J.G. Ballard: The Fragile World

I felt strongly, and still do, that psychoanalysis and surrealism were a key to the truth about existence and the human personality, and also a key to myself.

– J. G. Ballard,  Miracles of Life

Ballard enters one’s blood like a virus that is forever replicating its noxious programs in the neuronal filaments of the mind. As a young man I came upon his stories of bleak Martian landscapes where the voice of Ballard drifts over the alien world revealing a history of past atrocities in such allusive poetic elegance that one is almost tempted to forget the dark truth it presents:

At the Martian polar caps, where the original water vapour in the atmosphere had condensed, a residue of ancient organic matter formed the top-soil, a fine sandy loess containing the fossilized spores of the giant lichens and mosses which had been the last living organisms on the planet millions of years earlier. Embedded in these spores were the crystal lattices of the viruses which had once preyed on the plants, and traces of these were carried back to Earth with the Canaveral and Caspian ballast (366).1

In such passages Ballard offers the keen eye of a scientific naturalist with the caustic yet elliptic truth of a deadly but visible underworld of viruses that will bring to the homeworld of earth not an Edenic  resurrection of ancient life forms but instead the merciless agents of its own final apocalypse. At the end of this bleak tale Bridgeman one of the few who never left earth for the great adventure looks out on a sea of black obsidian dust, the plenum of the viral infestation that has now turned the homeworld into one giant desert:

He watched the pall disappear over the sea, then looked around at the other remnants of Merril’s capsule scattered over the slopes. High in the western night, between Pegasus and Cygnus, shone the distant disc of the planet Mars, which for both himself and the dead astronaut had served for so long as a symbol of unattained ambition. The wind stirred softly through the sand, cooling this replica of the planet which lay passively around him, and at last he understood why he had come to the beach and been unable to leave it. (372)

He didn’t need to leave it, Mars had come to earth with a vengeance.

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Steven Shaviro: New Materialism and Whitehead

Whitehead’s ontological and cosmological concerns put him in connection with the speculative realists; but pragmatically, he is closer to those contemporary thinkers who have been called new materialists. Jane Bennett’s “vital materialism” and Karen Barad’s “agential realism” both seem to me to have resonances with Whitehead’s thought, even though neither of them mentions Whitehead directly (as far as I know). Donna Haraway, on the other hand, has spoken specifically about the importance of Whitehead for her ideas about companion species. None of the new materialisms are based on Whitehead’s system or his technical terms, but they share his project of reconciling phenomenal experience with natural science, without rejecting either.

– Steven Shaviro, Interview on Figure/Ground

Lauren Berlant: The Subtle Art of Cruel Optimism

Intensely political seasons spawn reveries of a different immediacy. People imagine alternative environments where authenticity trumps ideology, truths cannot be concealed, and communication feels intimate, face-to-face. In these times, even politicians imagine occupying a post-public sphere public where they might just somehow make an unmediated transmission to the body politic.

– Lauren Berlant. Cruel Optimism

A filter, after all, separates out noise from communication and, in so doing, makes communication possible. Jacques Attali and Michel Serres have both argued that there is no communication without noise, as noise interferes from within any utterance, threatening its tractability. The performance of distortion that constitutes communication therefore demands discernment, or filtering. However steadfast one’s commitment to truth, there is no avoiding the noise.

The transmission of noise performs political attachment as a sustaining intimate relation, without which great dramas of betrayal are felt and staged. In The Ethical Soundscape, Charles Hirschkind talks about the role of “maieutic listening” in constructing the intimate political publics of Egypt. There, the feeling tones of the affective soundscape produce attachments to and investments in a sense of political and social mutuality that is performed in moments of collective audition. This process involves taking on listening together as itself an of desire. The attainment of that attunement produces a sense of shared worldness, apart from whatever aim or claim the listening public might later bring to a particular political world because of what they have heard.

– Lauren Berlant. Cruel Optimism

Public spheres are always affect worlds, worlds to which people are bound, when they are, by affective projections of a constantly negotiated common interestedness. But an intimate public is more specific. In an intimate public one senses that matters of survival are at stake and that collective mediation through narration and audition might provide some routes out of the impasse and the struggle of the present, or at least some sense that there would be recognition were the participants in the room together.” An intimate public promises the sense of being held in its penumbra. You do not need to audition for membership in it. Minimally, you need just to perform audition, to listen and to be interested in the scene’s visceral You might have been drawn to it because of a curiosity about something minor, unassociated with catastrophe, like knitting or collecting something, or having a certain kind of sexuality, only after which it became a community of support, offering tones of suffering, humor, and cheerleading. Perhaps an illness led to seeking out a community of survival tacticians. In either case, any person can contribute to an intimate public a personal story about not being defeated by what is overwhelming. More likely, though, participants take things in and sometimes circulate what they hear, captioning them with opinion or wonder. But they do not have to do anything to belong. They can be passive and lurk, deciding when to appear and disappear, and consider the freedom to come and go the exercise of sovereign freedom.1

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