Friday, June 9, 2017

Book Review: 'Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle' by Chris Hedges

Review by Susan Gardner
Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle 
By Chris Hedges 
Nation Books: New York 
Hardcover, 240 pages, $24.95 
July 2009
Money quote:
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. The sole object is to hold attention and satisfy an audience. These techniques of theater, as Boorstin notes, have leeched into politics, religion, education, literature, news, commerce, warfare, and crime. The squalid dramas played out for fans in the wrestling ring mesh with the ongoing dramas on television, in movies, and in the news, where "real-life" stories, especially those involving celebrities, allow news reports to become mini-dramas complete with a star, villain, a supporting cast, a good-looking host, and a neat, if often unexpected, conclusion.
Author: Foreign correspondent and Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, author of several respected books, including the notable War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.

Basic premise: We are relentlessly marching toward despotism, enthralled by a trivializing culture that uses a mixture of fantasy, New Age mysticism, trash TV, celebrity gossip and pop Positive Psychology to distract ordinary Americans while the elite classes--politicians, media, corporate powerbrokers--ruthlessly strangle any sign of populism in the citizen ranks. Academics and journalists, long considered the guardians of middle-class and working-class concerns, have been seduced by the shadow play and are now part of the problem, even if they neither acknowledge nor perceive it. We are doomed.
Readability/quality: Lyrical, beautiful thoughtful writing. Depressing, haunting and grim. You shouldn't want to read it, but you do, and you're glad you did, but you can't stop thinking about it afterwards.
Who should read it: Anyone interested in the big, depressing sweep of history and neoliberal trends, implications and consequences. Ultimately, it's a great blend of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine and Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided, mixed with scathing commentary on People magazine consciousness.
Problematic quote:
Our culture of illusion is, at its core, a culture of death. It will die and leave little of value behind. It was Sparta that celebrated raw militarism, discipline, obedience, and power, but it was Athenian art and philosophy that echoed down the ages to enlighten new worlds, including our own. Hope exists. It will always exist. It will not come through our structures or institutions, nor will it come through nation-states, but it will prevail, even if we as distinct individuals and civilizations vanish. The power of love is greater than the power of death. It cannot be controlled. It is about sacrifice for the other--something nearly every parent understands--rather than exploitation. It is about honoring the sacred. And power elites have for millennia tried and failed to crush the force of life. Blind and dumb, indifferent to the siren calls of celebrity, unable to bow before illusions, defying the lust for power, love constantly rises up to remind a wayward society of what is real and what is illusion. Love will endure, even if it appears darkness has swallowed us all, to triumph over the wreckage that remains.
Really, this final paragraph of the book, after 192 pages of stark, somber face-to-the-wind reality feels tacked on, to say the least. Telling everyone we're doomed, but the power of love will survive to the next generation through honoring the sacred ... well, it seems a little too close to the grim Christian tactic of telling people they'll have a better afterlife if they just accept their trials and poverty now. Perhaps Hedges is right in this last heroic paragraph, but if so, he spent a couple of hundred previous pages arguing otherwise, and this inconsistency takes a very slight shine off of an excellent (though gloomy) read.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.