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

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 June, 2010, 12:00am

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle
by Chris Hedges
Nation Books HK$200

If you or I sat down to write a book about what's most deeply wrong with modern society, we would probably not begin with the World Wrestling Federation. But that is the subject of the first and most powerful chapter of Chris Hedges' Empire of Illusion.

Hedges doesn't dislike wrestling because the fights are fixed and the grapplers are overpaid and cheat when the referee isn't looking. His eye is on the audience, and what is being inflicted on them. Celebrity wrestling has developed into a complex spectacle. The bouts themselves are stylised rituals. The wrestlers have stage personas well known to their fans, each with a lurid and detailed biography, involving alliances, betrayals and insults. The matches, Hedges says, are always acts of retribution for a host of elaborate and fictional wrongs. The fans are being fed not only a spectacle, but an illusion.

Who cares? Well, Hedges does. Professional wrestling, as he sees it, is a symptom of a serious, possibly terminal malaise. We swallow a meretricious popular culture because we want to be fooled. Whether it's wrestling, reality television, the vicarious pleasures of pornography or celebrity culture, the gratifications of junk food, junk entertainment, junk politics - with all these things we fatally distract ourselves from dealing with real problems, or even thinking about them. We have built ourselves a culture that makes us both brutal and infantile.

What does he mean by 'we', you are entitled to ask. Well, up to a point, readers of his book - and this review - are exempt, since Hedges thinks that the decline of reading is the main factor that has brought this calamity about. 'We are a culture that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity, to separate illusion from reality.'

With about 42 per cent of the American population illiterate or barely literate, there is a shortage of the basic skills needed to distinguish illusion from truth. In other places the situation is not much better.

But just because you can read, you won't escape Hedges' spirited wrath. In universities, scholars bury knowledge beneath a pile of specialist gobbledygook, while armies of professional experts walk the earth peddling the intellectual equivalent of snake oil. The functionally illiterate may be unable to tell the fake from the real, but much of Hedges' fury (and this is an angry book) is reserved for the political and intellectual elites who should know better. All empires before they collapse, he says, are taken over by a bankrupt and corrupt elite.

This raises the question of what or where the 'empire of illusion' is. Most immediately, it's the US after George W. Bush - corporate, guzzling, ignorant, violent and bankrupt, as Hedges sees it. (He is the author of the polemical American Fascists, and War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.) In another sense, the empire of illusion is modern culture everywhere.

Or is it, as some might say - and this would blunt Hedges' argument somewhat - the human condition itself? Wrestling fans are not the only people to prefer a colourful illusion to an irksome reality. The distracting myths of sports entertainment, you could argue, have been supplied for centuries by organised religion.

This is a powerful book: reading it is like being repeatedly hit over the head. I must say I found it hard to disagree with. But there is a structural problem with angry prophecy, which probably goes back to the biblical Jeremiah. Those most directly attacked by the prophet are not listening. And those who are listening suspect that he is really talking about somebody else.