Empire of Illusion: the End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle
© 2009 Chris Hedges
Do we live in a world where images are more important than reality, where perception has supplanted substance? Chris Hedges thinks so, and in Empire of Illusion he deplores the death of authenticity in literacy, education, love, happiness, and politics. The result is a singularly disturbing work which provokes deep thought, even though it doesn’t established a common cause and answer the obvious question of why things have deteriorated so.
Hedges’ title prepared me to think he would be building a case here against some malignant factor in American society while detailing its deprivations, the end result being a call to arms that would allow us to make meaningful change. Instead, Hedges shocks the reader with five separate exposés and leaves us to consider the ramifications. It’s almost dispiriting, especially the end piece, “The Illusion of America”, in which he mourns the death of civic government to corporate corruption and imperialism. Other essays only examine facets of life, elements which can be isolated and repaired — but the problem is foundational. All this is delivered with considerable skill: one can’t read more than two sentences without being stung by some scathing rebuke or despairing observation. This is dramatic prose, and the horrors he reveals almost seem gratuitous — especially the chapter on the Illusion of Love, which took on the pornography business. I’ve read some gruesome works before, like Eugene Sledge’s memoirs of the Pacific War, but Hedge’s look inside smut left me feeling sick in a way I can’t remember; exploitation doesn’t do justice as a description.
Empire of Illusion is a distressing work, partly because it’s meant to do and partly because we’re left with no answers. Hedges believes American society is doomed. Politics is utterly corrupt, the educational system only promotes the failing status quo, and those elements in society worth caring about are powerless at the present time. Perhaps there’s no singular cause, but Hedges’ work makes me think of James Howard Kunstler’s comment in The KunstlerCast that it was interesting that architecture became cheap and contrived — cartoonish is a word he uses only as an insult — at the same time that television was beginning to dominate the American mind, “pushing its ethos on us”. I think, too, of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Both works attributed a decline in literacy, in thoughtfulness, the expression of substantive ideas to the media of television and the Internet, and I wonder if those media play a larger role than Postman or Carr ever attributed to them.
Although the central criticism is one worth considering, this isn’t a book I’d be enthusiastic to recommend. Compelling and on the mark as Hedges is, it is more shocking and disheartening than constructive.
I may re-read this at some point to see if stewing on the ideas make them more helpful. At the moment, two weeks after finishing it, it still leaves me feeling numb.
The Age of Absurdity, Michael Foley
Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brain, Nicholas Carr