Decline and Distraction
Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (Knopf Canada, 232 pages, 2009)
One recent end-of-the-semester morning, while taking attendance in the “philosophy and literature” course I teach at Capilano University, I checked off the name of a student who had missed the previous class. “Where were you last week?” I asked. Since attendance-taking is a desultory ritual, I try to liven it up with some low-level banter. But this time, instead of the equally desultory dog-ate-my-homework excuse, there was something new.
“Modern warfare was released at midnight,” he said.
It took me a nano-second of mental double-take to realize that he wasn’t announcing an apocalyptic event that had been forecast by Nostradamus or the biblical Book of Revelations. In that same micro-instant I saw that I needed to make an orthographic tweak to his sentence to understand what he was saying. I had to italicize the subject of the remark: it wasn’t “modern warfare,” but instead “Modern Warfare.” Actually, Modern Warfare 2, Call of Duty 6, accompanied by its ubiquitous “TM” trademark logo.
But he didn’t have to say all that because it was common knowledge. As I could tell from the collective chuckle, almost everyone in class got the picture immediately or, like me, an imperceptible nano-second later. Modern Warfare is a popular series of videogames and a new version of it had been recently released. Like Harry Potter novels, vampire movies, or certain musical/video releases, part of the marketing strategy is to begin selling them at midnight, giving early customers a more vivid prestige-enhancing sense of being the first one on their block to own one.
So, my student had dutifully lined up outside the mall emporium, purchased a copy of the game ($59.95 a pop, according to Amazon.ca) in the middle of the night, went home and blasted away until the wee hours, and was of course fast asleep by the time morning classtime rolled around. He wasn’t the only one. In the initial marketing surge (or should that be, these days, “surge”?), 4 million-plus copies were sold, according to the Modern Warfare 2 website, and the company has to date raked in about a half billion dollars in sales. So, this is not merely an anecdote about the latest cute excuse for missing class.
Naturally, I took the opportunity of the occasion to deliver a medium-level rant about the vacuity, shallowness, and dopey nature of the pop culture foisted on young people today, although I soften the blow by pointing out that their consumption of such junk isn’t entirely their fault. Since attendance-taking is generally agreed to be a desultory chore, the students are prepared to put up with these diverting rants as long as I don’t go on too long and turn it into nagging.
Anyway, fulminating about the state of the culture is a legitimate sub-theme of the philosophy and literature class, and such jeremiads can be counted as a form of classroom entertainment. Soon, we were back to our discussion of Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar, Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End, Julian Barnes’ Nothing to be Frightened Of, and Jose Saramago’s Death with Interruptions, the four books that make up “Endings,” the last thematic of this semester’s course. But in the back of my mind, I was aware that Calvino et al.’s ideas about death were hardly a patch on the colourful blow’m-up-good version offered by Modern Warfare.
I offer this little story of cultural catastrophe in support of Chris Hedges’ critique of American culture, politics and economics, Empire of Illusion. However, I have to admit that I view such scenes with a bit more wry amusement than Mr. Hedges, who tends to be rather grim-lipped about the whole thing. Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for The New York Times who subsequently turned into a political radical, and is currently a senior fellow of the leftist Nation Institute, a columnist for Truthdig.com, and the author of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002). He begins his account of the “triumph of spectacle” with a protracted description of “entertainment” wrestling (as contrasted to the sport found in schools and Olympic contests).
It’s a ghoulishly fascinating 15-page portrait of the larger-than-life superheroes and lower-than-snakes villains of WWE, the World Wrestling Entertainment tour, one of the spectacles of U.S. cultural life. I’m not one of the 7.7 million monthly visitors to WWE’s website, so I found Hedges’ saga of the soap-opera-like fake wrestling world a bit confusing. Instead of old-fashioned half-nelsons and body slams, WWE is apparently more about bizarre storylines involving provocative taunting, cuckolding, and derogatory genealogies (as in, “Y tu mama tambien”). But Hedges’ main point is that the popular culture in which the masses, as they used to be known, are immersed, willingly or otherwise, is trivial, salacious, distracting, intellectually mind-numbing and, above all, a terrible illusion that signals the decline and fall of the Empire.
Subsequent vignettes in the opening chapter about celebrity culture include a visit to a “celebrity cemetery,” beauty makeover shows, “reality” TV fare like American Idol, Survivor, and Big Brother, and “humiliation” programs of the Jerry Springer type, where sub-proletarians duke it out over paternity DNA and who slept with whom. All of it serves to drive home Hedges’ message about the mindlessness of “mass-cult.”
Eventually, Hedges moves from the ring to Plato’s cave and spells it out. “We are chained,” he says, “to the flickering shadows of celebrity culture, the spectacle of the arena and the airwaves, the lies of advertising, the endless personal dramas, many of them completely fictional, that have become the staple of news, celebrity gossip, New Age mysticism and pop psychology.” This is not exactly news, as Hedges readily admits. Not news then, but apparently more distortions of reality than ever, and perhaps some usefulness in pointing them out. Though shudder-inducing in places, Hedges’ book is strangely unsatisfying, and it’s not immediately clear why. Maybe it’s the tone of what my students would identify as “nagging.” But no, it’s more than tone.
In an opening chapter called “The Illusion of Literacy,” (and in a book partly sub-titled “The End of Literacy”), Hedges has surprisingly little to say about the subject, almost as if he’s not particularly interested in the possibility of literacy as a remedy for cultural mindlessness. There’s a scant couple of paragraphs citing an approximately 40 per cent functional illiteracy rate in North America, but nothing about the decline of book reading, especially among young people, nor anything about other “knowledge deficits” in history, geography, science and civics, and really not much about how the Internet is actually used by its consumers (9 out of 10 of young people’s most visited sites are devoted to “social networking”). For that sort of information you have to go to books like Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason or Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur.
The paucity of literacy discussion in a book that advertises itself as being about that topic is only part of a larger problem. The “illusion of literacy” chapter is followed by others that explore the “illusions” of love, wisdom, happiness, and America itself. There’s a lot about porn, the pretensions of higher education, pop psychology, and the dismaying condition of a pseudo-democracy. Most of what Hedges says is factually true, yet I found myself periodically surfacing from the account of cultural and political sludge to mumble, “Yes, yes, but this isn’t what all of life is about or how I experience it.” At least in some monastic corners of the world, the kid who’s playing Modern Warfare is also reading Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar. That Hedges thinks bleak catastrophe is indeed the whole of contemporary life appears to be Hedges’ own illusion.
It’s never quite clear who Hedges is writing for nor what he wants his readers to do. Certainly, his unrelieved polemical essay is not aimed at the benighted masses watching Ultimate Fighting Challenge and poker on TV, clicking onto YouTube or YouPorn, “friending” strangers on Facebook, or blowing up imaginary worlds on Grand Theft Auto and Modern Warfare videogames. It’s not for them, since they’re not reading at all.
So, it’s a book about rather than for the unwashed but shampooed masses whose minds are inundated by junk culture. Hedges must be writing for the rest of us, the — let’s be generous — 10 or 20 per cent of us who read books, participate in politics and civic culture, and who keep a worried eye on the CO2 counts in the atmosphere. But most progressive middle-class intellectuals already know most of this stuff, and some of them have even read theoreticians like Guy Debord on “situationism” and Jean Baudrillard on “simulacra” (neither of whom is mentioned by Hedges), both of whom early on spotted “the triumph of spectacle.” Moreover, Hedges’ intended intellectual audience, while dimly aware of most of the phenomena Hedges excoriates, live lives that only peripherally partake of mass popular culture. Given that his readers likely pay only corner-of-their-eye attention to the details, maybe Hedges’ intention is to present mass culture to us as a form of at-home exotica.
The chapter on the “illusion of love,” which is entirely devoted to a journalistic visit to a pornmakers convention in Las Vegas, is characteristic of Hedges’ perspective. Beginning with an epigraph that offers a lurid passage from the late Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women, Hedges hews to her particular version of feminism, presenting an Inferno-esque, “graphic” account of heterosexual commercial porn that emphasizes its increasing violence and degradation of women. Interviews with porn performers, peddlars, and recovering porn actors reiterate the sadistic nature of this particular illusion, and in case we’re unfamiliar with its contents, Hedges provides extended vile snatches of porn video dialogue and detailed descriptions of how tab A is slotted into inserts B, C, etc., in such productions. After a few pages of this, you realize Hedges isn’t planning to go beyond the confines of the commercial sex industry, and you idly wonder why the chapter isn’t billed “the illusion of sex,” since it doesn’t seem to have much to do with love or any similar affectional state.
This cinema verite presentation builds to the climactic message that “porn reflects the endemic cruelty of our society. This is a society that does not blink when the industrial slaughter unleashed by the United States and its allies kills hundreds of civilians in Gaza or hundreds of thousands of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Mr. Hedges goes on (and on). Porn is soon linked to the plight of the mentally ill and the unfairly imprisoned, as well as the dangers of gun ownership, obnoxious nationalism and “rapacious corporate capitalism.” Predictably enough, porn is eventually equated to the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and we’re assured that “torture and pornography inevitably converge.”
I’m puzzled by the rhetorical overkill, both here and throughout Hedges’ tract. While it’s reasonable to sharply criticize both the content of hetero porn and the conditions under which it’s made, it’s not immediately clear what the purpose is of a hyperbole that insistently ties porn to all of the world’s assorted ills. It’s as if, in the name of some form of radicalism, Hedges’ intent is to crush all possible discourse about the subject. In this leftist vision of liberation, one can sense the mirthless commissars just over the horizon.
In any case, Hedges’ edicts about the meaning of porn seem designed to render any further discussion of sexual representation either trivial or irresponsible, or both. A question like, “Momentarily leaving aside the egregious conditions and content of contemporary pornography, is there a moral objection to the representation of sex between people and the viewing of such representations by other people?”, becomes irrelevant or even blasphemously incorrect. Why would one want to ask such a question?
Well, for one thing, the question challenges some North American attitudes about sex. While porn may represent commercial views about sex, a dominant religious attitude among Christian fundamentalists (and perhaps the view is held more broadly than merely as a religious tenet) is that sex ought to be strictly regulated — preferably, within heterosexual marriage and utilized primarily for procreational purposes. The debate about attitudes toward, and practices of, sex had a lot to do with both feminist and homosexual political struggles in the last half century. None of that will be found in Hedges’ Empire. Nor, when it comes to cruelty and wanton killing, will readers find anything about porn-deprived jihadis, who manage a good deal of slaughter and torture without the aid of salacious imagery.
Maybe Hedges just isn’t a very good sociological writer. In service to agitprop, Hedges excises anything that complicates his “correct line.” In my experience of gay porn, while it’s true you can find niches for everything from S&M to foot fetishism, mainstream homo porn is overwhelmingly focused on the vanilla sex of “twinks” (18-21-year-old, more or less clean-cut, late-teen beauties). While one can probably criticize the conditions these boys endure while making porn, and can cite the ways in which porn sex distorts ordinary real sex, the behaviour of the boys is generally friendly and non-violent, there’s lots of kissing and gestures of affection, they use condoms in the name of “safer sex,” and the sex, apart from being hot (if you’re inclined to find such sex hot) is pretty inoffensive unless you find the whole thing offensive. I’m not offering a brief intended to mitigate the sexist horrors of heterosexual porn, I’m just suggesting that the world is more various and complicated than Hedges, in the grip of an ideology, allows.
Subsequent chapters on higher education and positive psychology are similarly uneven. Hedges opens his chapter on the “illusion of wisdom” by saying, “The multiple failures that beset the country, from our mismanaged economy to our shredding of Constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the door of institutions that produce and sustain our educated elite. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge, the University of Toronto and the Paris Institute of Political Studies… do only a mediocre job of teaching students to question and think. They focus instead… on creating hordes of competent systems managers… The elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry… They organize learning around specialized disciplines… [they] have banished self-criticism. They refuse to question a self-justifying system. Organization, technology, self-advancement, and information systems are the only things that matter.” Naturally, Hedges doesn’t want to lay at the door of those elite universities such things as the end of slavery, free speech, civil rights, notions of ethnic and gender equality, sexual orientation, or even the attempt to reform health care in the U.S.
But if elite universities are that bad, it makes me almost glad to be teaching in a non-elite, marginal, backwater university where we’re still allowed to read Italo Calvino and modestly rant about the mindless culture foisted on the young by the capitalist Axis of Evil that manufactures those Modern Warfare videogames. Since I’m likely to be accused of frivolity anyway, I might as well confess upfront that at the end-of-the-semester “Goodbye Class” in ethics, where one of the students, Veronika, provided us all with cupcakes that she’d stayed up baking the previous night, we spent a rollicking hour discussing the morality of David Levy’s Love and Sex with Robots (2007), a review of which was the subject of Veronika’s final essay of the semester. Having debated the ethics of everything from abortion to vampires, it was fun to imagine “sexbots” at the end. The class and I found the discussion pretty hilarious, even educational. Mr. Hedges would perhaps think otherwise.
If Hedges can offer sweeping, half-true, generalizations about elite education, he’s also capable of astutely pointing out that in our “deteriorated educational landscape,” it’s the case that “there has been a concerted assault on all forms of learning that are not brutally utilitarian. The Modern Language Association’s end-of-the-year job listings in English, literature and foreign languages dropped 21 per cent for 2008-09 from the previous year, the biggest decline in 34 years. The humanities’ share of college degrees is less than half of what it was during the mid-to-late ’60s… Only 8 per cent of college graduates, about 110,000, now receive degrees in the humanities.” There have been precipitous declines in all fields, from English to mathematics to social sciences. “Bachelor’s degrees in business, which promise to teach students how to accumulate wealth, have skyrocketed. Business majors since 1970-71 have risen from 13.6 per cent of the graduating population to 21.7 per cent. Business has now replaced education, which has fallen from 21 per cent to 8.2 per cent, as the most popular major.” All true, too true, but this isn’t the place for a full-scale dissertation on the plight of the shaping of the educated mind.
Hedges is much better when he gets to the “illusion of happiness.” That’s where he skewers self-help gurus peddling “positive thinking” and punctures the intellectual pretensions of various psychology departments to put “Positive Psychology” on a scientific footing. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (2009) does a more extensive and thorough job on the topic, but Hedges’ acerbic view of the matter ought to be enough to get you to stash your “Smiley” buttons and shelve your copy of Rhona Byrne’s The Secret.
The worst is saved for last. It’s Hedges’ chapter on the “illusion of America,” and clearly the one he was most itching to write. As is his wont, the screed is unrelieved, but tinged with bitter affection for a land that once was. “The country I live in today uses the same civic, patriotic, and historical language to describe itself… but only the shell remains,” Hedges laments. “The America we celebrate is an illusion. America, the country of my birth, the country that formed and shaped me, the country of my father, my father’s father and his father’s father… is so diminished as to be unrecognizable. I do not know if this America will return, even as I pray and work and strive for its return.”
In place of the recognizable America, “our nation has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations, and a narrow, selfish, political and economic elite, a small and privileged group that governs, and often steals, on behalf of the moneyed interests… During this plundering we remained passive, mesmerized by the enticing shadows on the wall, assured our tickets to success, prosperity, and happiness were waiting just around the corner.”
Hedges makes it clear that Barack Obama and the “bankrupt Democratic Party” are not the “hope” he “can believe in.” About the only closing-line relief Hedges can offer is “love,” whose power is greater than the power of death. “Love will endure,” Hedges asserts, “even if it appears darkness has swallowed us all, to triumph over the wreckage that remains.” Hmm, bleak stuff.
Somewhere in the course of Hedges’ final sermon (he was trained, he remarks in passing, as a seminarian), I think I figured out who he’s writing for. The intended readership, I suspect, is left liberals and social democrats, and Hedges’ polemic is designed to persuade moderate progressives that they don’t fully understand the gravity of the situation. In failing to understand the situation, the moderate leftists become, in Hedges’ view, the real enemy, more culpable than the right wing conservatives, because they prop up the shell of the system, even when they should know better. If that’s what’s going on here, it echoes the 1920s Communist Party’s verbal and physical assault on social democrats as “social fascists,” and at least some of us remember where that revolutionary strategy led.
Hedges’ Empire of Illusion is a difficult book to deal with because much of it contains more than a grain of truth. Even if he could persuade left liberals and social democrats to repent and see the light, I’m not sure what he wants them to do. Become cadres in the true Revolutionary Party and set off to free the masses from their illusions? I don’t recall that working the last time it was tried.
It might be more helpful to see the situation as one of a divided polity, a divided culture in the midst of “culture wars,” in which there are left-of-centre Democrats and social democrats, Obama included, and right-wing Republicans and angry anti-government libertarians and self-proclaimed “independents.” That perspective at least makes possible an answer to the question, “What is to be done?” What we should do is continue to teach people to read books and to criticize the gadgets and content of capitalist pop culture. We should continue to try to reform health care, regulate and restrain capitalism, and attempt to save the planet. We should do the little things in our neighbourhoods, and we should join political parties and other organizations and try, as we used to say, to change the world.
This modest program is admittedly less spectacular than Hedges’ despairing vision of spectacle and decline. But what’s the alternative? I saw an ad on TV the other day advertising the latest apocalyptic movies and games, the screen filled edge to edge in high definition exploding objects. The voice-over punchline said, “The end of the world never looked so good.”
Vancouver, Dec. 19, 2009.