The Cathode Ray Mission: Videodrome and the Postmodern Mind’s Eye

The world around us, the reality that we take part in, is a system created through perceptions and through unconscious collective agreements. We as humans, as Americans, as some smaller local collective, agree to certain immaterial concepts in order to maintain a coherent impression of reality. The legal system is what first comes to my mind in illustrating this point. Laws are entirely made up, they are tools that are intended to control behavior and punish aberrant actors. While some behavioral control is certainly necessary in a society, laws are often arbitrary and self-contradictory and, in a capitalist society, function primarily to protect and create profit. There are of course material consequences for not obeying laws, depending on who you are, but the power of the legal system is discursive more than anything. If we as a population decided tomorrow morning to stop observing the rule of certain laws, then those laws would fail to have any power; we let them have power because to some degree we agree with them, but mostly because we are told that they are necessary. This agreement to let the state have power is what’s known as the consent of the governed — the majority of power the state has is due to it being given, often unconsciously, by the populace. (Manufacturing Consent by Chomsky and Herman is where I would point to for more information on this matter, as they are experts on the subject and I am not.)

The legal system is just one of many powerful and far-reaching institutions that we use to define reality because of their stability. Illegal things are morally bad, because they lead to punishment, and thus a broad morality is formed, and that morality dictates behavior and colors reality. People live their lives operating on assumptions that are derived from the stability of these institutions, and if that stability holds, they don’t really have any incentive to question the legitimacy of those institutions. Those institutions worked as intended, after all; the people who do not receive favor from those institutions must have some individual failing that causes them to stumble and fail. The great trick of the American Dream was to place all responsibility on the individual: all success is a result of individual effort, and whenever something goes wrong, it must be because the individual failed at some point, not because the institution failed, or was rigged from the jump. However, two recent events come to mind that have created a lot of dissonance in the popular understanding of some of the institutions that shape our reality: COVID-19 and the initial surge of George Floyd protests against police brutality.

The entry of COVID-19 into America represents a complete and utter failure from some central institutions, namely the government, health organizations, and the media, to coalesce around a coherent message to combat the virus, and we will continue to suffer the consequences for probably the next year if not longer. For anyone looking for a more in-depth discussion on this swirl of events, I would recommend this episode of the TrueAnon podcast on this very subject, as it’s actually far more jarring than I initially thought. A mix of anti-science rhetoric, sinophobia, and misleading statistics welded together to the point that thousands of people are diagnosed every day and people are skeptical that the virus still exists. For as much as we want to blame the people going to bars and restaurants without masks, and for as genuinely inconsiderate and harmful that behavior is, this is not a problem created by selfish people, it’s a problem created by institutions that failed to adequately communicate virtually anything about the situation. It’s no surprise that people do not know how to behave and what to believe anymore. The reality that is formed through individual perception is only so effective in a case like this, and the information that has been delivered has been too contradictory for many; without a broader message being communicated, people will not know what to do and may end up defaulting to a mode of behavior that worsens the problem without them realizing.

The George Floyd protests represent almost the opposite effect, where a unity of messaging by central American institutions has worked to make individual perceptions of reality untrustworthy. There are many videos circulating the internet of violence being done by militarized police officers against unarmed protesters for little-to-no discernible reason (this tweet thread alone has 692(!) entries of documentation as of the time of this writing, thirty-six days after the initial riot in Minneapolis; for those interested in the math, that amounts to a minimum of nineteen instances a day), and while this series of events obviously represents a further breakdown and de-legitimization of the institutions governing American society, it also has a strangely polarizing effect at an individual level. I will never have perfect information about anything I see due to the inherent subjectivity of perception, but I can watch videos like those threaded above, I can tell you what is happening and try and make sense of what I am seeing in a very literal way, and one of the main responses I will receive is to tell me that my perception of reality is wrong. There is always, without fail, some hypothetical reason occurring just out of frame that makes any of the violence I am witnessing appropriate and justified; that justification comes from a random account in the Twitter replies, it comes from the police, it comes from the President of the United States, and it comes from everyone in-between. Institutions at every single level have agreed to try and preserve their power by telling me that the reality I am witnessing is wrong, that a thrown water bottle is actually a deadly weapon, that a peaceful protest is actually a riot, that everyone in the street is actually a fringe group of bad actors, and, most importantly, that the people shooting and tear-gassing people are here to protect us. The Milwaukee sex-trafficking house, while not directly related to the George Floyd protests, is a bizarre new chapter in this long line of trying to convince people that what is happening is not actually happening. This thread is where I first learned about what was going down from someone ostensibly on the scene, this article summarizes the events, and this is the MPD statement on the matter. There are two broad conclusions I can draw from these ongoing twin discourses, and I feel like Oedipa Maas typing this out: either my own perception of reality is faulty in some way and I actually am constructing false meaning from these images, or my perception is fine and there are a large number of other people in the world that are experiencing this dissonance and are trying to reshape these images in a manner that does not fundamentally disrupt their impression of the world. Suffice it to say, but things like this make me, and many others, feel completely fucking insane.

So, why talk about all of this stuff in a blog ostensibly about Videodrome? Because Videodrome is, in short, about the damaged way that we all experience reality anymore. The media lens through which we witness and interpret the world has become the world. The importance of first-hand experience has fallen away in favor of a second-hand, mediating perspective, through which meaning is instilled and conclusions are made independent of the actual real world that is being interpreted. The way we think of existing in the world has become discursive, rather than material. The argument that Cronenberg posits through Videodrome is that mass media, not actual material experience, is the primary arena that shapes our reality anymore; Brian O’Blivion (himself, as well as much of the theoretical underpinnings of the film, based on Marshall McLuhan, pioneer of media theory and author of The Media is the Massage) has a number of highlight-worthy quotes throughout the film, and I could honestly just transcribe every line of dialogue from him in this piece to illustrate the point, but specifically in describing the troubling effects that the Videodrome broadcast inflicted upon his brain, he succinctly explains that his exposure to certain images has a physiological effect on his brain and his behavior (“After a while, I started hallucinating, and developed a tumor. I believe the visions caused the tumor, and not the other way around”). The images we see, “hallucinations” in O’Blivion’s words, change the composition of our brains, eventually culminating in a new kind of person, the “video word made flesh”, whose existence is dependent on the medium (this is a recent example of this happening in our world, and while I think this specifically is kind of silly and stupid, it’s hard not to think that this is the first in a continuing line of uncanny valley residents becoming more real than the real).

Videodrome uses television as its primary vehicle to demonstrate the effect of media on the observer, but obviously this is easily translatable to virtually any form of media, and is particularly compatible with the internet. It’s a point that’s been written about repeatedly before, so I won’t belabor the point in going over specifics, but needless to say it’s jarring to watch this film in 2020 and see the extrapolation of Cronenberg’s ideas to the modern day. In fact, it’s almost more unsettling to watch this and see old cathode ray televisions and video tapes function as, essentially, the tools of mind control. The anachronism makes clear that the power of controlling and distributing images has always been terrifying, that the corruptibility of the media we witness is not a new phenomenon signaled by the ever-expanding multitude of forms we have to contend with but rather something that has always existed ever since perceptions were able to be controlled. The problems only seem uniquely prescient because reality is becoming more and more dominated by media.

Cronenberg has always seemed to me to be a “postmodern” filmmaker, not necessarily in form but in content. Him repeatedly adapting the work of postmodern authors such as William Burroughs, Don DeLillo, and J.G. Ballard would seem to reinforce the point. I know that for a lot of people, attempting to define postmodernism is something of a joke due to how nebulous and shifting it is, but as I and others understand it you can break it down into three different arenas of understanding: the postmodern aesthetic, the postmodern condition, and the postmodern period. The latter is the simplest to understand, as it points to the literal historical period occurring after modernism. The postmodern aesthetic is related more to artistic and literary forms and goals, often in the exposing of the constructedness of any given form, as well as the prioritization of ontology (the study of being) over epistemology (the study of knowing). The condition of postmodernism is something a little harder to pin down though, as we are still living through it, but there are some characteristics that stand out: globalized capitalism, technocratic managerial governments, atomized social relationships filtered through the market, and a dependence on technology and systems of information, like the media.

This last point is obviously the most relevant to the topic of Videodrome. What we understand as reality is a series of perceptions filtered through various modes, a result of which is the impression of certain ideologies onto them, something one of the characters of the film makes clear about Videodrome. The events I described at the beginning, the response to COVID-19 and the George Floyd protests, are both events that of course exist materially, but with any sort of distance it becomes impossible to disentangle an understanding of them from the medium through which the understanding is being communicated. For as innocuous and seemingly well-intentioned it was, Twitter choosing to stamp one of Trump’s tweets about the pandemic with a fact check was itself a usage of the medium for ideological purposes. It doesn’t matter that it was good or bad, it’s the action itself that is of interest, and it’s something that Videodrome is similarly interested in; once again, the medium is the message. Max Renn, the protagonist of Videodrome, becomes little more than a tool, another medium, to carry out the impulses of competing ideologies, first the pseudo-fascist moral cleansing of Spectacular Optical and Barry Convex, then the transhumanist response of the Cathode Ray Mission and Bianca O’Blivion. Max stops being a subject after his exposure to Videodrome reaches a critical threshold, he becomes a puppet violently coerced through media by different, competing parties to enforce their vision of reality. Hell, the method for direct control is Max having video tapes shoved into a hole in his chest; if the imagery weren’t so bizarre and shocking, it would seem almost ridiculous in how obvious the metaphors are.

Videodrome is full of this kind of imagery, a mix of over-the-top heavy-handidness tempered by the body horror that Cronenberg made his name on. Guns graphically fused to hands, vaginal slits growing on chests that act as tape drives (a whole other essay’s worth of writing could be made about the sexual politics of the film), television sets breathing and consuming people, a dying body splitting open with tumors, etc. But the enactment of certain routines throughout the film are also unsettlingly similar to real world conspiracy theories and faux-conspiracies. Max’s transformation into brainwashed assassin recalls various sorts of real and imagined brainwashing attempts, from the JFK assassination to the RFK assassination and the CIA’s MKULTRA program, and it’s impossible to see the clips of Videodrome and not picture the photos of the Abu Ghraib prison torture (content warning on that link, there are some upsetting photos in the article, and I would advise caution on looking into further details on the incident), not to mention the more routine and obvious connections to pornographic and violent images that are integral to our modern conception of the internet. Videodrome is a predator of a film, with sharp teeth and claws, but it’s not a work of fantasy, it’s a work of hyperreality. It’s unnerving because of its imagery, but also because it presents a literalized and naked version of a system that we, as postmodern subjects, are unable to escape, and it only proves more correct as time goes on.

If we can understand one aspect of postmodernity being the ever-present media and information that bombards us every single day, and with the experience of “being”, of existing in a certain space and time, then it logically follows that to exist in the world is to be constantly overwhelmed by the images and noise that surrounds us. But what Videodrome claims is that this is not a conflict of two different states of being, one with and one without the white noise of information; what Videodrome claims is that this battle ended a long time ago, and that there is no world away from the white noise. What we see, what we hear, is entirely manufactured through the systems of information that have developed over the past century, to the degree that the “real” is predicated on the images that are created. Simulacra and Simulation by Baudrillard is where to go for more on this subject, but to roughly summarize, what we see on-screen and hear on the radio have supplanted real experience as the main impression of reality. “Television has become reality,” says Brian O’Blivion, “and reality has become less than television.” This white noise can be controlled, and it is, and we know that it is but it is impossible at this current moment to do anything about it.

I haven’t talked a lot about the concrete aspects of the film in this piece, because I find that kind of criticism to be so much more limited than discussing the implications of the work. Like, okay, James Woods (who ironically has appeared to have turned into an American media-obsessed psycho) turns in a great performance as Max, the writing and editing is tight as it is in every Cronenberg film, the practical effects from the legendary Rick Baker are outstanding, and so on. It’s a dense movie, and not one that is friendly to Cronenberg novices nor first-time viewings, but unpeeling the layers of it leads to a world of thought-provoking analysis, and I feel that this is Cronenberg’s intention with it. Videodrome is not a movie to be consumed, enjoyed, and forgotten, it is meant to trouble and confuse and stimulate. It raises questions and provides startling answers, which only create more questions, eventually breaking free from the walls of the television to point to the real world and what is happening in it. Videodrome is a great movie, but more than that it is the Rosetta Stone for understanding not only the images that we see of the world, but how those images create a reality that we have no choice but to occupy.

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