By Luther Blissett and J. F. Sebastian of Arkesoul
Perhaps no philosophical concept more aptly describes the current cultural milieu than hyperreality, characterized by wikipedia as “an inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality, especially in technologically advanced postmodern societies.” The predominance of hyperreality comes at a time when people in power have never had more to conceal, distort and distract the population from while there’s never been more people who have more means and motives to stay distracted. This is evident in many aspects of contemporary life from corporate news narratives shaped by sponsors and “official sources”, increasingly absurd denials of the true state of the economy from (mis)leaders, widespread dependence on pharmaceuticals worsened by direct-to-consumer advertising and a sham drug war, fanatical worship of celebrities, to slavish acquiescence to fads and fashion. But most obvious is the increasing amount of time spent in front of screens whether for work, shopping, social media, education, self-expression, games, web content, or the exponentially growing volume of video entertainment. Though video games and web series are catching up, the primary narrative formats for cultural expression and transmission today are still television and film.
Struggling to retain their cultural/economic status in the face of increased competition while appeasing shareholders of their monolithic multinational corporate owners, large film and television studios are increasingly risk averse. This is glaringly apparent in the output of major studios which are for the most part the media equivalent of comfort food; familiar (formulaic), satisfying (crowd pleasing), full of empty calories (lacking intellectual/emotional complexity or challenging ideas) and generally bland in terms of content and presentation. On television this is commonly displayed through clichéd tropes, characters and situations while films are now more than ever driven by CGI enhanced spectacle. Both rely on repeating what has worked in the past and (for viewers of a certain age) appealing to nostalgia while pandering to current cultural trends.
Of course such strategies overlap, as there’s more than a few television programs that offer Hollywood style spectacle and big budget movies which imitate successful formulas in the form of adaptations, sequels, prequels, reboots, spin-offs, and mockbusters. In fact the majority of Hollywood’s summer blockbuster output is now comprised of such derivative and safe content predominantly in the form of fantasy and science fiction films.
The ideological motives and functions of cinema and other pop culture are manifold, but a major one is control and influence of mass audiences. We now know the US government has been doing it at least since the 1950s. According to a Church Committee investigation detailing Operation Mockingbird in 1976:
“The CIA currently maintains a network of several hundred foreign individuals around the world who provide intelligence for the CIA and at times attempt to influence opinion through the use of covert propaganda. These individuals provide the CIA with direct access to a large number of newspapers and periodicals, scores of press services and news agencies, radio and television stations, commercial book publishers, and other foreign media outlets.”
More recently, in 1991 the Task Force Report on Greater CIA Openness revealed the CIA “now has relationships with reporters from every major wire service, newspaper, news weekly, and television network in the nation,” which enables them to “turn some ‘intelligence failure’ stories into ‘intelligence success’ stories, and has contributed to the accuracy of countless others.” It also revealed that the CIA has “persuaded reporters to postpone, change, hold, or even scrap stories that could have adversely affected national security interests…” (Global Research, Lights, Camera… Covert Action: The Deep Politics of Hollywood)
Government influence of culture factories such as Hollywood through covert infiltration or embedded advisors ensures that the end product reflects the values and behaviors they wish to promote (ie. xenophobia, deference to authority, nationalism, parochialism, narcissism, anti-intellectualism, consumerism, rapaciousness, etc). In some cases, most notably Zero Dark Thirty and United 93, the goal is to cement an official narrative into the collective consciousness. A more sophisticated method of social engineering via Hollywood is predictive programming; presenting through media societal changes to be implemented by leaders in order to gradually condition the public and reduce resistance to such changes.
Manipulation of public sentiment through mass media also makes sense from a purely corporate perspective. Why wouldn’t media owners gear the ideological content of their products to support the systems they benefit from while screening out more critical messages? Occasional subversive content may get past the gatekeepers if it’s immediately profitable (which it sometimes can be if particularly resonant), can be co-opted in some way that serves the status quo, or if the creative minds behind it are particularly lucky, talented, and/or well connected. Regardless, one could argue uncritical media consumption is a form of pacification through distraction and escapism and all corporate media content are a result of calculating the highest return on investment, which more often than not reflects the culture’s most deeply ingrained values and myths.
This is particularly true for fantasy/sci film films, which have become ubiquitous for a number of reasons including cultural tastes of global demographics, aesthetic trends (eg. hyperreal CG effects for evermore spectacular imagery), impact of changing media technology on the economics of production and distribution, growing awareness of the value of properties belonging to rich fictional universes which can be mined by worldbuilding studio screenwriters, and in many cases, resonance with our increasingly dystopian world. Most fundamental is profitability, especially as sfx technology becomes more advanced and affordable, licensing opportunities increase, and film franchises that come with large and passionate built-in fan bases reduce the need for marketing and practically sell themselves.
Many who grow up immersed in geek culture already have a hyperreal relationship with fantasy and science fiction realms which heightens the nostalgia evoked by the stream of multimedia incarnations and product tie-ins (bolstered by cult-like fan communities). Is it any surprise that fans who’ve extrapolated on the “Jedi” concept from the Star Wars films turned it into a religion? The Jedi cosmology (and similar ones from countless sci-fi/fantasy films) are modeled on mysticism, a philosophical framework which could fill a void for spiritually deprived materialist cultures. For many people, comic book fandom is another safe and entertaining way to explore concepts that might otherwise be too “out there” (perhaps especially among those who share an equally strong interest in materialist science). At the same time, because of the influence of marketing, the greater role of technology in society and changing cultural trends, geek culture has become a larger part of mainstream culture. Combined with celebrity worship, the lure of technology (both on-screen and off), and increasingly omnipotent powers of multinational corporations, modern big budget sci-fi/fantasy films represent a confluence of potent socioreligious crosscurrents.
Recent works such as Christopher Knowles’s Our Gods Wear Spandex and Grant Morrison’s Supergods examine to an extent superheroes as modern mythological archetypes. Bill Moyer’s The Power of Myth explored how Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth (or hero’s journey) influenced and shaped the Star Wars films (which itself has influenced myriad blockbusters since). In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell identified a story template used in almost all pre-modern cultures across the globe which goes something like this:
A reluctant “chosen one” in an ordinary world receives a call to adventure and warning of a danger that must be confronted. With the training and wisdom of a mentor the hero crosses the threshold into the unknown. Companions acquired along the way assist in overcoming a series of challenges and temptations until reaching the depth of their fears and resultant apotheosis or rebirth. This empowers them to achieve their goal and return triumphant to an admiring family/community/nation etc.
It’s not hard to see the attraction of narratives such as this which tap into primal emotional needs and can be found in a wide range of religious narratives such as the lives of Buddha, Christ, Muhammad and Rama among others. It also serves as a metaphor for spiritual/psychological journeys through life.
In a recent post on his Secret Sun blog, Christopher Knowles states “Myths grow out of times of crisis and upheaval, in one way or another. The current vogue for superheroes is a symptom of the powerlessness felt by a populace under assault by the realities of Globalist social engineering, war-making and economic redundancy.” I would add that myths can also be exploited to function as part of a cultural assault to perpetuate Globalist agendas. Authoritarians are all too eager to depict themselves as monomythic demigod saviors and/or those serving them as self-sacrificing rugged individualist heroes fulfilling their grand destinies.
In the same piece, Knowles concludes: “But myths do die. They aren’t immortal. The next war or wars may in fact sweep away the myths of the 20th Century entirely. The wars may send people reaching back to far older myths as civil wars can rekindle the bonfires of identity, sending people back to the myths of ancestors. This has always emerged in times of close conflict, particularly in conflicts seen as struggles against occupying powers.”
If he’s correct, there may be some hope for our culture to reclaim myths as a means of understanding reality rather than serve as a trapdoor to fabricated hyperreality. The problem is that there is a gap that needs “filling in” between reality and hyperreality. One of the many consequences of postmodernism is the complete blurring of the line between what is real and what is not. A sort of apathy has kicked in within the human psyche given that crushing truths, not easily discernable in the past, are all out there in the raw. Religious and scientific truths once held sacred can be easily discarded. Morality is a rare hobby in a generation both cynical and powerless to discern reality. This is as well due to globalism and technology, which serve as hubs for information retrieval that wasn’t readily available. Humanity has developed thicker skin, while at the same time widened the existential void left by a reality that is less and less objectifiable. Opinion makers are everywhere, information is ubiquitous, and the species is obsessed with being entertained while answers are readily manufactured in the shape of capital fetishes, all the while ideology that purportedly made a call for a “better and different” world, such as Marxism and psychoanalysis, has become both a haunting spectre and an empty promise.
In the past these formulae failed. In the future they seem more and more unlikely. Capitalism has adapted itself to revolutionary ideology. It has generated even more power from it, defusing the motivation for change and twisting the definition of revolution, all the while turning such concepts into brands. The irony. There is call for a “new objectivism”, however. A bet for a system reboot, in which categorical truths can be retrieved and argued from. The analogy is this: keeping what works and dismissing what doesn’t. Sounds like a simple and logical plan. The problem is that those who get to define what works and what doesn’t will be the powerful, uncanny minority. This is their game, and we have cynically accepted it. It is the way it is. Unless we can evolve from reality to hyperreality, and from hyperreality back into reality, as a species that learns, adapts, understands how high the stakes really are, and moves forward as a collective that is conscious and responsible of its flaws, it appears we are doomed. Three scenarios: first, the narrative will continue as is: the majority will continue to be repressed, and will perpetually seek escape by the hand that feeds until lost completely in hyperreality. Technology moves forward, religion condenses into inconvenient myth: we completely “plug in”. Then what? Well, you just have to see Her to see into this future. The second, war extinguishes civilization and winds back the evolutionary clock, think Mad Max, until we reach the first scenario, as if in a loop. The third and most bleak, nuclear war. The species ends.
What we learn from this exercise is that we are at the apex. This is it. The crushing truth of existence is firmly on our shoulders. War is unravelling. An ever-shrinking number of brands dominate the world. And an even smaller number of people call the shots. In between reality and hyperreality there is confusion. There is no longer a basis to discern between the two. We are as it were, lost. We need to fill in this gap. We need to dig deeper than ever before for a reason to dissolve our differences. Somehow the dilemma is set: surrender or die. But the crux of the problem can be overridden if we use the knowledge and tools we have to fight for a better, and more responsible alternative.