Belatedly, Ballard

I was greatly saddened by J. G. Ballard’s death, but I didn’t get a chance to write about it, and him, until now. I am sorry that there will not be anything more; but Ballard did live to be 78, and he left us a lot of extraordinary works.

Lots of people wrote about his great works of the 1960s and 1970s, like Crash, The Atrocity Exhibition, Concrete Island, and High Rise. But I’d like to call attention, as well, and in particular, to Ballard’s four last novels — Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003), and Kingdom Come (2006) — which still have not received quite the attention they deserve. These books are closely related (although they are all narratively independent of one another), and stand apart from Ballard’s other work. For one thing, they are all set in the present, in decidedly non-exotic settings, and even without the extreme “pathologies” that are the subject of so many of Ballard’s other books. They all tell relatively humdrum stories; they are detective narratives without much mystery — or for which the only mysterious thing is the relative obtuseness of the narrators, who are all rather plodding and take much longer to figure out what is going on than the reader does. And in each case, what is really going on is some form of “transgression”, or sacrificial violence, that actually serves the deeper purpose of shoring up the capitalist-consumerist social order.

Each novel focuses on a different social class in today’s UK. Cocaine Nights is about middle-aged, middle-management Brits (and Germans) who have taken early retirement and moved to condo communities on the Spanish Costa del Sol in order to enjoy a life of leisure; Super-Cannes has to do with high-level business executives (largely British, but including the elites of many countries) working in a high-tech “industrial park”-cum-“managed community” on the Riviera; Millennium People focuses on upper-middle-class professionals living in condos in relatively swanky (but not super-rich) London neighborhoods; and Kingdom Come on lower-middle-class suburbanites in the ring of outer suburbs surrounding London (which is where Ballard himself lived).

In all four novels, some sort of community is sanctified, or at least solidified, by acts of violence. The retirees of Cocaine Nights are drawn together by a collective act and pact of murder, a sort of Rene-Girardian substitutive sacrifice; their shared guilt releases them from unstated anxieties, and allows them instead to enjoy their “creativity” (which Ballard describes mostly in the form of cornball arts-and-crafts activities, like amateur theater productions of Beckett and Pinter plays, and homemade sculptures for sale in local boutique galleries). The business executives of Super-Cannes get “therapeutic” release from the stress of their demanding, 24/7 jobs, and from their boredom with the usual bourgeois transgressions of adultery and drug use, which don’t give them frissons of naughtiness any more, by organizing themselves into fascist paramilitary gangs that beat, torture, and murder North African immigrants and “guest workers.” The professionals of Millennium People rise up in mildly nihilistic rebellion against the programmed sameness and continual stress of their lives, by trashing their own possessions, and other symbols of consumer culture, as well as by engaging in more destructive acts of terrorist bombing — all of which only has the effect of making their consumerist lives more bearable. Finally, the blue-collar suburbanites of Kingdom Come develop a kind of fascist cult based around shopping at the mall, rooting for their favorite football (i.e. soccer) teams, and (again) beating up and killing South Asian and Eastern European immigrants. In all four novels, violent “rebellions” are really sorts of stimulants to get the capitalist order on track again — the business execs are enabled to be more focused and vicious in their corporate planning, and the consumers get stimulated to buy again, despite (as well as because of) their boredom with what they have already purchased.

In all four novels, the narrator is an outsider: an older, fussy, and — I am not sure how to describe this with the proper degree of irony — somewhat insufficiently “virile” man, who eventually finds himself becoming complicit (to a greater or lesser degree) with the violence that originally puzzled and disturbed him, and the crimes that he initially (and naively) had hoped to “solve.” All of these narrators are almost parodies of Ballard himself, with his perpetual stand as an outside observer of all the perversities and entropic processes of decay that are his perpetual subjects. Ballard always wrote with an odd sort of clinical detachment; and this detachment was not a cover for, or defense against, his evident fascination with all the weirdnesses he wrote about, so much as it was a perfect expression of that fascination. Detachment is the best manner in which to approach experiences of dissociation and self-detachment; Ballard’s pseudo-clinical prose is a way to diagnose the “pathologies” of contemporary culture without thereby implying any norm or healthful state to which those pathologies might be opposed, or in respect to which they could be denounced as deviant. It’s a way to avoid the moral revulsion of the self-righteous satirist, to suspend the revulsion or outrage with which readers might be prone to arm themselves in order to think that what they are reading applies only to others, not to themselves. This tone was a constant in all of Ballard’s writings — there was never that great a difference between his first-person narratives (like Crash) and his third-person ones (like High Rise). But I think that the position of the Ballardian narrative voice is itself dramatized on a meta-level in these four last novels, to a greater extent than was ever the case before. I see this as a deepening of Ballard’s analytical focus. He grants his narrative voice a degree of agency, precisely (and only) to show that agency is itself a hollow fiction.

In any case, the four final novels all turn upon the narrators’ reactions to the violence that they belatedly discover. These reactions range from actively joining in, and trying to lead and shape, a fascist rebellion (in Kingdom Come) to plotting acts of counter-violence as an expression of moral revulsion, in order to make the statement that this must stop (in Super-Cannes). Of course, none of these narrators’ gestures are successful, or even adequate to the situations they are responding to. “The suburbs dream of violence” (opening line of Kingdom Come), of a vast convulsion which the imagine as a purgative or transformational Event. Ballard’s great subject, in his final four novels, is the hollowness of this dream, the emptiness and inevitable disappointment of any fidelity to the Event, every bit as much as of any loyalty to the ruling order. This is the way that Ballard remains unassimilable (despite the reverential treatment that he received in death from portions of the literary Establishment, such as it is, or from fans of Steven Spielberg). He casts a bleak light upon any naive optimism and hope for change (but what optimism or hope for change is not “naive”?); while at the same time corrosively destroying any sort of faith in rational norms or in the worthiness of the ruling order. His fiction is equally antagonistic to utopian idealizations, and to those (all-too-common) disgustingly fatalistic assertions that There Is No Alternative, or that the Eternal Human Tragedy is something that we must bravely and grimly bear. [Though he did write one sort-of utopia: an odd and somewhat neglected novel, The Unlimited Dream Company]. The only (very slender) hope that his novels offer is a hope in the value in itself of a disillusioned and demystified clarity of regard — one that his narrators in these last four novels do not themselves attain, but that the attentive reader just might get to. Even the narrator of Kingdom Come, who more than flirts with fascism, ends with the warning that the nightmare of violence that works to reproduce the very social order and social hierarchies against which it is a protest will recur, “unless the sane woke and rallied themselves.” I don’t think that the narrator himself can be included in this “sane,” but the phrase points to the way that Ballard still clings (rightly) to a kind of Enlightenment ideal, even as he tracks the horrific legacy of what Adorno and Horkheimer were perhaps too narrow to call “instrumental reason.” Ballard is (if anything) far bleaker than Adorno, but he’s also refreshingly free of Adorno’s high-European snobbery. I would want to argue, finally, that Ballard was a greater social theorist than Adorno, or than such contemporary sociological diagnostians of postmodernity as Bauman, Beck, Giddens, or Castells. And Ballard was a great social theorist not in spite of, nor even in addition to, but precisely because of, his aestheticism, or the fact that he was writing novels rather than engaging in empirical research. His four final novels really only deal with a small corner of Europe, and not with the rest of the world. But they rigorously anatomize, and shock us into a deeper awareness of, the social nightmare that, if alien to most of the world’s population, is nonetheless hegemonic over them.

12 thoughts on “Belatedly, Ballard”

  1. An interesting Ballard tribute, thanks.

    Can I pick one nit? I disagree with some of what you say about _Super-Cannes_; specifically, I disagree with the phrase “largely British.”

    The protagonists of all four of JGB’s late novels are certainly British (and the last two are set in Britain), but I see _Super-Cannes_ as JGB’s Euro-novel. It seems to me that the business park’s high-level personnel — the villains of the piece, if you like — are almost all continental Europeans (and some Japanese), with the notable exception of Dr Wilder Penrose, who serves the Euro-baddies.

    The character names include:

    Professor Ito Yasuda, Mrs Yasuda
    Alain Delage, Simone Delage
    Professor Kalman
    Monsieur Anvers
    Guy Bachelet
    Dr Dominique Serrou
    Robert Fontaine
    Pascal Zander
    Professor Berthoud
    Olga Carlotti
    Olivier Destivelle

    That’s hardly a very British crew.

    There’s also Frank Halder, who is a German with an (absent) American father — but he turns out to be one of the good guys (presumably). The prime villains are French, Belgian or, in the case of Pascal Zander, Francophone Lebanese. There may be one or two Americans in the minor cast list, but on the whole Americans are notable by their absence.

    It is, I repeat, a Euro-novel, with Euro-villains — and a few British collaborators, especially Penrose. Could it even be Ballard’s anti-European Union novel?

    This makes it different from the Brits-in-Spain tale of _Cocaine Nights_, or the Brits-at-home business of the last two novels.

    — David Pringle.

  2. David — thanks for the comment. Of course, you are right re: the internationalism (or at least trans-Europeanism) of Super-Cannes. I would argue that this is the case precisely because, at this class level, the national distinctions become less important, and there is in effect a continuum between the British, the French, the Germans, etc.

  3. Thanks for the account of the last 4 novels. Have only read two of them, and did not quite know what to make of them in relation to the earlier works. I think you make a case for their integrity.

  4. Steve, please don’t misunderstand my intentions, as this reply is more in a spirit of engagement than attack. But as someone who has read a lot of social theory, and talked about this kind of treatment of social theory on my own blog and elsewhere, I was startled by the rather big claims you seem to be making at the conclusion of this piece. It appears to me that you have grouped together a rather eclectic assemblage of social theorists in a manner that runs the risk of doing serious violence to them.

    For starters, I don’t see how Giddens can really be classified as a theorist of postmodernity (he distinguishes carefully between “the postmodern” and his own working concept of “late modernity”). Beck is closer to aspects of “reflexive modernization” as per Giddens in his discussions of “risk society”, whereas Castells explicitly polemicizes against what he regards as the “nihilism” of postmodern theory. Describing himself as a believer in “rationality”, Castells develops his concept of the “network society” in a manner that is not easily assimilated by the postmodern enthusiasm for other media theorists such as McLuhan. Of those you mention, it is only Bauman who is inclined to bandy about “the postmodern”, but this has been moderated in recent years by his references to a “liquid modernity”.

    I also doubt that it is some kind of empirical blindness to the aesthetic that automatically blinds social theory to the kinds of problems Ballard talks about (or at least in the way claimed by his most ardent admirers). I feel the more telling difference, which I see is a virtue in social theory’s case, may be the distinction Jim McGuigan discusses in his superb book, Modernity and Postmodern Culture. But if the Ballardians are still finding themselves needing a strong fix of “the aesthetic” with their social theory, with sympathetic, explicit references to each of the theorists you mention in this post, then for starters I’d steer them towards virtually anything written by Scott Lash.

  5. One more thing, I wrote the above on the fly (taking five at work), so apologies for any infelicities in my response. For example, things might have been clearer if I’d written “misrepresent” the work of these social theorists, rather than refer to “serious violence”. In any case, here’s another take on this issue which I’m particularly taken by. Suffice to say, I believe the blogosphere is dominated by the “successionist” and “conjuncturalist” options McLennan refers to, thereby giving short thrift to the more “synthetic” scenario also described.

    But why must this always be the case? How necessary or desirable are the former options really? And not least of my concerns, in what sense can such self aggrandizing moves be justified, beyond taking Adorno to task for high cultural “snobbery”? Is that enough in itself to throw out social theory entirely?:

    History of the Human Sciences, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1-17 (1998)
    DOI: 10.1177/095269519801100301

    Sociology and cultural studies: rhetorics of disciplinary identity
    Gregor McLennan

    This article explores the interface between cultural studies and soci ology, as expressed through four scenarios which construe the ‘debate’ in particular ways. Two of these – ‘cultural studies succession’ and ‘postmodernist conjuncturalist cultural studies’ – unapologetically seek to dismiss sociology in favour of cultural studies, whilst a third – ‘socio logical revenge’ – appears to turn the tables entirely. A fourth and more productive scenario dwells synthetically on the ‘cultural turn’ across the whole ‘field’ of the social and human sciences. All four postures dis cussed are found to share two problematical features. The first of these is that although rhetoric/discourse is crucial in the construction of iden tities, including disciplinary identities, over-rhetorical manifestos readily generate critical doubts about their consistency and appropri ateness. Second, the focus in the four scenarios is chiefly on disciplinary homes, fields, or turns rather than, as it perhaps should be, on substan tive theses or ideological positions within these.

    Key Words: cultural studies • disciplinarity • rhetoric • sociology

  6. nhuthance, thanks for your comments. I would agree that my comments contrasting Ballard’s fiction to (more canonical) “social theory” was probably too hasty and generalizing. There’s also always a problem with the word “postmodern,” which has been used in so many contexts that it has become virtually meaningless — but which I often cannot avoid still (ab)using, because it does work as a general marker.

    Apart from that, I am very interested in the ways that science fiction and social theory can mutually illuminate one another; I try to pose the links in such a way that neither becomes just an illustration of the other.

  7. The last four novels were radically different than previous works and I found them harder to penetrate. But as I forced myself, I found them rewarding in the manner you describe.

    I am not as articulate or as educated a social critic as you are, but I found your critique of these novels largely accurate… and might only add (and I admit this is a strange addition) “Rushing to Paradise” to your list… as a fascinating (I very much enjoyed it) half-step to the last four novels but, to my mind, parallel novel in terms of creative focus.

    Isn’t there also in this novel a “community”, albeit one in the form of “nature” which is being sanctified… with environmentalism running rather ironically alongside the capitalism / consumerism of the last four novels?

    Ballard had become for me in the last decade probably my favorite writer. Coming off the time it took me to complete the huge collection of Dick novels… I moved toward Ballard and fell head over heels. He will be sorely missed.

    The final image for me are the small honey pots left by mourning shoppers at the base of the huge motionless animatronic bears in the mall of Kingdom Come. Truly sad and hilarious.

  8. For that matter… one can easily see this “community” in Running Wild. Perhaps these two novels were the seeds of that idea for Ballard…

  9. I’m not sure how familiar you are with the UK’s ‘media landscape’ (I assume you’re in the US?), but Ballard’s last four novels point frighteningly to Europe’s rapidly emerging right-wing populism. Since the dismal failure of many leading left/social democrat parties over the past decade, ballard has been pretty spot on on it’s proposed ‘alternative’.

    Britain’s most effective right-wing demagogues aren’t military types, clergy etc. – they present motoring tv programmes, appear on daytime talk shows, engage in ‘jolly banter’ on top ten radio… ‘cheeky chappy’ schtick full of thinly -concealed, unembarassed loathing and contempt for minorities, muslims, women, left-wingers, unions, gays, tax, immigration, welfare and traffic laws – ‘political correctness gone mad’. Dull suburban mediocrities always ready with violent opinions that can be shrouded in pub jokes, tits and bad ‘indie’ music. Berlusconi – as both media owner and his own favourite advertiser and performer – is also very ‘Ballardian’.

    I’m sure Ballard once commented that the Hitlers of the future would emerge from business parks and supermarkets – and wasn’t too keen on the ‘predictive’ aspect of sci-fi, but jeezus recent developments in Europe do seem to be revealing a very dark need for this ‘Kingdom Come’ among frustrated (yet still rather powerful) lads in suits…

  10. Wonderful tribute to Ballard, whose recent work I was so pleased to discover a few years back. Super-Cannes and Millennium People led me back to Empire of the Sun, where the elementary principle of Ballard’s art is laid out. In a way, Ballard delivers in Empire of the Sun a narrative that to my mind fulfills in a peculiarly vivid way the postcolonial fantasy of turning the First World subject into a Third World subject, knocking the white male subject off his perch of privilege and forcing him to grub for crumbs among the dregs of the social hierarchy. The fact that he uses a young boy as his protagonist, and that he filters the experience of wartime internment through his estranging perspective, enables him to plumb the depths that Conrad only points to in a superficial manner in Heart of Darkness. Empire of the Sun is one of the most unnerving books I’ve ever read, because it shows how easy it is for young Jim to become acclimatized to inhuman conditions, a disturbing truth that is too often suppressed in a culture of commodified moral indignation, in which mass suffering has become a token of instant authenticity.

    While Ballard’s fiction does bring out and develop in more concrete ways the theoretical work of the people you mention, the thinker who is probably closest to him is in my view Philip Rieff, better known as Susan Sontag’s ex-husband. Rieff’s work focuses on the idea that contemporary culture has become wholly governed by therapeutic principles – not even religion escapes their grasp. Rieff like Ballard comes to the conclusion that a society organized around the desire for psychological comfort will descend into brutality and violence once mere escapism proves unsatisfying: a true Ballardian scheme if there ever was one.

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