Faking It At The End of History
“I saw her today at the reception
In her glass was a bleeding man
She was practiced at the art of deception
Well I could tell by her blood-stained hands” — The Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”
Whoever Mick Jagger may have had in mind when he penned that song, it is not particularly relevant to the meaning of the lyrics anyway. The “she” who is “practiced in the art of deception” is the archetypal “She” of the Book of Revelation, or of H. Rider Haggard’s famous novel. Haggard’s She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is, like Jagger’s “she”, the same archetypal “She” who is also named the Mother of Harlots, Whore of Babylon, or the Scarlet Woman.
Good art is, in any case, this: that it manages to take a particular incident or episode from ordinary life and everyday experience and build a bridge of meaning between that experience and the extraordinary, which is the universal or archetypal. And it is this linkage or bridge-building which imparts or discloses meaning.
Consider Jagger’s “she” in relation to “the Mother of Harlots” in Chapters 17 – 18 of the Book of Revelation,
“And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters:
2 With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.
3 So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.
4 And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication:
5 And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.
6 And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration.
Those who think that this prophecy pertains to some particular event or occurrence to come in the future are very misguided. That we are here dealing with archetypes or “meanings” that are universals is given further along in the chapter where the “Mystery” of the Harlot and the enigma of the beast is given as “the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.” It is, in other words, an archetype… a meaning, which is and yet is not (Australian aborigines would call this a “Dreaming”). Jagger’s song about she who is “practiced in the art of deception”, whose wine glass is filled with “a bleeding man,” and whose hands are blood-stained has tapped into that meaning, Dreaming, or archetype.
Although scholars have pointed out that the imagery used of the “seven heads” probably refers to the seven hills of Rome, her name is not Rome but “Babylon the Great”, and the chief notoriety of Babylon is the Tower of Babel when the pre-primordial unity was shattered after the speech of mankind became confounded. The Harlot is not only described as being a “great city” (that is, a matrix or Zeitgeist) but also as the source of all deception, “for by thy sorceries were all nations deceived.” In fact, the movie The Matrix likewise taps into the archetypal meaning of “the Mother of Harlots”, for the word “matrix” pertains to mother (mater) and the womb, and this is the meaning of the “great city” here. It is the same “great city” as the Matrix. It is the inverted image of Augustine’s “City of God,” which is also an archetype and a meaning and a spiritual state, not a literal place.
The point of this is, that wherever you have power-seeking relationships amongst human beings at the expense of truth-speaking relationships, then Babylon the Great — the Harlot — rules the affairs of men. Her “fornications” have nothing to do with literal sex, but with power-seeking and domination achieved through “the arts of deception”. She is the “great city”, the cultural matrix, whose self-destruction comes about as a result of unsustainable deceit that rules over all human relations and falsifies them, so that they become insincere relations in which the bonds of a common and shared humanity are finally broken. And that word “sincere” is important in this context because the word probably means “against decay” (Latin sin + caries), which “decay” was the issue of the Tower of Babel with which the Harlot was associated.
What the Book of Revelation calls the “great city” of the Mother of Harlots is what has been called in our own time, “the culture of lying”.
And this is where I want to introduce the principle theme of this post by setting the stage as above.
I recently read a book by the late Arthur Herzog entitled The B.S. Factor: The Theory and Technique of Faking It in America. It was published in 1973 and addresses what Herzog in one place calls “The Great Semantic Crash” of our time. That, of course, is another way of saying “Tower of Babel,” and “faking it” is but another way of saying “deception”. Again, none of this is particularly unique to America but is characteristic of the culture of Late Modernity more generally. It is not an issue of geography but of history, and that means time, not space. Something is wrong with our times.
Herzog introduces his book with a section called “The death of lies”, and he makes the startling claim that outright lying has become “a casualty of progress.”
“For the liar (who is, after all, the perpetrator of lies) the outright lie has always presented an enormous central peril — that of being exposed, with the humiliation and even jail sentence which may follow. So clumsy and even hazardous a weapon cried out to be replaced by something that would accomplish the lie’s objectives and be at the same time safe. The breakthrough has come, and as a result our society will soon be as free of lies as a diet coke is low on calories.”
“The new device that is making the lie obsolete can be called the Fake Factor or, for those who require still more trenchant terminology, the B.S. Factor. A factor makes or does something. Introduced into communications of any kind, this factor causes a subtle skewing of sense, a distortion of meaning, without ever becoming an actual lie. Unlike lies, which are occasional instruments used for specific purposes, the Fake Factor, to succeed, must be ubiquitous — that is, must set the standard for what is, or isn’t, an acceptable level of truth. This factor, then, is responsible for the continual difference between word and reality. It has brought about the lie which is not a lie and the truth which is not a truth. Increasingly, it determines how our society talks to itself and the way it establishes meaning. Rapidly, it becomes the manner we use to project our self-image, to ourselves and others….”
Describing this as a form of “counterfeiting”, Herzog continues,
“Conventional lies wear thin sooner or later, but the Fake Factor is immensely durable, being a dense weave of logical errors and sophistries known since antiquity, combined (or recycled) into spectacular new combinations with current prejudices and inanities, defenses of failure and denials of guilt, and the modern religion of science. Besides, faking on such a scale is bound to cause a continual distraction of attention, which in turn protects the Fake Factor from too much scrutiny. The consequence, overall, is cant and obfuscation of such an extent that a cerebral fog has settled upon our mental landscape, all but obliterating its real features.” (p. 16-17).
Herzog’s “fake factor” in 1973, has latterly come to be known, in other words, as “perception management” or “spin”. It was a term, much like “truthiness”, that was not available to Herzog at the time of writing his book. In effect, though, the “fake factor” and “perception management” have the identical meaning, which makes much of Herzog’s early insights very valuable as a primary source for students of propaganda. For Herzog, it’s key feature is its ubiquity. This Tower of Babel has become the very culture in which we live, move, and have our being, as it were. The lie, as such, is no longer distinguishable or identifiable because it has become the medium of the culture itself and its primary coin of exchange. This is Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” in a nutshell. It only has the appearance of a truth, which is the end of perception management.
“Perhaps the best indication of how well fakery has succeeded is that most people seem only dimly aware, if aware at all, of how much cant their minds are compelled to absorb. Fakery, in other words, has come to seem a natural, quotidian part of experience. Indeed, that was the objective in the first place — to make the unreal appear real, the bizarre look ordinary, the non-thing or non-person look like a thing or a person, the crazy sound sane, the irregular seem regular, the distortion appear as the normal way of making a case. Because the Fake Factor is so much a part of our lives, acumen and effort are often required to detect it. Even so, the recognition can result in shock, not of the future but of the here and now.”
Some of this was lately identified by Jane Jacobs, in her last book prior to her death, called Dark Age Ahead, and has been moreover the subject of many scholarly books on the problem of “endless propaganda”. But for Herzog, faking it goes much deeper into the cultural roots than what can be identified and defined formally as propaganda. The job-seeker who also fudges his or her resume is also engaged in faking it, for in this culture faking it (or the con) has become practically a necessary means of personal survival. “Skill at faking it will not automatically guarantee success,” Herzog notes, “but it will take one –even one deficient in other talents — a long way toward the pinnacle.”
To become educated and “practiced in the art of deception,” until it becomes virtually automatic habit and instinct, has even become a practical necessity in Late Modern society. I’m not exaggerating. It’s encouraged by advertising. Just check out some of the books in the “self-help” sections of your bookstore, or the self-promotion and self-aggrandisement of the “me brand,” and the epidemic of hypocrisy. Everything that Herzog describes is very closely connected with what Christopher Lasch discovered about “the culture of narcissism”, too. Debauch and pervert the language, and you debauch and pervert perception and the mind also.
“Words by the thousands have been affected and even undone; at times it seems that the whole vocabulary is unraveling like a loosely knit sweater. The language flies apart. Speech has always been a way for the individual to adjust to his environment and restore his own equilibrium, but because of widespread fakery disequilibrium is constant” (p. 19).
“Faking more or less dictates that suspicion rule, for who can be certain, in a world of half-truths, just what is real? It demands mediocrity because it diminishes intelligence. It leads to waste: material waste (in tangible social products) and people-waste, the waste of time and the loss of being. To tell lies, at least, a knowledge of truth is required, and as lying atrophies so does the sense of truth. Truth and lies become indistinguishable.”
And instead of intelligence, our culture promotes and rewards cunning and calculation, and then confuses this with intelligence and reason.
This cannot end happily.
In a future post, I’ll try to trace out how this situation came about.