Part II: Videodrome, Capitalism, and Religion
Part I of this analysis explored the link between Cronenberg's Videodrome and Guy Debord's seminal The Society of the Spectacle, focusing on the most important scenes in that particular chain. But capitalism and religion - the potentiation of the former, and the appropriation of the latter - are some of the most important tenets of Debord's work, and I felt they merited their own section. This part will have less movie scenes, but more developed thoughts on each particular matter at hand.
On Videodrome and Capitalism
“The first stage of the economy’s domination of social life brought about an evident degradation of being into having — human fulfilment was no longer equated with what one was, but with what one possessed."
- Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
As Debord states, human identity in the capitalist society loses its connection to what we actually are as human beings - the matter of our soul, so to speak, if one equates soul with both intent and action. Its replacement with the representation of property, and possession, is a requirement for the capitalist society to thrive - endless consumption, and endless "one-uppance" over our neighbor, potentiating its basis of endless growth. In a non-capitalist, non-consumerist society, we'd never judge someone by their car, what brand their clothes are, or by their Instagram followers (followers which can and are interpreted by capitalism as consumers of someone's social representation). This is part of the reason why twenty-first century humans are usually left in a dissatisfied state - we compare ourselves to others according to how their selfies look, as well as their number of followers. And we infer career and familial success by the projection of material possessions and social media posts - the outside trappings of heavily curated (and actually not representative of reality) achievements.
This dissatisfied state is then easily fed by the Society of the Spectacle with material goods and consumerism - though it's akin to feeding its residents solely with rabbit meat. It may keep hunger at bay, but it isn't enough for the body (and thus mind) to survive. This walks hand in hand with consumerism in our capitalist, free-market society. For a system based on endless growth - and thus mass consumption - to thrive, the weaponization of feelings of inadequacy and the upholding of materialism are paramount.
The consumerist society in Videodrome is represented by Spectacular Optical, and its business (as described by its CEO Barry Convex) is that of "making inexpensive glasses for the Third World and missile guidance systems for NATO". Convex, of course, being a play on the shape of actual lenses, either in photography, videography, missile systems - or glasses. Spectacular Optical also happens to be the company behind the production and distribution of Videodrome - and here we see the melding of mass consumption and capitalism with the potentiation and maintenance of The Spectacle.
Spectacular Optics' mass consumption device is eyeglasses - that's how it caters to the capitalist ethos of mass consumption. Eyeglasses which are very much the same, ranging from the basic $5 reading glasses to $1000 designer ones - they're all essentially pieces of glass attached to a frame. The eyeglass industry is one good example of The Spectacle (another name for glasses) and the consumer society adding value beyond that which is the actually required by function: endlessly iterating, endlessly reinventing the wheel so as to keep a semblance of progress and keep the wheels of desire - and consequently, of production - constantly turning.
That their mass product are eyeglasses isn't an accident, either: the agent of the Spectacle distributes eyeglasses so as to ensure that consumers always have 20/20 vision to consume. What's interesting here to me is how this 20/20 vision is lost - by consuming content constrained to a television (in Videodrome), or via other screen-enabled devices (in our modern days via smartphones, and eventually by directly feeding our retinas). The purpose is to ensure that consumption of data and of The Spectacle doesn't wane, that we are always capable and open to mass-consumption; that there is no degradation in our ability to process data. But like the human soul does via consumerism, this is window dressing - we, like our eyes, slowly fade away into nothingness, and the only thing keeping it functional are consumerist trappings. Like Barry Convex says in Videodrome to the main character Max Renn, "You've been very useful to us, Max. We'd like to keep using you until you're all gone".
Here I'd like to make a small detour back to Videodrome; there are several disturbing scenes (which earn the movie its categorization as a work in the "body horror" genre) where we see Max Renn's abdomen open up in a vertical slice - it both seems like a particularly bad C-section that enables him to give birth to... something... as a pawn of The Spectacle, as much as it is an intake mechanism. The gutted fish-like vertical slice in Max Renn's belly, and in which we see videotapes and pistols being horrifically slotted into, can be interpreted as a scar; an open wound that results from the effort of indiscriminate, unending consumption. And which opens the way towards indoctrination.
This paints a picture where our existing senses and mechanisms for stimulation intake (mouth, ears, eyes...) are no longer enough for the bandwidth of what the capitalist, consumerist, spectacle-driven society wants to suffocate us with - that the slice fits a VHS that programs Max Renn to act at least twice in the movie obviously isn't a coincidence.
To finalize this section, we jump back to Videodrome's Spectacular Optical. In one of the movie's scenes, the company introduces its new Spring line of eyeglasses is named Medici - showcased in a trade show to grand splendor featuring two quotes from the original, Florentinian patron of the arts. The Medici family, of course, who were renowned patrons of the arts and of Renaissance figures such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. In Videodrome, the Medici seem to be cast as the originators of the Spectacular Society's way of throwing capital into the arts to both nurture them and achieve control of them via the marrying of materialism (the payment they provided to the artists they favored) with an artistic output that spectacularly emboldened the Medici name. "The eye is the window of the soul" and "Love comes in at the eye" are the two Medici quotes on display here. But what if instead of it being the way for someone's soul to shine through, it's the open door through which invading forces come in?
Television and The Spectacle as Religion and Addiction
"The Spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion"
- Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
After learning that Videodrome originated from a philosophy, and that the only public name associated with that philosophy is that of Professor O'blivion, we witness Renn's quest to find answers. And his answers lay in a building with a fiery sign, representing The Secret Heart of Jesus; the building serves as the grounds for the Cathode Ray Mission, with a file of believers entering it in a somewhat chaotic manner.
Renn traverses the floor room, where television watching is handled as a form of addiction - literal addiction, with ragged people divided in numbered cubicles. This mission distributes food and a television screen alike to its believers - thus placing television at the same level of need for survival as that of food. The parallelism with so-called "shooting rooms" is clear, with dillapidated walls, conditions, and people, sharing televisions as if syringes, getting their latest fix. One can almost establish a visual continuity between Videodrome's depiction of addiction rooms in its Cathode Ray Mission building to the general material aesthetics on the would-be seminal mainstream movie on drug addiction, Danny Boyle's 1996 Trainspotting - which drinks from Irvine Welsh's homonymous 1993 book.
In the overlooking office, we then contemplate the Television's handiwork as an addiction - and when Max Renn looks downard to the downtrodden, his reaction is to say "I love the view". And of course he does, or wasn't he enamored by the world represented in Videodrome? And didn't many religious men of power like the view of crowds clamoring for their authority to be manifested? And doesn't capitalism love the view of people buying more than they need and being consumed in debt?
And in this here cathedral to the effects of the television sets on the mind and bodies of its prisoners, lay literal representations of symbols the Television has already consumed amongst its culture: we see works of religion, of philosophy, history, art and humanity. And in here we learn Professor O'Blivion's preferred mode of discourse - the monologue, as opposed to conversation. And thus is our consumption of television - a monologue, a one-sided exchange of information and "thinking". We can't argue with the TV; we can't correct the errors in its message; we can only bask in its monologues, and critical thinking rarely leaves the confines of our mind - it isn't materialized in the real world. And neither can we argue with religious fundamentalism - which is to say, the belief that one interpretation of a religious text (whether we're talking about the Bible, the Qur'an, or any other such vehicle of celestial Word) is the ultimate and correct interpretation of the fabric of reality. Sam Harris (author of The Moral Landscape) would definitely have a field day here.
In conclusion of this analysis of Videodrome, The Spectacle and Religion: we've got a physical space for the practice of a faith; we have the consumption of food in the premises, much like the Catholic tradition of ingesting "the body and blood of Christ"; and we have a means through which to attain illumination, in this case literally, with the words and brightness pouring out of the television sets. And the absence of this illumination (the word of God, in Catholic terms, or television watching, in Videodrome's terms) results in wayward people, desperately looking for hope and nourishment in the form of faith, where failure to satisfy that need casts them as lost sheep in need of help. Thus Cronenberg fully manifests television as a religion. Thus, "The Spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion".
Ah Debord. No wonder you committed suicide... And the world is poorer for it.
Part III will explore the reproduction of the society of the Spectacle and how it achieves permanence - and will try to offer an hypothesis on how to destroy it. Stay tuned.