The Decline and Fall of the Reason Empire

Chris Hedges, from page 44 of his book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle  (Nation Books, 2009):

We are a culture that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity, to separate illusion from reality. We have traded the printed word for the gleaming image. Public rhetoric is designed to be comprehensible to a ten-year-old child or an adult with a sixth-grade reading level. Most of us speak at this level, are entertained and think at this level. We have transformed our culture into a vast replica of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island, where boys were lured with the promise of no school and endless fun. They were all, however, turned into donkeys—a symbol, in Italian culture, of ignorance and stupidity.

And once reason, literacy, and difficulty have been abandoned as values—and random pursuits of low-grade sensuality and fun exhaust themselves—what does a disfunctional culture reach for next?

Fundamentalist religion and Herderian politics, right?


Whether we are talking about traditionalist Islam in other parts of the world, or fundamentalist Christianity in the United States, this is the globe’s cultural Janus: contingent and unintegrated sensual and visual culture is paired with conservative religious and poltical culture as reaction; the one functions ironically as the door to the other. Jonathan Franzen gets close to this same idea when he writes, in his new novel Freedom, the following: 

The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.

And where does that put the Enlightenment oriented liberal committed to difficulty and critical thinking?


Image source: Wikipedia Commons.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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7 Responses to The Decline and Fall of the Reason Empire

  1. andrewclunn says:

    I think a better video (which would illustrate an example of spectacle over reason and substance) would be Obama’s recent Town Hall meeting on CNBC.

    • Cody Deitz says:

      I don’t believe he was referring to conservative fundamentalist beliefs directly as the “spectacle.” It seems he was trying to make the point that as a culture, we are experiencing an influx of pagan visual/sensual sensibility and abandoning rational thinking and reason. And after this pagan/cthonian sensibility has enveloped our society completely, we might turn to fundamentalism.

      I do applaud your ability to turn it around and take a shot at the president though.

      • andrewclunn says:

        Oh I know he was. It’s just could say something similar regarding the pseudo-intellectual space where complex words are selected for their impressiveness, not because they more clearly express an idea (quantum mechanics pseudo-science comes to mind).

        The frauds of a certain kind will always love their symbolic imagery and praise them as high art, just as the pseudo intellectuals will with 1,500 page novels. The belief that complexity is a precursor to truth will just prep you to be fooled by a different type of fraud.

        There is no aesthetic standard, no shortcut for truth.

  2. Paradigm says:

    This makes no sense. If we are, like you summarized Jefferson, “rational individuals first and members of religious or ethnic communities second” then Rational Enlightenment would be mainstream and Herderians and fundamentalist (graciously bundled together) would be subcultures or countercultures.

    As I see it, the most rational thing to do would be like the classical conservatists to acknowledged that rational thought, although a first class tool,will be never be adopted by the masses. But this insight leads to elitism, which you can’t accept. Ergo, all people rational but at the same time somehow very irrational. You cling to ideology like they cling to religion – and neither is based on rational thought.

    • santitafarella says:


      I don’t know what planet you live on, but the rational enlightenment is winning; it is mainstream in the only place that ultimately counts: the universities. Where the universities are heading is where civilization is heading.

      Historically, while the masses drag along with ambivalence, the rational enlightenment has been increasingly in the driver’s seat. This has been true ever since the American and French revolutions, and the rational enlightenment is only going to become more powerful into the future.

      How can it not be? You have to think clearly to manage genetic technology (for example).

      The future doesn’t belong to traditionalist Islam or Evangelical Christianity or Herderian nationalism (in whatever form it manifests). It belongs to rational scientists, to the people trained in universities, to urban globalism (the thrust of which is secular). People go to doctors when they are sick, not witchdoctors.

      And more people, not less, are moving into cities. The human future is the urban, internet connected, rationalized environment, not quirky localism (religious or national).

      Look around, Paradigm. Nationalism and religion are eroding everywhere (which is why they are so noisy and drawing themselves down to their most primitive forms, and working with idiot masses). But talk to individuals; get them away from the crowds and they know what’s batshit crazy and what’s rational. Wherever they have some control over their lives, they don’t pray, they act. They look both ways when crossing streets and have a strategy for crossing.

      Crowd dynamics, war, propaganda, terrorism, and bluffing are all that’s left for the old school conservatives of the religious and nationalist varieties. These are dangerous; they can stall things. But the future belongs to science, critical thinking, individualism, reason, Jeffersonian equality and universalism.

      I don’t mean religion will go away. It won’t. But it’s not in the driver’s seat. What appears to be a close second now will continue to recede in the future. The religious and nationalist circuses will go on, but their lions’ teeth, even now, are being filed down.


      • Paradigm says:

        Universities are not the beacons you envision them to be. They have been to the political left for decades and the rest of the world is not following. They don’t set the agenda anymore than the Tea Party movement, in fact a lot of what intellectuals do is react to it rather than push their own agenda.

        Sure you need rational thought for science but even scientist don’t apply their rationality to society. Most sociology is political rather than scientific which clearly shows that the central idea of Enlightenment that science would expand into the social and political domain has failed. And how could it be otherwise? The political or religious domain deal with right and wrong, while science deals with true or false.

        As for the eroding nationalism, I notice that a right-wing nationalist party was just voted into parlament here in Sweden. Now practically all parlaments in Europe has a party which is more or less exclusively devoted to nationalism. And look what happened to Yugoslavia. The idea of a nation built on principals turned into a civil war. Now the region is splintered into ethnic nations and looking very stable. Iraq on the other hand is a multi-ethnic mess and will probably have its own civil war when the US troops leave.

        So I am looking around. I just see other things than you.

  3. At least Christianity and Islam (in theory) value reason, and have produced philosophers artists and writers. What concerns me is when a religious point of view celebrates un-reason, as per this comment from a Zen follower

    Jonathan 🙂

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