Monthly Archives: October, 2011

The Only Revolutionaries are Bourgeois: J. G. Ballard’s Millennium People

Nuclear terrorism, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, cyberwarfare, and the depletion of resources necessary for running the industrial economy – for J. G. Ballard, missing from this list of the disasters most feared in the present would be the calamity in which there is no disaster.  Millennium People, his novel of 2003, gives us a glimpse into the kind of social problems that would prevail in an affluent, high tech society that had reached the point where it had little to fear from external dangers and could take for granted its continued prosperity.  That human beings might be fundamentally unsuited for such a pacific existence finds support from history as well as evolutionary biology: it is only in the late twentieth century that human beings, at least in the industrialized world, had within their grasp a way of life in which there was no need to struggle for necessities – one needed only to struggle for luxuries, and even then struggle was not always requisite either.  One could also describe this situation as an impasse in which a species long inured to contending with a hostile environment and unrelenting competition from rivals, finds itself at last without any natural enemies.  If human beings only truly take notice of and value what they perceive can be taken away from them, in other words, those things they understand to be under some kind of threat, what happens to their concerns and cares if all significant threats have become swept into the dustbin of history?  The easiest and most immediate answer would be to invent new threats, and thereby bring about one’s servitude to new forms of necessity.  For we do not find intensely meaningful those things that we create or choose, but rather those things to which we find ourselves forced to submit.

The protagonist of Millennium People, the psychiatrist David Markham, is drawn into the sects and rituals of weekend activism after a bomb on a baggage carousal at Heathrow Airport takes the life of his ex-wife Laura.  The fact that he is a psychiatrist supplies a productive point of entry for examining the desires and anxieties of the highly educated professionals who dedicate their spare time to protesting an enormous range of causes: calling for the removal of nuclear waste stations, attacking travel agencies, and defending badger dens from development.  Convinced that the culprit behind the bombing spun out from one of the more deranged orbits within these protest movements, Markham goes undercover at various demonstrations in and around London in the hopes of uncovering clues that would lead him to the Heathrow bombing.  For Markham, the weekend demonstrations are far more than political events, rather, their essence can only be described as religious: “Protest movements, sane and insane, sensible and absurd, touched almost every aspect of life in London, a vast web of demonstrations that tapped a desperate need for a more meaningful world. . . At times, as I joined a demonstration against animal experiments or Third-World debt, I sensed that a primitive religion was being born, a faith in search of a god to worship” (pp. 37-38).

What does Markham mean by a “more meaningful world”?  The world of which Markham speaks is not the narrow and familiar world of pleasures and fears in which we are locked by our own preferences.  Instead, one enters it by means an encounter with otherness that is both painful and pleasurable, painful because it reveals to us the limited nature of own knowledge and experience, and pleasurable because it fills us with new and unfamiliar sensations, which are richer and more potent than ordinary freedom and mundane happiness.  A “more meaningful world” is by definition beyond one’s grasp, as a middle class, law-abiding individual.  One needs contact with someone or something more intelligent, more impulsive, more insane, more dangerous, or otherwise less scrupulous than oneself in order to gain access to it.  We may note that in premodern times, such a role was typically fulfilled, for better and for worse, by the Church.  We may note as well that the fascination exerted by the criminal, the cult leader, and the tyrant arises from their promise to transport us to regions where we would, on our own, never seek to venture.  The enduring popularity of the film Fight Club can be attributed to how it depicts, without quite laying bare, the charismatic appeal of the leader who offers his followers psychic rejuvenation through acts of physical violence and wanton destruction.

As in Fight Club, the protagonist falls in with a group of militants dedicated to committing acts of destruction to shake middle class society out of its spiritual torpor.  But unlike in Fight Club, these gallant activists are longer in the tooth, paunchier, and more grey-haired, making Millennium People refreshingly free of the youthful glamour that absolves all mischief for Hollywood audiences.  They are also portrayed with a biting humor, not least when they are most hell-bent on spreading mayhem.  The most forceful personality in the group belongs to a film studies lecturer named Kay Churchill, who has been suspended from her academic post for giving her students the assignment to shoot a pornographic film.  Her reasoning: “I thought they needed a day trip to reality.  There’s too much jargon around – ‘voyeurism and the male gaze,’ ‘castration anxieties.’  Marxist theory-speak swallowing its own tail. . . Fucking is what they do in their spare time, so why not look at it through a camera lens?  They wouldn’t learn much about sex, but they’d learn a lot about film” (p. 53).  Kay is a force of nature whose outbursts of righteous indignation are charged with an irresistible sexual allure, enabling her to become the telegenic center of attention for both police and protesters.  Markham becomes her lover knowing full well that once the affair ends, she will miss him for ten minutes and take up the “game of emotional snakes and ladders” leading to her bedroom with the next lodger in her house (p. 212-213).  But the psychiatrist also comes across Kay holding a photograph to her chest with tears in eyes – it is a snapshot of her daughter, who moved away to Australia with her father after he was awarded custody over the girl.  “Only the deepest obsession could assuage that kind of sadness,” reflects Markham.

Dust covers Kay’s coffee table and writing desk like “an ectoplasmic presence, a parallel world with its own memories and regrets” (p. 50).  Ballard is not poking fun in this instance at the slovenly habits of a middle-aged single professional woman.  Rather, the fact that Kay does not keep these wooden surfaces bright and shiny is a sign of Ballard’s identification with her.  For a steady source of irritation for Ballard, a single father of three, was how female journalists, whenever they showed up at his modest suburban home to interview him, would without fail note the clumps of dust accumulating in the hallways and over the furniture.  One wonders whether Ballard wishes for Kay’s outlandishness to be more seductive and intoxicating than the extremity of his own vision.  Trying to recruit Markham to their subversive activities, she rails against the spiritual oppression of the middle class in Britain, who are enslaved by their educations, sense of responsibility, and adherence to the law.  When the skeptical Markham asks rhetorically, “like the poor in a Glasgow tenement?” Kay replies without skipping a beat and without a trace of irony, “Exactly.”

But Kay is anything but a humorless scold who wants to announce to one and all the deep personal sacrifices she is making to combat the injustices of the world.  Rather, the operations she undertakes with her group have an air of devilish playfulness, with a lightness of touch that is largely missing in Fight Club.  Pretending to be carrying out a lifestyle survey, Kay asks a housewife if she is in favor of wife swapping, and then steers the conversation towards the legalization of bestiality, after getting the exurbanite to state that she is in favor of consensual sex.  Another interviewee, a female doctor, is asked how often she cleans her toilet.  Kay then suggests that she have her family bathe less often, on the grounds that “natural body odours are an important means of communication, especially within families” and would give her time to “adopt a freer lifestyle” (p. 88).  Kay declares that she and her group seek to root out the beliefs and practices that serve to put the middle class in the straitjacket of proper behavior, the social codes that dictate the “right way to have sex, treat your wife, flirt at tennis parties or start an affair” (p. 89).  But what Kay herself feels about the method of liberation she so mischievously prescribes to others is something of an enigma wrapped in a hypocrisy.  She tells Markham that she is also busy unlearning these tyrannical bourgeois protocols, but makes sure to assuage what she detects must be for him a grave reservation, “Don’t worry, I still shower every day” (p. 89).

Such double-edged characterizations, in which a single gesture can act as both a warning and a come-on, pervade the novel — they are the hallmark of Ballard’s novels, which effortlessly create the vertiginous effect that accompanies the movement of stumbling into a world more historical and thus more real than one’s own.  This playful and alarming sense of ambiguity defines the revolt of the middle class that breaks out in an affluent housing development called Chelsea Marina.  The doctors, academics, and civil servants residing there, confronted by a negligent management company that keeps raising fees while refusing to do repairs (“You have to plan when you need a shit,” complains one of the subversives [p. 79]), decide to go on strike against their school fees, maintenance charges, and utility bills.  They set up barricades against the police, set fire to cars, and hurl a barrage of souvenir stones gathered from tropical beaches in the Seychelles and Mauritius on the officials attempting to serve an eviction notice.  But they also turn to shoplifting from nearby supermarkets and delicatessens, and cannily maneuver their toddlers as human shields to deter police brutality.  The vehemence of their resistance makes the working-class refuse collectors too fearful to enter the development and do their work.

Walking past the burned out hulks of BMWs and Volvos sitting along the empty streets of the abandoned by its residents, Markham lingers over the discarded detritus of the educated middle class: “The skip was filled with books, tennis rackets, children’s toys, and a pair of charred skis.  Beside a school blazer with scorched piping was an almost new worsted suit, the daytime uniform of a middle-ranking executive, lying among the debris like the discarded fatigues of a soldier who had thrown down his rifle and taken to the hills.  The suit seemed strangely vulnerable, the abandoned flag of an entire civilization. . . “ (p. 8).  But if the residents of Chelsea Marina, recognizing themselves as the new proletariat, have fought a desperate struggle against the government and the police, their risky and provocative actions appear wildly of out proportion to the fate they seek to avert.  When Markham asks why the residents won’t simply to move in response to the deliberate negligence of the management company, which is in cahoots with developers eager to tear down the houses and build more expensive units, Vera, one of Kay’s comrades-in-arms, replies, “We’re all locked into huge mortgages.  People have sky-high school fees, and the banks breathing down their necks.  Besides, where do we move to?  Darkest Surrey?  Some two-hour commute to Reading or Guildford?” (p. 79).

The middle class professionals of Chelsea Marina carry on street battles with the police in order to avoid their banishment to more distant and less posh neighborhoods.  While the reader, like Markham, is seduced by their political commitment, their willingness to risk life and limb for the sake of what they consider to be right, it is nevertheless impossible to escape the thought that what they are fighting for does not merit such extreme sacrifice.  While their grievances against the management company are fully justified, the revolt of the middle class takes on a momentum that carries it beyond mere economic concerns.  Liberal democratic ideals like justice and equality proves to be thin gruel compared to the trangressive thrills offered by the suspension of the rules governing everyday reality.  The loss of reality comes through in the hyperbolic identifications made by the bourgeois extremists in decrying their plight, the readiness and utter lack of constraint with which they compare their situation to the gulag and the Holocaust.

Millennium People calls to mind, in a somewhat satirical manner, Giorgio Agamben’s contention that the distinction, foundational for classical politics, between “private life and political existence,” no longer holds in the present epoch, since sovereign power has achieved complete domination over human life (Homo Sacer, p. 187).  Whereas for Agamben the catastrophe of modern politics is exemplified by the unchecked power of the state, for Ballard, the crisis stems from the bourgeois individual’s own conflicting desires. As the novel’s diabolus ex machina, a doctor working with severely handicapped children, puts it:

“People don’t like themselves today.  We’re a rentier class left over from the last century.  We tolerate everything, but we know that liberal values are designed to make us passive.  We think we believe in God but we’re terrified by the mysteries of life and death.  We’re deeply self-centered but can’t cope with the idea of our finite selves.  We believe in progress and the power of reason, but are haunted by the darker sides of human nature.  We’re obsessed with sex, but fear the sexual imagination and have to be protected by huge taboos.  We believe in equality but hate the underclass.  We fear our bodies and, above all, we fear death.  We’re an accident of nature, but we think we’re at the centre of the universe.  We’re a few steps from oblivion, but we hope we’re somehow immortal” (p. 139)

What this means for a bourgeois society undergoing economic hardship, just as it does for one that is unshaken in its confidence in future growth, is the loss of any sense of reasonable equilibrium in political life.  What burdens are fair to ask of every individual?  How are we to distinguish hobbies from duties, or to separate necessary desires from superfluous ones?  Such an equilibrium underpins broad social expectations of fairness and reciprocity.  The fact that such expectations have become a chimerical quantity is in my view the greatest obstacle to a politics of economic justice.

Texts cited:

Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

J. G. Ballard, Millennium People (London: Harper Perennial, 2004).

Have a dream! No flower is ordinary! Thoughts on Himizu

Keiko never forgets the grudges she bears against the one she loves.

Himizu is a startlingly inventive film that contains an astonishing constellation of references. It is Heavenly Creatures mated with Krazy Kat, Taxi Driver getting rolled over into Earthquake, and Rebel without a Cause stalked by a manic pixie dream girl. For all the unruly diversity of its sources, the film ultimately adds up to a remarkably coherent whole that is as distinctive and original as it is powerfully moving. It is not at all a pastiche that produces a detached viewing experience heavy on irony, but rather delivers raw emotional punches leavened with quirky moments of humor. In fact, Himizu is the best film about a troubled, nihilistic young person that I have ever seen.

The disaster that overtook Japan on March 11 has conveyed to the world the image of a determined and resilient people stoically enduring hardship and picking themselves up to rebuild the devastated sections of the country just as the entire nation had been rebuilt after the Second World War. Certainly the adults in the film who have lost their homes convey cheerfulness and persistence in the aftermath of disaster, but not even the devastation of his town can wipe the blank, jaded look of indifference from the eyes of the protagonist, a fourteen year-old boy named Sumida.  Sumida looks just as alienated as he most likely was before the earthquake and tsunami. He lives with his mother in a small house out of which they run a modest business renting out boats. Every now and then Sumida casts a rueful glance at a shack that is mostly submerged in water, which relays that their lives have become more constrained since the disaster.

The look on Sumida’s face is so blank and withdrawn that his teacher, who is given to making effusive speeches about the capacity of the Japanese people to bounce back from devastation, is provoked into singling him out in the classroom for being obstinate in his gloom and state of demoralization. One wants to believe the teacher’s words and to hope that he can raise the morale of the students and inspire them to get involved in the recovery of their country. Yet Sumida’s impassive expression communicates a more elusive and troubling truth: the teacher’s enthusiastic and hopeful words are not the words of his generation. As much as the greatest worry of any teacher and parent is whether his or her words are getting through, nevertheless any teacher and parent must eventually come around to realize that his or her words do not have real meaning for the young person. Ultimately, the young person must speak and hear his own words, and until that time comes, there is little that the older generation can do aside from doling out copious quantities of nagging advice.

The film takes Sumida’s perspective in portraying the well-meaning adults around him as ridiculous and mostly ineffectual. His own father is despicable and violent, telling Sumida openly that the boy should have drowned long ago, so that the alcoholic father could have collected the insurance money. His mother runs off with a truck driver, leaving a note saying that he is on his own. Sumida’s classmate Keiko, who is infatuated with him, offers him unconditional support, offering to quit school and work at his business for free, but Sumida rejects her offers and advances, often resorting to abusive behavior to drive her away. Sumida’s rough treatment of Keiko is somewhat mitigated not only by the far more brutal beatings he receives from his father and from the yakuza members to whom his father owes a vast sum of money, but also by Keiko’s sheer pluck. She is unhesitant about fighting back, and on each occasion Sumida angers her, she places a rock in her pocket, assuring him that once her pocket is full of these “grudge rocks,” she will throw all of them at him. Keiko plays Krazy to Sumida’s Ignatz, though Keiko is the one who collects the bricks. Keiko initially strikes the viewer as loopy and a little unhinged – she writes down Sumida’s sayings on papers that she pastes all over her bedroom walls, and she acts with childish enthusiasm in promoting the boat rental business, even though Sumida has refused her help. But Keiko emerges as the moral center of the film, whose quirkiness is merely the visible aspect of a commitment that is as discerning as it is unconditional. She recites repeatedly a poem by Villon, which, over time, reveals how Sumida and Keiko achieve self-understanding in the act of repeating the same lines about knowing the difference between those who labor and those who loaf, and those who are rosy-cheeked and those who are pale.

Sumida responds to the awfulness and desperation of his personal life by deciding to go out and kill people who are destructive to society. Because he feels that his own life is pointless, he reasons that he may as well provide a needed service that the normal law-abiding citizen will not perform. The scene in which he covers himself in mud, determined to go out and murder, is horrifyingly reminiscent of the scenes in Heavenly Creatures showing the imaginary kingdom dreamed up by the two girls. Sono shows a touch of subtle humor when the silhouette of the large knife Sumida carries in a shopping bag becomes visible as he passes under certain types of lighting. Sumida himself finds vigilantism to be rough going when, encountering a half-naked woman covered in bruises who drags a chain wrapped around her ankle, the woman implores him not to rescue her, because her injuries are the result of her own choice. But his spree is cut short when Sumida learns that one of the homeless adults living nearby has somehow found the money to pay off his father’s debt, in a subplot that is by turns hilarious and deeply disturbing. Even the yakuza boss who had beaten him brutally takes time out from his underworld activities to exhort Sumida to be conscious of the many choices he has as a young person.

Sumida is someone who does not want to act unless he first believes in what he is going to do. He is not only unsure about whether he wants a new life, but also about whether he is even capable of wanting it. It is thus fitting that things conclude on a road, with words that were once pointless and empty being given the equivalent of a moral CPR.

Against Compassion

Andrea Mantegna, detail from Pallas and the Vices

The problem with making compassion into the foundation of an ethic is that compassion by itself does not provide a very solid incentive to conquer one’s fears, to struggle against one’s weaknesses, or to pursue undertakings that are high in risk, low in material reward, and provide gratification that cannot be accounted for in terms of the crude calculus of sex, money, and power. Compassion leads us to feel sympathy for others, but it is of limited use in helping us to understand their grievances, ambitions, and aspirations, and is of even less value in enabling us to determine the extent to which the desires, animosities, and anxieties of the other are justified. The latter task involves two contrary movements, first in the form of detachment, in which we move away from our immediate emotional response to the person, and second in reflecting on our own passions, our own capacities for injustice, anger, and excess. Compassion by itself does not obligate us to look within ourselves, or to confront instances in which we ourselves have been blinded by rage, passion, or humiliation.  Instead, it is a projection of our own softness onto others, which exempts us from engaging with the other in the terms in which he or she sees himself or herself.

In the NY Times review of Steven Pinker’s latest book, we find the following bien pensant commonplace from Peter Singer:

“We prefer life to death, and happiness to suffering, and we understand that we live in a world in which others can make a difference to whether we live well or die miserably. Therefore we will want to tell others that they should not hurt us, and in doing so we commit ourselves to the idea that we should not hurt them.”

There is a total obliviousness here to the fact that human beings are comparative creatures, for whom happiness is not something fixed and settled for all time, but changes, often drastically, with the rising expectations and material wealth of a society. It is these rising expectations that arouse envy in people who might otherwise have every reason, historically and rationally speaking, to be happy (steady access to food and reliable shelter, a modest income, a family), but find themselves made discontented by the perception that there are others enjoying an even greater happiness than them in the form of earning vast wealth, possessing a more attractive physical appearance, enjoying a far greater number of  sexual partners, etc.

There is a stronger desire than the desire not to die and the desire to be happy: the desire to be exceptional. This can take the form of violating the dominant values of a society simply for the sake of negating them, even if these values are as enlightened as the ones stated by Singer. The drive for distinction is the source of enormous social disruption as well as immense creativity. If even only one person experiences this desire strongly enough, it is often the case that the many who do not will prove no match for such intensity, as the history of dictators bear out, because the desires of the many for happiness is always a moderate desire, one which is not ready to sacrifice everything for its fulfillment, because it considers unthinkable the very possibility of sacrificing anything. It has no answer for unwavering commitment that risks everything. Tenderhearted liberalism reflects an obstinate determination not to learn what the person driven by a singular passion has learned: that pain is the best teacher.

If the virtue of courage often coexists with a tendency toward impulsiveness and recklessness, then compassion can accompany a general slackening of the spirit. But it is easy to see why people living in an individualistic, affluent, and fragmented society would gravitate toward an ethics based on sympathy, because compassion is the only virtue which arouses no disagreement. It is also the virtue that demands the least of the individual, unlike temperance and chastity, which entail self-control, and charity and diligence, which call for action. The illusion of linking compassion to progress and evolution masks the rigid and ultimately unreasonable demand that the other respect one’s show of tenderhearted feelings.