The Thief's Journal

Home > Notes from the Underground

I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site or, depending on your point of view, a meta-commentary on it. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to art, music and literature. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept.

Ballardian and Fascism

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