Hunger & Games & Spectacle as Precursors of Revolutionary Consciousness

‘The world is so full of a number of things; I’m sure that we ought all to be happy as kings.’ Leaving aside the begged query of, on average, just how happy kings are, the poet’s point certainly is well-taken. The phenomena of everyday life, not to mention the mediated daily news spectacle, must all, at the least, astound and fascinate.

A particular recent case of this plenitude of amazement is the book series by Suzanne Collins that has resulted in the release of the film, the “Hunger Games.” After taking precious funds to bring my hyper-skeptical lens to the movie, I found that I had no choice but to find my way to Malaprops, the independent literary establishment in Asheville, in order to page through Hunger Games and glance at Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Rather than being able easily to rip into the falsity and distortion that I anticipated finding in the works, a whole host of questions and ideas competed for attention.

For example, what do mass murder in Norway, ‘anti-terrorist’ soldiers’ posing with body parts in Afghanistan, a boom in brothel-tourism in Spanish villages, a cusp-of-viral ‘wild-girls’ video entitled “Huge Group of Girls”, and half a million other recent news items involving women, power, violence, and ‘spectacular’ culture all have in common? In fundamental and important, albeit diverse and widely varying, ways, they all reflect the themes of degradation, resistance, and revolutionary potentiation that characterize both the film and text versions of Hunger Games, the literary and motion-picture hit that has caught fire in the current context.

In identifiably real ways, these developments reflect the differing watchwords that different founding fathers of the United States purveyed about power and revolution. For example, resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.” And, “The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations.”

While such ubiquitous tripe as Fifty Shades of Grey flexes promotional muscle to move a few hundred thousand copies of its ‘let’s celebrate our enslavement’ theme –after all, ‘it’s so romantic!’–the Hunger Games(HG) extravaganza, admittedly also with plenty of PR assistance, has reached millions of readers and viewers. In fact, as of April 30th, nearly 30,000,000 tickets had sold for the film alone. The paper and electronic versions of the three volumes of Suzanne Collin’s HG trilogy, meanwhile, also recently approached the thirty-million-distributed-copies mark.

In parsing what is transpiring with these almost earthshaking numbers, let’s start with the obvious. The world teeters on the verge of meltdown. Environmental catastrophe, mass murder in multiple guises, and varied manifestations of totalitarian imprisonment of body and soul seem to lurk at every juncture. And the truth of the matter is that socioeconomic prospects are so grim and loathsome that a fair number–perhaps a majority–of folks are ready to say ‘to hell with the environment,’ ‘praise the Lord and pass the ammunition’ for whatever genocide is ready to hand, or ‘sign me up for whichever prison detail feeds me best.’

Instead of palpable analysis about or tangible solutions to such noisome conundrums, today’s leading institutions and the functionaries who head them offer nothing but a combination of pablum, lies, distortions, and fetishistic horse manure in relation to conceptualizing or dealing with these real and unrelenting problems that face all humanity. Every day brings further travail and trouble. Every hour offers nonsensical and insulting bullshit as the supposed answer to people’s oft-spoken prayers for assistance and relief. Again, E.L. James’ virginal subjugation fantasy exemplifies this assessment. And its spiritual emulators are legion.

But this humble correspondent needs to add a qualification: “almost nothing” is more accurate in the accusation above. Suzanne Collins, for instance, whatever her motives and intentions in writing her amazing trilogy, whatever glorious profits that she has reaped, has also in fact proffered all of us a sobering and yet hopeful narrative–in the form of a simple yarn replete with allusions to mythic and psychic structures–that posits that the Earth’s human cousins may find ways to work together to survive rather than expire in a gushing rush of mass collective suicide.

The three volumes of the set clearly and harshly depict ‘the obvious’ points noted above. Just as disaster is the current motif of human existence, at the same time that metropolitan centers dally on the cusp of conflagration as if the favored minority resident there could command the apparent omnipotence of the HG arena itself, so too in Collins’ accounts–and, amazingly, in the first film of the series as well–oppressed and divided ‘districts‘ of the working poor slave and starve to feed ‘Capitol’ habits that tend to stylized self-aggrandizement based on technical mastery.

Viewers such as this humble correspondent, who have come to expect sickening fetish or superficial distortion or reactionary breast-beating or some combination of such from those in charge of mediating culture, cannot help but gawk in wonder and hope at Hunger Games, both the book and the movie. The premises of the work are sound. Social reality predominates, rather than fake little ploys that evince and elevate only the coy and the greedy, the supercilious and the selfish.

Perhaps most critically, from the start, unrelentingly, Katniss Eberdeen recognizes and insists on expressing that only authentic resistance–her volunteering as tribute, her letting fly an arrow among the coddled and arrogant, her covering the victim of the Anders-Breivik-lookalike-fascist’s spear with flowers after Katniss cuts him down, and on and on and on–can have any chance to overturn a system bankrupt and rotten to the core. She may dissemble; she may smile when she had rather slash; but her heart and soul are clear in their orientation to her own people against the leadership that assaults and oppresses her and hers.

To some extent, then, both Suzanne Collins and Gary Ross, the film’s director, must also be promulgating such a consciousness, capable of supporting revolutionary ideas and ideals. A critical insight near the end of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed intelligently and intelligibly articulates this notion.

“Cultural action is always a systematic and deliberate form of action which operates upon the social structure, either with the objective of preserving that structure or of transforming it. …Cultural action either serves domination (consciously or unconsciously) or it serves the liberation of men. As these dialectically opposed types of cultural action operate in and upon the social structure, they create dialectical relations of permanence and change.”

Nor is this self-reflective component utterly absent from the ‘singularity’ that Collins’ work has engendered. Actually, the search string, “hunger games” “revolutionary consciousness” OR “class consciousness” OR uprising, leads to 1.69 million links. Leaving off the popular term, ‘uprising,’ to wit “hunger games” “revolutionary consciousness” OR “class consciousness,” still brings forth over 25,000 hits. Even paring this down, by absenting Barnes and Noble and Amazon linkages, yields nearly 20,000 connections. Many of these at least want to walk the revolutionary mile, so to say.

On the other hand, typical reification and putridity has its say first on the list of presented citations. Fetish and individualistic nonsense, in this case in the form of ‘following Jesus’ to salvation, thus, in some sense, take the first swipe, so to say.

Other reviewers turn up their noses at the hardness that Collins depicts in her characters. They seem to find an easier kinship with the soft and coddled denizens of Panem’s ‘Capitol’ environs.

And ultimately, cooptation remains omnipresent. A ‘Patch’ piece, from one of AOL’s much celebrated little prep-school enclaves, exemplifies this taming and defanging of Collins’ message .

However, the film’s songs include “Girl on Fire.” Its lyrics reject both cooptation and diminution of the inevitable suffering attendant on all essential acts of insurrection. Nevertheless, the singers intone, we have no choice but to arise to the struggle against oppression.

As well, Ms. Collins’ story itself is unequivocal in its rejection of kowtowing. It insists on resistance. It understands the inevitability of rebellion and uprising. Such iterations of revolt’s pendency pepper the book like cayenne in a spicy stock.

At the ‘Reaping Day’ events: “So instead of acknowledging applause, I stand there unmoving while they take part in the boldest form of dissent they can manage. Silence. Which says we do not agree. We do not condone. All of this is wrong. Then something unexpected happens. At least, I don’t expect it because I don’t think of District 12 as a place that cares about me. But a shift has occurred since I stepped up to take Prim’s place, and now it seems I have become someone precious. At first one, then another, then almost every member of the crowd touches the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and holds it out to me. It is an old and rarely used gesture of our district, occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love.”

When Katniss views and comments on the summary-video that her vicious and venal captors have prepared about her exploits: “But I do notice they omit the part where I covered (Rue) in flowers. Right. Because even that smacks of (the) rebellion” that the leadership arrogantly eschews the merest mention of.

Perhaps of irresistible significance in this entire process of storytelling, production, and enculturation, the life story of Suzanne Collins peeks out from between the lines of her books. When imperial war put Suzanne’s career-soldier dad in the guise of stormtrooper and peacekeeper, Collins’ vain and self-centered mother in many ways left her brood of chicks to fend for themselves–a la Katniss and Prim with their mother in the film, after dad died in a coal-mining explosion.

Like Katniss’ soul-friend Dale, whom the intrepid young woman left behind when she took her sister’s place as the sacrificial ‘tribute,’ Suzanne Collins’ father may have taught of resisting the military juggernaut passively. Maybe, he would have sought to transform it by ignoring it.

That such matters–of history and empire and the militarization of ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’–are arguably central to this exercise in yarn spinning and mythos emerges from multiple sources. Maybe the most unsettling and critical to note is the U.S. military itself, from the womb of which–so to speak– Ms. Collins herself has come to the world with her tales and cautions, her truths and premonitions. The Department of Defense is like a Panem avatar.

The United States Army Field Manual, Internment and Resettlement Operations, might have resulted from the Capitol’s mandates in Suzanne Collins’ all-too-plausible future. One need only substitute Collins’ dystopic appellation for ‘U.S.’

“An adaptive enemy will manipulate populations that are hostile to U.S. intent by instigating mass civil disobedience, directing criminal activity, masking their operations in urban and other complex terrain, maintaining an indistinguishable presence through cultural anonymity, and actively seeking the traditional sanctuary of protected areas as defined by the rules of land warfare. Such actions will facilitate the dispersal of threat forces, negate technological overmatches, and degrade targeting opportunities. Commanders will use technology and conduct police intelligence operations to influence and control populations, evacuate detainees
and, conclusively, transition rehabilitative and reconciliation operations to other functional agencies. The combat identification of friend, foe, or neutral is used to differentiate combatants from noncombatants and friendly forces from threat forces.”

These words apply to us. Loosely translated, here is what our savior soldiers’ orders entail, at least on those occasions when active fighting ensues. ‘Protest or any other form of resistance to authority equals war against order. The public relations difficulties of annihilating those who resist is such that the Army must incarcerate them instead. After appropriate shock therapy and attitude adjustment, selected rebels will have opportunities to return to their conditions of servitude, so long as they agree to shut up and do as they are told.’

Those of us who remain sentient must respond to such evidence of manifest tyranny and incipient fascism. Thomas Jefferson had plenty of issues, as well as plenty of money and land that his forebears stole from Native Americans. But he saw straight in many matters. He recognized the divine right and political necessity of revolution, even as he was aware that we will frequently resist the necessity of rising up till it is long past due.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established, should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience [has] shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable … But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce [the people] under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”

His advice would echo Katniss Eberdeen’s thinking. The following words are from the series Epilogue, at the conclusion of the third volume, Mockingjay. She is reflecting from the vantage point of victory, having assisted in ‘providing different guards for future security’ from those of Panem’s divide-and-conquer machinations.

“The questions are just beginning. The arenas have been completely destroyed, the memorials built, there are no more Hunger Games. But they teach about them at school … . How can I tell them about that world without frightening them to death? …Peeta says it will be okay. We have each other. And the book. We can make them understand in a way that will make them braver. But one day I’ll have to explain about my nightmares. Why they came. Why they won’t ever really go away. I’ll tell them how I survive it. I’ll tell them that on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I’m afraid it could be taken away. That’s when I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do. It’s like a game. Repetitive. Even a little tedious after more than twenty years. But there are much worse games to play.”

This also fits with what Suzanne Collins father discovered in Southeast Asia. Perhaps he sought to teach this to his cadets at the military academy where he taught military history. In any event, it is the takeaway of the Hunger Games. We ignore it at our peril.

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