American Culture

Reality is making us sick, and fantasy can't cure us

You’re honey child to a swarm of bees
Gonna blow right through you like a breeze
Give me one last dance
Well slide down the surface of things

You’re the real thing
Yeah the real thing
You’re the real thing
Even better than the real thing

– U2

Fantasy stories, myths, legends, tall tales, fairy tales, horror, all these have been with us for a very long time. Science fiction, as well, has been with us since Mary Shelley found herself in a bet with Lord Byron about the possibility of writing a new kind of horror, one not grounded in the gothic.* So the presence in our popular culture of stories based in unreality of one form or another is certainly nothing new.

It seems to me that there’s been a lot more of it lately, though. I don’t have the means to conduct the kind of thorough study we’d need to prove the point, but a cursory examination of what’s on television demonstrates that a good bit of our attention is being occupied by various hyper-realities.

  • In this list of most popular shows, at least 20 deal with the supernatural in some form.
  • A quick look at the networks’ fall line-up reveals 11 non-reality-based shows. Add to this Chuck, which will be back mid-season sometime.
  • That list doesn’t include cable, of course. In addition to SyFy (or whatever the heck it’s being called these days), HBO is currently burning it up with True Blood, an exceptional vampire/mystery series.

When you factor out reality and game shows, soap operas and children’s programming, the ratio of supernatural-to-natural (such as it is) is quite high. And we’re not even including ludicrously fanciful programming that’s ostensibly based in the plausible (think Desperate Housewives here).

Now let’s have a look at the top-grossing films of 2008:

  • The Dark Knight
  • Iron Man
  • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
  • Hancock
  • WALL·E
  • Kung Fu Panda
  • Twilight (2008/I)
  • Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
  • Quantum of Solace
  • Horton Hears a Who!

And 2009:

  • Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
  • Up
  • The Hangover
  • Star Trek
  • Monsters vs Aliens
  • Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
  • X-Men Origins: Wolverine
  • Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
  • The Proposal

Beginning to notice a pattern?

I can’t help wondering why. Cultures behave the way they do for reasons, and studied examinations of those behaviors (and most especially, of the culture’s popular artifacts) tell us a great deal about the society. What does it love, what does it hate? What does it dream of, what does it fear? What are its dysfunctions…

In this particular case, what are we running from?

We Are the Hollow Men

I have a theory. Well, actually, it’s not well developed enough to be a theory. Or even a hypothesis, for that matter. So let’s just call it a question. I recently read Affluenza, a book that sets out to examine our culture’s pathological need for stuff. The editor’s review at Amazon sums it up this way:

The definition of affluenza, according to de Graaf, Wann, and Naylor, is something akin to “a painful, contagious, socially-transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” It’s a powerful virus running rampant in our society, infecting our souls, affecting our wallets and financial well-being, and threatening to destroy not only the environment but also our families and communities. Having begun life as two PBS programs coproduced by de Graaf, this book takes a hard look at the symptoms of affluenza, the history of its development into an epidemic, and the options for treatment. In examining this pervasive disease in an age when “the urge to splurge continues to surge,” the first section is the book’s most provocative. According to figures the authors quote and expound upon, Americans each spend more than $21,000 per year on consumer goods, our average rate of saving has fallen from about 10 percent of our income in 1980 to zero in 2000, our credit card indebtedness tripled in the 1990s, more people are filing for bankruptcy each year than graduate from college, and we spend more for trash bags than 90 of the world’s 210 countries spend for everything. “To live, we buy,” explain the authors–everything from food and good sex to religion and recreation–all the while squelching our intrinsic curiosity, self-motivation, and creativity. They offer historical, political, and socioeconomic reasons that affluenza has taken such strong root in our society, and in the final section, offer practical ideas for change. These use the intriguing stories of those who have already opted for simpler living and who are creatively combating the disease, from making simple habit alterations to taking more in-depth environmental considerations, and from living lightly to managing wealth responsibly.

Grist notes that in the wake of 9/11, affluenza seems to have evolved from social disease into official policy:

In each of the past four years, more people declared bankruptcy than graduated from college. On average, the nation’s CEOs now earn 400 times the wages of the typical worker, “a tenfold increase since 1980.” Although the United States makes up less than five percent of the world’s population, we produce 25 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions; since 1950, we “have used up more resources than everyone who ever lived on earth before then.”

Many of us also know that bigger houses, bigger cars, more gadgets, and more expensive clothes do not make us more content, despite the glossy promises of advertisers. Yet consumer spending has long been used as an indicator of both the national economy and the national mood. The more we spend, the better off we are — or so we’ve been told. This mantra has been particularly insistent in the past year, as the great blooming bubble of stock market riches began to deflate and the Bush administration chose instant gratification as an economic strategy. Since Sept. 11, national leaders have been telling us with ever-increasing urgency that consumer confidence must and will rebound. While confidence — as an indicator of our faith in the future — should return, it’s equally clear that the past few decades’ rate of consumption is neither sustainable nor desirable. Moreover, we must assume — and hope — that tragedy has made us wiser, and tempered the impulse of so many Americans to affirm their existence with a pleasing new purchase.

To be honest, reading Affluenza is one of the hardest things I’ve done in some time. I not only saw the moral emptiness of my society laid bare, there were entirely too many pages that described my own life. Even in instances where I feel like I’ve won the battle against consumerist addiction, I still had to acknowledge that once upon a time I was eaten up by a craving for material things that not only couldn’t have made me whole, it would have made the hollow space even larger. I had to slog through passages that seemed specifically written about people I know, people close to me. Worst of all, the book flogged me relentlessly with details about how our obsessions with status and toys are annihilating the physical world that sustains us … for the moment.

Affluenza ripped at my guts in ways that brought me literally to the brink of illness. Or maybe past the brink – I haven’t written about it before, but I’m currently battling at least a couple of medical conditions that may ultimately be the result of affluenza. One of them – a blood sugar issue that I’m now taking medication for daily – is certainly a product of the American food complex. If you drink, on average, two liters of soda a day for the better part of 25 years, how many milligrams of high-fructose corn syrup have you strained through your body? I’m not blaming anybody for my stupidity, which was considerable, but let’s not pretend that our consumption patterns exist in a vacuum, either.

The physical impact pales next to the psychological, though. I grew up desperately seeking the sort of validation that comes with success in America, and if you aren’t careful you can fixate on all the wrong goals. Is success a certain income level? Is it a house in a certain neighborhood? Is it the security that comes from knowing that your children have newer, cooler and more expensive basketball shoes than their friends? Is it a Lexus or Beemer or Mercedes? Is it having a certain number of people reporting to you?

Is it the satisfaction that comes from working so many hours your wife doesn’t recognize you when you come home? Is it the number of ulcers you have? Is it having a physical stress level so consistently high that your body is more or less always sick in some way?

Affluenza made me think about the lies we tell ourselves about success. About the “American Dream.” We grow up enculterated into a consumerist assumption (unless our parents raise us in the woods, miles from the nearest television – and then we have a whole ‘nother set of problems). At some point we realize that we’re not happy (although “realize” may be the wrong word – one thing affluenza seems to do is systematically kill off our self-awareness – in any case, we aren’t happy). Everywhere we look, though, we see happy people (these are called advertisements), and the happiness we see emanates from a thing. A car, a haircut, a shirt, a house, an iPhone, a particular brand of computer…whatever it is, it’s something that can be purchased. So we purchase it. And after a few minutes, we’re not happy again.

I once watched a young boy on his first real Christmas morning. The monetary value of the presents he had under the tree was probably triple the value of all the presents I’d ever had under all the trees during my entire life. He ripped into the first present – it was spectacular. He looked at it, then put it aside and ripped into the second one. And the third. And the fourth, and fifth, and so on. He never paused to play with any of them. It was only about more, more, more. And when there were no more, he still didn’t play with them. The look on his face at that moment was one of profound and unmistakable disappointment. There were no more.

I had never seen anything like it, and I was as horrified as he was unfulfilled. That young boy has had several more Christmas mornings since then, and as best I can tell each one has been little more than a re-enactment of that first one, only with escalating price tags. He’s a smart kid and a very good kid in many ways, but I shudder at the hollowness that now threatens to consume his entire life.

Can I complain about the parenting decisions that have been made in this boy’s life? Well, I could, but in truth the significance of the story isn’t what happened to him, it’s that what happened to him happens millions of times a day all across our consumerist nation. The more we have, the emptier we are. We’re a nation of addicts, and all the stuff that we’re Jonesing for is a million times more addictive and destructive than crystal meth.

What Happens When We Run Out of Fantasies?

We are the age of insubstantiation,
a generation of digital bells,
loose change on the sidewalk.

Our days are loops,
our nights tight spirals,

and if the virtual is
          even better than the real thing

it’s only because the real thing is so goddamned empty.

So here’s my theory/hypothesis/question. We’re a hollow nation, a society that provides nearly all of us with rampant access to more material goods than we know what to do with. But we cannot find happiness in the material because there is not happiness in it. On the contrary – it’s a system that’s rigged to feed us a shiny, pretty lie that hollows us out some more, all the while whispering that only more of the lie will make us happy.

This is our reality. So should we be surprised that our favorite television shows and movies aren’t about “reality”? That instead, we turn toward the magical, the mystical, the alien, the supernatural and hyper-real realms that can promise us even more? Even when these narratives are dystopian, they can’t help but be more interesting than stories about this world. After all, we have everything that this world can offer and we’re still bored to tears.

These are heady days for fantasy merchants. But where will we go next, when even better than the real thing grows dull?


* Alkon, P. Science Fiction Before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Categories: American Culture, Business/Finance, Economy, Environment/Nature, Family/Marriage, Health, Media/Entertainment, Science/Technology, United States

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18 replies »

  1. It has always amazed me that we are so susceptible to chasing happiness as it exists in advertisement, when we know that the shiny, happy people in the ad are being paid to act shiny and happy. Our model appears to be dominated by aspiring to be people who are pretending to be something.

    Back when i traveled, my returns to the States always provoked the same sensation: that this nation is hollow. To some degree, i always assumed that it was me…that life here was real but i couldn’t see it or it wasn’t raw enough. Maybe it wasn’t me, maybe it was like a visit to the affluenza ward.

    Jung, and his followers, often argued that modern man absolutely needs psycho-spirituality (the archetypes, et. al. of his theories are mythic. That is, dreams are private myths and myths are public dreams.) Perhaps the fantasy you’ve noted is an unconscious searching for what we’re missing.

    Or maybe it’s just escapism…

  2. This post is incredibly thought-provoking. Thank you.

    I just got the book ‘Affluenza’ some time back and now I can’t wait to read it…

  3. Don’t care. I still want a new pickup. Extended cab. Four-wheel-drive. Big V-8, 13 mpg. And I don’t care what corporate entities I have to invest in to earn the nut to buy the damn thing.

    Oh, wait. You say I’m SICK with a social malady? Okay. I’ll that looks-like-all-other hybrids, then.

    Exceptional post, Sam.

  4. I’m somewhat removed from the consumerism since I’m lower middle-class. (I’d call it working-class, but when was the last time you met an American who described him or herself that way?) People I’m around aren’t able to splurge like that.

    What I do see is people insulating themselves from what’s going on in their nation and the world. Minimal engagement or interest.

    Funny thing is, scratch them and they might have interesting opinions. But that doesn’t mean they want to learn more. Health care too expensive (not to mention whimsical in its spotty coverage)? Never occurs to them to do anything about it.

    Meanwhile, after work, most people head straight to the TV, movies, videogames, or escapist fiction.

  5. I don’t think it has anything to do with affluenza. I think it’s more about Hollywood making money. Right now, special effects are IT. They’re a better bet than a live actor with a shaky Q score. In all of these movies, the story and acting is secondary to the special effects. And you can control everything. Kinda like that 80s Crichton movie, “Looker.”

  6. 1. Way too much television. I remember my first and only trip to Disney World (here’s a tip–wait until your kids are old enough to still enjoy it, but won’t want to go back again the next year), and they had this, I don’t know what you’d call it, event whose name I can’t remember. But it was a fake tv show in a a studio–so if you were a lucky volunteer, you got to be in one of the pretend tv shows that they put on. It was wildly popular–the lines were horrendous, and of course we had to go in. And it encapsulated everything that was true about America at that point (early 1990s), and still is–everyone wants to go to Disney World, and everyone wants to be on television, And they combined the two! Brilliant.

    2. There’s a concept in the animal behavior literature called displacement behavior. It occurs when two animals (usually, but not always, males) are competing for something–a mate, territory, whatever, and the displays are escalating to the point that the nest step is actual combat–and then one breaks off and starts doing something completely irrelevant, like pecking the ground or something. It’s a behavior evolved for avoiding that ultimate confrontation. I’ve always found it a good metaphor in society as well–and if there’s been a culture on the point of confrontation about something, it’s this one right now. But taking that next step, which in this case is recognizing the deep problems that currently are affecting American society, is something that people can’t take, because the consequences are so unsettling. It’s not denial, as such–with denial, you just pretend reality is what it’s always been, This is different, as you say. Affluenza is a symptom of the inability of American culture to move to the next step–which would involve a radical transformation of how Americans live and work. Facing that reality is the last thing Americans want to do these days. American has always been a political concept, at times a great one–but right now, it’s unravelling, and any sort of fantasy is preferable to dealing with that fact.

    3. Stop drinking all sodas! And anything else with High Fructose Corn Syrup, which is in most processed food.

    • So what are people afraid of? Two things come immediately to mind – redesigning the government so it functions and redesigning the economy so it doesn’t kill us all. In the process, not only will there be horrendous upheaval, but the people in power today may not be in power when the process is complete. And so they’re fighting tooth and claw to prevent the process from happening at all. And that’s true not just of the people in power in the U.S., but of the U.S. as a whole (and possiblu of the EU too).

      I really have no idea what it’ll all look like when the changes are complete – it’s (almost?) impossible to predict the outcome of a paradigm shift while the shift is taking place. But it’ll look a hell of a lot different than how today looks.

      I just hope we don’t have another major war as a result. I wouldn’t be surprised, unfortunately. History suggests that people tend to react violently to major change.

  7. Oh, don’t worry. In the last couple of years I’ve had a few sips of soda once (the stewardess misheard my order and I was thirsty). And at this point there’s almost zero corn syrup in my life.

    Barn door, horse gone….

    • I’ve found that Mexican Coca-cola has grown on me. Made with real sugar (and in bottles!). Yummy, and not too dangerous when drunk in moderation. Kind of like alcohol.

  8. Excellent piece, Sam! I’m going to take a copy with me to share with colleagues while we’re on buses for 4.5 hours taking freshmen to Notre Dame for a retreat. I’m going to have to pick up the book.

    One of these days I’ll stop being the historian in these discussions. But this is not that day.

    1931 Dracula, Frankenstein, Public Enemy, and Little Caesar

    1932: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Grand Hotel (“People come, people go, nothing ever happens”)

    1933: The Invisible Man, King Kong

    Etc., Etc.,

    1939: Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, multiple Sherlock Holmes films, etc.

    Add in all the silly, nearly-plotless “Follies of Hollywood on Broadway Melody of 193X”

    Point is: People turn to fantasy and escapism when reality doesn’t or can’t cut it. On the one hand, we’re suffering from affluenza at the same time that there will be more foreclosures than any year since the Great Depression. Not everyone is suffering from more, even though, as a society we may be.

  9. Very well stated! The wealthy vultures at the top of society know that people will want whatever they see that they think is going to make them happy as soon as possible, so they oftentimes go ahead and put it on credit. They then spend their lives working to repay debts that the wealthy vultures at the top are charging interest on while soaking up the sun. In reality, its just a clever deception. People spend most of their lives working not for themselves, but working to repay debts. The debts they have to pay come from being deceived into thinking they will be happier if they buy something some happy, smiling person in a commercial had.

    It’s a system that benefits only those at the top of industry and finance. And it wasn’t an accident. They intentionally designed the system to benefit themselves.