ROBERTS To me one of the fascinating things about The Approval Matrix is not only that it works so well but also that it has this despicable/brilliant dimension. This is fascinating because they’re not opposites, obviously. But also because despicable is an unusual word to see in highbrow American journalism.
NUSSBAUM All credit to Adam Moss for people who like and dislike the word despicable. Who find it both brilliant and despicable.
ROBERTS I’m saying that people usually don’t pass moral judgment. Are you saying that despicable is just a synomym for idiotic or awful?
NUSSBAUM To me, what despicable does is it says there is something outrageous about this and not entirely serious about the judgment. Because, the truth is, to me the voice of The Matrix, much more than the rest of the Culture section, sounds like people mouthing off in a bar. When you get in one of those crazy High-Fidelity-like debates about something. Where you say, “Don’t you think that this is a tiny bit better than the other thing?” These two characters on a TV show, one of them is two notches better than the other one.Â Somebody says: I just can’t abide anything from that genre, it’s completely despicable. It has the voice to me of people being, hopefully, witty blowhards. To me, despicable kind of refers to them.
ROBERTS An underreported category.
NUSSBAUM Yes, the witty blowhard! The thing signalsâ€”because you can’t judge things so literally, on a mathematical chartâ€”it both displays our judgment about things and to me slightly undercuts it. Because part of the point of The Matrix is for people to argue about the placement of things. Or object to them. Because that’s what happens. If you hand it to somebody, nobody’s going to agree with everything. Often what they disagree with is not the literal placement of things but the placement of things in relationship to one another. For instance, wait a second, a Sondheim musical is more highbrow than this particular HBO drama. And then there’s this weird discussion: Why is that? What constitutes more highbrow? Or, often, my favorite thing: Early in The Matrix, one of the fun things to do was to create a something like a constellation. . . .
ROBERTS You mean, if you connect the dots, it makes a shape? Is that what you mean by constellation?
NUSSBAUM No, not a literal constellation like that. I mean a bunch of things that all cluster together and are all being judged in relation to one another. This was several years ago and we had a tiny cluster that was essentially Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Lindsey Lohan, these starlet types who had been caught in various scandals. They were all in lowbrow/despicable but they were in slightly different sections next to each other. Lindsay Lohan was slightly more highbrow than Nicole Richie and a little bit more brilliant. They were funny in relationship to one another. This was at the point when Sternbergh, a couple months into it, he started being the top editor. And his sensibility has been really important to it. He was overseeing it when there was an end-of-the-year matrix thing. There were a lot of Jude Law movies out that year. So it was Jude Law’s face right in the middle of The Matrix and then four of his movies were right around him, each of them in one of the quadrants. The bizarre thing is — they were weirdly accurate. I’m trying to remember what they were. The Closer was highbrow/despicable. God, what did he make that year? He had literally done four movies that you could kind of justify as being very close to one another but each crossing into a different category. I always enjoyed when we did things like that.