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Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle - Chris Hedges description

President Obama - "a product of this elitist system" - by Chris I'm-So-Bitter-I-Could-Die Hedges

Just finished Chris Hedges' book, and am irked on so many levels, I'd be hard put to count the ways… Hedges' slim book, rather ponderously entitled, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle places it firmly in the ample literature of visual culture and spectacle. Yet, despite the fact that a) Hedges cites numerous theorists throughout the book, that b) he is well educated - we're told, with a certain ring of bitterness, how he "was sent to boarding school on a scholarship at the age of ten. By the time [he:] had finished eight years in New England prep schools and another eight at Colgate University and Harvard University, [he:] had a pretty good understanding of the game” (98), and that c) he writes a volume that reverberates with the echoes of Roland Barthes (Mythologies, The Empire of Signs), Umberto Eco (Travels in Hyperreality), Jean Baudrillard ( America, Simulacra and Simulations), Guy Dubord (The Society of the Spectacle) , etc., no mention of these theorists is ever made.

The first chapter is especially perplexing. Here, Hedges explores the world of wrestling. Perhaps no writing on semiotics and signs is more famous than Roland Barthes’ essay, “The World of Wrestling” (from Mythologies). It has appeared in so many anthologies, even people unacquainted with theory have often read it. Hedges certainly would be familiar with this work. Like Barthes, Hedges focuses on the spectacle, rather than sport of wrestling. Like Barthes, Hedges provides descriptions of some of the stereotypical types of wrestlers and their various shticks, which create a sign system instantly recognizable by their spectators. Like Barthes, Hedges theorizes that the meaning of the spectacle goes beyond its sheer presence. For Barthes, wrestling is a world simplified, where spectators enjoy the “pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.” Though Hedges sees wrestling in a more tragic light, representing our moral decay, his analysis, like that of Barthes’, is an interpretation of signs: “The idea of permanent personalities and permanent values, as in the culture at large, has evaporated. It is all about winning. It is all about personal pain, vendettas, hedonism, and fantasies of revenge, while inflicting pain on others. It is the cult of victimhood” (10). Given the sheer number of parallels, Roland Barthes’ absence from the parade of theorists Hedges does reference is downright baffling.

In the second chapter, Hedges turns to the spectacle of pornography and casts a particularly detailed gaze on “gonzo” film pornography, which he explains “push the boundaries of porn and often include a lot of violence, physical abuse, and a huge number of partners in succession” (59). The type of activity in gonzo pornography is not difficult to grasp. Yet Hedges goes on for page after page after page, providing copious illustrations of various women enduring unbearable degradation. Rather than making his point, Hedges’ descriptions veer toward voyeurism. An example would have sufficed. Drowning the reader in semen is overkill.

And finally, what is the point? Male porn stars rate only three or four paragraphs in this detailed chapter. The emphasis is all on women. And Hedges ends heavily, with the pronouncement: “Women, porn asserts, whether they know it or not, are objects. They are whores. These whores deserve to be dominated and abused. And once men have had their way with them, these whores are to be discarded” (87). While Hedges is making a rhetorical flourish here, his repeated emphasis on the word whore, and his relentlessly detailed descriptions perpetuate the damage. Where is the corollary commentary on the male porn stars? Oh, wait. There really isn’t one. While words for promiscuous women abound, the few for men, such as a player, or a man-whore are more laudatory than shameful. The way Hedges constructs this chapter objectifies women as much as the gonzo films he decries. And it may be worse. Theory is a cool medium, and Hedges’ raw details from a hot medium, force us to be spectators to a chapter that is overly visual and under-theorized.

By the third chapter, I was lost in the funhouse. Hedges is all over the map. From gonzo pornography, Hedges switches to higher education. And this may be—given Hedges’ disdain for the workings of elite universities in particular—a logical transition. The chapter roars with broad generalizations. After some sullen commentary about the death of knowledge and the disproportionate amount of money spent on sports (and coaches!), Hedges goes after college professors, and singles out English professors in particular: “In the hands of academics, however, who rarely understand or concern themselves with the reality of the world, works of literature are eviscerated or destroyed. They are mined for obscure trivia and irrelevant data” (97). Given the fact that Hedges provides no facts to support this claim, one wonders whether he “concerns” himself with “reality.” No matter, apparently; Hedges continues on with his generalities, pointing out the shallowness of elite education and positing that the rich are different from you and me (I wonder if Hemingway really did say to Fitzgerald: “Yes, they have more money”).

Hedges then explains how his real love is for his blue collar roots, where people are more real. The cultural divide he creates, so well enacted during our last presidential campaign, is both Palinesque and stupid. While painting his family as somewhat disadvantaged (in contrast to the uncaring elite who can buy their way into college), Hedges explains how his bright son, an “avid reader” did poorer than Hedges preferred on his “critical reading” score. Hedges continues, “And so we did what many educated, middle-class families do. We hired an expensive tutor from the Princeton Review—its deluxe SAT preparation package costs $7,000—who taught him the tricks and techniques of standardized testing” (101). Really? This is what most middle-class families do? I’m middle class. My husband is a doctor and I’m one of those shitty English professors Hedges complains about who apparently suck the life out of literature. We bought our four children a study guide for their college entrance exams, which they could choose to use or not. Yet, Hedges refuses to see the privilege in his ability to fork out $7,000 for an expensive private tutor.

And, in this manner, Hedges’ chapter proceeds; more generalizations are made about the uncaring, shallow elite, and little or no evidence is provided to clarify his point or even substantiate his claim. Near the end of the chapter, Hedges simply plops in these statements, “Obama is a product of this elitist system. So are his degree-laden cabinet members. They came out of Harvard, Yale, Wellesley, and Princeton…They speak the same easy language of privilege, comfort, and entitlement” (113). What point is Hedges making? Is this an anomaly? Haven’t most of our modern presidents been products of an elite education who have “degree-laden cabinet members”? Aside from the bitterness that nearly drips off the page, Hedges apparently feels that just making statements stands in for analysis and data.

The last two chapters, treating the power of positive thinking gurus and the decline of the America that used to be the country Hedges “loved and honored” (141) follow the same pattern – many generalizations, but few facts to support his assertions. Hedges’ book is diffuse and scant. The chapters are only loosely connected, and, too often, Hedges either makes no point at all or provides some material and then uses a longish quotation from a well-known theorist to stand in for his own writing.

One star. Theory at its worst.