IN THIS RIFF:
“The Subliminal Man” (1963)
1. Today is Black Friday in America. I don’t think it’s necessary to remark at length on the bizarre disjunction between this exercise in consumerism-as-culture and the intended spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday that precedes it. Indeed, I think that the cognitive dissonance that underwrites Black Friday—the compulsion to suffer (and cause suffering), both physically and mentally, to “save” money on “consumer goods” (sorry for all the scare quotes, but these terms are euphemisms and must be placed under suspicion)—I think that this cognitive dissonance is nakedly apparent to all who choose to (or are forced to) actively engage in Black Friday. The name itself is dark, ominous, wonderfully satanic.
2. Rereading “The Subliminal Man” for this project, I was struck by how presciently Ballard anticipated not only the contours of consumerist culture—urban sprawl, a debt-based economy, the mechanization of leisure, the illusion of freedom of choice—but also how closely he intuited the human, psychological responses to the consumerist society he saw on the horizon. On the fiftieth anniversary of its publication, “The Subliminal Man” seems more relevant than ever.
3. The premise of the tale is fairly straightforward and fits neatly with the schema of many other early Ballard stories: Franklin, an overworked doctor, is approached by Hathaway, a “crazy beatnik,” who refuses to take part in the non-stop consumerism of contemporary society. Hathaway can “see” the subliminal messages sent through advertising; these messages, and he asks for Franklin’s help in stopping the spread of these messages. Hathaway reasons that the messages are intended to enforce consumerist society:
Ultimately we’ll all be working and spending twenty–four hours a day, seven days a week. No one will dare refuse. Think what a slump would mean – millions of lay–offs, people with time on their hands and nothing to spend it on. Real leisure, not just time spent buying things . . .
The fear of a slump. You know the new economic dogmas. Unless output rises by a steady inflationary five per cent the economy is stagnating. Ten years ago increased efficiency alone would raise output, but the advantages there are minimal now and only one thing is left. More work. Subliminal advertising will provide the spur.
Franklin is unconvinced, even though he is already working Saturdays and Sunday mornings to payoff TVs, radios, and other electronic goods that he and his wife replace every few months. Soon, however, he realizes that something is wrong:
He began his inventory after hearing the newscast, and discovered that in the previous fortnight he and Judith had traded in their Car (previous model 2 months old) 2 TV sets (4 months) Power mower (7 months) Electric cooker (5 months) Hair dryer (4 months) Refrigerator (3 months) 2 radios (7 months) Record player (5 months) Cocktail bar (8 months)
Franklin finally sees the truth, but only after Hathaway takes to blowing up signs’ switch boxes (the word “terrorism” is of course not used in the text, although it surely would be today):
Then the flicker of lights cleared and steadied, blazing out continuously, and together the crowd looked up at the decks of brilliant letters. The phrases, and every combination of them possible, were entirely familiar, and Franklin knew that he had been reading them for weeks as he passed up and down the expressway.
BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW
YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES
Like most of these stories, “The Subliminal Man” ends on a pessimistic note, with Franklin choosing to ignore his brief enlightenment and give in. Ballard drives his criticism home in the final image of the story, with Franklin and his wife heading out to shop:
They walked out into the trim drive, the shadows of the signs swinging across the quiet neighbourhood as the day progressed, sweeping over the heads of the people on their way to the supermarket like the blades of enormous scythes.
4. “The Subliminal Man” offers a critique of consumerism that John Carpenter would make with more humor, violence, and force in his 1988 film They Live (watch it online here). In Carpenter’s film, the hero John Nada (played by Roddy Piper) finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the ads, billboards, and other commercials he’s exposed. What’s underneath? Naked consumerism:
The images here recall the opening lines of “The Subliminal Man”: ‘The signs, Doctor! Have you seen the signs?’ Like Ballard’s story, Carpenter’s film is about waking up, to seeing the controlling messages under the surface.
In his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek offers a compelling critique of just how painful it is to wake up to these messages:
It’s worth pointing out that Carpenter offers a far more optimistic vision than Ballard. Ballard’s hero gives in—goes back to sleep, shuts his eyes. Carpenter’s hero Nada resists the subliminal messages—he actually takes up arms against them. This active resistance is possible because Carpenter allows his narrative an existential escape hatch: In They Live, there are real, genuine bad guys, body-snatching ugly-assed aliens—others that have imposed consumerism on humanity to enslave them. That’s the big trick to They Live: It’s not us, it’s them.
Ballard understands that there is no them; indeed, even as the story skirts around the idea of a conspiracy to dupe consumers into cycles of nonstop buying, working, and disposing, it never pins that conspiracy on any individual or group. There’s no attack on corporations or government—there’s not even a nebulous “them” or “they” that appears to have controlling agency in “The Subliminal Man.” Rather, Ballard’s story posits ideology as the controlling force, with the only escape a kind of forced suicide.
5. By way of concluding—and, before I forget, obviously this story merits inclusion in the ideal collection I’ve been imagining, The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard—by way of concluding I would return to my earlier point: I don’t think that those who engage in consumerism-as-sport, in shopping-as-a-feeling are quite as blind as Ballard or Carpenter represent. I think they are aware. Hell, they enjoy it. What I think Ballard and Carpenter (and others, of course) really point to is the deep dissatisfaction that many of us feel with this dominant mode of life. For Ballard, we have resistance in the form of the beatnik Hathaway, an artist, a creator, a person who can perceive what real leisure would mean. For Carpenter, Nada is the resister—an outsider, a loner, a weirdo too. It’s somehow far more satisfying to believe that those who engage in spectacle consumerism are brainwashed by aliens than it is to have to come to terms with the notion that these people are acting through their own agency, of their own will and volition. Happy shopping everyone!
The final sequence of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men offers an example of film-making at its finest. Theo Faron, played by Clive Owen, frantically guides refugee Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) and her newborn through a hellish internment camp to an ostensible escape by sea. Kee, her name symbolically overdetermined, is the first person on earth to become pregnant after a generation of sterility.
Children of Men is set against the backdrop of militarized dystopia (Slavoj Žižek has suggested that this background is the essence of the film), a vile, clamorous police state that its hero Theo mutes with alcohol. Theo has yet to come to terms with the grief of losing his son, a plot conceit that mirrors the infinite loss figured in humanity’s sterility (and looming extinction). The film’s thrilling final third sees Theo convert his paralysis into radical action, as he ushers Kee and her newborn through the dystopic background, a violent blur the ideological details of which the audience is free to ignore.
Cuarón strips meaning down to raw, simple, archetypal impulses—Theo is a stand-in for any parent, Kee and her daughter emblematic of genetic futurity. The film sublimates its underlying existential discourse into a gripping narrative fueled by its audience’s own anxieties. The drama culminates in a final sequence in which Cuarón amplifies and extends the existential anxiety by refusing to cut his shots for minutes at a time. The audience finds a surrogate in both Theo and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who moves us physically through violence and disaster.
While directors like Chris Nolan and Michael Bay produce anxiety in their films through frenetic editing and rapid jump cuts, Cuarón’s long takes force the viewer to engage the drama directly. The payoff is that rare creature: A film with an ending stronger than its beginning—a film that goes, that moves, that grips its audience right up until the credits.
Cuarón’s newest film Gravity follows this same template. For ninety minutes, Cuarón—again working with cinematographer Lubezki—forces the audience into a propulsive and sustained anxiety trip. Gravity features astronauts as its heroes, but its technological milieu (space stations, shuttles, astronaut suits) belies its radical simplicity. This is a film about survival that questions why there is indeed a human impulse to survive.
Like Theo of Children of Men, the hero of Gravity Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) has also lost a child. She too has yet to come to terms with her grief. While Children of Men used a dystopic, politicized backdrop to highlight its character’s grief—and, significantly, the specter of infinite infanticide—Gravity offers up an existential void. The film’s near-perfection is that it refuses any other plot elements, giving us only Ryan’s literal attempt to save herself paired with the film’s overdetermined but singular metaphor: outer space as a beautiful, nihilistic abyss.
Gravity has been out for a few weeks now and has done gangbusters at the box office. I take this as a positive sign. This is the kind of blockbuster we need more of, a personal spectacle, a huge film in a minimalist mode. I could pick on a few things, maybe—the score is heavy-handed and obtrusive (and could probably be dispensed with entirely) and some of the dialogue falls clumsily—but I think that Cuarón has made the film he intended to, a sequel of sorts to Children of Men, and one worthy of that film’s climax.
I can’t end here though without addressing Richard Brody’s negative review of Gravity in The New Yorker. Brody is admittedly hard to take seriously after his opening claim that the film is simultaneously “viscerally thrilling and…deadly boring,” a statement that immediately highlights Brody’s biggest critical failure: He wants the film to be something that it is not trying to be.
Brody at length:
Cuarón has done a formidable job of piecing together a plausibly coherent material world of space, of conveying the appearance of that setting and the sensations of the characters who inhabit it. But he has created those sensations generically, with no difference between the subjectivity of his characters and the ostensible appearance to a camera of those phenomena. He offers point-of-view images that are imbued with no actual point of view. The movie, with its near-absolute absence of inner life, presents a material fantasy that flatters the studious humanism of critics who honor the attention to so-called reality—as an aesthetic endowed with a quasi-political virtue.
I’ve included the hyperlink in that last phrase to a confused essay in which Brody decries what he perceives as the failure of contemporary directors to address the imaginative capacity of their characters. For Brody, Gravity has to be a failure—by design, it is a thoroughly concrete transmission of events, a causal chain of consequences. Brody wants flashbacks, moments of introspection; he explicitly calls for the “moral forthrightness of a foregrounded speaker bearing witness.” In Gravity, Bullock’s Ryan is agent and surrogate for the audience, who process and bear witness to her choices and changes. The film’s minimalism strips her choices down to an extended but focused exploration of the problem Hamlet voiced centuries earlier: “To be or not to be.” And Cuarón has offered a moral forthrightness and a clear point of view, even if Brody is uncomfortable with the mechanisms through which Cuarón would have us access it: Gravity chooses To be.
IN THIS RIFF:
Stories published in 1961:
“Studio 5, The Stars”
“The Overloaded Man”
“Mr. F Is Mr. F”
“The Gentle Assassin”
1. “Studio 5, The Stars” (1961)
“Studio 5, The Stars” takes poetry as its subject and is the first story in The Complete Short Stories to focus on writing. Ballard’s tales usually concern some aspect of art, but up until now he’s been mainly concerned with music (and to a lesser extent visual art).
“Studio 5, The Stars” is the third tale in the collection set in “the crazy season at Vermilion Sands.” Our narrator is the editor of “Wave IX, an avant–garde poetry review.” Ballard constructs his story around the conceit that writing poetry has become (quite literally) a soulless, mechanical activity. Our narrator explains to his interlocutor:
I used to write a fair amount myself years ago, but the impulse faded as soon as I could afford a VT set. In the old days a poet had to sacrifice himself in order to master his medium. Now that technical mastery is simply a question of pushing a button, selecting metre, rhyme, assonance on a dial, there’s no need for sacrifice, no ideal to invent to make the sacrifice worthwhile –
Our narrator’s interlocutor is Aurora Day, a femme fatale who either is or believes she is “Melander,” an archetypal muse of poetry (invented by Ballard, of course). Aurora is distraught over the state of poetry. And no wonder. Verse is now composed on a “VT set”:
‘Hold on,’ I told him. I was pasting down one of the Xero’s satirical pastiches of Rupert Brooke and was six lines short. I handed Tony the master tape and he played it into the IBM, set the metre, rhyme scheme, verbal pairs, and then switched on, waited for the tape to chunter out of the delivery head, tore off six lines and passed them back to me. I didn’t even need to read them.
The story can perhaps be condensed into this wonderful line:
Fifty years ago a few people wrote poetry, but no one read it. Now no one writes it either. The VT set merely simplifies the whole process.
In his introduction to the collection, Ballard insisted that he “was interested in the real future” he saw coming, not an invented one. The notion of machines recording art that no one will bother to read seems particularly resonant today. Reading “Studio 5, The Stars,” I was reminded of Kenneth Goldsmith’s recent “art” project/stunt of printing the internet. There’s also something in the VT that recalls Slavoj Žižek’s riff on VCRs, machines recording and storing films that the viewer will never actually watch.
“Studio 5, The Stars” takes aim at a commercial culture that pays lip service to the high ideals of “culture” while simultaneously insuring that “culture” can be consumed at no sacrifice—no work—on the part of the consumer.
2. “Deep End” (1961)
Humanity migrates to Mars after sucking all the resources from the Earth. “Deep End” is a brief tale (and another in the collection to feature one of Ballard’s signature images, the drained swimming pool). An ecological dystopia, “Deep End” feels like a sketch for something bigger—but it gains power from its brevity, and Ballard is content to focus his energies on just a few characters and one core idea here. The restraint pays off in the story’s nihilistic punchline, which I won’t spoil here.
3. “The Overloaded Man” (1961)
“Faulkner was slowly going insane” is an excellent way to begin a story, and Ballard delivers on his promise. Faulkner can no longer stand his cookie-cutter life in a cookie-cutter house. To alleviate his alienation from modern living, Faulkner builds a strange defense mechanism—he learns that he can dissociate himself from objective reality:
Steadily, object by object, he began to switch off the world around him. The houses opposite went first. The white masses of the roofs and balconies he resolved quickly into flat rectangles, the lines of windows into small squares of colour like the grids in a Mondrian abstract. The sky was a blank field of blue. In the distance an aircraft moved across it, engines hammering. Carefully Faulkner repressed the identity of the image, then watched the slim silver dart move slowly away like a vanishing fragment from a cartoon dream.
How to overcome alienation in a Ballardian world? Even more radical alienation. While “The Overloaded Man” points to a nihilism even bleaker than that in “Deep End,” it also demonstrates a marked improvement in Ballard’s writing from the earlier stories in the collection. We see Ballard controlling metaphor and imagery with a much stronger command than in the first half-dozen stories of his career. He sets out his poor hero’s mechanized domestic milieu in one savage line:
Her kiss was quick and functional, like the automatic peck of some huge bottle–topping machine.
There’s perhaps a slight streak of misogyny in “The Overloaded Man,” which at its core might be described as a story of a man whose nagging wife depresses him. Any ambivalence or fear of the female body that we’ve seen so far in the collection—in the dull, bothersome wives of “The Overloaded Man” or “Escapement,” or the powerful femme fatales of “Prima Belladonna,” “Venus Smiles,” or “Studio 5, The Stars”—any such hint burns vividly in the next story in the collection.
4. “Mr. F Is Mr. F” (1961)
“Mr. F Is Mr. F” tells the story of Charles Freeman and his pregnant wife, a woman presented with an almost-bovine simplicity that quickly escalates into horror. Charles Freeman grows younger and younger until he’s eventually absorbed into the maternal body.
The story is so nakedly Freudian that even its narrator has no problem spelling out the subtext for readers slow on the uptake:
He was forty when he married Elizabeth, two or three years her junior, and had assumed unconsciously that he was too old to become a parent, particularly as he had deliberately selected Elizabeth as an ideal mother–substitute, and saw himself as her child rather than as her parental partner.
“Mr. F Is Mr. F” is, by my count, the first Ballard story that explicitly takes the human body as its major object of study. Time, of course, is the ever-present grand theme of Ballard’s work, but up until now he’s concentrated his attention on time’s impact on geology, psychology, and culture—but not the human body. The story doesn’t so much analyze a fear of the maternal body so much as it uses that trope to generate fear and abject disgust.
There’s a teleological neatness to “Mr. F Is Mr. F” that one senses Ballard was trying to pull off in some of his stories of the late 1950s, but couldn’t quite achieve. His chops are stronger here, and, paradoxically perhaps, less slavishly beholden to Edgar Allen Poe, he actually turns in a tale worthy of his hero.
5. “Billennium” (1961)
“Billennium” sees Ballard returning to the themes of overpopulation and overcrowding that he began exploring in 1957’s “The Concentration City.” The world Ballard imagines is horrifying—moreso because his representation of it is in some ways so terribly banal:
As for the streets, traffic had long since ceased to move about them. Apart from a few hours before dawn when only the sidewalks were crowded, every thoroughfare was always packed with a shuffling mob of pedestrians, perforce ignoring the countless ‘Keep Left’ signs suspended over their heads, wrestling past each other on their way to home and office, their clothes dusty and shapeless. Often ‘locks’ would occur when a huge crowd at a street junction became immovably jammed. Sometimes these locks would last for days. Two years earlier Ward had been caught in one outside the stadium, for over forty–eight hours was trapped in a gigantic pedestrian jam containing over 20,000 people, fed by the crowds leaving the stadium on one side and those approaching it on the other. An entire square mile of the local neighbourhood had been paralysed, and he vividly remembered the nightmare of swaying helplessly on his feet as the jam shifted and heaved, terrified of losing his balance and being trampled underfoot. When the police had finally sealed off the stadium and dispersed the jam he had gone back to his cubicle and slept for a week, his body blue with bruises.
“Billennium,” like many of the stories of 1961, benefits from Ballard’s increasing restraint. While “The Concentration City” is overfreighted with too many ideas to succeed as a perfect short story, Ballard maintains a focus in “Billennium” that pays off. And if the story is predictable—and predictably nihilistic—it nevertheless offers a chilling vision of the future that could very likely come to pass.
6. “The Gentle Assassin” (1961)
“The Gentle Assassin” is basically Ballard’s mechanism to discuss the so-called “Grandfather Paradox,” a time-travel conundrum of causality and intent. The tale is as neat and tidy as “Mr. F,” but it also showcases a patience and restraint; Ballard slowly builds an ominous, ironic atmosphere before executing his narrative trick. “The Gentle Assassin” isn’t particularly memorable, and there are dozens and dozens of versions of it to be found throughout sci-fi. Still, we see here–and in the other stories of 1961—that Ballard is more confident and able in his prose and plotting.
7. On the horizon:
We’re still a long way out from the formal experimentation of “1966’s The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” or 1968’s “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” but Ballard’s pulp fiction gets tighter—and weirder—as we go.
Watch the Cream of Slovene analyze some film in this excerpt from The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. (Via.)
In an essay published today at the LRB, Slavoj Žižek addresses the current, disparate waves of protest around the globe and explores the
difference between a reformist and a revolutionary period: in a reformist period, global revolution remains a dream which, if it does anything, merely lends weight to attempts to change things locally; in a revolutionary period, it becomes clear that nothing will improve without radical global change.
Where do we stand today with respect to this difference? Are the problems and protests of the last few years signs of an approaching global crisis, or are they just minor obstacles that can be dealt with by means of local interventions? The most remarkable thing about the eruptions is that they are taking place not only, or even primarily, at the weak points in the system, but in places which were until now perceived as success stories. We know why people are protesting in Greece or Spain; but why is there trouble in such prosperous or fast-developing countries as Turkey, Sweden or Brazil? With hindsight, we might see the Khomeini revolution of 1979 as the original ‘trouble in paradise’, given that it happened in a country that was on the fast-track of pro-Western modernisation, and the West’s staunchest ally in the region. Maybe there’s something wrong with our notion of paradise.
If the examples in the above paragraph seem too concrete for a Žižekian riff, don’t worry. Our philosopher addresses what he takes to be the ideological underpinnings of protest:
It is also important to recognise that the protesters aren’t pursuing any identifiable ‘real’ goal. The protests are not ‘really’ against global capitalism, ‘really’ against religious fundamentalism, ‘really’ for civil freedoms and democracy, or ‘really’ about any one thing in particular. What the majority of those who have participated in the protests are aware of is a fluid feeling of unease and discontent that sustains and unites various specific demands. The struggle to understand the protests is not just an epistemological one, with journalists and theorists trying to explain their true content; it is also an ontological struggle over the thing itself, which is taking place within the protests themselves. Is this just a struggle against corrupt city administration? Is it a struggle against authoritarian Islamist rule? Is it a struggle against the privatisation of public space? The question is open, and how it is answered will depend on the result of an ongoing political process.
And an answer, perhaps, to some of these questions:
Only a politics that fully takes into account the complexity of overdetermination deserves to be called a strategy. When we join a specific struggle, the key question is: how will our engagement in it or disengagement from it affect other struggles? The general rule is that when a revolt against an oppressive half-democratic regime begins, as with the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilise large crowds with slogans – for democracy, against corruption etc. But we are soon faced with more difficult choices. When the revolt succeeds in its initial goal, we come to realise that what is really bothering us (our lack of freedom, our humiliation, corruption, poor prospects) persists in a new guise, so that we are forced to recognise that there was a flaw in the goal itself. This may mean coming to see that democracy can itself be a form of un-freedom, or that we must demand more than merely political democracy: social and economic life must be democratised too. In short, what we first took as a failure fully to apply a noble principle (democratic freedom) is in fact a failure inherent in the principle itself. This realisation – that failure may be inherent in the principle we’re fighting for – is a big step in a political education.