Uncanny Cartographies: Finding J.G. Ballard

It’s been a decade. A decade without J.G. Ballard. It should be more noticeable. Like filling the empty pool with emptiness, to paraphrase China Miéville. Like losing Bowie or Prince. A void of perspective, crumbling and gaping at our heels. Everyone should feel it.

His work has been translated to the screen by directors with styles as varied as Steven Spielberg (Empire of the Sun) and David Cronenberg (Crash). He was interviewed by countless talented writers, including Jon Savage, V. Vale, Will Self, Richard Kadrey, John Gray, Simon Sellars, and Mark Dery. His influence is found in sound from Joy Division, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Sisters of Mercy, K.K. Null, and Gary Numan to Madonna, Radiohead, Trevor Horn, Cadence Weapon, and Danny Brown. His writing and thinking is broad enough to elude categories and focused enough to remain absolutely singular. His work gerrymanders genre distinctions, defining and defying its own boundaries as it goes. I think of him in the same way I think of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Samuel R. Delany: as giants beyond genre.

“I suppose we are moving into a realm where inner space is no longer just inside our skulls but is in the terrain we see around us in everyday life,” Ballard told Carol Orr in 1974:

We are moving into a world where the elements of fiction are that world—and by fiction I mean anything invented to serve imaginative ends, whether it is invented by an advertising agency, a politician, an airline, or what have you. These elements have now crowded out the old-fashioned elements of reality (p. 62; see also Ballard, 1985 p. 4-5).

Since then a lot of mental offloading and cognitive outsourcing has occurred, our inner thoughts texture-mapped onto every surface. In that meantime some of Ballard’s children have emerged in mongrel forms and curtained corners of mass media. Think Wild Palms or Jackass or the ever-blurring lines between reality and show, news and entertainment. “It’s not news,” he wrote, “it’s entertainment news. A documentary on brain surgery is about entertainment brain surgery.” Inversely, Ballard collaged and kludged together the sets of his own Atrocity Exhibition out of internal organs: “[T]he nervous systems of the characters have been externalized, as part of the reversal of the interior and exterior worlds. Highways, office blocks, faces, and street signs are perceived as if they were elements in a malfunctioning central nervous system” (p. 76). Michel de Certeau once wrote, “Books are only metaphors of the body” (p. 140). Ballard often seemed to be crash-testing that idea.

The transmedia spread of everted inner space is nowhere more evident than on this confounded internet. William Gibson said as much in his novel Spook Country (Putnam, 2007, pp. 63-64). As Simon Sellars points out, unlike the cyberpunks who followed him, Ballards maps of these near futures weren’t as celebratory as they were cautionary: Dangerous Curves Ahead. Slow Down.

Sellars’ Applied Ballardianism (Urbanomic, 2018), aptly subtitled “Memoir from a Parallel Universe,” is an appropriately Ballardian blend of genres. Memoir, yes, but also biography, travel writing, narrative nonfiction, and, of course, science fiction. I haven’t finished reading it. I’m still finding my way. I’m also trying to take my time. Michel de Certeau wrote elsewhere, “What the map cuts up, the story cuts across” (p. 129). This is a map of a different terrain and a story of a different cut. I aim to enjoy it.

I feel it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: This is the way, step inside.

References:

Ballard, J. G. (1970). The Atrocity Exhibition. London: Jonathan Cape.

Ballard, J. G. (1985). Crash. New York: Vintage.

Ballard, J. G. (2012). Extreme Metaphors: Collected Interviews. Simon Sellars & Dan O’Hara, Eds. London: Fourth Estate.

de Certeau, Michel . (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Gibson, William. (2007). Spook Country. New York: Putnam.

Miéville, China. (2008). Introduction. In J. G. Ballard, Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, an Autobiography. New York: Liveright, pp. ix-xiv.

Sellars, Simon. (2018). Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe. Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic.

All About the Benjamin

Walter Benjamin is best known as a cultural critic, but he wrote all sorts of other forms and formats. Poems, parables, fables, short fiction, rhymes, riddles, and jokes, as well as transcriptions of dreams, all found their way into his extensive notebooks. According to Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie, and Sebastian Truskolaski’s introduction to The Storyteller (Verso, 2016), he also left behind a fully outlined a crime novel.

Further on in The Storyteller, Benjamin affirms Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that once a form has obsolesced, it becomes important as art, a transition possibly orthogonal to his to-do regarding the aura. “To give a name to this watershed,” Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe (2011) write, “we will use the word trajectory. A work of art—no matter the material of which it is made—has a trajectory or, to use another expression popularized by anthropologists, a career (Appadurai, 1986; Tamen, 2001)” (p. 278). Once the novelty has worn off, once the work is placed in another context, then moved to yet others, repackaged and fetishized, its meaning changes. It becomes something else.

“Walter Benjamin: Unpacking My Library” by Frances Cannon

Intentionally transforming one work into something else, Frances Cannon illustrates many of Benjamin’s aphorisms, poems, thoughts, and dreams in Walter Benjamin Reimagined (MIT Press, 2019). “While intoxicated on mescaline in 1934,” writes Esther Leslie in her foreword,

Benjamin doodled an embryonic shape of twisty lines that is composed of words from lullabies, and puns between the words for sleep and sheep–sleep, little child, sleep, my kiddikin, go off to sleep, sheep, little sheep. It is word and image at once (p. x-xi).

Lots of Benjamin’s writings lend themselves to lines, and like “Unpacking My Library” above (p. 56), Cannon’s drawings add a whimsy and a charm to some of his already playful words. It’s an excellent companion to other works by and about Benjamin.

Like that other work, Benjamin’s only autobiographical writing published in his lifetime, One-Way Street and Other Writings (Belknap Press, 2016), originally released in 1972, is enjoying renewed attention. “Reminiscences of self are reminiscences of a place,” writes Susan Sontag in her introduction to the 1997 version, “and how he positions himself in it, navigates around it.” Like his contemporaries, the Situationists, his goal was to lose his way in a place with which he was very familiar, to get lost within the known. The book is the same. As Greil Marcus puts it in this new edition, “writing not in service of any argument but that of the pleasure of its own form” (p. xx).

That thought reminds me of one of my favorite digressions in Benjamin’s writings from yet another collection: Chapter 6 of Walter Benjamin’s Archive (2007) is called “Daintiest Quarters: Notebooks,” and starts off,

Notebooks are a part of the fundamental equipment of writers, artists, architects, scientists, in short, all intellectuals who devise things—thoughts, images—that they need to record and register: Notebooks are handy traveling companions, places for the safekeeping of drafts. They provide storage space for ideas and data. When necessary they can release sheets to be passed on or inserted into another context (p 151).

Benjamin was nothing if not versatile. Radio Benjamin, edited by Lecia Rosenthal (Verso, 2014), compiles transcripts of Benjamin’s many radio broadcasts. In addition, the last section of the book features Benjamin’s various essays on the medium. Meanwhile, Benjamin and the Media by Jaeho Kang (Polity, 2014), considers his versatility—as a writer and theorist—and explores its implications. It’s the best introduction to his lasting relevance since Rolf J. Goebel’s edited collection, A Companion to the Works of Walter Benjamin (Camden House, 2009).

References:

Benjamin, Walter. (2016). One-Way Street and Other Writings. Belknap Press.

Benjamin, Walter. (2016). The Storyteller: Tales Out of Loneliness. New York: Verso.

Benjamin, Walter. (2007). Walter Benjamin’s Archive. Translated by Esther Leslie. Edited by Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwarz, Michael Schwarz, & Erdmut Wizisla. New York: Verso.

Cannon, Frances. (2019). Walter Benjamin Reimagined. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kang, Jaeho. (2014). Walter Benjamin and the Media: The Spectacle of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity.

Latour, Bruno & Lowe, Adam. (2011). The Migration of the Aura, or How to Explore the Original Through It’s Fac Similes. In Thomas Bartscherer (Ed.), Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts (pp. 275-297). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rosenthal, Lecia (Ed.) (2014). Radio Benjamin. New York: Verso.

Making Sense of the Future Tense

If you think we’re terminally distracted by our devices now, just wait a few more years. Virtual Reality, a wholly immersive set of technologies ever-poised to change everything, may finally become not only readily available but prevalent. In Future Presence: How Virtual Reality Is Changing Human Connection, Intimacy, and the Limits of Ordinary Life (HarperOne, 2018), Peter Rubin argues that though VR has been around for decades, but it might be redefining your world sooner than you think. Rubin, a senior editor at WIRED, has been covering VR for years. Immersive and accelerated intimacy stands out as a key concept in Rubin’s analysis, and outside of the obvious sexual connotations, one that’s been largely missing from previous studies. 

Simon Penny has been working in the future world of advanced technologies for a long time as well. I met Penny once in Los Angeles at Coco Conn’s house. It was the night before a talk he, Eric Paulos, and Mark Pauline of Survival Research Laboratories were giving. Eric had invited me up from San Diego. Coco’s house was buzzing with people and ideas. Aside from Penny, Pauline, and Paulos, Richard Metzger of Disinformation (now of Dangerous Minds) was there… Benjamin Bratton… It was crazy. It was one of those nights that defines a stretch of time that follows.

Likewise, Penny’s book, Making Sense: Cognition, Computing, Art, and Embodiment (MIT Press, 2017), should help define the stretch of time that follows. Arguing that cognition is as embedded as it is embodied, Penny relies on the autopoesis of Maturana and Varela as much as he does the command-and-control of Norbert Weiner. That is, the cultural processes he’s parsing are as naturally emerging as they are intentionally programmed. Penny’s primary concern is art and artistic practice, and he argues that contrivances derived from computing are not neutral. He also argues that we need to be more mindful of the metaphors we use to describe such things. All of these tools and toys are culturally loaded and must be handled as such. With its sober consideration and solid grounding, Making Sense is a very important book and deserves to be embedded in the brains prefiguring the future.

If Books Could Kill

Human culture has been deeply interested in murder and the macabre since our ancient ghost stories and monster tales. We’ve since made celebrities of our real-life serial killers. With the recent release of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built (2018), which can be seen as a much longer, artier version of Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner’s adaptation of American Psycho (2000), and Joe Berlinger’s Ted Bundy-inspired Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (2019), our fascination doesn’t seem to be waning any time soon.

Matt Dillon as Jack in Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, 2018.

“Running amok is a way of re-establishing one’s reputation as a man to be feared and respected,” writes Franco “Bifo” Berardi in Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide (Verso, 2015), “but is also a way of escaping the world when life has become intolerable, and generally culminates in suicide” (p. 55). We romanticize both aspects of this killing instinct, the nihilistic power-grab and the ultimate escape. It’s a middle finger to everyone near and far, a fuck-the-world on both the grandest and the most intimate scales.

In Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present  (Berkeley, 2018), Peter Vronsky traces this long history to find out why Western culture is so captivated by killers. Vronsky is steeped in the dark depths of murderers. His last two books were Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters (Berkeley, 2004) and Female Serial Killers: How and Why Women Become Monsters (2007), so he’s better equipped than most to investigate this phenomenon. In Sons of Cain, he goes not only further back in time but also beyond just the murderers to the torturers, cannibals, and necrophiliacs—The Evil Elite. From ancient fictions and fairy tales to FBI profiling and forensics, Vronsky uses all of the tools available.

Taking views outside the methods of criminology, Serial Killing: A Philosophical Anthology, edited by Edia Connole and Gary Shipley (Schism, 2015), includes essays by Fred Botting, David Peak, Irina Gheorghe, Paul J. Ennis, Teresa Gillespie, Eugene Thacker, Nicola Masciandro, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, and the editors, among several others.

Appropriately, Thacker continues his many explorations of philosophical pessimism herein. In “On the Road with Jack the Ripper,” Ennis argues that the urban design of East End London worked in Jack’s favor. He extracts this theory using a brief report by FBI special agent John E. Douglas, early purveyor of profiling in the bureau.

In addition to almost thirty essays, there are also images courtesy of Jesuve, Heather Masciandaro, and Teresa Gillespie, verse from Yuu Seki and Daemous Monsmoarnciensis, and text-art from Amy Ireland and Lendl Barcelos.

Like its subject matter, Serial Killing is a dark work of deep trauma, as intriguing as it is off-putting.

Poetry, Punk, and Reporting

To overstate the influence of punk culture on my little life is not possible. Through BMX and skateboarding I absorbed the do-it-yourself, damn-the-man attitude of punk rock. I got to the music a little late, but Minor Threat, 7Seconds, Naked Raygun, and others made me think about things differently. Way differently. It’s the music, to be sure, but it’s so much more than that. Talking about it feels corny and writing about it feels worse, but these three books explore it well and in three very different ways.

If it weren’t for my early zine-making and review-writing, I might never have become a writer. Gerfried Ambrosh might say the same thing. His doctoral dissertation is now a book. The Poetry of Punk (Routledge, 2018) is a vivisection of the deep tissue of the language of punk rock. Poetry is certainly not the first thing associated with punk as a genre, but lyrical meaning is as important as any other aspect of the music. Traditionally punk is protest music, so the angry vocals carry lyrics that were often written with rhetorical intent. The Poetry of Punk is the product of experience, extensive research, and several dozen interviews with punk lyricists of all sorts.

“Punk is about making a statement,” Ambrosh contends. Having been in many hardcore punk bands himself (e.g., Carnist, Momentum, etc.), he knows.

Punk has given me a lot of friends I’ve known only through the mail or online. I’ve been in touch with Gerfried for a few years, and I’ve been getting mail from Jessica Hopper since my own zine days. Hers is a name I’ve known for over 25 years. I still remember the first flier for her publicity company I got, with the name spelled out in Scrabble tiles. She’s since written about everyone who matters for everyone who matters, a lot of which is compiled in her last book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (Featherproof, 2015).

In her latest, Night Moves (University of Texas Press, 2018), Hopper gets more poetic, more personal, and more autobiographical than ever before. Described as a love letter to Chicago, Night Moves chronicles Hopper’s punk rock nights in the city, riding bikes to shows, watching the times and the neighborhoods change. It’s part memoir, part autoethnography, part urban study, Night Moves is not all about Chicago, but the city’s shadow is on all of these pages. I currently live in the area where the majority of the book takes place, so it’s not only fun to read an old friend’s stories but also to be familiar with the streets, corners, and clubs she’s writing about (See map).

Here’s an excerpt from a St. Vincent show on April 14, 2007:

The people in front and in back of us, older daters; others, proactively tweemo. But next to us, boy-girl braces-faces on a giddy date. Then five drunk douches filled out the rest of our row. When Annie came on stage in her wrinkly school uniform via Balenciaga hot-ensemb, the show-talkers, who were obviously “in their cups” as they used to say, were yakking loud like they were trying to be heard over the sound of the Green Line train pulling into the station. One of the guys yelled in Borat-voice “I Like!,” and someone else wolf-whistled. Annie did not blink, she just pile-drove some din and some fancy-free hammer-on into our faces.

Unlike Gerfried Ambrosh and Jessica Hopper, Les Hinton came up in the old-school newspaper trade. A contemporary of Rupert Murdoch, Hinton spent 50 years as a reporter. In turn, An Untidy Life (Scribe, 2018) reports on reporting, digging further into not just the news but the newsmakers, from the Beatles to the Clintons, from Bob Dylan to Princess Diana. Almost all of Hinton’s stories contain era-defining events, the kind of media moments every writer waits for, looks for, longs for. Among many other things, Hinton describes the night he had a beer with Sid Vicious in Memphis, another where he went to CBGB’s with Johnny Rotten and unknowingly chatted up Johnny Ramone, and the morning he arrived in the lobby of the Hotel Chelsea just as Vicious was being carted out, cuffed under suspicion of stabbing Nancy Spungen, whose dead body was upstairs in his bathroom. An Untidy Life isn’t all punk-rock dive bars and dishing dirt, but the stories are all told from the front row.

If it weren’t for punk, I don’t know who I’d be. If it weren’t for writing, I don’t know who I’d be either. One is about as important as the other. In very different ways, these three books illustrate that over and over again.