J.G. Ballard: The Calculus of Desire and Hope

The narrators are in these texts caught in a triangular pattern of relationships in which they are drawn to authority figures who urge them to accept and embrace the twisted social logics they uncover.

– Andrzej Gasiorek, JG Ballard

‘Not really.’ Gould finished my coffee and pushed the empty cup back to me. ‘It isn’t only the psychopath who can grasp the idea of absolute nothing. Even a meaningless universe has meaning. Accept that and everything makes a new kind of sense.’

– J.G. Ballard, Millennium People

Have we entered the last stage of the game, a game-theoretic that has played itself out in ever more duplicitous cycles within cycles for the past hundred years or so? I’m speaking of the shifting sands of both economic and political ideologies as played out in the modeling hijinks of its greatest ideologues as each in turn has vied for the space of politics?  It was Henri Lefebvre who once, optimistically said to us that the declining State would be dissolved not so much into “society” in an abstract sense as into a reorganized social space. At this stage, the State would be able to maintain certain functions, including that of representation. The control of flows, the harmony between flows internal and external to a territory, will require that they be oriented against the global firms and, by implication, will also require a general management of a statist type during a certain transitional period. This can only lead toward the end goal and conclusion by means of the activity of the base: spatial (territorial) autogestion, direct democracy and democratic control, affirmation of the differences produced in and through that struggle.1 Do we believe in such myths anymore? Is this another throwaway idea that has had its day and gone under the crunch of globalism? Is Democracy like Communism before it running scared? Is capitalism like some dark infestation freed of a shadow substance leaving its cloaked narrative of freedom and democracy in the dustbin of history like all other lost causes?  What comes next? Will the totalitarian regimes of the future offer us everything we always wanted rather than depriving us of our livelihoods? The blueprints for our postliberal dictatorships are in the works even now: the totalitarian future will be subservient and ingratiating, catering to our every need, and only asking in return that we willingly give up our freedom for the security and comfort of a fully posthuman life. Cyborgs or transhumanists of a technocratic future we will live in the terminal zones of a paradise run by executives who are as affectless and apathetic as an alien from some machinic universe.

They like that. They like the alienation … There’s no past and no future. If they can, they opt for zones without meaning – airports, shopping malls, motorways, car parks. They’re in flight from the real.

– JG Ballard, from Millenium People

Yet, as Ben Woodard says in his new and excellent work, On an Ungrounded Earth: Toward a New Geophilosophy: Here we wish to subject the earth to pain – not as a somatized creature, but as a planet, the glob of baked matter that it is – in order to test its limitropic porosity and see how much ungrounding the earth can take before it ceases to be simultaneously and example of nature’s product and also its productivity.“2 Maybe we’re entering a new era, an era of planetary upheaval, of political and socio-cultural instability and transformation, that from one perspective might look like the grand collapse of civilization, but from another might tend more toward some form of breaktrhough in which the great wars for the earth take on a new and insidious meaning… Maybe what we’re seeing is the end of the Liberal worldview, with its system of enlightened governance that has ruled Western Civilization for at least two centuries. If this is so then what is coming our way?

A postliberal world of decay and decadence, fraught with both internal/external conflicts within science, culture, politics, and love? With the death knell of tyrannical communism and the slow death of liberal democracy is there something else on the horizon? We see the old guard  on both sides of the fence crying foul, saying that neither of these are finished, that there will always be one of these two views of life resurgent in our midst in one form or another. But is this true? Isn’t the devil out of the bag? Hasn’t capitalism in our time finally slayed the dragon of its own duplicitous  marriage to democracy? We’ve heard this before, haven’t we?

Out of what accelerating future can our archaeologists of time begin to reweave the threads of the coming millennia? What does J.G. Ballard have to do with all this, anyway? In his trilogy of novels on the end time, or lost worlds of our postmodern visions of excess and apathy he brought forward the scalar seer, the detective of desire. The detective like some ethnography of the silences of modernity explores the nether regions of our alien worlds, unlike the progressive reformers of a century ago who investigated the slum worlds of Fordism, this new archaeologist of time articulates nothing more than the repressed knowledge of our future. It is not the new serfdom below the surface that this troubadour of detection scrutinizes, rather it is the inanity of our one-percenter’s: the plutocrats at the top of the heap, who are implicated in the disease they purport to be the answer for: a neoliberal society tittering on the edge of oblivion.

…there were real voids here, unlimited space inside a small skull. Looking for God is a dirty business. You find God in a child’s shit, in the stink of stale corridors, in a nurse’s tired feet. Psychopaths don’t manage that too easily.

– J.G. Ballard

Ballard portrays the social psychodramas of the rich and powerful as they wander amid the wastelands of late capitalism’s terminal zones. The search for freedom will no longer take on the radical enlightenments call for revolution, but will now invite everyone into the banquet of criminality and psychopathology. The enforce leisure classes of our gated tribalism leads us to the Marqui de Sade and Sacher Masoch rather than the free love zones of a utopian society. Immersed as we are in hyperreality we model our lives on the mechanics of death rather than the cycles of our bodily life. The new corporate City States of the future will be filled with the transhuman automata of our electronic dreams, an instrumental vision for the affectless executives of a mindless utopia.

We’re breeding a new race of deracinated people, internal exiles without humanities but with enormous power. It’s this new class that runs our planet.

– JG Ballard

Ballard’s realms are filled with a new breed of human, or at least of a breed that has until recently been diagnosed as the singular threat to liberal society: the psychopathic and sociopathic personality. In the future incorporated enclaves this will be the standard copy, the Platonic ensemble and blueprint for our 3D printers of an infernal machine of desire. Colonized by the viral memes of hypercapitalism these new objects of the system will no longer be the humans we once new, instead having interpolated themselves into the system through a biotech power grid beyond any we can now imagine they will become models of efficiency and rationality. In such a realm as this our posthuman society is built on affectless contractual relations among objects rather than subjects. This is the perfect object-oriented society of the future in which the broken vows of a lover are no longer seen as subjective betrayals but as damage sustained to a physical commodity. Our corporate security systems will penalize such infractions through monetary disciplining rather than through incarceration. The perp will serve as a minion to some higher need for such criminal infractions rather than building mechanical clocks he will become a mechanical doll for some executive’s pleasure dome.

People have enough fiction in their lives already, they’re living the stuff, it’s pouring out of the air, it’s affecting everything…

– JG Ballard

The economy of the future will center around the Prosthetic Personality. Instead of face-lifts we’ll get replaceable faces, instead of a knee replacement we’ll get the latest model of OmniView’s Galaxy 9000 runner plugin. The hybridized body will be sculptured to perfection like some advanced Maserati of the replicant assemblage. In the technocratic thunderdomes of the future the old guard, the unprosthetized humanoids of the pre-cyborg nations will perform old style killing matches for the benefit of these executive cyborgs. They will get little pleasure from what they see, instead they will study the mechanics of death like some alien intellect without any emotion whatsoever; indifferent and superior, these cyborg leaders of the free world will smile down on such useless lives as if they were bugs in a vat. Zygmunt Bauman once remarked: “The ultimate limit of the war against noise is a fully controlled life-world and complete heteronomy of the individual – an individual located unambiguously on the receiving end of information flow and having his choices safely enclosed within a frame of strictly defined by the expert authority.”(Modernity and Ambivalence 226) In the ‘intelligent’ city of the future our clones will live for us, our minds tucked away in the artificial cavities of metalloid dreams we will ride the skyscrapers of imaginal histories like explorers embarking on a jaunt to Paradise.

Eden-Olympia really is … a huge experiment in how to hothouse the future. … Eden-Olympia isn’t just another business park. We’re an ideas laboratory for the new millennium.

‘The “intelligent” city? I’ve read the brochure.’

– J.G. Ballard, Super-Cannes

Our postmodern generation might have tried to find the traces, the demarcations of an absence, an the alterity from the other ends of time, the blind spots hidden within the binary structures of a language fragment, or an encoded message within the ideological temper of simulated age. But no longer. One might have also sought out the dark and ambiguous forces on the edges of our socio-cultural despair, the deep ambiguities within and between the interpolated relations in politics, art, philosophy, science, love, etc. that simulated models of desire rather than desire itself, that imitated the structure of reality rather than reality’s ungrounded ground: a dialectics of subjectivation, attuned to the implosion of time and memory. Like drifters on a sea of hyperchaos we situate ourselves amid the detritus of former civilizations, picking and choosing among the dead, puissant and full of decadent splendor actin on our own supercilious mindlessness, like metal gods of some hyperworld that feeds us fantasias of inanity to blast our boredom into space.

In his despairing and psychopathic way, Richard Gould’s motives were honourable. He was trying to find meaning in the most meaningless times, the first of a new kind of desperate man who refuses to bow before the arrogance of existence and the tyranny of space-time. He believed that the most pointless acts could challenge the universe at its own game. Gould lost that game, and had to take his place with other misfits, the random killers of school playgrounds and library towers, who carried out atrocious crimes in their attempts to resanctify the world.

– J.G. Ballard

What we identified in the other has become for us the essential truth of our own dark subjectivities, trapped in the subtle fabrications of desire woven of complex strategies and mystifications of escape and autonomy we now realize that all we were doing was tightening the straps on the straightjacket of our own blind brains. Like the sons of the great apes before us we journeyed far from the paternal cave seeking a freedom from all authority, bound by the pack philosophies of our brothers merciless tears we forged new chains and contractual relations that bound us to invisible, immaterial powers and authorities founded on the absence of the very King we each and every one killed off long ago. Instead of the return of the repressed father as in Freud, or the Lacanian system that sustains itself through desire and law, we now have the power of the untrammeled id, the forces of terror below the threshold that seek not so much the Father’s place as they do to free us into the pure terror of our lives, to embrace  a real freedom in the wide open spaces of possibility, to think like psychopaths unencumbered by the logic of custom and habit, morality and convention. Affectless we wander among each others desires like machines in an endless assemblage of broken toys. Platitudes on inanity we seek a way out of our banal boredoms. Puppets of a calibrated artifact, a synthesis not so much of time, but of the fragmented and jettisoned times that fall between the spaces of Time. Cyclic wanderers of the Same we seek the difference that will make a difference.

In my secretary’s office that morning I had scanned the e-mail summaries of the papers. The confident claims for the new corporate psychology seemed to float above the world like a regatta of hot-air balloons, detached from the reality of modern death that the mourners at the west London crematorium had gathered to respect. The psychologists at the Adler were trying to defuse the conflicts of the workplace, but the threats from beyond the curtain-walling were ever more real and urgent. No one was safe from the motiveless psychopath who roamed the car parks and baggage carousels of our everyday lives. A vicious boredom ruled the world, for the first time in human history, interrupted by meaningless acts of violence.

– J.G. Ballard

Is this the final plunge into nihilism or something else? In Millenium People J.G. Ballard’s character Gould – the mastermind behind a bombing that killed the main character, David Markham’s, wife – sees the twentieth-century as nothing more than an insane asylum, a ‘a soft regime prison built by earlier generations of inmates’ from which ‘we have to break free’.3 Such is the wisdom of psychopathia, the floating calibrations of a liquid modernity, freed of the weight of its own finitude: “The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 was a brave attempt to free America from the 20th Century. The deaths were tragic, but otherwise it was a meaningless act.'(138)” The problem here is that this is no great reversal at all, instead of freeing us of the imprisoning chains of some mythical globalism we once again enter an age of terror, criminality, and nihilistic violence without limits. What Deleuze and Guattari saw as ‘a release from the father’s hold on the man’, of the ‘possibility of living beyond the father’s law, beyond all law’ is under this new regime a praxis for catastrophe and mayhem, a vision of a social dynamics of fragmentation and limitless bifurcation that at once delivers us into the hands of desiring subjectivation that has become collective rather than just the twisted tale of a singular madman.

There was a death to be avenged, video stores to be bombed, middle-class housewives in Barnes and Wimbledon to be jolted out of their servitude.

– J.G. Ballard

Is this illusionary? Are we truly bound within regimes of power that are determinate of our collective aspirations? Is mere freedom or emancipation just another word for entropy played out on such scales that we no longer see the forest for the trees? Are we truly powerless before these impersonal forces that even our explosive interventions can do little to disturb the flows and exchanges within the globalized networks of late capitalism’s power grid? Shall we conclude from this that, as Heidegger once related, the only true crime was “the second fall of man, the fall into banality”. After such failure what forgiveness?

‘It doesn’t matter. In fact, the ideal act of violence isn’t directed at anything.’

‘Pure nihilism?’

‘The exact opposite. This is where we’ve all been wrong— you, me, the Adler, liberal opinion. It isn’t a search for nothingness. It’s a search for meaning. Blow up the Stock Exchange and you’re rejecting global capitalism. Bomb the Ministry of Defence and you’re protesting against war. You don’t even need to hand out the leaflets. But a truly pointless act of violence, shooting at random into a crowd, grips our attention for months. The absence of rational motive carries a significance of its own.’

– J.G. Ballard

But beyond such fabrications and tidy plots of shame and guilt there could be seen something else, a strange new earth alien and free of us. What we were seeing with the eyes of the future rather than the past, was an archaeology of the double life, a schizoanalytic deterritorialization of the future in the present, a slipstream narration of fragmentation that implodes the entropic force of creation in a Godeleian knot that unravels all totalizations and presents us with an ungrounded space of possibilities. Is this not what Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia projects within its monstrous battleworld of ‘tellurian insurgency’?2 As Ben Woodard suggests: “The earth … does not require much labor to become a monster. The earth is a stratified globule, a festering confusion of internalities powered by a molten core and bombarded by an indifferent star.”2

‘There’s nowhere to go. The planet is full. You might as well stay at home and spend the money on chocolate fudge.’

– J.G. Ballard

Has the earth itself become a weapon in our struggle against empire? Are the new barbarians at the gate ourselves? Is it us who refuse to give up our illusions, our hold onto the glory of vein days, to take our precious literature, art, scholarship, etc. and throw it on the pyre? Are is this, too, illusion, a vein gesture of nihilistic despair, just one more banal gesture of a decadent worn out world weary even of its own banality? There comes a moment in Ballard’s Millennium People novel when David Markham surmises the truth hidden in the illusion:

They knew that the revolt in many ways was a meaningless terrorist act… Only by cutting short their exile and returning to the estate could they make it clear that their revolution was indeed meaningless, that the sacrifices were absurd and the gains negligible. A heroic failure redefined itself as a success. Chelsea Marina was the blueprint for the social protests of the future, for pointless armed uprisings and doomed revolutions, for unmotivated violence and senseless demonstrations. Violence, as Richard Gould once said, should always be gratuitous, and no serious revolution should ever achieve its aims.(286-287)

Is this our future? The pointless gestures of gratuitous acts of violence and meaningless failures in the face of global, economic, and climacteric collapse? Is there another way? An escape valve awaiting those dark souls that are wiling to sacrifice it all and enter the black hole of their own voidic lives and come out the other side with something else? Is there a positivity in all this darkness and chaos? As my friend Edmund over at Deterritorial Investigations Unit in a recent comment said, quoting Sloterdijk, said: “Sloterdijk says, that we need to allow ourselves to be “kidnapped by the hyper-complexities” of our historic moment. Dangerous thinking for dangerous times.”

But I was thinking of another time, a brief period … of real promise, when a young paediatrician persuaded the residents to create a unique republic, a city without street signs, laws without penalties, events without significance, a sun without shadows.

– J.G. Ballard

The hyperrich and arrogant masters of the Financial Districts of our Hollywood stage-reality live like Kings without a kingdom. State and Commerce are all hooked into an economic joy ride, a surfing machine of virtual waves within which an accelerating future of endless possibilities, robber-barons of a techno-babylonian civilization stripping the resources earth like the final striptease of a bleeding whore. These Dark Sith seem to thrive on some infinite optimism, wherein the encrusted jewel-like City States swell across our planetary wasteland offering neither solace nor escape, but harbor the psychopathic nightmares of the rich. Living in their gated hives of Disneylandia they quibble over the electronic dataflows of a dark enlightenment all the while embellishing their bone nights with the human detritus of slaveborn denizens who below the gated walls to live in slumrot cesspools that even the rats of the world find less than appealing. Maybe what we really need is a renewal of the bleak and sobering vision of our own human finitude and its limited possibilities. As Ben Woodard remarks at the close of his pessimistic swan song for earth:

We must cultivate a search for a new earth that ends in repeated failure, but in a sense that does not re-transcendentalize the original earth. Where the distress call leads to dead and empty vessels, where signs of life turn out to be no more than deadly microbes. A tale that ends only in the gradual thinning of the self-conscious biomass called humanity.( ibid. 95)

But is this the end? Should we fall into gloom and die? Should we allow a bleak and terrible pessimism to rule our dark days? Are could we find in the darkness a new light? Find a way forward that would allow us to reinvent ourselves and our very existence on this planet? At the end of another grand master of the narrative of our end times, or beginnings, Haruki Murakami, through his character Aomame, says:

I still don’t know what sort of world this is, she thought. But whatever world we’re in now, I’m sure this is where I will stay. Where we will stay. This world must have its own threats, its own dangers, must be filled with its own type of riddles and contradictions. We may have to travel down many dark paths, leading who knows where. But that’s okay. It’s not a problem. I’ll just have to accept it. I’m not going anywhere. Come what may, this is where we’ll remain, in this world with one moon. The three of us— Tengo and me, and the little one.3

In the end all we have is each other and a dream of Hope… is that enough?

But the root of history is the working, creating human being who reshapes and overhauls the given facts. Once he has grasped himself and established what is his, without expropriation and alienation, in real democracy, there arises in the world something which shines into the childhood of all and in which no one has yet been: homeland.

– Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope

1. Henri Lefebvre. State, Space, World: Selected Essays
2. Ben Woodard. On an Ungrounded Earth: Toward a New Geophilosophy. (punctum books 2013).
3. Ballard, J. G. G. (2012-04-09). Millennium People: A Novel. Norton.
4. Murakami, Haruki (2011-10-25). 1Q84 (p. 925). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

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