Thursday, June 10, 2004

Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard

"Release the fiend that lies dormant within you..."
- The Process Church of the Final Judgment

No one else has described the psychopathology of modern society as well as the English writer J.G. Ballard (b. 1930). His 1970s masterpieces such as The Concrete Island, Crash and High-Rise are accurate chronicles of the deepest and darkest violent and erotic urges that lurk beneath the glossy chrome surface of consumer society.

Here are excerpts from J.G. Ballard's Super-Cannes, Chapter 29 (2000). Eden-Olympia is a fictional business park of professionals working for international mega-corporations.


"Work dominates life in Eden-Olympia and drives out everything else. The dream of leisure society was the great twentieth-century delusion. Work is the new leisure. Talented and ambitious people work harder than they have ever done, and for longer hours. They find their only fulfilment through work. The men and women running successful companies need to focus their energies on the task in front of them, and for every minute of the day. The last thing they want is recreation. [...] Creative work is its own recreation."

[...]

"People at Eden-Olympia have no time for getting drunk together, for infidelities or rows with the girlfriend, no time for adulterous affairs or coveting their neighbours' wives, no time even for friends. There are no energies to spare for anger, jealousy, racial prejudice and the more mature reflections that follow. There are none of the social tensions that force us to recognize other people's strengths and weaknesses, our obligations to them or feelings of dependence. At Eden-Olympia there's no interplay of any kind, none of the emotional trade-offs that give us our sense of who we are."

[...]

"The social order must hold, especially where elites are involved. Eden-Olympia's great defect is that there's no need for personal morality. Thousands of people live and work here without making a single decision about right or wrong. The moral order is engineered into the lives along with the speed limits and the security systems."

[...]

"A sense of morality can be a convenient escape route. If the worst comes to the worst, we tell ourselves how guilty we feel and that excuses everything. The more civilized we are, the fewer choices we have to make."

[...]

"A moral calculus that took thousands of years to develop starts to wither from neglect. Once you dispense with morality the important decisions become a matter of aesthetics. You've entered an adolescent world where you define yourself by the kind of trainers you wear. Societies that dispense with the challenged conscience are more vulnerable than they realize. They have no defences against the psychotic who gets into the system and starts working away like a virus, using the sluggish moral machinery against itself."

[...]

"The moral perception was so eroded that it failed to warn them of danger. Places like Eden-Olympia are fertile ground for any messiah with a grudge. The Adolf Hitlers and Pol Pots of the future won't walk out of the desert. They'll emerge from shopping malls and corporate business parks."

[...]

"The ultimate gated community is a human being with a closed mind. We're breeding a new race of deracinated people, internal exiles without human ties but with enormous power. It's this new class that runs our planet. To be successful enough to work at Eden-Olympia calls for rare qualities of self-restraint and intelligence. These are people who won't admit to any weaknesses and won't allow themselves to fail."

But there's something very wrong with these people:

"Classical psychoanalysis starts with the dream, and that was my first breakthrough. I realized these highly disciplined professionals had very strange dreams. Fantasies filled with supressed yearnings for violence, and ugly narratives of anger and revenge, like the starvation dreams of death-camp prisoners. Despair was screaming through the bars of the corporate cage, the hunger of men and women exiled from their deeper selves."

[...]

"Today we shun the psychopathic, the dark side of the sun and those shadows that burn the ground. Sadism, cruelty and the dream of pain belong to our primate ancestors. When they surface in a damaged adolescent with a taste of strangling cats we lock him away for good. The run-down chief executives with their hives and depression were sane and civilized men. Maroon them on a desert island after a plane crash and they'd be the first to perish. Any perverse elements in their lives would have to be applied externally, like a vitamin shot or an antibiotic. [...] Let's say, a carefully metered measure of psychopathy."

[...]

"Sex is such a quick route to the psychopathic, the shortest of short cuts to the perverse. We aren't running an adventure playground, but a forcing house designed to expand the psychopathic possibilities of the executive imagination. It needs to be carefully monitored. Sadomasochism, excretory sex-play, body-piercing and wife-pandering can easily veer of into something nasty."

[...]

"The twentieth century was an heroic enterprise, but it left us in the dark, feeling our way towards a locked door. [...] The twentieth century ended with its dreams in ruins. The notion of the community as a voluntary association of enlightened citizens has died forever. We realize how suffocatingly humane we've become, dedicated to moderation and the middle way. The suburbanization of the soul has overrun our planet like the plague."

"Sanity and reason are unworthy us?"

"No. But a vast illusion, built from mirrors that lie. Today we scarcely know our neighbours, shun most forms of civic involvement and happily leave the running of society to a caste of political technicians. People find all the togetherness they need in the airport boarding lounge and the department-store lift. They pay lip service to community values but prefer to be alone."

[...]

"Homo sapiens is a reformed hunter-killer of depraved appetites, which once helped him to survive. He was partly rehabilitated in an open prison called the first agricultural societies, and now finds himself on parole in the polite suburbs of the city state. The deviant impulses coded into his central nervous system have been switched off. He can no longer harm himself or anyone else. But nature sensibly endowed him with a taste of cruelty and intense curiosity about pain and death. Without them, he's trapped in the afternoon shopping malls of a limitless mediocrity. We need to revive him, give him back the killing eye and the dreams of death. Together they helped him to dominate this planet."

[...]

"We're creatures of the treadmill: monotony and convention rule everything. In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom. Our latent psychopathy is the last natural reserve, a place of refuge for the endangered mind. Of course, I'm talking about a carefully metered violence, microdoses of madness like the minute traces of strychnine in a nerve tonic. In effect, a voluntary and elective psychopathy, as you can see in any boxing ring or ice-hockey rink. [...] in the armed forces [...] you know that recruits are deliberately brutalized -- the drill sergeant's boot and the punishment run give back to young men a taste for pain that generations of socialized behaviour have bred out of them."

[...]

"Remember your childhood -- like all of us you stole from the local supermarket. It was deeply exciting, and enlarged your moral sense of yourself. But you were sensible, and kept it down to one or two afternoons a week. The same rules apply to society at large. I'm not advocating an insane free-for-all. A voluntary and sensible psychopathy is the only way we can impose a shared moral order."

"And if we do nothing?"

"Danger will rush up to us and put a knife to our throat. Look at the century that lies ahead -- an upholstered desert, but a wasteland all the same. An absence of faith, except for a vague belief in an unknown deity, like the sponsor of a public-service broadcast. Wherever there's a vacuum, the wrong kind of politics creep in. Fascism was a virtual psychopathology that served deep unconscious needs. Years of bourgeois conditioning had produced a Europe suffocating in work, commerce and conformity. Its people needed to break out, to invent the hatreds that could liberate them, and they found an Austrian misfit only too happy to do the job. Here at Eden-Olympia we're setting out the blueprint for an infinitely more enlightened community. A controlled psychopathy is a way of resocializing people and tribalizing them into mutually supportive groups."

[...]

"Violence is spectacular and exciting, but sex has always been the main hunting ground of psychopathy. A perverse sexual act can liberate the visionary self in even the dullest soul. The consumer society hungers for the deviant and unexpected. What else can drive the bizarre shifts in the entertainment landscape that will keep us 'buying'? Psychopathy is the only engine powerful enough to light our imagination, to drive the arts, sciences and industries of the world."


See also:

J.G. Ballard: Millennium People