Apocalypse Porn

Thinking about the end of Wednesday’s post this morning before rolling out of bed, I realized that joining up with a collective of applied Ballardian fiction writers is just about the last thing I’d want to do.

I get it that Ballard exerts strong appeal in certain circles, and I do find myself intermittently drawn into their orbits. Ballard explicitly theorizes his own novels from inside the text — a kind of “theory fiction” that lends itself to traditional scholarly writing. And Ballard’s diagnosis of late-capitalist culture resonates with a lot of people. Here’s a passage from Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise:

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. The more arid and affectless life became in the high-rise, the greater the possibilities it offered. By its very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all. For the first time it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behavior, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses. It was precisely in these areas that the most important and most interesting of their lives would take place. Secure within the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find. In many ways, the high-rise was a model for all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly “free” psychopathology.

That’s Ballardianism in a nutshell, or spilling out of the cracked shell. I’m skeptical that late-capitalist anomie and ennui, fermenting in the decay of traditional societal connections and expanding in the vacuum left by the collapse of traditional social constraints, is distilling itself into all hell breaking loose, the comfortably coddled bourgeoisie’s unrecognized and repressed desires frothing forth in a hedonic eroticized death drive pitting all against all and each against each. It hasn’t happened in the 44 years since High-Rise was published: the privileged bourgeoisie remain complacently conformist while those consigned to the lower storeys of the socio-economic high-rise are becoming more desperate, marginalized, precarious, more attracted to unshackling their aggression not as a Ballardian tonic for alleviating boredom but as an act of desperation.

Maybe the Ballardian reality is delayed but still coming. Maybe what seem like the side effects of late capitalism, the recoil from schadenfreudean hubris, the collateral damage and the unintended consequences, are really the main effects, the objectives. Maybe the distributed unconscious of the stock market really wants to crash. Maybe the multitude of immaterial labor — the creatives and bureaucrats and technocrats — really want to be made redundant by inhuman labor, tantalized by the nightmare of finding themselves suspended precariously above the abyss. Maybe the bored psychopathic elite really do mean to undermine their own security, to render the planet unlivable, to crank the creative destruction up to 11, to pick up the red phone and push the red button, to turn the controls over to an all-knowing psychopathic AI. Maybe Trump desires impeachment and imprisonment. Maybe the Democrats want to provoke the Trump followers to armed insurrection so they can call in the military to quell the insurgency, declaring martial law and suspending democratic process indefinitely. Maybe all of the Ballardian drivers are accelerating into the crash, thirsting for their own annihilation.

In contemporary theory, Ballardian notes can readily be discerned in Accelerationism, its Deleuzian lines of flight propelled by technology, capital, and intelligence, thrusting a disembodied affectless desire beyond the humanistic gravitational field into a posthuman exploratorium that to the normies left behind can look a lot like “the expression of a truly free psychopathy.” And Ballardianism permeates the world of fiction, from cyberpunk to the new weird to new horror into mainstream commercial entertainment. The medieval decadent ruling class in Game of Thrones and the well-heeled clientele of the futuristic Westworld theme park occupy recognizably Ballardian dystopian imaginaries. Are these cautionary tales or apocalypse porn?

Trump parades himself before his acolytes as a Ballardian president, flaunting his ill-gotten wealth and his “dark triad” personality traits of narcissism, machiavellianism, and psychopathy, aggressively provoking confrontation seemingly just for the hell of it. It’s a performance enjoyed by the master showman, his routine choreographed and scripted and staged as an opioid-glazed spectacle for entertaining the inert masses. Fake news mingles with real news; all of it gets weaponized. High-Rise again:

A group of residents, all from the 14th and 15th floors, leapt out and hurled themselves into the mêlée. They were led by Richard Wilder, cine-camera gripped like a battle standard in one hand. Royal assumed that Wilder was filming an episode of the documentary he had been talking about for so long, and had set up the entire scene. But wilder was in the thick of the fray, aggressively wielding the cine-camera as he urged on his new allies against his former neighbors.

Nowadays Wilder might be renamed Fox. But he’s not the only one…

‘They’re all making their own films down there,’ Anne told him, clearly fascinated by her heady experience of the lower orders at work and play. ‘Every time someone gets beaten up about ten cameras start shooting away.’

‘They’re showing them in the projection theatre,’ Jane confirmed. ‘Crammed in there together seeing each other’s rushes.’

‘Except for Wilder. He’s waiting for something really gruesome.’

Like I said, I’m not sure I’d want to hitch my anarcho-collectivist wagon to an alliance of applied Ballardian writers… unless, secretly and unbeknownst even to myself, it’s what I crave.

 

The Silence Where I Am

Obsolete data storage technology delayed the transmission, but on 6 January Jim emailed me a readable copy of Scott’s novel. I’d expected to receive a screenplay, but evidently Scott later rewrote and expanded it into the manuscript that Jim sent me.

On 11 January I emailed back to Jim some observations about the first half of the novel. In that communiqué I acknowledged mixed feelings about reading with a critical eye a text written by an old friend whose life trajectory paralleled my own, in midlife peeling off from the corporate career path in order to write fictions, though I didn’t know it at the time. Did I regard Scott as forerunner, as colleague, as competitor? Scott had experienced some success as a writer, winning a fellowship and a screenwriting award. In 1997 his prizewinning screenplay was optioned by DreamWorks, though it was never made into a film. The novel Jim sent me is copyrighted 2006 — 9 years after the screenplay, a year before Scott killed himself. I anticipated excellence, the work of a tragic undiscovered genius, a solid track record embellished by romanticized caricature. I also knew that the story was largely autobiographical, about a kid who grew up in the same town, and on the same street, as I did, so I anticipated finding the book personally captivating.

Am I disappointed or pleased to find my expectations unmet in the first half of the manuscript? I don’t think it’s just a matter of personal taste; in my email to Jim I elaborated on a number of aspects in the text that in my view don’t pass muster. Writing style, character development, plot, narrative voice — all come under critique. To be sure there are aspects of the novel that I like, that I deem very good. Also, as the text moves across its midpoint I detect marked improvements — my sense is that the text has reached a turning point, segueing into the part of the story that had already been carefully honed in its prior life as a screenplay. So my expectations are on the upswing again.

Is the novel unredeemable? Not at all. A lot of things need work, but they could be fixed or chopped. In my email to Jim evaluating the first half of the novel I offered a caveat, or perhaps a wish unfulfilled:

As I write these remarks I picture myself telling them to Scott, constructive criticism and all that, mostly because my sense is that I’d rather hear something negative than to hear nothing at all, to know that the critic actually read what I’d written, taken it seriously, engaged me in dialogue about it.

Jim, a history professor at a large university in the Northeast, replied in part:

You are a well practiced and insightful reviewer, the art of the reader/reviewer rather than the writer… I much enjoyed your read of the mss. Scott would have loved your insights.

To which I responded, also in part:

One of the things I like about academic texts is that by and large the writers and the readers are the same people, part of the same intellectual ecosystem. Clearly peer review isn’t foolproof, but there’s a shared commitment to excellence, to advancing the field. Higher education builds on a foundation of reading and critiquing others’ work, so one’s set of review skills gets honed in conjunction with learning to do one’s own creative work. And no doubt it helps one’s own writing of academic texts to have read others closely and with a critical eye. It seems harder to pull that off in fiction, music, painting, etc. where there’s such a sharp structural divide between “artist” and audience, performer and reviewer, producer and consumer…

Yeah I’d have enjoyed talking with Scott about this book, though with some trepidation. it’s hard to gauge how he’d have responded, given how personal the story was to him and his building frustration. To quote the last line of Beckett’s novel The Unnameable:
“…it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”