Empire of Illusion

By Chris Hedges

Empire of Illusion is a tired book in a tired genre. The genre is cultural jeremiad, a generalized complaint directed at the decline and fall of western civilization. We have, of course, been here many times before, with our Jeremiahs being equally drawn from both ends of the political spectrum. Chris Hedges (author of American Fascists) is a writer on the left, which means the main targets of his wrath are corporate power, the military-industrial complex, and religious fundamentalism. Even the labels are, by now, looking pretty worn.

The “illusions” Hedges seeks to dispel are just as banal. The first, and the only one that really connects to his subtitle, is the “illusion of literacy.” What this amounts to is an attack on the most vulgar expressions of our mass celebrity culture, the trashy spectacle of professional wrestling, reality TV, and Jerry Springer. There is very little here that Neil Postman didn’t say twenty years ago in Amusing Ourselves to Death, and with more punch. What is new, at least a bit, is the sheer scale of Hedges’s paranoia:

Those who manipulate the shadows that dominate our lives are the agents, publicists, marketing departments, promoters, script writers, television and movie producers, advertisers, video technicians, photographers, bodyguards, wardrobe consultants, fitness trainers, pollsters, public announcers, and television news personalities who create the vast stage for illusion. They are the puppet masters. No one achieves celebrity status, no cultural illusion is swallowed as reality, without these armies of cultural enablers and intermediaries.

Video technicians? Fitness trainers? These are the puppet masters? I am not convinced. Nor, and this is a more important caveat, do I believe that cultural illusions are “swallowed as reality,” even by the most ignorant of the masses. Everybody knows wrestling/reality TV/Springer is fake.

The same complaint could be leveled at the next chapter, which is yet another embarrassing “intellectual” take on the porn industry, or the “illusion of love.” Here Hedges follows in the footsteps of other slumming porn tourists such as Martin Amis and David Foster Wallace by going to a porn convention in Las Vegas and watching a bunch of skin movies. To no one’s surprise, certainly neither his own nor the reader’s (especially given the quote from Andrea Dworkin he uses as an epigraph to this chapter), Hedges comes away from it all deeply offended and concerned. His sentences get shorter, his rhetoric even more emphatic and repetitive. “Torture,” for example, is a word he frequently uses to describe the onscreen action. All of which only draws attention to the fact that he doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about.

Claims for which no evidence is given are simply trotted out, like “the largest users of Internet porn are between the ages of twelve and seventeen.” Says who? And how would anyone know? Is it true that porn is an addiction that (unlike many if not most other addictions) requires “harder and harder drugs to get off,” including bestiality and child porn? I doubt alternative sexualities, which remain very rare in the general population, are so easily embraced. Does the “language, abuse, and moral bankruptcy of porn shape and mold popular culture,” or does it go the other way as often as not? Is there, as Hedges declares, “a direct line from the heartlessness and usury of the culture of porn to the hookup parties on college campuses, in which young men and women get hammered, have sex, and do not speak to each other again”? Does he mean that without porn, college kids wouldn’t be getting drunk and having sex because dirty movies wouldn’t have shown them how to do it?

But nothing stops Hedges, once he has a bit of wind in his sails, from righteously flailing away at the obvious while missing the point entirely:

The porn films are not about sex. [What?] Sex is airbrushed and digitally washed out of the films. [Films aren’t airbrushed, and few if any porn producers would ever dream of spending the money to digitally enhance their product.] There is no acting because none of the women are permitted to have what amounts to a personality. The one emotion they are allowed to display is an unquenchable desire to satisfy men, especially if that desire involves the women’s physical and emotional degradation. [But wouldn’t displaying that emotion be acting?] The lighting in the films is harsh and clinical. [Some of the time. But most porn movies, as Woody Allen observed forty years ago, are very poorly lit. Good lighting is expensive.] Pubic hair is shaved off to give the women the look of young girls or rubber dolls. [Why on earth would anyone want a woman to look like a rubber doll? Surely Hedges means that rubber dolls don’t have pubic wigs because men want them to look like porn stars.] Porn, which advertises itself as sex, is a bizarre, bleached pantomime of sex. [This is because the performers are acting. Which is what people do in movies.] The acts onscreen are beyond human endurance. [Obviously not, unless Hedges is watching animals going at it.] The scenarios are absurd. [Really? People fucking is as absurd as the Lord of the Rings trilogy? As absurd as Batman? As absurd as . . . you get the point.] The manicured and groomed bodies, the huge artificial breasts, the pouting, oversized lips, the erections that never go down, and the sculpted bodies are unreal. [True, but they are probably as real in porn as they are in most other movies.] Makeup and production mask blemishes. [This is what makeup is for, in movies, on television, and even in “real” life.] There are no beads of sweat, no wrinkle lines, no human imperfections. [Nonsense. I’ve seen porn with plenty of all of the above.] Sex is reduced to a narrow spectrum of sterilized dimensions. It does not include the dank smell of human bodies, the thump of a pulse, taste, breath – or tenderness. [Such things as taste and smell being impossible to render on film.] Those in the films are puppets, packaged female commodities. [And the men too, of course. But it seems Hedges is now starting to repeat himself.] They have no honest emotions, are devoid of authentic human beauty, and resemble plastic. [More repetition. And a clichéd appeal to “authentic human beauty.” What is that? No makeup? Hairy legs? Flabby bellies?] Pornography does not promote sex, if one defines sex as a shared act between two partners. It promotes masturbation. [As Bob Guccione or Larry Flynt might say (and indeed I think have said): “Well, duh.” When has this ever been denied? And so on . . . ]

Pornography, in other words, isn’t real. It’s not about love. Having settled that controversial point, we’re ready to move on to the next illusion.

This is the “illusion of wisdom,” which is mainly concerned with the what’s happening to American universities. The short answer to that is over-specialization and too much corporate influence. The analysis here (and in the final chapter) borrows heavily from the writings of John Ralston Saul, and in particular (his best book) The Unconscious Civilization. Again, there is very little that is new being brought to the table. Hedges also doesn’t seem to see the irony in listening to tenured university faculty complaining about the university system. Apparently professors in the humanities, and in particular English professors, are the antidote for the corporate disease infecting our halls of higher learning.

This, I must say, is rich.

The best chapter in the book deals with the “illusion of happiness,” which is a take on the self-help and positive thinking movement. It works in part, I think, because self-help is a genuine illusion. Unlike wrestling, Jerry Springer, and porn, people really do believe in this stuff. Even here, however, Hedges manages to overstate his case:

There is a dark, insidious quality to the ideology promoted by the positive psychologists. They condemn all social critics and iconoclasts, the dissidents and individualists, for failing to surrender and seek fulfillment in the collective lowing of the corporate herd. They strangle creativity and moral autonomy. They seek to mold and shape individual human beings into a compliant collective. The primary teaching of this movement, which reflects the ideology of the corporate state, is that fulfillment is to be found in complete and total social conformity, a conformity that all totalitarian and authoritarian structures seek to impose on those they dominate.

While agreeing in general with this, and indeed with a lot of what Hedges has to say, the protocols of the shadowy (“dark, insidious”) other – in this case the positive psychologists as puppet masters – seems to me rhetorically overdrawn and far too absolute. I suspect there are impersonal historical forces at work as well, ones that may have an even greater role to play than the conscious or unconscious agendas of the positive psychology crowd.

The final chapter, the “illusion of America,” is a grab-bag skipping from the current financial meltdown to global warming to American imperialism to the influence corporations have over the political system. And the book’s failings – repetition, overstatement, lack of original insight – are again in evidence. The biggest failing, however, is the persistent intellectual myopia. In conclusion, Hedges returns to the myth of Plato’s Republic that he began with, the famous parable of the cave that has the enlightened few who have seen the true light returning to the cave with a duty to educate those still bewitched by the shadows. In a similar way, the “most ominous cultural divide” Hedges sees in America today is “more than class” but has a decided tinge of class to it: “the divide between a literate, marginalized minority and those who have been consumed by an illiterate mass culture.” The former are, of course, people like Chris Hedges.

The elites, however, are rarely as all-seeing as they are given credit for. And the masses, whatever we want to say about their tastes, are not all ignorant suckers. Humankind cannot bear very much reality, however much we may need it. A fact that, I believe, goes some way toward excusing both groups.

Review first published online October 19, 2009.

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