Super Cannes – JG Ballard

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.

Applied Ballardianism – Simon Sellars

What an incredible read this is – like a drug-addled romp through critical theory, cultural theory, memoir, fiction all haunted by the continual presence of JG Ballard’s indictment of our hypercapitalist era as an already-present dystopia.
It seems to be the memoir of the actual book’s author, Sellars, detailing his descent from a young PhD student studying Ballard, to someone clinging onto reality as he takes Ballard’s call to action more and more seriously, trying to go beyond the madness of motorways and malls to push and push until he can feel something.
He gets a gig as a travel writer, travelling around distant islands before moving back to Australia and hooking up with various fellow travellers to explore alternate worlds, edgelands, motorway networks, surveillance and all the hallmarks of Ballard’s take on the modern city.
Like the characters in Ballard’s Crash or Cocaine Nights or High Rise, he seems to have realised that everything is possible today, and so novelty and originality require people to embrace violence. On the other hand he is also on the edge of becoming – or wanting to become – like the main figure in Concrete Island, someone who becomes trapped in a space in a motorway network and retreats entirely from the modern world.
The book is part of a series from the publisher called ‘adventures in theory-fiction’. And as you read on the author / protagonist gets more and more embroiled in ludicrous and often horrific scenarios to the point that you are wondering if this is true or not, whether this is a memoir or a piece of fiction. But actually that’s the Ballardian point – what’s real and what’s not breaks down in this world of CCTV and clones and machines. 
It’s like Marshland by Gareth E Rees, where the stories meld biography and fantasy and you don’t know which is which. Ballard would delight in that. Sellars’s world is messy, funny, violent, haunted by ghosts from different dimensions, and most of all packed with Ballardian insights into our world now, where nothing is real yet everything is real.

Why are dystopian films so popular?

From The Road to Hunger Games to the Batman franchise, dystopian films are often the biggest movie blockbusters. I guess I’ve always thought their popularity lies in what they tell us about our world.
I’ve just watched Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Talking about a similar theme, he explains why this is the case. Zizek draws on the critical theorist Walter Benjamin who says that we don’t perceive what is going on in the world, our place in history, until we see bits of our world that are crumbling or falling into ruin.
That’s precisely what dystopian films do – they show the ruins of our world, overtaken by environmental catastrophe or hyper-capitalism or authoritarianism. There remain the fragments, remnants of our world, which allow us to see what we’re doing and where we’re headed – an insight that really helps explain the popularity of dystopian movies and fiction.

Both tried to gain authority over their audiences by a two-stage rhetorical process – first, professing their own weakness and thus identifying with the weak recipients of that message; second, stressing their status as one of the chosen few whom their listeners could join if they would only submit to their authority. To be a successful Fuhrer or charismatic radio preacher, Adorno argued, one be what he called the ‘great little man’.

Stuart Jeffries on Theodor Adorno, in Grand Hotel Abyss

Can’t see that approach at work anywhere at all now. Nope, not anywhere.

 

On Cosmopolitanism – Jacques Derrida

Reading Derrida’s essay on cosmopolitanism, hospitality and the treatment of refugees what is most striking is how the mood on immigration has shifted so dramatically since it was written in 1997.

During the 1990s the ideas of cosmopolitanism and global human rights were relatively high on the agenda. In this context, Derrida argues in On Cosmopolitanism that when you deconstruct the concept of cosmopolitanism and how states should respond to claims for asylum or protection by refugees, it is divided between two poles.

On the one hand is a universalist normative ideal of hospitality which says everyone should be given refuge, regardless. On the other is the pragmatic consideration of the economic impact of accepting unlimited refugees. The principle is one of openness, of borderless-ness; the pragmatism is around what is financially possible. How these are negotiated, where the line is drawn, is the stuff of politics.

Derrida is aware in the essay, of course, that cosmopolitanism is not the only force driving nation states, and points to France as an example of a country that wants to be seen and understand itself as offering hospitality to exiles, refugees and migrants but also had started to crack down on migrants in order to control them. He refers to an ideal of ‘cities of refuge’ or ‘free cities’ as possible alternatives to state power, where we might see individual cities (he cites Strasbourg) offering hospitality to refugees regardless and despite what the state does.

Where we are today is light years from here – not just from these ideals but even the hopefulness that would allow someone like to Derrida to write this essay. The idea that the treatment of refugees comes from a negotiation between the universal of hospitality and the particular of what is possible seems almost impossibly utopian. Arguably, today the negotiation is wholly more negative.

On the one hand is the pragmatic need for a country like France to absorb migrants in order to ensure that the economy is viable. And on the other is the normative idea that there is an established nation with a people, an identity and a set of values that needs to be preserved. Debates about burkinis in France, Polish plumbers in the UK and Syrian refugees in Italy are all about borders and identity, with the concept of hospitality at best a marginal sentiment. Right wing populism, nationalism and borders are common currency now.

In typical Derrida fashion, On Cosmopolitanism is dense and at times obscure but ultimately sheds light – in this case on what was at stake when we were talking about ideals of cosmopolitanism.  But more than anything it makes you realise that question being asked in parliaments and city halls around the world is no longer, given we have an obligation to provide hospitality how many migrants can we practically take but, given we need migrants to power the economy how many can we take without diluting out national identity.

It makes you realise, put more simply, that our thinking on citizenship and immigration has taken a turn for the worse.

Slavoj Zizek – Event

Event

Read June 2014

Slavoj Zizek’s short guide to the concept of the ‘event’ is his usual whistle stop tour of philosophy, psychoanalysis and pop culture. I studied for a PhD in critical / social theory and I struggled to understand a lot of it! He has an incredible ability to explain Lacanian theory, although he assumes too much understanding of the original concepts and, as always, fails to put ideas into their intellectual context. He tends to pluck them out of nowhere and use them to explain a particular phenomenon before tossing them away and grabbing another. But I love Zizek.

You come out of this book with a least three things. First, your imagination and critical faculties are sparked by a host of counter- counter- counter-intuitive ideas about society, politics and culture. It’s what Zizek does best. Second, you get a thorough understanding of the concept of the event. Not a definition as such (little in Zizek can be definitively defined) but you understand that an event is something occurring which transforms the frame through which both the present and the past is viewed. An event colours everything. Third, you get some brilliant concepts and ideas that can be applied to understand the things going on underneath the surface, the ‘unknown knowns’, as he puts it.

Here’s a classic Zizek-ism (pp148-9):

We all know the classic scene in cartoons: the cat reaches a precipice but goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet; it starts to fall only when it looks down and notices the abyss. When a political regime, say, loses its authority, it is like the cat above the precipice: in order to fall, it only has to be reminded to look down.