The nature of the catastrophe

by Henry on September 10, 2003

Like Jacob Levy I’m waiting on the release of Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver: and the early signs are good. Dave Langford, who’s part way through reading it for Amazon UK pronounces it to be a “joy to read, with a genuinely fresh slant on 17th/18th century history (or ahistory).” And Jacob and I are not alone – I confidently predict that September 23 (the book’s release date) is going to see prolonged blog-silences from everyone from Glenn Reynolds to Atrios.

But I’m digressing … I wanted to post about another book that I’m nearly as excited about, which will be released at around the same time. JG Ballard’s new novel, Millennium People, is about to come out. Ballard isn’t as popular in the blogosphere as Stephenson – but he should be; he’s a writer of genius. Which isn’t to say that he’s without flaws. He’s notoriously obsessive; ever since he developed his own voice, he’s written the same novel over and over. His language is (deliberately) flat, and his imagery repetitive – abandoned swimming pools; empty wastes of sand; rusting launch platforms. But there’s something admirable about his singlemindedness; something important.

For my money, John Gray has the most concise take on why Ballard’s important (indeed, I think that this short review-article is likely the best thing that Gray has ever written). Gray’s essay highlights the main theme of Ballard’s work – “life as it is lived when the fictions that sustain society have broken down.” If the Revolution was immanent in every moment for Walter Benjamin, the Catastrophe is immanent in every moment for Ballard. Polite society is always wobbling on the verge of savagery. Gray also mentions how funny Ballard is – something that a lot of people miss (his humour, like Beckett’s is black and so understated as to be very nearly obscured in the shadows).

Two of Ballard’s recent novels are of particular interest to social scientists. If I ever teach my dream course on muddy thinking in social science, Cocaine Nights will be the first required reading in the section on social capital. It presents in satiric form the disturbing thesis that the vibrant civic activism prized by Putnam, Fukuyama, Etzioni and other neo-communitarians is best produced through systematic clandestine violence. For Ballard, it’s not only impossible to have Salem without the witchburning; it’s the witchburning that brings Salem together as a community. Super-Cannes is of more interest to sociologists, geographers, and urban planners. It’s all about the return of the repressed in a very thinly disguised version of Sophia-Antipolis. The orderly planned community of Super-Cannes doesn’t so much break down into chaos, as it perpetuates it – again, community and violence reproduce each other.

At the end of Science as a Vocation, Weber famously claims that the age of prophecy, when an inspiration might sweep ‘through the great communities like a firebrand’ is over; we live in an age of disenchantment. Ballard’s work is a direct riposte to Weber; it claims that the New Millennium is most likely to have its start amidst the bored and deracinated upper middle classes and suburbanites, the willing victims of Weber’s ‘rationalization.’ A rough beast is slouching towards Shepperton to be born …

{ 21 comments }

1

quayle 09.10.03 at 7:42 am

“If I ever teach my dream course on muddy thinking in social science, Cocaine Nights will be the first required reading in the section on social capital. It presents in satiric form the disturbing thesis that the vibrant civic activism prized by Putnam, Fukuyama, Etzioni and other neo-communitarians is best produced through systematic clandestine violence.” No, its Ballard that gives rise to muddy thinking. This is precisely the kind of intuition or in Ballards case obsessive intuition that puts the reader into a state of ADD and prevents them from confronting the author and argument in a serious way. For a bunch of social and political scientists you guys sure seem to spend a lot of time reading fiction. Who has time for this? Don’t you have things to read in your chosen field?

2

Chris 09.10.03 at 7:56 am

If we just stuck to reading in our chosen fields we would be a sad bunch, wouldn’t we?

BTW Will Self has a review of MN in the latest Prospect. Made me want to read it.

3

quayle 09.10.03 at 8:10 am

Reading all the philosophy, history, economics, social science isn’t enough? I just don’t see where you have the time to work all this fiction in as well. Maybe your tenure committee will see my point.

4

Nabakov 09.10.03 at 8:40 am

“Reading all the philosophy, history, economics, social science isn’t enough? I just don’t see where you have the time to work all this fiction in as well. Maybe your tenure committee will see my point.”

Yo, you wind from nowhere, has it occured to you that some people:
– like to read for the sheer pleasure of it;
– can be inspired by the play of ideas in fiction as well in non-fiction;
– have “tenure committees” or some such beasties that appreciate academics who stretch their minds a bit; and
– can read without moving their lips.

Why not try a little Ballard yerself. Start with “War Fever”, an uncanny twist on the “Flypaper” strategy, written long before that that meme started getting peddled around.

5

quayle 09.10.03 at 9:28 am

Will the first string ever enter the blogosphere? I doubt it, they have ideas and research projects to vigorously pursue. Let alone ‘blogging’ or blogging about fiction.

6

Shai 09.10.03 at 11:47 am

I’ll bite quayle’s troll bait. The move from “its Ballard that gives rise to muddy thinking” to ” puts the reader into a state of ADD and prevents them from confronting the author and argument in a serious way” is itself an example of a muddy argument. First, there’s very little charity for the presumed reader. Second, he’s confronting the book as if it were a piece of scholarship, an impoverished view of literature. By no means does the engagement of ideas in scholarship signify its identification as scholarship any more than Shakespeare’s use of the four humors implies his engagement with the science and scholarship of his day. Third, without any evidence his position is as superficial as cultural criticism that adduces hip consumerism as the result of false consciousness induced by advertising. Fourth, by example, will reading Sherlock Holmes, with his superhuman observations make me fail to confront the realities of induction? Or even more absurd, will watching action movies with wire work leave me confused about physics? There’s a difference in kind here that is entirely ignored by quayle. I hope the lame insult in quayle’s most recent post is a sign of his exit.

Great post chris. As I was clicking on the comment button I was planning to post that while I have nothing insightful to say about the topic you’ve inspired me to start reading novels again. I have a list of the 100 best books of fiction as chosen by noted author’s that has been hanging on my wall for years (reproduced here) but I think I might take you up on Ballard.

Cheers,

Shai

7

chris 09.10.03 at 11:52 am

Thanks Shai, but the honour goes to Henry, not me!

8

Shai 09.10.03 at 11:57 am

Right. I clicked again to post that. I sometimes confuse you and Henry because you write on similar topics (politics, political philosophy, etc) that are greek to me, even if I enjoy reading them.

9

William Burns 09.10.03 at 12:03 pm

They didn’t burn witches at Salem; they hanged them.

10

quayle 09.10.03 at 12:04 pm

Shai, I’m not talking about the reader of Ballards book, I’m talking about the way Ballard reads the world. This is the ‘muddy thinking’ that picks off on argument with a first intuition, denies or fails to pay attention to its real content, and cannibalizes it for literary fame.

11

Scott Martens 09.10.03 at 2:05 pm

Ballard has long been on my list of people to read more often – ever since I got my hands on Empire of the Sun. As for Stephenson… I didn’t like Cryptonomicon that much. The pay-off from a book ought to be at least proportionate to its length. His new book is on the “not until it’s out in paperback” list.

12

Henry 09.10.03 at 3:23 pm

Quayle

Let me pretend for the sake of argument that you’re not a troll, and that you have a serious point. First of all, are you really claiming, as you seem to be (a) that fiction has no insights to offer into human society, and (b) that academics should be confined to reading academic works and academic works alone? Both of those arguments are self-evidently ridiculous. Second – no first string academics in the blogosphere? Why don’t you take yourself over to “Brad de Long’s”:http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/ site and check out what he’s been up to in the profession. Read through his postings over the last couple of months while you’re at it – he too seems to have an unfortunate tendency to be distracted by fiction. It doesn’t seem to have held him back much. I believe that Eugene Volokh may have a couple of academic accomplishments too; another academic who has the poor taste to read non-academic books. I mightn’t agree with much of Amitai Etzioni’s work – but he’s a major figure in the field. And those are just a few of the more obvious candidates.

Or perhaps you should just crawl back into your hole, and pull it back in after you. You’re not worth arguing with – and I don’t think you’re interested in argument anyway – just in provoking a response. Now you’ve gotten one. You are the weakest link. Goodbye.

13

Russell L. Carter 09.10.03 at 4:30 pm

“His language is (deliberately) flat, and his imagery repetitive – abandoned swimming pools; empty wastes of sand; rusting launch platforms.”

I thought so too, until I read “The Kindness of Women”.

14

Dexter Descarte 09.10.03 at 5:40 pm

Reading all the philosophy, history, economics, social science isn’t enough? I just don’t see where you have the time to work all this fiction in as well.

Philosophy, history, economics and social science are fiction. If you disagree, please provide mathematical proofs.

15

Harry Tuttle 09.10.03 at 5:46 pm

If you like Ballard and Stephenson, check out Rudy Rucker.

16

carla 09.10.03 at 9:05 pm

Loved Crytonomicon, but can see that not everyone would.

More to the point, though, the course that I always wanted to teach (but now won’t get to) would have juxtaposed works of fiction with works of political theory/philosophy. Essentially, both fiction writers and people like Hobbes or Rousseau or Marx or whomever are answering a particular kind of “what if?” question, and they all have to ground their answers in a set of assumptions about human nature, human possibility, etc. Lots of potential there, and I always thought it’d be a great way to introduce students to the concepts and analytic foundations of political theory. (For one example, Brave New World poses interesting problems precisely because its inhabitants really are pretty happy. They do work that they find satisfying, etc., and dissenters can always go off to the Falklands (!), which isn’t the same as being executed, for example.

Anyway, I do wish someone would teach that class . . .

17

Shai 09.11.03 at 1:22 am

I was thinking about how quayle’s position resembles aspects of plato’s overly negative view of art and literature and came across this amusing essay. warning: it’s nothing like Plato scholarship.

18

avinash 09.11.03 at 5:10 am

>>I thought so too, until I read “The Kindness of Women”.

19

Avinash 09.11.03 at 5:13 am

“I thought so too, until I read “The Kindness of Women”. ” – absolutely. The ‘Kindness of women’ tends to be highly underrated. its one of his best.

20

Raoul Mitgong 09.11.03 at 6:57 am

I hereby sentence “Quayle” to watching the film of Ballard’s “The Atrocity Exhibition” for a period not to exceed the remainder of Bush 1.5’s term.

Gotta wonder just what he thinks the “speculative” in speculative fiction’s about. Sometimes the best way to comment on the present is to use, in John Shirley’s phrase, “a mirror you can edit”.

ps: Good item on Disch a while back.

21

dsquared 09.16.03 at 11:45 am

Thanks for the heads up, Henry. Worry not, 23 September will not be entirely silent on CT, as I have now selected that day to explain, at length, exactly why I hate science fiction, in the knowledge that I will not be gainsaid.

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