Friday, 30 August 2013

Notes on Hoke's Bluff

There are these two fairly good jokes they always tell at the Edinburgh Free Fringe, and the one is about how it's free to get in to see the show but not free to leave, and then the other one is something about, "blahdy blahdy blah, boop boop boop, fold your donation into this hat [or bucket]." Well I have busy since mid-May with my little jeweler's saw and soldering iron and pathetic kleinen hinges, crafting my foldable tuppence to perhaps fuck up that latter gag for keeps, and tonight I finally went along to Hoke's Bluff at the Forest Fringe (huorned over to the Out of the Blue Drill Hall, goodness) to debut my devious little comeback, and do you know what -- I had to give them a bloody fiver!

Yes, cast and crew of Hoke's Bluff: the fiver was from me.

Now I can't really do a proper review, but here are some discombobulated notes.

Hoke's Bluff is a play about sports, and perhaps particularly American high school sports, and perhaps particularly especially about movies about American high school sports. There is a jock, a cheerleader and a ref. There is a lot of poppy dance music, and lots of getting the audience to cheer and clap. They sell you popcorn and then make you feel guilty about eating it by running up and down and doing star jumps.

The sport in question is a sort of excellent synthesis of American football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey and soccer, in roughly that order of precedence, but really we all know it's Calvinball:

As well as Bill Watterson, it's reminiscent of Don DeLillo: Americana and -- especially! -- End Zone. There was that sense of sports talk (commentary, smack talk, pep talks, etc.) as being its own proper oral tradition, with its own integrity and complexity. It wasn't just that the beautiful writing of Hoke's Bluff had transmuted sports talk into poetry -- yes, that happened a bit, but sports talk was also allowed to be whatever it already is when it is fully, extravagantly realised. Something akin to poetry, perhaps. The sister arts: ut playbook poesis.

It is a crackerjack series of beautifully staged little spectacles. Detail, yes! And there was a steadiness to it, a confident occupation of attention which left me with the impression of the characteristic pacing of sketch comedy. Processes which sound like they should be boring to watch instead became the milieu in which little well-chosen details continually shifted.

(Sometimes, when you say to someone, "You must be so bored of people asking you x," they say something like, "Oh, not really. Everyone says it in a different way!" And yes, everyone who says that says "Everyone says it in a different way!" in a different way).

Given the deliberately archetypal and somewhat fragmentary storytelling, the characters conveyed a surprising richness.

The artifice is so bright and straightforward it almost feels as if it is handed back to the audience to control. Feelings can operate more like thoughts: you can move around in feeling, choosing different branches, like you can move around in thoughts. (Although a film like Christoffer Boe's Reconstruction (2003) shows that drawing attention to a trope does not necessarily significantly change its emotional impact. (Perhaps it's different with Hoke's Bluff because when it comes to cheesy sports movies, we're already used to suspending disbelief in some particular way?)).

Something else about Hoke's Bluff -- something about its hyperreality -- means if we choose to feel with the grain, we probably won't be distracted by the falseness, by tropes constructed to create a certain feeling. It is false here, but it's true somewhere. (Perhaps this is peculiar to small town sports obsessions).

You know that hokey gag where an orator -- coach, say -- gets carried away in a speech supposedly about general and noble things, and inserts various personal hang-ups and/or uncomfortably intimate information? (I'm not sure if it really is a gag. It's seldom funny). Something like that happens in Hoke's Bluff. But the movement is not always from the general and proverbial to the specific and private. It is another mode of oversharing altogether.

These epic lists! The names are funny, sometimes. There's that Chris Morris-y way of creating names. (I don't know, maybe they were all real). Is this perhaps the counterpart to Romantic irony -- to that sense that anything could always have been otherwise? A kind of Romantic bathos, or something? I don't know.

That's it. I really liked it.

Monday, 8 July 2013

A review of Baxter's biography of JG Ballard

The Inner Man is a smart, supple and jolly biography. I particularly enjoyed the brisk but forbearing way Baxter dismisses info from the horse’s mouth – no, he didn’t do that, no, he must have imagined that, nope, he didn’t read that then, I don’t care what he says etc.. There are good anecdote – Ballard hated Sister Wendy and avoided going to events where she’d be present; the British Board of Film Classification screened Cronenberg’s Crash for eleven paraplegics to make sure it was all right; Ballard would pleasantly acquiesce to requests for references, but write separate letters to the reference recipients, warning them to disregard the references. There’s also a pretty good harvest of witticisms and wry remarks. Baxter doesn’t seem overly bothered about spoilers – but then again, for most of his life, Ballard is just sitting in his house in Shepperton, so it does make sense to focus on his writing. Avoiding fetishizing Ballard’s experiences as the meaning of his works, Baxter still manages to keep up a stream of plausible suggestions of persons, incidents, environments and atmospheres which may have been fictionalised. In terms of critical curation, Baxter’s preferred cultural contexts, especially for Ballard’s sf, are mostly visual art, and are generally quite convincing. He also emphasizes the importance of advertising – the born advertiser waging holy war against consumer culture is the closest Baxter comes to a summation of Ballard. Without conspicuously cheating, and without rendering Ballard any less idiosyncratic, Baxter renders him rather a lot less enigmatic. A few reservations: I felt there was too much about movies. There were also a few too many arbitrary summaries of context: "it was 196X, the Beatles were in Tibet, opposition to the Vietnam conflict was growing, everyone was watching aliens on Star Trek, yoda yoda yoda." More importantly, I’d have liked more emphasis on the gender and sex politics of Ballard, his work and his era. Baxter suggests that if Ballard’s young wife Mary had not died, he would have forever remained a second rate writer. The main implications of Ballard "knocking around" his girlfriend are apparently her changing her look and a hiatus in Ballard’s friendship with Moorcock. Finally, I’m dubious of the handling of what you could call the critical moment in Ballard works. Baxter does Ballard a disservice by drawing so few comparisons with postmodern theorists, critical theorists and post-marxists – leaving him seeming to celebrate a rather drab brand of swaggering nihilism and butch self-fashioning. Also, Colin Waters raises what seem to be some rather sensible points in his review for The Herald!

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Hai Drone Jin Sim Natter

An eensy bit terser version of this review appeared in Interzone 243. Of course it makes rather bittersweet reading now, especially the last bit. Iain Banks you were wonderful & you are missed.

The Hydrogen Sonata tells the story of a crisis sparked by the impending rapture (“Subliming”) of a major galactic civilisation (the Gzilt) into a sort of extra-dimensional transcendental afterlife or überlife thingamajig. As the blessed day draws closer, scores are settled and secrets revealed; rules, manners and mores unravel; meanwhile, scavengers push and shove on the perimeter, ready at the first sign of a civilisation-wide, blissed-out puff of smoke to pounce on whatsoever cool tech and well-appointed worlds that might be going spare. Pretty swiftly everyone’s favourite super-advanced post-scarcity utopian anarchists (the Culture) can’t resist poking their smug pug noses (or hulls, I guess – many of the Culture characters are, crudely speaking, space ships) into the affair.

So I make that … ten Culture books now? Technically each one is stand-alone, though some – The Hydrogen Sonata for one – will surely bewilder the beginner more than others. That’s not to say The Hydrogen Sonata is “a bad place to start” exactly – there are pleasures peculiar to wandering in in media res and figuring out, detective fashion, an already well-established world, and even to feeling the weight of obscure presences you never fully descry. For Banks aficionados awaiting a fix of courageously intelligent, consistently droll, and sporadically pyrotechnically-savage space opera, The Hydrogen Sonata can’t be said to short-change. The cool tech is cool; the intriguing teamwork is intriguing, the gratuitously exotic backdrops are exotic as ever; the grotesque revels are gross as ever (a minor character can have too many penises, you know, Mr Banks); the lovable sidekicks must needs be loved; and the Imperial pomp is copiously pompous (though not technically Imperial). There are tense, matter-of-fact, “one-hobbit-with-one-HP-survives” style military set-pieces. There are pilgrimages to gurus. There is pluck. There are some links to Surface Detail (2010) too, in which disputes over the ethics of simulated Hell escalates into political and military crisis. We’re also in Excession (1996) territory, with the Deep Space Natter novel form – you feel a bit like you’ve stumbled onto a cosmic Wikipedia talk page waaay above your security clearance.

There’s really so much crammed into The Hydrogen Sonata that it may seem an odd choice to dwell so carefully on the wordy and prying committee of principled AI meddlers (whilst, for instance, the thread about the murderous Septame Bangestyn felt ever-so-slightly cursory). Still, I don’t think Banks was wasting skill by selecting this focus and making it work.

Here’s why. Culture novels have been getting good at extrapolating around various sf mainstays (especially VR simulations, subjectivity saved games, and dealings between AI and biological life) in ways which could be catastrophic for storytelling and emotional investment and pacing, but aren’t. For instance – can scenes ever-liable to dissolve as sims, or sims-within-sims, be built such that readers still care for their outcomes? Maybe not! Do readers care about characters who can be restored off a disc if they die? Maybe not! What can an author give a flesh-and-bones hero to do, if AI and snazzy tech can obviously handle the heroism so much better? Maybe nada — “You won’t be contributing, you’ll be jeopardising,” an AI avatar tells Sonata protagonist Vyr Cossont as she insists on protagging along to a climactic battle (p. 432). In general Banks has been admirably reluctant to fudge these snags. Treated candidly, they can serve as sources of strange energies and cathexes and seemingly-warped-yet-utterly-logical narrative structures (contrasting with the flamboyant structural elegance of books like Use of Weapons (1990), Feersum Endjinn (1994) and Inversions (1998)).

I think that’s part of what’s going on in Matter (2008), Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata, and I think it’s part of a larger struggle in many of Banks’ books between materialism and storytelling. That is, between the obligation to the messiness of the universe, and the obligation to freight history with meanings and values which might distort and artificially neaten it.

If I have a niggle – and how many fans will share in it, I don’t know – I could happily have heard a little more overt moral chat!

Sure, various values are implicitly represented and tested – especially those swirling around the themes of prediction (sims again), risk and self-sacrifice (both pointless and pointed). But more explicit lines might have been drawn, and/or a more contemporary aura invoked – Surface Detail was about Hell, and one of its highlights was a level-headed dispute with a thinly-veiled American theocon. The Hydrogen Sonata in a way is about Heaven, plus the whole connected secular caboodle of utopia, revolt and so on. Subliming offers the opportunity to think about the operation of moral calculation and moral instinct in anticipation of salvation, about the ways in which vangardists confront sacrifices and terrible trade-offs (“to murder so many so that so many more may one day –” yadayadayada), and about how they may successfully solicit and/or delusively project such sacrifices and terrible trade-offs, with stunningly complex outcomes. We know Banks is capable of more in-depth and subtle interrogations of eschatological psychology; so maybe he didn’t think we were capable or inclined to attend to them?

Well, I’m not wistful for The Hydrogen Sermon or anything, and to be fair, whilst Subliming is prodigiously fleshed out (ectoplasm’d out?) in that novel, plenty of new mysteries and prospects are generated in the process. So perhaps there is more about this whole Subliming business yet to come. Actually that's quite an exciting thought.

Corporate Responsibility Reporting Assurance (4)

Okay, a sort of interlude to peer into how the accountancy profession and other assurance providers hope to systematise CR reporting. My info here may be a little archaic (often to the tune of four or five years); I’ll try to bring it more up-to-date eventually, but in the meanwhile anyone who wants to chip in, please do!


Despite the mostly voluntary character of CR reporting and assurance, there are many signs of standardisation. Most of the largest 250 companies worldwide use guidelines developed by the Global Reporting Initiative (“GRI”), and they seem to try to keep pretty up-to-date.

Look a little closer, and the full extent of this standardisation is difficult to decipher. The GRI guidelines are widely used in some form or another, but the guidelines are designed to be incredibly flexible. Compliance with the G3 version of the guidelines comes at three “Application Levels” according to how many CR indicators the company is able to report on; compliance can be self-assessed, or checked by the GRI or by a third party; reports can also be assured or not (the next iteration, G4 is likely to drop this feature).

Assurance may also be restricted to certain aspects of a report, and it may be either at the “reasonable” or “limited” level. This last distinction relates to the amount of work done to verify the subject matter. Reasonable assurance results in a positive form of the assurance statement (“is fairly stated”) whereas limited assurance results in a negative form (“nothing has come to our attention to suggest that it is not fairly stated”). Statutory audit of financial statements is always at the reasonable level. Limited assurance is used in a variety of other contexts, for example, in quarterly reviews of financial statements. A KPMG survey in 2008 showed that “the majority of the G250 (51 percent) obtain report assurance that is a ‘limited level’ of assurance—a lower level that requires less work from the assurance provider and therefore lower costs. […] From a company perspective, choosing a limited level is not surprising since assurance on corporate responsibility information is mainly a voluntary activity.”

The most significant standard of assurance provision applicable to the Big Four is the ISAE3000, maintained by the International Federation of Accountants (“IFAC”) through the International Auditing and Assurance Standards Board (“IAASB”). For member organisations, ISAE3000 has become compulsory where there is no national alternative (such as the Australian AS/NZS 5911 standard). This applies to the Big Four through their memberships in ICAEW. Specialist assurance providers (such as SGS and Two Tomorrows) typically don’t use the ISAE3000. It is a very flexible, generic standard, applicable to a wide range of non-audit assurance engagements. It assumes that the scope of the assurance engagement will be set by the reporting entity. In the UK, the Auditing Practices Board (“APB”) has responsibility for implementing standards issued by the IAASB. It does not currently promulgate the ISAE3000. The APB has expressed the view that the ISAE3000 aims to address too broad a range assurance engagements.

Then there’s the AA1000AS standard. The AA1000AS was developed by the non-profit organisation AccountAbility specifically for the assurance of CR reporting. The Big Four comply with this standard at their clients’ discretion. The AA1000AS (2008) seems still to be the most recent incarnation.

KPMG describe their use of the AA1000APS (2003) as a two phase process. Phase 1 considers whether the scope and materiality of the report is appropriate. During Phase 1, KPMG run their own analysis of scope and materiality. This consists of establishing five input channels: stakeholder engagement; media search; sector knowledge (e.g. peer CR reports, industry body guidelines); client knowledge; and prior year CR commitments. Phase 2 considers whether the individual claims are accurate and complete. Phase 2 is a lengthy process of identifying and taxonomising material assertions. “This results in a detailed assurance plan (including a list of people to be interviewed and a list of the required documentary evidence) at corporate, business/regional and site level (if relevant), together with the selection of sites to be visited. The type and amount of evidence required varies depending on the type of assertion and the level of assurance being sought.”

AA1000AS was developed to complement ISAE3000. For example, AA1000AS’s moderate and high levels of assurance, which the standard recommends for “new” and “mature” issues respectively, are intended to be consistent with ISAE3000’s “limited” and “reasonable” levels of assurance.

One important difference between the AA1000AS series and the ISAE3000 is that the assuror’s consideration of “materiality” is not limited in a scope set by the reporting entity. Materiality is a crucial concept of financial audit methodology, that has been carried over into assurance. Very loosely speaking, material information is significant information. It’s what matters. (I may get more detailed elsewhere).  Under the AA1000AS series, the assuror assesses the degree to which the reporting entity’s scope has correctly identified its stakeholders and their needs. In other words, the assuror must make judge the reporting entity’s choices about what is and is not significant, by appeal to its stakeholders.

So those are the main standards used in the assurance of CR reporting. The Big Four have also developed their own tools relating to CR reporting, for instance Deloitte’s Sustainability Reporting Scorecard (2004), thirty criteria against which to assess a CR report. I’m not sure how much uptake there was of this.


There is comparatively little independent monitoring of this assurance itself (well, you do have to stop somewhere, I suppose). The G3 includes guidance on satisfactory assurance, but compliance must be self-assessed. One GRI representative commented, “An organization should look at the definition on pg. 38 of the GRI Guidelines and make its own assessment in conjunction with the assurance provider as to how they wish to communicate their engagement publicly. We will not take a position on whether a given engagement does or does not constitute ‘external assurance’ as it is impossible for us to assess the full range of engagements put in front of us” (2009).

AccountAbility don’t monitor the use of the AA1000AS (2008) to a detailed level. Each use of the AA1000AS (2008) in an assurance statement requires payment of a license fee to AccountAbility. AccountAbility pre-checks only the statement itself, although an acceptable statement must include a description of methodology. In partnership with the International Register of Certificated Auditors (“IRCA”), AccountAbility offers individuals training and certification in the use of AA1000AS (2008). AccountAbility also has an assuror membership programme (which includes all of the Big Four). However, neither of these are requirements to use the AA1000AS (2008).

The accountancy profession’s self-regulation mechanisms monitor compliance with the ISAE3000. In the context of indepedence, it's worth pointing out that the organisations which embody these mechanisms scoop their members from the cream of the accountancy profession, including Big Four partners. A quick scan suggests that about half the members of the APB are current or former associates of the Big Four, with the remainder drawn from business, law or academic backgrounds. The Big Four are also well-represented on the IFAC board.

High-level oversight of the ISAE3000 is provided by the Public Interest Oversight Board (“PIOB”), an extension of IFAC. In the UK, an infringement of the ISAE3000 would be reported to the professional body of which the firm or one of its employees was a member. All of the Big Four are institutional members of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (“ICAEW”). The Financial Reporting Council (“FRC”) is the UK’s independent regulator responsible for the accountancy and audit profession. The FRC, through its Professional Oversight Board (“POB”) has a statutory responsibility to ensure that these bodies have effective arrangements in place to investigate complaints against their members and member firms. The FRC recommends that professional bodies escalate cases concerning the public interest to its Accountancy & Actuarial Discipline Board (“AADB”). The AADB may also autonomously initiate investigations. As noted above, the APB does not currently promulgate the ISAE3000. In 2009, Executive Director of the APB commented, “While the ICAEW have some sort of monitoring of all services provided by audit firms in the UK (Practice Assurance), in reality I think it is fair to say that there is no monitoring of compliance with it [the ISAE3000].” There is thus something of a regulatory gap; certainly there is less oversight of this standard than of comparable audit standards.

A few more bits & pieces

In addition to all these standards and frameworks described, the Big Four aim to conduct their assurance work in accordance with the Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants, maintained by IFAC’s International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants (“IESBA”), as well as with their own codes of conduct and independence policies, and with appropriate national laws.

Important national legislation includes SOX, enacted in the US in 2002 in the aftermath of a number of major corporate and accounting scandals, above all the collapse of Enron and subsequently of their auditors, Arthur Andersen. Among its provisions, it prohibits professional services firms from doing audit and certain consultancy work for the same client. SOX also extends the scope of statutory audit to a range of internal fraud-prevention controls. ICAEW comments, “The most effective way to ensure the reality of independence is to provide guidance centred around a framework of principles rather than a detailed set of rules that can be complied with to the letter but circumvented in substance.” The focus of these blog posts is the UK system, characterized by this “principles”-based approach. It should be noted however that in the US context, largely as a consequence of SOX, threats to independence are subject to far greater “bright line” legislative specification and governmental regulation.

Finally, an there is the Audit Firm Governance Code, a code of best practice applicable to firms that audit more than twenty listed companies. This comprises the Big Four and four other large professional services firms. As far as I’m aware this doesn’t contain any provisions which are not chiefly oriented to the audit of financial statements.

Okay! Onward!

Monday, 10 June 2013

Rather dull note for Public Administration Select Committee about digital democracy

This is a note about the way forward for online participation of the UK citizenry in our government.

Public consultations justly have a bad name. So indeed do stakeholder consultations.

For a period of several years I was involved with private sector market research and, frequently, public sector consultations. Confidentiality forbids me from sharing specific examples, but I grew used to hearing the growing horror of stakeholders gradually realising how limited their scope of influence was, on issues on which they were more passionate, more informed, and more directly influenced by than whoever was driving policy, and despite the trappings of open and responsive governance.


(a) I think the government tends to forget that it has a responsibility to assess the invested interests of those who participate in consultations. In particular, there is a tendency to think that businesses are experts in their own affairs, and that they can therefore be expected to make the best decisions for the economy and the country on sector-specific issues. In fact we live in such an interconnected world that there is no such thing as a purely sector-specific issue; the government have a responsibility to be critical of these sources, and to try to work out what the big picture is.

(b) I think stakeholder mapping is usually very badly done. There is often a slippage in sense from "anyone whom this issue affects" (a good definition of a stakeholder) to "those who are already influential in this area, and/or already present themselves as knowledgeable" (a poor definition).

(c) My strong intuition is that no matter how hard government (or any organisation) promises to itself it really will listen to its stakeholders this time, the only way to genuinely drive policy change through stakeholder engagement is to delegate real power to stakeholders - or at least to allow stakeholders to impose penalties if, in their considered judgement, the engagement process has not been material.

The issue, of course, is then whether you have the courage to delegate power to stakeholders who may disagree with you!


None of the following suggestions really make my heart leap, but I find it tricky to come up with anything better.

I am slightly worried that such measures might be adopted and executed badly. They might then serve as evidence that online participation is simply impractical.

So here are a few thoughts on online participation (apologies; they are slightly disjointed).

The UK should be leading the way in online participation, not half-heartedly trying out experiments we know will probably fail, so that we can have the excuse, "Well, we gave it a bloody good shot!"

I suppose a good principle to begin with is what the de facto citizen is like.

We shouldn't romanticize the notion of the citizen. We are often: overworked, harried, short on time, money, patience, passionate about issues but also nervous and defensive about a lack of deep knowledge of them, willing to learn, but also distrusting of all information on topics of public interest, without necessarily the time nor the inclination to be critical of that information, and craving the security and simplicity of authoritative information sources, or of timeless truths (typically cynical and/or vague dogmatism).

So "involving" us isn't just a matter of making government more permeable to the pre-existing knowledge, energy & deliberative resources of the citizenry. It is also finding ways to cultivate & nourish those things.

The trouble about polls is that there are just so many of them. One avenue worth exploring is making participation in official polls a bit more like voting: for instance, you can only vote in these polls once per month, so you'll choose the issue that's important to you, and not feel guilty about the rest. (Twelve votes per year might be better than one per month, for the sake of flexibility).

Letter-writing & petitions obviously have their place, but they feel rather dated. They take time and energy. The results are often discouraging (38 Degrees campaigns are a partial exception). They are only indirectly educative. We surely now have the technology to make the activities of government far more transparent, and to be able feedback on those activities at a fine grain, and for our government to be minutely responsive to that feedback. We have social networking and social browsing; why not social scrutiny of government?

We need to think about the notion of the "popularity" of information, and how the effects of particular items "going viral" could be usefully included in the interface between public and government. Not everything can receive equal attention, but it is not for the government to decide what is and isn't important. Nor can we any longer trust the opposition and traditional media to make such a selection. We the public must also be directly involved in determining relevance. At the same time, this is obviously risky territory. Information can become popular based on shallow considerations.

So in terms of online interaction, we also need to think about the relationship between the serious & official, and the casual, satirical, just-for-fun. Obviously not every tweeted joke, every "OMFG!" or ever photoshopped jpeg is an equally venerable and sacred exercise of a democratic right. At the same time, if you simply exclude the flippant, anarchic & playful side of things, you risk creating an arena for engagement which is dull, excessively hard work, and unrepresentative of the citizenry - being dominated by anoraks, humourless sorts, and special interests. You fail to cultivate & nourish the knowledge, energy & deliberative resources of the citizenry. (We also need to think about trolls. We also need to think about astroturf).

I don't have any big answers, but a small example might point us in roughly the right direction. Scenario A is that there is a comments section beneath Parliament TV. It obviously looks rather like the thread of pretty much any YouTube clip, and it confirms everyone's suspicion that we, the British public, are idiots.

Scenario B is that Parliament TV is integrated with Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc., as well as bespoke social networking sites. Users can comment on issues raised and share specific segments of the filmed proceedings, or transcripts thereof, and can filter the annotative activity of other users in a variety of ways. There is, for example, a "readers who liked this comment tended to also like these comments" feature, so it's not just a matter of what's popular or not - people with common purposes or ideas can find one another. There are incentives for independent fact-checking to flourish. Where jargon or specialised language appears, it is easy to click through to get definitions and explanations. Those readers who persevere on such a path can even find educative resources in the underlying theory. You may start your day seeing a funny photoshopped pic, proceed to the news story on which it is based, then find yourself enrolling in an online course in economics or environmental science. Openness is a guiding principle throughout. The online architecture has been designed with the frictionless experience of the end user, the citizen, kept firmly in mind.

But at the same time, we learn what the culture of parliament is like. What is it like to be an MP or a civil servant? What restrictions do they feel upon their speech and action? What is it they think the public don't understand about their position? What is it they feel they are blamed for that is beyond their control? How do even those who are in government feel their ability to govern as they would like, to make the decisions they really want to make, is restricted by their party, by the markets, by the economy, by specific commercial interests, by existing statutes and case law, by the media, by the European and international context? It may sound paradoxical, but e-democracy isn't just about increasing and improving the participation of the public in governing. It's also about increasing and improving the participation of the governors in governing.

To summarise slightly reductively: online participation needs to be frictionless, fun, and educative. It needs to imaginatively exploit cutting edge technologies, not just transfer pre-digital practices online.

What have the more far-thinking and imaginative theorists of e-democracy proposed? Has the Public Administration Select Committee interviewed anyone who fits that description?

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

J. G. Ballard's CONCRETE: thoughts on High Rise and Concrete Island

This originally appeared in Vector #261. Thank you to then-editor Niall Harrison for helping it make some sense.

(1) Paradise

J. G. Ballard died on the 19th of April 2009. You are the promising young angelic architect commissioned to design his eternal paradise; time to step/flap up.
The seraphic refulgence favoured by so many of your colleagues feels inappropriate. A scrunched-up, half-hearted sketch of a cumulo-nimbus caryatid bounces from the rim of the bin. Far too much like some nexus of crystallized flora and fauna from Ballard’s 1966 apocalyptic novel, The Crystal World.
Unsettled, you tear a new sheet and begin to explore an Edenic concept, but your garden reveries are infiltrated by great, sail-backed lizards. Boiling malarial lagoons breach the levees. You remember Ballard’s 1962 apocalyptic novel, The Drowned World.
What about amenities? Every intimation of luxury or convenience evokes High Rise (1975), Cocaine Nights (1996) and Super-Cannes (2000), novels in which ultra-comfortable, designer living arrangements become a catalyst to ambiguous savagery, fetishism and sociopathy. “Over the swimming pools and manicured lawns seemed to hover a dream of violence” (Super-Cannes, p. 75).
Maybe he could learn to love great slabs baked to a malevolent glitter? Their service pipes and water towers exposed, as though every solicitous euphemism, and comforting illusion, were fallen victim to weird evisceration?
Oh boy. Did Ballard like Brutalism? You’re not sure. “I have always admired modernism and wish the whole of London could be rebuilt in the style of Michael Manser’s brilliant Heathrow Hilton,” Ballard once wrote [1]. Was he kidding?
Brutalism thrived from the 1950s to the mid-1970s. Its signature material was concrete. It took its name from concrete, specifically béton brut, raw concrete. It took its cue, or its cube, from the heroism of early High Modernism, except now all heros were tragic heros.
Concrete, jutting, rough-hewn stone, brick, glass and steel: Brutalism has always baffled me a bit. It feels like anti-architecture posing as architecture. Serving the only nine crisps you own at your dinner party, trying to pass it off as the principled minimalism of an austere populist. I’m pretty sure that’s ignorance and prejudice on my part. But it’s widespread ignorance and prejudice. Brutalist tower blocks soon came to both embody and symbolise the failures of the welfare state. You know the deal. Heroin tinfoil twirling, leaflike, in puddles of piss. In High Rise Ballard wrote, “In principle, the mutiny of these well-to-do professional people against the buildings they had collectively purchased was no different from the dozens of well-documented revolts by working-class tenants against municipal tower-blocks that had taken place at frequent intervals during the post-war years” (p. 69).
I guess Brutalism should be seen against the background – literally – of its prehistory. Brutalist structures seem less antagonistic where they rise against archictecture of a finnickier and more coy sort. Where Brutalism is a sparse elaboration upon a crinkle-crankle, tumbledown backdrop, its ahistoricism seems good-humoured – at least, a tantrum we can indulge.
Furthermore, in the post-war period, impatience with frilly bits had a stronger rationale than mere Enlightenment iconoclasm. Cunning, indirection, camouflage, nobility, glory, ambition, cultural and traditional particularity and partiality – all these were tainted by association with their equivalent martial “virtues.” The prevailing spirit melted exhaustion with determination. The two world wars had been bullshit. Openness, accountability, stability, clarity, functionality, universality, neutrality, democracy were “in.”
That meant honesty in materials. That meant that, in post-war France, Le Corbusier’s multi-functional super-structures came more and more to resemble Medusa-stricken Decepticons. In Britain, the gentle, humanist, compromise Modernism of the welfare state compromise was increasingly confronted by the principled austerity of Alison and Peter Smithson. At the same time, the Smithsons resisted certain trajectories of continental Brutalism. Their chief beef was (ironically, in light of – well, in the shadow of – High Rise) that urban planning should foster community spirit. “‘Belonging’ is a basic emotional need,” they wrote. “From ‘belonging’ – identity – comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness. The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails.” [2]
Reyner Banham, the architectural theorist and critic, dubbed the British Brutalism of the Smithsons and their crew the “New Brutalism.” Banham characterised the style by its formal legibility of plan, or memorability as an image; its clear exhibition of structure (including exposed service features – “Water and electricity do not come out of unexplained holes in the wall, but are delivered to the point of use by visible pipes and conduits”); and its valuation of materials for their inherent qualities as ‘found’. And he added, “In the last resort what characterises the New Brutalism in architecture as in painting is precisely its brutality, its je-’en-foutisme, its bloody-mindedness, and that the Smithsons’ work is characterized by an abstemious under-designing of the details, and much of the impact of the building comes from ineloquence, but absolute consistency, of such components as the stairs and handrails” [3].
So we have an architectural philosophy which prioritizes function and in some degree aestheticises it. Though it is often received as anti-humanist, it has a commitment to the human which is revealed negatively, like someone painstakingly avoiding mentioning his or her big crush. Space and material are enslaved to an implicit ensemble of human needs. Every autonomous flourish is treated with the utmost suspicion.
To entirely rationalise an environment according to the real needs of its inhabitants requires you know those real needs, intimately. But that implies the risk that unquantifiables will be shoehorned into categories, and imperfection and idiosyncracy will be met with intolerance. Moreover, a utopia designed for the desires of one kind of person could transform that kind of person into a new kind of person, for whom the utopia is – well, something else, un-utopian, perhaps dystopian.
Dystopia could already be here.  Current levels of global inequality are vom-provoking, if you have anything in your belly. One response to dystopia is to distinguish “real needs” from luxuries. (The term “real needs” appears at least twice in High Rise. “Real illusion,” another Marxist term, also pops up. I doubt whether these were conscious allusions). Selecting some real needs is the first step of the commonsense approach – more-or-less the Human Rights approach. Next you struggle, righteously, to fulfil everyone’s real needs. Above all, you fight to revoke any luxuries which are based on denying someone her or his real needs.
But commonsense runs into problems. As Karl Marx pointed out, an axiomatic anthropological division between “real needs” and luxuries could set us on the path to . . . well, the Marxian version of utopianism. That’s utopianism in a pejorative sense, implicated with false consciousness, especially with “ideology.” An updated term for what Marx usually meant by “ideology” is “idealism” – a kind of sublimation of class struggle, a transfer of its forms to the infinitely hospitable media of language and thought.
In essence, if we declare in advance what are “real needs” and what are luxuries, we’re likely to superimpose abstract reconciliations on a material world still riven with conflict, then look cross-eyed, constipated, yet smug.  Our utopian project, founded in dogmatic anthropology, would have no resources against an equally dogmatic counter-anthropology, one positing domination as an ineradicable feature of human nature. (“Domination” can use various proxies – self-interest, will to life, or the propensity for people to form efficient markets at the drop of a hat).
In fact, the first move of such conservative opponents will be to point out how falsely conceiving of material antagonisms as errors of thought – idealism – can exacerbate those antagonisms, and raise their stakes. Battlemechs do not respect peace treaties, only other battlemechs. This is political Realism through and through.
So “commonsense” and “ideology” are joined at the hip, as are “utopia” and “idealism.”  Marx’s response to this quandry was complex and, let me be square, a bit over my head. It had centrally to do, I think, with why Marx had to claim his approach was both dialectic and scientific. But more urgently – for our purposes -- where does all this leave Ballard and Brutalism?
Imagine you’re strapped into a hair-cutting machine, which insists you’re an inch shorter than you actually are.
Brutalism inclines towards anthropological dogmatism. It never lets you forget which bits of the shebang are the humans. In Brutalism’s dogged insistence on serving those humans, it crops anything jutting outside of its idea of what is human.
Nobody, on the other hand, could call Ballard anthropologically dogmatic – and in the next bit I’ll say why.

(2) Soul

So anyway, which Ballard wings his way hither? In Christian tradition, resurrection is of the flesh, since the soul, which can’t die, can’t be said to live again. Saints get special bod mods: impassibility, glory, agility, subtility. But which Ballard – or what of Ballard is on its way? Could it be Jim, the little squirt tearing around a Japanese prison camp in WWII? Or the dashing young RAF pilot in Canada? The enfant terrible, centre of a controversial obscenity trial? The middle-aged father, sitting in Shepperton, watching too much TV and writing out High Rise and Concrete Island long-hand? The dying Ballard? Some strange council or admixture or Matryoshka?
In his 2008 memoir Miracles of Life Ballard wrote:

“To return to Shanghai, for the first time since I was a boy, was a strange experience for me. Memories were waiting for me everywhere, like old friends at an arrivals gate, each carrying a piece of cardboard bearing my name. I looked down from my room on the 17th floor of the Hilton and could see at a glance that there were two Shanghais – the skyscraper city newer than yesterday and at street level the old Shanghai that I had cycled around as a boy [...] I was on an errand, though I had yet to grasp the true nature of my assignment. I was looking for my younger self, the boy in a Cathedral school cap and blazer who had played hide-and-seek with his friends half a century earlier. I soon found him, hurrying with me along the Bubbling Well Road, smiling at the puzzled typists and trying to hide the sweat that drenched my shirt” (p. 266)

Was Ballard suggesting that he had a deep authentic core, a private continuity underlying his life’s vicissitudes and forgetfulnesses, which could be haphazardly accessed via an evocative taste, or fragrance, or snatch of song?
If Ballard’s books don’t exactly advertise a clear concept of paradise, then they’re even cagier when it comes to “deep authentic cores.” Ballard was far too sensitive to how authenticity today – like any moral concept – is mediated by representation, how it turns and twists to suit the courses of swift flows of capital and glamour. Only a lie for cash could be so convincing, so seductive, as authenticity.
Ballard fed his characters to his themes. You can watch his characters writhe and transmogrify in the guts of those themes. What survives from one phase of a character to the next is often what the earlier phase would categorize as trivial, peripheral. In High Rise, for example, when the well-educated residents start to vandalise their luxury tower block with quasi-tribal graffiti, their territorial sigils are witticisms, wordplays, acrostics and palindromes.
In a way, Ballard probably couldn’t write “good” characters – that is, “well-developed” or “believeable” ones. At least, he was never too interested in those networks of corroborative detail from whose densities could spring George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, or Henry James’s Isabel Archer.
“Today naturalism has completely faltered,” Ballard said in a 1990 interview. “You only find it in middle-brow fiction.” [4]
Rather, Ballard’s characters are nailed to agendas as though to racks. The roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term “Uncanny Valley” to describe how people respond more and more warmly to robots (and cute anthropomorphic animals and things) the more humanlike you make them – until they’re near-perfect facsimiles, when suddenly our responses swerve into disquiet or revulsion. (The Valley itself is the steep plunge when you plot these responses as a line graph). The inner lives of Ballard’s characters resemble the outer rictuses of those overly-lifelike droids. These characters seem to experience in extended similes. “Now and then, the slight lateral movement of the building in the surrounding airstream sent a warning ripple across the flat surface of the water, as if in its pelagic deeps an immense creature was stirring in its sleep” (High Rise, p. 22). The bits of the similes that “aren’t there” in the story – what linguists call the “vehicles” or “figures” or “sources” – are so self-sufficient and suggestive, it feels like they are there; and sometimes, in Super-Cannes, say, they accumulate so thickly as to compose the novel’s Unconscious. The characters’ casual drifts of chat swirl into brutal prophesies, or miniaturised anthropological lectures, as though some impatient Aspect of the authorial deity commandeered their mouths.
Obsession with pyschoanalysis part-substitutes for the carefully-evolved realist practices of pysche-counterfeiting. Subjectivity isn’t patted into great homunculi like Dorothea and Isabel; rather it gusts at the reader in huge flakes of human life, which mix fragments of action and perception specified at psychoanalytic, anthropological, architectural, biological, discursive and socio-cultural levels, as well as at the level of the personality system, all arranged in unpredictable proportions and configurations, and all constantly and kaleidescopically disseminating and auto-dissecting. Characters are made into media workers, doctors, pyschiatrists and architects, and into versions of Ballard (like “James Ballard,” the protagonist of Crash) to further mystify and enrich this reflexive, chaoplexic onslaught of psyche. Discourse has never been so free and indirect.
The counterintuitive fault-lines along which characters can shed characteristics are pretty interesting. They comprise a poetics of startlement and discontinuity, a kind of memento mori that isn’t concentrated upon one terminal limit of a lifespan, but strewn throughout it. But Ballard, as usual, was up to something more equivocal. The regressions which his characters undergo also create new continuities. They re-establish continuity with infantile drives, for example – drives which have been repressed, or otherwise desultorily socialised. Sometimes, a psychic flyover springs up which exceeds the individual lifespan. Racism, violence and perversity rescue characters from modern anomie and isolation, and weave them into quasi-feudal patterns of ingroup harmony. “For the first time it occurred to Wilder that the residents enjoyed this breakdown of services, and the growing confrontation between themselves. All this brought them together, and ended the frigid isolation of the previous months.” (High Rise, p. 60). Sometimes – in The Drowned World, for instance – these eruptive continuities stretch even further back, foaming freak solidarity with prehistoric homo sapiens, or with their hominid or even reptilian forebears.
The homologies between Ballard’s childhood internment and his perennial themes – atavism, regression-sublimation, hallucinogenic stupor, normalised violence, the State of Nature, Eden, Empire and entropy – are so absolutely in-your-face that they’re bound to attain exaggerated significance in Ballardian criticism. My hunch is that most quasi-autobiographical writing, especially writing as speculatively-spirited as Ballard’s, works precisely by minutely muddying its connection with experience. (When I brood on a fact of my existence, it starts to suggest mutually incompatible modes by which it could be processed. The fact is incorporated into me in one way, and sublimated into art or shouting in an incompatible way. Experience also has a uniquely misleading relationship with the writing it generates.)
That caveat aside . . . Ballard once described Lunghua internment camp as “where I spent some of my happiest years”.  That’s in an excerpt from Miracles of Life published in The Times [5] – interestingly, the phrase disappears in the published volume (p. 270).  In an 1982 interview his expression is more circumspect: “I have – I won’t say happy – not unpleasant memories of the camp,” [6] remarking on the casual brutality, and on the many games the children enjoyed.
In Drowned World Ballard wrote, “For some reason, however, this inverted Crusoeism – the deliberate marooning of himself without the assistance of a gear-laden carrack wrecked on a convenient reef – raised few anxieties in Kerans’ mind” (p. 48). In the 1994 novel Rushing to Paradise, as in The Drowned World, characters withdraw from the wider world, pursuing a conscious – or quasi-conscious – agenda of enislement. Ballard’s characters are often seen to endorse or solicit transformations which are – in a knee-jerk kinda way – hideous.
Yet even alienation, isolation and injury have a certain appeal. In Concrete Island, Maitland constantly wonders whether he somehow, on some level, arranged to maroon himself, whether in the shape of a primeval concrete succubus he seduced himself. A quiet but clear echo of this aspect of Concrete Island can be heard in High Rise: “It was here that Anthony Royal had been injured when his car had been crushed by a reversing grader – it often struck Laing as ironic, and in a way typical of Royal’s ambiguous personality, that he should not only have become the project’s first road casualty, but have helped to design the site of the accident” (pp. 36-7). The affluent, culturally-elite cave-dwellers of High Rise use their last vestiges of civilisation to assure prying outsiders that everything’s all right, lest their “dystopia” be confiscated. And of course in Crash, well, these aren’t exactly car accidents.
In the short story, “The Intensive Care Unit” (1977) (one of the prophetic ones – this time it’s webcams, Skype and stuff), Ballard got his narrator to muse:

“True closeness, I now knew, was television closeness – the intimacy of the zoom lens, the throat microphone, the close-up itself. On the television screen there were no body odour or strained breathing, no pupil contractions and facial reflexes, no mutual sizing up of emotions and disadvantage, no distrust and insecurity. Affection and compassion demanded distance. Only at distance could one find that true closeness to another human being which, with grace, might transform itself into love” (p. 9).

In High Rise, the building begins to generate a sinister new social type:

a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life, with minimal needs for privacy, who thrived like an advanced species of machine in the neutral atmosphere. This was the sort of resident who was content to do nothing but sit in his over-priced apartment, watch television with the sound turned down, and wait for his neighbours to make a mistake […] people who were content with their lives in the high-rise, who felt no particular objection to an impersonal steel and concrete landscape, no qualms about the invasion of their privacy by government agencies and data-processing organizations, and if anything welcomed these invisible intrusions, using them for their own purposes. These people were the first to master a new kind of late twentieth-century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed. // Alternatively, their real needs might emerge later” (p. 36).

One could draw the lesson that any mode of human existence can develop the faculty to joyfully authenticate itself. That would be good news for you, angelic architect – suggesting that every soul lugs around its utopia like its snailshell.
But I don’t think it’s the right lesson. Ballard was interested in what made abhorrent subject positions appealing from the inside – what equillibrialised them, harmonised them – but we don’t have to take these systems’ self-understandings uncritically. For one thing, often Ballard was exploring a quite recent commodification of ontology. Cost-benefit analysis (with a dash of Yippee-ish, gap year-vintage permissiveness) is how “homo capitalist” might articulate encroaching violent rebirth to her- or himself . . . but it doesn’t prevail universally over all such violent rebirths. It’s only because we’re so accustomed to varying forms and levels of alienation that we can coolly appraise extreme forms of alienation and reconciliation like articles rummaged from a bargain bin.
Besides, even when the multitude are content with their (parking) lot, there are outliers who are not. “The Disaster Area” (1957, originally “Build-Up”) is set in a probably-infinite urban space, the kind of platform shooter Möbius would have designed if he hadn’t been into strips. Most of its residents are down with that, but not the protagonist, and he grows unhappily obsessed with the exotic concept of “free space.”
The utopia-enabling scapegoat is a perennial theme of moral SF, of course. Check out the New Testament (65-150), or Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” (1974). Sometimes not one or two, but whole swathes are brought under regimes of torment. There are plenty of signs in High Rise that, for some residents, adaptation to a new way of life is psychically harrowing:

“Helen moved silently around the apartment, barely aware of her husband. After the fit of compulsive laughter the previous evening, her face was waxy and expressionless. Now and then a tic flickered in the right apex of her mouth, as if reflecting a tremor deep within her mind. She sat at the dining-table, mechanically straightening the boys’ hair. Watching her, and unable to think of what he could do to help her, Wilder almost believed that it was she who was leaving him, rather than the contrary” (p. 60).

When the uneven misery begins to follow contours of gender, class or race, questions of justice creep into the picture. Before the high society disintegrates into a freakshow of lonesome copings, it goes through a period of explicit class struggle. The top five floors wear fancy pants and balkanize the middle twenty-five floors, guarding their own privilege by playing off class fractions one against the other. The bottom ten floors are muddled scum, abused, sullen and sickly.
There are hints that the sexual violence against the high-rise’s neo-cavewomen is only a minor insult, that the cultural form of rape is wrenched out of recognition . . . but Ballard didn’t come out and say that, and he was an author who could unflinchingly come out and say things. I think that High Rise strongly implies mass war rape, experienced as such. I think Ballard avoided first-person testimony (the book has three main characters, all male) because the sexual victim, as a matter of cultural form, invites pity, indignation, craving of custody and thirst for reprisal. These responses are all part of the same system of gendered and sexualised violence which High Rise is wrestling with on the dissection table. There is a subtext to the high-rise’s pervasive all-women groupings. In the world of High Rise, those women who can live without men.
Justice, then, emerges as an important makeshift division between utopia and dystopia. The idea of justice lets that division go beyond determination by individual subjects. But justice is part of bourgeois morality, and implicated in that morality’s indifference to injustice. As such, Ballard seldom if ever introduces justice as clear-cut concept. It is always peripheral, always vanishing, the lines to invoke it coinciding with those to banish it.

(3) Islands

Could there be such a thing as just architecture?
As the security situation in High Rise begins to deteriorate, the hard-drinking film critic Eleanor Powell exults, “For the first time since we were three years old what we do makes absolutely no difference” (p. 40).
Architecture in a broad sense denotes more than buildings, more than physical stuff.
Architecture is about the structures which confront us and channel our lives down their various courses. Those structures limit our free will, but they also play a part in making free will something worth wanting. They delimit the ways in which what we do can make a difference – or determine that it makes “absolutely no difference.”
Imagine there was a just architecture, an architecture which could ensure the virtue of its residents. What effect would it have on their free will?
Of course, the networks of pathways which confront us all are, in part, free will – the free will of others. They are “built” out of the choices everyone else has made, in millennia or milliseconds gone by, or can be expected to make. (For this reason, it’s often been thought that the terminal unit of virtue is the polity, not the individual. Sometimes the architecture enveloping particular person affords no opportunities for the good life).
When I heard the premise of Concrete Island – I was a kid, my dad described it to me – I had a quite different image of the island. It was a tiny little thing, maybe enough to sustain one concrete coconut tree. The marooned man stood in tatters waving his briefcase at an endless torrent of traffic. Every driver saw him, every one sped grimly by. Eventually, he sat down. His sitting down, I dimly reasoned, might be one of the best bits of the book.
A friend of mine had exactly the same experience: heard about Concrete Island, envisioned the pared-down set-up q.v., years later was both disappointed and dazzled when she read the book. Maybe Dad just went around giving little girls misleading summaries of Concrete Island, I dunno. But I think that the distorted premonition does tell us something about the emotional and thematic mush that inevitably bursts, like restaurant waste from a black bag behind a mesh wire fence, when you change Crusoe’s lagoon for a line of lorries. Hundreds of thousands of people queue up, although only by chance, to confirm that they don’t care about you at all. If they have nothing to gain in helping you, then there is no natural sympathy, no moral law, which will compel them to.
Why didn’t someone stop for him? Could there really be no break in the flow, 24/7? Too weird. It manifested the precision of science, as humane affect was subjected to rigorous physical demonstration and encoded as statistics. Percentage love in universe: 0.000%. Simultaneously, mists of allegory enveloped the fabled isle. Clearly, this could not be a realist work.
Structural flaws pervade this allegorical monument to modern nihilism and ambivalence. It’s cemented together with its own counterfactuality. Its genre is not satire, but nightmare. It relies for its force or the reader’s conviction that this is all wrong, that one should stop, that she or he would stop. Our moral universe cannot be so badly damaged. Even as it denounces the isolation and heartlessness of modernity, it whispers, “Things aren’t so bad.”
The actual island of Concrete Island is quite different, a sunken wasteground some two hundred yards long, cut off by steep embankments and three massive motorways. Maitland’s injuries make it difficult and dangerous to climb up onto the motorways. Most drivers don’t see him at all, or see him for only a moment, like some subliminal image in a movie roll. Like the figure glimpsed from a train in a Ford Maddox Ford memoir, he’ll take delivery of a multitude of interpretations. He is perhaps the object of a small, faint calculation – the possibility that “something is wrong,” weighed against the danger of pulling over.
“He stood up and turned to face the oncoming traffic. Three lines of vehicles sped towards him. They emerged from the tunnel below the overpass and accelerated along he fast bend [...] His jacket and trousers were stained with sweat, mud and engine grease – few drivers, even if they did notice him, would be eager to give him a lift. Besides, it would be almost impossible to slow down here and stop. The pressure of the following traffic, free at last from the long tail-backs that always blocked the Westway interchange during the rush-hour, forced them on relentlessly” (p. 17).
The Kitty Genovese effect is also in play. Every individual driver judges it absurd that no driver would stop – there are thousands! – so no driver does. The physical architecture, in short, integrates with the psychic architecture in such a way that Maitland’s neglect does not entail an unrealistic world of ethical egoist sociopaths.
If it is rational, is the architecture around the island then just? The walls of concrete and conventions of traffic safely channel the potentially lethal machines and their occupants. The architecture rationalises the behaviour of the motorway, in the sense that it forcibly aligns private and public virtue. Whoever endangers another in this hum of high-speed metal also endangers her- or himself. Yet clearly this architecture is unjust for those who fall outside its remit.
One boingy spring-board for utopian (and counter-utopian) thought is the premiss that when archictectures of action prove themselves unjust, all their contingencies could be imaginatively cleared away, and they could be rebuilt from scratch. Somewhere on the continuum between cobweb and support strut, you draw a line. You chuck away what is contingent, mere convention, the product of evolutionary eccentricity. You keep what is essential to the human condition. In the society of bare bones, in this State of Nature, is there such a thing as justice? Is there “natural law”? Are there trade-offs between potential moralities? Can we create, and not just evince, virtue?
Whatever the State of Nature is, whatever laws it sports or lacks, it can be used to benchmark real societies, to detect where they are malformed and could be healed, or to recognise the limits of reform. The tradition linking the State of Nature with tales of island adventure is long and illustrious.  But the priority which Ballard gave to the mediatization of experience led him to contest the reality of reality and the naturalness of nature. It’s odd, therefore, that his books should invest so heavily (if seldom explicitly) in this tradition. Power relations in Ballard’s (quasi?) State(s) of Nature are complex, certainly irreducible to “hard” power (direct control of resources), and probably irreducible to hard and “soft” power (charisma, tricks). Power is intricately bound up with identity-formation and maintenance. “Real needs” are dubious, since even the will to life needn’t underwrite all possible subjectivities. Concrete Island thematizes the Hegelian master-slave dialectic, probably. Maitland’s successes in subduing the other inhabitants are somewhat incongruous. He is injured, crazed; he relies on them for food and mobility. He uses sex and money, and piss and booze, but it always feels as though he achieves more than he ought to, that there is a discrepancy between his resources and his status.
I was deftly summarizing High Rise for someone – it’s like, this TV executive, he’s covered in lipstick warpaint, his camera is practically a mace, catching sight of his own heavy, brown penis in the mirror calms him down, he can only grunt, it’s been like a month or something, – and this person asked me, quite reasonably, what happens to seal the high-rise off.
I drew breath.
Because that’s the template for these stories, right? Seal off a dinner party of anesthetists, social workers, et al., give it ten minutes and voila abattoir with yetis. Sealing off the nice people, or stranding them somewhere, does two things. It separates them from abundance (Capitalist abundance, typically), and it separates them from state institutions of law and order.
“Everyman is a gory savage, and his latent violence is closer to the surface than we think” – that’s the moral, or the cliché, which this genre trusts us to anticipate and rewards us with in the end. We are Them. We are Them.
It is the convergence of science and pornography. Although it is, by itself, not exactly an authoritarian sentiment, it sports flanges serrated to dovetail perfectly with the ass-dags any charismatic demagogue who happens to goose-amble by. Because if Man (and it usually is “Man” by this point) is inherently a juggernaut of atrocity, his civil manner, but a dissembling gauze, then we need strong leadership to keep us in check.
Only the Hobbesian formula of protection-obedience will do. We are Them. But for the Grace of omnipotent authority, there go I. Never mind, like, separation of powers, checks and balances, constitutionalism; that never happened. Justice (or, second-best, security) must be built into a governmental architecture, since the “sealing off” experiment has shown it is not a natural feature of Man.
In High Rise, nothing seals them off! Nothing triggers the regression; initially there are some tensions about dog-owners, and a bit of a question mark over when kids should use the pools. This is our clue that Ballard was up to something quite different.
Are We, according to Ballard, Them? Almost. Leap to the lead in the hic et nunc cocobananas carousel, and you’re one of them.
Almost, but I think, not quite. Ballard was abstemious in laying the causal foundations of the high-rise tribalism. In Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop (1958) it takes several generations aboard a dodgy starship to regress. But High Rise is gently, and deliberately underdetermined. It requires of its readers a suspension of disbelief something in excess of what The Portrait of a Lady wants, though not quite the level demanded by, “In the Mirror Universe, the shapeshifter Odo is the supervisor of the mining complex at Terok Nor. He is a brutal taskmaster over Terran slaves there [...]” etc.
Some folks – the feminist political theorist Carol Pateman is a good’un – have criticised the State of Nature as a myth which legitimates existing power relations. But Ballard combined the State of Nature with cutting criticism of existing power relations. Rather than showing us the dystopia which underlies and legitimates the status quo (like Hobbes – or like John Locke, showing us the minimal model which clarifies the status quo’s rationality), Ballard’s States of Nature showed us the weird dystopian-utopian spaces which already exist within the status quo.
Ballard wasn’t just interested in what the contrived spaces of a lab experiment, or the aftermath of a disaster, can tell us about human nature and big social trends. For Ballard, they weren’t just allegories, thought experiments, or models. He was also interested – I really think there is a difference here – in the spaces themselves, which he suspected appear more frequently and pervasively than we care to admit.
Though Ballard’s work is cautionary, it has a lot of good things to say about utopia. Especially if you think how relatively unpopular the concept has been recently: the concepts of utopia and dystopia are fused. It is quite impossible to speak of a radically better world without alluding to the utopianisms of Hitler and Stalin.  You can argue, again in a Marxist vein, that it is Late Capitalism itself that has grotesquely glued gulags, artifical famine and Aushwitz all over the pure and sweet concept of universal justice. You can argue that It does so to protect Itself from criticism. You might be right, but this stuff is nonetheless still objectively glued together. Utopia-dystopia is a “real illusion,” like the commodity form – it is an illusion we can’t dispel by piercing it through thought and exposure with language, since the “illusion” is invincibly reiterated every moment by our lived social relations; it is reborn from everywhere, it is more logical than logic.
And yet. Utopia has been a dirty word for so long . . . it’s sort of cleaned itself, a bit. Like dirty hair which they say secretes its own shampoo, or an abandoned piece of laundry that’s ambiguously wearable again. Ballard never treated this utopia-dystopia hybrid as a weird limit condition, or latent dynamic, or bogey-man. With a science fiction novelist’s perogative, he showed it as something that was already here. He submitted its events to standards of justice, however problematic, and he traced possible trajectories of subjectivity through it.
Every time utopian thought is criticised for ignoring some latent real need, we slightly enlarge our idea of what it is to be human. Have our ideas of real needs simply needed more paranoia and more imagination? Nothing could be more dogmatic than ruling out utopia forever.

Post-script: Manaugh

So I’ve made three small suggestions about Ballard. First, his work is supremely conscious of the dynamic connection between environments and their inhabitants, and thus critical of efforts to “perfect” environments on the basis of a particular idea of the human. Second, despite his disdain for received notions of intrinsically superior modes of life, Ballard resisted moral relativism, and submitted the flux of subjectivity he depicted to standards of justice. Third, Ballard was drawn to segregated, normatively autonomous spaces, but not only as experiments, or models, whose use lay in extrapolation or generalisation or allegory. He was also fascinated by the possibility that much of society already takes place in such spaces.
It would be nice to get some closure on the J. G. Ballard’s celestial resting place question q.v., even if it was just a thought experiment gradually revealing its own patent absurdity.
Did Ballard like Brutalism? Bollards, ballustrades, pallisades, flyovers, cloverleaf junctions, on-ramps, traffic islands, artifical lakes, storm tunnels, multi-storey car parks, business parks, military camps, edge-of-town mega-malls, abandoned cinemas, opulent, derelict hotels, ruined swimming pools quarter-filled with yellow water, an Alsatian bobbing, or bone dry and piled with human bones. Stairwells barricaded with chic utilitarian furniture, shadows moving behind them; did Ballard like this stuff?
My friend Posie Rider told me a joke; she told it wrong (Posie could fluff the punchline of an e-mail forward), but using Habermasian reconstructive science, I think this East German guy is applying to emigrate to West Germany. This state bureaucrat says, “Listen, why do you want to emigrate? Here, you have a large, well-serviced apartment overlooking the park. Will you get such a nice apartment in the West?” It may be an old joke. The would-be emigrant says, “Oh, can’t complain.” “And you finally got that car you’ve been applying for?” “Oh, can’t complain.” “And you have a good, safe job at the shoe factory!” “Oh, can’t complain.” “So why do you want to move to the West?” “There I can complain!”
OK, so it’s about freedom of expression and of political dissent. But I imagined hyper-democratic authorities in West Germany taking those complaints seriously. I imagined them reconstructing the mortified immigrant’s old situation around him.
Some subjects are deeply invested in resisting their own conditions of possibility. It is a deep problem for progressive politics of all kinds. It is the kernel of truth in the conservative slur that grassroots activists and other political volunteers are troublemakers and attention-seekers. By the end of Concrete Island, Maitland seems to be this kind of subject. Crudely, he doesn’t want to escape from the island, he wants to be someone trying to escape from the island. (This explains the apparent hypocrisy of hiding from a police car and then, a paragraph later, thinking with delight of imminent escape).
The social critic, the cautionary visionary, implicated with his subject matter, is similarly constitutively conflicted. Did Ballard like this stuff, well, yes, in a terribly complicated iterative way, it was what he loved to hate to love to hate to love to hate . . . etc., with new cognitive angles materializing with each iteration.
So I guess if I were the angel architect (I’m not – it’s you) I might build Ballard a limitless flux of only-ever-provisionally-distinguished subjectivity and environment, in intricate and glorious iteration, more or less laissez-faire but with safeguards against the evolution of infinite loops and other cul-de-sacs of dei-diversity. Plus bunting because that would kind of be my signature thingy. A cop-out based on free market indifference and fetishization of choice, you say; I say, the bunting’s not; also Plan B is consult with other mortals. Nic Clear and Simon Kennedy have started a course on Ballardian architecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. Maybe Geoff Manaugh is the mortal for the job. He has recently published a book, The BLDGBLOG Book, based in part on his speculative architecture blog, BLDGBLOG ( The project is probably way too big for any one of us. But if we collectively came up with a utopia good enough for Ballard, I bet it would be good enough for any one of us.

Works cited
Brian Aldiss(1958): Non-Stop, London: Faber & Faber
J. G. Ballard (1957): “The Disaster Area,” (a.k.a. “Build-Up” / “The Concentration City”) in The Complete Short Stories, London: Harper (2006)
J. G. Ballard (1962/2008): The Drowned World, London: HarperCollins
J. G. Ballard (1973/2008): Concrete Island, London: HarperCollins
J. G. Ballard (1975/2006): High-Rise, London: HarperCollins
J. G. Ballard (2006): Super-Cannes, London: HarperCollins
J. G. Ballard (2008): Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, an Autobiography, London: HarperCollins
J.G. Ballard (1977/2006): “The Intensive Care Unit” in High-Rise “P.S.” (q.v.)
George Eliot (1874): Middlemarch            
Henry James (1881): Portrait of a Lady
Ursula LeGuin (1974) “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” in The Wind's Twelve Quarters, New York: Harper & Row (1975)

[1] J. G. Ballard (2006): “A Handful of Dust,” The Guardian, online at <>
[2] Alison and Peter Smithson, CIAM Congress 1953 (over-cited sound-byte)
[3] Reyner Banham (1966): “The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic?” in As found: the discovery of the ordinary (2001): ed. Claude Lichtenstein and Thomas Schregenberger, Springer, p. 130
 [4] Jeremy Lewis interviews J. G. Ballard, Mississippi Review, Volume 20, Numbers 1 & 2, published 1991 by the Centre for Writers, The University of Southern Mississippi, online at <>
 [6] Quoted in BBC obituary, online at <>