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.
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
could be rebuilt in the style of
Michael Manser’s brilliant Heathrow Hilton,” Ballard once wrote . Was he
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
, Le Corbusier’s
multi-functional super-structures came more and more to resemble
Medusa-stricken Decepticons. In France ,
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.”  Britain
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” .
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.
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
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
Canada long-hand? The dying Ballard?
Some strange council or admixture or Matryoshka? Concrete Island
In his 2008 memoir Miracles of Life Ballard wrote:
“To return to
, 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 Shanghai 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.” 
Rather, Ballard’s characters are nailed to agendas as though to racks. The roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term “
” 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
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
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.) Eden
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  – 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,”  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
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.
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
– 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. Concrete Island
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
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. Concrete Island
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.”
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. island of Concrete Island
“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
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? Nature
Whatever the State of
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. Nature
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. Concrete Island
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
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
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. Nature
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.
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
, 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). Concrete Island
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
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 (bldgblog.blogspot.com). 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. London
Brian Aldiss(1958): Non-Stop,
: Faber & Faber
J. G. Ballard (1957): “The Disaster Area,” (a.k.a. “Build-Up” / “The Concentration City”) in The Complete Short Stories,
Harper (2006) London
J. G. Ballard (1962/2008): The Drowned World,
J. G. Ballard (1973/2008):
: HarperCollins London
J. G. Ballard (1975/2006): High-Rise,
J. G. Ballard (2006): Super-Cannes,
J. G. Ballard (2008): Miracles of Life:
Shanghai to Shepperton, an
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,
Harper & Row (1975) New York
 J. G. Ballard (2006): “A Handful of Dust,” The Guardian, online at <http://ballardian.com/jg-ballards-handful-of-dust>
 Alison and Peter Smithson, CIAM Congress 1953 (over-cited sound-byte)
 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
 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 <http://www.jgballard.ca/interviews/jeremy_lewis_1990_interview.html>
 Excerpted in The Times Online, 20 January 2008, <http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/book_extracts/article3215270.ece>
 Quoted in BBC obituary, online at <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/8007331.stm>