Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

A novel that can teach us how to rebel against the colonisation of the mind

What do you get when you project the present media-saturated and media-sustained global economic-political hegemony into the future? You get a society where the kind of colonisation of the mind, brought about mainly through mainstream media’s incessant distribution of standardised discourses affirming the nonsense, that there is “no alternative” to neoliberal capitalism, is exacerbated to the level where everyone, from the workers to politicians, dances to the tune of those who “write the scripts” for everything from reality shows to presidential elections.

The novel where you find a persuasive projection of the present into such a future is Eli Yaakunah’s “revolutionary” novel, The Woman who Sparked the Greatest Sex Scandal of All Time (2012). It is written in the first person singular, and the events comprising its “fabula” are narrated by Ishtar Benten, a writer in the department of Written Chronicles at the Agency, which is housed, appropriately, in a pyramid-shaped building in a wealthy area outside of present-day New York, sometime in the future.

Depending on where you live, work and party, the settings vary between utopia and dystopia, but as the narrative progresses, one realises that dystopia is dominant, and what seems utopian is just a thin veneer covering up the dystopian nature of this future world. Admittedly, if you happen to be among the elites of this world, like Ishtar when she is unexpectedly promoted to the Scriptwriting department at the Agency – where the “gods” work – you don’t have to bother acknowledging that the vast dystopia outside of the upmarket suburbs (like Valhalla and Olympus Hill), frequented by the “gods”, even exists.

The Agency is supposedly a “news agency”, but one soon learns that it specialises in fictionalising the news at various levels, from the bottom, where “raw news” is “reported” by the journalists working in that section, through various other departments, including Written Chronicles, where Ishtar started out, to the highest level of pure, but (in social and political terms) extremely efficacious fictionalising, “Scriptwriting”. The raw news-reporting is regarded with disdain by the “journalists” in the higher echelons, because it deals with the “boring, uninteresting” world of actual occurrences and events, while, as you ascend on the fictionalising ladder at the Agency, you are encouraged to use your imagination by giving the public what they have been conditioned to want, namely sensational stories or chronicles parading as “news”. Ishtar’s speciality in Written Chronicles was sexually spiced-up tales involving things like attractive female vampires attacking unsuspecting men who gave them a lift, and so on.

However, because contact between different employees is restricted at lower levels, it is only when she starts working at Scriptwriting that she starts realising, with a shock, that what she and her colleagues do there amounts to literally writing scripts for cultural, social and political events in the concrete social world, where the scripts they produce – including ones for so-called “reality shows” – are followed faithfully by those “actors” the scripts are intended for, whether they are politicians, reality show actors, investors, and so on. In short, she learns that the “democracies” which the “public” believes it lives in, are, by and large, non-existent: EVERYTHING is orchestrated from the apex of the Agency pyramid.

And woe to anyone who thinks that she or he can refuse the scripts written for them by the “scriptwriters” – even the president of America has to smile and step out of the way when the “gods” at the Agency decide that she has had sufficient time in office, and the public could do with a change of face and gender. The “reasons” for someone else being “elected” are written by the scriptwriters and distributed through the media.

On the day of her promotion, however, Ishtar arrives home earlier than usual (her hours are shorter as a “god”) and discovers a young woman, Arianne, who confesses to be an “identity thief” and cyber-pirate who has stolen Ishtar’s identity. Outraged at first, Ishtar becomes sympathetic when Arianne has an epileptic fit and subsequently starts telling her about the life she lives. Ishtar discovers that Arianne is involved in an organisation of “rebel reporters” who are working in an effort to unmask the powers that pull the wool over the eyes of the world.

Unlikely as it may seem, Ishtar becomes conscientised by her acquaintance with Arianne and with a clown (who re-introduces her to Charlie Chaplin’s films, The Great Dictator and Modern Times, both very relevant intertexts for the novel) who she gets to know during her walks in the ironically named Liberty Park, hoping to see the colleague and man she has fallen in love with, Utu, there. It is Utu’s sudden disappearance, combined with what Arianne reveals to her, that triggers Ishtar’s conscience, and she finds it increasingly difficult to keep a straight face during lunch with the rest of the “gods” at the Agency.

The crunch comes when she is given the brief to write a novel on a sex scandal involving the president of Mexico, who was elected according to the script provided by the Agency, written with the latent rebelliousness of the Mexican people in mind, and hence including all kinds of election promises to pacify them. When he is elected, however, the Mexican president decides to adhere to the promises that he had made to the people, and nothing the Agency does, including sending one of the “gods” to Mexico to “reason” with him, can change his mind. The novel that Ishtar is instructed to write post-haste, is part of the strategy to bring him down.

Lest I reveal too much of the narrative’s denouement, suffice it to say that Ishtar does not backtrack on her newly actualised conscience, but she has to be extremely careful to be able to carry to fruition the plan she hatches to bring down the Agency, and uncover the prevailing “democracy” as a sham. In the process she and Utu are united for a short time, only for Ishtar to discover that Utu’s initial decision (similar to hers) to expose the Agency has changed after his promotion, to a resignation, on his part, that he is one of the “gods”. In Machiavellian fashion he accepts that there will always be rulers and subjects, the elites and the masses, and that it is infinitely better to be one of the former. He faces, and cheats, the mugger’s choice, “Your money or your life”, given his position at the Agency, and manages to retain both.

Ishtar, however, does not make this decision, even if it means losing Utu. In true Lacanian fashion she faces the “revolutionary’s choice”: “Freedom or death”, and acts in the interest of freedom, even if it might mean her death. Right at the end one discovers that the novel she was commissioned to write on a sex scandal that would bring a president down, is the very novel you have been reading, and that she has made it public, accessible to everyone in the world. And she knows what to expect.

What interests me is the self-reflexive structure of the novel: it is a novel, hence fictional, and intra-textually it deals with the efficacy of fiction (“scriptwriting”) to generate and sustain a certain, valorised state of affairs. But the author, “Yaakunah”, seems to know that fiction can work in strange, revolutionary, transformative ways. In Ranciére’s phrase, novels can “redistribute the sensible”, which is at present articulated along the hierarchical axes determined by a dispensation masquerading as liberal “democracy”, but which already displays many of the features of the Agency in the novel.

Most importantly, however, Ishtar becomes a model for individuals who are interested in re-awakening the thirst for freedom, today, and her (or Yaakunah’s) story has the potential to conscientise everyone who reads it. After all, as Camus claimed, everyone has a limit to what they can endure, and when that limit is reached, she or he revolts.

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    • Bernpm

      An interesting topic but……..your wiring style makes the content go missing. The sentences are generally too long too keep the “message” clear for the reader.

      Random example: “….Right at the end one discovers that the novel she was commissioned to
      write on a sex scandal that would bring a president down, is the very
      novel you have been reading, and that she has made it public, accessible
      to everyone in the world…..”

    • barbeh

      Great points. I am now even more aware of how hard it is to even get reasoned letters to the editor printed (yes, I still read the paper versions of our national papers) – part because I guess news outlets get so many, but also because I am more aware how in awe some of the editors are of the “big name” authors, or in other cases how connected they are with some of the parties that do get printed. And we can’t all develop huge followings overnight. I’ll be sure to provide a link to your article to others.

    • http://paulwhelanwriting.blogspot.com/ Paul Whelan

      A paper develops an ‘editorial line’ on subjects; it is perfectly entitled to have one, as you are entitled to your opinion on any and every subject. Papers certainly favour ‘name’ authors/correspondents, but that is the way of the world. If a famous person writes something, what s/he says is of more interest to more people. That is why editors favour it for publication.
      When we (all) write letters that do not get published, there is no reason to despair or see anything sinister in it. It is probably the paper’s way of disagreeing with what is said. The myth that muddles people here is that papers should be ‘objective’. No one is objective. This article is certainly not objective. The world would be intolerable if everyone was ‘objective’. There would be no point of view anywhere worth considering.