Chronopolitics:Space, Time and Revolution in the Later Novels of J.G. Ballard
J.G. Ballard’s novelistic production falls into a number of interrelated but thematically bound periods. Where his earliest novels The Wind from Nowhere (1961), The Drowned World (1962), The Burning World (1964), and The Crystal World (1966) present surrealist dystopias following upon natural disasters, and his middle period is characterized by investigating the effects of the increasing technologization of human life in novels such as Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974), and High Rise (1975), his most recent novels are all preoccupied with exploring the implications of extreme consumerism, capitalism, and comfort. In his four last novels, Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003), and Kingdom Come (2006), the surrealist reality of his earlier work is replaced with realistic, if rather ironic, settings that project some possible effects of the complete subsumption of human agency into the political and economic systems that organize the Western world today. In the control society which, according to Deleuze and many after him, is gradually replacing the organization of power that Foucault theorized as disciplinary society, subjects are not molded by means of institutions so much as they are constantly modulated and manipulated by means of a complete infiltration of control on all levels of being (see Deleuze 1998). The notion of control society has been taken up by a range of theorists concerned with the transformation of the political, biopolitical, and what some have called the postpolitical landscape which has emerged during the past decades. Of central importance in these theories and debates is how physical as well as psychological and emotional integrity increasingly comes into question as bodies, minds, emotions, and memories are integrated and manipulated by commercial and political interests. And as we see in Ballard, the worlds depicted in his last novels are not submerged under water, plagued [End Page 271] by drought or in the constant process of crystallization. Neither are they tracing the precarious and increasingly murky borders between humans and technology. Rather, they systematically stage ways in which agency seems to be built into the spatio-temporal coordinates of this type of control society.
These later novels, as Andrzej Gasiorek notes, mark a shift from the collapse of social systems explored in Ballard’s earlier texts to a depiction of the implications of the success of social systems (2005, 20). This is a completely different type of dystopia—the nightmare of the ultimate success of capitalism—or, as Jeanette Baxter puts it “the alliance of neo-fascism and global capitalism across a shifting contemporary Europe” (Baxter 2012, 386). Instead of dystopian wastelands and natural disasters, these later novels are set in spaces of perfection. All human needs, Gasiorek notes, “have been anticipated, and the entire social mechanism has been calibrated to minimise friction and disturbance” (2005, 21). On the one hand, Ballard’s work has been read as expressing a Baudrillardian disenchantment with the possibilities of political change in postmodernity and on the other, his engagement with questions of the social and the political has been understood in terms of more hopeful aesthetic and political movements such as the Surrealists and the Situationists International. This article reads his later novels through this ambivalence and suggests that Ballard’s last work offers ways of thinking about the difficulties but also the possibilities of locating agency in the particular spatio-temporal coordinates of contemporary capitalist structures. The preoccupation with time and space which marks these later novels is constant throughout Ballard’s oeuvre. This interest is heavily foregrounded in his short stories which, beginning with one of his very first stories “The Voices of Time,” bring together the themes, tropes, and motifs of time and space that occupy his textual production more generally. In stories such as “Chronopolis,” “The Garden of Time,” and “The Enormous Space,” Ballard releases time from the idea of a universally recognizable and measurable entity and lets it reflect, rather, a set of spaces all of which are ultimately dependent on politics. Thus, for example, the landscape in “Chronopolis” is one in which clocks have been forbidden in the wake of a revolt against what had been an utterly efficient organization of time in line with ultimate capitalist production. But why, wonders a young man trying to understand, have clocks become illegal? “It’s against the law to have a gun because you might shoot someone. But how can you hurt anybody with a clock?” The reason, his schoolteacher answers, is that you can time how long it takes a person to do something. “Then you can make him do it faster” (Ballard 2009a, 153). In “The Garden of Time,” an aristocratic couple wards off the revolution as long as they can by picking flowers that reverse, for a moment, the course of time. The theme of time as a political rather than a universal notion is arguably what makes Ballard’s particular kind of science fiction Ballardian—an interest in inner rather than outer space, as Martin Amis puts it (2009, xii)—or rather, in ways in which human existence is configured by different organizations of time and space. As such, his works reflect a [End Page 272] Marxist and post-Marxist conviction that the experience of time is intimately tied up with the organization of labor and thus reflects and fluctuates with political systems. If Ballard’s 1960s short story “Chronopolis” addresses a disciplinary society in which time is organized by means of clocks and streamlined production, Ballard’s last four novels all speak to a paradoxical sense of intense progress and pacifying stagnation. The worlds that Ballard’s characters inhabit seem to have stopped revolving at the same time as groundbreaking science is conducted and immense riches are accumulated. In Cocaine Nights, for example, the lack of demands on their time and efforts causes the citizens of an exclusive Spanish resort to turn into vegetative states, reversible only by artificially arranged criminality. Similarly, in Super-Cannes, the hard-working executives in a highly developed business park are prescribed selective psychopathy to give them a momentary break from their otherwise crippling ambition. In Millennium People, the comfortable middle-class adopts meaningless acts—blowing up a video store, killing someone at random—by means of making a change and in Kingdom Come, agency is usurped by perpetual shopping and is activated by means of arbitrary violence.
There is something repetitive about the thematics in these four novels. Time after time, Ballard insists on depicting a similar story—characters benumbed by comforts and whose needs are so pre-empted by the system that their humanity has become superfluous. Again and again, he pursues what seems to be a determination to explore angles on and implications of the “suburbanization of the soul” which “has overrun our planet like the plague” (2000, 263). Each novel also features a perverted savior figure whose purpose, it seems, is to inject some life into this modern, Western inertia. In each case, there is the sense that only arbitrary and violent events that stand outside the efficacy of perfection can create any signs of real life. The effectual temporalities and the efficient architecture need to be sabotaged if agency is to be recovered. But while the four novels have several narrative aspects in common and while they all share an emphasis on the role of time and space to the loss or production of agency, the implications of these time-space configurations are played out differently in each of them. Where Cocaine Nights explores the rich, Super-Cannes explores the elite in terms of education and science. In Millennium People, it is the comfortable middle-class that is put to the test and Kingdom Come is set in the context of the working-class. This targeting of different social groups, or classes, is mirrored in the spatial setting—the luxury condos versus the business park, the gated community versus the shopping mall—as well as in the configuration of time—the rich are “refugees from time” (1996, 216), the elite are crippled by the malaise of efficiency (2000, 251), the lawyers and university teachers are subject to the “the tyranny of space-time” (2003, 292) and the working classes suffer from the boredom of consumerism (2006). In different ways, these social groups all live in cages of perfect life, designed to absolve them, not just from work [End Page 273] or other exterior demands, but from agency itself. Time continually seems to need kick-starting and space seems to have usurped agency.
The understanding of the relation between the mechanization of life and the deadening temporality that comes with it that, as Conrad Russell notes, reaches from Romanticist attempts to escape the reification of life through Surrealists such as André Breton, to Walter Benjamin, to Henri Lefebvre, to the Situationist International, to Paul Virilio’s contemporary theorization of speed (Russell 2002), is thus staged in Ballard’s novels through a set of class-based contemporary time-space configurations. This focus on class and its relation to configurations of time and space is interesting in the light of recent theorizations of temporality and production in control society. For a post-Marxian tradition that links experiences of time to the conditions of production, a change in production also entails a change in how temporality is conceptualized. As the nature of work changes from the streamlining effectiveness of linear time and uniform space of the factory to a more distributed spatial, immaterial and affective labor, a new proletariat has been said to emerge. This proletariat is not the working classes of the industrial era, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue, but one inclusive of everyone “whose labor is exploited by capital, the entire cooperating multitude” (2000, 402). In this new biopolitical context, the production of capital is closely linked to the production of social life. “Labor” is not necessarily executed at the assembly line, but is constituted by all activities perpetuating capitalist production—culture, shopping, and leisure. In this light, Ballard’s novels and their focus on different classes, provide a prism in which to explore and rethink the distribution and nature of labor in control society. At the same time, they evoke the question of how resistance to a political system in which labor and power are thus redistributed is possible.
Are the tactics of interruption, unchaining, dérives, and other ways in which “dead time” has been counteracted by the earlier tradition on which Ballard draws still of use in these late novels? His texts are typically known for their dystopian postmodernism and bleak futuristic visions. At the same time, his work can also, as Stephenson notes, be seen as “a sustained act of subversion,” as a continuous preoccupation with toppling fundamental humanistic assumptions about bodies, identities, time and space (1991, 1). Ballard’s later novels have on the one hand been interpreted as depictions of “exhausted futures” where urban space undermines human agency (Gasiorek 2005) and on the other, as providing an enabling political Surrealist poetics (Baxter 2009). Often, and more or less against his own will, Ballard has been coupled with the theories of Baudrillard and a postmodern dystopian simulacra. Cast virtually as prototypes of postmodernist aesthetics and theory, “the killer B’s,” as they have been called, Ballard has responded ambivalently to Baudrillard and the intrusion of theories of postmodernism into his sci-fi aesthetics (see Butterfield 1999, 65). But if Ballard has been coupled with Baudrillard as “the best representatives of the postmodern incarnation of aestheticism in the West” (Butterfield 1999, 65), he has also [End Page 274] been associated with the earlier aesthetic and political movements of the Surrealists and the Situationists International. Baxter, for example, reads Ballard’s setting in The Drowned World alongside the paintings of Max Ernst (2009, 34-35) and bespeaks “the seductive qualities of Ballard’s Surrealist poetics” in The Crystal World (38). While these earlier novels are more clearly surrealist in their aesthetics, Baxter also reads his later books through this prism. The challenge, Baxter suggests after her reading of several of these novels, is to confront the “provocative cultural critiques, and in negotiating the cultural and intellectual impasses which they foreground” (217).
This article reads Ballard’s later fiction through the tension between Ballard as a prototype of postmodernism and his work as a revival/revision of Situationist politics. There are dangers and possibilities in reading his later works through Baudrillard, as Benjamin Noys notes (Noys 2007, n.p), and although Baxter provides an outline of the Situationist movement as a background to her study of Ballard she does not resume this reading in relation to Ballard’s later books. Claiming this space, then, between the Situationists and Baudrillard, this article works to identify through Ballard a way of analyzing contemporary Western politics through its current time-space configurations. In The Most Radical Gesture (1992), Sadie Plant traces how theories of specular society and of the possibilities of radical thought and resistance against its commodifying effects evolve from the assertive struggles of the Situationists to the disillusionment of the late Baudrillard. The Situationists’ analysis of the society of the spectacle and their radical tactics, Plant maintains, has had a profound and under acknowledged impact on later, postmodern theories. Their foundational analysis of how all areas of life have been permeated by alienation and commodification and how people are separated from their own experiences and desires prefigures postmodern notions of hyperreality (1992, 5). Indeed, Baudrillard and the Situationists initially shared some common ground but, Plant argues, while Baudrillard later came to transform this analysis into what she sees as a postmodern “manual for survival” without hope for change (7), Situationist strategies continue to offer a more radical suggestions of how to resist commodification and alienation. For Baudrillard, who finds it futile to continue searching for a reality underlying the spectacle, contradiction or contestation becomes well-nigh impossible. Some attempts are made, Plant acknowledges, through the notion of symbolic exchange, but these soon collapse into complete nihilism. Ultimately, his hyperreal world has completely engulfed all possibilities for subversion and “a complete rejection of any possibility of criticism” (135). In the face of such nostalgia, nihilism, and acceptance, Plant argues, we can return to the Situationists which, while assuming a similar starting point in their historical and material analysis of a society of the spectacle, can still provide the passion needed to counteract what she regards as the defeatist acknowledgement of hyperreality that overwhelmes postmodern theory. In Ballard, the political fervor and conviction of the possibility of change that shaped early Situationist politics seem to crash into the disenchantment of [End Page 275] the later day Baudrillard. His books can be seen to address Jeremy Smith’s call for an updating of the Situationists’ ideas to the twenty-first century, including a critique and an awareness of postmodernist depoliticization without nostalgia for the mentality of 1968 (2002, 34). Is there a way, Ballard’s books seem to ask, in which we can acknowledge the development and intensification of the society of the spectacle into hyperreality while still retaining some of belief in the possibility for change?
In relation to four points central to all four novels—the portrayal of the Western world as a set of spatial prisons, the sense of time as hinged to politics, the recurrence of the political importance of meaningless acts, and the presence of a more or less questionable savior figure—a set of theoretical issues emerge. And the relation between capitalism and construction of space, the domination of a political conception of time, the possibility for action in an all-encompassing system, and the system of belief required to transcend the spatio-temporal grid of everyday life are all usefully theorized by Situationist theories. In my reading, these texts are preoccupied not only with toppling assumptions of neo-liberal individual agency in a time of infinite choice but also with an investigation and search for how agency works in relation to contemporary political configurations of time and space. By reading them as a return to and adaptation of a Situationists politics to a postmodern world, I hope to discuss the role of time and space in relation to political agency in control society today.
Stuck in Space and Time
Throughout each of the novels, the organization of space underlines the specificity of the different more or less privileged classes. Setting his revolutions in the luxury condos of the rich, the business parks of the educated elite, the housing estate of the middle class, and the shopping malls of the lower-class workers respectively, class appears more than anything as a distinction of physical spaces. While the spatial set up is thus differentiated, they all have in common a sense of these spaces being constructed as prisons for each class. All clearly beneficiaries of global capitalism, they nonetheless appear as victims to its spatio-temporal logic. The territory of the rich in Estrella de Mar in Cocaine Nights is described as a place of unreality and surface, an “affectless realm” (Ballard 1996, 35) where the miles of white cement erase memory and abolishes time (34). Similarly, the nearby Costasol complex builds its inhabitants into “prisons” disguised as luxury condos designed for people to do nothing (220, 213). They sit in their “capsules” where the shadows on the walls become a “substitute for thought” (215). This is a limbo for those who can afford it, a place where the redundancy of time and movement is literally built into the structure of existence. Space not only serves as a container for passive life but seems to be endowed with more life than the characters themselves as the beach furniture are described as [End Page 276] waiting “like the armatures of the human beings that would occupy them that evening” (215). If the patient waiting of the beach furniture symbolizes the total subsumption of agency of the residents of Estrella de Mar and Costasol through the perfection of leisure, the business park in Super-Cannes, Eden-Olympia, marks the subordination of bodies to the progression of science through the spatial organization of home and office. The homes, which are constructed as part of the business park, are “service stations” for the body “to be fed and hosed down, and given just enough sexual freedom to sedate itself” (Ballard 2000, 17). The focus, instead, is on the offices which are all glass and titanium, high-tech, the architecture of executive efficiency, the model for “executive-class prison” (133). This distinction between home and office is indicative of the way in which this “intelligent city” (16) completely dominates the people working in it. The design of the park is also the design of the people. With a moral order engineered into the system they, like the business park, are beyond leisure, beyond social life, and without any “emotional trade-offs” that would give them a sense of who they are (255). Where agency in Cocaine Nights is diffused by the white walls, agency is subsumed into hyper-organized action in Super-Cannes. Like the glass and titanium, the aim is so clear that human contingencies are made superfluous.
The middle-class revolutionaries in Millennium People are imprisoned by their breeding into docile civic-mindedness (Ballard 2003, 292) and this docility is clearly accommodated and reinforced by the comforts of Jacuzzi bathtubs and upholstered sofas. It is also because of this comfort that this middle-class attempt at revolution, this “upholstered apocalypse” (67) must target its own space—their Chelsea marina, their parking slots, their National Film Theatre, Tate Modern—revolutionary action embodied in a “bonfire of the Volvos” (223). If the setting of the middle-class revolution must be its marinas and cultural centers, the setting for the contemporary working-class uprising is the shopping mall. The enormous aluminum dome of the Metro-Centre, the giant shopping mall in Kingdom Come, is described as “a cathedral of consumerism” which dominates and usurps the surrounding landscape as well as the people (Ballard 2006, 15). As one of its critics say, “we might as well be living inside that ghastly dome. Sometimes, I think we already are, without realizing it” (31). While vandalizing churches, libraries, schools or heritage sites would leave people untouched, the shopping mall is identified as the only sacred place that people care about, the attack on which would wake the population from their sedated state of life (127).
In each of the novels, then, space is depicted as a concrete challenge to the agency, freedom, and power of the characters. White concrete condos, glass and titanium business parks, affluent gated communities, and shopping malls are constructed not only to accommodate for but also to contain the rich, the scientists, the middle-class, and the working population. As we have begun to see, these spatial containers of life also carry their own temporal conditions. The white cement is designed to “abolish time,” the business-park is organized to create the most efficient employment of time, [End Page 277] the cultural centers are described as Disney land intended to obscure the void of directionless existence of the middle-class, and the shopping-mall to maintain the artificial time of uninterrupted consumption. Accordingly, the characters in the novels are not only built into spatial prisons, they are also subjected to particular temporal orders that are directly linked to the type of life and the level of agency designed into the social and economic system.
As a major theorist of post-Marxian conceptions of time and space, Henri Lefebvre provides ways of understanding how time and space alike are constructed in conjunction with political and economic demands. As the grounds for developing his concept of the everyday, Lefebvre identifies two temporal structures that characterize modern life. On the one hand, there is the cyclical temporality born from natural bodies. This is the temporality of hours, days and seasons, of birth and death, of activity and rest, of eating and sleeping (Lefebvre 2002, 49). In pre-capitalist times, he notes through Marx, the economic process of reproduction is such that it is not clearly separated from such cyclical movements (Lefebvre 2002, 319). Before the modern era, aspects of living such as eating and drinking and working were characterized by a diversity of cycles mirroring the diversity of ways and places of living. With the introduction of modern urban life, however, comes the introduction of spatial as well as temporal uniformity (Lefebvre 1987, 7). Modern life is detached from cyclical temporality as the modes of capitalist production introduce linear time—the “rational” time of production. This linear temporality dissects the cyclical as it imposes the repetitive gestures of work and consumption (Lefebvre 1987, 10). This acquired temporality does not entail the disappearance of the cyclical, however. The cyclical lingers in biological and social life as scattered pieces of time that escape the subordination of linear time (Lefebvre 2002, 48). The study of the everyday, then, is the study of the interrelation between cyclical and linear time “the persistence of rhythmic time scales within the linear time of modern industrial society” (Lefebvre 2002, 49).
What makes Lefebvre’s conception of modern times important to a reading of Ballard’s late fiction is not how well it seems to describe the fictional worlds presented but how they only manage to do so partially. Ballard’s earlier short story “Chronopolis,” in which the clocks are provided with extra, color-coded hands to maximize the employment of time by organizing the population into shifts, may be seen as a perfect illustration of Lefebvre’s conception of modern time taken to the extreme. In these later novels, however, both the cyclical “natural” time and linear rational times is under question. If “work” and “play” may be said to indicate the linear time of production and the cyclical time of needs and desires respectively, the texts portray a modern contemporaneity in which these categories are not only blurred but insufficient to describe the simultaneous sense of progress and stagnation. The staging of the different social groups in the different novels brings out the different ways in which Lefebvre’s understanding of time plays out in different classes and times. In Cocaine Nights, both cyclical and the linear time [End Page 278] are minimized. Time has died here, as Charles notes (Ballard 1996, 224). This is the future, one of the characters insist, it is spreading all over the world and “it doesn’t work or play” (218). Without work or play, this perfected life marks the peak of the construction of space at the same time as it seems to doubly surpass the political construction of time as outlined by Lefebvre. The wellbeing of the characters is so “acute” that the body is no longer subject to the machinic rhythms of the social world but neither, it seems, are they returning to a state of pre-capitalist cyclical time. There is a circular time, but the circles are growing wider and wider to the point of complete lethargy, an “amnesia of self” (262). In Super-Cannes, the circular is minimized, instead, in favor of the most efficient linearity. The very architecture of the place works to reduce the needs of the “natural,” the bother of hosing down bodies and giving them rest, the irritations of the contingent world (Ballard 2000, 19). In this totally sane, totally efficient society, linearity is built into the bodies of the buildings as well as the characters—it is “work, not play” (94).
The middle-class life in Millennium People best corresponds to the idea of intersecting temporalities of the cyclical and the linear. These well-to-do lawyers, architects, and university teachers are supposedly fully integrated into a system of a “soft-regime prison” (139) of a life well-adapted to a comfortable mix. The Millennium dome stands in the middle of town, as if marking and reflecting the perfect spatio-temporal logic of full integration into the system. Ironically round, like the cycles of needs, it is directed at the repetitions of linearity. In Kingdom Come, consumerism has supplanted the idea of a division between work and play. The complete usurpation of the Metro-Centre of its surroundings both in terms of time, space, people, and meaning perfectly reflects Baudrillard’s consumer society—
Work, leisure, nature, and culture, all previously dispersed, separate, and more or less irreducible activities that produced anxiety and complexity in our real life, and in our ‘anarchic and archaic’ cities, have finally become mixed, massaged, climate controlled, and domesticated into the simple activity of perpetual shopping.
With work and play both appropriated and turned into functional abstractions, the temporalities of the circular and personal and the linear work mode are abolished in favor of one single, continuous time of consumption. The class-bound temporalities of the four different novels thus suggest a set of different configurations of the relation between time and space in capitalist society of today. The society of the spectacle is not one but many, the spectacle as “the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production” as Debord puts it (1994, 13), are diversified through the prisms of time.
If the quantitative and desacralized time of watches and clocks has become the dominant way of understanding time since it provides “the measure of the time of work,” as Lefebvre and Catherine Régulier suggest (Lefebvre and Régulier 2004, 73), the societies Ballard portrays demand an understanding of time adjusted to the kinds of “work” taking place in contemporary Western [End Page 279] society. A key for all and which fundamentally challenges the relation between work and time is that while all four texts configure work and play differently, they all rely on the fact that the labor associated with production of goods is outsourced to the invisible and missing masses. Especially put together, the complete absence of physical labor in all four novels accentuates how the division of time is not so much taking place within society or within the individual life, but is rather separated by the global and national distribution of work and leisure. At the same time, Ballard’s complete absence of commentary on this distribution of labor becomes commentary itself as it underlines the naturalization by which the current organization of global capitalism separates labor as production and labor as affective and immaterial spatially on a world-wide scale. The Western, Northern hemisphere territories portrayed in the novels simply do not include spaces of production, only space of consumption. Here, therefore, the linearity of Lefebvre’s space of production is minimized. At the same time, the cyclical nature of what he calls lived time reemerges, but not as a universal human cycle but as class-based. As the cyclical reappears in the twenty-first century, Ballard’s novels suggest, there are no longer any “natural” bodies, adjustments to seasons, or acknowledgements of the phases of life and death. Emptied of the linear time of factory production as well as of the pre-modern cyclical mode, a third temporality emerges that corresponds to the immaterial labor of consumption. While the four books all portray such labor, the differences between them suggest that the distinction between hours, days, seasons, activity, and rest, is not universal but must be differentiated depending on the type of wellbeing you are suffering from. The body usurped by sun chairs in Cocaine Nights is an irritating inconvenience in Super-Cannes. The well-groomed body merging with the bourgeoisie comforts in Millennium People is a commodity among others in Kingdom Come. What the temporalities of these bodies have in common, however, is that they are utterly passive.
Contemporary Situations or the Cooption of Revolutionary Politics
If the society of the spectacle emerges as an economically organized space and time which has taken over agency in the four novels, it is also space and time that become the targets in the different uprisings and revolutions that they all portray. The problem to be addressed in each novel is the need to revive people, to free them from their specific spatiotemporal prisons. In “Chronopolis,” the solution was to prohibit clocks, but that also made it necessary to abandon the city and begin a very different kind of life without ambition and synchronization (Ballard 2009a, 151). In the later novels, the possibility of opting out has been abolished by the complete colonization of space. “We’re building prisons all over the world and calling them luxury [End Page 280] condos. The amazing thing is that the keys are all on the inside” (1996, 220). Rather than lateral movement, the solution must be found internally. The catatonia of dead time in Cocaine Nights, the tyranny of the efficiency of linearity in Super-Cannes, the well-adjusted everyday life in Millennium People, and the consumer torpor in Kingdom Come are all portrayed as in different ways causing extreme passivity. But whereas the reasons are different, the novels all provide the same answer to such decay of agency. In all cases, it is the need for meaningless acts that stir people. Here, Ballard quite overtly evokes a Situationist politics based on orchestrating breaks within the spectacle associated with the society of the 1960s.
Even if they were later to reject Lefebvre’s take on politics, the Situationist group, as Michel Trebitsch notes, found much of their theoretical inspiration in his work and not the least in his theory of moments which lay the grounds of their theorization of situations. Lefebvre, they found, provides the means to critique the contemporary world but not the means to make a radical change (Trebitsch 2002, xxiii). “What you call ‘moments,’ we call ‘situations,’” Lefebvre recounts them saying, “but we’re taking it farther than you. You accept as ‘moments’ everything that has occurred in the course of history: love, poetry, thought. We want to create new moments” (Ross 1997, 72). The Situationists evoked a number of strategies to shake up society, most centrally the construction of situations, the opening up of organized space through derive and the cooption of established meanings through détournement. A situation, as the core activity of this group of 1960s French activists, is the deliberate construction of an event. Intended to clarify desires that are otherwise repressed by functionalism and commerce, the situation accommodates for “a temporary field of activity favourable to these desires” (Knabb 2006, 49). Such a situation is always transitory and always intertwined with their immediate environment as the actions are “the product of the décor and of themselves” (49). The larger purpose of a situation is to bring to the surface that which is suppressed and concealed in the society of the spectacle. As time and space are approached in a manner different from what is prescribed, new possibilities emerge of changing the conditions of being. As the preoccupation with time and space suggests, and as their theoretical indebtedness to Lefebvre explains, the Situationists see the spectacle as built into the very architecture of society. The material environment gives rise to particular kinds of behavior, as Debord declares (2006, 38) and a politics of change is therefore necessarily about unsettling the way we approach the environment.
Most likely aware of the Situationists if not directly associated with them and with joint links to surrealism and post-Marxism, Ballard seems to explore the possibilities of such modes of action in the different social fields of each of the four novels. Already in earlier works, Baxter notes, Ballard reworks the Situationist politics of psychogeography, détournement, and created situations and aligns it with the earlier Surrealism as well as the neo-avant-garde (Baxter 2009, 5). The later novels in focus here present a series of situations that, at [End Page 281] least on the surface, have a number of things in common with the Situationist model. Like this model, they all have a temporary “director,” a few “direct agents” living out the situation set for them and a number of passive spectators whose are forced into action (Knabb 2006, 50). Like this model, the events are temporary and like this model, the events are intended to force “play” back into functionalist society. The savior figure in each of the novels puts a number of agents into work to construct events by creating the right ambience and ultimately force others into action. Thus, for example, the denizens of Costasol, like those at Estrella de Mar before it, who are on a passive and complacent journey of “inward migration” (Ballard 1996, 216) are shaken alive by the set of arbitrary and provocative acts staged by Bobby Crawford. By means of petty burglaries and random violence—“anything that breaks the rules” (245)—Bobby and his crew force these people into recovering their drive by reminding them that “time is finite” (244). Similarly, the elite in Super-Cannes are salvaged by the psychoanalyst Walter Penrose, described on the first page of the novel as an “amiable Prospero, the psychopomp who steered our darkest dreams towards the daylight” (Ballard 2000, 3). Prescribing psychopathy to the inhabitants of Eden-Olympia, Penrose is convinced that only meaningless violence and gratuitous madness can rescue this super-efficient elite from the malaise of efficiency and help them discover who they are. Thus madness, prescribed in carefully monitored doses, becomes the cure rather than the disease. “Meaningless violence,” as Penrose explains, “may be the true poetry of the new millennium” (Super 262). The acts that Penrose prescribe—physical violence typically directed at arbitrary people outside the business park, robbery, drug dealing—have no other purpose that to keep the perpetrators sane and they are carefully monitored, “like a vitamin shot or an antibiotic” (259).
But if these staged events have a number of similarities with the idea of the creation of “situations,” what makes them radically different is not just the violent cynicism of the events themselves but, more fundamentally, their purpose. If the Situationist idea is to intervene in the predominant ruling forces of commercialism and commodification and their “situations” are part of a strategy to transform society, the need for meaningless acts in Ballard’s novels all ultimately prove to display a set of differing agendas. In the first two novels, Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, these acts work not to upset but rather to keep the systems going. Although with slightly differing articulated purposes—Bobby Crawford yearns to bring people back to life (Ballard 1996, 219) and wants to make people feel again (246) while Walter Penrose claims to want to rescue people from the malaise of the complete sanity of capitalism—both ultimately assist in the perpetuation of the system they seemingly resist. In Super-Cannes, the meaningless acts that Penrose prescribes are not ultimately about challenging the existing system but to support it. As the minor issues ailing the executives begin to endanger their efficiency, the willed madness of his organized rattisages provides the best medicine. In this “Eden without a snake” (Ballard 2000, 258) where the [End Page 282] contingent world is an annoyance built out of the system to the best of their abilities (19), the inhabitants start suffering from what is best described exactly as the lack of contingencies. Missing out on what emerges as inconvenient but ultimately necessary “emotional trade-offs” (255), the characters are “salvaged” by Penrose’s measured psychopathy at the same time as the system is saved by this diversion of the reactions which might otherwise have been turned against it. In both these novels, then, the illegal acts of madness which on surface level seem to stand outside the functionalism of their respective societies are ultimately proven to be part of them. As such, these arbitrary acts are best understood in terms of the total subsumption of energy back into the system, a Baudrillardian meaninglessness in which any negativity or revolutionary perspective is immediately inscribed and put to work in service of the system. This is what Noys through Baudrillard calls “the murder of alterity,” the ultimate nightmare where what is staged is “both the danger of simulation leading to the internal collapse of a social system and the way in which those who manage the system recognise this risk and ‘re-inject’ alterity” (Noys 2007, n.p.).
Like the first two novels, Millennium People and Kingdom Come both portray characters struggling with a sense of meaninglessness but unlike the first two, they both in different ways include characters determined to use this meaninglessness to make a political change. In Millennium People, characters who have “never had the central heating turned off in their lives” (Ballard 2003, 67) and whose bodies “had been pummeled only by their lovers and osteopaths” (201) begin to perform meaningless terrorist acts as a reaction against “the regurgitated vomit people call consumer society” (81). To an almost comic effect, Ballard mimics the discourse of revolution but places it in the mouth of the well-to-do middle class. The discontents of too high parking fees, school fees, maintenance charges, and mortgages convince these architects, journalists, and academics that they “know why the miners went on strike” (80). Their weapon against meaninglessness is meaninglessness itself, as if nothing and nothing makes something. But as they declare in words that clearly echo Breton’s description of the “simplest Surrealist act” of “dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd” (1972, 125), the search is not for nothingness but for a new kind of meaning:
Blow up the Stock Exchange and you’re rejecting global capitalism. Bomb the Ministry of Defence 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 rational motive carries a significance of its own.
The meaningless acts have a distinct purpose which is to “shock the bourgeoisie out of its toilet training” (138) and make a difference. [End Page 283]
As in the earlier novels, the cure against the dangers of boredom in Kingdom Come is willed madness and “elective psychopathy” (Ballard 2006, 102). Worrying about the immense boredom of a perfected consumer culture and the fascist state such boredom could ultimately lead to, a group of people comes together determined to keep the boredom under control by stunts of voluntary madness. Like the art which Baudrillard finds is ultimately promoting society even as it claims to critique it, this is “the most efficient way of locking out all genuine alternatives,” (Baudrillard 2005, 203). Like the prescribed psychopathy in Super-Cannes, this part of the revolt is but “a trompel’oeil negativity” (Baudrillard 2005, 203) ultimately aimed to maintain the current order. At the same time, and another group of people are “deliberately re-primitivizing themselves” in desperate attempts to escape the rationality and boredom of consumerism (Ballard 2006, 103). The Brooklands suburbs are increasingly dominated by violence, racism and hooliganism—a “new kind of fascism, a cult of violence rising from this wilderness of retail parks and cable TV stations” (258) and a bomb, an attempted assassinations, a riot and a siege are intended to save England from this plague. Who exactly is saving what is not entirely clear as the savior figure function is distributed on the one hand to the core group of people working to avoid greater disasters, the protagonist Richard Pearson who is pulled into this game, and David Cruise, the TV-presenter who, like the consumer society he represents is “a complete fiction, from his corseted waist to his boyish smile. But he was a fake they could believe in” (93). But if Cruise is fake, and the trompe-l’oeil psychopathy is but part of the system of control, there is also a resistance against the Metro-Centre and the all-encompassing consumer society it epitomizes that is genuine. Here, the irrational stands as a break with and freedom “from all the cant and bullshit and sales commercials fed to us by politicians, bishops and academics” (105). In a Situationist détournement style, the slogans, the sales tactics and even, ultimately, the Metro-Centre itself are claimed and put to use in an attempt to effect a break with the seemingly inevitable obliteration of agency in the face of complete consumerism. Pearson, an ad-man is put to work re-purposing Cruise for the cause, and people’s worship of the Metro-Centre and the consumer culture it stands for are employed as the Metro-Centre is sieged and the people become hostages in its new republic: “a faith trapped inside its own temple” (218).
The relation between time and space and politics has, as I noted in the beginning of this essay, shaped Ballard’s literary oeuvre from its very beginning. The post-apocalyptic worlds of his earliest novels force the characters to adjust to, or re-invent new spatio-temporal systems and the spaces of urbanization and technologization that he then moved onto depicting portray the human as dominated by hyper-organized space. His [End Page 284] final novels are characterized by spaces where need and necessity no longer fuel people’s desire to participate actively in their own lives and where, as a result, not only political agency but even a more basic sense of individual will wither. It is a frightening projection that ends Ballard’s fictional oeuvre, especially as all four novels insist that they are portraying a sliver of the future. The world of leisure projected in Cocaine Nights is the fourth world “waiting to take over everything” (Ballard 1996, 216), the business park in Super-Cannes is “the face of the future” (Ballard 2000, 254), the uprising at Chelsea Marina in Millennium People is “the blueprint for the social protests of the future” (Ballard 2003, 293), and the people responsible for the Metro-Centre in Kingdom Come are “great believers in the future” (Ballard 2006, 39). While the novels and their problematics are clearly differentiated in terms of social class, they all share the sense of individual agency becoming superfluous as leisure, progress, culture, and consumerism are built into time and space. The characters are not making use of the sunbeds, offices, upholstered sofas, and consumer durables so much as they are subsumed by them. The emphasis on time and space as crucial collaborators in the construction of these advanced capitalist prisons opens up a Marxian and post-Marxian tradition of thinking about the construction of time as political at the same time as they demand that we begin to theorize a third temporality that better correspond to the immaterial labor shaping the contemporary West. Regardless of the grandeur of the futures projected in the novels—the extreme leisure, the immense scientific advances, the overwhelming comfort, and the endless possibilities of consumption—it is the problem of the everyday that is foregrounded. At the same time, the nature of this everyday is changing and any rebellion against these new rhythms demands an updating also of the subversive strategies mobilized against capitalist employment of time.
As this essay has noted, Ballard’s novels project futures in which the function of time exceeds both the circular and the linear temporalities that Lefebvre outlines. Here, the different social groups of the different novels also underline differences in the ways in which capitalism constructs its spatio-temporal coordinates in accordance with the different layers of society. By exploring what it takes to make characters wake up from the coma of wellbeing, Ballard’s books also explore the chances of recovering agency in the extremely class—but non-production based futures that each of the novel projects. Many suffer from the distribution of labor in global capitalism and the privileged Westerners that Ballard portrays certainly are not suffering in the same way as many of those in less privileged areas. Still, in portraying the beneficiaries of global capitalism as in peril of losing their agency, Ballard’s work seems to comment both on the nature of global privilege and the dangers of its passifying logic. Encouragingly, the four novels point to a sustained engagement with a politics determined to explore the possibility of breaking free from the smooth and powerful spatio-temporal conditions of contemporary capitalist society. [End Page 285]
The question, ultimately, is to what extent Ballard truly envisions a chance of breaking free. Reading the meaningless acts constructed in each of the novels through the prism of Situationist politics underlines the question of whether all exits from this system are barred or whether there is still a chance of stepping outside the existing political construction of time and create something new. Both Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes ultimately depict the radical acts of meaninglessness as ways of sustaining the system. As such, they may at best be described as performing a perverted kind of détournement of such Situationist acts of rebellion. The revolutionary tactics are coopted by a capitalist world that have discovered in them the ultimate way of maintaining its own system. Selective psychopathy sustains a desired degree of mental functionality. The fact that Ballard already in The Atrocity Exhibition from 1969 pointed to the importance of preserving the psychopathic as a “nature reserve, a last refuge for a certain kind of human freedom” (Ballard and Self 2006, 380) makes this capitulation of the psychopathic into the capitalist conformity particularly unsettling. But if the violence defended in Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes is such because it functions to maintain the logic of control society, the violence in Millennium People and Kingdom Come point toward a somewhat more hopeful potential for change. Where the first two speak to a Baudrillardian hyperreality in which divisions between those empowered and those disempowered in the Marxian sense are diffused through a logic that undermines a Marxian politics of revolt and where all acts are ultimately subsumed under the logic of late capitalism itself, the second two novels seem to speak rather to an updated Situationist will to change.
Ballard’s last two novels, then, stage their revolutions somewhat differently. The politics in Millennium People may seem preposterous when the revolution is articulated by means of olive chiabattas and parking slots but there is something genuine about the resistance and the will to radically change society. Richard Gould, the savior figure in the novel really believes that pointless acts can “challenge the universe at its own game” and the failed revolution is celebrated as such. Even if everything ultimately returns to status quo, the book ends with a sense, if not of hope then at least of life. Kingdom Come, finally, is the last and the most hopeful of the four novels. Where the meaningless acts are coopted by the capitalist system in the first two novels, there is a sense in which this last one performs a détournement of the consumer logic that governs the society and the potential fascist state that the novel depicts. The mutiny has made a difference, its “seismic jolt” unsettling the ground beneath their feet (Ballard 2006, 279). Along with the burnt down Metro-Centre, racist attacks and post-football match violence vanish into the air and the fascist threat is at least temporarily defeated. There is no radical break with the politics that have created it but at least a break from it. As such, it is suggestive, at least, of some degree of agency and possibility for change. As the motif of the burned down shopping mall as a volcano which may one day revive suggests, the defeat of the potential fascist state is not definitive, but as the final lines of the novel, which also [End Page 286] turned out to be the last words Ballard wrote in the novelistic form, call us to a revolutionary future: “the turnstiles of its beckoning paradise” may be resisted if the sane wake up and rallies themselves (280).
So, do we, and especially in the light of Baudrillard’s “The Conspiracy of Art,” dare read Ballard as providing useful insights into the mechanisms of contemporary politics and the possibilities of agency that may reside in its gaps? Baudrillard reads the Wachowski siblings’ The Matrix trilogy to show how the exposure of the real as simulated ultimately works, not to inspire resistance, but to subsume the viewers into its system. The “monopolistic superpower” that these films project contributes to the refraction of this power in the world: our perception is not challenged so much as it is claimed—like the Matrix itself, the system is reprogrammed to “integrate anomalies into the equation” (Baudrillard 2005, 203). According to this logic, Ballard’s four last novels may be regarded as a “simulated real” that makes it possible for us to tolerate the suffering of nihilism (Baudrillard 2005, 202). Or, even more disturbingly, they may be read as a set of trompe-l’oeils that methodically functions to satisfy and thereby placate any sense of need for radical change. What speaks against such a Baudrillardian approach, apart from Ballard’s own expressed optimism and his conviction that the human imagination can transcend almost everything (Ballard and Self 2006, 35-36), is the fact that he, in his very last novels, applies his explorations of time and space directly onto contemporaneity at the same time as he revives the notion of revolution. By shifting his long-term literary engagement with questions of time and space specifically toward notions of revolution and agency in the contemporary West he provides the means to think about the ways in which control society may work to subsume all attempts at change into its own logic in a Baudrillardian fashion but also, crucially, the ways in which action may still be possible. His novels suggest that we be wary—the politically hopeful tactics of the Situationists, as they themselves were quite aware, are easily subsumed into the logic they try to subvert—but also that such tactics can turn out to be useful in resisting the “fascist republics” of the shopping malls. Plant suggests that because the Situationists were fully aware of how their ideas might be recuperated into the system they were struggling to subvert, “it is tempting to imagine that there are mines laid in the terrain which has been captured from them” (1992, 187). Ballard’s last novels seem to speak to this point exactly and as such, to reintroduce a Situationist hope into the Baudrillardian hyperreality they so persistently portray. As such, they may be said to detonate some such mines and thus create some gaps in the ever-recuperating system through which critique may re-emerge. As Ballard writes toward the very end of his very last novel “the ground between our feet [is] still shifting” (Ballard 2006, 279). [End Page 287]
Frida Beckman is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Thematic Studies at Linköping University, Sweden. Her research focuses on topics such as sexuality and biopolitics as configured through contemporary literature and visual media. Her work has appeared in journals such as SubStance, Cinema Journal, and Journal of Narrative Theory and her monograph Between Desire and Pleasure: A Deleuzian Theory of Sexuality was published with EUP in the spring of 2013.