PRINT February 1993


AS RONALD REAGAN’S PROJECT of managed alienation found its hidden voice and set about infiltrating every sphere of communication, a bizarre omen of the times to come appeared. In the guise of a horror film, Videodrome evoked a muffled terror that was simultaneously private and political—Sade at play in the field of capitalist spectacle. The director was David Cronenberg, a cult favorite specializing in psychosexual mutation: the human organism in revolt against itself. A related theme of his was the parasitic relation of malignant systems (viruses, institutions, government) to the body. But now Cronenberg went for a bigger parasite: television, conceived as a hallucinatory tumor feeding on the mind, replacing the lived experience of the real with stillborn images of its consumption.

The film opens with a TV image, the logo of Civic TV—an end-of-the-dial outfit that packages cheesy violence and nudity. Civic TV is programmed by a hustler named Max Renn. But Max is getting restless with softcore T&A and tasteful carnage: “I’m looking for something that’ll break through,” he says wistfully, dreaming of a new frontier in exploitation. Which he discovers when his sidekick Harlan unscrambles the clandestine transmission of an entity (police-state home-video show? S-M network? Televangelical death cult?) calling itself Videodrome.

“Torture, murder, mutilation” is Harlan’s summary of the plotless acts carried out in an anonymous, cavelike chamber—“snuff TV,” the final frontier. “Absolutely brilliant . . . there’s almost no production costs,” marvels Max, dying to broadcast Videodrome on Civic TV. But a nervous contact in the video netherworld lets him in on a secret: the screams and death throes aren’t simulated, and behind the orchestrated debasement lies “a philosophy.” Max is sent to video savant Dr. Brian O’Blivion, a McLuhanite figure who runs a shelter that feeds the homeless a diet of television in order to “patch them back into the world’s mixing board.” But O’Blivion’s daughter tells Max that the good doctor no longer engages in conversation. “The monologue is his preferred mode of discourse,” she dead-pans, nicely summing up the essence of television, post-Modern intellectualism, and the corporate totalitarian state.

Meanwhile, Max’s reality has begun breaking down. When he brings therapist/radio-personality Nicki Brand back to his apartment, she pops a bootleg Videodrome tape in the VCR and gets turned on by the beatings. (An impassive addict of sensory overload, Nicki later muses, “I wonder how you get to be a contestant on this show.”) The camera pulls back during sadomasochistic sex to reveal that the bedroom has merged in Max’s psyche with the death chamber. Next, a tape arrives from O’Blivion that alludes to a fascist war of mind control to be fought in the video arena, while television is posited as a physical extension of the brain—a consciousness-altering tumor. Videocassettes throb and sigh, a television becomes a massive, caressing mouth. Images coalesce into deformed, otherworldly mutations of appetite and the commodity. Manufactured objects and appearances dislodge their human counterparts—society exchanges its subjects for doubles forged on soundstages and in torture cells.

His own pathology and paranoia overtaken by circumstances, Max procures more tapes from O’Blivion. Watching the screen, sweating, withjust a shoulder holster for a shirt, he scratches his stomach with the gun barrel. To answer his itch, an orifice appears there, into which his fist sinks, pistol and all. When Max works his hand out of his torso, the gun is gone: an old signifier swallowed by a (w)hole new language.

That language is irrational, but institutional in design. It is the product of Spectacular Optical, one of those many-armed multinational corporations with its suction cups on everything from eyeglasses to missile-guidance systems. Barry Convex, the Nixonian head of the project, arranges a meeting with Max in which Max learns that his exposure to Videodrome wasn’t an accident but a setup: he’s a guinea pig, groomed as a killing machine. When Convex gives him his orders, it is literally by programming him, contemptuously shoving a videocassette into the gaping slit in his belly.

On command, Max shoots his partners in Civic TV, delivering Videodrome the channel for its public transmission. He’s also sent to eliminate O’Blivion’s daughter, but in a trancelike, mystical scene, she deprograms him by revealing the actual nature of his disease. As she announces “Videodrome is death,” in hushed, incantatory tones, the screen fills with electronic snow, which distends out toward Max, metamorphosing into a reproduction of his arm and the gun growing out of it and shooting him. But he isn’t dead, he’s reborn—and reprogrammed—as “the video word made flesh.” “You’ll use the weapons they’ve given you to destroy them,” the oracle tells him as he picks up her refrain: “Death to Videodrome. Long live the new flesh.”

A few killings later Max takes refuge in an abandoned shipyard. He finds a console TV, which addresses him: Videodrome is still intact, it murmurs, but now he’s ready for the next phase in the struggle, the next level of consciousness. On the television, Max’s image kneels before a bonfire. The image puts the gun to its head and utters an invocation, pulling the trigger. Blood and viscera gush from the TV. Finally, Max exactly repeats his own televised last gesture, and last words: “Long live the new flesh.”

To recount all this is simple enough—the hypnotic details of a nightmare that in the light of day turns into a parable. But what started out as a weightless pop-horror fantasy had solidified into social metaphor. Escaping the realm of abstraction for the spawning ground of history, Videodrome found its real purpose: the reconfiguration of social life, the dissolution of the borders between popular culture, government, sexuality, business, and religion. Tirelessly, it would organize these forces as a unified sphere of leisure and power. With citizens transformed into tourists and voyeurs, atrocities exhibited as pleasure and pleasures condemned as abominations, a state of siege camouflaged as a thrill ride, hereat last was ground zero of the Reagan Era: Videodrome the amusement park.

The nightmare, as they say in Hollywood, had legs. On them, it entered the times and passed anonymously behind facts, events, policies, celebrities. This was a propaganda machine that worked below the radar of consciousness, in the realm of the senses. It was the ultimate instrument of Reaganism, the purest formulation of its means and ends—not just the culture of authority, but authoritarian agency setting up shop behind even the most recalcitrant outposts of culture. Well you don’t know me, Laurie Anderson sang in “O Superman,” but I know you. This was the glint in the all-seeing eye of Spectacular Optical. (Thus we now see logos like the CBS eye appear in the corners of news broadcasts, reminding us we are not alone.) Yet within the new organs of power implanted by Reagan—or at least by his television likeness, his video self—there was just emptiness and hunger, the production of limitless variations of objectification to fill the self-perpetuating void.

Fantasy feeding addiction feeding control—put the terms anywhere in the chain and they draw up the same mythology, cast the same spell. Sitting on top of the world, Reagan surveyed a phantasmagorical scene: image reified as new flesh, hyperreality waging its war of alienation against the vulnerable, imperfect body. Power was aphrodisiac and holy ghost, the ancient spirit of annihilation haunting and titillating the West, seeking a point of entry into everyone. The dream of purification and terror that Reagan narrated had the intimacy of an interior monologue. I want you to open up to me—the words of Videodrome to Max Renn, the message of Reagan to America. The agenda behind Videodrome’s hallucinations was also the same as Reagan’s: I have something I want to play for you.

As each image was elevated to archetype, each archetype confirmed every other, even as it denied a life apart from the new flesh of myth. This flesh was a cannibal’s mask: underneath the official face of virtue was the leathery visage of Sade. As a fantasy of dehumanization, Sadean ideology left its quarantine cell in pornography and roamed freely through the popular imagination. Power cultivated feelings of shame, terror, helpless abasement. Nurtured by the pathology of the forbidden, such feelings turned into vengeful desires: for murderous release, for puritanical bondage. Dehumanization was first the ideal, then the norm, and finally the narcotic sacrament of the Reagan Era. Today’s satisfied customer was yesterday’s seductive billboard was tomorrow’s body parts in a restaurant dumpster. Videodrome started as a series of strange, morbid images, but now felt like nothing so much as home.

CIRCA 1992
With the rise of Videodrome, a funny thing happened to Sade: he became redundant. The old monster’s sub-rosa vision of power and its appetites was now public domain. Kicked out of the château, the marquis joined the homeless at Professor O’Blivion’s Cathode Ray Mission. There on the tube was the universe from which he’d been banished: nubile chainsaw massacres and nightmares on Elm Street, tabloid news shows serving up slo-mo reenactments of the sex crimes of the day, misogynist rappers and hate comics reciting brutal nursery rhymes, the basic death instincts on parade like so many Robocops of the id. No need for a specialist like Sade when his nihilism was available to anyone with a remote control.

And as pop usurped pornography’s terrain of sadism, porn itself turned into a mainstream subculture, complete with stars, fan clubs, and sales charts. Sade was aghast. Brutal deviations cut into the profit margin, so rape and incest, whips and chains, were replaced by the Good Housekeeping paradigm of “Nonviolent viewing material.” Was nothing sacred, wondered the old debaser, as the video sex act reached its climax, the obligatory money shot—the all-powerful phallus anointing the female face with its shame, only for the woman to break out laughing. When Sports Illustrated swimsuit models seemed more commodified and subjugated than the women of hardcore, the master/slave dialectic just wasn’t what it used to be. I used to mean something, a disconsolate marquis mumbled while he freelanced as an empty sign of evil, same as Willie Horton and Robert Mapplethorpe. Rehabilitated as a cheap bogeyman, the philosopher of power was ready to be taken back into the Videodrome fold.

The shopworn demonic regalia Sade now wears isn’t far from the tabloid image of Madonna on the release of her book Sex and album Erotica. Watching slavering condemnations on the likes of TV’s syndicated Hard Copy, one sees her cast as a symbol of absolute degeneracy. Like the pretty young rape victims whom such shows reveal as sexually active—thus getting what they deserve by forcing innocent men to attack them in self-defense—Madonna’s shamelessness dictates she burn at the TV stake. As America’s first official porno queen, Madonna can only revel in such reactions, even as she puzzles over them. For Sex is about not the act but the “fantasy,” in big latex quotation marks. With its elegantly irritating binding and studied distance, the book records the usage of fetish—artifice as discourse, as medium of exchange—rather than its driving energies. Sex is like a scrapbook of advertisement outtakes, the product IDs torn off, leaving a void where the name of the jeans should be—just the black hole of consumption, saying “Feed me.”

The video for the song “Erotica” borrows its motifs from the book, but the bondage games are less like the sexual assembly-line. This fond home movie retains a trace of exploration, a taste of the sexual content that ideology works to keep in its place: the ob- ject of sex seeking her subjectivity. That’s not, though, what an Andrea Dworkin would see here, convinced that all sexual representation—and almost all sex—is terminally contaminated by male domination. Here Videodrome obligingly returns us to the image of carnal corruption and original sin by other means.

Such doctrine contains the makings of an even stranger alliance: antiporn feminism and patriarchal Christian fundamentalism, a match made in control-addict heaven. Both factions proceed from a wish to subordinate threatening fantasies to their own objectifying visions of pornography as monolithic and demonic, a desire that produces a metaporn all its own. On one side is an obsession with sexual anarchy, a war on images of temptation that might lead to the breakdown of authority—a breakdown taking the form of everything from gay rights to abortion. On the other is a fixation on sexual tyranny: women assume the role of the helpless fetus in fundamentalist iconography, requiring the full apparatus of the state to protect them from offense. This union suggests that there’s no pornography like that of power, which crosses borders of ideology as easily as Madonna changes sex roles. That, after all, was the secret source of Reagan’s hold on the imagination: his understanding that power promises all things to all people. In Videodrome, oppression isn’t locked into a single place; it is fluid, adaptable, and always available for redistribution. Fighting false consciousness with even more false consciousness is in the nature of the arena.

I stare at a magazine ad for Adam’s Boots, a prostrate model kneeling to lick the absent boot of the male progenitor. The copy reads, “An acquired taste.” A sales pitch for Time-Life’s Trials of Life video comes on TV, inviting us to witness the shocking, uncensored truth of life in the wild: “Find out why we call them animals!” In the VCR waits the trailer for Alien 3, in which we see Sigourney Weaver, cornered and quivering like one of those Time-Life creatures, drenched in sweat, head shaven like a concentration-camp inmate, as the oozing open mouth of the alien she-monster bares its deadly teeth in her face. Could the picture of fascist sexuality be more complete? Not once the triumphant slogan is added: “The bitch is back.”

Torture, murder, mutilation, plus the bonus of S-M sex and nihilistic romance: just life’s everyday content as seen in Tim Burton’s family film Batman Returns. As an exploration of fetishized sexual politics, the movie has its moments of perverse grandeur; at least Michelle Pfeiffer does. A used and victimized working girl resurrected in the leather flesh of a dominatrix, her Catwoman is a creation of malign wit. Literally feeding the signs of hypertrophic femininity (her fluffy stuffed animals) down the garbage disposal, she transforms herself into a shiny sex pistol, a playful anarchist, decapitating fashion mannequins with a whip, then, for fun, blowing up the whole department store. Her approach to the stiff, armor-encrusted Batman—a walking phallus encased in a vermin-shaped condom—is equally whimsical: assuming the persona of the alter ego he’s repressed in himself, she’s an erotic terrorist holding his sublimated desires hostage. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is a male fantasy turned back on itself, a phallic self-projection that confronts its own negation. A Sadean fixture emancipated amid the disintegrated man’s world of Gotham City, she’s the avenging bad conscience de-sanctifying all that brutalist sexual architecture, the nightmare’s nightmare.

The old pornographic archetypes also resurface in the place where they belonged to begin with: the prime-time family. On the long-running series Married . . . With Children, debasement assumes the happy face of the TV sitcom. Here, to the howling cheers of a studio audience, the ideology of dehumanization is played out in the antics of a family made up of porn clichés. The Bundys are a bunch worthy of their namesake, serial killer and pornophile Ted Bundy. There’s shoe-salesman dad Al, the wife-hating, voyeuristic slob, hopelessly frustrated and embittered but still enough the pragmatist to pimp his underage daughter to get a pothole on his street fixed. Then there’s white-trash wife Peg, the contemptuous sex-starved slattern, with imbecile-slut daughter Kelly and chronic-masturbator son Bud rounding out the domestic picture. The sadism is gleeful, pervasive, but spread around democratically: each is flayed in his or her turn. Yet if Al isn’t king of his castle, he is of the dungheap. Videodrome’s dungeon of perpetual violation echoes with laughter as he inflicts his impotent revenge on his worthless brood, the video flesh sliced off in 30-minute strips and the carcasses dangling from punch lines with meat hooks in them.

Married . . . With Children was evidently conceived as a nihilistic travesty of the smugly antiseptic family life depicted on The Cosby Show. In their impoverished suburban hell, the Bundys live the fallout of Reaganomics: their hate-consumed existences are animated solely by the hope of inflicting some of their damage and suffering on the closest, safest available target. The same psychosis emerged on the streets last year when an expendable section of Los Angeles burned, as people came together not in revolution but as one big extended dysfunctional family at a bring-your-own-lighter-fluid barbecue. And Mayor Tom Bradley appeared on TV, concerned and paternal, urging everyone to stay home that evening to watch the final episode of The Cosby Show, a cultural event dictating even live riot coverage be preempted.

After the smoke cleared and the rubble was left to nature, another sitcom veteran was heard from. With the controversy over Ice-T and his band Body Count’s song “Cop Killer” in full swing, Sheila James Kuehl weighed in on rap and censorship. Still seen in Nick-at-Night reruns of the old Dobie Gillis show (she played Zelda), Kuehl, now managing director of the Women’s Law Center, argued in an op-ed piece in the L.A. Times that Oliver North’s call for Ice-T’s prosecution on sedition charges hadn’t gone far enough. “I thought,” she wrote, “everyone would also see how rap music is really rape music,” an equation that in one daring stroke restored to intellectual respectability the critiques of jungle music made in the ’50s by Ollie North’s precursors on White Citizens’ Councils everywhere.

In the trackless depths of unconscious racism contained in Kuehl’s words, one could not help hearing the rationalization made by the white jurors in the Rodney King case. They hadn’t seen King beaten in that video, they’d seen a culturally empowered cliché, a myth: a crackhead rapist rapper resisting arrest, a gorilla lurching out of the urban mist to be tranquilized by his keepers for his own good. The officers were acting in self-defense of their, and the jury’s, own fantasies. But this need contained another: the need for protection from the fantasies of others. In Kuehl’s oh-so-reasonable words, “Speech, not alcohol, is the great loosener of inhibition.” Unrestrained, speech might promote acts and thoughts (not that there could be any distinction between the two, the fantasy being identical to the deed) of limitless transgression. Violence toward cops and women is only the tip of the slippery slope: gay literature indoctrinating the young, heavy metal fostering satanic child-abuse cults, a violent art film persuading a man to shoot the president in order to impress an actress.

Thus has Videodrome reduced history to fantasy (or perhaps hallucination, the nightmare one doesn’t even try to wake from). Kuehl’s notions of civil obedience and responsibility merely update an old custom of American race relations: the one in which a Negro caught whistling at a white woman, or even looking at her improperly, was lynched on the spot. This was how the moral order of segregation was preserved—violence as a method of social hygiene, a means of enforced deference. What provoked law enforcement to make an example of Rodney King was the failure to defer. As with those young women who force men into raping and murdering them, this logic insists King was asking for it and only got what he deserved. At the base of the very idea of prosecuting or just silencing Ice-T’s music is the criminalization of disrespect. Of what matter are his rights, or Rodney King’s, in the face of the greater social good? As the Reaganite tycoon says in Batman Returns, as though speaking directly to King and Ice-T themselves, “Give the Constitution a rest.”

To register the contempt in that line, and the elan, is to glimpse the Rubicon of the 12 years since Ronald Reagan took office. Having stumbled into this new universe one witnesses a seamless circulation of images in time, and their solidification into social space: a streaked image of Max Renn, mesmerized by the Sadean beatings administered for the Videodrome camera’s retina, becomes the sadistic violation of Rodney King repeated hourly on the news. But as the man in Videodrome says, his mouth moving but Reagan’s voice coming out, “I’ve got something I want to play for you.” And the Rodney King videotape, which shows how the desire to suspend individual rights culminates by superseding the idea of the individual, keeps running. The blows are slowed to a crawl, the crawling figure now almost at freeze-frame, King a haggard ghost waving to us through the nightsticks, as the cruelty becomes as ordinary and natural as the commercials that sponsor it. He’s gone, but the tape has entered the national snuff-film archive, right alongside the Zapruder film (where K’s exploding head is the world-historical equivalent of a cum shot).

Much later on the night Mayor Bradley asked everyone to watch Cosby, I couldn’t sleep—I’d gotten used to watching the helicopter shots of burning stores in the night. Turning on the TV, I saw KNBC had returned to Late Night with David Letterman. He’s questioning a starlet; there’s oblique mention of the situation in L.A., then they quickly pass on. The young woman is just back from Paris, where she visited the new EuroDisney Park. Then something unexpected happens: with flames still ravaging the underside of L.A., Dave has started thinking aloud, musing about the French populace storming the gates of the place and burning it to the ground. Like Max Renn, perhaps I dreamed the whole thing, yet then and there I spied a hole in the center of Videodrome as big as the one Max had put through his head.

Howard Hampton is a writer who lives in Apple Valley, California.