"Notes from Empire of Illusion"

Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: the End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (New York: Nation Books, 2009)

“The more we sever ourselves from a literate, print-based world – a world of complexity and nuance, a world of ideas – for one informed by comforting and reassuring images, fantasies, slogans, and a celebration of violence, the more we implode. We ask, like the wrestling fans or those who confuse love with pornography, to be fed lies. We demand lies. The skillfully manufactured images and slogans that flood the airwaves and infect our political discourse mask reality. And we do not protest. The lonely Cassandras who speak the truth about our misguided imperial wars, the global economic meltdown, and the imminent danger of multiple pollutions that are destroying the ecosystem that sustains the human species, are drowned out by arenas full of fans chanting “Slut! Slut! Slut!” or television audiences chanting “Jer-ry! Jer-ry ! Jer-ry!” The worse reality becomes the less a beleaguered population wants to hear about it and the more it distracts itself with squalid pseudo-events of celebrity breakdowns, gossip, and trivia. These are the debauched revels of a dying culture.” – Dust Jacket back cover

“In The Republic, Plato imagines human beings chained for the duration of their lives in an underground cave, knowing nothing but darkness. Their gaze is confined to the cave wall, upon which shadows or the world above are thrown. They believe these flickering shadows are reality. If, Plato writes, one of these prisoners is freed and brought into the sunlight, he will suffer great pain. Blinded by the glare, he is unable to see anything and longs for the familiar darkness. But eventually his eyes adjust to the light. The illusion of the tiny shadows is obliterated. He confronts the immensity, chaos, and confusion of reality. The world is no longer drawn in simple silhouettes. But he is despised when he returns to the cave. He is unable to see in the dark as he used to. Those who never left the cave ridicule him and swear never to go into the light lest they be blinded as well.
Plato feared the power of entertainment, the power of the senses to overthrow the mind, the power of emotion to obliterate reason. No admirer of popular democracy, Plato said that the enlightened or elite had a duty to educate those bewitched by the shadows on the cave wall, a position that led Socrates to quip: 'As for the man who tried to free them and lead them upward, if they could somehow lay their hands on him and kill him, they would do so.'” “We are 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. In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Daniel Boorstin writes that in contemporary culture the fabricated, the inauthentic, and the theatrical have displaced the natural, the genuine, and the spontaneous, until reality itself has been converted into stagecraft. Americans, he writes, increasingly live in a 'world where fantasy is more real than reality.'” pp. 14-15

“Those who manipulate the shadows that dominate our lives are the agents, publicists, marketing departments, promoters, script writers, television and movie producers, advertisers, video technicians, photographers, bodyguards, wardrobe consultants, fitness trainers, pollsters, public announcers, and television news personalities who create the vast stage for illusion. They are the puppet masters. No one achieves celebrity status, no cultural illusion is swallowed as reality, without these armies of cultural enablers and intermediaries. The sole object is to hold attention and satisfy an audience.” pp. 15-16

". . . And we are,” as Neal Gabler writes in Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, “all becoming performance artists and audiences for a grand, ongoing show.” p. 16

"We all have gods, Martin Luther said, it is just a question of which ones. And in American society our gods are celebrities. Religious belief and practice are commonly transferred to the adoration of celebrities. Our culture builds temples to celebrities the way Romans did for divine emperors, ancestors, and household gods. We are de facto a polytheistic society. . . . Those who can touch the celebrity or own a relic of the celebrity hope for a transference of celebrity power. They hope for magic. [see Sir James George Frazer for "contagious magic]." p. 17

". . . The illiterate, the semi-literate, and those who live as though they are illiterate are effectively cut off from the past. They live in an eternal present. . . . They repeat thought-terminating clichés and slogans." pp. 47-48

"An image-based culture communicates through narratives, pictures, and pseudo-drama. . . . In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we neither seek nor want honesty or reality. Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or unwilling to handle its confusion. . . . We are fed words and phrases like war on terror or pro-life or change, and within theses narrow parameters, all complex thought, ambiguity, and self-criticism vanish." p. 49

“Pseudo-events, dramatic productions orchestrated by publicists, political machines, television, Hollywood, or advertisers, however, are very different. They have the capacity to appear real, even though we know they are staged. [the willing suspension of disbelief] They are capable because they can evoke a powerful emotional response of overwhelming reality and replacing it with a fictional narrative that often becomes accepted as truth." p. 50