Monthly Archives: April 2015
Finished reading J. G. Ballard’s High Rise a day or so ago. The first Ballard I’ve read, I enjoyed it. Wanted to hash out some thoughts on style and thematic choices I saw throughout.
The choice of three central protagonists is a somewhat obvious one, given that each is pulled from one of the classes the luxury building reverts to, and allows for the exploration of the attendant space. I was a bit disappointed that the three “point-of-view” characters were all of them men, and that, furthermore, the sole homosexual character and most of the women received little agency, appearing more as stereotypes or caricatures than anything else. That said, I didn’t sense a disdain or malevolence on Ballard’s part – the choice fits the arc of the narrative, so I guess you have to take it as it is.
Though written in ’75, the story reads as a product of our own decade – aside from a few distinct absences, eg, the internet; mobiles, there isn’t really anything cultural or technological that can precisely tie the novel to its point of origin. I have the creeping suspicion that has less to do with any prescience on Ballard’s part and more to do with the rather dystopic cast our own world has taken on. It’s somewhat reassuring to know that, despite the onward march of digital tech, the same primary concerns have been bothering us for a while. This whole late-capitalism thing didn’t come out of the woodwork, so to speak.
Looking around now, with the various devastations in the periphery zones (Near East, Africa) and sharpening class antagonisms at home, Ballard’s cavalier description of rape, violence, and murder also hits on a true note. The characters of High Rise, as the society they have known falls apart around them, seem to take it all in stride, not jamming up or freezing with distress. There is a particular lightness to the delivery that belies the content. Recurrent allusions to a more primal way of life, a march backwards through class, tribalism, and finally barbarism to the origins of a new society may be what lies ahead for all of us, if not necessarily in the accelerated way portrayed here.
The desire, stressed throughout the story, to prevent any external tampering, to deal with the worsening situation in the building only internally, opens up room for the allegorical. I think it would be a mistake to push it too far, but the absence of any outside authority could symbolise the post-moral landscape we’ve found ourselves in as a species – we can’t, in good faith, anticipate anything like a god to intervene for us; we, like the tenants of the eponymous High Rise, have to sort it out ourselves. Of course, this reading is problematised by the fact that, unlike God, external authority in the form of the police actually shows up, but in the end is prevented from making any difference anyways. Then again, it may simply have been a rhetorical requirement – to open up the world of the high rise would have been to deflate the insularity so well established. In order to hang together, the narrative of the space couldn’t abide outsiders.
Ballard dances a subtle line, hinting at the architectural source of the moral degeneracy, but never so strongly as to starkly blame the building itself. It’s an effective way of building tension without kicking the story over into an outright magical realism or “weird fiction” genre. Everything that happens, happens naturally, within the bounds of physics, if at times supra-rationally. Suspension of disbelief is left untroubled.
If there is one issue I take with the novel, it is at times repetitious. Similar turns of phrase, similar lines of thought. To be fair though, given the limited geographical set of the story, this was likely inevitable.
On the whole though, good fun! I hope the up-coming film does the source material justice!
I’ve given up on active communist work, at least for the time being. Not because I think it’s wrong, on the contrary, I still count myself a socialist, I still believe that Marx’s critique of Capitalism is on point, even if certain elements of it have yet to be borne out or have been actively disproven. No, I still believe that Communism is likely the only way we’re getting out of the situation we’ve backed ourselves into. What brought me to this point is recognition of situation on the ground.
I don’t want to make recourse to something so nebulous as “human nature;” our conduct is inextricably wrapped up in our material circumstances, and the behaviour of today’s society is merely the product of past victories and defeats. That said, communism is too good for people as they currently are. Perhaps there was time, once, to show people the lies they’re being sold, the necessity of working together to build something better. No longer, though. Our societies end-date is coming up, quickly. No time to “build consciousness” especially with the political Left in a state of division, and those few efforts at rapprochement anaemic at best.
People, the average person, individual instances of the working class or the petite bourgeoisie (never mind the lumpen) don’t want, and don’t have, the capacity to direct their world. I’m not setting myself apart from this, as if I’m in any way better – one brief look at my own life would undercut that immediately. So, how can we expect any sort of success foisting on people a message they don’t want to hear, that they, in their shambling and mediated lives, couldn’t do much with anyways? At the end of the day, people want comfort – the driving desire of the working classes today is to get back what their parents and grandparents had – security in being told what to do with a sense of safety and material surfeit. Struggles for the defence of the NHS (or socialised medicine, more broadly), the fight for a “living wage,” these are emblematic of that desire, not of any yearning for a thorough-going communism. It’s true, unfortunately, that the majority will find no real security under Capitalism, that the basis of their desires will be forever frustrated under this system, but this doesn’t mean that people would be interested in following through on that logic. Even if it is true that we’re all getting a raw deal here, and people dislike it, it doesn’t mean that they are in any way interested in jumping into even a properly-working communism. People have trouble enough completing their tax returns, and we expect them to take responsibility for their lives in totality? Foolishness.
Every previous political economy, including Capitalism, came about organically, the summation of thousands of small changes, individual choices. What audacity to think we could implement one based on rationality alone! I recognise that, as Marx posited, the internal contradictions woven into Capitalism will be its downfall, even if this planet doesn’t render it impossible first. But that doesn’t mean that the workers will seize the State for themselves. It would be the rational thing to do, certainly, but we are far from rational, responsible animals.
What’s left to do, then? Common theme round these parts. Shore up the dykes. We are on the precipice of catastrophic change. We need to confront that with eyes open, and save what we can, what is worth the saving. Strengthen our communities, a tall order indeed in this period of social dissolution. Strive for flexibility, and not fetishise that which we wish to preserve – there is much of the Enlightenment that should be consigned to history, even if it is one of the few good things to come out of European civilisation. Find working solutions for situations at hand, politically and extra-politically.
And all that other soft-Left feculence. We don’t have the affluence of time to otherwise anymore, if ever we did.
Pop Grenade Review
Matthew Collin’s forthcoming book Pop Grenade, available from Zero Books May 29, posits that music is still a vital form of resistance in these latter days of Capitalism. Broken into six chapters, the book moves in a more or less West to East direction, traveling, as well, down the last forty years – we start with the raw political force of Public Enemy at their height, moving next to the ultimately tragic arc of the Love Parade in Berlin. From there, we accompany a group of techno renegades as they travel central Europe, visiting the war-torn Balkans to inject some humanity into a hell-scape. Next stop is the slightly surreal era of Saakashvili’s Georgia as he enlists the help of Boney M to regain the rebellious states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Skipping back West, we find ourselves in the tear-gas clouded Gezi Park, as the Turks push back against Erdoğan and a swelling religio-neoliberalism. Finally, we head to Moscow, to get a feel for Putin’s Russia after more than a decade of control, and the nascent push-back by the likes of Pussy Riot and others.
What sets this book apart from most other cultural retrospectives is that Collin is able to speak from experience – in a material way, this book follows the course of his life as a journalist and as a human being. He is able to call upon his own feelings as an English teen, hearing the American intensity of Public Enemy for the first time; to recount the drug-fuelled, loved-up abandon of the rave scene on both sides of the Channel; can speak to the searing juxtaposition of a bucolic Bosnian countryside shelled to mud and rubble. But it’s not just his own point of view he brings to bear – the text is peppered with anecdotes and snippets of interviews he has conducted himself with the key players – Chuck D, Westbam, Yekaterina Samutsevich.
The mixture of the personal and the journalistic, interspersed with historical allusions and slices of local flavour, paint a rich scene in each of the chapters, a uniquely situated view. Of course, ours is still a broken world. The resistance documented here, the spiritual sustenance offered by music in earnest – it has yet to carry the day. The politicised stance held by Public Enemy has been co-opted, “gangster rap” wholly commercialised. The dream of a better Tomorrow offered up by the rubble of the Berlin Wall has soured into the austerity-ridden Today. Putin and his Orthodox thugs still reign uncontested in Russia. Islamism continues to rise in Turkey. What Collin does in casting a light on these people, these groups of dissidents and self-imposed exiles, is not offer up some celebration, some self-satisfied recollection. No – he points to the way people, organically, naturally, use music to sustain each other when pushed up against the wall. And in so doing, offers us an old tool, better understood, for the coming struggles.
Where have all the protest songs gone? Clearly you haven’t been listening to the right stuff.
None of these things
Too much weight here.
Too little there.
maybe then I’d
and satisfied with
this body of
Wherefore art thou, Po-Mo?
A quick aside, more an observation than anything else, really. I should start by saying that I haven’t done my due diligence, that I haven’t gotten around to reading reams of Barthes, Lyotard, Bataille, Kristeva, nor those arch-gurus, Derrida and Foucault. I still intend to – know your enemy and all that.
It’s up for debate as to how much any of the above actually subscribed to the decidedly nebulous term, but it seems uncontroversial that each was taken up in the general milieu of po-mo.
My main point, my question, is to what extent has Postmodernism defined the last several decades – namely, my entire life, and that of my parents’ as well. We are told that we are moving into a stage “beyond” po-mo, that Postmodernism is coming to and end. From whence the prognosticators gather their divinations I know not. But then, I’m not entirely sure that we’d ever moved beyond “Modernism” anyways.
It’s true that the ‘burbs of Toronto are no cultural Mecca – truthfully, no-where in Canada deserves the appellation. That said, one would think that it would be rather more self-evident that the name of our age, the nature of it, the very physicality of our daily lives, should be something that can be accessed with ease, as opposed to being wrapped up, hidden away in the enchiridia of arid University departments. Such is not the case with the Postmodern – you need to go looking to find it. It isn’t draped from the stuff of our buildings, it isn’t sewn in to the pages of our literatures. Unless you knew where to look, you could go your whole life without seeing it – and that’s not to say that it hides in plain sight, not to say that the manifestations of it occur and simply need be provided their umbrella term to exist as a natural assemblage. No, an acrobat is called for to get the right twists in. If ever those concomitant elements of Post Modernism do show up, they only appear as threads, never whole cloth.
“Grand narratives,” whether true or not, still rule our existence. It is on the thrust of Orientalism that we adventure in the Near East, it is held fundamental that work is rewarded and the indigent are morally culpable. Ours is a conservative populace (that is, Anglo-Saxons of any national flavour). This is actually a point that I intend to develop on, though not in this piece. Nothing intrinsic has changed for several centuries, perhaps longer.
If one wants to talk about the locus of a culture, it seems obvious that populism is the territory to explore. The avant-garde advance nothing; they lead themselves down the road of irrelevancy long ago.
Narrative still reigns supreme – no matter how many fractured tales DeLillo or Vonnegut were able to spin, the mainstay of our era has been the Dan Brown’s, the John Grisham’s – linear kitsch untroubled by agency or perspective.
Given the right line of questioning, I imagine you could lead most people into espousing the view that ours is a time of alienation, of faceless bodies of power directing vital elements of our lives, a period of the “dissolution of cultural bodies,” but, contra Negri, this is not descriptive of Postmodernism, but rather of Modernism. The problems that we are facing now are not of a different kind than the ones first articulated during the fin de siècle. If they are of a different magnitude, a greater complexity, it is only because they have followed their own internal logic. Velocity, estrangement, isolation, these are constituent of our age, but they are the same things, the same concepts and lived experiences, people were grappling with in the ‘20s and the 1880’s. We’re not living in a “metamodern” (what a vile neologism that is!) nor a “postmodern” age – we’re still stuck in Modernism, and it’ll likely be our grave.