Melon Movie: Cathode Ray Mission
by Joe La Sac
There is one short scene that I really like in Videodrome (1983). In David Cronenberg’s alternate timeline universe there is a Catholic style inner-city “mission” called the Cathode Ray Mission. Its purpose is to help what looks like homeless people get reintegrated into normal, everyday working life. But you soon learn that the people go to the mission are not really without homes so much as without televisions. What possible reason could there be for that? In order to patch the “derelicts” back into the world of normalization, they must be treated by exposure to television. So they come to Cathode Ray for their TV “fix”.
“You look like them, like one of father’s derelicts,” says Bianca O’blivion, the mission operator who is also the daughter of Videodrome’s first victim.
“I think it’s a style. It’s coming back,” says Max Wren, the main character.
“In that case, Mr. Wren, it’s not a style. It’s a disease forced upon them from lack of access to the Cathode Ray tube.”
Wren – “You think a few doses of TV will help them?”
Bianca – “Watching TV will help patch them back into the world’s mixing board.”
“The world’s mixing board” – what is that? A gigantic network of information and signals which inform the teeming masses with socially acceptable discourse. Getting patched back in is like reading up on the day’s news in order to have everyday conversation with other people: what products are being consumed, what TV shows people are talking about, what political ideas should you be having, etc. The parallel today is like checking Facebook or Myspace in order to feel more connected to the drifting social discourse that takes place beyond real physical events. You can come back to the “real world” having felt as if you are completely informed, less naive about various aspects of social life.
But what is the real world? The “world’s mixing board” is an arena that is more and more “realistic” everyday, and the video seers are saying that video reality is more real to them than reality in the flesh.
This Cathode Ray scene in the film is short, but provides a lot of background that helps you understand the hypothetical world that people live in, and David Cronenberg’s social commentary. You notice that each derelict person in the mission is sitting alone in front of a television set, completely alienated from the rest of the world, detached from the other people who share the same class consciousness as they do. As an alienated force, they absorb a new form of ‘classless’ consciousness that imports the values and emotions they must have to survive in a rigorous environment. In Marx’s term, an opiate of the masses.
Here’s the other part. Massive doses of Videodrome’s signal – a mind-altering television show that broadcasts unedited torture, and still being tested in a Pittsburgh laboratory – causes a tumor in the brain that brings about hallucinations when it receives the Videodrome signal. (This is the farfetched version of how the “society of the spectacle” works, but it isn’t too far off.) These surreal hallucinations can be recorded, broadcast, and also controlled. It’s the ultimate brainwashing machine.
Since the creators of Videodrome – a government-contractor – have ‘benevolent’ intentions they dreamed that Videodrome would supposedly bring about an ideal social situation for a new world order. And for the first time ever it is possible to exert political and social power over the proletariat without having to convince them by traditional means. The “disease” that is forced upon the proletariat by lack of access to television is their class consciousness, and the television helps them consume imaginary commodities is the cure, which will give them false consciousness. In the mission Bianca remarks that Wren is beginning to “look like them.” He is beginning to look more proletariat.
The ability to exert the power is also, what I find interesting, a philanthropic mission with just one simple idea. Just as 19th Century philanthropist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham, convinced that his “simple idea in architecture”, a panopticon, could solve the most vexing problems of Enlightenment social thought, so a Videodrome device could solve the most vexing problems of class struggle. By harmoniously coordinating self-interest with social duty in a capitalist system, Videodrome enforces as painlessly as possible a sense of social cohesion.
Video hallucination, and because the film has mild Cold War undertones, is the way to control the public mind, directing it away from the dangers of communism. “The battle for the mind of North America,” says Brian O’blivion, a video prophet, “will be fought in the video arena.” The company called Spectacular Optical – where Videodrome originates – also makes missile-guidance systems for NATO and products for use in the Third World. The interconnected interest between war with Soviet Russia, Third World dependence, and the need for greater public control in the liberal regimes is not something Cronenberg tries to disguise.
But Cronenberg’s more obvious intention was to suggest something more along the lines of Baudrillard’s simulacra. The transition of a society from industrialism to “hyperreality”, marks a decisive turning point. Imagine, says Baudrillard, that a gigantic empire created a map of its own territory, and that map was so detailed that it was as big as the territory itself. When the empire eventually declined and disappeared, all that is left is the map. Baudrillard suggests that in the hyperreal transition, people merely live in the map. Beyond this horizon, value takes on a new meaning. In Baudrillard’s object/value system – the sign value of an object can be considered more real than its functional, exchange, or use value. The real object, even if erased, is not as important as the sign.
Videodrome was designed to create this turning point in human history, to push us into the world of signs. The brain tumors caused by Videodrome would create a new outgrowth, a new evolutionary step in human history. Instead of being so enamored with reality in the flesh, humans will elevate their consciousness to a higher plane, the video arena. In Baudrillard’s term, hyperrreality.
“Your reality is already half video hallucination,” says Brian O’blivion in a video dispatch to Max Wren. “If you’re not careful it will become total hallucination. You’ll have to learn to live in a very strange new world.”
This advice is not heeded. “Long live the new flesh!” is a slogan Max Wren starts saying once he is totally brainwashed by Videodrome. He is convinced, like others before him, that “public life on television” is more real than “private life in the flesh,” in Bianca’s words.
What I find the most creative on behalf of Cronenberg’s vision was to use the Cathode Ray Mission as a way to explain the turning point from industrial to hyperreal forms of society. The fact that the derelicts in Videodrome’s world are in need of objects that have greater sign value than functional values describes with great surrealism the kind of warped and twisted sort of place a late capitalist society is. Objects in the system of signs are fetishized to such an extent that they have more value than anything else.