The Prodigal Son (and Daughter) Culture

Should we call our time the era of the prodigal sons and daughters?

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 dysfunctional culture reach for next?

Fundamentalist religion and Herderian politics, right?

In other words, with critical thinking, book literacy, and honest and substantial dialogue widely given up on, we find ourselves in a world where unmoored and frantic people act ever more like chickens with their heads chopped off, running this way and that between exaggerated naughtiness and niceness: prodigal sons and daughters writ large.

The Gale Garnett video below is about 40 years old, but it nevertheless goes a long way toward explaining the underlying subconscious appeal of a contemporary fundamentalist politician like Sarah Palin. It’s a female version of the Prodigal Son. And it’s where I think that the world is today, alternating between a psychologically unintegrated global pop culture and the psychologically integrated, but very conservative, religions. Not reason or doubt, but impatience with nuance is the virtue of the moment. Things will be decided in the viscera because there’s no place like home.

Did you catch the signposts at the end of the video? We are called to choose between the geography of “frustration” and “confusion”—and home where “true love” is.

Also notice the two women dancing around the birdcages. The clear implication is that birds (females) are free of their traditional cages, but long to return to them. Below are two who mean to reopen the cages to let them back in, and reactionary men are delighted to see them try.


At what point will television culture, fundamentalism, and Herderian nationalism collectively play themselves out and lead people (by default) to a better conclusion? The best places to reside are in the gardens of reason, science, books, high art, and human solidarity; in these the best human dwellings have always been found.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to The Prodigal Son (and Daughter) Culture

  1. Liz Massey says:

    I do, as a writer, take exception to Hedges’ placing the “printed word” over the “gleaming image.” It’s a simple biological fact that our brains evolved to process images. Words became stand ins for images, not vice versa. Great writers use words to help us create images within our own mind (rather than supplying them to us wholesale).

    Anyone who wants to communicate paradox, nuance and complexity–which are indeed, parts of our existence we must deal with successfully to survive and thrive–needs to understand this. We can’t give the image-making tools up to those we consider barbarians.

    • santitafarella says:


      Like you, I’m glad we live in a polytheistic, pagan, image based culture: I like archetypes. But surely we can also be a broadly literate culture as well. Why leave so many floundering in a soup of images, vulnerable to fundamentalists when they become world-weary of them? Somehow the memos about critical thinking and broader cultural literacy and context have to find themselves more widely distributed. It’s not that people are dumb or irrational, it’s that people are extremely ill-educated. It doesn’t have to be this way.


      • Liz Massey says:

        I agree! Context and literacy are crucial. And being able to think clearly about one’s beliefs is often the product of a good education, whether formal or self-guided.

        I just reacted to his huffiness over images. I write and edit for print, as well as for video and audio, so I guess I felt like he wasn’t appreciating the positive power of images.

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