A mural depicting J G Ballard. Photograph: Thierry Ehrmann on Flickr
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J G Ballard’s immersion in catastrophe

Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J G Ballard, 1967-2008 - review.

Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J G Ballard, 1967-2008
Edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara
Fourth Estate, 528pp, £25

“I don’t know what the reverse of entropy is but I think I produce quite the opposite.” Made in an interview with Peter Rønnov-Jessen that appeared in 1984, this remark by J G Ballard was a response to Kingsley Amis’s admiring description of the novelist and short story writer as “a poet of psychic entropy”.

Amis believed that Ballard’s subject matter was the decay of order in the mind, a psychological analogue to the loss of energy that occurs in physical systems, but Ballard was having none of it. “It’s a misreading to assume that because my work is populated by abandoned hotels, drained swimming pools, empty nightclubs, deserted airfields and the like, I am celebrating the run-down of a previous psychological and social order. I am not. What I am interested in doing is using these materials as the building blocks of a new order.”

There has been much perplexity among Ballard’s critics as to his political views, with many displaying a mix of gawping incredulity and prim distaste at his departures from standard progressive positions. The editors of the current volume – an illuminating and at times revelatory collection of more than 40 interviews given over 41 years – follow this tradition, expressing bemusement at Ballard’s professed admiration for Margaret Thatcher. Why a writer presenting a view of life that subverts humanist pieties should be expected to defer to conventional political wisdom is not clear.

Ballard treated the interviews he gave as exercises in a literary genre in its own right – one that should not be read too literally. He used the format as much to unmask the unthinking assumptions of his interlocutors as to reveal anything of himself. At the same time, he was not just being provocative when he asserted that the security achieved in social-democratic societies could be suffocating. When, in the
BBC radio interview he did with me in 2000, he described “welfare state democracies” as “deeply conformist” and regretted the way “our lives are circumscribed by enlightened legislation”, he meant what he said.

Yet it would be a fundamental error to conclude that he identified himself or his work with any political programme. The “new order” of which Ballard spoke had very little to do with politics. His work is an exploration of the ways in which the human animal finds meaning and value in extreme situations – a process that in politics is rarely benign. In his view, much of history is a succession of episodes of elective mass insanity, with whole populations opting for psychosis as a way of coping with otherwise intolerable realities.

In the brilliantly enlightening interview Toby Litt did with him in 2006, Ballard addressed this theme in some depth. Reflecting “seismic movements that drift through the collective psyche”, Nazism and Stalin’s communism were examples of:

. . . extremely threatening political organisations that come to power with the complicity – that’s the extraordinary thing – of the populations they rule. People still think that Hitler and his henchmen imposed Nazi Germany on the German people. I don’t believe they did for a moment. All the eyewitnesses at the time suggest that Hitler and the Nazi leaders were extremely popular . . . And the same thing was true in Stalin’s Russia.

There is no reason to believe that outbreaks of elective madness of this kind will not keep recurring: “I think it may be that in the future we’ll be dominated by huge masochistic systems . . . The future is a system of huge competing psychopathologies.”

Much of Ballard’s work is an exploration of the flimsiness of human personality. He believed that the identity we acquire by living in society is a jerry-built makeshift, easily blown over by events; but this fragility was not something he lamented. In his interview with Phil Halper and Lard Lyer in 1992, Ballard reiterated his long-held view that: “Fiction is a branch of neurology.” As he went on to make clear, he was not talking only or even primarily about literature and the arts. Our entire view of the world is composed of fictions generated by the nervous system. These fictions must have some purchase on reality – otherwise, the human species could not have survived – but they capture only a small part of what exists. What we ordinarily perceive of the world is shaped more by social convention than by the animal inheritance that we carry within us. Any major disruption in our way of living – individual or large-scale – changes our way of seeing. In breaking up our ordinary selves, Ballard believed, such disruptive events can offer us a glimpse of freedom.

Pretty well all of Ballard’s protagonists undergo some kind of dramatic displacement. The introspective figures who find themselves in a world altered beyond recognition by global warming or drought or stranded in an urban landscape that has abruptly descended into chaos leave behind the fictive image of the world on which they had previously based their lives. At the same time, they leave behind their fictive image of themselves.

The result need not be entirely negative. Ballard is often compared with Joseph Conrad and rightly so. Both write of solitaries, bound to other human beings by unbreakable ties but facing their fate alone. What is less often noticed is how Ballard’s central characters follow the advice given by the enigmatic entomologist Stein in Conrad’s greatest novel, Lord Jim:

A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air like inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns . . . No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up . . . In the destructive element immerse!

By surrendering to a change in themselves that has been set in motion by a shift in the world, the protagonists of Ballard’s stories find a new kind of self-realisation.

Ballard’s work is composed of fictions of fulfilment. The collapse of order he describes is only the backdrop for his true subject matter, which is a process of inner transformation. Of course, he never imagined that the impact on most people of extreme situations could in practice be anything other than traumatic. For a teenage boy, he used to say, a spell in an internment camp could be an exciting adventure but the experience damaged his parents permanently. What he witnessed himself after order broke down in the camp undoubtedly left scars that never fully healed.

As the editors of this book imply, Ballard’s stories are metaphors, not literal renditions of events – actual or realistically possible. The portrayals of personal liberation through immersion in catastrophe that fill his writings are like the landscapes of the surrealists he loved so much: creations of the imagination that expand our sense of possibility and affirm the renewal of life.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His book “The Immortalization Commission: the Strange Quest to Cheat Death” has recently been published in paperback (Penguin, £9.99).

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special

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The Okay Place: the psychological value of mediocre TV

Why do we watch comedies that don’t make us laugh?

I’ve been watching Brooklyn 99 on the train. The comedy cop show makes me laugh roughly once an episode, but nonetheless I watch it compulsively. I watch it on my commute, and I watch it while cooking dinner. It’s in the background when I’m paying my bills. I consumed so many episodes last night, Netflix sent me its most notoriously judgemental pop-up: “Are you still watching?”

Yes, Netflix, I was still watching. The real question was: why?

Brooklyn 99 doesn’t really make me laugh, and it’s far from the most critically-acclaimed show available on the streaming service right now. It’s not technically mediocre – the sitcom has won two Golden Globes – but it is to me*. It provokes the same feelings in me as Netflix’s The Good Place, a kitsch sitcom set in the afterlife. I am compelled to watch at all costs, but on the whole unamused and occasionally frustrated by formulaic storylines. (Sometimes, The Good Place even makes me cringe.)

I enjoy both shows, sure, but I don’t love them. So why am I wasting my time?

(*Because this is the internet, it's a good time to specify that "mediocre" here means in the view of the person being quoted, not objectively.)

“To understand why people are drawn to certain shows, it’s helpful to look at the type of feelings the shows elicit,” says Elizabeth Cohen, a media psychologist and assistant professor at West Virginia University. Cohen says media often has a “mood management function”, in that we use it to make ourselves feel better.

“Sometimes we are looking to be emotionally stimulated, so we might choose to watch something that we think will thrill us,” she says. “But other times we might decide to forego the dark cerebral drama on our DVR and opt for a safe sitcom instead. That could be because we need something that will help us wind down, relax, and boost our mood.”

Photo: Netflix

A desire to unwind is one of the reasons Oliver Savory, a 30-year-old grad student from London, watches The Big Bang Theory, a comedy that has inspired much ire.

“It fills a niche of something to watch while eating, when you can’t focus fully, or you’ve just got in and want to unwind without thinking too hard,” he explains. Oliver says “average” TV comforts him more than “good” TV because he doesn’t have to worry about keeping up to date. “Good TV you have to make time for, average TV can fit around your own schedule without imposing itself.”

Cohen says this is referred to as “comfort food TV”, the entertainment equivalent of eating boxed mac and cheese even if you have the recipe for mum’s spaghetti. “These are shows that people watch not because they are exceptional in quality, but because they are simple, predictable, or nostalgic.”

Sometimes, we watch “okay” shows because we feel they have the potential to be great. Karen Dill-Shackleford is a media psychologist who explains this was her experience with The Good Place.

“I love The Good Place, but there was a stretch when I thought it was poor,” she says. “I kept waiting for it to right itself because I thought it had real potential.”

The potential many of us see in the show is its fresh premise, and its engagement with moral philosophy. As Dill-Shackleford puts it: “[the show] is a palatable way to ponder life’s biggest questions. So, even if the jokes are lame, the potential for real value is still there.”

Charlotte Mullin, a 23-year-old illustrator, says she doesn't laugh at the jokes either. “But what keeps me watching is the premise, and the characters. I’m a sucker for good character development, and The Good Place has it in spades,” she says. (Cohen tells me she does laugh at The Good Place, once again illustrating that mediocrity is in the eye of the beholder.)

Photo: Netflix

Ross McCafferty is a 27-year-old journalist from Glasgow who couldn’t tell you anything about NBC’s Parks and Recreation, even though he’s seen every episode. During a difficult time at work, he consumed the entire show.

“It’s actually quite a derivative, even mediocre show,” he says. “But I still ate it up, because at the time it was oddly comforting to me, self-contained and uncomplicated and unobtrusive, like so little in my life at that time.”

The reasons McCafferty liked the show, he says, is because it was “nice”, “brightly lit”, “nonthreatening” and “so sweet it was cloying”.

Bright lights and pretty colours certainly feel like one of the reasons I keep going back to mediocre sitcoms, but I also find comfort in certain characters: Chidi in The Good Place and Boyle in Brooklyn 99 are comfortingly familiar – I almost switch on to keep up to date with them, as if they were friends.

George Clarke is a 25-year-old management consultant who finds similar comfort in Seinfeld characters, even though the show doesn’t make him laugh much. “Some days I might fancy Netflix’s latest psychological thriller, but most of the time I’d just prefer to sit and watch Kramer doing something ridiculous or George stuff it up with the girl of his dreams for the fourth time that season,” he says.

But couldn’t Clarke and I find our televisual buds in prestige dramas?

“I find the idea of watching prestige shows non-stop to be exhausting,”  says David Renshaw, a 30-year-old news editor, who jokes it can feel like you “need a map” to keep up with Game of Thrones. When he finishes watching something acclaimed, such as Breaking Bad, he “cleanses the palette” with shows like Masterchef or Gogglebox. “They are much lower maintenance… especially if you’re switching between TV and phone as often as I do.”

Photo: Netflix

The comfort of the mediocre is so powerful that it can often override other emotions, such as the cringing I experience during some of The Good Place’s more strained jokes. Lizzie Roberts is a 25-year-old masters student who enjoys Gilmore Girls even though she dislikes the character Lorelai’s “painfully unfunny monologues”.

“It’s my way of letting my brain reset,” she says of the show, as well as reality TV such as Towie and I’m A Celeb. “It’s not taxing, it’s tolerable.”

“Not taxing and tolerable” are perhaps the words that best sum up the complex psychological reasons we continue to watch mediocre TV during the Golden Age of Television. Streaming services like Netflix are also designed to keep us watching, with episodes auto-playing one after the other (plus it's easier to find a show you've essentially already paid for on the Netflix homepage than go out and hunt for something better suited to your tastes).

Although watching mediocre TV can feel like a waste of time, it does seem to have a psychological purpose. When we're stressed, busy, or tired, it can be exactly the entertainment we need. Nothing is more stressful, busy, or tiring than a commute – so I'll be watching Brooklyn 99 on the train home.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special