Review: Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow by Brian Fawcett Print E-mail

Fawcett-Brian-lg(Another Chicago Magazine Number 21, 1990)

A Moon Without a Bicycle

Brian Fawcett's Cambodia is a collection of thirteen deftly humorous and deadly serious essays. He covers popular culture, the psychological character of the media, and the meaning of genocide, most of it American-style. He hunts and bags engimas, finding new ways to dramatize the failings of American consumerism, be it products or ideology, ridiculing its claims as he goies. Chief on his (s)hit list is the claim that consumer choice is amoung our most cherished liberties.

What are his credentials? For one, he's Canadian. When a foreign writer satirizes another country and its traditions, it's not wisdom exactly that he or she possesses. It's proximity. Fawcett can, as well as any Canadian, be highly critical of America because their people are nearly all (except the Quebecois) "descendants of British colonialists." The Canadians' critical stance results from their experience with our folly. Whatever the United States does in business or the environment, it surely involves the Canadians, with or without their approval.

Fawcett's main strategy is to combine the style of magic realism with scenes of everyday life which we discriminating viewers of the English-language world have come to expect. Sort of like wedding Garcia Marquez to CNN. For example. One story describes the 2,000 people of Huxley, British Columbia, who receive cable TV from Detroit, Michigan, root for the Tigers, Lions, Pistons and Red Wings, watch "Detroit Today," and consequently now "live" there. Fawcett dramatizes the tyranny of the satellite dish by using a Vancouver reporter who, noticing odd changes in Huxley's backwoods charm, sets out with camera and crew to get the story. It turns out that Huxley is literally on Detroit time. Huxleyites eat dinner at 2:00 pm to catch the evening news and are in bed by 8:30 to catch Johnny Carson. One man confides that since "the prime time lineup is just about the same wherever you go . . . life [too] is the same everywhere . . . ." The reporter does his live remote for a B.C. audience but nobody in Huxley sees it: they're too busy watching the latest murder news from the Motor City.

As you may guess, Fawcett is fascinated by commodification—the way in which abstractions are made into saleable products, how feelings are transformed into consumer orientations. The most notorious example I know of (a subject for a future Fawcett essay?) is the Master Card commercial which told us that whenever we use our card, we actually help end hunger and disease (the saccharine piano music rises & the people on the screen reach out to crippled children), because those good-deed doers to whom we pay our exorbitant yearly fees and finance charges are donating some of it to "six needy charities." How clever of Master Card! To turn our buying habits, our consumer loyalties and addiction to credit, away from avarice and toward philanthropy. I feel much better.

Commodification is most prevalent in today's society. Yet with Fawcett's warped sense of time, the idea began a long time ago.

In "The Entrepreneur of God," Fawcett posits Paul, later St. Paul, who, just after Christ's ascension, meets Marshall McLuhan on the road to Damascus. Having survived a vicious attack by his camel (McLuhan makes the mistake of turning his rear end to the camel's), the media guru and Paul hold a long discussion about the alarming number of messiahs and rabble-rousers in Judea these days. Listing to McLuhan's advice about the propaganda value of Jesus's crucifixion, Paul realizes that it is indeed a propitious moment to create a hierarchical religious system, combining the best of his beloved Roman authority with the people's growing need for spiritual expression.

"I've got it. I can take it over by creating an administrative apparatus that secures the central committee as a spiritual corporate body. Then I can franchise out the conversions and work out all the housekeeping procedures as I go. And the workers get the Kingdom of Heaven and proximity to the Holy Ghost. No expenditure of power or funds."

With such thinking, McLuhan prophecizes, in 300 years "you'll have Rome."

Fawcett's objective in his essays is to expose the theatre of America's political and cultural expansion, theatrically, decrying thru satire our penchant to commodify other cultures to our way of life. He seems to suggest that though our wars against Vietnam and Nicaragua (and the cold one against/with Eastern Europe) have failed militarily, those cultures will eventually be subverted and conquered thru Chuck E. Cheese pizza and Lee's Press-On Nails. He labels these commodifying merchants the "Disneyfied platonists of the Global Village." Those, who, via clever sales appropriation and media wizardry, are rapidly subsuming every outpost of culture on earth which deviates from the Western norm.

But all of his global grandstanding does have a moral center. It is that such aggressive and systematic exploitation of other nations has, in the context of their civil or regional conflicts, nightmarish consequences. Fawcett reveals his main concern in the book-length piece about Cambodia. Book-length because it runs like an unending footnote below the other essays, carrying about one-third of every page, while the other pieces begin and end above it.

The footnote is there, he says, to make the "subtext" of the book visible. Subtext is literary jargon for the "other book" that exists, supposedly, in every book. The book the writer is repressing, actually biased towards but can't write because of personal or political censorship. (Leslie Fiedler once argued that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had a homosexual subtext, which Twain was barred, perhaps psychologically, from expressing. "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey," he called it, and he spent a rather unmemorable twelve pages trying to make us see it too.)

Exposing the subtext for Fawcett is a democratic act in an age where message and meaning are hidden, often only accessible to the "cognoscenti." He wants his discourse system revealed, that is his own "intended" hidden meanings, because "there is a great deal of evidence to indicate that contemporary artistic theory and practice like its telecommunications and information equivalents, discourages and disables political, social, artistic, and intellectual discourse for the general public."

Fawcett sees the holocaust in Cambodia then as the violent subtext of Western Civilization, the "apotheosis of the Global Village." He asks us, living as we do in the land that has become the world's #1 cultural terrorist, to consider our responsibility for the bloodbath which occurred there. Consider that the Khmer Rouge—Pol Pot's cadres who, in returning the country to a pre-civilized, agrarian society, murdered close to two million people, mostly those with any Western background, from 1976 to 1979—could never have existed without previous systems of culture-destruction brought on by American, Chinese, and Soviet imperialism.

In one section Fawcett begins to come to grips with the real meaning (subtext and irony) of Hannah Arendt's estimate of the Belgian Congo massacres where "between 1890 and 1910 . . . between 15 and 40 million Africans died in the Congo, either by murder or starvation" as entire villages were exterminated in the growth of the Dutch-African rubber business.

I reread the sentence several times, trying to understand what it was about it that so disturbed me. At first I couldn't see it. Forty million human deaths was an astonishing figure, but it was one I'd already got from Twain (in the 1905 pamphlet King Leopold's Soliloquy). Eventually it came to me. It was the construction of the sentence itself, its placement in the argument, and the incredible gap between 15 and 40 million. Arendt, or at least her language and her analytical method, was apparently insensitive to 25 million human lives. Or deaths.

Fawcett writes that when estimations of genocide reach the level of approximation, vagueness becomes the truth. And with that approximation comes the realization that attaining vagueness is a goal. That the point of the killing fields is not just to kill. It's to exterminate consciousness. To kill so our memory of the killing will be imprecise. Such imprecision allows us both to escape our collective guilt and to understand why post-modern wars will be fought: To obliterate the mind and memory of the other.

Extermination is a most efficient form of warfare for without a memory a people's struggle for self-determination has no nationalistic, racial, or ethnic depth. A defeated people will change more easily if all they need protect is their immediate survival. Fawcett focuses his definition of what our most basic human rights should be on just this point. ". . . To have the right to walk in a park in the early morning; to have the right to grow tomatoes next to one's doorstep; to have the right to listen to the night breezes in the trees; to have the right to know what the night breezes carry. To have the right to remember the past and to have the right to imagine a future."

Genocide then for Fawcett is the term for all those other forms of extermination that governments and media corporations increasingly practice, locally and worldwide. He says that the more that heavily centralized governments and interventionist policies attempt to overrun the world's Others with the English language, consumer-market telecommunications, or Marxist-Leninist revolution, the more the autochthonous cultures and politically independent states will perish. And perish in holocaustian ways.

Fawcett holds hope that "the mass media of film and television and the more recent media of computer technology [will] decentralize the Imperium." But the outlook these essays affirm is that technology too often liberates only stasis, conformity, and tyranny.

A final example closer to home might underscore this point. For Fawcett the central vice that undergirds our mind-numbing technology comes from live television coverage. Its techno-dazzle, its moral ambivalence, is dramatized in the story "Starship." Recalling the TV coverage around Challenger in January, 1986, he finds death and live television to be incestuously involved.

I remember saying to myself a few hours after Bobby was declared dead, and I'd seen the shooting four or five times on television: They kill the Kennedys because the Kennedys die so beautifully.

So there I am, eighteen years later, watching the television and trying to imagine the seven astronauts and trying to put their deaths together with the Kennedy killings. And meanwhile I'm getting bombarded, again and again, with the film footage of the explosion. I saw the Space Shuttle explode fifty-two times in the next two days. I saw it in slow motion, in freeze frame, and as the hours passed, I saw it from new angles. I even saw it as a cartoon, for Christ's sake. In forty-eight hours I probably saw it as many times as I've seen John and Bobby Kennedy die over the years.

And then later:

I know who killed the Kennedys. Not in the conventional sense. I mean, we'll never really know who it was that killed John Kennedy. Lee Harvey Oswald or whoever helped him don't count. And sure, Sirhan Sirhan pulled the trigger on Bobby. But I know what and who got them to do it. Television made them do it.

No wonder the Kennedy-inspired innocence, the civil-rights dream, even the final frontier of space was lost to a generation. It was covered to death.

Hearing all of this in the peculiar, magical, vexatious, yet sensitive and bemused way we get it from Fawcett's imagination, dare we now raise our voices against the media-corporate-government conspiracies of the world, especially the proposed fantasies of a unified Germany, a united Europe, a democratic Russia? Dare we equate Pepsi-Cola at the Berlin Wall to Chinese armaments in Iran to West German chemical plants in Libya to Japanese banks in Los Angeles to MTV in Tashkent? Dare we suggest that the multi-nationals, riveting the First and Second Worlds into One, resonate with consciousness-elimination like . . . oh, I don't . . . let's see . . . maybe . . . nah . . . maybe . . . nah . . . maybe, the Khmer Rouge?