Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges

August 29th, 2011 at 6:55 pm

I haven’t had this much fun reading and writhing with outrage since Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

If there is a way (gratefulness? enlightenment?) to enjoy total frustration and exasperation, this book is it.

Empire of Illusion

Even before you get to the excoriating criticism of how modern culture has depraved our existence, you’ll know where you’re headed because of the subtitle, “The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.”

What is the Empire of Illusion? Is it an updated criticism of technology?  We are told that, “Romanticism was sincerity, modernism was authenticity, postmodernism is visibility.” And whereas the camera provided visibility, the computer has allowed for connectivity. Hedges is no Luddite for sure, but our recent advances in technology, televisioncomputerInternetprogramminghacking, have certainly aided and abetted our plunder.

The Empire of Illusion is a place where “Hedonism and wealth are openly worshiped on shows such as The Hills, Gossip Girl, Sex and the City, My Super Sweet 16, and The Real Housewives of…The American oligarchy, 1 percent of whom control more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined, are the characters we envy and watch on television.”

Ouch. I was not expecting a book that would deplore my fascination with reality television. Have we all become useful idiots? Is it still acceptable to watch Wipeout and Storage Wars?

American culture’s worship/obsession of our socioeconomic superiors, as Hedges would have us have it, is indicative of the illusion of literacy.

As it turns out, The Empire of Illusion has a lot of illusions.

Hedges oscillates from splendidly detailed descriptions of a wrestling match, The Swan, Survivor, and Jerry Springer with vigorous rants ending in well-turned extrapolations and conclusions. He slings a lot of mud. “Narcissistic self-absorption” is used.

Hedges tells us that “the Cult of Self dominates our cultural landscape, a cult with the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity, and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception, and manipulation, and the inability to feel remorse or guilt. This is, of course, the ethic promoted by corporations. It is the ethic of unfettered capitalism. It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. In fact, personal style, defined by the commodities we buy or consume, has become a compensation for our loss of democratic equality.”

Cult of Self? Yeah, I think we’re all on Facebook by now.
Screw Scientology. I want in on this Cult of Self.

Hedges continues, saying that this rampant self-absorption is the same perverted ethic that is to blame for our poor economy.

“We are a culture that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity, to separate illusion from reality.”

We are lazy. And it’s no wonder, what with splendid little books like How to be Idle.

And then Hedges gets to the good stuff: Porn, the illusion of love. Did you know that porn can be degrading, harmful, and even dangerous?

You may like porn. But do you like supporting nefarious corporate conglomerates purporting to be decent organizations? You should know that AT&T and GM rake in approximately 80 percent of all porn dollars spent by consumers. (There is little definitive research, but overwhelming intuition, on who benefits from free porn.)

According to Hedges’ journalistic pining, porn is the new rock and roll. And porn has gone young and dirty. We learn that the genre “Gonzo Porn” is usually filmed in a house or hotel room for a style that pushes the boundaries of porn and often includes a lot of violence, physical abuse, and a huge number of partners in succession:

“Roldan would endure numerous anal penetrations by various men in a shoot, most of them “super-rough.” She would have one man in her anus and one in her vagina while she gave a blow job to a third man. The men would ejaculate on her face. She was repeatedly “face fucked,” with men forcing their cocks violently in and out of her mouth. She did what in industry shorthand is called “ATM,” ass-to-mouth, where a man pulls his penis from her anus and puts it directly in her mouth.”

Hedges tells us that, “Porn reflects the endemic cruelty of our society…The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy.”

At the risk of being a sexist apologist, this sounds like a lot of correlation and little causation. If modern porn has moved to an extreme distance away from notions of consent, mutual pleasure, and mere fetish, perhaps it is indicative of a desperation and desensitization? Another way, is porn the problem? Or is the horrifically depraved state of certain modern porn genres indicative or larger trends and societal failures? Don’t hate the player, hate the game? We are awash in troubled, violent times desperate to feel good, to feel at all. You can only blame porn for so much…Please read We Did Porn by Zak Smith.

But an Empire of Illusion is not built upon just reality television, celebrity worship, and porn alone. It also takes a corrupt education system, the illusion of wisdom.

See, porn isn’t the only problem!

Hedges informs us that, “Our elites – the ones in Congress, the ones on Wall Street, and the ones being produced at prestigious universities and business schools – do not have the capacity to fix our financial mess. Indeed, they will make it worse. They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of how to replace a failed system with a new one. They are petty, timid, and uncreative bureaucrats superbly trained to carry out systems management. They see only piecemeal solutions that will satisfy the corporate structure. Their entire focus is numbers, profits, and personal advancement. They lack a moral and intellectual core…The democratic system, they believe, is a secondary product of the free market – which they slavishly serve.”

So it’s good news that the leading Republican Presidential candidate got poor grades at a rural public school in Texas?

But The Empire of Illusion is not just reality television and celebrity worship and porn and our corrupt education system, it’s also the “positive psychology” movement, the illusion of happiness.

Hedges traces this movement of pseudo-science professionals to a corporate culture of arbitrary goals and metrics, accountability based on peer pressure, and coercion masked as harmony.

“Corporatism, aided by positive psychology, relies on several effective coercive persuasion techniques, similar to those often employed by cults, to meld workers into a “happy” collective. It sanctions interpersonal and psychological attacks and lavish praise to destabilize an individual’s sense of self and promote compliance. It uses the coercive pressure of organized peer groups. It applies interpersonal pressure, including attacks on individuality and criticism as a form of negativity, to ensure conformity. It manipulates and controls the totality of the person’s social environment to stabilize modified behavior.”

Hedges continues, “Positive psychology, like celebrity culture, the relentless drive to consume, and the diversionary appeals of mass entertainment, feeds off the unhappiness that comes from isolation and the loss of community. The corporate teaching that we can find happiness through conformity to corporate culture is a cruel trick, for it is corporate culture that stokes and feeds the great malaise and disconnect of the culture of illusion.”

“The nagging undercurrents of alienation and the constant pressure to exhibit a false enthusiasm and buoyancy destroy real relationships. The loneliness of a work life where self-presentation is valued over authenticity and one must always be upbeat and positive, no matter what one’s actual mood or situation, is disorienting and stressful. The awful feeling that being positive may not, in fact, work if one is laid off or becomes sick must be buried and suppressed. Here, in the land of happy thoughts, there are no gross injustices, no abuses of authority, no economic and political systems to challenge, and no reason to complain. Here. we are all happy.”

I’ll just let that last excerpt soak in.

Hedges ends with the illusion of America. Because television + celebrity worship + porn + a corrupt education system + positive psychology = America!

Math with exclamation points.

Ultimately, I suppose we are a participatory fascism.



August 15th, 2011 at 10:10 pm

Dictionaries should be read and consulted if not for the imagery alone:

3. (of a volcano) neither extinct nor erupting

Volcano Poaz