The bit of me that’s still ambitious dreams of picking up my guitar and going to Graceland. Once I got there I’d park myself next to Elvis’ tomb and belt out an obscure punk song – The Inner City Unit’s ‘The Bones of Elvis’. The reason why I don’t put any time, energy or resources into fulfilling this ambition is partly because I’m notoriously lazy, and also because if I made my ambition a reality I’d probably be tarred, feathered, burned, drowned in the Mississippi, tarred some more, burned again, shot, stabbed and hung from a gibbet in a poplar tree by enraged Elvis fans.
When the Kony2012 video was released and seemed to trigger an epidemic of hysteria and mild psychoses affecting millions, I thought immediately of Leni Riefenstahl, the death of Steve Jobs and the worship of Elvis. The British writer Richard Seymour pointed out that Kony2012 was very sophisticated propaganda and really broke new ground. It might prove to be a kind of marker of the moment when the internet broke into Goebbels territory. It’s probably fortunate that the Nazis didn’t invent the internet, but on the other hand there must be hundreds of thousands of spin doctors across the globe who had a Eureka moment, and would probably hire Jason Russell in a flash if he weren’t currently heavily medicated.
The genius of Kony2012 is that it took every cinematic cliche, racist trope, sentimental camera angle and editing technique that Hollywood has ever devised and rolled them up in one seamless piece of fascist kitsch. Instead of being laughed off the planet as a gauche comedic tale, everyone went nuts. It was like Live Aid meets the funeral of Diana. It was an object lesson on the creation of a viral hit that combined the new technologies with the old techniques of manufacturing sentimentality and a bit of Disney Marketing 101. What Jason Russell proved beyond a shadow of a doubt is that the internal structures of the emotional wellbeing of a great number of people are mirrored exactly by the emotional syntax of the Hollywood blockbuster. The truth is out. Inside of each one of us is a two-minute Hollywood trailer bedrocking our personalities. Kony2012 was a movie that everyone could star in. All that was missing was a bit of Shock and Awe, a team of SEALS and a creepy fascist anthem by Elton John.
We may now have a standard emotional vocabulary of Kony2012 cadences that will instantly evoke weeping demonstrations of empathy in millions. The sleazy weirdos who spend their time devising schmick advertising campaigns for political parties or sinister organisations like BP must have been glued to the Kony2012 clip thinking, ‘That is so awesome’. Kony2012 was the second hysterical episode of grief and woe we had in a few months, the first being the singular passing of Steve Jobs, where the populations of continents wept over the death of a moderately ruthless businessman who made music players very, very small and whose grand vision was to give everyone an identical standard of hip that they would pay him to acquire.
So rather than wait around for the next celebrity death or crisis it makes perfect sense to devise a way of manufacturing them. Just because everyone got almost instantly tired of Kony2012 doesn’t mean that it was a dud event. Quite the contrary. It just means that we need another one as soon as possible to make us feel our griefs and moral agonisings are real. Kony2012 had only the most tenuous connection with the truth. So why, indeed, bother with the truth at all? In the end it just gets in the way and makes things too complicated. It’s the effect that matters.
Part of this causality of sentiment can happen because of the loosening and fracturing and outright destruction of social bonds that has happened over the past few decades. We have become individual compartmentalised subjects whose wellbeing, personality structure and outlook are positioned as being entirely governed from the inside. The interior life has become not only more precarious but also more critical, and having access to that isolated process of self-governance is therefore very important for any neoliberal enterprise. Events like the death of Jobs become so universal because they appear to bind people together, mimicking our lost social bonds and providing a coherent internal state for us all.
The facts of any public event with political import are generally so buried beneath the massed frippery of spin that getting to them becomes more trouble than exhuming a Pope. The public pursuit of truth is parcelled out into microscopic ephemera like the breast-beating apologetics about Mike Daisey. A lie is actually something like, ‘Austerity measures are essential to economic well-being.’ The kind of stuff Mike Daisey was coming out with is very tiny potatoes. The debate about Daisey and ‘truth’ is about as interesting as an episode of 60 Minutes. It makes us feel deeply pensive, as though our consternation has moral weight, but actually we’re just portentously stroking our beards while the world burns. The working populations of various European countries are being driven into pre-industrial levels of poverty and suffering so that the corporate rich can continue to prosper by being funded by those same workers. That is what a lie looks like.
If we ever have a virtual Big Brother acceptable to most of the populations of the West (and if the campaign teams of corporate politics have their way, we will) I’d put my money on someone like Elvis. Being dead is not really an obstacle, and in fact confers many advantages. As the Inner City Unit song goes: ‘No-one wants a star that walks/ No-one has to pay a corpse.’ Elvis is white, male, has gravitas, cool, mass attraction to both men and women, mystery, pathos, good looks and a kind of Christ-like appeal. Elvis with dolorous eyes and sporting a bleeding heart surmounted by thorns and a halo doesn’t seem like a far-fetched image. You just know he’s thinking ‘love me tender.’ Elvis’ propaganda videos will be re-constructed Leni Riefenstahl scenes directed by Jason Russell. Elvis will be unstoppable and he will speak the Beatitudes of post-industrial, neoliberal, socially networked capitalism. We will all love him and cry over videos of his humanitarian activities.
Steve Jobs, also dead, would make a perfect Grand Vizier for Elvis. Those gimlet eyes, with their hint of calculated menace and that avuncular beard are perfect foils for Elvis’ messianic presence. They will be like Jesus and St Paul. Elvis of course, as everyone knows, is not really dead anyway. Like King Arthur, King Elvis is camped out somewhere in a magic limbo awaiting the conditions which will augur his return in greater splendour than ever before. Whether Elvis is cryogenically suspended in a vat deep beneath the Colorado Mountains, working in the local chip shop, or chilling in a Hollywood Valhalla with Marilyn, Bogie and James Dean, we all know that his time is nigh. What the propaganda success that Jason Russell has initiated will look like in another decade is anyone’s guess, but when it gets fused with twenty-first-century corporate political spin, the manufacture of a Big Brother will become a necessity. It obviously makes little sense to keep contracting with the Evil One for petty demons of the seventh level of Hell to dress up in a Tony Abbott or David Cameron costume. It probably costs a packet and getting the smell of sulphur out of the party room must be a pain in the neck.
Still, the gap between an actual political leader like Abbott or Cameron and how a party would prefer us to see their leader is so great that the leader may as well be a virtual image anyway. There’s a precedent of course in Ronald Reagan whose incumbency was nicely summarised by Gore Vidal:
When Ronald Reagan’s show business career came to an end, he was hired to impersonate, first, a California governor and then an American president who would reduce taxes for his employers, the Southern and Western New Rich, much of whose money came from the defence industries. There is nothing unusual in this arrangement. All recent presidents have had their price-tags, and the shelf-life of each was short. What was unusual was his employers cynical recognition that in an age of television one must steer clear of politicians who may not know how to act president, and go instead for the best actor for the job, the one who can read with warm plausability the commercials that they have written for him.
Appearance, and the cultivation of appearance, as celebrities and transnational corporations have long known, is everything. BP’s unparallelled record of ecological and human destruction is light years from their projected image as laidback greenies building deep sea rigs primarily to benefit baby seals with the inconspicuous extraction of oil as an unexpected benefit.
The phenomenon of the virtual celebrity is well-established. In Japan thousands turn out for concerts given by holographic projections. The extremely dead Tupac Shakur is apparently shortly to begin a world tour and Freddy Mercury, looking surprisingly fresh for someone cremated two decades ago, recently returned to the stage in London. And after I’d finished writing most of this post, I discovered to my amazement that Elvis, like Tupac, is also shortly to make a holographic reappearance. It all takes a bit of reality twisting I guess, but that’s something we are becoming used to. Going to a gig given by a hologram of a cartoon character or by someone very dead doesn’t seem anywhere near as weird as believing that a handful of desperate refugees are a threat to the very existence of the nation, or that the evidence for global warming is a deliberate international conspiracy.
There’s no shortage of reality-bending concepts being propagated by political spin doctors and advertising agencies. Our cultural spaces and structures are saturated with them. BP, would you believe, were an official Sustainability Partner for the London Olympics, the ‘greenest Olympics ever’. Try saying that without feeling as though you’re going insane. Advertising and spin exist to distort basic reality, to create a narrative that successfully masks the causal chains of suffering that produce the neoliberal marketplace and to present that marketplace as an essential part of the natural order.
An eternal, loveable, leader who also epitomises cool must be every political party’s wet dream. Like the iPad, an Elvis-Jobs electoral team scripted by Jason Russell would sell itself. For the literally minded among you – and readers and writers do tend to be more literal than they care to admit – I’m not of course saying that Elvis will actually become our universally admired Big Brother. Still, a virtual projection manipulated by shadowy fascist apparatchiks isn’t so far from what we have now.
Put it this way, if a virtual leader is an unconscious desire of corporate politics, how would it play out? If Jason Russell, a mentally ill US evangelist can convince millions to weep on cue, what lessons will international spin doctoring take from that?
The idea of the undead, of those who cannot really die, who keep revisiting us, is a meme whose time has come, too. Our fascination with ourselves as zombies might be a marker of our cultural readiness for Elvis as Big Bro, as we sleepwalk into the future. If 20 000 people can gather in Brisbane for a Zombie Walk (and what better place than Brisbane, say I, to find 20 000 zombies) and 90 million can be moved by Kony2012, then Elvis as leader of the Free World shouldn’t be much of a problem.