Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Ballard was a greater social theorist than Adorno

May 5, 2009 Belatedly, Ballard
from The Pinocchio Theory by Steven Shaviro
I was greatly saddened by J. G. Ballard’s death, but I didn’t get a chance to write about it, and him, until now. I am sorry that there will not be anything more; but Ballard did live to be 78, and he left us a lot of extraordinary works...

Ballard’s great subject, in his final four novels, is the hollowness of this dream, the emptiness and inevitable disappointment of any fidelity to the Event, every bit as much as of any loyalty to the ruling order. This is the way that Ballard remains unassimilable (despite the reverential treatment that he received in death from portions of the literary Establishment, such as it is, or from fans of Steven Spielberg). He casts a bleak light upon any naive optimism and hope for change (but what optimism or hope for change is not “naive”?); while at the same time corrosively destroying any sort of faith in rational norms or in the worthiness of the ruling order. His fiction is equally antagonistic to utopian idealizations, and to those (all-too-common) disgustingly fatalistic assertions that There Is No Alternative, or that the Eternal Human Tragedy is something that we must bravely and grimly bear. [Though he did write one sort-of utopia: an odd and somewhat neglected novel, The Unlimited Dream Company].

The only (very slender) hope that his novels offer is a hope in the value in itself of a disillusioned and demystified clarity of regard — one that his narrators in these last four novels do not themselves attain, but that the attentive reader just might get to. Even the narrator of Kingdom Come, who more than flirts with fascism, ends with the warning that the nightmare of violence that works to reproduce the very social order and social hierarchies against which it is a protest will recur, “unless the sane woke and rallied themselves.” I don’t think that the narrator himself can be included in this “sane,” but the phrase points to the way that Ballard still clings (rightly) to a kind of Enlightenment ideal, even as he tracks the horrific legacy of what Adorno and Horkheimer were perhaps too narrow to call “instrumental reason.”

Ballard is (if anything) far bleaker than Adorno, but he’s also refreshingly free of Adorno’s high-European snobbery. I would want to argue, finally, that Ballard was a greater social theorist than Adorno, or than such contemporary sociological diagnostians of postmodernity as Bauman, Beck, Giddens, or Castells. And Ballard was a great social theorist not in spite of, nor even in addition to, but precisely because of, his aestheticism, or the fact that he was writing novels rather than engaging in empirical research. His four final novels really only deal with a small corner of Europe, and not with the rest of the world. But they rigorously anatomize, and shock us into a deeper awareness of, the social nightmare that, if alien to most of the world’s population, is nonetheless hegemonic over them.

May 4, 2009 God Talk from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects
Stanley Fish has a new post up extolling the virtues of Terry Eagleton’s new book Reason, Faith, and Revolution. [...]

I find this line of argument deeply perplexing. On the one hand, it seems to me that there is something deeply cynical in this approach to religion. It seems to run something like “I don’t really believe these things but my other approach to revolutionary transformation doesn’t work, this seems capable of motivating people, therefore I’ll try this.” On the other hand, and more significantly, I think, this line of argument seems to ignore the fact that the dominant forms of Christianity in the United States have been extremely comfortable bedfellows with neo-liberal capitalism and consummerist forms of life. I am not suggesting that there aren’t, occasionally, revolutionary forms of Christianity. For example, this would be the case with MLK and the way in which Ghandi drew on the teachings of Jesus. But I think these are the exception rather than the rule. All too often Christianity seems to function as a support for reigning ideology rather than something that functions to undermine this ideology. Especially objectionable is the thesis that somehow science and reason are intrinsically linked and equivalent to liberalism and capitalism.

The Monstrosity of Christ from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects
Nathan Schneider has an excellent review of Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution, and David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies over at The American Prospect. For the record, I certainly wouldn’t deny that the Christian tradition has a lot of emancipatory potential within it. I don’t think Zizek and Badiou have been misguided in their appropriations of Paul, though I do think they are wrong in their dismissals of Jesus. [...]

A recent book by Zizek and John Milbank is entitled The Monstrosity of Christ, and there does indeed seem to be something “monstrous” or sublime about Christ in the positive sense of the term. When I look at the tradition of Christianity, much of it often looks to me like a screen-memory designed to defend against this sublime monstrosity. [...]

In short, the social and political vision Christ seemed to envision was that of a form of social life beyond the Lacanian dimension of the Imaginary. The “Imaginary” here does not signify the “illusory” or “imagination”, but rather is the domain of “…wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, duality, and above all, similarity” (Dylan Evans 1996, 82). The Imaginary is the domain of self-identity, of being identical to oneself, and of social relations based on similarity. Moreover, it is the domain where we take ourselves to be masters of what we say, where we think of meaning as being defined by our intentions (psychoanalytic practice being premised on the thesis that our words and actions always say more than we intend and that meaning is bestowed by the Other, not our intentions). Lacan associates the domain of the Imaginary with that of narcissism insofar as the Ego or self-identity is produced through narcissistic identification. Most importantly, it is a realm characterized by rivalry and aggression, insofar as we see our mirror counter-parts as contesting our own identity and therefore threatening or sense of wholeness and completeness or our belief that we are master’s of ourselves and of meaning. Whenever you protest to another “but that’s not what I meant, you’re twisting my words!” you are thoroughly immersed in the domain of the imaginary.

Throughout all of his teaching and more importantly his practice, Christ can be seen as challenging this dimension of the Imaginary. He contests the domain of imaginary identification with the Other in proclaiming that “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

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