Autopsy TV

“Everything to be imagined is an image of truth” — William Blake

For Americans, the aughts began with the fearful Y2K and ended on Christmas Day 2009 with a terrorist attack, thankfully failed, on board a plane from Amsterdam to Detroit. Call these ‘macro-fears’ and include everything that is going on in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, North Korea, Yemen, Somali and the newest exotic locale which a primarily xenophobic American cultural consciousness has no “ap” for.

Undoubtedly personal fears – fears closer to home — trump global fears, at least for all the victims of ‘outplacement’ (job loss), home foreclosure, all manner of bankruptcy, loss of health care, and cracked nest eggs. Call these these ‘micro-fears’. Perhaps it’s a class thing: the Haves and Have Mores have the macro-fears and the rest of us have the micro-fears.

However, what I observe in what I call my canaries in the coal mine – the ‘entertainments’ of popular culture – lead me to believe that we are all fearful on a deeper ontological level, a primordial genetic level, perhaps a shared archetypal level, that no amount of Twitter and Prozac, Friending and Unfriending, Outplacement and Outsourcing, Bail Outs and Stimulus, Surges and Drones, Mii and Wii, Nunchuck and Netois can displace or subdue.

I can offer neither justification nor defense of my treating the American mass psyche as a deranged patient and pop culture as an outpouring, a free-association of that cultural psyche. I can, however offer this: At this moment we live wholeheartedly in the story of individually designed reality and a self-chosen, self-willed autonomous psyche. The illusions of individualism and personal choice have reached the extraordinary level wherein we now believe we can simply choose what we want and the whole universe will support that choice. Such illusions are pathological.

At this moment the notion of an ‘American cultural imaginary’, a ‘mass cultural psyche’, seems so five seconds ago. I am also aware that the expression “so five seconds ago” is belated. It is difficult in our NOW obsession not to be belated and belatedness is as shunned a malady as leprosy once was ‘back in the day’.

Unfortunately, Nowness has a built-in elusiveness while belatedness cannot be evaded. Nowness is only implicitly and defensively revealed as in the phrase: “That was back in the day, right?” “Back in the day” here covers everything that happened before you opened your Facebook account. This disassociation from the past along with a fear of revealing one’s belatedness by any recognition of the past — as well as a turn to a totally personal design of destiny – are for me, as a starter here, glaring symptoms of a psychopathology.

Our illusions do not announce themselves as illusions but always as fascinations, desires, fears, obsessions, hatreds. Every illusion comes packaged with reasons. Every illusion becomes a need.

Enlightening secrets, charismatic presences, the tattooed brands of individuality, virtual warfare and pornified lives, the prosthetics of technology, private argot and Brave New world mantras, pharmacological living and dying – the imagination creates but also reaches to find these expressions of the cultural psyche.

Here is some ‘back in the day’ talk which drowns in its own belatedness: A culture both fearful of its own end, terrorized by its own fall from grace (it’s own ‘exceptionalism’), engaged since Vietnam in a defensive death-dealing in order to preserve its own way of life, has death on its mind continuously.

A ‘way of life’ must oddly and perversely become a ‘way of death’. Death is the cultural métier. It pervades the dominating economics wherein the most savvy work freely and competitively toward a ‘creative destruction’ which creates profits for few and destroys the habitats and lives of many. The illusion that by killing others – surgically and without injury to ourselves – we secure our own safety, has its beginnings in the primordial mud of creativity in the service of survival.

The American Dream whittled down to the Nightmare of Money, of filthy lucre, the coin of Death and the Devil, of a ‘theatre of war’ as a new market to be opened, new profits to shareholders to be grown, now more surely drives the illusion than our instincts to survive. The creativity of Eros has given way to the destructiveness of Thanatos. The creation of profit has nurtured a death wish that turns back on us, even as it surges outward and away from the safe zone, the Green Zone, of our own hearts and minds.

Living Undead

Living Undead

The proliferation of dead body programming attends the proliferation of pharmaceutical advertisement.

This is, as I say, more ‘back in the day’ talk than CSI autopsy talk but, its belatedness aside, it is nonetheless talk inspired by our TV death shows. That the American repression of its own mortality has reached crises levels is evidenced, perversely and ironically, by our obscene fascination with dead bodies lying on autopsy tables, Y-stitched chests a la Frankenstein, or cut open with surgical SawzAlls, blood splattering on the goggles of the mad scientist – here a medical examiner – gloved hands pulling out organs, sliced and diced, churned in blenders, human bodies processed like butcher meat.

One show has not been enough for the American appetite for death. Like the Alien mother whose prodigious fertility spawns egg after egg, the CSI shows breed. Unlike the Alien movies, which seem to have terminated, these TV shows will be syndicated till the end of time. Endless surgery upon the dead.

Surgical strikes and smart bombs and man-less drones, stealth fighters with a Darth Vader look. An ivy league grad sits at a computer in Arlington Virginia and programs death from long distance and then goes home to watch a CSI TV show. Or takes his daughter to a soccer game as Russell Crowe does in the film Body of Lies.

Long distance, re-gentrified death-dealing. Each CSI program seems intent on showing more gruesome stuff than its rivals as if the ghoulish addiction to seeing the human body on a slab, mutilated in the quest for the ‘physical evidence which speaks for itself’ must be steadily fed a richer diet.

Counterpointing this fascination with death is the erotic inclusions in the CSI shows as if near-porn and dead bodies were fit companions, like salt and tequila. This is a belated observation: death and sex (it was one of Norman Mailer’s fixations ‘back in the day’) but consider that these are network TV shows of immense popularity. Somehow it’s encouraging to think in the end that you wind up a piece of meat, soul-less, on a slab, evidence. Evidence of what? Carpe diem. Seize the pleasures of the day, of the body while it lives and breathes.

Mud lies on the table with no sign of God’s breath. This evidence will destroy all illusion that there is something good and wholesome, something miraculous and everlasting to which death will bring us. What I feel when I gaze at the autopsy table in autopsy and hospital TV is that I am alive now and have (thus far) escaped the obscenity of death. That feeling is culturally shared.

Perhaps popular culture has staked this ground only because every culture that binds itself to the credo “the guy with the most toys in the end wins” cannot look away from the end but must turn to it and mock or dissolve it. This is the electrifying spot, the toxic location. When you show it, they will come.

There is longevity here, as the matter will not easily or ever dissolve, the gaze upon the dead body will never leave us certain, no matter how intense the desecration, that this body will not be held accountable for its own desecrations of other beings, of its own nature, of Nature itself. Regardless of how long we gaze upon this dead body we cannot be reassured that what we see is no more than a confirmation of our desire to fulfill our own desires, to take all and want more, to make use of all the world offers before we, too, end on the autopsy table.

The dynamics of this uncertainty, of this struggle of deep ontological dimensions that results in a psychic angst is a marketing target, a cultural disposition as vulnerable to the assaults of branding as any audience of weak minds before a charismatic demagogue, a fiery preacher. It is a struggle that has proven accessible and profitable in American culture, one that has replaced or supplemented religion’s use of the very same contentious haunting.

For two thirds of the time you are watching a CSI TV show you will experience schadenfreude, fully enjoying the relief of not being dead, that you have not suffered the humiliations that fascinate and revitalize you simply because you are not this dead body. Everyone has to die but right now someone is dead and it’s not you. You are alive now and that DB is proof.

Unknowingly, you are rendered extremely vulnerable at that moment to any and every cure-all pitch that Madison Avenue can make. Thusly, one third of the time you will be watching commercials ingeniously tied to the profile of you that marketers have. The proliferation of dead body programming attends the proliferation of pharmaceutical advertisement.

The pharmaceutical industry with millennial level research and development offers you all you need to hold off your own autopsy. There is little sense within this drama for you to ‘help save the planet’ or ‘wipe out poverty’ or, in short, do anything for others beyond a social networking that allows you to ‘friend’ and ‘unfriend’ at a safe, virtualized distance. You will be a dead body before Nature is salvaged or poverty is no more, a dead body regardless of what you’ve done for others too who will eventually be, in spite of your humanity, no more than meat for autopsies.

All your attention then goes to your restless leg, your limp penis, your weak stream, your need for Beano, your cholesterol number, your memory loss, your overactive bladder, your facial lines and wrinkles, your fungus toenails, your sleep problems, your depression, your migraine, your joint pain. After such continuous programming of the dead body, of the autopsy, you seek every defense against death, every suggestion that this melodious named drug will delay the autopsy moment.

Millions whose legs have not been restless, whose sleep has not been disturbed, whose penises have not failed, whose stream is not weak, whose flatulence is only laughable, whose problems have not led to depression, whose everyday neurosis are tame, whose hearts give no pain, whose attentiveness is not hyperactive, whose thoughts are not suicidal, whose joint pain is bearable – and so on and on – suddenly question their sleep, their own minds, their sex lives, their quirks and jerks, whether they are steps away from a heart attack or a cerebral hemorrhage, whether fat blockage clogs the coronary arteries, whether a pissy mood is deep depression, whether a memory lapse is a sign of early dementia…

Everything becomes a sign of the death that awaits you, of the autopsy. Unless you take these pills or those pills or all pills each and every day.

Every TV show dealing in death and dying now provides for our pathography a description of the cultural psyche. But the most inventive and pressing and revealing aspect of popular culture – marketing and advertising – provides the verification of the picture here drawn. In describing a pathography, as in criminal investigation, you follow the money. And where money stops functioning and fails to make sense of what we fear – 9/11, Katrina, the Great Recession of Now – there is only dread ahead.

Joseph Natoli is the author of numerous books, the most recent This is a Picture and Not the World ( 2007). He is the former series editor of now defunct Postmodern Culture (Suny Press, 1990 -2009)

PopMatters