That is, until Larry Summers arrived as the university’s president and incited everyone in Cambridge to once again think in terms of old guard and arrivistes. 

One of the most brilliant and provocative scenes in the movie has the Winklevoss twins requesting an appointment with Summers in the latter’s office. Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss want to convince Summers that Zuckerberg has stolen the idea for Facebook from them. They are legacy kids, princes of the rowing team and of WASP entitlement; the actor who plays them both is in fact a double for Al Gore. They consider themselves Harvard gentlemen, and they expect to be defended (i.e., rewarded) by Summers, the current protector of Harvard’s code of honor.

They are barking up the wrong tree. Summers–flawlessly played by Douglas Urbanski, a Hollywood producer and sometime right-wing radio jock–is one step removed from Tom Cruise’s militantly rapping, antically coarse Jewish producer in Tropic Thunder. Speaking bluntly, crudely, his thoughts seeming to fly into words without a social filter, he sounds just like Mr. Sorkin’s Zuckerberg himself, and he rebuffs the twins. The furtively grasping WASPs are thwarted by the openly grasping Jews.

The film’s crowning comic touch is to have Summers’ assistant in the office at the same time. The assistant, who sits frozen to her chair in a kind of servitude, happens to be a black woman, and you will remember that Summers’ downfall at Harvard was to imply that women were genetically inferior to men, as well as to alienate the entire African-American studies department by accusing it of a lack of academic accomplishment. At one point, Summers commands his assistant to “punch me in the face” in order to express his disgust with the twins’ expectation that he will take their side. That’s just what Harvard’s blacks and Harvard’s women ended up doing. For a moment, the film brings to the surface the bruising social scrimmage underneath Harvard’s polished conventions, as though to imply that Facebook’s abstract social relations were a response to these woundingly hypocritical ones.

Yet as it becomes clear that Zuckerberg did indeed screw the Winklevosses out of shared credit for the idea of Facebook, you sympathize with the twins’ invocations of Harvard gentlemanliness, even as you recoil from their empty sense of entitlement. Just as you sympathize with Zuckerberg’s assaults on phony Harvard decorum, even as you are repelled by the way Zuckerberg the Harvard outsider infuses Facebook with all of the Harvard insider’s calculation and insincerity.

There is far more to the Zuckerberg character than meets the eye. Critics have wrongly described him as emotionally dead. In fact, he triumphs because his subjectivity is stronger than anyone else’s. He has a firmer grasp of emotional fundamentals. Unlike the Winklevosses, who want merely to make a social network based on exclusiveness, Zuckerberg wants to build the network on a single obvious yet atomically powerful principle: lust. He knows (from the male point of view) that Harvard undergrads will log on to the site to find out which courses will lead them to the girls they want to sit next to. Like Marx and Freud, mutatis mutandis, this contemporary Jewish revolutionary deploys psychological insight against impermeable social structures. 

In The Social Network, Zuckerberg is yet another shocking Jewish outsider, yet another Jewish modernist shattering tradition, yet another Jewish argonaut of the unconscious. Marx thought he saw the mental destruction wreaked by capitalism’s creative forces. Freud thought he saw a war of all against all beneath the happy facade of the bourgeois family. According to Aaron Sorkin (a Jewish counterrevolutionary?), Zuckerberg perceived the ruthless will to gratify oneself behind the pleasant conventions of friendship.

We may not want to return to the Winklevosses, but revolutions, à la Marx and Freud, also entail new imprisonments. Zuckerberg has liberated us from the painful complexities of tangible social relations only to abandon us to the unknown and as-yet-unclassified terrors of digital “connections.” He has made it possible to “like” something about which we have no passion, all in the name of an unquenchable desire. He has invented the first social environment to serve the needs of the imperial, asocial individual.

The Class Wounds of a Jewish Upstart