Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle
By Chris Hedges, Nation Books, Hardcover, 2009, 193 pages, $24.95
Some years ago, before the advent of digital recording, there was a famous commercial that featured Ella Fitzgerald -- or a recorded Ella Fitzgerald -- hitting a note that shattered a glass goblet. The slogan was "Is it live or is it Memorex?" The obvious implication was the recording quality was so good that human ears could not discern the real thing from the copy. In his new book, author Chris Hedges takes the sentiment of that commercial and cranks it up to 11.
"Empire of Illusion" is a bold, brash examination of how our culture and our politics have blurred the line between fantasy and reality to the point where many Americans can no longer tell the difference between the two. From popular "reality" shows like "Survivor" and talk shows like "Jerry Springer," to faux news reports of choreographed and edited debates and elections, many people in America now hold perceptions of reality that have largely been created, packaged and sold to them. In Hedges' words: "Our national discourse is dominated by manufactured events, from celebrity gossip to staged showcasings [sic] of politicians to elaborate entertainment and athletic spectacles."
Furthermore, Hedges states, these made up or "Pseudo-events" have become so effective that we no longer judge them on their honesty or reality, but instead "on how effectively we have been manipulated by the illusion. Those events that appear real are relished and lauded. Those that fail to create a believable illusion are deemed failures. Truth is irrelevant." In short, according to Hedges, the phrase "Is it live or is it Memorex?" is now obsolete. These days, if it's coming out of your TV and you believe it's Ella, then it's Ella. End of story.
Hedges comes to his topic with a unique set of qualifications. A child of working-class roots who has achieved notoriety both as an academic and as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, the author combines intellectual heft with the earthy realism of one who has visited and reported from some pretty rough places. As a thinker, Hedges combines the modern philosophical ideals of Chomsky, Zinn and Hannah Arendt, with the intensity and sense of urgency of Naomi Klein. His writing style at times feels academic: "The foundations of Athenian democracy rose out of the egalitarian social and political reforms of Solon, including his decision to wipe out all of the debts that were bankrupting Athenian citizens." But just when you think you've got him pegged as an ivy-covered professor, he veers into the "gonzo" realm of Hunter S. Thompson, as this description of an episode of Jerry Springer illustrates: "The naked cheerleader leans back on the floor and does the splits in the air. She then jumps into the fat man's lap and smothers his face in her tiny chest. She runs into the audience and does the same to another man and a gray-haired woman in a cardigan who looks like a grandmother. The cameramen follow the cheerleader closely, zooming in on her breasts and ass."
In his critique of popular culture, Hedges leaves few oxen un-gored. He is equally happy unmasking the fantasy world of big time wrestling as he is exposing pseudo-academic disciplines such as "Transformational Positivity." Many of Hedges most damaging spear thrusts, however, are reserved for corporations, and his all too graphic examination of internet porn is balanced by some sobering statistics: "General Motors owns DIRECTV, which distributes more than 40 million streams of porn into American homes every month. AT&T Broadband and Comcast Cable are currently the biggest American companies accommodating porn users with the hot network, Adult Pay Per View, and similarly themed services. AT&T and GM rake in approximately 80 percent of all porn dollars spent by consumers."
Not all of the topics in this book are pleasant to read about or contemplate. In particular the prevalence of violence toward women in modern pornography is extremely disturbing. To his credit, however, Hedges doesn't talk around the issues or sugarcoat his message. Like a recording technician who examines a spool of tape inch by inch to expose all of the splices, he is steadfast and courageous in his dissection of how our culture has become addicted to fantasy. If you are concerned about how much of what you see and hear is real, if you suspect you are being manipulated and jerked around by corporate media ads and imagery and, most importantly, if you are the least bit pissed off about it, then "Empire of Illusion" will open your eyes. In "Matrix" terminology, this book is most definitely the red pill, not the blue one.
But even if you accept as gospel everything you hear on FOX News, even if you are happy believing big time wrestling matches are real and that all women on internet porn sites enjoy being slapped around and called slut, ignoring this book will not save you. In example after example, "Empire of Illusion" demonstrates ignoring reality is not an option. "The world that awaits us will be painful and difficult. We will be dragged back to realism, to understanding that we cannot mold and shape reality according to human desires."
In other words, says Hedges, what we're hearing is not Ella Fitzgerald, it's a recording... and the tape is running out.