Tuesday, December 8, 2009

We won't give pause until the blood is flowing

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.

[...] 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.
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.

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 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'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 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:


thene said...

I hear you. It's alienation, I guess...people spending more time engaged with their TVs than engaged with other people. Then there's the false god of 'convenience' dropping its own conformist influence into the mix.

Really not sure about the future of sex part though - being queer and somewhat kinky, I'm wary of that kind of alarmism about sexual variety. The idea that the 'realness' of PiV sex is somehow threatened by other sexual acts has the ring to it of threatened heteronormativity.

Besides, what I've heard of more often IRL is the opposite narrative - people declaring PiV to be the only 'real' sex and saying oral & other activities 'don't count', whatever that means. So it feels like a false narrative in that respect.

What's so 'real' about PiV sex anyway? Most women can't come that way. It's real for men, I guess?

...I'm going to nitpick again here but he's dead wrong about used bookshops in West London - I used to frequent two different used book places in central Ealing alone, but here's the thing; rather than being independent enterprises they're instead under the auspices of charities (Oxfam, the local community theatre, etc). I'm guessing that those kinds of main-street nonprofits pushed for-profit used bookstores out, but from a reader's POV I'm damned if I can see what the difference is, other than that people who bring books in don't get any money for them. There are still a few for-profit used bookshops in London though, mostly on the Charing Cross Road. So yeah. Don't think that part's true.

Dennis the Vizsla said...

hello daisy its dennis the vizsla dog hay lets not forgit the absoloot wurst thing abowt krismas wich is i am on the nawty list!!!! how cud this hav happend wen i am sutch a gud dog mostly??? ok bye

DaisyDeadhead said...

Thene: Besides, what I've heard of more often IRL is the opposite narrative - people declaring PiV to be the only 'real' sex and saying oral & other activities 'don't count', whatever that means. So it feels like a false narrative in that respect.

Good question. I think I've read enough Ballard to attempt an explanation what I think he meant (which is also what I was thinking when I quoted him). I think his statement is less about PiV and more about sex become largely a product of consumer-directed realities; sex as thought-process (about ourselves) rather than as physical-process (about connection with others). The paragraphs before and after, for instance, were about porn. The idea is that we are all just thinking, watching and "rehearsing" rather than actually doing; the illusion of authenticity accompanies doing something one has seen in porn. Just like buying a product you've seen on TV; you become PART of the reality of commercial, the 'happy family' of people using the product... likewise, you become more "real" when you engage in porn-esque sex. PiV is what grandma and grandpa did/do. Other types of sex are what you dramatized in porn; they are therefore "real"...

Hope that makes sense. That's what I think he meant.

BTW, Ballard was as kinky as they come; there is quite a dearth of PiV sex in his novels, and a plethora of other sexual activities. And I think he was also surprised at how sexually precocious kids are now--as I am too. Many of us could not even articulate our feelings until our mid-twenties, and now you have kids calling themselves "tops" when they are still in high school. It IS jarring if you didn't grow up with that!

Always appreciate your comments, Thene!

PS: Dennis, a big lump of coal for you! :P You can join Cyril, peeing on my wet bathroom towels. Bad boys!

Ann ODyne said...

greetings from DownUnder dear Daisy,
another great post, but I must update Ballard 2003 on 'reading manuals ... now things come with a CD of instructions.

All roads lead to/from the Carolinas 1. in my tiny rural town we just had the procession of a massive turbine made in Charlotte, NC, on it's way to a new plant further west.

2. and what is it about your region? Today I feel so sorry for the intended Mrs B Bell, who never imagined her wedding would turn into a media circus -
"TMZ reports Tiger Woods is scheduled to be the best man at the South Carolina nuptials of Bryon Bell".
poor woman.
The media on Tiger 'won't be giving pause till the blood is flowing' either.

Starla said...

i absolutely adore tool, vicarious, and 10,000 days...
most of tool's albums include lyrics in the booklet with the artwork that comes with the CD. leaving the lyrics out of the book in 10,000 days i think is mostly contributed to maynard's epic "strangeness" - so the lyrics can't even be found on the tool band website. however, there is a secondary, great website for tool's information..check it out. :) i believe the actual lyrics are-

"We all feed on tragedy
It's like blood to a vampire"

my favorite line,
"credulous, at best
your desire to believe in..
angels in the hearts of men"

great post. If you really liked 10,000 days, i can send you many of their other albums. :D

JoJo said...

BRILLIANT POST DAISY!!!!!!!!!!!! It articulates so much of what I've been trying to say for years. I had not heard of Mr. Ballard before. Are all those excerpts from the same book? I must get it!!!

I have stated for years that I blame the lack of holiday spirit, or at least that inevitable holiday let-down on TV commercials where the perfect families, homes, meals and decorations are depicted. Impossibly beautiful guests, loving families who get along, well mannered children...how can anyone live up to that in 'real' life? And don't get me started on the parents who will move mountain and earth to get this year's "it" toy, which I believe is some hamster thing that was made in China (of course). A few years ago it was Tickle Me Elmo. Beanie Babies. Knock down drag out fights over Cabbage Patch kids.

We started to see the decline of the bookstore a few years after Borders opened in Marin County. Albion Books in Fairfax was one of those tiny, dusty, wonderful used bookstores that had survived in the same location for years...till Borders opened in San Rafael. Why spend hours trying to find a book in Albion when you can go to the large, well lit, sexy Borders that even has a cafe where you can buy your pretentious & overpriced coffee drinks?

Doc Anchovy said...

I hear people in my everyday life that sound as though they just stepped off of the set of "Friends."
I shun them, whether un-or-otherwise-consciously.

Wm. S. Burroughs once counseled, "give no quarter to the mentally infirm." While I don't exactly concur with Bill, I do agree that the babble has run over, over, through and over my cup.

The parroting of Television Speak does indeed qualify as mental illness.

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Thomas Krawford said...

While i respect Ballard's views, i don't think sex is the issue. I think our common problem is with the orgasm.

ahh, the orgasm: nature's own embedded YouTube catharsis. I don't mean to sound crass, but that which makes us come is that which ultimately indexes us to a greater or lesser extent.

But that which makes us come also speaks to who we really are in and out of bed or the garage or wherever.

i have more to say, but I'll save it for my own blog i guess.

by the way, I luv yur blog.