It’s a theory of here and now… and it ain’t pretty

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Empire of Illusion

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/08/2009 (4810 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Empire of Illusion

The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle

By Chris Hedges

Knopf, 231 pages, $30

CHRIS Hedges, the American author of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning among other books, is again plumbing the depths of a decaying and fragmented society. This time his own.

Ever since physicists began looking for a theory of everything, cultural observers have been on their own holy grail quest — for a parallel cultural theory. Or perhaps it is just the fault of Malcolm Gladwell.

Whatever it is, Hedges is a fan of big ideas, and in Empire of Illusions, he draws upon the culture of professional wrestling and pornography, the elite university, positive psychology and the financial crisis to fashion a social theory of everything.

Or perhaps, a total theory of the here and now.

These are the illusory comforts of a debauched society in decline. In turn, the illusions of literacy, of love, of wisdom, of happiness, and of America — all come under Hedges’ scrutiny.

For many readers the book will be a revelation, explaining various social and cultural practices as symptoms of an economic pathology. We are awash in debt, reality shows, pornography, tinny pop psychology and the illusions of a meritocracy.

A rotten capitalism has coughed up a mass culture of spectacle, want and authoritarianism, says Hedges. Just connect the dots.

“Magical thinking is the currency not only of celebrity culture, but also of totalitarian culture,” Hedges writes. “As we sink into an economic and political morass, we are still controlled, manipulated and distracted by the celluloid shadows on the dark wall of Plato’s cave.”

Demagogues and totalitarianism lurk in this book. The economy is in a state of collapse — and yes, echoes of Jared Diamond’s book are present.

The seductive flights from reality take many forms, each with its own consequences. The Democrats and Republicans preside over it all, a class of well-fed, tuned out “courtiers.”

Hedges follows a well-trod path and pays homage to thinkers who will be familiar to readers well-versed in social theory’s critiques of consumer culture.

Hedges, however, is perhaps the only writer in America with a broad audience who will attack not only the corporate state, but quote the philosopher Adorno: “All political instruction finally should be centred upon the idea that Auschwitz should never happen again.” And then declare the “moral nihilism embraced by elite universities would have terrified Adorno.”

From Auschwitz to the rationalizing culture of Harvard, the point is not wasted.

Hedges is always tending towards the universal in the particular. How ancient vulnerabilities are awakened in our present condition. How the operation of state and corporate power deliver us to the thrall of militarism (in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning) or awaken nationalism (in American Fascists).

“The motor of all radicalism is economic despair,” he writes in Empire of Illusion.

A Pulitzer-prize winning war reporter and preacher’s son, Hedges hardly counts himself among the radicals.

But on the face of them, his pronouncements may sound just that: “Democracy and capitalism are antagonistic entities,” he says, challenging many western assumptions.

And he gets there from a commitment not so much to humanism, but to something divine.

Ria Julien is a Winnipeg writer and editor

living in New York.

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