To be or not to be… Ballardian.
Ballardian. It’s a word that derives from a flesh, blood, and bone namesake (the physical Ballard), but also represents the inner workings of his psyche, his obsessions, and his fetishes (the metaphysical Ballard). It can even be detached from its source to encompass thoughts and ideas generated by other living beings not associated with his name in any way except of course that they have created something or were involved with something that could be labeled Ballardian (the extra-physical Ballard).
By creating the word Ballardian, some philosopher or critic has done a very Ballardian thing – he or she has managed, through modern man’s need for neologisms (or what I like to call compartments), to semantically (if not psychologically) fragment the individual’s sense of self (his identity, his ego). As Freud puts it, “Normally we are sure of nothing so much as a sense of self, of our own ego…” and that “…this ego appears autonomous, uniform, and clearly set off against everything else” (4). But modernity acts to fragment or distort this sureness. To be J.G. Ballard is one thing, to be Ballardian is another but to be labeled both must cause doubt in one’s own ego.
Whether or not Ballard experienced this semantic fracturing at a psychological or existential level, to the point where one loses his or her sense of embodiment (a being R.D. Laing would call a schizophrenic), I will leave to other thinkers. I am more concerned with how this act of semantic fracturing is symbolic of the definition of Ballardian. It is a manifestation of one of Ballard’s major themes: how modernity (in this case modern man’s need for neologisms) and, more accurately, how mankind’s hunger for modernity (what some might describe as the need for civilization) can affect the individual on an existential level.
Whether it is the planes and their bombs in Empire of the Sun, the cement caves in High Rise, the island created from the wasteland leftover from constructed freeways in Concrete Island, or the semantic game of adjusting someone’s name to act as a compartment for fragments of the original (the physical, metaphysical, and extra-physical), they all share a solitary affect – they force the individual to become one of many cogs and wheels in the perpetually moving and growing machine called human civilization.
Cogs and Wheels; We, The Superorganism
In the aptly titled essay “Ants,” Edward O. Wilson discusses ants and their overwhelming evolutionary success. If biomass was an indicator of evolutionary success, ants, it could be argued, are the most successful beings on planet earth. Wilson uses ant populations in the Brazilian Amazon as an example, “ants and termites together make up more than one-quarter of the biomass which includes everything from very small worms and other invertebrates to the largest mammals” (14). He points out that “…ants alone have more than four times the biomass than all of the land vertebrates combined – birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals” (15). The reason for such evolutionary success – “Ants and other social insects are dominant because their social organization gives them competitive superiority over solitary insects.”
AlthoughWilson never directly correlates the success of the social ants with the success of the social humans, he does say, “The evolutionary line that gave rise ultimately to ants and other social insects separated more than 600 million years ago from the line that gave rise to human beings” (13). This suggests, rather obtusely, a parallel evolution – two social beings originating from a single source developing, over time, similar methods for ultimate survival and dominance. Of course, ants are very different in their habits and structures than human beings and only superficially can be linked to the social ways of human kind. What is pertinent about ants is that they, like humans, dominate their continuum by being a complex social species. What is also interesting is that they combine, socially, through the many bodies of individuals, to become one giant biomass – a superorganism – all functioning to ensure that biomass’ survival. We, human beings, function in a similar way but instead of calling our combined flesh ‘biomass,’ we call it civilization.
Wilson describes the ant superorganism as “…gigantic, amoeba-like entity that blankets the foraging field, collecting food, meeting enemies before they can approach the nest. At the same time they care for the queen and the immature ants that are sequestered with her in the nest” (15-16). We blanket the world in a similar way each finding a source of labor to add to the functioning of civilization (to feed, to fight, to breed). We, like the ants, “…accomplish all these things with high efficiency by a division of labor” and the ability to complete these tasks simultaneously (16). Wilson goes on to say, “individuals are able to risk or even to throw away their lives in suicidal ventures on behalf of the colony with-out greatly reducing the productivity of the colony” (16) or, I would add, risking the survival of the superorganism on the whole. What is the life of one ant in comparison to the biomass of all ants?
What does this have to do with Ballard and his novels, I’m sure you’re beginning to wonder. Ballard is identical to Wilson in many ways. He is a scientist holding a magnifying glass up to the writhing pieces of a giant superorganism known as human civilization. In each of his tales, he focuses on a few individuals and observes how these pieces unwittingly function as cogs and wheels to ensure their civilization’s survival. Where Wilson and Ballard depart in their ‘science’ is in the examination of these individual’s inner lives. It would be difficult for Wilson to empathize with an individual ant since he is not of their kind; Ballard has the advantage of being of the species he’s studying. Ballard can penetrate the individual’s psyche through shared experience and show what affect being a cog or a wheel in some greater organism has on the individual’s ego, his or her sense of self (for what is the self in comparison to the biomass of civilization?). It is this work that is quintessentially Ballardian.
The Individual and Civilization in Empire of the Sun
The chaos of war, Ballard might argue, reminds the individual of his or her speck-like existence on the face of civilization’s insurmountable mass. Events occur seemingly out of the control of the individual’s hands. It is the end of the world and, in the face of chaos, each individual is asked to react. But their reactions are not random or chaotic like the events that preceded them. The individuals react in accordance to a higher biological order, reforming, in some way, the infrastructure that was destroyed by the chaos of war.
Bombs fall in Empire of the Sun, ships sink, buildings crumble, and individuals die. It is much like slamming one’s hand down on an ant mound. The sand shifts and crumbles, the mound flattens, and individuals die. And in the aftermath of such upheaval, what occurs? The individuals reform and continue on as a massive whole, reforming their superorganism.
Jim is unique to Ballard’s other texts because he is more raw and not as entrenched in his labours as those older than him. At least in the beginning, he is a child without a sense of civil purpose. At first, he does not have a labour that acts to make civilization function (other than that he is a spare part to be used when another part breaks down or dies off). Empire of the Sun, in a way, depicts Jim’s accumulation of an identity and labour. He acts as a lubricant, sliding around the POW camp, trading goods, and making this newfound micro-civilization motor.
For all the upheaval he experienced, the loss of his home, his parents, and the Shanghai he once knew so well, he, with the other POWs, have been bound back together to reform civilization. Each of these scattered individuals has found each other and each takes on a labour. When one dies, in the eyes of civilization, even in the eyes of Jim, it is inconsequential. Civilization will keep moving forward. Even the chaos of war, like the individual and his sense of self, is inconsequential in the face of civilization. War is, indeed, just a cog in the machine.
The Individual and Civilization in High Rise
The high rise, like war, is a cog in the machine and, like war, it performs an upheaval of the individual’s sense of ego. Instead of destruction causing the existential crisis, it is abundance or, more accurately, Stasis. The high rise is a place that functions with minimal labour and satisfies all of the individual’s basic needs (food, safety). It alleviates the need for the individual to get lost in his functional labour and gives him static time – alone, in a confined, protective dwelling – to ponder his or her speck-like existence on the face of civilization’s insurmountable mass. In High Rise, each character comes to a similar conclusion – they are inconsequential and their potential deaths mean nothing in the big picture. Their existence is so inconsequential that the conscious pursuit of death and disorder does not seem like a bad idea.
In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud comes to the conclusion “…that, in addition to the drive to preserve the living substance and bring it together in ever larger units, there must be another [drive], opposed to it, which sought to break down these units and restore them to their primordial inorganic state” (55). The drive to community is what Freud calls Eros. The drive to destroy is what Freud calls the death-drive. They function in complete contradiction to each other, they are enemies, Freud points out, like God and the Devil (he goes as far as to argue that God and the Devil are fictional representations of these innate drives; something so innate to human kind that we attempted to manifest them in our deities).
In all of his works, Ballard seems to be inordinately influenced by Freud’s theories and specifically, in the case of High Rise, by Freud’s notion of the death-drive. A strict Freudian could argue Eros inspires Royal to design a community (a utopia, a micro civilization) and the death-drive innate to all human kind acts to destroy it. Freud writes, “…the tendency toward aggression is an original, autonomous disposition in man and… represents the greatest obstacle to civilization.” This assumes that civilization is an end goal, something to be reached for, something to be designed and that does not yet exist. This statement dismisses what seems evident in Wilson’s study of ants – that human kind, as a superorganism, is civilization. Or to put it another way, civilization is an organic mass that cannot be controlled by any one individual’s innate drives. It even seems to contradict Freud’s own conclusions, “Communal life becomes possible only when a majority comes together that is stronger than any individual and presents a united front against every individual…. The replacement of the power of the individual by that of the community is the decisive step toward civilization” (32). Ballard expands on Freud and argues in High Rise that the death-drive doesn’t threaten civilization. Instead, it exists as a consequence of civilization. The technological advancement of civilization, with its bombs and its high rises, has created a perpetual interruption of the individual’s labour. Each time something is disrupted in the individual’s life, when he or she is distracted from her labour, he or she is faced with the reality of their speck-like existence in the face of civilization’s insurmountable mass. When faced with such a crisis, it seems natural to move toward a general nihilism and even, as occurs in High Rise, an active will toward death (What does it matter anyway? My death will not be noticed).
Laing survives this period of wanting death (he exhibits his death-drive by living and finding pleasure in his own filth as well as aggressive behavior toward others) to come out on the other side forgetting his existential crisis: “Laing was free for the time being to live within this intimate family circle, the first he had known since childhood” (172). The death-drive, it seems in a Ballardian world, is civilizations way of correcting itself. Instead of being an obstacle to civilization’s existence, it is a tool – a cog or wheel – that acts to correct civilization’s trajectory through the actions of its individual pieces. When Chaos or Stasis interrupts an individual from his or her labour and makes him aware of his speck-like existence, then something must occur to change course. These individuals, like Laing, must press the reset button (via the death-drive) so that either the problem individual is eliminated (through death) or if it survives it will find relative happiness in a new labour (until, of course, something interrupts them again). Laing finds this relative happiness in the labour to provide for and control his “intimate family circle.”
The Individual and Civilization in Concrete Island
Although it is easily considered a Ballardian work, for its themes of existential isolation in the face of civilization’s epic mass, Maitland’s existential crisis in Concrete Island cannot be directly blamed on the technological advancements of civilization. War and buildings are the cogs and wheels in Civilizations’ perpetually moving machine, but the wasteland Maitland finds himself inhabiting has no perceived purpose or labour. Although it was created in the negative space provided by other functioning cogs and wheels (in this instance freeways and cars), its existence has no meaning. In a sense, it is analogous to what occurs to the individual in the face of civilization and its advancements. Each individual is a wasteland, an insignificant mass compared to the swirl of cement (and flesh) all around.
Unlike Laing, Maitland does not seem to have an obvious death-drive. On the surface, all his actions seem to be in the interest of his survival (even at the cost of other’s lives). Where the death-drive in Laing seems to be obvious and active (he revels in his own shit), the revelation of Maitland’s death-drive comes toward the end of his story in a more subtle way. Jane offers Maitland escape and he refuses her. Soon after she abandons him, he has an opportunity to wave down a police car. Again, he refuses and hides. The death drive is so buried in him, so repressed that the novel closes with hopeful denial: “In a few hours it would be dusk. Maitland thought of Catherine and his son. He would be seeing them soon. When he had eaten it would be time to rest, and to plan his escape from the island” (176). What isn’t evident at the beginning of the novel, but becomes increasingly clear by the end, is that every action Maitland takes, even the initial crashing of his car, is an attempt at self-destruction. But instead of death, Maitland, in this little piece of forgotten wasteland, has found a place where an individual can survive on his own terms because the individual, once it becomes existentially aware of itself, like Maitland has (an event that occurs before the novel’s opening lines), becomes a useless part of civilization that either must die or learn to forget its new found awareness. In a strange way, on the concrete island, an individual can live, at least existentially, happily ever after.
Ballardian. It is a word that acts to define itself. It’s existence, due to the modern need for neologisms, acts to disrupt and fragment an individual’s sense of self. With that in mind, when you label something Ballardian, you are labeling a work or event that in someway shows, observationally, how the advancement of civilization acts to disrupt the individual’s sense of self. The need for neologisms is based on the notion of advancement (to advance semantic understanding, but also to advance civilization on a whole). Neologism is an inanimate cog or a wheel in the machine of civilization (or, more clearly, we are the cog and it is our tool). To be Ballardian is to find a tool like neologisms, war, or high rise apartments and examine how they disrupt one’s life. Ballard’s conclusion: these tools and technologies act to make the cogs and wheels of the machine of civilization (the individuals) aware of their speck-like existence in the face of civilization’s insurmountable mass. This existential crisis is met with what Freud called the death-drive. Like individual ants whose death is inconsequential to the survival of its colony, so to is the individual human’s life when placed against the mass. What Freud called an obstacle to civilization, Ballard calls a consequence of civilization. The death-drive is a civilizational tool enacted when the individual, inevitably, becomes aware of its inconsequentiality. The death-drive wants to destroy the useless cog or, if the individual survives, it wants it to forget and get lost in some new, productive labour. This is not to say that those faced with existential crisis cannot be in crisis and live on happily ever after, it is to say that unless one find’s oneself forgotten on a wasteland, the odds against the individual staying aware of his speck-like nature are not good.
Baudrillard, Jean. “Ballard’s ‘Crash.’” Trans. Arthur B. Evans. Science Fiction Studies.
Vol. 18, No. 3, Science Fiction and Postmodernism (Nov., 1991), pp. 313-320
URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4240083 Accessed: 03/08/2009 1:03
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. 1930. Trans. David McLintock.
London. Penguin Books. 2002.
Wilson, Edward O. “Ants” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol.
45, No. 3 (Dec., 1991), pp. 13-23. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3824337
Accessed: 05/08/2009 11:34