“The Cult of Self and
The Tyranny of Illusion”
A Review of
Empire of Illusion:
The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.
by Chris Hedges.
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.
Empire of Illusion:
The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.
Hardback: Nation Books, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Susan Sontag’s seminal 1973 book On Photography begins in Plato’s cave, “still reveling, [humankind’s] age-old habit, in mere images of the truth. But being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images.” She continues, “By furnishing the already crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is. Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.” Similarly, Chris Hedges begins his new book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle – after a visit to the World Wrestling Entertainment ring – back in Plato’s cave, “chained to the flickering shadows of celebrity culture, the spectacle of the arena and the airwaves, the lies of advertising, the endless personal dramas, many of them completely fictional, that have become the staple of news, celebrity gossip New Age mysticism, and pop psychology” (15). It is the replacement of reality with illusion, and the inability to see beyond the illusion that dominates Empire of Illusion.
Divided into five chapters, the Illusions of Literacy, Love, Wisdom, Happiness, and America narrate what reads like many social constructivist or ‘society of spectacle’ critiques of the last several decades, although Hedges places these illusory experiences right in the middle of our current politics, economics and entertainment. And it would seem the illusions are easier to come by than reality itself, as many other writers – such as Wendell Berry or Neil Postman (both alluded to by Hedges here) have described in various works over the years. It is, however, Sontag’s essays on photography that I keep returning to as a framework for contextualizing the dismal images Hedges cites as indications of the disintegration of reality.
Take, for instance, one they both use as an example, the famous photograph by Jon Rosenthal of the American flag hoisted by soldiers during the battle at Iwo Jima. Hedges continues the story, as this flag-raising is re-enacted for Hollywood, “it became part of the mythic narrative of heroism and patriotic glory sold to the public by the Pentagon’s public relations machine and Hollywood. The reality of war could not compete against the power of the illusion” (21); this is where reading Sontag alongside Empire of Illusion complicates the flight from reality further, for she describes the iconic photograph as a “reconstruction” itself, “of the morning flag-raising ceremony, done later in the day and with a much larger flag” (Regarding the Pain of Others, 56). Abandoning reality would seem to have been a long time coming in the United States. And yet, to belabor Sontag as a precedent for Empire of Illusion a little further, it is helpful to consider her caution: “To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment” (Regarding…, 110). Sontag is writing in the context of viewing images of atrocities, and warning lest we become inured by images of suffering; Hedges, however, using the $10 billion yearly US porn industry as mimetic example, suggests that “porn reflects the endemic cruelty of our society… Porn reflects the cruelty of a culture that tosses its mentally ill out on the street, warehouses more than 2 million people in prisons,… and trumpets an obnoxious and superpatriotic nationalism and rapacious corporate capitalism. The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy” (72-3).
Furthering the “end of literacy” touted in the subtitle, a helpful description of illiteracy is given in the chapter the Illusion of Wisdom, calling attention to the ‘specialist,’ “who uses obscure words as a way to avoid communication…By any standard comprehensible within the tradition of Western civilization, as John Ralston Saul points out, these people are illiterate” (96). In much the same way that viewers obsessed with the metanarratives of the World Wrestling Entertainment are lost in a fantasy, so are these elites who can only perpetuate the narratives of global corporate capitalism. At the heart of these fantasies, Hedges reminds again and again, is the cult of the self, projecting our own desires for celebrity, for wealth and for power ahead of the realities of flesh and blood around us.
The final chapter, the Illusion of America, confronts the American Empire most directly, and often enough through the particular corporate-military-industrial complex that drives the nation-state:
“The government, stripped of any real sovereignty, provides little more than technical expertise for elites and corporations that lack moral restraints and a concept of the common good. America has become a façade. It has become the greatest illusion in a culture of illusions. It represents a power and a democratic ethic is does not possess…We remain tempted by mirages, by the illusion that we can, still, all become rich” (143).
The violence underlying this empire becomes apparent with numbers like a $623 billion US Defense budget for 2006 – “more than all other militaries on earth combined” (144) – or the current “$3 trillion war” or that “since the end of the Second World War, the federal government has spend more than half its tax dollars on past, current, and future military operations” (153); the “permanent war economy” coupled with “participatory fascism” might be the most indicting critiques of the American brand of empire: a polis and economy stimulated by violence, and a promise for everyone to be a star in that system.
The examples in Empire of Illusion are often tough to get through, but they are the symptoms of empire, making this an important, immediate book. And yet beyond what sounds like totalitarianism upon us all, there is the briefest suggestion at the very end that there is hope, and that love, in fact, “is deeply subversive to those in power” (191). Certainly, reading the rest of this book first will amplify the gravity and extent of that love, as it seems to me to be the love that might begin with ‘denying yourself,’ denying that ‘cult of self’ that drives all of the illusory shadow works narrated in Empire of Illusion.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com