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Book Excerpt: ‘Empire of Illusion’
Posted on Jul 30, 2009
By Chris Hedges
“I think friendship does enter into it at some point,” says Jerri. “But I think it’s very important to keep that separate from the game. It’s two totally different things. And that’s where it gets tricky.” Jerri will say later, as she casts her vote, “This is probably one of the most difficult things for me to do right now. It’s purely strategic, it’s nothing personal. I am going to miss you dearly.”
“Jeff,” Maralyn breaks in. “I’m conjoined with Tina. She is a constellation. And, the cowboy [Colby]! The poor cowboy has dragged me around so many times [during the obstacle course challenge]. I appreciate it.”
“I’d do it again,” laughs Colby broadly.
“Hey, you hear that? He’d do it again!” says Maralyn.
Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle
By Chris Hedges
Nation Books, 240 pages
It is time to vote. Each team member walks up a narrow bridge lit by flaring torches, again looking like something out of Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, made of twisted logs lashed with vines, to a stone table. They write the name of the person they want to eliminate and put it in a cask with aboriginal carvings. Most of the votes are kept anonymous, the camera panning away as each person writes. But as Tina, Mad Dog Maralyn’s best friend and “constellation,” casts her vote, she shows us her ballot: Mad Dog. “Mad Dog, I love you,” she says to the camera, “I value your friendship more than anything. This vote has everything to do with a promise I made, it has nothing to do with you. I hope you’ll understand.” She folds her vote and puts it in the cask.
“Once the vote is tallied, the decision is final, and the person will be asked to leave the tribal council area immediately,” says Probst.
Five people of the seven voted to eliminate Maralyn.
“You need to bring me a torch, Mad Dog,” says Probst. She does so, first taking off her green baseball cap and putting it affectionately on Amber, who sits next to her and gives her a hug. The camera shows Tina looking impassive.
“Mad Dog,” says Probst, holding the flaming torch Maralyn has brought him, “the tribe has spoken.” He takes a large stone snuffer and extinguishes the torch. The camera shows Marilynn’s rueful face behind the smoking, blackened torch. “It’s time for you to go,” says Probst. She leaves without speaking or looking at anyone, although there are a few weak “bye” ’s from the tribe.
Before the final credits, we are shown who, besides her friend Tina, voted to eliminate Maralyn. They are Amber, who gave Maralyn a farewell hug along with Mitchell, Jerri and Colby, Maralyn’s “cowboy.”
Celebrity culture plunges us into this moral void. No one has any worth beyond his or her appearance, usefulness, or ability to “succeed.” The highest achievements in a celebrity culture are wealth, sexual conquest, and fame. It does not matter how these are obtained. These values, as Sigmund Freud understood, are illusory. They are hollow. They leave us chasing vapors. They urge us toward a life of narcissistic self-absorption. They tell us that existence is to be centered on the practices and desires of the self rather than the common good. The ability to lie and manipulate others, the very ethic of capitalism, is held up as the highest good. “I simply agreed to go along with [Jerri and Amber] because I thought it would get me down the road a little better,” says young, good-looking Colby in another episode of Survivor. “I wanna win. And I don’t want to talk to anybody else about loyalties—don’t give me that crap. I haven’t trusted anyone since day one, and anyone playing smart should have been the same way.”
The cult of self dominates our cultural landscape. This cult shares within it the classic traits of psychopaths; superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception, and manipulation and the inability to feel remorse or guilt. This is, of course, the ethic promoted by corporations. It is the ethic of unfettered capitalism. It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. In fact, personal style, defined by the commodities we buy or consume, has become a compensation for our loss of democratic equality. We have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to be happy, and to become famous. Once fame and wealth are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality. How one gets there is irrelevant. Once you get there, those questions are no longer asked.
It is this perverted ethic that gave us Wall Street bankers and investment houses that willfully trashed the nation’s economy, stole money from tens of millions of small shareholders who had bought stock in these corporations for retirement or college. The heads of these corporations, like the winners on a reality television program who lied and manipulated others to succeed, walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses and compensation. In his masterful essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin wrote: “The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the ‘spell of the personality,’ the phony spell of a commodity.”
“The professional celebrity, male and female, is the crowning result of the star system of a society that makes a fetish of competition,” wrote C. Wright Mills:
Degradation as entertainment is the squalid underside to the glamour of celebrity culture. “If only that were me,” we sigh as we gaze at the wealthy, glimmering stars on the red carpet. But we are as transfixed by the inverse of celebrity culture, by the spectacle of humiliation and debasement that comprise tabloid television shows such as The Jerry Springer Show and The Howard Stern Show. We secretly exult: “At least that’s not me.” It is the glee of cruelty with impunity, the same impulse that drove crowds to the Roman Colosseum, to the pillory and the stocks, to public hangings and to traveling freak shows.
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