J.G. Ballard: Sleeplessness and Chronotopia


For the first time Man will be living a full twenty-four hour day, not spending a third of it as an invalid, snoring his way through an eight-hour peepshow of infantile erotica.

– J.G. Ballard – Manhole 69

In  J.G. Ballard’s short story Manhole 69 we discover a world where humans no longer sleep and the future is set adrift upon the currents of time. As one of the scientists says to a group of test subjects:

‘None of you realize it yet, but this is as big an advance as the step the first ichthyoid took out of the protozoic sea 300 million years ago. At last we’ve freed the mind, raised it out of that archaic sump called sleep, its nightly retreat into the medulla. With virtually one cut of the scalpel we’ve added twenty years to those men’s lives.’ (Ballard, p. 51)

When we think of Sleep we think of peace, silence, and the interminable flows of strange dreams and nightmares that jut their heads out of the darkness of our inner lives. Sleep’s porousness is suffused with in-flows between waking and death, a nightland where our darkest thoughts begin to shadow us and we succumb to the drift of a timeless inner mythology as if from some infernal paradise. Sleep is the recurrence in our lives of a break in the temporal flow of our timebound  consciousness. It affirms the necessity of postponement, and the deferred retrieval or recommencement of whatever has been postponed. Sleep is a remission, a release from the “constant continuity” of all the threads in which one is enmeshed while waking. It seems too obvious to state that sleep requires periodic disengagement and withdrawal from networks and devices in order to enter a state of inactivity and uselessness. It is a form of time that leads us elsewhere than to the things we own or are told we need. Sleep is the dream of a non-utilitarian world, a world without labor.2

So when Ballard portrays a world beyond sleep, of endless light and work, he is satirizing the core motif of our hypercapitalism of 24/7 non-stop speed: non-stop production – otherwise known as interminable work (or as in Weber’s notion of the Protestant work ethic unbound). In defense of this 24/7 world of sleeplessness Neill, one of Morley’s protégé’s will say: “For the first time Man will be living a full twenty-four hour day, not spending a third of it as an invalid, snoring his way through an eight-hour peepshow of infantile erotica.” (Ballard, p. 51) Morley will remind him of the short story by Chekov of a young man who bet his life-in-total isolation and sense-deprivation to win a million rubles. At one minute before he is to emerge and win the bet suddenly steps out of the cage: and, as Morley says: “He was totally insane!” Neill for his part will chortle, saying:‘I suppose you’re trying to say that sleep is some sort of communal activity and that these three men are now isolated, exiled from the group unconscious, the dark oceanic dream. Is that it?’ (Ballard, p. 52) Finally, in exasperation Morley will throw up his hands and shout at Neill:

They’re never going to be able to get away, not even for a couple of minutes, let alone eight hours. How much of yourself can you stand? Maybe you need eight hours off a day just to get over the shock of being yourself. (Ballard, p. 52)

One of the participants or victims of the experiment Lang will the next day speak up, speaking to Morley:

Lang gestured expansively. ‘I mean up the evolutionary slope. Three hundred million years ago we became air-breathers and left the seas behind. Now we’ve taken the next logical step forward and eliminated sleep. What’s next?’

Morley shook his head. ‘The two steps aren’t analogous. Anyway, in point of fact you haven’t left the primeval sea behind. You’re still carrying a private replica of it around as your bloodstream. All you did was encapsulate a necessary piece of the physical environment in order to escape it.’ (Ballard, p. 58)

This notion of encapsulation of a “necessary piece of the physical environment in order to escape it” has been central to many self-organizing forces in the world and universe. Boot-strapping processes or recursion is that ability to insert the loop of thought, self, process into its own circle of self-organization. A sort of time-spiral of progression in which things continually spawn ever greater change within their own systems. Complexity unbound. One of the central motifs of complexity theory, non-linear dynamics, and chaos theory in connection to the life sciences is this very ability of non-organic matter to display through these very processes the thing we term life. Some believe that this very notion of self-organizing complexity is not bound to humans only, but will in fact at some point in the ‘future’ be productive of machinic-life, too.

As the story goes on we see the men slowly devolve into insanity, their minds slowly losing all sense of time and space. Slowly they begin to feel a certain amount of closure of the world upon them till in the last instance each of them feels that they haven been shut up in a small manhole from which there is no escape. Neill and Morley will find them the next morning sitting in the gymnasium blank and unresponsive. They will try many things to bring the subjects back out of their psychosis. Speaking among themselves they surmise:

‘This room in which the man is penned for ten years symbolizes the mind driven to the furthest limits of self-awareness . . . Something very similar happened to Avery, Gorrell and Lang. They must have reached a stage beyond which they could no longer contain the idea of their own identity. But far from being unable to grasp the idea, I’d say that they were conscious of nothing else. Like the man in the spherical mirror, who can only see a single gigantic eye staring back at him.’ ‘So you think their withdrawal is a straightforward escape from the eye, the overwhelming ego?’ ‘Not escape,’ Neill corrected. ‘The psychotic never escapes from anything. He’s much more sensible. He merely readjusts reality to suit himself. Quite a trick to learn, too. The room in Chekov’s story gives me an idea as to how they might have re-adjusted. Their particular equivalent of this room was the gym. I’m beginning to realize it was a mistake to put them in there – all those lights blazing down, the huge floor, high walls. They merely exaggerate the sensation of overload. In fact the gym might easily have become an external projection of their own egos.’ Neill drummed his fingers on the desk. ‘My guess is that at this moment they’re either striding around in there the size of hundred-foot giants, or else they’ve cut it down to their own dimensions. More probably that. They’ve just pulled the gym in on themselves.’ (Ballard, p. 66)

This notion of psychotic closure and breakdown as a response to sleeplessness has been described in many journals of psychiatry, etc. In one recent article the researchers discovered:

Recent research suggests that each day with insufficient sleep increases our sleep debt and, when this sleep debt becomes large enough, noticeable problems appear (Coren, 1996a). These sleep-debt-related problems are most predictable at certain times of the day. This is because the efficiency of our physical and mental functions show cyclic increases and decreases in the form of circadian rhythms. While our major sleep/wakefulness rhythm has a cycle length of roughly 24 hours, there are shorter cycles as well, with the most important of these being a secondary sleep/wakefulness cycle that is around 12 hours. – See Sleep Deprivation, Psychosis and Mental Efficiency

This notion of circadian rhythms is related to our perception of time: day/night, etc. Humans, like most living organisms, have biological rhythms, known as circadian rhythms (“body clocks”), which are controlled by a biological clock and work on a daily time scale. These affect body temperature, alertness, appetite, hormone secretion etc. as well as sleep timing. Due to the circadian clock, sleepiness does not continuously increase as time passes. A person’s desire and ability to fall asleep is influenced by both the length of time since the person woke from an adequate sleep, and by internal circadian rhythms. Thus, the body is ready for sleep and for wakefulness at different times of the day. (see Circadian rhythm sleep disorder)

Chronobiology studies the affects of temporality upon living organisms. It is a field of biology that examines periodic (cyclic) phenomena in living organisms and their adaptation to solar- and lunar-related rhythms. These cycles are known as biological rhythms. Chronobiology comes from the ancient Greek χρόνος (chrónos, meaning “time”), and biology, which pertains to the study, or science, of life. The related terms chronomics and chronome have been used in some cases to describe either the molecular mechanisms involved in chronobiological phenomena or the more quantitative aspects of chronobiology, particularly where comparison of cycles between organisms is required. (see Chronobiology)

In an earlier novel The Drowned World a biologist named Bodkin tells his colleague Kerans of this process of reversion-recursion:

‘Not in our minds, Robert. These are the oldest memories on Earth, the time-codes carried in every chromosome and gene. Every step we’ve taken in our evolution is a milestone inscribed with organic memories— from the enzymes controlling the carbon dioxide cycle to the organization of the brachial plexus and the nerve pathways of the Pyramid cells in the mid-brain, each is a record of a thousand decisions taken in the face of a sudden physico-chemical crisis. Just as psychoanalysis reconstructs the original traumatic situation in order to release the repressed material, so we are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs. The brief span of an individual life is misleading. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. The uterine odyssey of the growing foetus recapitulates the entire evolutionary past, and its central nervous system is a coded time scale, each nexus of neurones and each spinal level marking a symbolic station, a unit of neuronic time. (Ballard, J. G.. The Drowned World: A Novel (p. 56). Norton. Kindle Edition.)

For Ballard the fascination of Time has always been hooked to the rhythms of some primordial tension at the heart of the human evolutionary process. This notion of the archaeopsychic past jutting up in our nightly dreams, and of this fusion of night and day in an endless sleepnessness releasing the Triassic zones of intermittence from its reptilian lairs in our early brain stem gives rise to a world in which our nightmares not only become real, they are the very core of our inhuman being.

Bodkin’s continues:

 ‘If you like, you could call this the Psychology of Total Equivalents— let’s say “Neuronics” for short— and dismiss it as metabiological fantasy. However, I am convinced that as we move back through geophysical time so we re-enter the amnionic corridor and move back through spinal and archaeopsychic time, recollecting in our unconscious minds the landscapes of each epoch, each with a distinct geological terrain, its own unique flora and fauna, as recognisable to anyone else as they would be to a traveller in a Wellsian time machine. Except that this is no scenic railway, but a total reorientation of the personality. If we let these buried phantoms master us as they re-appear we’ll be swept back helplessly in the flood-tide like pieces of flotsam.’ (ibid., p. 57)

In a previous post on Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep I spoke of Ballard’s notion of the fugue state as a form of space sickness:

At first touching only a small minority of the population, it took root like a lingering disease in the interstices of its victims’ lives, in the slightest changes of habit and behaviour. Invariably there was the same reluctance to go out of doors, the abandonment of job, family and friends, a dislike of daylight, a gradual loss of weight and retreat into a hibernating self.(Ballard, 1064)

Crary will see in our inability to envision the future a form of this space sickness, an inversion of the original Enlightenment project of progress that has instead begun to fill in the gaps of the future with pure simulations: this means in our contemporary world: the relentless capture and control of time and experience (Crary, 40) is the new project, the financialization of experience is the closure of the future within a command and control simulator that seeks algorithms of speed rather than acceleration and evolution in the usual sense of that term. Instead of self-organizing processes that lead to invention, design, art, and play we see the involuted dis-organizing principles of a static state-machine revolving in its own empty systems of hypersignification. The Reality Engineers of our new economics have taken over the place of religious prophets of ages past and now dictate the future as a financial project that only they as the truth mouthpiece of the invisible hand of the Market Gods know or understand. The new Economics of Reality is the closure of the loopholes in time, the exclusion of growth and the evolving systems of life for those of death and the interminable dance of a void that seeks only to overcome the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

We know that before the establishment of the Second Law, many people who were interested in inventing a perpetual motion machine had tried to circumvent the restrictions of First Law of Thermodynamics by extracting the massive internal energy of the environment as the power of the machine. Such a machine is called a “perpetual motion machine of the second kind”. The second law declared the impossibility of such machines. Yet, we see out Oracles of the New Economics of Globalization seeking just that: the power of a “perpetual motion machine” in which the InfoSphere as an data energy system changes the game. What they seek is to escape the “arrow of time” and entropy, to install a machinic pylum that will feed off the very thing it seeks to escape: the Future. The Future is a debt system, a way of pushing the debt indefinitely beyond out present moment. One could say that the new cosmopolitan centers of financial capitalism in the global context are Time Machines to stave off the ever accelerating truth of entropy. Chrontopias that seek to push the entropic affects into the far future through a veritable speeding up of the hypermediation of technology.

Most of these ideas are not new. One can see the notional truth of this scattered among various thinkers from Plato and Aristotle onward. Yet, it was only in the age of modern physics that these ideas could take on a more distinctive hue, enable thinkers in various worlds of physcis, economics, sociology, philosophy, and the sciences of complexity, non-linear dynamics, and chaos theory, etc. that a new enframing of the world became apparent. As Maurizio Lazzarato has shown in his The Making of the Indebted Man we live in a vacuum world that creates its illusion of timelessness on the backs of blackmail. Debt itself has become the new commodity, and the humans that support this death machine create a future that is always just out of reach because if the payment of the bill ever stepped out of the future into our present moment everything would collapse. So debt becomes the engine against entropy in a financial system that fears both the future and the payment it entails. One thinks of those sleep researches that discovered in their findings that as insufficient sleep increases our sleep debt noticeable problems appear. One can only begin to understand the problems appearing in a sleepless world of zombie consumerism as austerity measures and the insurmountable debt against the Future piles up, and the humans in various countries supporting such a Time-Machine begin to close down in their own manholes. How will the psychotic break that is to come discover its way out of the dark rooms of its own sleepless mind?

Ballard in many stories will study the effects of temporality from various perspectives. Ballard will in one of his interviews speak of the sense that Time is ending, not in the sense of an apocalypse but rather our very inner sense of time as change and movement:

Sections of the landscape will have no connection whatsoever with each other, in the way that many arts, such as pottery or ceramics have no connection to the events of politics or social eruptions.(Extreme Metaphors, p. 163)3

He will tell the interviewer that people no longer share a sense of a ‘central experience’: not “in the way people from the thirties can speak of a shared feeling of everyone being involved in great political currents, when you could see change coming and everybody shared in it equally” (EM, p. 163)

“Time will in a sense cease to exist; it won’t matter whether you’re living in 1982 or 1992 or 2002 – that sense of a single world will go. – (EM, p. 164)

Are we not living in that bleak landscape of timelessness in which the future has stopped, a speed world of accelerating electronic hypermedia in which the closure of time has encapsulated us within an irreal, anti-realist realm of simulated indifference rather than brought us to a point of emergent newness? Franco “Bifo” Berardi will document this Age of Apathy and disengagement, the slow corrosion of time and its closure within the speed factories of financial globalization:

During the twentieth-century social struggle could change things in a collective and conscious way because industrial workers could maintain solidarity and unity in daily life, and so could fight and win. Autonomy was the condition of victory because autonomy means the ability to create social solidarity in daily life, and the ability to self-organize outside the rules of labor and exploitation.4

He will see the new ICT technologies of information and communication as the key to this accelerating disaffection, saying, the “InfoSphere has dramatically changed and accelerated, and this is jeopardizing the very possibility of communication, empathy, and solidarity.” (Berardi, p. 14)

The Philosopher of Information Luciano Floridi will explore this notion of the accelerating InfoSphere suggesting that it denotes the whole informational environment constituted by all informational entities (thus including information agents as well), their properties, interactions, processes, and mutual relations. It is an environment comparable to, but different from, cyberspace, which is only one of its sub-regions, as it were, since it also includes offline and analogue spaces of information. Maximally, it is a concept that, given an informational ontology, can also be used as synonymous with reality, or Being.5

So the notion that financial capitalism and globalization are a project to stop time and the temporal movement of the future through speed techniques of hypermedia, an inversion of temporal evolution and progress – replacing a notion of a self-organizing evolving economy and political world of human solidarity with a timeless ultraconsumer society of zombies feeding off the remaining resources and each other for the profit and pleasure of a specific elite and cosmopolitan class of wealth is at the heart of this diagnosis.

Ballard himself in his last three novels began to explore this devolving world of the new wealthy elite and its global shutdown of the future. The voyeuristic zombification of the wealthy as vampiric and apathetic consumers of a rotting pleasure-pain criminality is at the heart of Cocaine Nights, Millennium People, and Super-Cannes. I have barely touched the surface of J.G. Ballard’s prescient diagnosis and fictionalization of our current malaise. At the center of it is a dark vision of Time in its various temporal stabilizations/destabilizations, its synchronic/diachronic time-loops and bootstrapping fallbacks, its deterretorializations/reterretorializations, and decodings/recodings of what Nick Land once suggested as its Templexity. If as Nick Land suggests cities of the global financial system, the cosmopolitan home of the great corporate networks and their affiliates, the playlands of the corporate and political elite are becoming Time-Machines, then what of the excluded realms where most humans will exist in misery and suffering be  beyond the glitz and glitter of these paradisial enclaves?

1. Ballard, J. G. (2012-06-01). The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard (p. 51). Norton. Kindle Edition.
2. Crary, Jonathan (2013-06-04). 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (p. 126). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
3. Extreme Metaphors. J. G. Ballard Collected Interviews Editors, Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (Fourth Estate 2014)
4. Franco “Bifo” Berardi. After the Future. ( AK Press, 2011)
5. Floridi, Luciano (2013-10-10). The Ethics of Information (p. 6). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

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