Dec 29, 2010

Metaphysics before media studies

I quit reading Chris Hedges' book after the first section. It's possible that all the things that are wrong with Empire of Illusions are resolved or taken care of the other three sections, but I doubt it.

If you can go more than 50 pages without taking the time to define or even, apparently, think about the very key terms of your entire argument, then your book doesn't deserve to be read. Chris Hedges, for example, has no idea what he's talking about.

I should say that I found some of Hedges' work on war very helpful, last year, when I was working on a paper on war photography. His War is a Force That Gives us Meaning is an excellent book, expressing some things about the trauma of violence I haven't found clearly expressed anywhere else, and some of the work he's done for The Nation on the same topic is quite good. Now that he's branching out, though, he's writing things like Empire of Illusion, which is a social critique and also very much cultural studies through media, and this is a book that's total crap.

That's me being kind.

There's enough things wrong with this book that it could be a good case study about what's wrong with media studies and cultural studies as done on the popular level.

It's rife with post hoc ergo propter hoc and slippery slope logical fallacies, when the book bothers to make arguments at all instead of just offering pronouncements; it generally disdains its subjects, e.g. wrestling fans, failing to charitably interpret their ideas or understandings, generally caricaturing them as thick-minded imbeciles capable only of the most literal, least perceptive forms of thought; it works with and accepts all the standard cultural biases of its target audience, never once taking anything like an unorthodox stand about what is good and what bad; it fails to understand media as a structure or a system, simplistically conceiving of the problem as one of black-hats and aliens, where, "if only we could get rid of the bad guys," everything would be alright; it completely fails to be self-reflexive in any way, or to encourage its readers to think critically about themselves; it's basically designed to make the readers feel better about themselves, and, as opposed to actually moving reading to think critically about their world, which would require them to think critically about themselves, works to suppress thinking and simply affirms, affirms, affirms. This is a book you read to be proud of yourself for being right.

Putting all that in brackets, though, there's a basic foundational flaw: the whole book is built on the key term of "illusion," which is understood in contrast to "reality," which is never defined, and never even really thought about.

Hedges problematically holds the idea that there is such a thing as an unmediated reality, without apparently thinking at all about what that is or would be. The thesis of his book is that our media culture is such that we can "no longer distinguish between truth and fiction." Of course, he never really gives any argument about how this is something new, but besides that, more basic than that -- most basic of all the problems Hedges' has with this book -- he never actually ever gets to the idea about what he means by his key terms.

The basic ideas he builds his whole book on are almost blanks.

"We are a culture," he writes, "that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity, to separate illusion from reality."

But what is illusion? What is reality? Hedges assumes this is obvious, and never bothers to actually ask or think about the terms. He extensively writes about "illusion" and "fiction," slamming it, attacking it and despising it for what it's not, without ever actually articulating what "truth" and "reality" are or could be. We are left with the choice of either assuming along with him, taking these terms as obvious, or guessing.

Hedges seems to want and to think we should have a kind of unmediated real, a reality that's pure experience and not filtered through narratives, frames, interpretive frameworks or theories.

The one very brief example he gives in the first section of the book is the reality one experiences in combat. What he means by this, though, and what he actually describes, isn't reality as such, but the fracturing and falling-apart of a insufficient narrative. He doesn't describe the "reality" or war, or even the experience of experiencing the reality of war as really real, but the experience of being shot at and realizing that one's modes of understanding, one's narratives -- war movies, romantic notions, whatever -- are not nearly enough. Reality, as Hedges offers it in this example, isn't the thing itself or life itself or experience itself, but a kind of narratological break down.

It's possible, of course, that this is what he wants with "reality," so that reality would be that which could only be experienced ecstatically, as a kind of religious revelation, like St. Theresa erotic ecstasy or Aquinas' revelation that was unspeakable except as a dismissal of all the speaking. If so, Hedges should go there. He was, at one time, a divinity student, and if his critique of culture and media is about failed attempts at transcendence, the man should have the language with which to articulate that, beyond this assumption we all know what he's talking about when he's talking about "reality."

He doesn't appeal to the saints, though, or any religious figure. Instead, the one theorist he turns to (not counting his colleagues at The Nation, whom he cites as if they a part of a canonic thinkers) is Plato. We, Hedges writes, are in the same situation, with regards to the illusions of the media, as the people in Plato's cave. Trapped by shadows. Without access to the real. Needing to free ourselves and escape the cave of illusions.

Of course -- and I say "of course" because this is basic to what Plato's doing with the story of the cave, even though Hedges, despite his affinity for all things classical, seems to have completely missed -- Plato's realm of illusions is reality itself.

For Plato, it's not narratives and stories and performances that deceive us into mistaking them for reality, it's reality. Reality is the illusion, for Plato. What we have to escape in Plato is the realm of beings to get to the realm of Being; we have to overcome the real to make it to the Real. Etc.

Plato, who is Hedges' one actual thinker, wouldn't likely accept the experience of combat as an example of how one experiences the Real. It would just be another illusion. Which means that Hedges' "reality" is an illusion according to the one philosophical idea he cites of what reality is.

Illusion and reality are the absolutely crucial terms for Hedges whole argument. The closest he actually gets to thinking about those terms, though, is to misunderstand or misrepresent a thinker who has thought about them.

I'm picking on Hedges, of course. He isn't alone, here. This is one of the basic ways analysis of media gets stupid. It's really, really common for critiques to critique media for mediating, as if it could do anything else, and to critique it for distorting that which is really only ever distorted, for construction (to use a good cultural studies word) that which is, of necessity, constructed. Popular media studies works are basically overrun with assumptions about the "real" and how we have access to it. The real argument I'm making here isn't about Hedges, as frustrated as I was with him, but is a plea:

Please don't do media critiques without doing some basic philosophy.