Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle
US: Jul 2009
In this day and age, starting a book with a full-throated attack on something as supposedly proletariat-friendly as professional wrestling, as Chris Hedges does in Empire of Illusion, takes some guts. The cultural and intellectual elites have had their marching orders for some time now: Mustn’t mock anything perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the territory of the Common Man. They still do it, of course, but it’s a slyer sort of jape. An off-hand snipe about patronizing a chain restaurant, say, or consuming the lower order of reality shows (i.e., those that don’t air on Brave or VH1).
But Hedges, in his explication of a particularly juicy WWE storyline about a fan favorite getting suckered into working for a villain, just goes for it. In laying out how the villain wrestlers’ personalities have morphed from the dark-skinned or suspiciously Communist rivals of the Cold War into the endlessly mutating vengeance seekers of today’s choreographed bouts, Hedges can barely contain the vitriol directed at the stories lapped up by this crowd of “young, mostly working-class males”:
Those who were once born with the virus of inherent evil, the Russian communist or the Iranian, now become evil for a reason. It is not their fault. They are victims. Self-pity is the driving motive in life. They were abused as children or in prison or by friends or lovers or spouses or employers. The new mantra says we all have a right to seek emotional gratification if we have been abused, even if it harms others. I am bad, the narratives say, because I was neglected and poorly treated. I was forced to be bad. It is not my fault. Pity me. If you do not pity me, screw you. I pity myself. It is the undiluted narcissism of a society in precipitous decline.
And that’s just page 11.
Granted, Hedges is picking on a pretty easy target. No matter what one’s baser pleasures might be, or whatever childhood memories one has of thrilling to the victories of Hulk Hogan, it’s difficult to truly find much to defend in pro wrestling’s bottomless pit of fake rehash. But what’s problematic about Hedges’ assault on the WWE is not his target, for in highlighting the “sport”‘s change from hegemonic battlefronts to soap opera-like fantasias of victimization he actually has his finger on something. The crux of what makes Empire of Illusion such a poor barometer of modern America is that Hedges can’t follow that insight to a well-argued conclusion.
After taking down pro wrestling, Hedges moves swiftly on to celebrity worship and reality television (difficult targets, all). These are all bricks in the wall of his argument that America as a society has become enslaved to passive entertainment and divorced from any meaningful interaction with the world or our fellow citizens. To buttress this jeremiad, Hedges enlists punchy quotations from Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (Arendt, Plato, and Huxley are also called up to bat).
Hedges slathers his disgust at the sub-literate morons inhabiting his America all across the page, addressing them frequently as a faceless herd: “They eat at fast-food restaurants not only because it is cheap, but also because they can order from pictures rather than from a menu.” He frequently directs his criticism at this mass target without much care about backing up his claims or even sharpening them. “They are socialized to obey” is unfortunately a fairly typical example of a line from a book that too often reads like a much less thoughtful gloss on Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason.
Just about the only time that Hedges—a Pulitzer Prize-winner and former foreign correspondent of not inconsiderable experience—is able to truly zero in on something that is rotten in today’s America is his consideration of pornography. In discussing the porn industry’s evolution from story-oriented erotic goofiness to something colder and terrifying (“an open fusion of physical abuse and sex”), Hedges links the modern society’s love of its “sexual callousness” rather convincingly with the actions and photographs from Abu Ghraib. According to Hedges, the twisted and humiliated bodies captured on those grainy stills “speak in the in the language of porn, professional wrestling, reality television, music videos, and the corporate culture”.
It’s hard to say that Hedges is exactly wrong, but it’s also difficult to agree with him too emphatically. Certainly he is likely correct in writing that “the dying gasps of all empires ... have been characterized by a disconnect between the elites and reality”, but Hedges fails to establish a solid background of proof showing that such a take on modern American society is any more true now than it ever was.
This is a book that rests too heavily on the work of other great writers, doesn’t bring enough to the party to justify its invitation, and certainly doesn’t earn the weight of its self-important subtitle (“The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle”). There are times when Hedges’ potshot approach reminds one less of Cassandra’s prophetic warnings than it does of Steve Carell’s antic bellowings in Anchorman (“Bad things! Many bad things!”).
That Empire of Illusion—short if nothing else—is able keep one’s attention as much as it does, says more about the sad state of America than it does about the salience or coherence of Hedges’ thesis. When disaster is very likely looming on the horizon, the elegance used by the person bellowing warnings might not always be so important.
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