Reviewing The Empire of Illusions, Part II

The second illusion that Hedges takes on in The Empire of Illusions is “illusion of love.”  Put simply, it’s all about porn, or a rather puritanical rant against it laced with modern liberal sentiments.  I wonder if this is the product of the juxtaposition between Hedges the divinities student and Hedges the liberal journalist.  He repeatedly hammers home the familiar point that porn is evil because it degrades women (and other objects of pornography) to simple commodity to be consumed and not fully-fleshed out humans.  It is in this chapter where Hedges is at his most shrill, predictable, and even annoying.

Pornography and, in general, sex is an ancient trade.  That it should be a huge industry today should hardly be a surprise.  In a sense, pornography is also honest:  it sells the physical enjoyment of sex, even if in crass and unsavory forms.  It does not pretend to be anything beyond what it says on the label.  If you are looking for a meaningful relationship, you do not turn to pornography, nor does pornography sell itself as a substitute for such. What is so illusory about pornography?

A much more pertinent story about an actual illusion of love, people semi-willingly falling for them, and those who cynically exploit them for profit showed up in a  story on This American Life some time ago.  Stories of unrequited love, sustained by self-imposed illusions and consequent delusions, for its part, are also an ancient tale, the stuff of great and not so great literature since time immemorial.  Everyone in their poetry class heard about Petrarch and Beatrice, after all and how that illusion gave rise to an entire class of poetry, the sonnets.

Is Hedges just being pissy, ranting on pornography the way old feminists have?  There are signs that, up to a point, this is indeed true.  But, at the same time, he is seizing on something about how technology reshapes the data ecology (again).  Some forms of information have reproduced far more rapidly in the technologically connected age than others skewing people’s perception of the reality:  porn is definitely one of them, as is internet gambling.  Meaningful relationships are far more difficult to establish, and this difficulty, coupled with the ease of “physical” communication, has produced the situation like that found in the This American Life story.  Heck, how many stories do we encounter where people engage in make-believe pseudo-sexual contexts online, pretending to be what they are not–and in full knowledge that the other party is not who they are pretending to be?

This phoniness in the kind of human contact that we have is pervasive beyond just sexual or quasi-sexual relationships.  In 1970s, members of Congress frequently made trips to their home districts.  Many voters knew their congressmen beyond their names, party affiliations, and policy positions.  They were their neighbors and friends with whom they could chat over coffee at a local diner.  It is easy to exaggerate the extent of such personal contact between members of Congress and their voters:  we, as people, were rarely so engaged in politics that such large numbers of people would go out of way to chat with elected officeholders for coffee:  perhaps 4-5% of the voters might have semi-regularly met their congressmen, enough to know them as something more than political ciphers.  These encounters, perhaps, were not so truthful either–the appearance of humanity that the congressmen showed may well have disguised their true political agenda, for all we know.  But then, we go back to the questions of what is and is not illusion and what is “true” knowledge.

What is indisputable is that the “illusions” of the old, whether in love or politics, if that indeed was what it was, was closer and personal.  These were products of repeated interactions that required investment in time and patience.  We no longer have this.  We have plenty of information, but little in terms of the subtler insights arising from appropriate subsets them.   We do not know our neighbors, our representatives, our lovers, because we don’t have the time (and they don’t have time) to talk to us at length.  Absent the prolonged interaction, we simply pay for what we want to be delivered instantaneously in a commodified fashion, whether it is sex, or an approximation thereof, or a bill (or an approximation thereof).  Once the goods are delivered, we are unsatisfied because that is not what we really wanted and think it fake, which, in some sense, it is.  But when all interactions are reduced to commodified relationships where mere goods and services are exchanged for a payment, without a sense of trust, “intimacy,” trust, and emotional connection, what else can one expect?

This is a deeper problem than what Hedges is getting at, also of a much longer standing.  We see traces of this in literature going back centuries, especially to times of great turmoil and change:  Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tom Wolfe, just to name a few.  This was why the masquerade was the big deal in 18th century, where people could, literally, hide behind the mask to interact among themselves while abandoning the requirements of the social norms.  Material goods, prestige, or whatever else that the era seems to value becomes the target for pursuit by the characters to the exclusion of personal fulfillment who invariably wind up mired in tragedy–even if the tragedy is an indulgent (and ironic) one, like Tom and Daisy Buchanan.  Yet, we don’t have the time for personal fulfillment.  The requirements and obligations we have give us little opportunity thereof, and, even if we are fortunate to find it for ourselves, those whom we want to engage may not have the same chance.  So we settle for easy, but phony relationships:  we hang out with the people who are predictable, conditional on what we know of them, and, where applicable, pay for commodified “relationships”  that we know to be phony.

Hedges is right that, once the relationship becomes commodified, the “other,” those who offer services in return for money (whether it is sex or not) are cheapened.  They are no longer people.  They are stuff.  If we are entitled to get what we pay for, their human frailties become unacceptable.  We paid good money for it, whatever it is:  we demand our stuff, damnit!  We lose empathy and understanding in course of a transactional relationship.  Or, we become delusional in the opposite direction:  we know we are getting phony services, but since we need a sense of relationship, we insist that we are getting that connection regardless, like the men featured in the This American Life story:  yes, we know it’s phony, but it felt real to us and that’s all that counts.  But it is still merely a transactional relationship from the other side:  it is still a tragedy of delusion regardless.

The illusion of love, then, echoes the illusion of literacy.  It is not that we don’t want an illusion, for everything is, in form or other, an illusion, some make-believe that we need to invest in time to make work.  We want an illusion that we can all believe in, an illusion that lies like the truth, to all of us at the same time.  Yet, we cannot, or perhaps, do not want to invest the time for creating and maintaining that illusion.  We are simply unhappy that our money can’t buy that illusion and it is this frustration that Hedges seizes upon.

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