Saturday, May 02, 2009


Though It’s far from deliberate -- or maybe just unconsciously deliberate -- I seem to be exploring post-industrialism as romanticism. Lots of little propositions pop up as I read or watch movies, and then I spend the day reflecting on them. For instance:

Of all the unlikely sources, H-NILAS (the humanities listserv, more formally, “Nature in Literature and Story, ” which has been part mythologizers and part humane society, suddenly began to respond to a published paper arguing for the re-organizing or abolishing of disciplines in universities. The posts came fast and furious, arguing against any change versus arguing for the proposition that the Big Change has already happened (thanks to the genome, the New Physics, the Internet, et al) and all we can hope to do is clean up. The conversation often echoed the controversy over saving the Detroit automakers with all that entails, like the death of communities and the sweeping away of contracted benefits that people spent decades in assembly-line slavery to secure.

While they were arguing against universities (I agree with those who say they are already gone, replaced by corporation superstructure and adjunct faculty), I ran across a claim that “high school” was an industrial revolution invention, meant to produce workers educated enough to operate with an instruction manual and able to work in teams. (Maybe thus supporting the monster athletic programs that eat school budgets.) The idea was that running machinery or small businesses is no longer the “spine” of the economy -- they have been replaced by technology. Since the kids know more about the technology than any adults do, why should the adults be standing in a classroom lecturing? And if kids are too dumb and/or unmotivated to teach themselves, the hell with them. Not even the army wants them. Let them be drug mules. Or hustlers. (The only person who has managed to industrialize sex was Kinsey.)

Parallel and underneath these major social changes -- which admittedly are mostly happening in G-something countries -- is a new romantic movement, expressionist in a technological way. I’m talking YouTube. Shameless, inventive, constantly changing, private in a public way. Exactly suited for young people who feel there is no future for human beings on this planet, let alone themselves. Just as they felt before WWI and then again between the World Wars and when facing the Atomic Scare of the Fifties. They challenge our “old, tired ethics” and deplore the cruelty of the pointy-pencil-people who kill millions with their spreadsheet analysis of corporate greed, justifying the denial of compassionate aid, let alone basic health safety nets.

I’m reading J.G. Ballard, enticed along by Jeremy Biles’ essay on Sightings, which put a U of Chicago Div School philosophical spin on Ballard’s sci-fi social crit. Biles is an artist rather than a divine, a Ph.D. rather than an M.Div. Ballard, whom I know mostly from the movie of “Empire of the Sun,” had been through the kind of experience that creates either a Langdon Gilkey, not QUITE outside the pale, or a Ballard -- a sci-fi horror-meister who makes Cormac McCarthy look childish. (Both Gilkey and Ballard were interned in Shanghai during WWII. Gilkey was one of my professors in Chicago.) If a person sat down and read the complete works of Ballard and Gilkey, it would take a long time and the reader would stand up at the end transformed.

Two back-to-back movies -- “Youth Without Youth” the Mircea Eliade novella filmed by Francis Ford Coppola, and “Modigliani” about the early Impressionist (sort of) movement -- have played into this line of thought. Freedom, but at what a price. Love, passionate and enmeshed, strangely pitting permission to be promiscuous against a lifetime total commitment. (One of the best lines in the latter movie is Modigliani demanding from Picasso, “How do you make love to a cube, eh?”) Mostly, I’m finding exploration, even atavism, as these figures grapple with the industrial era. Monkey’s paw stuff. You can’t reform something without analyzing it, but that may disperse its ability to save or be saved.

Maybe it’s our understanding of ourselves as technologically freed from industrial stuff, but then our inevitable collision and recapture. Barrus and the Cinematheque crew seem to work on this edge. A living, beautiful boy of flesh is wrapped in industrial plastic sheeting, secured with wire so only his feet can be seen. In an essay the boy Ballard witnesses a Chinese man being killed by the Japanese slowly winding him against a pole with wire, tightly enough to kill him gradually by suffocation.

Ballard’s unifying theme for his sequel to “Empire of the Sun” is called “The Kindness of Women.” One of the women is Dr. Elizabeth Grant, whose body he dissected in a pre-med course. He details the months-long lifting away of flesh from the bones and then at the end tells how her undissected and familiar hand is bundled with those long bloodless bones, still tagged in an attempt to preserve identity, and prepared for individual cremation or burial. Would that such a sense of human individuality were preserved in remains today! Perhaps you read the ghastly accounts of body parts in coolers provided to doctors learning new surgical techniques on them at fancy resorts in between rounds of golf.

In another we-are-flesh episode, the woman in question is his wife giving birth to their third child at home with a midwife. She is in agony from her hemorrhoids being pushed out under the pressure of contractions, so Ballard makes himself useful by pushing them back in and holding her anus firmly closed until the baby has arrived. Such a gesture is so real, so normally cloaked, so practical, and so hilarious that one hardly knows how to react. There is no technology in sight except the midwife’s portable tank of anesthetic gas, which was not needed. The birth was easy.

All this funky stuff is what we seem to wrestle over. Romance is sometimes construed as all pain and mess removed, what a friend of mine calls “the Windexed world” of Disney cartoonists. But also romance is constructed as risk, torture, extreme emotions of every sort, experience with no limits. Maybe both come out of the Christian tradition: the Immaculate Conception (Gnostic) versus the Crucifixion (Manichean?). Confusing. Erasure or catharsis?

It seems to be the case that the pendulum swings back and forth from one extreme to the other (puritan against hedonism) and that the puritan impulse is aroused by danger, shortage, and bad economic times, maybe only the risk of loss rather than loss. But there is always a “saving remnant” that clings to the extravagant and possibly self-destructive courage of strong-willed individuals. In fact, at least two of my academic listservs are arguing about Everett Ruess, whose remains were recently found. A devotee of isolation in the wilderness, he had been romanticized as mystically disappearing into the desert, but now it appears that he was violently mugged by outlaws. One of the professors said frankly that he liked Ruess a lot better when he was a legend. I notice that the main promoters of the wild and risky life spend a lot of time at desks.

(I wonder whether the pop-up ads will pick up on industrial plastic sheeting and wire.)


Mary Strachan Scriver said...

What We Leave Behind
by Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay

Reviews at

After Us, the Deluge
A Review by Jeremy Garber

"Industrial civilization is incompatible with life. It is systematically destroying life on this planet, undercutting its very basis. This culture is, to put it bluntly, murdering the earth. Unless it's stopped -- whether we intentionally stop it or the natural world does, through ecological collapse or other means -- it will kill every living being. We need to stop it."
--Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay

Whisky Prajer said...

"Ballard makes himself useful" -- what a lovely, intimate moment! I haven't read this particular Ballard book, but what I have read has often left me scratching my head: his focus on cruelty, levels of pain, industrial distancing makes for a squirm-inducing melange, but to what final effect? A moment like this one, however, puts a great deal of his fixations into perspective.

I was thinking of the Powell's review as well, particularly the line which sums up the industrialist capitalist system as "based on centralizing control and externalizing consequences." Such is the system born from an innately human impulse (switching vernaculars, "original sin"). When contrasting Disney romance with the loving "usefulness" Ballard demonstrates, I start to wonder if the pornographic impulse (another of Ballard's fixations: centralizing control, externalizing consequences) doesn't demonstrate its own misguidedness as it, I think, begins with the Disney mode, then gradually increases its focus on bodily excretions, pain and humiliation. Where Ballard demonstrates courage, modesty and love as life comes into this world, porno actors embody the ironic antithesis of conception, birth, life engagement and self-actualization.

Of course, it could be I'm just mis-reading Ballard (and pornography). Anyhow, here's the link that got me thinking along those lines. Via bookforum.