Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges; Knopf Canada, 232 pp.
Let us cut to the chase: corporation = bad, military = bad, pornography = bad, television = bad, pictures = dumb, reading = smart, America = a mess, love = good; this is Empire of Illusion distilled.
This is a book I’d like to love, but I can’t, because its argument really isn’t much more complex or nuanced or more elegant than the summary above.
The ideas are broadly attractive. Literacy is declining. Television does function as a theatre of cruelty. Pornography has carried its antifeminist subtexts into the mainstream. Universities are slowly becoming glorified trade schools. The psychology of happiness is a load of feel-good bunk peddled by snake-oil salesmen. Right?
Right — but with numerous caveats, which Empire of Illusion fails to address or even to recognize. Literacy may or may not be declining, depending on how you measure it. As reality television grew, we experienced also a renaissance (assuming there was first a naissance) of quality television drama; the medium is perhaps now more serious than ever before. As pornography moves to the mainstream, feminist porn rises as an alternative. And so on.
In short, our culture is much more diverse and complex than Hedges is willing to admit. Contradictions, counterarguments, caveats: Hedges pretends that they don’t exist. He does not explore his subject; he rants.
The book’s best chapter is the second, which deals with pornography. Hedges points to the human costs of gonzo porn and questions the complacency of a culture that allows itself to be duped into believing this is good, harmless fun for all involved. His argument does suffer a certain selectiveness: he does not address the full breadth and range of pornography. But his focus is on the mainstream, so the omissions can be forgiven.
As the book progresses, however, the holes in the argument gape wide enough to allow passage of trucks, ocean liners, passenger aircraft and other large means of mass transportation; entire subway systems operate below the level of his superficial investigations. His selectivity with the evidence becomes obvious, and becomes steadily less justifiable.
He pretends that the decline of the university into a trade school is a problem only affecting “elite” institutions, which, he asserts, have been taken over by corporations that do not permit criticism of their interests. Never mind the question of declining literacy, the problem he goes after in his preamble; this is all about corporations controlling the agenda.
And this is how things really fall apart. When all else fails, he simply applies the adjective “corporate” to that which he wishes to discredit. We know the psychologists are up to no good when Hedges informs us, apropos of nothing, that they’re dressed in “business” attire.
The corporate media, Hedges tells us, will not allow us to hear voices that question the corporate status quo or corporate control of the corporate state and its corporate military, etc.
I know that the corporate media silences dissent, of course, because I read it in Hedges’ book, which was published by a division of Bertelsman AG — to wit, the corporate media.
That one must have snuck out of Mordor while Sauron’s all-seeing eye was distracted.
It’s a sad irony that a book bemoaning the decline of literacy fails to engage its subject at anything but a superficial level.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the times.
I was buying the whole story, weak as it was, until we hit that bit about the reindeer flying. Look, throwing some cheap magic realism into the works doesn’t make up for the general weakness of the narrative. Adding a dash of magic ain’t gonna make my jaw drop at your breathtaking originality. Okay? So can the damn magic.
I thought I was alone in this, until I read Alastair Harper’s post at the Guardian, which essentially suggests that a dash of magic has become de rigeur for the novelist who wishes to brand his work as “serious.”
Actually, I’ll take that a step further: a dash of magic has become de rigeur for the Canadian short story writer who wants to get his work past the little magazine’s first line of defence. It’s the shortcut to freshness. Magic realism seems, at times, to have become the default mode of Canadian storytelling. And by and large, it sucks.
Now, I’m not down on magic realism in general; one of my favorite books of the last year was Leon Rooke’s The Last Shot, which contains no shortage of magic. As with anything else, there’s work at a high level, and there’s work that flies at much lower altitudes. At lower altitudes, magic seems to be the spice you add to cover up the cardboard taste of a story that’s not quite fresh. Never mind that the device itself is hardly fresh; it’s a dash of Magic(r) brand “originality substitute” that makes all the difference.
The explanation, no matter how the editors may protest, may lie in the volume of stories flowing in to the little magazines. The front-line reader in her literary trench must feel somewhat shell-shocked with all this shit flying overhead. A quiet, subtle story may understandably fail to make an impression amidst all the shock and awe and battle fatigue; a dash of magic shouts, hey, look at me: I’m fresh! It gets the story past the first line of trenches.
(Yes, I do think it appropriate, no matter the nurturing remarks to the contrary, to regard the editorial process at little magazines as defence in depth, with machine guns, barbed wire, and minefields covered by interlocking arcs of fire.)
Or maybe I’m wrong about the shell shock. Maybe magic is just in fashion. But that still doesn’t make me like it any better.
Via GalleyCat on Twitter, I read of this strange notion:
Sony’s Haber compares LPs to CD transition–sudden resale of back catalog in new format–to publishing today. #ebooksummit
Uh … I hope he isn’t seriously expecting people to buy that one. And that he’s not saying what I think he’s saying.
Books differ from LPs, CDs and mp3s in several important ways which make these kinds of comparisons just plain silly.
Books are human-readable. Unlike LPs, you don’t need special equipment to decode the information recorded therein. Also, they have a very long life — unlike LPs, they don’t scratch and warp.
Well, they do, but you can still read them afterwards.
Furthermore, many people don’t re-read books. But we listen to records* more than once — with the possible exception of those bought by well-meaning aunts.
Those back catalogue sales were driven by people replacing LPs. People replaced their LP catalogues because their LPs were scratched, warped, and wearing out, because CDs were viewed at the time as having superior sound, because they didn’t want to fix their turntable when it broke, and so on.
I can’t see any compelling reason for a consumer to replace his existing books — human-readable, near-permanent media — with e-books just because he buys a shiny new reader. Chances are, you don’t want to re-read them; if you do, they’re on the shelf.
This expectation of a sudden resale of the back catalogue, it seems to me, is nothing but goofy tech boosterism. It seems far more likely that the back catalogue will continue to sell at the same rate, but with an increasing share of the new format.
* if v-phrase = “listen to records” then message “You’re showing your age again, dude.”
A few days ago, Steven Beattie provoked me into thinking. That this post appears only today illustrates either that (a) even when provoked, I think slowly, or (b) I’m just plain lazy.
The provocation was his post on Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, and another book, The Automatiste Revolution. The latter doesn’t concern us here. That is to say, it may concern you, but it does not concern me; if it concerns you, therefore, go be concerned about it someplace else.
Where was I? The point is here:
Still, regardless of whether the sting of Wolfe’s satire has dated, the general premise of his book – that the American art of the postwar years was so disdainful of easy comprehension that art theory itself became an art form and its proponents (not the actual consumers of the work) became the tastemakers who decided what qualified as high artistic achievement – is a provocative one. The closer art came to the “flatness” that Wolfe suggests Greenberg prized, the more it retreated up its own fundament.
I’m not interested in Tom Wolfe’s view of the abstract expressionists, correctness and defensibility thereof, so much as in the general point: what happens when theory itself becomes the point of art, and you find yourself up the fundament without a flashlight?
This is, of course, an old argument, and mindful of the number of times it’s been rehashed by undergraduates, I’ll attempt to avoid rehashing it unecessarily (and, no doubt, will fail).
It’s just that I was struck, at the same time, by the discussion of accessibility in the recent Cage Match of Canadian Poetry. Carmine Starnino kicked this off, saying that accessibility was the elephant in the room. The ensuing discussion set up the usual (false) dichotomy, in which work is either avant garde and inaccessible, or a populist rehash. Absent (even when Christian Bök made a point of Eunoia‘s commercial success) was any acknowledgment that Eunoia, which was held up as an example of avant garde work, was successful because of its accessibility.
That is, the very work held up as an example while rehashing this dichotomy itself illustrates that the dichotomy is false.
(Any person declaring that Eunoia is not avant garde because it is accessible will be tied up in a sack knotted with a circular argument of his own making, and tossed in the nearest river. You have been warned.)
Eunoia is immediately accessible, at some level, to any literate, intelligent person. It does not exist in rarefied mountaintop air, available only to those with breathing equipment, Sherpas, and an MA. And this accessibility is the reason for its success.
It seems to me that any artistic endeavour that relies primarily on theory and which is accessible only to participants is essentially no more than a glorified circle jerk. The old game of supposing that ground-breaking work must be inaccessible is nothing but a means of excusing that. And it’s hardly surprising that these efforts are marginalized, while work that succeeds in being both fresh and accessible succeeds.
The BBC has an interview with the celebrated war photographer Don McCullin, who once said that he “used to chase wars like a drunk chases a can of lager,” and is best known to the public perhaps for his harrowing photographs from Biafra. McCullin left war photography behind and is now known for his landscape work, and also for recent work on AIDS in Africa. He’s ambivalent about his fame:
… a very famous war photographer – an American – said … ‘I’m going to be the next Don McCullin.’ And quite honestly, he’s welcome to be where I was, he can’t be me; but anybody’s welcome to those laurels; they’re rather kind of worn out and faded, those laurels; they’ve gone.
Elsewhere, he has said that he considers his career to have been a waste, and that his photographs had no impact on the world.
How much his past still haunts him seems open to question:
I published a book a few years ago and I called it, Sleeping with Ghosts, because I know that when I’m in my house and I’m down one end of it asleep, down the other end there’s all these filing cabinets with this raucous noise going on down there. I mean, obviously it sounds to you as though I’m slightly barking, but I’m not. I’m totally in control of myself, and hopefully, I’ll try and play some part in my destiny. But I know that living in that house, there is some mischief going on, down where those filing cabinets lie. You can’t have that material, that energy in a house or in a place, without something going on down there.
The interview is definitely worth reading, or listening to.
So is this one:
… working for media involves manipulation. I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. So there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don’t practice religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself : “I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.”
Four years ago, the Guardian did a good profile of McCullin, which is also worth reading.
I think we’d see much less regrettable, forgettable work if people would only abandon their focus on innovating in favour of a focus on, say, writing well.
But that might be just me.
I hope my previous post listing helpful gift ideas for anyone contemplating doing something stupid, like writing a novel, wasn’t too much of a downer.
Let me cheer the mood by pointing out also that photojournalism is dead, and has been rotting in its grave for a decade.