The Pleasures of the Vandal

Since I set this down, some time ago, it’s become slightly outdated even in terms of my own thinking. I’d want to plug in my reading from Seeing Like a State, and how what Scott calls ‘cadastral legibility’ necessitates a structural uniformity, and using the two different imaginative models outlined here, see how that might affect our social psychologies. I’d also want to understand how the rise of data analytics of social and individual behaviour (at a stochastic level) also implies a a data version of that cadastral legibility/mapping of behaviour and the mind.

However, Ballard is frequently quite badly written about, and I think this is halfway decent, even if it could probably do with a bit of refinement and additional structuring.

We must begin with the mistake and transform it into what is true.

Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough – Wittgenstein (original German: Man muß beim Irrtum ansetzen und ihn in die Wahrheit überführen)

I was at Asylum a while ago – @john_self had tweeted a link to some thoughts about High Rise that he’d put down in 2007 after news of JG Ballard’s terminal pancreatic cancer had just come out. The entry notes how Ballard is ‘simultaneously renowned yet overlooked.’ This is still true, despite the imminent release of another film (well it was imminent when i first started writing this); a form of publicity which dials up the notoriety of Ballard as a name, and obscures the qualities that made his writing of interest in the first place. He stands out in sharp relief against the landscape of late 20th Century writing in a way that makes me want to use words like ‘important’ and ‘significant’ although I’m wary of their implications. This despite and to a certain extent inclusive of his late period – I’m one of those who see it as weaker. The collected short stories, spanning 1956 to 1992, are incontrovertible.

I hadn’t read the book, and felt I should do that before seeing the film. I procrastinate like hell though (I see this has recently been linked, in a Ballardian way, with the size of the amygdala, the fight or flight mechanism) and it’s often the case that when I need to do two things – read the book to see the film – I do neither. That might have been the case here as well if it hadn’t been for a passage in Robert Musil’s short story The Blackbird:

The dining rooms are likewise piled up floor on floor, as are the white-tiled baths and the balconies with their red awnings. Love, sleep, birth, digestion, unexpected reunions, troubled and restful nights are vertically aligned in these buildings like the columns of a sandwiches at a vending machine. In middle-class apartments like these your destiny is already waiting for you the moment you move in. You will admit that human freedom essentially consists of where and when we do what we do, for what we do is almost always the same – thus the sinister implications of one uniform blueprint for all.

The Blackbird – Robert Musil (from Tales of the German Imagination from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann, Penguin.

Exploring that provocative last line led into deep water very quickly, as is often the case with Musil. It is a regular humour or mode of this that his aphorisms have a quality (or lack of quality if you like) where an initial impression of profundity turns upon examination into wondering whether in fact there is any depth there at all. Message without originating meaning, no object upon which to attach itself, variables without values, this conceptual shadow-play in fact being the fundamental hidden point of the statement. A hermeneutics of the ersatz.

It was late at night. I hadn’t been able to sleep and despite the glassy Musil surface my mind was engaged in turning over the words, in that relentless way that comes from the feverish fatigue of insomnia, in an attempt to summarise those ‘sinister implications’ and the assumptions underlying them. I scribbled down notes  that came from this process on a scrap of paper by my bedside:

  1. The majority of actions – that is to say the ‘whatness’ or content of our actions – are universal, outside of social construct and historical context (‘what we do is almost always the same’), and therefore belong to the generically ‘human’, and therefore must comprise the organic or animal – eating, shitting, sleeping, fucking – and the base mechanics of the social – meeting, seeing, conversing – with some areas that sit between the two, like labour – the means by which we ‘forage’ for food and shelter within a social context and capitalist infrastructure. This is poetically rendered here as ‘love, sleep, birth, digestion, unexpected reunions, troubled and restful nights’.
  2. The content of our actions has no meaning independent of context: the above behaviours are universally the same and therefore any variation is purely a matter of when and where they take place – how they are constructed if you like. Despite the apparent cynicism of this statement, this is probably not to trivialise: the fractured Whereness of Paris and Helen fucking was of the greatest consequence. Musil might say my choice of restaurant – where I eat – defines my character in a non-trivial way, as does the When-ness of my sleep.

    This is a civic, imperial and aristocratic or bourgeois view of human freedom – it reifies* the ability to choose, which is let us say at base a financial power in our society (bourgeois and aristocratic), it is also an imperial or spatial power since it implies large variation of possibility, the goods of the world collected in the metropole (civic and imperial). Though as these terms exactly describe the world of Musil, this is no more than saying his profundity is consistent with his depicted world. 

    (There’s that vertiginous feeling again – philosophy or truth as contingent upon transitory and variable context: the decadent realisation of the end of an epoch that its truths have become tired, wearisome)
  3. Character (that is to say ’the expression of choice’) is destiny or fate, character and therefore fate or the course of destiny are – from 1 & 2 – defined by time and place.
  4. We humans are peculiarly receptive to our environments in an organic and behavioural way, such that uniform contexts cause uniform behaviour. This means 2 can be restated: 2+3 = The content of our actions has no meaning independent of material context.
  5. In conclusion: our fate is determined by our material, temporal surroundings, hence the sinister implications of a universal &c.

The main unfreedom here seems to me to be existential, that is to say defined by Musil’s conception of existence. There is no life independent of context that can survive material uniformity. This makes the paragraph both anti-Romantic (no independent or extensively mediated inner Self) and Romantic (that which removes choice of individual expression is bad). This paradox is representative of the crumbling wall of Late Romanticism.

Going down this nocturnal rabbit hole made me turn to what might considered a reference book on the subject of vertical living by an artist I admire, which seemed to that it might offer a fruitful comparison to Musil.

My admiration for or, better, the kick I get out of Ballard comes from the way he defamiliarises human behaviour so that it becomes alien. His works do not rely on common sense (eg for believability, character, motive, social interactions). Common sense denies the presence of its intrinsic unspoken component ideologies and habituated mannerisms. Ballard removes the glue of common sense and replaces it with a simplified psychosocial schema, which surfaces the artificiality of those ideologies and habituated mannerisms.

There is no history in Ballard (Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women excepted). There will sometimes be a singular event precipitating the conditions of the story. Modern(ish) psychoanalytical and anthropological theory are the predominant forces. This isn’t just a theoretical or conceptual switching out; it makes his societies think, speak and behave in slightly but noticeably odd and frictionless ways, which gives much of the unique feeling of his books. The reader feels an uneasy sense of alienation. 

By way of framing the next bit, I originally put a subtitle here that said ‘Against Reading High Rise as a ‘book that demolishes the argument for tower blocks in our society today’ as one back-jacket quote had it. You know, the Betjeman argument:

There’s a section in the Asylum post that looks at the argument presented by Ballard in High Rise, starting with a quote from the book:

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 behaviour, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses. It was precisely in these areas that the most important and most interesting aspects 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 of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology.

Now Ballard clearly wants us to believe the second sentence follows from the first, but I don’t buy it at all. We know his experiences as a child in an internment camp in wartime Shanghai left him acutely aware of how easily the veneer of civilization can slip away, but where’s the evidence that this can – not just equally but more deeply, as he seems to suggest in so many of his novels – apply to particularly comfortable peacetime societies?

Although the observation about the Shanghai internment camp is definitely on point – Ballard is a post-war writer in more ways than just having participated in the chronological category – I don’t agree with the thrust of the observations here. Specifically, I disagree with the idea that we have to ‘buy’ the argument in order to ‘get’ (or enjoy) the book. I’m never enormously keen on the idea of literature being evaluated for the accuracy of its social analysis, which seems to me to be the same category of error where SF is sometimes judged on it oracular or predictive powers. Is the book correct about things? That error is I think characterised by ‘reductive materialism’*, and in its grossest form is therefore quite appropriately exemplified by Margaret Thatcher’s comment to Kingsley Amis, after being told the Communists-take-over-Britain plot of his quite weird and quite not good novel Russian Hide and Seek, where she advised him to ‘get another crystal ball.’

I’d rather go with a parallel reading where it doesn’t particularly matter whether the second sentence follows from the first. Where they’re more of a stated description or precondition of the world he has created. ‘Here is how this world works.’ A bit more than that, the discontinuity between the first and the second sentence indicates that the reader is being presented with a world where this mechanic – structured civilised environments release primal psychopathologies and in fact brutalise rather than civilise – is axiomatic: these are the rules of the game in High Rise.

That a reader might disagree with this view (and I do disagree with it socially or politically speaking) seems as irrelevant as saying as a piece of fiction ‘Well, I simply don’t believe this happened.’

Any examination by High Rise of the society in which the reader exists and indeed the nature of high-rise buildings does not consist of direct social analysis, but comes via circuitous routes: the strange and beautiful images that populate his books, the recurring psychotropic semi-mystical objects of drained pools, broken radios, televisions and cars, objects deprived of their central purpose, rendered esoteric and tribally symbolic. The disjunction-as-syllogism of the two sentences – maintained social structure & the release of repressed impulses, civilisation & barbarism – in fact ensures a form of surrealism, represented by these images drained of material meaning, their latent symbolic force foregrounded. It’s the discontinuity of collage and is part of the reason that Ballard can be as comfortably categorised with the umbrella term ‘artist’ as he can a writer – the implications of the visual and the influences of surrealism are central and, I would argue, comprise the actual argument of his work. 

‘Actual’ argument because the surface arguments, in High Rise more evidently than in any other work, are vexed by the sort of issues already described. This is the architect Anthony Royal, v much in authorial mode:

In principle, the mutiny of these well-to-do professional people against the building they had collectively purchased was no different from the dozens of well-documented revolts by working-class tenants against the municipal tower-blocks that had taken place at frequent intervals during the post-war years.

Ballard may think this, and in fact I think he probably does, but that statement of ‘principle,’ which says the failure of high-rise living is nothing to do with money or class and entirely to do with an architectural-psychobiological conjuncture is mendacious in the context of the novel. Royal’s argument here cuts across class distinction; there is something intrinsic to high-rise living and to humans, which, when brought together, leads to social collapse. But the key cause of the social disintegration in High Rise is not anything like that, but rather the artistic and æsthetic instincts and requirements of Ballard.

The garbage-disposal shut Laing shared with the Steeles had jammed again. He tried to telephone the building manager, but the exhausted man had been inundated with complaints and requests for action of every kind. Several members of his staff had resigned and the energies of the remainder were now devoted to keeping the elevators running and trying to restore power to the 9th floor.

Ballard squeezes the resourcing of this building full of well-off people, and contrives to bring about the events that will cause his society to collapse. He deliberately withholds resources from them for technical and æsthetic reasons. It is a tacit admission that in fact it is a matter of resourcing rather than anything intrinsic to high-rise living, contra the arguments rehearsed inside and outside the book, hence my charge of mendacity.  He’s done it speed up the action, which is entirely legitimate, and used it as an argument against high rise living, which is not. He is ensuring, with this acceleration, that the playoff of psychologies has dramatic and visual manifestation instead of being repressed or contained in an analysis of manners and conversation. The clutter, ejaculations and material expressions of unrestrained impulse and temporary desire are allowed to accumulate into a landscape, representative of the inner psyche of the residents. The logic of the visible is placed at the service of the invisible as surrealist Odilon Redon put it, in a quote used approvingly by Ballard in a 1966 essay The Coming of the Unconscious.

In other words the meat of the book is not why the collapse happens, but the collapse itself, what it looks like, its effects, its effect.

High Rise is in fact another example of Ballard altering environmental conditions to see how his high-functioning professional humans fall apart or transform. It is, as much as The Drowned World or The Drought, an organic apocalypse:

The huge building he had helped to design was moribund, its vital functions fading one by bye – the water-pressure falling as the pumps faltered, the electrical sub-stations on each floor switching themselves off, the elevators stranded in their shafts.

Transform rather than decline. Despite everything, Wilder’s metamorphosis into sacrificial camera-wielding child ape feels like fulfilment, and as in Crash the brutal bruising efflorescences and transformations represent a new Eden, though one more like Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights than prelapsarian innocence.

Still, we’re well into Lord of the Flies territory – no one in, no one out, seal the doors. And part of the problem with Ballard-as-social-commentary is the aesthetic relish he clearly takes in these situations. In The Drought, the ‘desert island’ environment is inescapable and total, in High Rise this isolation is achieved by no one really wanting to leave; as in so many of Ballard’s stories, the annihilation is desired, and is sexual but the opposite of sensual.

Here the overwhelming environmental feature that will give specific shape to the transforming psychologies of the inhabitants is not drought or inundation, but the vertical axis. The chapter titles alone give the flavour of the book:

The 19th Century colonial novel is present in the cadences of the headings – Rider Haggard, or Conan Doyle’s Lost World. Of course, with cannibals, savage tribes and drained lakes, that comparison extends beyond the chapter markers. It’s another one of those conservative elements to Ballard. I’ll take this moment to point out that although he is much beloved of late 20th century theorists and thinkers, the psychological and anthropological models which inform his writing are late 19th century or early-mid 20th century: Frazer, Freud and Jung (though also Levi-Strauss tbf)*

The adventure template is possible because of that vertical axis. Motions of ascent (Up!) and descent (Into the Dropzone) give High Rise a dynamism uncharacteristic to Ballard. Inner space is given a propulsive aspect, and a sense of purpose, again unusual. As already mentioned, his books can be characterised by purposeless drift, or, if not purposeless, the symptoms of an overall centripetal force, which produces an anaesthetised sense of complicity, growing organically, as its narrative movement.

They’re static for other reasons as well: their pictorial and visual quality, and collage of association of unrelated matter (both things which satire uses to similar static effect), as well as the hypnotic or oppressive repetition of environmental elements. This inertia is as unusual an element as many others in his books. They tend to get slower and slower, approaching ecstatically regressive event horizons beyond which no information can return to the reader. The piece in Asylum is right to point out they can be quite boring. Nevertheless, in his late novels the heavy front-loading of plot or investigation, perhaps an attempt to counteract this characteristic, feels out of place. 

In High Rise the 19th century expeditionary layer needs a scenery appropriate to it, and the built environment is fairly consistently mapped to that of a mountain:

In the few seconds that remained before the doors opened he realised that he had already decided to abandon Helen and his sons for good. Only one direction lay before him – up. Like a climber resting a hundred feet from the summit, he had no option but to ascend.

This mountain stuff is strongly reinforced as Wilder nears the climax of his ascent/regression, via a mysteriously-achieved redecoration of the upper floors (Ballard being a busy bee again):

As he moved up the steps everything was silent. The staircase was carpeted, muffing the tread of his boots, and he was too distracted by the sounds of his own breathing to notice that the walls around him had been freshly painted, their white surfaces gleaming in the afternoon sunlight like the entrance to an abattoir.

Wilder climbed to the 37th floor, smelling the icy air moving across his naked body from the open sky. He could hear now, more clearly than ever before, the crying of the gulls. When the dog began to whimper, reluctant to go any further, he turned it loose, and watched it disappear down the stairs.

That turning of the dog loose, an archetypal moment of exploration or adventure lit – turning the donkeys / camels / horses back at the final and most difficult stage of an expedition, only to be attempted by the human hero. Also lol at the peak Ballard of ‘like the entrance to an abattoir.’

The ascent is all leading up to the climax of the central conflict between Royal and Wilder (Ballard’s names yet another example of the enjoyably crude anthropological symbolisms he offers as waymarkers en route to his defamiliarised landscapes – like the Buckfast navigational crucifixes across Dartmoor). This is after all, as much a theological or sacral disaster as an environmental one (the two are obviously entwined), with hubristic architect Royal as the dying, crippled king in Ballard’s favourite sinister colour – white. Those gulls Wilder describes have of course already been reconfigured in the chapter The Predatory Birds. An ‘unfamiliar species of estuarine gull’:

.. Royal liked to think that their real motives for taking over the roof were close to his own, and that they had flown here from some archaic landscape, responding to the same image of the sacred violence to come.

This is a latent suggestion that is revisited in one of my favourite images in the book:

The gulls sidled around him, rolling their heads and wiping their beaks against the concrete. The surface was streaked with blood. For the first time Royal saw that the ledges and balustrades were covered with these bloody notches, the symbols of a mysterious calligraphy.

Again, just hinted at, almost felt as a pressure around the novel, the idea of a sacral intelligence at work, etching marks in blood on the totem, barely proto-linguistic, but aware. High rise as totemic transponder, canalising alien, cosmic, psychic and deep time forces, of which the gulls are emissaries and liminal guardians/fauna – the first sign that you’re entering new territory. (See also: ‘The shrieking of the gulls filled the air, and seemed to tear at the exposed tissues of his brain. They rose from the elevator heads and balustrades in a continuous fountain, soared into the air to form an expanding vortex and dived down again towards the sculpture-garden’ God, I feel like I’m mainlining Ballard just retyping that sentence.) It was around this time that he wrote the short story Storm-Bird, Storm-Dreamer, about a littoral beset by colossal birds, so they were clearly something of an obsession.

Royal is identified with them in a slightly curious way:

In some way they were attracted by Royal’s white jacket and pale hair, so close in tone to their own vivid plumage. Perhaps they identified him as one of their own, a crippled old albatross who had take refuge on this remote roof-top beside the river? Royal liked this notion and often thought about it.

The albatross is not an insignificant symbol, and although he’s ultimately slain, it’s not I think Coleridge but Moby-Dick that has the greatest relevance to Royal here:

I remember the first albatross I ever saw. It was during a prolonged gale, in waters hard upon the Antarctic seas. From my forenoon watch below, I ascended to the overclouded deck; and there, dashed upon the main hatches, I saw a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked, Roman bill sublime. At intervals, it arched forth its vast archangel wings, as if to embrace some holy ark. Wondrous flutterings and throbbings shook it. Though bodily unharmed, it uttered cries, as some king’s ghost in supernatural distress. Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God. As Abraham before the angels, I bowed myself; the white thing was so white, its wings so wide, and in those forever exiled waters, I had lost the miserable warping memories of traditions and of towns. Long I gazed at that prodigy of plumage. I cannot tell, can only hint, the things that passed through me then.

… I had lost the warping memories of traditions and of towns…

I’ve suggested this is a parallel reading to that at Asylum, not really for modern theoretical reasons of interpretative plurality, but because much the experience of reading Ballard is characterised by reader-wariness at the path through the writing. The central characters are exemplary in this regard. These notoriously characterless characters are, conventionally speaking, vehicles for the reader’s projection into the novel, and as such have a certain objective neutrality – their indifference a sort of guide to a non-partisan narrator-reliability. But they are also something else. As time goes on that indifferent neutrality and lukewarm engagement with events around them is seen to carry the approval of inaction, in part driven by and increasingly expressive of a detached sexual pleasure at the violent collapse. Indifference and neutrality turn out to be ‘weak-argument’ expressions of a desire for annihilation. ‘Here, on the other hand,’ Laing observes right at the beginning of the book, ‘the dimensions of his life were space, light and the pleasures of a subtle kind of anonymity.’ How ready he is to shed his social role. You go along with them, but are continually brought up short by these moments of non-resistance – that frictionless behaviour I noted earlier. Once that desire for annihilation has fully blossomed into a sort of anaesthetised relish at the barbarism, the reader has been brought into a state of partial complicity and participation. Of course neutrality and objectivity are implied characteristics of the author-narrator, as well, and the ‘from outside to inside journey’ is one Ballard and his neutral narrators take the reader on as well as the characters within. Mute inglorious Virgils using narration as reader gateway drug to tribal deathsex. (Yes, I should have deleted that last sentence). 

Ballard isn’t interested in humans, or rather he’s not interested in character portraits, or character as motive. He is interested in their composition, and therefore he’s interested in catalysing their decomposition, effectively by draining life from them, and putting them on a slab. High Rise is an autopsy. Here is a passage from The Kindness of Strangers, his (very good) semi-autobiographical novel of a few years later:

Waiting for us, lying face up on the dissection tables, were some twenty cadavers. Steeped in formaldehyde, they were the colour of yellow ivory. More than anything else, the richness of their skins marked out the dead, as if their personalities had migrated hopefully to the surface of their bodies … Each body was an atlas recording the journeys of an entire life.

Here is the relevant section from High-Rise, when Laing visits the medical school where he supposedly teaches:

He let himself into the dissecting rooms of the anatomy department and walked down the lines of glass-topped tables, staring at the partially dissected cadavers. The steady amputation of limbs and thorax, head and abdomen by teams of students, which would reduce each cadaver by term’s end to a clutch of bones and a burial tag, exactly matched the erosion of the world around the high-rise.

This is how people are seen, personalities and lives are only etched like writing on the material of our corpus.

To go back to the beginning, comparing Musil and Ballard is quite difficult. Both are concerned with the effect of the material environment on people. I would say that the probably difference is that for Musil there is a soul to be acted upon, for Ballard, there is a set of animalistic impulses, which responds to its environment. The first is decadent, the second applies decay as analytical method. I’m not sure what I think here and I probably need to be deeper in it than revisiting this after three years allows me to be.

Oh, I still haven’t seen the film. Probably should. Feel if he turns a towerblock of the professional classes into a barbaric abattoir he will have done ok? Benchmark is of course Paradise Towers.

Towards the end of the book, Laing switches on the television:

A racetrack commentator’s voice emerged from the speaker, a gabble of names that sounded like a demented inventory, a list of unrelated objects being recruited to repopulate the high-rise in an emergency transfusion of identity.

That repopulation of unrelated objects reminds me once again of the collage nature of Ballard’s writing. To a degree the material elements of decomposition, their symbolism and anthropological status could be populated from any world, any psychic space – they need not be the totems and trappings with which we have in our modern society surrounded ourselves.

To test this, I clicked at random for one of today’s (2020 update, no idea when I put this bit in) racecards to see what sort of things would come up. This from the 14:15 Montague Inn Novice’s Hurdle at Wincanton:

  1. Uncle Tone
  2. Golden Bird
  3. Knight Watchman
  4. Max Forte
  5. Present Man
  6. Westend Prince
  7. Alottarain
  8. Theatre Goer

Racecards providing elemental synopses of potentially infinite Ballard novels. And how could you not be delighted on seeing that last year’s winner was a horse called Vesperal Dream?

Oh, and, although this was already done by the film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy the perfect song for High Rise?

*reify is possibly a very bad word to use here, and musing on whether it was or not, a year or so ago, led me to try and decide by reading History and Class Consciousness – this is why my blogposts don’t end up on teh internet. I decided then that it was a bad word to use, but I think now it’s fine. <Steve Jackson Voice> YOU DECIDE </sjv>

*a later footnote on reductive materialism – i originally said ‘materialism’, but my use of that word was getting a bit slippery, between philosophical meaning, colloquial negative meaning, and a generalised analytical sense of ‘material things’, so i’ve tried to refine it a bit by using the phrase ‘reductive materialism’. By this I’m intending to mean the sort of scientism and binary thinking we see in a lot of politics and commentary. materialism in itself here is not intended negatively, things can be abundantly materialist. reductive materialism is a moral stance, it wants to reduce the material options to what the person or ideology thinks is the right materialism)

*Ballard’s use of old-fashioned psychological and anthropological modelsI don’t see this as a problem, in fact it’s part of its appeal – the underpinnings to his writing are in some respects quite simple or well assimilated now, the framework is not radical. What he brings to it as a writer is of course his imagination – it’s a simple framework for his truly progressive explorations.

Author: diasyrmus

A melancholy emblem of parish cruelty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *