Daily Archives: May 22nd, 2009

Post on J. G. Ballard at Pinocchio Theory

As usual, Steven Shaviro has an excellent post, this time on J. G. Ballard at Pinocchio Theory.

Here is my response to Steven:

Shaviro has written a wonderful tribute to Ballard, whose recent work I was so pleased to discover a few years back. Super-Cannes and Millennium People led me back to Empire of the Sun, where the elementary principle of Ballard’s art is laid out. Ballard delivers in Empire of the Sun a narrative that to my mind fulfills in a peculiarly vivid way the postcolonial fantasy of turning the First World subject into a Third World subject, knocking the white male subject off his perch of privilege and forcing him to grub for crumbs among the dregs of the social hierarchy. The fact that he uses a young boy as his protagonist, and that he filters the experience of wartime internment through his estranging perspective, enables him to plumb the depths that Conrad only points to in a superficial manner in Heart of Darkness. Empire of the Sun is one of the most unnerving books I’ve ever read, because it shows how easy it is for young Jim to become acclimatized to inhuman conditions, a disturbing truth that is too often suppressed in a culture that commodifies moral indignation, in which mass suffering has become a token of instant authenticity.

While Ballard’s fiction does bring out and develop in more concrete ways the theoretical work of the people you mention, the thinker who is probably closest to him is in my view Philip Rieff, better known as Susan Sontag’s ex-husband. Rieff’s work focuses on the idea that contemporary culture has become wholly governed by therapeutic principles – not even religion escapes their grasp. Rieff like Ballard comes to the conclusion that a society organized around the desire for psychological comfort will descend into brutality and violence once mere escapism proves unsatisfying: a true Ballardian scheme if there ever was one.