Archive for the ‘Ballard’ Category

Ballardian and Fascism

Monday, August 16th, 2010

An article from Ballardian examines the thesis in Ballard’s last novel correlating fascism and consumerism:

"Beyond the details, there seems to be a conspicuous problem with the novel’s underlying theme, since fascism was always anti-consumerist in its temperament. As Peter N Stearns puts it in his review of Consumerism in World History: ‘For fascist leaders, modern society had become too disunited and individualistic. Consumerism was a fundamental part of modern degeneracy’…

Ballard has drawn attention to the way in which moral structures and decision-making powers have been externalized out into the environment by technology – from traffic lights to CCTV cameras – providing us with a safe passage through our lives, and in like manner we may find it psychologically easier to decline the freedom to utilize the imagination that comes with a safe and prosperous, but individualistic, society…. Peter Stearns points out that the growth of consumer behaviour was closely connected with the decline of long-established social structures under the pressures of industrialization and urbanization. In earlier times, social hierarchies were much more rigidly observed, and any crossing of social boundaries or individualistic behaviour tended to be viewed negatively, especially by the upper-classes. The latter had luxury, i.e. their wealth was displayed, rather than consumed, and in standard formats with an absence of individuality or any concern about fashion. However, once this social edifice began to lose its grip, consumer behaviour helped people cope with the resulting uncertainty and insecurity about social status, and with the disruption to established patterns of behaviour, by providing alternative ways of fulfillment and by enabling an individual to demonstrate personal achievement, no matter how limited. This was particularly the case in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the growth of large firms meant that many in the middle-classes found themselves working for others rather than themselves and in jobs with a high degree of routine: satisfaction and success were no longer an integral element of their occupation, and had to be sought elsewhere.

But there is a malign dialectic at work here. I buy things in order to try and reassert my identity, but as the marketplace grows I am offered an increasing variety of goods and services, and associated ways of living, from which to choose. Now my identity is even more in question, because it is something that I myself have to select and realize. The impact is heightened as the material prosperity of society increases – even something as basic as food becomes no longer a matter of survival and physical well-being, but a decision about life-style… To make matters worse, the psychological support that might have been available from kinship ties, the local community, religion, voluntary organizations, and such like, is now much weaker – in fact, involvement in these is as much a life-style choice as everything else. Yet the evidence is that people with a rich variety of social connections are less likely to suffer depression and anxiety than those without. Without a traditional social fabric around me, I live in a world of endless possibilities but any failure to find fulfillment in my life must somehow reflect my own inadequacies. Hence, as Zygmunt Bauman suggests, we are nowadays more likely to suffer from depression, caused by the fear of inadequacy in the face of endless possibilities, than from neurosis arising from guilt caused by the transgression of prohibitions.

The risk is that the erasure of meaning in modern societies produces boredom and emptiness, a gap which a dormant psychopathology can readily fill, fuelled by a preference for emotion over cognition. Hence Ballard frequently links boredom and psychopathic behaviour in his later books and interviews."

One thing that struck me about this is that this is in many ways a rather conservative account of fascism, which makes me one wonder about one of the more interesting and more unremarked aspects of Ballard’s work, namely the question of whether his critique of modern society can be ascribed as originating from the political left or right, given that the mere fact of Ballard’s fiction having a decidedly transgressive is hardly enough to label him as leftwing. Some elements of his fiction would qualify in that regard; his embrace of modernism and dislike of tradition, for example. Criticism of consumerism and consumption certainly does, with Veblen coming to mind immediately as a comparison, while Peter Sloterdijk’s recent account of the repression of anger in capitalist societies also has some parallels with Ballard. However, many of his ideas can be described as conservative in various ways; his emphasis on our innate repressed psychopathy is something one can see conservatives from Hobbes to Scruton agreeing with, while much of his work does tend to suggest socially conservative attitudes. The prototypical Ballard protagonist is a middle aged male usually accompanied by a woman firmly in a supporting role. Rushing to Paradise is one of his few works to represent a powerful woman and the results do tend to suggest a rather extreme fear of the feminine. More common is for the powerful figure to be male, with a relationship with the protagonist that can easily be read as homoerotic, but his characters, as in Hello America, can as equally be homophobic. Certainly, Ballard’s work has more in common with Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents than with Marcuse’s Eros and Civilisation

The Sense Of Place

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

This article from the Guardian struck me as being far removed the point:

"When the phrase ‘Hampstead novel’ was used in the 80s, everyone knew exactly what it meant: a middle-class morality novel – probably involving adultery and shallow-masquerading-as-deep. Critics fastened on ‘Hampstead’ as if the place itself might be a clue to content – as if the postcode was a giveaway. But, actually, the idea of Hampstead may never have had much to do with reality. Professor John Sutherland says the phrase became more an ‘idea’ than a ‘topographical truth’ … What is perhaps most interesting about this slippery mirage of a genre is what it suggests about place itself – and the way it can take hold and have an independent life in a reader’s imagination. It was the ‘Hampstead novel’ tag that first nudged me towards thinking about the way places are used as critical shorthand. I started to wonder about the geography of novels – and whether we still use place as a symbolic key to content…

‘Chelsea, Hampstead and St John’s Wood have been replaced by Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani, set in Hounslow and on the Heathrow Flight path.’ (There may be hope for the Luton novel yet.) Hahn points out that gaps in the A-Z tend to be filled by ‘non British writers’. ‘Fifty years ago,’ he says, “it would have been amazing to read a novel like Monica Ali’s from someone with a different background.”.. In non fiction, Iain Sinclair made his name writing about such places (no small feat to write compellingly about the M25 as he has done in London Orbital). In fiction, Blake Morrison is one of a growing number of writers attempting to do something comparable. He could hardly be plainer about his allegiance: his most recent novel is called South of the River… Yet although British novelists now spread their nets more widely, there is still a paucity of state-of-the-nation novelists, writers able to move freely across the map and get an aerial view. Hanif Kureishi puts it like this: ‘Dickens had a sense of the whole society, from prisoner to home secretary. No writer has that now.’"

It’s certainly true that place was an especially important concept in the Victorian novel. George Eliot wrote of how she saw it as nurturing and forming character, making it the basis for the balance of character and society that is the hallmark of the Victorian novel (to the extent that Moretti could construct a series of maps from Dickens and Balzac). In Eliot, Hardy and the Bronte sisters (and DH Lawrence later), the place is typically rural, albeit one being transformed under the impact of an increasingly commercial and industrial society. In others, like Gaskell and Dickens, there is a contrast of urban squallor and vice with rural virtue, following the likes of Fielding. As society became increasingly urbanised (not to mention less homogeneous) these sorts of themes work less well. In contemporary terms, people are more mobile between places, less likely to be influenced by one areas. I often think of a line from Peter Shaffer’s play Equus, about how the very concept of place has been eroded in the modern world. Equally, place has become an increasinly homogeneous concept, with most of the population living in suburbs that are invariably designed as to be mutually interchangeable, before travelling to work in offices of glass and steel that come close to being mass manufactured. Contemporary geography is characterised by what Marc Auge calls the unplace; places like supermarkets, motorways, hotels, business parks or airports that are the architecture of transience rather than social stability: "… like the place, the non-place doesn’t exist in pure form; it’s more likely that new places are generated, relations are reconstructed within. Place and non-place are contrary poles; the place never disappears completely and the non-place is never fully established – they are palimpsests on which the confusing game of identity and relation finds its own reflection over and over."

As such, it seems to me that the writer that best characterises the modern concept of place is "One of the things I like about Ballard is how he treats architectural space: highway flyovers, corporate campuses, flooded hotels, suburban home-development projects, abandoned swimming pools, army camps in the desert. He presents the modern, built environment as this kind of psychological field lab for testing new ways of being human. He encodes all this, or hardwires it, into the actual landscapes of his novels. You get humans trying to understand and psychologically accommodate themselves to the presence of vast, empty car parks, derelict hospitals, redundant freeways, under-subscribed exurban high-rises and so on. It’s a ‘malfunctioning central nervous system’ in spatial form, on the scale of a whole civilisation.

Ballardian space is psycho-spatial. His books are full of artificial lakes, highway medians, multi-storey car parks, strangely over-air-conditioned corporate boardrooms – and these all take on a kind of menacing, even confrontational, gleam, as if you’ve just stepped into some kind of unspoken mental challenge. The buildings and cities and landscapes in Ballard’s novels are more like psychological traps built by management consultants – not architects – who then fly overhead in private jets, looking down, checking whether their complicated theories of human cognition have survived the test. Where ‘the test’ is the world you and I now live in.

Of course, any built environment has a psychological impact on the people who live there. In Super-Cannes, for instance, the book’s setting – an office park – is haunted by a kind of ‘controlled and supervised madness,’ Ballard writes. One of the characters explains, at great length, how the too-perfect and over-manicured landscapes of this new corporate enclave inspire sexual violence and anti-immigrant raids – a rebellion against the boredom of tennis courts and well-mowed lawns. Every artificial landscape is the diagram of a certain psychological state – even if that just means reflecting the dominant aesthetic of the day. But the idea that the built landscape can be read as an ‘encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis,’ as Ballard writes, crossing generations and countries, just fascinates me.

Space in Ballard’s novels is never deeply textured or deeply described. Instead, you get these abstract non-places – a corporate campus, a media center, a fitness complex. You drive down feeder roads and airport roundabouts and cross-city motorways. You never enter a world of rich, Dickensian details. He’s like the anti-Dickens. You don’t walk past churches and bookshops and local bars and farmers’ markets and whatever else makes a believable urban setting; you’re always out in this weird edge-world of import warehouses and corporate development projects. Sports-car dealerships. The very lack of detail is what makes a setting Ballardian."