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Archive for August 2012

“new possibilities emerging from riots and abandoned construction sites”

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It’s hard for me to understand how anybody reads this sort of thing as anything other than a strange form of ad copy, a surreptitious pro-bono for the forces of gentrification themselves:

But after the cameras have gone, as the recession grinds on and the Eurozone spirals further into meltdown how will the Lea Valley look in 2013? 2013 is Year Zero, it signifies the beginning of new spaces opening up, of new possibilities emerging from riots and abandoned construction sites. The Masterplan will be eroded by the persistence of nature and the desire of the young to take back territory from the overarching boredom of the Westfield aesthetic . . . I imagine stalled housing projects, empty flats in yuppiedromes across the capital reactivated. I envisage stadia and velodromes covered in ivy, occupied and surrounded by transient and nomadic architecture, like Constant’s New Babylon, moving cities, interlinking, nomadic structures. I think this new ‘park’, the result of a corporate land grab, will, after the two weeks of televized spectacle, return to the physical reality of the wilderness.

It’s the same effect as Ballard – although I rather think that Ballard was far more fully aware of the dialectical perversity of his work than Ford is. A block of posh condos, a new megamall of the periphery, the traffic-locked Westway – all of these things become more interesting when someone encourages us to imagine them as anteriorly or futuraly haunted by outbursts of primal sex, violent agitation, or eroticised Michael Bay-type fireballs. Did you think Ballard was critiquing these things, given how appealing you find them in their gory transfigured forms? No more than marketing firms are critiquing the products they shill. Cars are more interesting – and thus more salable – when their utilitarian functionality receives, via the ad campaign, some Bukkake shots of sex and death, when they’re rolling you around the end of the world scenes of late capitalism.

Think about it: what if Ballard wrote a novel about what really goes on in the up-market high rise? And what if those who are selling the condos and buy-to-lets couldn’t rely on the residual grime as both an edgy selling point, a marker of victorious progress, and a feigned tell that the punter is going to get a very good deal indeed. The logic of the paragraph above is the very logic of gentrification – the edgy is valued as authentic but also as a good investment. The fact that the Lea Valley was first encountered by the artist “through the rave scene of the early 90s” is a consumer testimonial, might as well be a part of a branding operation.

In truth, the reality will be, I imagine, much more boring than in the quotation above. Flats will fill Stratford, the mall will continue to expand, the fringe areas nearby will be swallowed, until school catchments and distance from the transport hubs put a cap on the encroachment. There won’t be squatters – no more than there are in Canary Wharf. But in our flats – after all, “we” are the demographic who are meant to occupy these things, right? – paintings of the previous inhabitants, wasted ravers, decorative drunks at a shitty bar, post-coital squatters in dirty bedrooms, empty bottles and over-flowing ashtrays, will hang on each and every reception room wall.

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August 17, 2012 at 2:19 pm

phrase making

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It would seem best to take the list of things, the bullet points, that the editor wrote and address them one by one and cross them off as he goes. That way, he would know where he is, what is left to be done, and most importantly, will know that he’s done when he’s done.

Listening to music helped in the past. As only half of whales’ brains fall asleep, since the sea is not a bed, so is it better for only half of his brain to be awake, because this work is not more easily done while entirely awake.

It would seem best to make of a list of things to do each day, including (especially!) the banal things that he always seems to forget to do. It would start with a time to wake, some early exercise (a run and then some sit-ups seems a good way to start), shower, breakfast and a certain number of newspapers (not all of them – only the essential ones) and then dressing and heading into his office. It would detail the work to be done each day and the time periods during which he would do each element of it, as well as time for reading. He wouldn’t list times to smoke, though that might help too, but he would list lunch and where to obtain it. It would end with writing a list for the next day, checking the list for the time that he is to wake the next day, setting the alarm on his phone for the time that he is to wake the next day, and then going to sleep.

New forms of semi-synchronous communication are invented and then adopted only to make things worse.

Teach the child to follow rules that are suspended on a promise of reward and punishment, I mean teach him to really follow those rules, and the child will likely grow into a man who still follows rules despite the fact that the structures of reward and punishment have changed but then, if something happens, and the structures of reward and punishment recede or disappear entirely, the child, now long since a man, will lose the track of the rules and reward and punishment and only be able to simulate vaguely the motions of obedience, self-protection, and self-promotion. Like the proverbial chicken less her head, like the robot that’s been dismembered in the movie, the unemployed pater familias who nonetheless besuitedly drives down the driveway each morning on his way to nowhere – his limbs twitch reflexively but the concertedness is not there. The cohesion of forward, purposeful movement is missing.

It’s nothing like the intimate, infinite negotiations with god during puberty. This is something else entirely.

A basic absence of a certain creative or at least chaotic element in his make up that might be necessary in order to fulfill certain aspirations, like the creation of artistic works or falling in love. His own dawning sense (when?) of the basic absence of those elements or faculties. Dumb notions that they can be externally triggered. The possibility that the desire to fulfill those aspirations (that is to say, the fact that they are aspirations at all) is perversely though not-unsurprisingly given what we know fueled by his very sense of the impossibility of fulfilling them due to the fact that his is missing certain faculties. Above all, the haunting sense that those faculties are possessed by no one anywhere and that they are just a comforting / explicatory myth that people have repeated and in repeating endorsed over the many years of human existence.

A dull cough. Sputum. A buzzing numbness all over that he used to feel was anxiety but now worries is a blood sugar level issue but on the other hand he is continually unsure of whether he hasn’t always in fact felt this buzzing numbness and just attributed it to something else. Things like hypocritical rage at his situation, other people, etc.

Phrases occur. “Like a football player with amazing straight-ahead speed but who lumbers laterally…” A pleasure in phrase making coupled with a disappointment at himself as these aren’t the phrases that he is supposed to be making. But pleasure enough to keep making them, especially when they stack like the dummy text, the pig latin, that lines the boxes where you put the corrected copy.

And then of course there is history. The drama of subjectivation (historical, personal). The sons burning the father to the ground again and again and again and the totem pole too but only this time getting it right in the aftermath. Learning to divide the sisters and mothers up logically, in accordance with sort preternaturally sophisticated system of eugenics that some now call attraction. Also book learning and savings accounts. Ships that leave the port and actually return again, a few years later, filled with different things. The sons draw up a train schedule, build a garden suburb, play in a local adult basketball league.

Once a month the sons go to the pub and – only in jest, never for serious or keeps – hit on the girls and mothers that are left, the ones they forgot to divide or held out just for the sake of keeping the old rituals alive.

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August 7, 2012 at 3:20 pm

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will self and ballard’s moderate modernism

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Will Self has a piece in the Guardian about his relationship to modernism – and the fact that he intends to write in a more modernist, less reader-friendly form moving forward. Feels a bit like a deathbed baptism from a man to young to go in for such a thing, and we’ll wait to see what the output of Self as born-again avantgardist looks like. But in the course of this, Self says some highly interesting – and fascinatingly inconclusive – things about his relationship to J.G. Ballard and his works – things that speak volumes I think about the strange nature of Ballard’s influence on “innovative” British fiction in recent years.

First, Self describes finding  inspiration, a “sense of traction,” in the  course of rereading Ballard in the 1980s.

In the winter of the following year I was living – in slightly more congenial circumstances – a few miles away in Barnsbury, north London. The flat was better-heated, but the chill winds of modernism were still blowing through my mind. I was reading JG Ballard’s novels – or, rather, rereading them, because as an adolescent SF fan I had gobbled them up along with Asimov’s and Heinlein’s, never pausing to consider that Ballard’s psychic probe into what he termed “inner space” was an altogether more seriously artistic endeavour. But in 1987 I got it: reading especially The Atrocity Exhibition, and then Crash, I was gripped by an unaccustomed sense of traction – I could see a way to get on. It was an experience I hadn’t had since, on reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis for the first time, aged 16, I had this epiphany: that of all the arts, fiction is the most powerful, since, with no materials other than a pen and paper, a writer can convince a reader that a man has changed into a monstrous vermin.

Then – this is where it starts to get interesting – Self seems to acknowledge that Ballard’s not actually all that modernist. That is to say, that rather than formal experimentation, what we have in most Ballard (aside from The Atrocity Exhibition and a few other minor works) is outré content strung out along rather conventional narrative frameworks and constructions.

In his memoir Miracles of Life, Ballard writes about his own Josipovici- (or Self-)style modernist moment: a prolonged rubbing and itching induced by the old-style corsetry of English fiction in the 1950s. Ballard turned to science fiction – he said – because “what interested me were the next five minutes”, rather than a simple past to be evoked by the simple past tense. Ballard, who I knew personally, could be a little disingenuous about the extent of his own influences, preferring to be seen – in literary terms, at least – as entirely sui generis, but this is a forgivable foible in a powerfully original writer. Apart from the advanced experimentation of The Atrocity Exhibition, which exhibits elements of the “cut-up” and “fold-in” methods originated by the Dadaists and channelled into English by William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin, the great majority of Ballard’s fiction has altogether traditionally realist formal properties. Indeed, it’s the juxtaposition of these hokey characters and straightforward plot lines with the outlandish psychogeographic content of Ballard’s fictive inscape that makes the books so profoundly unsettling, and ensures that they have remained surfing the zeitgeist to this day.

Following on from this judicious doubling-back on Ballard’s ostensible modernism, Self shifts to discuss Ballard’s 1995 introduction to Crash. (Some of this document is available here.) He’s exactly right to do so: Ballard’s introduction to Crash, which was written in 1995, twenty years after the original book, is a fascinating and utterly modernist document, a vivid take on what’s wrong with the contemporary non-experimental novel, and how what’s wrong with the novel has something to do with changes in culture itself.  In fact, one might be tempted to think of the introduction (I certainly am) as a bizarrely anachronistic contract, drawn up two decades late, that the novel itself that it introduces almost entirely fails to fulfill.

Most of all it was Ballard’s introduction to the 1973 French edition of Crash that lit a path for me. In it he united his own modernist sensibilities with what he termed “the death of affect”, a wholesale loss of feeling occasioned by the impact of the atomic bombs that ended the second world war, and then irradiated through the emergent mass communications technologies of the postwar period – in particular TV. It was this, Ballard wrote, that made it impossible any more to suspend disbelief in those omniscient and invisible narrators of naturalistic fictions, whose tendency to play god with their characters had surely always been a function of their own status as personations of God. […] A year or so after my reimmersion in Ballard’s oeuvre, while I was commuting to work at a Southwark office from the flat I shared with my first wife in Shepherd’s Bush, I began to work seriously on what would become my first published book, the story cycle The Quantity Theory of Insanity.

So, is it suggested here that it wasn’t so much Ballard’s fictional works as this one introduction to Crash that spurred Self on to his own work? His own work, written in a way that he is, in this very piece, now renouncing? A few paragraphs later, Self parallels himself with Ballard yet again, but in a negative light: “Like Ballard, on the whole I have been content as a novelist and short-story writer to deploy difficult content in lieu of formal experimentation.” So, in this article about the origins of Self’s modernist impulses, Ballard features as a key figure who, in the end, doesn’t live up to what it says on his tin.

Quite interesting, isn’t it? Through Self’s article – and without Self quite saying it straightforwardly – we get a picture of Ballard as a writing whose work seems to gesture in the direction of the avant garde but doesn’t quite, an author who had important thoughts about the future of the novel but failed to follow through on them, a novelist incredibly influential to English writers who intended to disobey the normative mandates of fiction in this country but who, because they were following someone who didn’t live up to his own advice, perhaps have consistently failed to do so – in fact have one after another managed to write moderately modernist works that never quite get around to problematizing the fundamentals of fictional form (character, plot, description, etc) nor the ideologies that underwrite them.

I could give you a list of who these writers are, but that would be impolitic. Anyway, I’m writing something about this at the moment, something that uses Adorno’s concept of “moderate modernism” to think through the workings of Crash and a work by a contemporary author. So you’ll probably see more notes like this on here soon.

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August 6, 2012 at 1:16 pm