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Forget Foucalt and Baudrillard: Read Ballard
on August 4, 2008
If you have already read "High Rise" or "Running Wild" you will easily guess the course of events in J.G. Ballard's "Millenium People:" a seemingly docile and idyllic community of educated professionals willingly regresses from the neurotic to the primitive, revealing itself capable of committing the most abject and perverse of atrocities. True, those of you familiar with Ballard's work will find little novelty here at the level of plot. What makes Ballard such a compelling author, one that we most urgently need to read, is his propensity for cultural anthropology. Ballard has always been more of a psychologist than a poet, a gifted diagnostician who is able to discern society's ailments, to outline and lucidly articulate the symptoms so that, if we so desire, we may find a cure.
This is not to say that "Millennium People" is not literary or poetic; indeed, this book is at once less vulgar than many of his early novels, and more eloquent, with few digressions and superb attention to detail, especially with regard to his characters' psychological eccentricities and nuances. Still, this book's greatest appeal lies in its cultural, psychological, and philosophical insights. For example...
On Travel: "All these trips? Let's face it, they're just a delusion. Air travel, the whole Heathrow thing, it's a collective flight from reality. People walk up to the check-ins and for once in their lives they know where they're going. Poor sods, it's printed on their tickets."
On Hollywood: "Hollywood flicks are fun, if your idea of a good time is a humburger and a milk shake. America invented the movies so it would never need to grow up. We [Brits] have angst, depression and middle-aged regret. They have Hollywood."
On Police: "Remember, the police are neutral--they hate everybody. Being law-abiding has nothing to do with being a good citizen. It means not bothering the police."
On Academia: "There's too much jargon around--'voyeurism and the male gaze', 'castration anxieties', Marxist theory-speak swallowing its own tail."
Most of these reflections appear within the first fifty or so pages of the book, which is rich with jargon-free commentary of this sort. And this puts Ballard in a curious position: thematically, while ostensibly the book about terrorism, most of the arguments are commonplace in postmodern theory, to the extent that when one reads--"Look at the world around you, David. What do you see? An endless theme park, with everything turned into entertainment. Science, politics, education - they're so many fairground rides"--one has the uncanny feeling of rereading Jean Baudrillard's essay on simulation and simulacra. Later, when one hears--"Remember, David, the middle class have to be kept under control. They understand that, and police themselves. Not with guns and gulags, but with social codes. The right way to have sex, treat your wife, flirt at tennis parties or start an affair. There are unspoken rules we all have to learn"--one might as well be reading Michel Foucault. Various other characters' "flights from the real" call to mind Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek. That said, while Ballard is often considered postmodernist, stylistically (but also in terms of content) he might be the last modernist writer left. Not only are his books conventionally structured, but they are replete with Freudian psychology and dialogues that could easily be found in any novel by Albert Camus or Jean-Paul Sartre, among others.
In fact, one leitmotif of "Millennium People" is the belief (of some characters) that "The social conventions that tied people to their cautious and sensible lives had to be leared away." This need to shock people out of their sheltered bourgeois illusions becomes one of the primary motives of the terrorists, and seems to fulfill their own psychological need. Terrorism, we are told, "isn't a search for nothingness. It's a search for meaning. Blow up the Stock Exchange and your're rejecting global capitalism. Bomb the Ministry of Defensce and you're protesting against war. You don't even need to hand out the leaflets. But a truly pointless act of violence, shooting at random into a crowd, grips our attention for months. The absence of a rational motive carries a significance of its own."
In essence, random acts of violence, according to Ballard, don't destroy meaning, they create it, filling in the void left by the death of God and the failure of science. One of the terrorists tells us: "The gods have died, and we distrust our dreams. We emerge from the void, stare back at it for a short while, and then rejoin the void. A young woman lies dead on her doorstep. A pointless crime, but the world pauses. We listen, and the universe has nothing to say. There's only silence, so we have to speak."
At a psychological level, for Ballard's characters, murder--in the form of random terrorist acts--becomes a rite of passage, and herein lies one of the problems with the book. The characters, both terrorists and victims (all of them adults but, psychologically speaking, sick children) seem to benefit from the events that take place. True, not everyone survives, but those characters who do are rewarded at the end, either materially or spiritually. While this might make for cynical commentary about contemporary western society, it is ambiguous enough to be troubling.
In an interview published together with the British edition of the book Ballard is asked: "What is your greatest fear?" He replies, "Terrorist attacks." It seems odd, then, that we should hear of one of the dead terrorists: "In his despairing and psychopathic way, [his] motives were honourable. He was trying to find meaning in the most meaningless of times, the first of a new kind of desperate man who refuses to bow before the arrogance of existence and the tyranny of space-time. He believed that the most pointless acts could challenge the universe at its own game." While Ballard condemns the man, he cannot help but sympathize with him, and this ambivalence translates into some awkward characterization.
Ballard cannot seem to decide where his sympathies lie, and so in a two-page span the main character first says, "I knew I was waiting for Richard Gould to call me" and then "I knew that I would soon be returning home." Without retelling the whole story, I'll merely say that the two options are so far apart that madness does not quite explain it. Poor editing may.
These few faults notwithstanding, "Millennium People" is blissfully disturbing, rich in thought-provoking discourse, and nothing less than erudite. This is a smart book, one sure to be enjoyed by academics as well as by a philosophically-minded lay audience. Ultimately, what Ballard says of one of his characters might just as easily be said of him: "He was the caring physician on the ward of the world, encouraging and explaining, always ready to sit beside an anxious patient and set out a complex diagnosis in layman's terms." This is precisely why it is so imperative that we continue to read Ballard: forget Foucault and Baudrillard, Ballard is all you need.