Humans are a curious species in so far as our desire to understand the world frequently outstrips both our analytical skill and our willingness to accept the truth. Nowhere is this tension better expressed than in the explosion of conspiracy theories that invariably follow the unexpected death of a celebrity.
As JG Ballard correctly diagnosed in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), celebrities are not merely people but symbols and signs. These signs and symbols bind culture together in such a way that, when the celebrity attached to them suddenly dies, the symbol continues to exist simply because of the structural role they play. Dimly aware of the undead symbolic status of these celebrities, humans attempt to account for the cognitive dissonance by either denying that they are dead or by seeking to transform their deaths into important historical moments: Osama bin Laden is simply too important to be shot dead in some Pakistani suburb.
Our desire to see the world in terms that make sense to us is also evident in our attempts to build theories that account for such random and chaotic events as war. Matthew Hope’s The Veteran explores the idea that, far from being a violent and random convulsion of the body politic, war might actually be a force of nature.
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I once attended an academic conference where a member of the audience repeated a criticism made by the author of a rather successful book. In response to this criticism, the paper-giver smiled and began his response by saying “While I think that professor X should be praised for producing such an accessible work on the subject…” before going on to explain at great length why it was that he thought that professor X was both wrong and a grotesquely ugly freak. Though I cannot remember the subject of the paper, or the criticism made of its position, or the response given to said criticism, I can still remember the audible intake of breath and the appreciative tittering from the audience when the speaker applied the word ‘accessible’ to the work of another academic. The dynamics of this withering intellectual put-down are easy enough to unpack: if a work is accessible then it means that it is written with a non-specialist audience in mind and if a work is intended to be consumed by people who are new to the subject then it cannot hope to break new-ground. However, if the aesthetics of accessibility are ‘wrong’ then what are the right aesthetics?
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One way of understanding the success of postmodernism is to ask what emotional need it satisfies and one need that always needs to be satisfied is the desire to feel smart. To be on the inside. Postmodern shibboleths such as the death of the author and the abolition of meta-narratives satisfy this desire by making it impossible to satisfy. According to principles of postmodernism, there is no authority or font of knowledge that can be used to settle disputes. Nobody gets to quote authorial intensions. Nobody gets to cite historical precedent. Under postmodernism, there are no outsiders because there are no insiders. All opinions have some validity by virtue of the fact that they are opinions. Nobody is excluded. Everyone is smart.
One way of understanding the success of certain genres is to ask what emotional needs they satisfy and one need that always needs to be satisfied is the desire to feel smart. Consider, for example, the spy novel whose Cold War popularity pandered to a desire to understand how global politics really worked once you stripped away the ideological posturing and the camera-friendly photo opportunities at which dead-eyed leaders whorishly proclaimed their desire to “do business” with each other. The same goes for cyberpunk, a literary movement concerned with the lives of the mechanics who operate beneath the selective attentions of the first world’s pampered business-class bourgeoisie in order to keep the great machine of capitalism grinding ever-onwards. However, while these fantasies of knowledge and agency pervade a great many forms and genres, they find their apotheosis in the twists and turns of the caper picture. Films like Dassin’s Rififi (1955), Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur (1956), De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (2001) and Lee’s Inside Man (2006) enjoy a magnificently complex relationship with the societies they are set in. Embodying a blue-collar vision of the examined life, they allow audiences to engage in vicarious fantasies of intellectual and social agency by following the adventures of characters who exists outside of the system whilst also displaying an insider’s familiarity with the workings of that system. The ‘system’ can be represented by a digital universe, the bureaucracy of Whitehall or the mysteries of human psychology but the caper film is always about the guys who know how to work that system: how to be free of it and how to benefit from it.
Rian Johnson’s second film The Brothers Bloom is an attempt to address both solutions to the need to feel smart. Ostensibly a caper picture featuring a gang of colourful conmen, it is also a fiercely ambitious work of postmodernist cinema that seeks not only to deconstruct the caper picture genre, but also those elements that make up the genre of postmodern cinema itself. With targets ranging from the films of Wes Anderson to those of Michael Haneke, Johnson raises a question that cuts to the heart of postmodernism in the arts: Can a work of postmodern art still produce a genuine emotional response?
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A little while ago, I reprinted my Vector piece on cinematic adaptations of the works of J. G. Ballard. One of the themes of Ballard’s work I used to pull together the different films was the concept of a benign psychopathology. This concept serves to unite the different works from the various stages of Ballard’s writing career and also forms the heart of his development of an old surrealist saw into a form of proto-postmodernism. The idea, at its simplest, is that Humanity has become detached from the environment in which its emotional hardwiring evolved. From a world of mountains, deserts, forests, swamps and plains we have moved into a world of cities, motorways, cars and conference centres. A world constructed largely by us, for us. However, despite this world being supposedly designed to suit our needs, we find ourselves paradoxically distant from it : Either the architecture surrounding us reflects our position and role in society thereby dehumanising us, Or it is an abstract expression of some impractical aesthetic ideal and it alienates us. Our reliance upon the car and the city is physically and psychologically toxic and yet we cannot return to the state of nature we once lived in. We die in car accidents by the hundreds of thousand and yet we still drive to work. We self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, losing ourselves in the pleasures of consumerism and empty sensuality and yet we do not seek to change the world. The co-dependent and unhealthy relationship we have with our environment is a benign psychopathology, a form of madness created by an attempt to adapt to an unnatural environment. A form of controlled and evolutionarily beneficial madness. A form of high-functioning dementia this benign psychopathology is an attempt to reformat our emotional hardwiring and set up a new set of stimulus-responses that are better suited to our new world.
In Ballard’s early Science Fiction novel The Drowned World (1962), the character Dr Robert Kerans is horrified when Captain Strangman drains the lagoon and makes it possible for humanity to resettle the ruins of a drowned city. In Crash (1973), the character of Ballard develops an attraction for people maimed in car crashes as automobile accidents become fetishised. In Cocaine Nights (1996), Charles Prentice comes to realise that rape, arson, theft and murder are not anti-social activities but rather necessary tools for the creation of social cohesion. Throughout Ballard’s work, the severing of Humanity’s emotional connection to the environment allowing the development of benign psychopathologies invariably results from some terrible event. An event which Ballard scholars have come to refer to as The Death of Affect, drawing upon a chapter in Ballard’s central work The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) in which a couple visit the scene of a car crash only to find that the site has been drained of all emotional content :
“These infrequent visits, dictated by whatever private logic, now seemed to provide nothing. An immense internal silence presided over this area of cement and pines, a terminal moraine of the emotions that held its debris of memory and regret, like the rubbish in the pockets of a dead schoolboy he had examined” [Page 108]
Of course, benign psychopathologies do not have to take the form of a sexual predilection for car accidents. They can be much more mundane. Much more common. Much more familiar. Nicolas Klotz’s Heartbeat Detector — based upon the French novel La Question Humaine by Francois Emmanuel — is an exploration of the idea that certain psychopathologies can survive the death of their host organism, living on in the cultural aether to rewire whole new generations to fit with new and emerging forms of environmental unpleasantness. A process of adaptation that is noticeable in certain chilling linguistic similarities.
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Two books have recently been weighing quite heavily on my mind.
The first is J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), a novel that is as striking in its imagery and ideas as it is in its formal innovation. Rather than providing a coherent narrative, Ballard chops the book up into short paragraphs that are more or less conceptually and thematically related. Themes, motifs and characters re-appear (sometimes with different names, sometimes filling spaces previously occupied by other characters) but between the disjointed writing style and the abstraction of Ballard’s ideas, it is clear to me that any story one projects upon the book is exactly that – a projection. The haecceity of the book is not a matter of plots and characters and events.
The second is Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound – Enlightenment and Extinction (2007). A work of surprisingly accessible wide-spectrum philosophy, Nihil Unbound opens with an important distinction between what he calls the scientific image of man – the best scientific model for human cognitive functioning – and the manifest image – the model we use when thinking about and describing others. The manifest image is grounded in what is known as ‘folk psychology’ and it represents centuries-worth of little theories and assumptions about how humans think. This image is made up of relatively complex ideas such as Freudian projection as well as more fundamental ideas such as the idea that there is such a thing as the self and it is that which works the controls of the body. The problem is that the clearer the scientific image becomes, the more the manifest image comes to resemble a collection of empty and surprisingly brittle superstitions.
One of the things that I have taken away from these books is the artifice and ubiquity of the story and of the narrative form.
As humans, we are constantly trying to make sense of the world around us. Our brains are optimised for pattern-recognition and, when confronted by a stream of random and unstructured data from our sense organs, our brain starts trying to make sense of it. We see stories everywhere. We even tell stories about ourselves, stitching causal histories composed of random fluctuations in hormone levels and neural pathway activation into neat little just-so tales about why we do the things we do. We are addicted to the story…
We build religions around this need to tell stories, we construct therapeutic models encouraging us to piece together the stories of our selves and, when it comes time for us to depict the world around us through art, we happily continue the pursuit – Building characters out of our woefully inaccurate folk psychological notions and marching them through worlds far more ordered and simple than our own. Sometimes we even confuse our understanding of the world with the world itself and write stories we claim to be ‘realistic’, ‘accurate’ or ‘authentic’. But all too often, what we take to be the world is just another story… a simplified and conveniently understandable abstraction. This poses a theoretical challenge to art : Can it ever capture the truth about the world, or is it necessarily a simplification of it? If it is possible then the chances are that the results will resemble something like Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog, a film about boy soldiers based upon the novel Johnny Chien Mechant by Emmanuel Dongala.
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This week has seen some quite bitter disagreement over the role of the critic in writing about genre. As pieced together by Abigail Nussbaum and Niall Harrison, the debate started when a new group blog launched claiming not only the name ‘ethics’ but also the primacy of enthusiastically positive genre writing. Before long, a test case presented itself in the shape of Martin Lewis’ review of a fantasy novel.
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