Friday, August 29, 2008
J. G. Ballard: Super-Cannes (2000)
“Intimacy and neighborliness were not features of everyday life at Eden-Olympia. An invisible infrastructure took the place of traditional civic virtues. . . . Civility and polity were designed into Eden-Olympia, in the same way that mathematics, aesthetics and an entire geopolitical world-view were designed into the Parthenon and the Boeing 747. Representative democracy had been replaced by the surveillance camera and the private police force.”
Super-Cannes refers to the region above Cannes that has recently been filled with business parks and planned communities, of which Eden-Olympia is the most prominent. In these futuristic spaces, the elite of global capitalism live out their lives within a single corporate ecosystem, as both the modern offices they work in all day and the immediately adjacent gated communities they sleep in are owned and managed by the same firm. Ballard is fascinated with how the Cote d’Azur has been transformed from tourist destination and home of the traditionally wealthy into the silicon valley of France, if not all of Europe. There is a specifically European contrast between this 21st-century capitalism and old-world leisure. The difference is mapped in literary terms by repeated references to the meltdown of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s marriage (and its brutal fictional counterpart in Tender Is the Night) on the coast. Ballard's novel also describes the dissolution of a marriage, but never lets capitalism and its spaces become anything less than central agents in that breakdown.
From the beginning of the novel, Eden-Olympia is scarred by a trauma that will not remain repressed, a mark on its gleaming modernist architecture (or as in one scene, the bullet shell sitting on the bottom of the pool). The year before, one of the staff doctors for Eden-Olympia, Paul Greenwood, went on a shooting spree, killing executives and staff members before committing suicide. The murders nearly toppled Eden-Olympia, threatening the withdrawal of its investors and corporate tenants. The story begins with Paul and Jane Sinclair moving into Eden-Olympia when Jane agrees to become the replacement for the doctor. Jane quickly disappears from Paul’s life and the novel into her work, as well as heroin addiction and lesbianism. The narration is told by Paul, a pilot who broke both legs in a recent plane crash, leaving him weak and restrained by the prostheses on his legs (this fact alone identifies the book as a Ballard novel, obsessed with damaged bodies and machinic couplings); but his disability also leaves him free, like Jimmy Stewart in “Rear Window,” to play at private investigator/community surveillance system. Paul becomes obsessed with figuring out why the previous doctor turned homicidal, and discovers a “therapeutic” underground to Eden-Olympia involving beatings, child prostitution, drug dealing, and even murder. The corporate psychiatrist lays out, in perhaps too direct of terms, how the demanding work and planned security of the community have led to medical and psychological weaknesses that can only be cured through psychopathic play. The idea of the super-wealthy indulging in sadistic, even evil, activities isn’t particularly shocking or original (the film “Eyes Wide Shut” explores similar territory, and Bret Easton Ellis's "American Psycho" equates sociopathic logic with Wall Street investments). Without a doubt, many of the new rich have these vices, or have the money and power to indulge in them, but I wonder if dwelling on these criminalities steals attention from more important and changeable aspects of corporate capitalism. The need to make concrete the crimes of increasingly abstract global corporations by focusing on individuals committing specific acts of violence creates the right pathos, but perhaps little understanding. We never actually get to see what the denizens of Eden-Olympia do at work, perhaps reflecting the informatic nature of their labor. But perhaps I’m just overly hostile towards the allegorical approach.
As in McCarthy’s novel, the setting is the strength here. In fact, the aesthetics of Eden-Olympia provide the most direct account of contemporary corporate capitalism: not the labor of corporate subjects (which as I alluded to above, has become difficult to observe or conceptualize), but the world produced by and for them (this is to equate the product with the process, or to imagine a world so thoroughly incorporated that the home kitchen reveals as much as the office about capitalism). The description of Paul's wandering around the grounds of Eden-Olympia, walking down nature paths that abruptly end in a fence because they were intended only to be looked at, not actually walked down, and his forensic attention to the home assigned to him and his wife as the scene of a crime demonstrate Ballard's grasp of the surfaces and spaces of an emerging corporate world. Keeping those surfaces as clean as possible, security guards play a major role in the narrative. The ever-present quest for security (and the inevitable failure of such a quest) is clear in how characters rarely are able to take any action without a security guard at their side.