J.G. Ballard, 2004: "A soft totalitarianism prevails, as obsequious as a wine waiter."

From a 2004 interview with Jeannette Baxter in The Guardian, touching on themes from Ballard’s latest novel, Millennium People

JGB: I suspect that many of the great cultural shifts that prepare the way for political change are largely aesthetic. A Buick radiator grille is as much a political statement as a Rolls Royce radiator grille, one enshrining a machine aesthetic driven by a populist optimism, the other enshrining a hierarchical and exclusive social order. The ocean liner art deco of the 1930s, used to sell everything from beach holidays to vacuum cleaners, may have helped the 1945 British electorate to vote out the Tories.

… There is something deeply suffocating about life today in the prosperous west. Bourgeoisification, the suburbanisation of the soul, proceeds at an unnerving pace. Tyranny becomes docile and subservient, and a soft totalitarianism prevails, as obsequious as a wine waiter. Nothing is allowed to distress and unsettle us. The politics of the playgroup rules us all.

The chief role of the universities is to prolong adolescence into middle age, at which point early retirement ensures that we lack the means or the will to enforce significant change. When Markham [not JGB] uses the phrase “upholstered apocalypse” he reveals that he knows what is really going on in Chelsea Marina. That is why he is drawn to Gould, who offers a desperate escape.

My real fear is that boredom and inertia may lead people to follow a deranged leader with far fewer moral scruples than Richard Gould, that we will put on jackboots and black uniforms and the aspect of the killer simply to relieve the boredom. A vicious and genuinely mindless neo-fascism, a skilfully aestheticised racism, might be the first consequence of globalisation, when Classic Coke and California merlot are the only drinks on the menu. At times I look around the executive housing estates of the Thames Valley and feel that it is already here, quietly waiting its day, and largely unknown to itself.”

Q: Am I right in thinking that one critique which your latest novel throws up is that, in the glare of the consumerist spectacle, we have lost all sense of critical distance to the realities of capitalism and globalisation? I’m thinking specifically here of the reality of terrorism. John Gray propounds a similar thesis in Straw Dogs (your chosen book of the year for 2003) when he suggests that al-Qaida is “a byproduct of globalisation, it successfully privatised terror and projected it worldwide.” What’s your feeling on this?

JGB: I agree with John Gray, and was very impressed by both Straw Dogs and his al-Qaida book. What is so disturbing about the 9/11 hijackers is that they had not spent the previous years squatting in the dust on some Afghan hillside with a rusty Kalashnikov. These were highly educated engineers and architects who had spent years sitting around in shopping malls in Hamburg and London, drinking coffee and listening to the muzak. There was certainly something very modern about their chosen method of attack, from the flying school lessons, hours on the flight simulator, the use of hijacked airliners and so on. The reaction they provoked, a huge paranoid spasm that led to the Iraq war and the rise of the neo-cons, would have delighted them.

COURTESY ANDREW M.!

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About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2022: I publish a weeklyish email newsletter called LANDLINE = https://jaybabcock.substack.com Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca., where I practiced with Buddhist teacher Ruth Denison and was involved in various pro-ecology and social justice activist activities.

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