“The stores became more eccentric as you went in. There was a shop that sold soap shaped like celebrity torsos, a mapmaker peddling joke globes and plots of cities that didn’t exist, one that sold defective merchandise, and another that offered only models or reproductions of other commodities.”Eric Lundgren, The Facades
A gripping and – of course – disturbing mystery, Ballard’s analysis of corporate capitalism shows us that some desires always need excluding or repressing to create an apparently perfect order.
Paul Sinclair is travelling to live for six months in Eden Olympia, an executive business park outside Cannes where multinationals are relocating, bringing their top executives to work and live in a gated and guarded community where everything they could ever need is provided.
He is travelling with his young wife, Jane, who has a six month contract as a doctor after the previous one, David Greenwood, apparently went off the rails in a mass shooting at Eden Olympia.
It doesn’t take long for things to unravel. Eden Olympia it turns out is the brain child of psychologist Penrose who recognises that business people can work productively in this environment, where work is all, but that all the monotony of this world needs an outlet. So he organises outings into Cannes for these managers to go out and beat up immigrants and attack prostitutes, all in the name of corporate success. Everyone in the complex is involved, but nobody speaks of it.
Gradually Paul, who is an outsider in many ways, becomes obsessed with why Greenwood – an apparently kind and gentle doctor – went crazy. He talks and is used by various people, the head of security, Penrose an Frances Baring who he has a relationship with.
Jane meanwhile is fully incorporated into Eden Olympia, she self-medicates and engages in strange and dangerous sexual relationships with some of the most powerful people in Eden Olympia.
It’s a good Ballard novel, not always a pleasure to read, but interesting, full of insight and ideas, and often surprising – though it bears a strong resemblance to Cocain Nights.
More than anything, and most effectively, it entertainingly explores the psychoanalytic insight of displacement. That when something is foreclosed desire will emerge in unruly and uncontrollable ways. At Eden Olympia the lives of the executives are thoroughly smoothed out – their lives are busy and fulfilled with work, their homes are beautiful, nothing outside of the complex’s control impinges on their lives. They are even developing a way to predict health problems so they are addressed before they happen.
But Penrose knows that this level of order can’t be maintained – people need disorder and rage and despair in their lives, and so he engineers for this to happen outside of their utopia, so the executives can expunge their base desires and maintain their order.
Politically, Super Cannes is similar to the theoretical writings of the likes of Chantal Mouffe, who argues the perfect ordered society is impossible – there will always be radical differences that cannot be assimilated and need to excluded or oppressed. What Penrose is doing is creating a gated utopia where the unruliness is allowed to be manifest outside to maintain order inside.
“The city makes a thousand simultaneous promises. Choose everything. Enjoy it whenever and wherever you like. It is no longer necessary to choose a particular thing and forgo what was not chosen. Save while you spend without regrets. Lose weight whilst eating. Choose your custom trip today.”
– Antonio Munoz Molina, Office of Lost Moments, in Granta magazine, 149
State of Insecurity is a theory heavy but often thought provoking book on contemporary capitalism and the nature of work.
Her basic argument is that precariousness – financial and existential insecurity – is part of modern capitalism and reinforced by government policy around welfare and pensions. It’s not just migrant workers and younger generations that are in a state of precarious work; everyone in and out of work have insecure and precarious coditions now that short term contracts, temping, zero hours, portfolio careers, a contracting state and the like have become the norm.
Drawing on Foucault’s idea of ‘governmentality’ she suggest this isn’t simply imposed on people from external forces (the state, businesses etc) but that people govern their own behaviour and conduct in light of this precariousness. Hence in a workplace, solidarity – if it ever existed – has been replaced by people developing their reputation and personal brand so as to compete with others for promotions in insecure jobs. The cultivation of this way of conducting yourself in public, where you are always in some ways working, is even stronger amongst freelancers, whether they chose the freelance option or not. For them, the division between work and leisure breaks down.
Finally, though, she sees – again following Foucault, this time his idea that power always creates resistance – that precariousness is not all bad: it creates problems but also the possibility of alternatives. She draws attention to movements of precarious workers who are identifying what they have in common and creating networks and movements to support themselves.
The book is big on theory and light on practice, which makes it an insightful analysis of the current situation for those with a good grasp of social theory, but doesn’t really provide the examples needed to bring things alive and help us understand what’s at stake and what different forms of resistance we might see.