Notes on “Empire of Illusion”, Chapter 1., and Bad TV
I think it’s time we start collectively chewing on Chris Hedge’s book “Empire of Illusion”. I’d like to kick things off by offering some (scattered) thoughts on Chapter 1: The Illusion of Literacy…
I don’t watch much television. Mainly, this is because, after working on a dissertation, blogging the canon, maintaining a complex relationship with my wife, and following all my fleeting obsessions, I don’t have time for the tube. A common opinion holds that it’s both gauche and snobbish to broadcast that you don’t watch much television; however, it’s become unavoidable when all the social gatherings I attend seem to now involve people my age asking me what I think about the most recent episode of “The Real Housewives of Transylvania”. I try to sound oblivious instead of elitist.
Maybe it’s a bit dishonest to play the absent-minded academic though- the truth is I do watch television, sometimes, and I usually find it to be completely stultifying, so I turn it off. It’s hard to say, however, that you think it’s trash without sounding like you’re passing judgment on the people who watch the trash. But they all seem to complain about it too. In fact, the “populist” stance seems to be to keep up with television, obsessively, while thinking that most of what’s on is crap. This also strikes me as masochism.
Chris Hedges thinks television is stultifying too, especially “reality television”, celebrity programs, and wrestling. In fact, he thinks we’ve developed too keen a taste for stultification. In a sort of shock and awe campaign, he offers several transcriptions from programs that sound truly wretched, piled one atop another with a flag atop reading “Illusion”. By his telling, these programs offer pseudo-events and pleasant illusions for viewers who seek escape from reality, which corporate media outlets are more than willing to provide them. The very real problems facing America- a constant sub-theme of the text- are willfully ignored by viewers who treat twaddle as all-important. Ultimately, this has a deleterious effect on the open society that requires citizens who know as much about public policy and their elected officials as they do about the Real Housewives of Transylvania.
I’d like to make a suggestion about reading the book that might not seem immediately obvious: it seems more important, at least to me, to remember that Hedges is a former seminarian than that he’s a progressive. Much of the writing strikes me as a call for the flock to reform themselves and save their souls. In fact, while I’m unfamiliar with his current religious beliefs, it seemed likely that Hedges still believes in the soul, and perhaps an immortal soul, that can be lowered or elevated through the billions of individual decisions that we make about what we expose our souls to. This isn’t to say that atheists shouldn’t read the book! But we saw with Plato that belief in an immortal soul significantly raises the stakes when we have to choose between spending an afternoon trying to perceive reality or indulging in pleasant make-believe.
Also, this is a jeremiad, instead of journalism; Hedges presents a heap of cherry-picked information in support of his argument, and no counter-arguments. If you disagree with his opinion, you might point to thought-provoking media, ask how many viewers of pro-wrestling and reality television aren’t ironically aware of how stupid it is already, ask if he isn’t going for low hanging fruit, or if he doesn’t really have a problem with free choice itself. If you agree with his take, the book will read like a signal flare in a foggy night. Personally, I’m neither convinced by his argument, nor able to completely reject it.
One question about media, though: if your cable package offers you the choice between garbage and refuse, and you choose garbage, does this reflect anything significant about your own desires or character? Does it reveal enough that we could reasonably analyze the national character in the way that Hedges does? Or, conversely, that we could argue contra Hedges that media choices are “democratic” and reflect the true will of the people? If they didn’t, one would imagine we’d see waves of people quietly turning away from the corporate, mainstream media conglomerates and choosing instead to get their information and entertainment from scrappy new media alternatives. But isn’t that what’s happening?
1. I found Hedges’s suggestion that the desire for distractions is an eternal aspect of human nature strangely reassuring as something I recognize in myself.
2. I also find his argument that the mental habits he details grow in society as active literacy dies out to be a bit simplistic for my tastes, but impossible to fully refute. Often, in conversations with new acquaintances, I can guess before they tell me whether they’re active readers by the nature of their conversation.