Photo of the greatest writer and philosopher of the 20th century, JG Ballard, from The Northern Light.
I have been trying to articulate what I dislike about mass-market holidays. In particular, the mass market holiday that Christmas has become.
And I find myself going to my late guru to explain; may his soul rest in peace. I miss him like he was my own father. Maybe he was, in a way.
From V. Vale's quite invaluable J.G. Ballard: Conversations, some excerpts that say it far better than I can:
People use mental formulas that they've learned from TV. Even in ordinary conversation, if you're talking to the mechanic at the garage about whether you need new tires for your car, you and he probably talk in a way that his equivalent thirty years ago would never have done. You use--not catch phrases, but verbal formulas. Suddenly you realize you're hearing echoes of some public-information, accident-prevention commercial. It's uncanny.Holidays like Halloween and Christmas are spectacles that people engage in, because they are on TV. Working retail, I consider a certain type of existential-shopping (wherein people don't really know what they are "looking" for) part of this Ballardian phenomenon.
[...] What's interesting [about Reality TV shows like Big Brother] is that almost nothing happens. There's a certain amount of bitching and gossip and sitting around the supper table talking in a sort of half-hearted way, but there's no drama. Nonetheless, the audiences are riveted. And they're riveted by very similar programs where TV producers put people on desert islands and see how they survive; a series called Survivor did just that. I think this reflects a tremendous hunger among people for "reality"--for ordinary reality. It's very difficult to find the "real," because the environment is totally manufactured.
Even one's own home is a kind of anthology of advertisers, manufacturers, motifs, and presentation techniques. There's nothing "natural" about one's home these days. The furnishings, the fabrics, the furniture, the appliances, the TV, and all the electronic equipment--we're living inside commercials. I think people realize this, and they're desperate for reality, which partly explains the surge in popularity of "adventure" holidays. People think that by living on some mountainside in a tent and being frozen to death by freezing rain, they're somehow discovering reality, but of course that's just another fiction dreamed up by a TV producer. And there's no escape.
There are so many fabulous quotes in this book, I will be blogging lots of them. For instance, about the disparity between rich and poor:
In England [this conversation was recorded in 2003], we're getting unprecedented disparities of wealth. The people who run our biggest corporations have begun to affect life in London primarily by buying up property, and the old middle class (doctors, civil servants, teachers, salaried professionals) can no longer afford to live in central London. Now there are whole areas of central London given over to the rich. I've often thought that in due course all these very rich financiers are going to leave very large sums of money to their children. Then you'll get a sort of New Leisure Class who never work, but have huge spending power--like the ancien regime in France. Supposedly, the same thing is happening in Manhattan: the middle class has been forced out...V. Vale replies that the same thing is happening in San Francisco; New York and San Francisco are the two most expensive cities in the USA. I would add that it's even true in lil ole Greenville; the 'centers' of towns/cities are now priced out of range for the actual natives of those towns/cities. Most of the people moving into the new high-priced condos in downtown Greenville, for instance, come from someplace else, often from Europe or the coasts. The rich colonizing the cities and leaving the outlying suburbs to the poor and the rabble, is the exact reverse of what happened in the 60s, when the rich moved to the suburbs and left the inner-cities to rot. Now that they crave authenticity, they have moved back to cities in droves. However, they still aren't getting the authenticity they crave, since the only people who can afford to live in cities are rich, affluent people who are all just like them.
In the cities, a bizarre new class-based uniformity has taken hold, while in my suburban apartment building, every race and age and nationality and economic status is well-represented.
Authenticity has been priced out of the market.
Speaking of which, here is Ballard on the future of sex:
[The] time is going to come when no young woman will regard penetrative penis-and-vagina sex as real sex, because it isn't deviant enough to be considered "real sex." These days, magazines for teenagers sold openly on newsstands have headlines like, "Interested in S&M sex? Junior Cosmo explains all you need to know." And this is a magazine that's going to be bought and read by 14-year-olds. The period of conventional, penetrative, penis/vagina sex will be over by the time you're about 15, and then you'll move into the area of conceptualized sex, S&M, and whatever--and that's what will be regarded as real sex. To me, this seems like a daunting thought.Ballard on the future of reading:
People don't use libraries as much as they used to. One thing I miss terribly--I don't know if the same thing applied in America, but over here in the Forties and Fifties when I first came to England, what I loved were the second-hand bookshops. Every small town had a second-hand bookshop, which was constantly being stocked up... when someone died, the family took their books to the second-hand bookshop and got sixpence each for them. There were a lot of unserious materials, popular novels and the like...but there were a lot of very serious books. You know, one serious collector in a lifetime could produce enough books to keep a second-hand bookstore open for a year.I'll be revisiting these Conversations often, which Ballard would be pleased to know, I found by browsing bookstores in the serendipitous manner he has described so well.
I did most of my reading in second-hand bookshops. I remember when I was living in London somewhere I used a local one. Also, serendipity came into it [...] You made accidental discoveries all the time. And this sort of refreshed one. You were constantly being surprised, constantly making discoveries. All this is gone now, of course. There can't be more than a half a dozen used bookshops in the whole of West London, if any.
What we've got now is a new kind of literacy. We've got people who are expert at reading the labels on products, expert at reading instructional manuals that come with a new kind of vacuum cleaner, or a computer or what have you. They're expert at that kind of reading, but not at anything else. Not with a more traditional book.
I don't know if the internet has affected that. I have very high hopes for the internet, which I think could be the sort of--if we're entering a New Dark Age, the internet could help to keep the lights on!
I miss you, man.
Ballard would have understood this song/video, which is where we get today's blog-post title. Caution, may trigger, may offend, watch out, yada yada.
(Not for the faint of heart or the oversensitive. Really.)
Vicarious - Tool
Note: Well, damn, there is some argument over exactly the lyrics I was going to quote. I always heard:
We all feed on tragedy
It's the virtue of empire
Other listeners report: "It's the virtual vampire," and still others, "like blood to a vampire." (Does anyone know the official lyrics?)
I guess you can still understand the concept, though.
Put another way: