What’s up?

I had a surprisingly nice evening.

Cycled up to the British Museum in the face of a bit of headwind for The Age of Stonehenge exhibition.

West from Waterloo Bridge

The recent Age of Nero exhibition had been a bit crap but this was excellent. Strong recommend.

The curation was superb. Yes a wall of axe heads can be moving and beautiful. The range of artefacts showed the extraordinary saltatory leaps in technical and cultural innovation in Europe, threaded round the development, domination and eventual desuetude of Stonehenge.

The whole was mysterious and beautiful. Exemplified by the extraordinary Nebra Sky Disk. No I didn’t take a picture. Go see it.

Figures with quartz eyes and detachable penises on a serpentine boat

Detachable penises! Dead beaker folk!

Beaker woman with child in swaddling protected with dog-tooth pattern of bones

Also lol aurochs were massive and scary. Stood another head or so above humans.

hi dere

Then went to the Museum Tavern. I always forget that it’s surprisingly beautiful inside, with a wonderful bar.

So home, on the back of a now glorious tailwind, to a very basic but a very nice chick pea soup that had been cooking in the oven for eight or so hours.

chick peas, bay, garlic and onions

Now off to continue reading Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s really excellent The Mushroom at the End of the World.

Lowenhaupt Tsing’s use of the concepts of assemblages, time creation and contamination between humans, fauna and the environment contributed significantly to my enjoyment of the exhibition, which after all depicted people carving tools and history and gods and art out of the cosmos. The overlapping assemblages of stone, time, stars, bone and swirling mystic design, transforming to sun worship, bronze and gold should in ALT’s depiction not be seen as progression but a change in the assemblage of elements, and cadences, a new set of lithic, cosmic, and anthropological contaminations and influences.

So, yes, sorry for the bland post. Pepys this is not. But I had a surprisingly nice evening. And that is a thing to be celebrated.

Two Great Songs for the Price of One Bike Ride

Took my toaster to be recycled at the Lambeth electrical recycling yesterday. On my bike. Up (v much *up*) into the rather weird Norwood/Dulwich suburban hinterland.

Sang Hexen Definitive/Strife Knot on the way back because i cycled past a red church on a hill:

All Saints, West Dulwich

Sang Political Confusion by Big Youth on the way there, because I was… recycling a toaster maybe?

Yes, I’m just going to be using this as a scrapbook blog of stuff why do you ask.

Crossing the Streams

A very good interview on the business model and economics of streaming here:

Episode 5: Jozefien Vanherpe on the Economics of Music Streaming | Machines & Masterpieces (castos.com)

Worth reading this Steve Albini thread as a complement to it:

I wonder whether the success major labels have ultimately had in negotiating the shift to streaming will also play through into video/broadcasting. Netflix unquestionable turned the tables up by making incredibly innovative, far-sighted use of CDN technology (Content Distribution or Delivery Network), Edge connectivity and variable bitrate management, but they face/faced two challenges:

  1. It’s a content first world – which means paying up front for subscribers by creating content, and as Jozefien Vanherpe points out, it’s difficult to predict the return on cultural goods.
  2. Once you reach saturation point with subscribers in the US, the job of expanding becomes a lot harder for localisation reasons (cultural, language and indeed compliance and technical). China is closed off to Netflix as a major revenue generator outside sharing some content via a partner, see my bit on Peppa Pig. Network technology coverage in India and the African content is a challenge. Europe is highly fragmented in terms of language and legislation per viewer.

Broadcasters have existing distribution channels and play the rights/D2C risk balance much more easily. Are we going to see the equivalent of the major label dominance in video streaming?

Publishing is of course the other area where incumbent businesses were extraordinarily slow and defensive in their approach to new technologies, but it’s not clear to me that e-books have disrupted to the same extent – certainly we’ve seen v little innovation in the publishing space as far as I know. Academic publishing is still in a heavily fortified mode. But this is no longer an area of strength for me, so this is just guesswork based on what little I see.

# January Artefacts

I took a run up at Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson at Christmas but ended up with some small frittering on kindle fragments, bookmarked articles from 2021 and The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter. And some golf game on my phone.

I drank too much at the weekend and ended up scraped and ashamed and becalmed. And now at the tail end of that feeling – less bruised, less shamed – find myself in the perfectly receptive mood to read Anniversaries.

Before reading Anniversaries I had bought:

  • Patrick White’s book on Johnson – The Sea View Has Me Again
  • Twenty twenty by Luke Ellis

The latter constantly quotes Anniversaries and I realised how attractive the quoted sentences are.

I was unconvinced immediately by the Ellis but it sent me back to Anniversaries and now I find myself v happy in its company.

A January mood.

Nesh

Catching up on unread bookmarks from this year. This observation on Tacitus’ Germania reminds me that I’d like to read something on the origination of the decadence of civilisation trope – here ‘the corrupting influences of modern urban existence.’ – and its mutation and persistence through history:

In perhaps one of the more detailed early instantiations of the myth of the noble savage, the historian tacitly opposes his decadent fellow Romans to the rural, chaste, and freedom-loving Germanians, who — sheltered within their deep, primeval forests — have yet to succumb to the corrupting influences of modern urban existence.

Thrones Wreathed in Shadow: Tacitus and the Psychology of Authoritarianism – Iskander Rehman, War on the Rocks

In his book on historiography, History of Histories, Colin Burrow identifies a version of this nexus in Herodotus:

Another aspect of the East–West contrast, with a long future as a historiographical cliché, is attributed to Cyrus the Great, and quoted by Herodotus as almost the last words of the whole work: ‘Soft countries breed soft men,’ and have to suffer the rule of aliens. Warned by Cyrus, the Persians choose for preference to live in a rugged land, but the association in European thought and historiography conveyed by the phrase ‘Asiatic softness’ was to endure down to the nineteenth century. The East-West antithesis was to be highly significant for the Greeks and Romans. Through them it reached a particular pitch of intensity in the European Enlightenment, and it still echoes resonantly in nineteenth-century historiography and the literature of imperialism, and in this long tradition Herodotus is by no means the most biased and unqualified manipulator of it.

Burrow, John. A History of Histories (pp. 19-20). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

To emphasise the point:

Athens became for Herodotus the great protagonist of Greek freedom in opposition to eastern despotism. This contrast – which Herodotus increasingly makes apparent, and in which the other Greek states, and particularly Sparta of course, participate in varying degrees – was to be an immensely enduring one in Western historiography and political thought, setting liberty against servitude, law against the tyrants’ will, frugality, hardihood and valour against luxury and timidity.

Burrow, John. A History of Histories (p. 19). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

To be absolutely clear, this is three different but I think related concepts:

  • The corrupting influence of the city (something to which it’s hard to imagine the early Greeks with their concept of the polis subscribing, but was surely a live argument in Athenian democracy?) and the converse virtue of the country and hard labour
  • The corrupting influence of decadence and luxury (being found in the city)
  • The source of that decadence in the East, specifically the Levant and beyond, being imported to the ‘West’.

As I say, I think this mutatis mutandis persists. To what extent is it deeply psychological and if so why? Most of us live in cities and comparatively speaking in the highest level of historical luxury. To what extent is it determined by a very persistent set of constructs? Pastoral innocence, moral value of hard work and physical labour? What is its persistent environment niche as a framework? Who typically perpetuates and expresses it? And who has no truck with it? It was of course deeply embedded in Romanticism, but after all corrupt city and virtuous country parallels played a significant part in aesthetics, plots and morals well before Romanticism in its full flowering.

It’s probably fair to say that the ‘Eastern’ or ‘Oriental’ element has decreased with globalisation. Who are seen as the sources of that ‘corruption’ now?

Why do they do this

It is no exaggeration to say that Warburg created a kind of ‘internet’ in his small institution in Hamburg, which was exiled to London when the Nazis came to power in 1933 and became part of the University of London in 1944. And it has long been clear to the scholars, curators and artists who have studied him over the last few decades that there are many aspects of the way he worked that could be called digital.

Atlas of Anomalous AI ed. Ben Vickers and K Allado-McDowell

Code for ‘it is an exaggeration that Warburg created a kind of internet’ and ‘there are no aspects of the way he worked that could be called digital.’

*answer to the title is ‘it makes their argument easier’

Meals: May and June 2020

Realised I hadn’t posted any of the things I’ve cooked/baked since MAY 5TH LAST YEAR wtf. Time to rectify. In stages.

Rowley’s Vinaigrette of Red Peppers and Anchovy

As recorded in Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories. One of my very favourite summer dishes. Key is to add the juices of the roasted peppers to the vinaigrette.

Grilled Chicken alla Diavola, Roman Style

Served this as the main course, from Marcella Hazan. Marinaded with a fuckton of black pepper, and, critically, put on a barbecue well after the highest heat, so that it cooks over something like the embers. Produces an extraordinarily tender, succulent and well-flavoured meat.

Pink Prawn Sauce with Cream

I’d forgotten about this – it was f’ing great. Marcella Hazan again (I’ll be typing that a lot). Parpadelle from Lina Food Stores in Soho, obv.

About the time I really started nailing it with my sourdough too.

Not everything went as well.

Poached chicken with sauce and latke

I can’t remember where i picked this up from? Might have been Simon Hopkinson, might have been me trying to improvise from a Richard Olney paragraph, or possibly Claudia Roden? Despite the grey slick on anemic looking chicken, the sauce was extremely reduced stock, wine and herbs and tasted good. The latke weren’t terrible but were a bit greasy and under appetising.

Sicilian Sardine Sauce

The breadcrumbs are fairly essential to provide texture. I forgot to add the breadcrumbs. Still nice. Just a little lacking in substance.

The Void

I’ve been struggling to find my centre. How I can add to the world and let it add to me. Covid has somehow reversed my relation to the world – a place from which I withdrew when I chose, when it was sufficient my mind, before Covid, to a place I am struggling to re-enter, how to reach that level of sufficiency, even though in some respects the daily engagement is the same.

Time to re-engage with the blog. Time to post more cooking entries. Time to write up my notebook, with glosses.

23rd December, a Wednesday

Yesterday, something reminded me of this quote, which I couldn’t place at first:

Vacuum, in modern physics, is what you get when you remove everything you can, whether practically or in principle.

Alternatively, vacuum is the state of minimum energy. Intergalactic space is a good approximation to a vacuum.

Void, on the other hand, is a theoretical idealisation. It means nothingness: space without independent properties, whose only role is to keep everything from happening in the same place. Void gives subatomic particles addresses, nothing more.

Frank Wilczek, from Edward Tufte’s Seeing With Fresh Eyes

Gloss

I’d made a very conscious effort to make my handwriting readable. It’s been atrocious ever since when, and had reached the stage where I couldn’t actually read my notes. This was the first entry in my notebook where I’d made a conscious effort to make my handwriting readable. It’s not good but it is readable.

new handwriting, notes

Other than that this is a terrible entry. ‘Something reminded me of this quote’ – what, you fool? what?!

I have no idea what caused the quote to spring to mind now of course, but re-reading it, I was struck by the notion of the void allowing addresses.

Draw analogy with cadastral addressing and structures: of course between the locations and boundaries there is terrestrial and mundane substance in the world, but between those addressed locations in their abstract plane, there is only a void. They are different addresses, but only a digit between them, or a line in a ledger.

The Matrix does this quite well with the address system for its human batteries: What lies between the individuals is different to what lies between them in their world. There the real world is cadastral, and the unreal world, apparently substantial.

During Covid lockdowns, we became our addresses, physical and IP, with a void inbetween. Homeless people were given interior shelter locations in the UK, a very good reminder we can do these things if we want.

The Keshiki Round Here is Not Profound Enough

There’s a kind of project in which I’ve found myself involved – trying to connect my internal emotional life to my internal rational life and the external emotional world. I haven’t been very successful at this, but it feels psychologically necessary.

When I was a 15/16 year-old in south-east England, i used to clamber up the North Downs and look out, back, south, over the High Weald of Kent and Sussex. But mainly it was to look away from its stifling political and cultural conservatism in commuter belt england, away to somehow manage and understand the usual teenage morass of feeling, sex, intellect, creativity and boredom that was incoherently bubbling away in me. It was a desire to be in a city, or at a university, to be in love with exotic people, and discovering and inventing new spaces in which to exist. That world was not actually to be found where I was looking, unless it was out of sight and over the channel, but in the space into which I was looking, both internal and beyond.

I was reminded of this feeling reading this piece on perspective and spatial power in Japanese and Chinese art, in particular this part, which quotes from The Tale of Genji:

Genji climbed the hill behind the temple and looked off toward the city.  The forest had receded into a spring haze.  “Like a painting,” he said.  “People who live in such a place can hardly have anything to worry about.”  “Oh, the ‘keshiki’ around here is not profound enough,” said one of his men.  “The mountains and seas in the far province should help you gain real progress in your painting”…

The landscape qualified here as being “like a painting” is the scenery with tree tops perceived here and there through the veil of haze.  Because they are not thought to be so profound, they must not be very distant.  But these tree tops perceived in different places constitute the distant range, and between the viewpoint and this distant range “the forest recedes into a spring haze” (keburi-wataru:  take note of the use of the above mentioned verb wataru suggesting spatial extent)

The essay is about the treatment of the middle-space, between foreground and distance, between the nearby tangible, audible range, and the distant visible range, between where I was sitting on the high downland, and the place where my yearning reached, the place where I would ‘gain real progress’ in my painting… or, for me, written art.

It notes that in Western Renaissance perspective (distinct from more generalised notions of perspective) comprises the placing of objects in a field of geometrical straight lines, such as the tiles of a Dutch interior, or the perspectives of a plaza or colonnade. This perspective is, the writer stresses, an urban technique, for the context of human activity, a meaning that persisted even into its use in the painting of landscapes*

Is it the case, then, that what could connect a teenage boy’s yearning to actual becoming is the urban context? Those are where the lines connecting the here with the there are legible, clear, part of the infrastructure, of learning, jobs, transport to other people, libraries, knowledge, the melting pot, of the market square, or colonnaded plaza, of general spatial and existential legibility, where the practical sciences of renaissance of self-fashioning are available for use.

In the rest of the essay the writer covers the treatment of that middle distance in Japanese art. The way the same middle distance connection, the from-here-to-there, from near to far, is managed. First the essay distinguishes sansui, literally ‘of mountains and waters,’ from Western landscape painting, in that it explicitly depicts the natural world as a different category to the human world and its concerns, even where it may contain lonely characters traversing its realm.

Then the writer takes the term keshiki, specifically Japanese term denoting landscape painting but semantically distinct, and covering different bases from western landscape depictions (termed fukei). Keshiki literally means ‘the colour of ki’, the tone or colour or the feeling of a scene, of the energy that fills a space (or ‘landscape’). The essay then suggests in the poetry of the 13th Century (before any legacy of painting) the notion of Keshiki became yoked to that of Watari, meaning to go over to the other side, a spatial implication… from here to there, and a temporal implication… a duration, a longing.

It is a concept closely related to a humid climate that produces much fog or haze.

This is the fog or haze or other indeterminate space that separates the near from the far, the tangible from the intangible and longed for, occupied by, and giving spatial form and tone to the cosmic energy of ki.

The essay goes on to relate how the poetic relation between keshiki and watari was realised in painting for the first time in ukiyo-e, ‘particularly the work of Hokusai and Hiroshige’ from the 1700s. I must admit that as I was reading the essay, my impression of what the author was talking about was more in line with the gimcrack scroll in my bedroom, or flattened, cloud interspersed images from chinese restaurants, calendars, rather than the specific examples of foreground/background flattened images of ukiyo-e presented.

cheap chinese scroll showing mountains and waters and mists, hanging on my wardrobe
what i thought in my head this whole concept was about
what it’s actually about

Like Genji, that which I wanted to achieve took place not in the connected space of the urban, but in the ki space of the clouds and fog. It required a sort of magical energy to get me there.

During the same period when I was regularly sitting on the Downs looking out, one of my key convictions about writing and art was that it should consider the same unities that classical art had. However, this did not mean, for instance, everything having to take place during a day or whatever, but that as an author you should not be creating energies out of nothing, when changes take place in the plot or your writing. There had to be some mutation of the existing energies you had created, a dynamism, a economy of energy in the dramatic expression, a pictorial coherence. Magic, and the fog of ki, is discontinuity. Its transformative energy comes out of nothing material, visible or tangible, or is derived, like alchemy, via daemonic mechanisms or beings.

In fact, getting from the me sitting on the downs, to the me sitting here has been nothing like any of that. I find myself now in an odd process of triangulation. I have moved, through mists and and later through more tangible and useful perspectives (education, work), and can look over to myself on the downs, mists in between, and realise a need to bring that figure with me, to find my way back, take him by the hand, retrieve him. Because he is not looking towards where I am now, and in fact there is a need for us both to navigate by feeling through the mists again. The keshiki round here is not strong enough.

*(i think the argument around the usage of the word landscape is a bit fuzzy in the essay tbh, and the dynamics of its development are rather different to the ones described, particularly when it comes to the notion of the ‘picturesque’, but i haven’t got the memory of the detail or more importantly the relevant books to go into it here – put a pin in it for later).

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:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0289v3l

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.