‘Zones of Transition': Micronationalism in the work of J.G. Ballard

Map of Lunghua (Lunghwa) civilian camp, Shanghai. Courtesy Rick McGrath.

This essay by Simon Sellars was originally published in J.G. Ballard: Visions and Revisions, Jeannette Baxter and Roland Wymer, eds (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 230-48. Reproduced with thanks.

The essay can be considered a companion piece to Sellars’ earlier ‘Extreme Possibilities: Mapping the sea of time and space in J.G. Ballard’s Pacific fictions’.

From Jeannette Baxter and Roland Wymer’s introduction to J.G. Ballard: Visions and Revisions:

‘In “Zones of Transition”, Sellars re-reads the psychosocial character and logic of Ballardian space in light of the idiosyncratic, real-world phenomenon of micronations. Tracing parallels between Ballard’s physical and psychological spaces or “zones” of suspension – motorways, airports, supermarkets, shopping malls – and Marc Augé’s idea of “non-place”, Sellars tracks the development of Ballard’s varied and differentiated micronations across a wide range of short stories, such as “The Enormous Space” (1989) and “The Overloaded Man” (1961), and novels including Concrete Island, the much-neglected Rushing to Paradise and Kingdom Come. To what extent can the urge to create micronations be attributed to globalisation’s illusion of connectedness and the failure of political action to spark the mass imagination? What revolutionary potentials are to be found in Ballard’s models of micronationalism? Are they spaces of physical and psychological retreat or can they be read as viable models of imaginative resistance and regeneration? Sellars engages with such exigent questions in order to probe new critical territories and to cast a throughly contemporary light on Ballard’s shifting conceptions of psychology, space and community.’

by Simon Sellars

‘The collapse has begun’

Consider the spatial imagery in Ballard’s work. It is often predicated on a vocabulary of secession, a quasi-revolutionary zeal mediated not so much by hard rhetoric or ideology but by a concealed network of colonies, anomalous regions and virtual city-states, often metaphoric in nature and analogous to the mind-state of his deracinated characters. Examples are found across all phases of his career: the counterfeit spaceship in ‘Thirteen to Centaurus’ (1962); the abandoned New York in ‘The Ultimate City’ (1976); the gated community in Running Wild (1988); the ecotopia in Rushing to Paradise (1994); the overtly secessionist movement in Kingdom Come (2006). Ballard’s fabled vision of suburbia is similarly detached, defined as the psychological catchment area of the built environment. ‘In the suburbs you find uncentred lives,’ he told Iain Sinclair in 1999. ‘The normal civic structures are not there.’[1]. In addition to its psychosocial character, there is an anarcho-libertarian slant underpinning this spatial logic that is of particular interest since its structure and complex interaction with the outside world strongly parallels the successes and failures of the real-world phenomenon of micronations: small, often ephemeral ‘nations’, sometimes without land, but occasionally claiming the type of physical space Ballard describes. Micronations can be satirical or a component of an art project, but occasionally they can have political motives. Micronations are sometimes called ‘model nations’ since they are often hobbyist exercises that mimic the structure of independent nations and states, but are not recognized as such by established states.[2]

There is a further correspondence with what Marc Augé identifies as ‘non-place’. According to Augé, in the era of ‘supermodernity’ (the ‘obverse [of] postmodernity’), our perception of time has altered due to ‘the overabundance of events in the contemporary world’. History has lost its authority and become non-functional, collapsed into an eternal present where ‘the recent past – “the sixties”, “the seventies”, now “the eighties” – becomes history as soon as it is lived’.[3] This contraction of time and space necessitates an ‘anthropology of the near’, a discipline no longer focused on archaeo-exotic locales but on the immediate urban present, where we are ‘even more avid for meaning’ due to our inability to invest much substance in the recent past.[4] For Augé, this produces ‘a world thus surrendered to solitary individuality … a communication so peculiar that it often puts the individual in contact only with another image of himself’.[5] The physical manifestation of this is ‘non-place': ‘Spaces which are not themselves anthropological places [but] instead … are listed, classified, promoted to the status of “places of memory”, and assigned to a circumscribed and specific position’. This is a ‘world where people are born in the clinic and die in the hospital, where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions’.[6]

Augé’s terrain of transport systems, airports, supermarkets, hospitals, holiday resorts and hotel chains – overlaid with the virtual topography of super-compacted communications networks – is also rich Ballardian territory. According to Roger Luckhurst, Crash (1973), for example, portrays a ‘suspended state of duty-free malls, a zone at once inside and yet outside the legal parameters of the country it exists in … [the characters] experience the motorways as weirdly detached from an embedded culture or history or morality’.[7] The peculiar qualities engendered by Ballard’s suspended zones, mapped by the spatial and temporal vectors of Augé’s non-place, echo the odd limbo that many model nations inhabit. These qualities transform into explicitly micronational movements in Ballard’s later work, typified by Millennium People (2003), with its ‘anomalous enclave’[8] of middle-class discontents, and Kingdom Come, in which a shopping centre is overrun by consumers, sealed off by an ad-hoc paramilitary force and declared a ‘micro-republic’.[9] But Ballardian micronationalism always follows a particular trajectory, devolving into an act stripped of rebellion and recycled into a self-reflexive game that is always bested by the super-absorbent properties of consumer capitalism. When the chosen model replicates global, national and militaristic modes, micronational alternatives fatally collapse and Ballard’s failed secessionaries, trapped in this eternal feedback loop, have no choice but to integrate back into the system, which, as explained in Millennium People, is ‘self-regulating. It relies on our sense of civic responsibility. Without that, society would collapse. In fact, the collapse may even have begun’ (104). Where, if anywhere, might viable models of resistance be found in Ballard?

‘Inverted Crusoeism’

Born in Shanghai in 1930, Ballard lived there until 1945, entirely within a mesh of parallel worlds. First, he grew up among the privileged expatriate community in Shanghai’s International Settlement, which was under British and American control but on Chinese sovereign territory, and then, when war broke out, in the Lunghua civilian camp, occupied by the Japanese. He has described Shanghai’s wartime limbo as a ‘strange interregnum’ when ‘one side in World War II had moved out and the other had yet to move in’. [10] Subsequently, he elaborated, ‘zones of transition have always fascinated me’,[11] and his writing would consistently explore this fascination. For Andrzej Gasiorek, Ballard’s characters pursue a ‘flight from anything that might disturb the safety of an alienated habitat … [a] retreat from the beckoning light into the darkness of the cave [sounding] the death-knell of all politics’.[12] Although this analogy refers to the later novels, an anti-political retreat seems to have been a driving motivation right from the start of Ballard’s career. Ballard has said that his earliest literary influences were ‘The Ancient Mariner … The Tempest … Robinson Crusoe … Gulliver … even the Alice books to some extent. One reads them at a very early age, and they shape one’s view of “alternative” fiction: non-naturalistic fiction that creates a parallel world which comments on our own’.[13] The Crusoe metaphor, the potency of being cut off from civilisation (wilfully, in the Ballardian universe), testing reserves of inner strength in order to build a new world of the senses, is a motif he would return to repeatedly.[14]

Still from the documentary, Shanghai Jim (dir. James Runcie, 1991). In this sequence, Ballard returns to Shanghai and the Lunghua site, pointing to the old assembly hall building.

Tentative attempts to document this strange slipstream can be found even in his first published story, ‘The Violent Noon’ (1951). It is set during the Malayan Emergency, which lasted from 1948 to 1960, when the National Liberation Army guerrillas battled British, Malayan and Commonwealth forces. The story portrays that extraordinary stasis in the life of nations when the locus of power is undecided, or is being usurped by something unknown, resulting in a moment of suspended time, an interzone where accepted laws and morals cease to apply.[15] This peculiar sense of alienation is more clearly essayed in Ballard’s early science-fiction work, where the narratives would betray a consistent fascination with escaping the strictures of chronological clock time. ‘The Day of Forever’ (1966) is a prime example: it is about a future when the Earth has stopped rotating and time literally stands still. A young man, Halliday, haunts the abandoned hotels in an African town, scavenging food and supplies, and hoping to rediscover his ability to dream, which he somehow lost when time began to stand still. Previously, he had lived in ‘the international settlement at Trondheim in Norway’,[16] an obvious reference to Ballard’s own childhood. In his semi-fictionalised account of his war years, Empire of the Sun (1984), Ballard’s avatar, young Jim, transposes this sense of frozen time to Shanghai. He imagines Shanghai’s International Settlement as life lived ‘wholly within an intense present’,[17] a comment on the unreality of the expatriate experience, where class and privilege shelter Jim and his family from both the past – Shanghai’s relationship to its Chinese history – and the future: the spectre of impending war.[18] Unsurprisingly, given this biographical connection, Ballard has described ‘The Day of Forever’ as a ‘favourite story of mine … Perhaps the young man running around those abandoned hotels reminds me of my own adolescence, and that strange interregnum in Shanghai’.[19]

‘The Day of Forever’ and Empire of the Sun also recall Augé’s non-functionality of the past and non-existence of the future, and yet this ‘intense present’, free from both historical consequences and future implications, also liberates Jim when it is transferred to the stasis of Lunghua. In Empire, Ballard writes: ‘For the first time in his life Jim felt free to do what he wanted. All sorts of wayward ideas moved through his mind, fuelled by hunger and the excitement of stealing’ (120). In The Drowned World (1962), a subtly revolutionary flavour underwrites this liberation, hinting at micronational themes to come. The character Kerans holes up in the crumbling penthouse suite at the abandoned Ritz Hotel, in exile from the scientific party he was working with:

Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.[20]

There is a palpable sense that the vestiges of the old world are being destroyed before this ‘radically new environment’ can be ushered in, which will finally free Kerans to test and live off his mental and physical reserves without the deadening aids of civilized society: ‘This inverted Crusoeism – the deliberate marooning of himself without the assistance of a gear-laden carrack on a convenient reef – raised few anxieties in Kerans’ mind’ (47).

Concrete Island (Jonathan Cape edition, 1974). Artist: Bill Botten.

Ballard’s ‘inverted Crusoeism’ is also on display in Concrete Island, which again takes the familiar narrative shape of the robinsonade. The architect, Robert Maitland, crashes his Jaguar, stranding himself on ‘a small traffic island, some two hundred yards long and triangular in shape, that lay in the waste ground between three converging motorway routes’ (11). Maitland’s interior thoughts make the connection explicit: ‘”you’re marooned here like Crusoe – If you don’t look out you’ll be beached here for ever”‘ (32). Alone, feverish and injured, and therefore unable to leave the traffic island, which is invisible to passing motorists, he imagines the wasteland reshaping itself into ‘an exact model of his head … moving across [the island], he seemed to be following a contour line inside his head’ (69, 31). Although this suggests that the entire narrative might be taking place in Maitland’s mind, perhaps in the split seconds flashing through consciousness as he dies on the island from his injuries, the scenario can be read as more than simply a literary conceit.

Ballard wrote Concrete Island at a time when the real-world potential of micronations was beginning to be explored. The best-known example, Sealand, was founded in the late 1960s by the pirate-radio DJ, Paddy Roy Bates, who took over an abandoned WWII gun platform in the North Sea and declared it an independent state. In Western Australia, in 1970, a wheat farmer, Leonard Casley, outraged at government production quotas, formed the Hutt River Province Principality. Styling himself as ‘Prince Leonard’, he declared ‘war’ on the Australian federation, a non-violent, three-day conflict that resulted in the ‘secession’ of his farm. In the same year, a drifter named El Avivi founded another micronation, Akhzivland, by claiming a small town in Israel that had been evacuated after the War of Independence, a typical zone-within-a-zone. Akhzivland operates to this day under a cloud of dubious legality, as does Sealand and Hutt River. Maitland replicates these overt acts of reclamation, recovering and recycling of territory. Although he does not go so far as to declare war or overt sovereignty, he does in fact claim the concrete island, which, like Sealand and Akhzivland, is a liminal region, an adjunct to civilized society, forgotten and discarded: ‘”I am the island”‘, Maitland declares (71).

Approaching Sealand. Photo: Simon Sellars.

During the 1980s and 1990s, there were several further instances of individuals forming micronations in their homes and declaring their real estate as sovereign territory, either as a joke [21] or due to some kind of dissatisfaction with the outside world. Actually, it is remarkably easy to treat micronations as a joke and, indeed, adolescent boys often tend to form them, explaining the classic ‘bedroom’ mode. At one level, the act of founding a model nation is an extension of the standard adolescent fantasy of building a model train set, managing an infrastructure and controlling the lives of the little plastic people inside. It is also a variation of the teenage urge to wall oneself off from the world by never again setting foot outside the bedroom door. According to Maggie Jones, this gambit has been taken to extremes in Japan, in the explosion in recent times of ‘hikikomori’, which translates as ‘withdrawal’ and refers to ‘a person sequestered in his [bed]room for six months or longer with no social life beyond his home. (The word is a noun that describes both the problem and the person suffering from it and is also an adjective, like ‘alcoholic’.) […] though female hikikomori exist and may be undercounted, experts estimate that about 80 percent of the hikikomori are male, some as young as 13 or 14 and some who live in their rooms for 15 years or more.’

Jones discusses the phenomenon with distinctly Ballardian overtones, describing one case in which a hikikomori took showers for hours on end: ‘In some cases these psychological problems lead to hikikomori. But often they are symptoms – a consequence of spending months cooped up inside their rooms and inside their heads.’ On another occasion, a hikikomori scrubbed the bathroom tiles for many hours: ‘”Our water bills were 10 times what they’d normally be,” his brother told me. “It’s as if he was trying to clean the dirt in his mind and his heart”‘.

Jones suggests that many hikikomori withdraw in response to the uncertainty of conditions in contemporary Japan. Socialised into the traditional ‘salaryman’ way of life, in which a person’s absolute loyalty is to one place of lifetime work, the illusion of choice and identities brought about by a globalised economy means that many choose the hikikomori life rather than face the uncertainties of the new era. In another convergence with Ballard, Jones notes how hikikomori ‘often describe punching their walls in a fit of anger or frustration at their parents or at their own lives […] acts [which] seemed to be attempts to infuse feeling into a numb life’.[22] This recalls Crash and the actions of its characters who not only voluntarily shut themselves off in a micro world – the slip roads and underpasses of the motorway system – but also actively morph their bodies through pain and trauma in an attempt to counter the death of affect they feel from the world around them.

As does Jones, Ballard explicitly links this dynamic to the confusion – the ‘superabundance’ – of the post-war era:

Over our lives preside the great twin leitmotifs of the 20th century – sex and paranoia. Despite McLuhan’s delight in high-speed information mosaics we are still reminded of Freud’s profound pessimism in Civilisation and its Discontents. Voyeurism, self-disgust, the infantile basis of our dreams and longings – these diseases of the psyche have now culminated in the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect […] this demise of feeling and emotion […]

Increasingly, our concepts of past, present and future are being forced to revise themselves. Just as the past itself, in social and psychological terms, became a casualty of Hiroshima and the nuclear age […] so in its turn the future is ceasing to exist, devoured by the all-voracious present. We have annexed the future into our own present, as merely one of those manifold alternatives open to us. Options multiply around us, we live in an almost infantile world where any demand, any possibility, whether for life-styles, travel, sexual roles and identities, can be satisfied instantly.[23]

In Empire of the Sun, young Jim is effectively a Western hikikomori (under Japanese guard, ironically). In Lunghua, sharing a room with two adults who disdain him, he shuts himself off in his tiny cubicle, which is sealed off by a curtain, and where he is ‘at his happiest in this miniature universe’. The photographs posted on the walls, the ‘mise en scène’ Jim provides for himself (appropriately, since he imagines he is inside a newsreel about the war), are described in loving detail and it is clear he would stay there forever if possible. Even as he stroked the head of his pet turtle, Jim ‘envied the reptile its massive shell, a private fortress against the world’.(175)

Later, this tendency finds another striking echo in Ballard’s short story ‘The Enormous Space’ (1989), in which the character Ballantyne is demoralised by a serious car crash, a painful divorce and the incessant demands of his job. He decides to shut himself off from the world and his problems, never to leave his house again, a decision rendered in explicitly micronational terms:

I sat at the kitchen table, and tapped out my declaration of independence on the polished Formica. By closing the front door I intended to secede not only from the society around me. I was rejecting my friends and colleagues, my accountant, doctor and solicitor, and above all my ex-wife. I was breaking off all practical connections with the outside world. I would never again step through the front door.[24]

Having seceded into willed social isolation, Ballantyne collapses the outside world into a fatally narrow inner perspective: ‘I would eat only whatever food I could find within the house. After that I would rely on time and space to sustain me’ (698). With that, he convinces himself that he is free to do as he pleases, to the exclusion of all others, since he is supposedly acting true to his imagination, a point Ballard makes by reintroducing the Crusoe metaphor:

In every way I am marooned, but a reductive Crusoe paring away exactly those elements of bourgeois life which the original Robinson so dutifully reconstituted. Crusoe wished to bring the Croydons of his own day to life again on his island. I want to expel them, and find in their place a far richer realm formed from the elements of light, time and space. (700)

Still from Home (dir. Richard Curson Smith, 2003), based on Ballard’s ‘The Enormous Space’.

In fact, Ballantyne becomes crazed with delusions of immortality, referring to himself in the third person and believing he can detach himself from the physical plane: ‘I am no longer dependent on myself. I feel no obligation to that person who fed and groomed me’ (701). Ostensibly outside of morality, he survives by trapping and eating neighbourhood pets. He even resorts to cannibalism, killing and eating the TV repairman after animal stocks are exhausted. His narration describes chronological and spatial dimensions expanding away from him, as also happens in Empire of the Sun, when young Jim, his senses similarly deranged by hunger and the dislocation of war, hallucinates the interior of his house withdrawing from him. After a colleague calls on Ballantyne, he admits her to the house and then watches her ‘walking towards me, but so slowly that the immense room seems to carry her away from me in its expanding dimensions. She approaches and recedes from me at the same time, and I am concerned that she will lose herself in the almost planetary vastness of this house’ (708). By the final scene, she too has been killed and is lying in state in his freezer, where he is soon to join her in a planned suicide.

‘The Enormous Space’ frames a consistent theme in Ballard’s work: the concept of a neural freezone as a ‘morally free psychopathology of metaphor, as an element in one’s dreams’,[25] although it pushes this to the extreme: total immersion into the realm of the imaginary and a fatal disengagement from reality. As such, it is a virtual retelling of ‘The Overloaded Man’ (1961), in which the character Faulkner attempts to disassociate objects from their cultural meaning by ‘training his ability to operate the cut-out switches’.[26] Faulkner tells his friend Hendricks that he might ‘actually be stepping outside of time’, explaining that it is difficult to invest conscious recognition in objects ‘without a time sense’ (334) and drawing us once again into the time-slippage tat characterises the archetypal Ballardian interzone.

Faulkner continues with his experiment until objects and structures appear as pure geometric shapes, ‘armchairs and sofas like blunted rectangular clouds’ (337). He even perceives his wife as an angular collection of planes, which he attempts to ‘smooth’ into a more rounded form, pummelling her body, which he no longer recognises as taking human form. When he has finished with her, she falls to the floor, appearing to him as nothing more than ‘a softly squeaking lump of spongy rubber’ (343). In fact, Faulkner has murdered her without even realising it, a victim of his own internalised messianic complex, and the story ends with his understanding that what he desires most is ‘pure ideation, the undisturbed sensation of psychic being untransmuted by any physical medium’ (343). Reaching this state would at last allow him to ‘escape the nausea of the external world’, which he achieves by drowning himself in his backyard pond, ‘[waiting] for the world to dissolve and set him free’ (344).

Both ‘The Overloaded Man’ and ‘The Enormous Space’ represent the outer limits of Ballard’s longstanding project to map inner space, a concept he has defined as ‘an imaginary realm in which, on the one hand, the outer world of reality and, on the other, the inner world of the mind meet and merge … a movement in the interzone between both spheres’.[27] For Ballard, the existence of this ‘imaginary realm’ is a response to the all-invasive media and communications landscape, and its inexorable collapsing of time, space and consciousness into hyperreality:

We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind: … the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the pre-empting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the computer screen … The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume that it is a compete fiction – conversely, the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads.[28]

But the oscillating ‘movement between spheres’ from the earlier definition is critical: once the balance favours irreversibly either side of the spectrum, the consequences prove fatal, as Hendricks warns Faulkner in ‘The Overloaded Man: ‘By any degree to which you devalue the external world so you devalue yourself’ (334). In later years, Ballard would explore the obverse of this equation, but with the same result, as his characters drag their psychopathologies kicking and screaming into the outer world of reality, which they attempt to reshape in accordance with their degraded inner maps. This is a notable development in Rushing to Paradise, which signals in Ballard’s work the stirring of a sense of entrapment within late capitalism, manifest in a much harder version of micronationalism.

The echoes of real-world enclave-cults such as Jonestown are apparent in Rushing to Paradise, and its central character, the charismatic Dr Barbara, seems modelled on religious-utopian gurus like Jim Jones and Waco leader David Koresh. Dr Barbara builds an isolated community on an abandoned Pacific island, and, like Koresh, coerces others into joining her through sheer force of personality and rhetoric, before destroying almost everyone and everything as the authorities move in. In so doing, she provides, as Gasiorek suggests, ‘a darker account of the megalomania that may be productive when confined to the autonomous imagination … but that is so cataclysmic when unleashed upon the world … for, as Ballard has rightly noted, the “history of [the 20th] century is the history of a few obsessives, some of the most dangerous men who have ever existed on this planet, being allowed to follow their obsessions to wherever they wanted to take them”.’[29]

‘Gated communities, closed minds’

The urge to form micronations, whether as a joke, an experiment or a religious utopia, can in some ways be attributed to globalisation and the failure of political action to ignite the mass imagination. As Ballard once put it, the ‘overriding power of the global economy threatens the autonomy of the nation state, while the ability of politicians to intervene as an equalizing force has faded’.[30] In this vacuum, micronational enclaves thrive. Sealand and Hutt River are benign examples, but there are other more aggressive templates, as documented in Erwin S. Strauss’s incendiary handbook, How to Start Your Own Country (1984), and in the research of sociologist Judy Lattas.[31] These include model nations formed as scams to lure unwary investors, right-wing communes promoting racial purity, and hardcore anarchist anomalies concerned with the violent carving out of patches of turf in thrall to utopian ideals. Strauss even outlines various methods for those wishing to form their own micronation, such as the ‘mouse that roared strategy’,[32] which involves getting hold of small, ‘cheap weapons of mass destruction’, finding a patch of unclaimed, disputed or forgotten territory (such as Sealand’s gun platform), occupying this interzone, and threatening to use the weapon against any superpower that tries to evict you.[33]

Strauss justifies this in ‘libertarian moral terms’, arguing that ‘whoever (through the initiation of force) puts a victim in the position of having to choose between his own life and freedom, and the lives of others, is morally responsible for whatever the victim must do to protect his own life and freedom’.[34] With a similar agenda, the self-styled ‘anarcho-leftoid’ Keith Preston predicts that the ’empire’ of the United States, like the Soviet Union before it, will at some near-future point cease to exist, broken down by market forces into smaller, self-governing entities. Gangs led by drug warlords will prove the true power base, forming provisional governments and controlling micro city-states in a grassroots structure embodying ‘different values, beliefs and customs … sovereign in their own enclaves, federated with others when necessary for joint purposes’.[35] Preston looks to various historical models to justify his prediction, such as ancient Greek republics, medieval city-states, traditional tribal networks, early American pioneer societies and micronations, concluding that sovereign enclaves are ‘the only possible approach to avoiding either chaos or tyranny’.[36]

While either solution might seem radically implausible, there are clear antecedents in the real-world phenomenon of suburban gated communities. The infrastructure of these micro-worlds is predicated on the unease that particular groups feel regarding a certain quality of life and welfare that they believe governments cannot guarantee, but that can nonetheless be bought via sealed-off suburban areas guarded by surveillance technology and private security firms. In Running Wild, the gated community, Pangbourne Estate, is essentially a micronation, one of many similar estates in the area housing thousands of urban professionals and their families: ‘Secure behind their high walls and surveillance cameras, these estates in effect constitute a chain of closed communities whose lifelines run directly along the M4 to the offices and consulting rooms, restaurants and private clinics of central London’.[37] But Pangbourne Estate is also an archetypal non-place. Although it takes its name from the nearby town, it ‘has no connections, social, historical or civic, with Pangbourne itself’ (15), echoing Augé’s description of transient urban environments that are neither ‘relational, historical or concerned with identity’, but that are connected instead, via the high-speed technology of the motorway and networked surveillance, to ‘transit points and temporary abodes’[38] – the offices, consulting rooms and private clinics of the Pangbourne universe.

For Ballard, globalisation’s mediation, consumption and broadcasting of experience produces a paradoxical effect that gives the illusion of connectedness, but in fact creates withdrawal, a regression into disparate, private worlds culminating ‘in the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect … [the] demise of feeling and emotion’.[39] The result, in micronational terms, is what a character in Super-Cannes (2000) describes as ‘the ultimate gated community … a human being with a closed mind’.[40] Corroborating some of Preston’s more extreme arguments, Ballard’s late-period work, beginning with Rushing to Paradise, renounces the preoccupation with temporality that was the hallmark of his earlier work in favour of an obsession with defending physical space from outside forces.[41] This shift reaches its apex in Cocaine Nights (1996) and Super-Cannes, which provide unambiguous examples of the professional middle classes retreating into fortified enclaves, bulwarked not so much by weaponry as by the switching off of the sensory reach of the human nervous system with its replacement: a technological exoskeleton of CCTV, satellite dishes and triple-security locks. Reading Ballard, Augé would surely recognise his own conclusion:

In one form or another … some experience of non-place … is today an essential component of all social existence. Hence … the fashion for “cocooning”, retreating into the self: never before have individual histories (because of their necessary relations with space, image and consumption) been so deeply entangled with general history, history tout court.[42]

Screenshot from a random Japanese CCTV feed.

In Millennium People, this commingling of individual and general histories is explicitly generated, even actively encouraged, by capitalism’s tight control of space, image and consumption. The novel charts an uprising in Chelsea Marina, an exclusive gated community in London, where middle-class citizens, rejecting their perceived role as a type of ‘new proletariat’, revolt against what they see as a meaningless society, turning their community into a miniaturised war zone. But the action is doomed to fail, since the revolutionaries are too indoctrinated in consumerism to push the boundaries completely:

I tripped on the kerb and leaned against a builder’s skip heaped with household possessions. The revolutionaries, as ever considerate of their neighbours, had ordered a dozen of these huge containers in the week before the uprising. A burnt-out Volvo sat beside the road, but the proprieties still ruled, and it had been pushed into a parking bay. The rebels had tidied up after their revolution. Almost all the overturned cars had been righted, keys left in their ignitions, ready for the repossession men (8).

The revolt that almost causes Chelsea Marina to secede is swiftly absorbed back into the system, an act of rebellion finally remembered more for a childish, tabloid act of violence than any sustained program of social change. Inevitably, the authorities move in as martial law is declared and Chelsea Marina becomes ‘an anomalous enclave ruled jointly by the police and the local council’ (256). The transgression of meaningless violence is usurped by the more powerful intervention of state violence, the Simulated State absorbing and repackaging rebellion in an unequivocal demonstration of the futility of performing actions that can be broken down and reabsorbed as news bites, as spectacular entertainment. For John Gray, this is an important dynamic in Super-Cannes, where it is threaded throughout the narrative as ‘part of a new industry where we’re fed with brilliant, violent, strange, surreal imagery, but with the goal not of emancipating us, but of keeping us at the job, keeping us working … the liberation that comes with wealth, affluence, freedom of choice can be used as a tool of social control’.[43]

This insidious current also powers Kingdom Come. The novel’s narrator, Richard Pearson, is a former adman, bored, jobless and disaffected. He travels to the London satellite town of Brooklands to investigate the death of his father, killed in the Metro-Centre shopping complex by an unknown gunman opening fire on the lunchtime crowds. He becomes embroiled in the dark undercurrents of Brooklands’ sport-and-product obsessed social strata, where fiercely nationalistic, violent mobs wear shirts emblazoned with the St George’s Cross. He meets David Cruise, a forgotten actor now the host of the Metro-Centre’s cable-TV channel. Drawing on his advertising experience, he reboots Cruise’s image, portraying him as the tortured noir hero of billboard campaigns and TV spots in a notable inversion of Cruise’s blow-waved idol persona. These inflammatory mini-narratives spark the imaginations of the Brooklands residents, bonding them into a tightly controlled mass that hangs on Cruise’s every word. Swept away with delusions of grandeur, Pearson pulls the strings of Cruise, this ‘smiley, ingratiating, afternoon TV kind of führer’ (258), stage-managing Cruise’s overwhelming popularity with the Metro-Centre crowds, and, incredibly, the actual secession of the Metro-Centre itself.

‘Greater autonomy’

Visualisation of David Cruise’s ‘noir’ ad campaign in Kingdom Come. Courtesy of The Metro-Centre, a promotional website for the book (2007).

Kingdom Come reads like the fictional companion to the Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping (2002), an initiative of the architect Rem Koolhaas that is among the most exhaustive analyses of the phenomenon of consumerism. A central focus of the guide is how the traditional idea of the suburban mall, as a distinct, clearly delineated entity, is disappearing, rendering meaningless the old demarcation between urban and suburban space. Shopping becomes ‘urban’ and the city becomes the mall:

Shopping, after decades of sucking the public away from the urban centers, has proven to the city that it can now create all the qualities of urbanity – density of activity, congestion, excitement, spectacle – better than the city itself has been able to do in recent memory. Once, shopping needed the city to survive. Now, the urban has been reduced to a theme of shopping.[44]

Analogously, Kingdom Come portrays Brooklands as simply an extension of the Metro-Centre, a mere sideline on the way to the main event:

The traffic into Brooklands had slowed, filling the six-lane highway built to draw the population of south-east England towards the Metro-Centre. Dominating the landscape around it, the immense aluminium dome housed the largest shopping mall in Greater London … Consumerism dominated the lives of its people, who looked as if they were shopping whatever they were doing.(15)

In Ballard’s new metropolis, shopping has so invaded the urban that it fulfils all civic and social functions, becoming a virtual city-state far more influential than standard institutions. Kingdom Come argues that the distinction between religion and consumerism becomes blurred when the globalised economy erodes faith in institutions and governments, so that the only thing left is ‘a cathedral of consumerism whose congregations far exceeded those of the Christian churches’ (15). The Harvard Guide concurs, although it notes the process in reverse: in the US, churches model themselves on malls to become ‘megachurches’, featuring bowling alleys, aerobics classes and counselling services.[45]

Operating like megastores, these new entities are armed with enough economic and emotional capital to completely obliterate all competition, ‘function[ing] suspiciously like the category killer … for every megachurch that pops up, one hundred churches fold’.[46] Not only is ‘shopping melting into everything, but everything is melting into shopping’, with governments ‘no longer willing or able to support … institutions’ in their original state.[47] Traditional social and civic structures must either face the threat of obsolescence or remodel themselves after the consumerist model, as indeed happens when the Metro-Centre dismantles traditional conceptions of the city to redefine urbanity, then religion, as itself:

[He described] the huge dimensions of the Metro-Centre, the millions of square feet of retail space, the three hotels, six cineplexes and forty cafes.
‘Did you know,’ he concluded, ‘that we have more retail space than the whole of Luton? … The Metro-Centre creates a new climate, Mr Pearson. We succeeded where the Greenwich dome failed. This isn’t just a shopping mall. It’s more like a …’
‘Religious experience?’
‘Exactly! It’s like going to church. And here you can go every day and you get something to take home’. (40)

According to the Harvard Guide, ‘shopping has created its own interior realms – the bazaar, the arcade, and the shopping mall all exist in a lineage of greater control and greater autonomy from exterior conditions’.[48] In Kingdom Come, the logical extension of this ‘greater autonomy’ is the Metro-Centre’s secession from Brooklands, which begins when a group of residents see the inherent worship of shopping as a way to instil political control: ‘The micro-republic would become a micro-monarchy, and the vast array of consumer goods would be [the] real subjects’ (222). Ballard’s revolutionaries are so in thrall to consumerism that they no longer wish to live within the terms and values of the real world. Secession of the consumer state seems the commonsense solution, yet they fail to see, as the Harvard Guide demonstrates, that consumerism is already autonomous, and that it is everywhere, limitless and relentless, redefining the world as itself, even the acts of transgression enacted in its name. As in Millennium People, the revolution becomes an act of empty symbolism as the authorities again move in to drive the rebels from the mall they had occupied for two months.

As to where a workable model of resistance might lie, answers can be found in Ballard’s assertion that true revolution can only occur through imaginative means, a revolution of aesthetics rather than political ends, preserving the sovereignty of the imagination as if it is, as he puts it in Super-Cannes, the ‘last nature reserve’ (264), but without the fatal inversion that beset Faulkner and Ballantyne. For Ballard, politics is a subset of advertising. Politicians sell personal style rather than objective government, resulting in a complete invasion of the political realm by consumerism and aesthetics. For Ballard, because ‘world economic systems are so interlocked … no radical, revolutionary change can be born anymore … It may only be from aesthetic changes of one sort or another that one can expect a radical shift in the people’s consciousness’.[49]

Kingdom Come (Norton edition, 2012).

In Kingdom Come, the explicitly micronational elements in the narrative are easily recouped by consumer capitalism. What is not so easily absorbed is Pearson’s new sense of worth, the sense that he has found himself in a confrontation with the forces of consumerism and has summoned the nerve to walk away, resisting what the Harvard Guide terms the ‘psychoprogramming’ of end-state consumerism. Pearson, alone, sees the folly of the Metro-Centre micro-republic, predicting how the consumer landscape, which has now expanded to become the State itself, will always renew itself:

One day there would be another Metro-Centre and another desperate and deranged dream. Marchers would drill and wheel while another cable announcer sang out the beat. In time, unless the sane woke and rallied themselves, an even fiercer republic would open the doors and spin the turnstiles of its beckoning paradise. (280)

In his analysis of Kingdom Come, Benjamin Noys highlights its ‘self-criticism’ of Ballard’s late-period work and the fascination with transgression: ‘While Ballard traces how such a “revolution” flirts with fascism the end of the novel traces the descent of the revolution into the kind of inertia that was found in his earlier fiction’[50] – indeed, the inertia of ‘time slippage’ that was paradoxically revealed to be liberating in stories like ‘The Day of Forever’. Pearson broadcasts his creations to the world, but when they reach peak capacity he disengages, refusing to follow the logic of transgression – the cycle of action-reaction-destruction – to its bitter conclusion, a trajectory that destroys the characters Prentice in Cocaine Nights and Sinclair in Super-Cannes. Both literalise their unconscious roles as switches in a perpetual relay of destruction. Prentice willingly substitutes himself for his brother Frank as perpetrator of a fatal, mysterious house fire, while the real crime of consumer capitalism – the selling of transgressive acts as entertainment, which led to the fire – reforms around him, forever evading detection. Sinclair takes his place as the death angel of the novel’s anomie-infested business parks, avenging another character’s death, yet undermined by the knowledge that his rebellion will inevitably be soaked up as more balm for violence-hungry consumers.

Contrary to this, Pearson enacts an alternative that Noys, taking his cue from Baudrillard’s early work, terms ‘becoming banal':

The account that … Ballard give[s] of simulated alterity suggests that transgression is not actually transgressive; it is rather that transgression is boring… To play the game of transgression is to fall within an unacknowledged banality, as well as to continue to sustain the dead forms of contemporary culture. Therefore it is a matter of pushing through and completing the banality of transgression … Contrary to the desire to find a real future crime we might follow Baudrillard’s previous suggestion for a fatal strategy: becoming-banal.[51]

Pearson’s actions suggest that remaining anonymous, withdrawing and embracing obscurity could well prove to be the most radical strategy of all. But the point would not be to disengage completely, lest Ballantyne’s fate be visited, but in knowing when to stop, to withdraw, to resist classification, to exercise choice, to reform – and when to re-emerge.

Within this fluctuation, there is a final connection with micronationalism. In 2003, the Amorph!03 conference was held in Finland, gathering together delegates to discuss the future of micronations. Many of the micronations represented were based on the NSK model, a template that marked a shift away from the traditional claiming of physical space. According to NSK, a Slovenian art collective,[52] their micronation is in fact a ‘state in time’, which ‘claims no territory, but rather confers the status of a state not to territory but to mind, whose borders are in a state of flux, in accordance with the movements and changes of its symbolic and physical collective body’.[53] For the ‘NSK State in Time’ – informed by the breakup of Yugoslavia, the subsequent reorganisation of geographical boundaries and the re-emergence of Slovenia – the process of globalisation has changed forever the role of the nation state. Therefore, time, as an aggregation of individual experiences, becomes the only productive way to measure, and inhabit, space, which has now become a commodity, fought over for inscrutable nationalistic or consumerist purposes. Movement for NSK creates subjective time, and therefore new experiences, recalling Halliday in ‘The Day of Forever’, who, moving from town to town, attempts to restart his imaginative inner life in a global era where time has stopped completely.

Ballard’s characters, to varying degrees of success, have been claiming allegiance to their minds – to the sovereignty of their imaginations – since the very beginning of his career, and the message appears more pertinent today, as Ballard outlined in a 1987 interview:

The consumer conformism – ‘the suburbanization of the soul’ – on the one hand and the gathering ecological and other crises on the other do force the individual to recognize that he or she is all he or she has got. And this sharpens the eye and the imagination. The challenge is for each of us to respond, to remake as much as we can of the world around us, because no one else will do it for us. We have to find a core within us and get to work.[54]

But it is his final words from the 1987 interview that are particularly worth remembering. There, we find a genuine call to arms that puts his failed revolutionaries – Faulkner, Ballantyne, Prentice, Sinclair – to shame.

Instead, Ballard points towards the future and to Pearson: ‘Don’t worry about worldly rewards. Just get on with it!'[55]


[1] Ballard, quoted in an interview with Iain Sinclair, ‘J.G. Ballard’s Cinema in the Slipstream of Discontent’ (1999), Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (eds), Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967–2008 (London: Fourth Estate, 2012), pp. 367-8.
[2] For background information on micronations, see John Ryan, George Dunford and Simon Sellars, Micronations: The Lonely Planet Guide to Home-made Nations (Footscray: Lonely Planet Publications, 2006); Erwin S. Strauss, How to Start Your Own Country (Port Townsend: Loompanics Unlimited, 1984 [1979]); and Judy Lattas, ‘DIY Sovereignty and the Popular Right in Australia’, in Mobile Boundaries/Rigid Worlds (Sydney: Centre for Research on Social Inclusion, 2005) <http://www.crsi.mq.edu.au/documents/mobile_boundaries_rigid_worlds/lattas.pdf>, accessed 18 July 2010; and Cabinet, issue 18, Summer 2005 <http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/18/toc.php>, accessed 18 July 2010.
[3] Mark Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, trans. J. Howe (London and New York, Verso, 1995), p. 30, 26.
[4] Augé, Non-places, pp. 7, 29.
[5] Augé, Non-places, pp. 78, 79.
[6] Augé, Non-places, p. 78.
[7] Roger Luckhurst, ‘The Angle Between Two Walls': The Fiction of J. G. Ballard (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997), p. 129.
[8] J. G. Ballard, Millennium People (London: Flamingo, 2003), p. 265.
[9] J. G. Ballard, Kingdom Come (London: Fourth Estate, 2006), p. 222.
[10] J. G. Ballard, ‘J. G. Ballard’s comments on his own fiction’, Interzone, April 1996, p. 23. Here, Ballard clarifies the ‘strange interregnum’, which refers to two periods: the time between Pearl Harbour, in December 1941, and internment at
Lunghua in March 1943; and the end of the war in 1945, when American forces took control of Shanghai. He revisited the phrase to describe the latter in his autobiography, Miracles of Life: ‘August 1945 formed a strange interregnum when we were never wholly certain that the war had ended, a sensation that stayed with me for months and even years. To this day as I doze in an armchair I feel the same brief moment of uncertainty’. J. G. Ballard, Miracles of Life (London: Fourth Estate), p. 104.
[11] Ballard, ‘J. G. Ballard’s comments’, p. 23.
[12] Andrzej Gasiorek, J. G. Ballard (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), p. 188.
[13] David Pringle, ‘J. G. Ballard Interviewed by David Pringle’, Interzone, April 1986, p. 12.
[14] In the introduction to Concrete Island, Ballard writes: ‘The day-dream of being marooned on a desert island still has enormous appeal, however small our chances of actually finding ourselves stranded on a coral atoll in the Pacific’. J. G. Ballard, Concrete Island (London: Vintage, 1994 [1974]), p. 4.
[15] The character Hargreaves finds himself, despite his reservations, caught up in a narrative of revenge that frames innocent men for the murder of a British officer, the implication being that during war, normal ideas of reality are suspended. J. G. Ballard, ‘The Violent Noon’, Varsity, 26 May 1951, p. 9.
[16] J. G. Ballard, ‘The Day of Forever’ (1966) in The Complete Short Stories: Volume 2 (London: Harper Perennial, 2006), p. 137.
[17] J. G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun (London: Grafton Books, 1988 [1984]), p. 27.
[18] In the novel, a simulacrum of London is erected in Lunghua, a clear desire to continue the cushioning effect of the expatriate International Settlement from the outside world: ‘A sun-bleached sign, crudely painted with the words “Regent Street”, was nailed to a bamboo pole … Naming the sewage-stained paths between the rotting huts after a vaguely remembered London allowed too many of the British prisoners to shut out the reality of the camp’ (167). This recalls the satire, Passport to Pimlico (1949), a film about an anomalous enclave, supposedly part of Burgundy, that forms in the London borough of Pimlico, allowing its residents to shut out the grind of post-war rationing and government control while still claiming their right to be ‘Englishmen’. Ballard has mentioned the film’s relevance to his work, particularly the English tendency to withdraw into unreal social isolation: ‘We have a sort of Passport to Pimlico view of social behaviour in this country. It’s an Ealing-comedy, Dad’s Army view of the world: we laugh, but forget that in the real world there is a war going on too.’ J.G. Ballard, ‘Papering over Cracks’, The Drawbridge, issue 5, 2007 <http://www.thedrawbridge.org.uk/issue_5/papering_over_cracks>, 19 July 2007.
[19] Ballard, ‘J. G. Ballard’s comments’, p. 23.
[20] J. G. Ballard, The Drowned World, (Harmondsworth and Ringwood: Penguin, 1974 [1962]), p. 14.
[21] For examples of adolescent and ‘joke’ micronations, see Ryan, Dunford and Sellars, Micronations, pp. 56-7.
[22] Maggie Jones, ‘Shutting Themselves In’, The New York Times, January 15, 2006 <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/15/magazine/15japanese.html>, accessed 28 December 2012.
[23] J.G. Ballard, ‘Some words about Crash!: 1. Introduction to the French edition of Crash!’ (1974), Foundation, The Review of Science Fiction, no. 9, November 1975, p. 45.
[24] J. G. Ballard, ‘The Enormous Space’, (1989) in The Complete Short Stories: Volume 2 (London: Harper Perennial, 2006) p. 698.
[25] Graeme Revell, ‘Interview with JGB by Graeme Revell’ (1984) in V. Vale and Andrea Juno, eds, RE/Search #8/9: J. G. Ballard (Re/Search Publications: San Francisco, 1991), p. 47.
[26] J. G. Ballard, ‘The Overloaded Man’ (1961) in The Complete Short Stories: Volume 1, p. 334.
[27] Ballard, quoted in ‘Munich Round-Up: Interview with J. G. Ballard’ (Uncredited interviewer; 1968), trans. Dan O’Hara, Ballardian, Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (eds), Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967–2008 (London: Fourth Estate, 2012), pp. 12-13.
[28] J. G. Ballard, ‘Introduction to the French edition of Crash!’ (1974), Foundation, The Review of Science Fiction, no. 9, November 1975, p. 48.
[29] Gasiorek, J. G. Ballard, p. 139.
[30] J. G. Ballard (1996), quoted in V. Vale and Mike Ryan, eds, J. G. Ballard: Quotes (San Francisco: RE/Search Publications), 2004, p. 37.
[31] See Lattas, ‘DIY Sovereignty’.
[32] This gambit is named after The Mouse that Roared, a 1955 novel and 1959 film adaptation about a fictitious European country, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, which inadvertently captures the American government’s experimental doomsday device, leading to the USA’s defeat in an accidental war.
[33] Strauss, How to Start Your Own Country, pp. 18-19.
[34] Strauss, How to Start Your Own Country, p. 21.
[35] Keith Preston, ‘When the American Empire Falls: How Anarchists Can Lead the 2nd American Revolution’, Attack the System, 2005, <http://attackthesystem.com/when-the-american-empire-falls-how-anarchists-can-lead-the-2nd-american-revolution, accessed 13 July 2010.
[36] Preston, ‘When the American Empire Falls’.
[37] J. G. Ballard, Running Wild (London: Arrow Books, 1989 [1988]), p. 16.
[38] Augé, Non-places, p. 78.
[39] Ballard, ‘Introduction to the French edition of Crash!’ p. 45.
[40] J. G. Ballard, Super-Cannes (New York: Picador, 2002 [2000]), p. 256.
[41] Gasiorek, J. G. Ballard, p. 186.
[42] Augé, Non-places, pp. 119-20.
[43] John Gray, ‘Interview with J. G. Ballard’ (2000), Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (eds), Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967–2008 (London: Fourth Estate, 2012), p. 379.
[44] Sze Tsung Leong, ‘…And There Was Shopping’, in Chuihua Judy Chung, Jeffrey Inaba, Rem Koolhaas, Sze Tsung Leong (eds), Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping (Cologne: Taschen, 2002), p. 153.
[45] ‘One megachurch in Houston even designed its entertainment schedule in consultation with Walt Disney World’. Sze Tsung Leong, ‘The Divine Economy’, Harvard Design School Guide, p. 302.
[46] Leong, ‘The Divine Economy’, p. 302.
[47] Leong, ‘…And There Was Shopping’, p. 129.
[48] Sze Tsung Leong and Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss, ‘Air Conditioning’, Harvard Design School Guide, p. 93. In addition, as the developer of the Bluewater shopping centre, a complex with rich Ballardian significance, says: ‘We have never seen [a shopping mall] as the last regional centre, but as the first stage of a city’ (Chuihua Judy Chung and Juan Palop-Casado, ‘Resistance’, Harvard Design School Guide, p. 640).
[49] Ballard, quoted in Revell, ‘Interview with JGB by Graeme Revell’, p. 52.
[50] Benjamin Noys, ‘Crimes of the Near Future: Baudrillard/Ballard’, International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, January 2008 <http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol5_1/v5-1-article8-Noys.html>, accessed 18 July 2010.
[51] Noys, ‘Crimes of the Near Future: Baudrillard/Ballard’.
[52] NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst) is perhaps most famous for its ‘music branch’, the group Laibach.
[53] Eda Cufer & Irwin quoted in Ryan, Dunford and Sellars, Micronations, p. 129.
[54] Jonathan Cott, ‘The Strange Visions of J. G. Ballard’, Rolling Stone, 19 November, 1987, p. 127.
[55] Cott, ‘The Strange Visions of J. G. Ballard’, p. 127.

Afterword: Changed by the Climate


All photos by Simon Sellars, Christchurch 2011.

This piece was written in April 2011. It was originally published in October 2011 as the Afterword to Changing the Climate: Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe, eds Andrew Milner, Simon Sellars and Verity Burgmann (Melbourne: Arena Publications, 2011).


While this volume was being prepared, the Tohoku earthquake hit northern Japan. At a magnitude of 9.0, it was the fifth-largest quake in recorded history, triggering a devastating tsunami with waves reaching almost forty metres. For observers in the southern hemisphere, the shock of the quake capped what had been a long, strange and disturbing season, a time of unremitting chaos projected on a global screen. In September 2010 I was due to fly to Christchurch, New Zealand, to appear on a panel as part of the SCAPE Biennial of Art in Public Space when an earthquake struck the city three weeks before opening day. There were no fatalities but there was major infrastructural damage and SCAPE was cancelled and rescheduled for March 2011. Then as our Australian summer drew near, Queensland suffered severe floods, killing thirty-five people and forcing thousands more from their homes. The damage was calculated at $1 billion and most of the state was declared a disaster zone. A month later, in January 2011, rural Victoria was hit by heavy floods. Melbourne, Victoria’s capital, was not part of the flood zone, even though its summer had been non-existent, the sun hardly glimpsed and heavy monsoonal downpours a constant feature. In early February, Melbourne itself was subject to extensive flash flooding, which directly affected two of our three editors. At the outer limits of the disaster, we had received a small taste of what had devastated the north.

February 2011: I rebooked my tickets to New Zealand for the rescheduled SCAPE. With two weeks to go before opening day, Christchurch was rocked by yet another quake — an aftershock from the 2010 event — which actually killed 175 people. SCAPE was once again cancelled. Before it was reported in the Australian newspapers, I had heard about the second quake through Twitter. One of my Christchurch correspondents was in a state of shock and doing her best to respond in real time, tweeting events as they happened. I turned to the wider internet and watched the coverage from New Zealand’s TV3 of the afflicted city. This was barely believable, both in terms of the scale of the disaster and the manner in which it was reported, and soon become unwatchable as reporters thrust equipment into the bloodied faces of wounded and dazed citizens, who had literally just crawled out from the wreckage. All this was accompanied by close to meaningless statements and questions: ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘Can you sum up the mood today?’ ‘New Zealand’s darkest hour’. While it is perhaps the case that the reporters were in a state of shock themselves, unable to do much to articulate the scale of the event except resort to cliché,[1] this voyeuristic spectacle was amplified by the Australian media in a kind of feeding frenzy, forcing journalist Jonathan Green to reach the conclusion that ‘the media does not empathise. The media is not there to help. The media does not feel your pain’.[2] The spectacle seemed to owe more to Hollywood disaster films than to objective journalism.

March 2011: the Japan quake. Again, I first learnt about it through Twitter, and again I watched the footage of the event, which seemed to bring us closer than ever to the epicentre of disaster. The images were relentless: a line of (occupied) cars on a highway suddenly swept away across agricultural fields by a massive water wall; a boat unable to escape a voracious whirlpool that had formed in the harbour; a surging wave sweeping aside vehicles and even planes at Sendai airport; people scrambling futilely up a hill to avoid drowning in the onrushing water. In sharp contrast to the nature of the Christchurch reportage, the camera operators pulled away from capturing people at the precise moment they lost their lives, apparently a result of Japanese taboos about recording death. Ishinomaki in northern Japan was among the hardest-hit towns, a place where I spent four months in 2001. I waited anxiously for news of my friends there. Had they survived? Did they have a home to return to? Meanwhile, the overall situation grew worse when it was revealed that the nuclear reactor at Fukushima was damaged and leaking radiation. The mainstream media were filled with reports of Japan’s resources stretched beyond capacity as expatriates panicked and began to leave the country. In The Age newspaper, Ben Doherty drew a picture of unrelenting horror, suggesting that the rush to escape had made Tokyo Airport ‘an outlet for this city’s fear … Outside, Tokyo is a city barely functioning. Its famously efficient public transport system is severely disrupted. Power is unavailable for hours at a time. Supermarket shelves are empty, and petrol is almost completely unavailable’.[3]

This time, I followed tweets from ABC radio journalist Mark Colvin as he interrogated various links and sources in an attempt to see behind the public misinformation and government disinformation surrounding Fukushima. I followed closely the Twitter stream of science fiction novelist William Gibson, as he tweeted about the devastation wreaked on Japan, a country he has long admired and which has influenced him since his earliest work. It seemed possible to inhabit two parallel worlds in stereoscopic overlay: the realm of broadcast media on the one hand, where we are virtually told what to see and feel; and the other – networked culture, where conflicting or contrasting opinions were only a mouse click away. The first seemed to draw on the worst excesses of clichéd ‘sci fi’, while the second seemed the province of only the most radical and farsighted ‘speculative fiction’. Who, even five years ago, could have predicted the shape, form and extent of social media as practised and implemented today?

I relate these personal reminiscences not to suggest that my experience of the past few months is special, but rather — without taking away from the tragedy of Christchurch, Queensland and Tohoku — that it is utterly commonplace. Like many, I have not been at the epicentre of any of these events, yet I have been deeply touched by them, even linked to them (at a remove). Our physical experiences can yoke together these events, enabled, for example, by the importance of ultra-cheap air travel: ‘I visited Japan once’; ‘I was meant to be in Christchurch when the quake happened’; ‘When I was in Queensland, I met someone later caught in the floods’. Or else the connection can be enabled by collapsed private/public spheres, where, among the fabric of networked, globalised communications, even a marginal academic such as myself can co-exist in a blurred, digital non-space with a writer of Gibson’s stature or an established journalist like Colvin.

This terrain may be virtual, but it can be traversed nonetheless, and is in fact overlaid on the physical landscape (as in my SCAPE encounter).[4] It is also multiplicitous, overlapping and ‘atemporal’, to quote Gibson’s contemporary Bruce Sterling. On Twitter, while I conversed with contacts in Japan about the tsunami, other colleagues and friends continued to report on the psychological after-effects of the Christchurch clean up. Previously Christchurch had overlapped with Brisbane, through a string of eyewitness reports from Queensland streaming in over Twitter’s ‘wires’. In the Western world, disaster no longer seems so remote, no longer abstracted in the back pages of a newspaper reporting on a third-world crisis, but increasingly close to home. This might constitute a deep ontological shock to many, but also a deep moment of truth, corresponding to what theorist Paul Virilio has identified as the need

 (alongside the ecological approaches that relate to the various ways in which the biosphere is polluted) for the beginnings of an eschatological approach to technical progress to emerge — an approach to that finitude without which the much-vaunted globalization is in danger of itself becoming a life-size catastrophe.

Both a natural and a man-made catastrophe, a general catastrophe and not one specific to any particular technology or region of the world, which would far exceed the disasters currently covered by the insurance companies — a catastrophe of which the long-term drama of Chernobyl remains emblematic.[5]



For Sterling, the peculiar ‘atemporal’ effect of network culture and social media is characterised by

 the colossally huge, searchable, public domain, which is now at your fingertips… There are search engines, which are becoming major intellectual and public political actors. There is ‘collective intelligence’ … it’s all over the place, just termite mounds of poorly organized and extremely potent knowledge, quantifiable, interchangeable data with newly networked relations. We cannot get rid of this stuff. It is our new burden, it is there as a fact on the ground, it is a fait accompli.

There are new asynchronous communication forms that are globalized and offshored, and there is the loss of a canon and a record. There is no single authoritative voice of history. Instead we get wildly empowered cranks, lunatics, and every kind of long-tail intellectual market appearing in network culture. Everything from brilliant insight to scurrilous rumor.

This really changes the narrative, and the organized presentations of history in a way that history cannot recover from. This is the source of our gnawing discontent.[6]

This loss of historical stability might well engender such discontent, but it also ensures that the post-immediate terrain is bracing and honest. When I shared a link to Doherty’s article on Twitter, I received immediate feedback from an angry Tokyo resident, informing me that the city was indeed operational. ‘I suppose to some’, my correspondent replied, ‘Tokyo without the pretty lights is “barely functioning” [the city’s famous neon displays had gone dark due to power outages]. Otherwise, it’s pretty normal here’.[7] Another told me: ‘That’s just plain irresponsible “journalism”. Tokyo functioning OK here. Cherry picking anecdotes from most panicky’.[8]

As Colvin noted in an article about how his ABC team uses social media, a technology like Twitter can completely transform the journalist’s traditional methods. It can actively erase the ‘third-world abstraction’ and replace it with the positive flipside of Sterling’s atemporal perspective:

in the last year or so, social media has brought [to journalism] an even more revolutionary development. It’s one which is transforming our approach, particularly to conflict reporting.

In the last few weeks, it has brought us (to name just a handful) the voices of a senior Yemeni government minister, Mohammed Abulahoum, a young man living in the besieged city of Zawiya in Libya, Sara, an Egyptian woman telling of how she’d just been inside the sacked Secret Service headquarters, Mohammed, a Bahraini photographer describing, live, how advancing troops were firing on a crowd of protesters, and Danie Tregonning, an Australian woman on the 10th floor of a hotel in Honolulu after the Japanese earthquake describing Hawaii’s preparations for the expected tsunami.

We got all those interviews through the use of Twitter, Facebook and Skype.[9]

This ‘revolution’ forces us to acknowledge that there is an underside, a dark or light shadow accompanying each sliver of information, including the hitherto untouchable, traditional, top-down, transmitter-receiver broadcast media. Sterling’s atemporality means that the media’s apocalyptic, doom-and-gloom reportage can be judged a particular type of dangerous fantasy masquerading as objective truth, a ‘sci fi’ spectacle focused on heightened drama and hyperreal conflict, better suited to Hollywood than the news. Here Virilio is again instructive, his purpose, as Steve Redhead describes it, even more equivocal: ‘to underline what he had been teaching those of us willing to listen for some years now: that much media imagery is a strategy of war, and that the modern accident is becoming indistinguishable from attack’.[10]

For the rest of us, science fiction happens not on blockbuster movie screens (or indeed their imitation by televised news) but in the margins of our day-to-day lives. What is the root concept of ‘atemporality’ — the collapsing of time and space — if not the stuff of a thousand SF stories?



In 2007, Gibson told an interviewer that his novel Pattern Recognition was set in the present day because

I don’t know if I’ll be able to make up an imaginary future in the same way [as his previous, explicitly science fiction, work]. In the ’80s and ’90s — as strange as it may seem to say this — we had such luxury of stability. Things weren’t changing quite so quickly in the ’80s and ’90s. And when things are changing too quickly, as one of the characters in Pattern Recognition says, you don’t have any place to stand from which to imagine a very elaborate future.[11]

He said that if he had gone to a publisher in 1977 with the outline for Pattern Recognition in its 2007 setting, he would have been met with utter bewilderment. The world today is too complex, with ‘too many huge sci-fi tropes: global warming; the lethal, sexually transmitted immune-system disease; the United States, attacked by crazy terrorists, invading the wrong country’. What’s more, it’s all happening at the same time, which means that if Gibson had told his 1977 publisher that he wanted the novel to portray all these scenarios simultaneously on a near-future Earth, ‘they’d not only show you the door, they’d probably call security’.[12]

In 2010, Gibson told another interviewer that when he wants ideas and a steady info stream to underwrite his next story, he turns to Twitter.[13] So too does Colvin, in an entirely different profession.[14] When the rest of us want to get to the bottom of large-scale disasters, we too are increasingly turning to the ‘collective intelligence’ for on-the-ground reports and unfiltered opinions. However, as the animating spirit of this present volume, Kim Stanley Robinson, suggests, this communal organism should also properly include

The biosphere … our extended body [which] we can no more live without … than we could live without our kidneys or our bones. The old paradigm of the world as a machine is being replaced, in modern science and in the culture at large, by a more accurate and sophisticated paradigm of the world as a vast organism, complexly interpenetrative in ways not previously imagined. The world is not a machine we can use and then replace: it is our extended body. If we try to cut it away we will die.[15]

Can the Christchurch and Tohoku quakes be considered an effect of climate change? Perhaps not, although there have been attempts to connect natural phenomena in this way.[16] Regardless, the disaster grows exponentially as a result of human intervention. The threat of extensive nuclear radiation from Fukushima echoes the SF apocalypses of the 1960s through to the 1980s, the terrible promise of an irradiated Earth reproduced in so many books and films. However, like Chernobyl, Fukushima has not come about from war or alien invasion, but through our own incompetence and ignorance, building a nuclear reactor with outdated seismic safeguards on a notorious, constantly shifting fault line. In that sense, the human species, traditionally a controlling force, must step back and acknowledge a certain symbiosis, perhaps even its own weaker position in the partnership.

Let me end with another observation from Virilio, often stereotyped as the most ‘apocalyptic’ of thinkers and criticised for the negativity of his work, because it tends to predict the eclipse of humankind by advanced, autonomous technologies. Virilio is misunderstood in this respect, however, for he does not exult in these predictions, but rather encodes within them the ultimate warning as to where we are headed should we replace the autonomy of nature with the autonomy of technology.

For Virilio, the equation is simple: ‘The time of an intellectual having an influence is over. Who has an influence? It is the climate’.[17]

NB: As my photos indicate, I did eventually make it to Christchurch, and SCAPE. My report on that experience can be found here.


[1] This observation was suggested to me by my Christchurch correspondent @CherylBernstein (Lara Strongman). On Twitter, when @secondzeit (Philip Matthews) tweeted, ‘Sick of hearing about the triumph or persistence of the human spirit from news presenters’, she replied, ‘We’re reduced to cliche, as well as rubble’, 27 February 2011, <http://twitter.com/#!/CherylBernstein/statuses/41580553711001600>, accessed 21 April 2011.

[2] J. Green, ‘The media is not there to help. It does not feel your pain’, The Drum, 23 February 2011, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2011/02/23/3146945.htm>, accessed 20 April 2011.

[3] B. Doherty, ‘Exodus overwhelms Tokyo airport’, The Age, 18 March 2011, <http://www.theage.com.au/world/exodus-overwhelms-tokyo-airport-20110317-1byyz.html>, accessed 20 April 2011.

[4] For example, I was initially invited to appear at SCAPE through contacts and conversations enacted on Twitter. Meanwhile, Gibson contributed to a ‘Twitter-sourced charity book about how the Japanese Earthquake at 2:46 on March 11, 2011 affected us all. All revenue goes to the Japan Red Cross’, <http://www.quakebook.org>. The book, 2:46 Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake, was assembled, printed and published independently within a month of the quake.

[5] P. Virilio, ‘The Museum of Accidents’, trans. Chris Turner, International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, July 2006, <www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol3_2/virilio.htm>, accessed 21 April 2011.

[6] B. Sterling, ‘Atemporality for the Creative Artist’, Wired, 25 February 2010, <http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2010/02/atemporality-for-the-creative-artist>, accessed 20 April 2011.

[7] This response was offered on Twitter by @southtopia (Jon South), 18 March 2011, <http://twitter.com/#!/southtopia/status/48540501288292352>, accessed 20 April 2011.

[8] From @gotanda (Ted O’Neill), 18 March 2011, <http://twitter.com/#!/gotanda/status/48536777853632512>, accessed 20 April 2011.

[9] M. Colvin, ‘Journalism’s New Wave: The World in a Tweet’, The Drum, 14 April 2011, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2011/04/14/3191027.htm>, accessed 20 April 2011.

[10] See endnotes, Virilio, ‘The Museum of Accidents’.

[11] Quoted in T. Nissley, ‘Across the Border to Spook Country: An Interview with William Gibson’, Amazon.com, August 2007, <http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?docId=1000112701>, accessed 20 April 2011.

[12] Quoted in A. Leonard, ‘William Gibson: The Rolling Stone 40th Anniversary Interview’, Rolling Stone, 15 November 2007.

[13] For example, when Richard Metzger asked Gibson, ‘Where does someone whose often called a prophet get their information?’, Gibson replied, ‘Twitter at this point. I find Twitter to be the most powerful aggregator of sheer novelty that humanity has yet possessed’. Metzger, ‘William Gibson: Devo World’, 21C, 2011, <http://www.21cmagazine.com/745841/William-Gibson-Devo-World>, accessed 20 April 2011.

[14] Colvin writes: ‘Twitter has also been one of the keys to covering Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. On the day they established the 20km evacuation zone, and published the number of people who’d have to leave, they also established a 30km “stay indoors” zone without saying how many would be affected. I asked the question on Twitter, and within five minutes people had sent me the exact census figures for the Fukushima area and analysed them to extrapolate the figures for the Zone. Twitter figures like @TimeOutTokyo, @tokyoreporter and @W7VOA (Voice of America’s Steve Herman) have kept us ahead of the curve in reporting aftershocks, tsunami effects and nuclear crisis developments’. Colvin, ‘Journalism’s New Wave’.

[15] K.S. Robinson, ‘Introduction’, in Robinson (ed.), Future Primitive: The New Ecotopias, New York, Tor Books, 1997, p. 9.

[16] According to an uncredited article in The Age, ‘Long-term climate change could be responsible for moving the Earth’s tectonic plates. A team of scientists based in Australia, France and Germany has established a link between monsoons in India over the past 10 million years and the motion of the Indian plate. “It is known that certain geologic events caused by plate motions have the ability to influence climate patterns over a period of a million years,” Dr Giampiero Iaffaldano from the Australian National University said in a statement. “Now we know that the opposite holds as well … Ultimately, we aim at understanding what caused plate motions to change and which regions are currently more prone to large earthquakes … To that end, we may also have to consider the history of climate over the past million years”.’ ‘Long-term Climate Change Link to Earthquakes’, The Age, 13 April 2011, <http://www.theage.com.au/environment/climate-change/longterm-climate-change-link-to-earthquakes-20110413-1ddaw.html>, accessed 20 April 2011.

[17] Quoted in D. Burk, ‘A Grey Ecology is Needed Now More Than Ever’, CTheory, 17 March 2011 <http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=681>, accessed 20 April 2011.

Hakim Bey: Repopulating the Temporary Autonomous Zone

Cover of Obelisk i inne eseje (2009), a Polish translation of Bey’s essays.

Hakim Bey: Repopulating the Temporary Autonomous Zone, by Simon Sellars. Originally published in Journal for the Study of Radicalism, Volume 4, Number 2, 2010, pp. 83-108.

The poet and essayist Peter Lamborn Wilson is widely known for his anarchist manifesto “The Temporary Autonomous Zone” (TAZ), developed across a series of essays written from 1981 to 1988 and published in collected form in 1991 as T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. The essays were attributed to “Hakim Bey,” Wilson’s infamous avatar, and the writing itself was a potent brew of mysticism, historical narratives, autonomous Marxist politics and French critical theory. The overall aim was to highlight indeterminate zones within late capitalism, everyday occurrences that refuse, whether by accident or design, to be incorporated into dominant narratives. This enabled the TAZ to become an extraordinarily influential (and divisive) text in anarchist circles, and in various pop-cultural movements.

But has that moment passed? Can the concept hold any meaning for observers in the early 21st century? This essay will argue that, although the cultural capital of the TAZ has undoubtedly become degraded through overuse, the circumstances of its cultural reception are indeed worth returning to, and remembering. Repopulating the TAZ can reward us now (as it did at inception) with valuable insight into the perceived role of critically engaged literature and philosophy as an activator of political potential, illumining a debate regarding the supposed (in)compatibility of left theory and politics that continues today.


The TAZ may have remained a fringe work if it wasn’t for “cyberculture,” which proved among the more resilient memes in alternative art and culture from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. The original electronic networks that became the prototype for today’s commercial Internet were developed in the 1980s, a development of the first interconnected computer channels produced in the 1960s for US military purposes. As François Cusset summarizes: “These networks embodied, for some, a space for resistance, a social dead zone, a territory that was still imperceptible, in whose shelter they could build a new community and undermine the ruling powers … the first groups of hackers emerged [forming] in Bruce Sterling’s words, a veritable ‘digital underground’.”[1]

In cyberculture’s incandescent popcult moment, the gritty noir futures of cyberpunk science fiction, built upon the template forged by the ascending reputations of novelists William Gibson and Sterling, and extrapolated from present-day technological developments, were cited as metaphoric portrayals of a real world in thrall to the nascent Internet and to the implications for mediated life it held. Cyberphile magazines like Mondo 2000 (and later, Wired and 21C) spliced cyberpunk attitude with digital culture’s bleeding edge, carrying advertisements for dialup modems, CD ROMs and pixel-art software in between articles and interviews exploring every facet of cyberculture: From body modification to the emergent politics of the net, from new strains of cyberpunk fiction and rave music to the “bumper sticker libertarianism” leaking from cyberculture’s startling new cachet.[2]

Fermented within this heady “frontier” atmosphere, manifestos were abundant. John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation drew up a Declaration for the Independence of Cyberspace, demanding that the net – “the new home of Mind” – be forever self-governing, forever free from corporate and governmental restriction.[3] Douglas Rushkoff produced a book-length vérité document of “life in the trenches of cyberspace” (or “Cyberia”), where “cyberians” “believe the age upon us now might take the form of a categorical upscaling of the human experience onto uncharted, hyperdimensional turf … Whether or not we are destined for a wholesale leap into the next dimension, there are many people who believe that history as we know it is coming to a close.”[4]

But with its call to “dowse” for potential freezones within the globalised economy, couched within an explicit terminology that drew upon Sterling’s work and the jargon surrounding the “Web” and the “net,” the TAZ quickly became the clarion call. “Bey,” the so-called “anarchist Sufi,” seemed to deliver precisely the kind of liberated mind state that Barlow had so dramatically hoped would be delivered, and that Rushkoff had so eagerly tried to imagine. Effectively, the TAZ became a blueprint for a full-scale ecology that could be inhabited by true believers.


Previously, Wilson had formed the Autonomedia publishing house with the academic Sylvère Lotringer, publishing works by Paul Virilio and Jean Baudrillard as well as the influential magazine Semiotext(e). In 1989, he also conceived and co-edited (with Robert Anton Wilson and Rudy Rucker) Semiotext(e) SF, an anthology of science fiction and speculative fiction that featured writing from the three editors alongside Sterling, Gibson, J.G. Ballard, Ian Watson, William S. Burroughs, Colin Wilson, Robert Sheckley, Philip José Farmer and others. In light of this literary background, what exactly is the TAZ: Another experiment in speculative fiction,[5] an academic essay, or a serious political manifesto?

The TAZ is largely informed by Guy Debord’s treatise on the Society of the Spectacle, which describes how the simulacra of mass communications and advertising fill all available social space. For Debord, rebellion is inevitably turned into product, a dynamic force generated within an all-encompassing media landscape in which “modern conditions of production prevail, all of life [presenting] itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”[6]

For “Bey,” the dream of real-world revolution (opposition in its most literal sense) remains unobtainable within the terms of the “Spectacle,” that is, within the late-capitalist era of interlocking communications technology, mass media and corporate control. All revolutionary movements, he reckons, will succumb to the Spectacle’s natural state of absorption once the “revolution” has been fomented, set in train, and triumphed:

Absolutely nothing but a futile martyrdom could possibly result now from a head-on collision with the terminal State, the megacorporate information State, the empire of Spectacle and Simulation. Its guns are all pointed at us, while our meagre weaponry finds nothing to aim at but a hysteresis, a rigid vacuity, a Spook capable of smothering every spark in an ectoplasm of information, a society of capitulation ruled by the image of the Cop and the absorbent eye of the TV screen.[7]

This was a process already occurring with cyberpunk itself, as the Mondo 2000 crew was to archly note in a 1995 interview:

“The term ‘cyberpunk’ has been used to describe music, lifestyles, and artistic sensibilities, but it really describes one narrow school of science-fiction writers,” [Chris] Hudak says. “God, it was a good word … poetic, efficient, and romantic. Distance and passion. Machine and man. Technology and attitude. Cyberpunk. Great fuckin’ word. And what the hell; we stole it.” …

When did cyberpunk die? I ask.

“1993,” smirks somebody. “The release of the Billy Idol record.”[8]

Bey’s solution to mainstream recuperation of revolution is to study closely “past and future stories about ‘islands in the net’“[9] in order to look for folds in the information matrix where spaces can be opened out to radical potential and then closed again before commodification recuperates. Beginning with an evocation of 18th-century “Pirate Utopias,” the TAZ maps out the “information network” created when sea-rovers and corsairs secreted themselves on remote and uninhabited islands, trading booty and equipment and creating mini-societies that were defiantly set up to exist beyond the reach of established law. Onto this historical superstructure, Bey mapped psychospatial coordinates from Sterling’s novel Islands in the Net (1988), described as:

a near-future romance based on the assumption that the decay of political systems will lead to a decentralized proliferation of experiments in living: giant worker-owned corporations, independent enclaves devoted to “data piracy,” Green-Social-Democrat enclaves, Zerowork enclaves, anarchist liberated zones, etc. The information economy which supports this diversity is called the Net; the enclaves (and the book’s title) are Islands in the Net.[10]

Within this stereoscopic overlay of past with future, pirates with hackers, Bey divines resistance as embodied in everyday instances or moments that refuse to engage directly with the Spectacle, that lie outside of simulation and recuperation, inhabiting “cracks and vacancies” only to disappear and reform elsewhere, thus avoiding detection and invasion. Such spaces he terms “temporary autonomous zones” – “an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to reform elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it.”[11] Ultimately, he claimed, the TAZ was “a tactic of disappearance,”[12] a sympathy with autonomist Marxism that is clarified when compared with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s account of the latter:

The city is a jungle. The urban guerrillas knew its terrain in a capillary way so that any time they can come together and attack and then disperse and disappear into its recesses. The focus … was increasingly not on attacking the ruling powers but rather on transforming the city itself … The great struggles of Autonomia in Italy in the 1970s, for example, succeeded temporarily in redesigning the landscape of the major cities, liberating entire zones where new cultures and new forms of life were created.[13]

Bey suggests that “psychic nomadism” could help to locate any potential TAZ. This is a tactic that draws on Deleuzoguattarian rhizome theory to follow unexpected tangents, charting a course by pursuing “strange stars, which might be luminous clusters of data in cyberspace, or perhaps hallucinations … unexpected eddies and urges of energy, coagulations of light, secret tunnels, surprises.”[14] Although the TAZ flirts with cyberspace imagery, as in this quote, and devotes a section to the potential counter-cultural value of the “net” and the “Web,” Bey insisted that the aim was not to transcend the flesh in favor of the type of clichéd virtual reality found in the cheapened versions of cyberpunk that so irked Mondo 2000. Instead, the goal is to seek out the kind of autonomy already existent within consciousness:

The Web does not depend for its existence on any computer technology. Word-of-mouth, mail, the marginal zine network, “phone trees” and the like already suffice to construct an information network … The Web is like a new sense in some ways, but it must be added to the others – the others must not be subtracted from it, as in some horrible parody of the mystic trance. Without the Web, the full realization of the TAZ-complex would be impossible. But the web is not the end in itself. It’s a weapon.[15]

It is heavily ironic, then, that the TAZ would become so associated with cyberculture, as Wilson has made no secret of his Luddite tendencies. Indeed, in the preface to the TAZ’s second edition, published in 2003, Bey reiterates this in no uncertain terms, taking aim at those who took the book’s small section on the Internet to be the philosophy’s main theme:

I think perhaps the least useful part of the book is its section on the Internet … What’s left of the Left now seems to inhabit a ghost-world where a few thousand ‘hits’ pass for political action and ‘virtual community’ takes the place of human presence … The TAZ must exist in geographical odorous tactile tasty physical space … otherwise it’s no more than a blueprint or a dream.[16]

For Wilson/Bey, the net was only ever “envisioned … as an adjunct to the TAZ, a technology in service to the TAZ, a means of potentiating its emergence”.[17] Instead of a mediated life, Bey wanted “an intensification of everyday life,”[18] looking for instances that might be found, say, in a no-car zone in the city, where pedestrians appear might reclaim the streets for a brief moment, or, in a more serious register, when a mob at a demonstration holds its own against the police, forming a zone that not only is unable to be breached, but that can also break apart and reform elsewhere. Bey further idealized the “TAZ as festival,” celebrating those moments where the elements of spontaneity, joy and community are inbuilt as the template for what a temporary autonomous zone could and should hope to achieve:

Participants in insurrection invariably note its festive aspects, even in the midst of armed struggle, danger, and risk. The uprising is like a saturnalia which has slipped loose (or been forced to vanish) from its intercalary interval and is now at liberty to pop up anywhere or when… “Fight for the right to party” is in fact not a parody of the radical struggle but a new manifestation of it, appropriate to an age which offers TVs and telephones as ways to “reach out and touch” other human beings, ways to “Be There!”[19]

Onto this “festal culture,” he grafted Stephen Pearl Andrews’s metaphor of the dinner party as the model for anarchism, where a spontaneous and basic desire to create “mutual aid” is embodied in the desire for “good food and cheer, dance, conversation, the arts of life; perhaps even for erotic pleasure, or to create a communal artwork.”[20]Individuality is admitted within the group, which comes together as a result of mutual attraction, forming a celebratory space where friendship and community are the only “authority,” what Andrews calls “the seed of the new society taking shape within the shell of the old.”[21]

Thus, the TAZ was armed with a potent mix of radical politics, modish French theory and memorable phraseology (the manifesto’s high, ornate narrative style follows on from the classification “Bey” itself, which is a Turkish title equivalent to “chieftain”; “Hakim,” intentionally or not, connotes hackers and hacking). It carried the right amount of cultural cachet: Aside from anarchism, it also became a major rallying cry for the embryonic rave generation in England – indeed, for any movement looking to reterritorialise perceptions of time, space and identity.


An indication of the TAZ’s sphere of influence can be gleaned from a simple literature review. Besides numerous academic essays and popular-culture articles, there is a startling array of books that make some use of the concept to think through all manner of methodologies, ideas and ideologies. These diverse titles include:


















  • From Kung Fu to Hip Hop: Globalization, Revolution, and Popular Culture (“I am partly inspired by Hakim Bey’s concept ‘TAZ’ … I am, however, using his concept in a much broader sense than he does (which is focused on clandestine movements without confrontation with the State).”)[22];
  • The Cultural Roots of British Devolution; Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant Celebration (“I ride [in Critical Mass] because I find the mass creates a temporary autonomous zone … a place where bicycles do have the right of way – and not just on paper.”[23]);
  • Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking (“In setting aside one’s own … national cultures [with the use of sign language], one enters what has been characterized elsewhere in postmodernist writing as a Temporary Autonomous Zone.”[24]);
  • Campsite: Architectures of Duration and Place (“Hakim Bey … describes [the] conflation of camp and virtual space. His formulation of the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ) as ephemeral ‘uprising’ builds on the possibility that such camps rely on clandestine, sometimes virtual, nomadic routes.”[25]);
  • Blossom of Bone: Reclaiming the Connection Between Homoeroticism and the Sacred; Stonehenge: Making Space (“Hakim Bey defines what he calls The Temporary Autonomous Zone: ‘pirate economics’, living high off the surplus of social overproduction.”[26]);
  • Hurricane hits England: An Anthology of Writing about Black Britain; Women Poets of the Americas: Toward a Pan-American Gathering; Faith in America: Changes, Challenges, New Directions (“I could not partake of The Pirates of the Caribbean [at Florida’s Disneyworld] without thinking of the notion of ‘pirate utopias’ as historic zones of freedom, anarchy, and temporary autonomy, as proposed by cultural theorist Hakim Bey.”[27]);
  • Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop outside the USA; Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity (“for a gloss on sincerity as political manifesto, see Hakim Bey, T.A.Z.”[28]);
  • Black Men on Race, Gender, and Sexuality: A Critical Reader (“Standing there in that temporary autonomous zone, I experienced Washington, D.C., as a free person, for the first time.”[29]);
  • On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality (“The idea here goes far beyond that expounded by Hakim Bey in his useful but overly-celebrated TAZ, The Temporary Autonomous Zone.”[30]).

Most of these titles pay lip service to the concept, but the review is useful insofar as it demonstrates one important principal that Bey had outlined as a precondition for the TAZ to take root:

Despite its synthesizing force for my own thinking, however, I don’t intend the TAZ to be taken as more than an essay (“attempt”), a suggestion, almost a poetic fancy. Despite the occasional Ranterish enthusiasm of my language I am not trying to construct political dogma. In fact I have deliberately refrained from defining the TAZ – I circle around the subject, firing off exploratory beams. In the end the TAZ is almost self-explanatory. If the phrase became current it would be understood without difficulty … understood in action.[31]

As self-prophecy, this is remarkably prescient. Judging by the above examples, the phrase did “become current,” able to be “understood without difficulty,” but perhaps in a way that was not intended: redolent with loaded meaning – “anarchy” and “freedom” – but without any meaningful signification. The TAZ as vague referent stoked the ire of detractors such as the “anti-civilization” activist John Zerzan, who bemoaned Bey’s “hip-sounding, three-word solution… in capital letters.”[32] However, the sense Bey intended is better captured by Colin Ward, who, despite initial skepticism, concluded:

Plenty of us must have been in situations when we reflect that we all have certain experiences that seem to us to be the way things would happen if we were living in an anarchist society … once the phrase Temporary Autonomous Zones lodges in your mind you begin to see it/them everywhere: fleeting pockets of anarchy that occur in daily life. In this sense it describes a perhaps more useful concept than that of an anarchist society, since the most libertarian societies that we know of have their authoritarian elements, and vice versa.[33]

In this reading, the “three-word solutions” in the above examples are less “hip” posturing and more a recognition of an intrinsic dynamic rooted within and informed by fundamental spatial, temporal, and ontological experiences of capitalist society.

Accordingly, commentators began to map a full-scale ecology of difference using the TAZ as foundation. As mentioned, rave culture in the UK was particularly strident in applying the concept to its rhetoric of liberation of sound, space, and consciousness. At the most basic level, this was a perfect fit: The well-documented history of the nascent rave scene (from the late 1980s to the early 1990s) is told through a series of narratives detailing running battles involving party organizers and partygoers versus the police and the state, with illegal parties consistently broken up and moved on only to regenerate and reform elsewhere.

According to James Ingham: “Bey’s characterisation is a pretty exact description of the political situation of the illegal party scene.”[34] Ingham used the concept to articulate his own concept of “cultural geography”: The sense of “suspended memories” and feeling of autonomy he perceived as being instilled in participants at warehouse parties in Blackburn during 1989-90. He saw in the TAZ the ideal framework for what he describes as a “sensory experience of the [illegal] space … an outcome of both repetitive music and altered perceptions … often characterised as a suspended moment, a floating feeling.”[35] For Ingham, this perception of time and space is (relatively) fleeting, temporary, and, ultimately, profoundly liberating:

[The music relies on an] highly complex technological-physical interface: the mix, the DJ, the drugs, the body and the crowd, without which there would have been no TAZ in Blackburn … The musical interface creates a narrative for both the individual and the social gathering, an ever-changing narrative that is charged from the “emotional tension” caused by anticipation and experience playing off each other. It was this narrative that drew people to the warehouse parties and generated the value of a TAZ in their participants.[36]

Indeed, the concept came to be a default setting for music writers attempting to articulate what was so significant about this moment in time. Documenting the “free party” scene in the early 1990s, Simon Reynolds enthuses:

The … movement constitute[s] an uncanny fulfilment of the prophecies of Hakim Bey. In his visionary prose poems … the anarcho-mystic writer called for the rebirth of a new “festal culture” based around “spiritual hedonism” and tribalism … The illegal free rave, with its lack of entrance fee or security, is a perfect real-world example of Bey’s “temporary autonomous zone,” aka TAZ… [Bey’s] “cracks and vacancies” sounds like the abandoned air bases and derelict government buildings taken over by traveller sound systems for a few days or weeks.[37]

But it wasn’t only in the spaces of “spiritual hedonism” that the concept gained traction: It of course became a viable blueprint within anarchist circles, even though, as Reynolds implies with the term “prose poems,” the TAZ as manifesto is very much a literary application: Social criticism, to be sure, but an exercise in imaginative, creative writing nonetheless (recall Wilson’s own words: “almost a poetic fancy.”) According to Jeff Shantz, the TAZ injected much new energy into anarchism, especially among younger adherents, who “took Bey’s call for ‘poetic terrorism’ as inspiration for the waves of ‘@-zones’ (anarchist community centres) which emerged in inner-city neighbourhoods across North America in the 1990s.”

In addition, “the debates it inspired in the pages of Anarchy magazine and various ‘do-it-yourself’ publications within the anarchist milieu were among the most lively in decades.”[38] Shantz himself devotes considerable space to the TAZ, which he considers to be the “most extensive and exhilarating theoretical expressions of explicitly anarchist future-presents.”[39] But not everyone came to the party: “Others (most notably Murray Bookchin) condemned Bey for supposedly offering up apolitical ‘post-modern’ bohemianism in the guise of anarchism,”[40] a stigma of supposed inauthenticity that Bey would continue to wear over the years.


Peter Lamborn Wilson at Living Theatre, NYC. Photo: amc.

John Armitage argues that the TAZ concept is extremely problematic in that it fails to consider the importance of class struggle, while also misrepresenting libertarian philosophy as well as the “politics of everyday life.”[41] For Armitage, Bey’s attitude towards cultural politics is “intellectually conservative,” a “political obscurantism” that inverts real-world events to fit an all-purpose theoretical framework. He quotes, and agrees with, Richard Barbrook, who takes Bey to task for:

unashamed support for reactionary political positions. For instance, Bey claims that the seizure of the Croatian city of Fiume by D’Annunzio’s supporters in 1919 was a forerunner of contemporary “Temporary Autonomous Zones” … Yet, the Fiume incident not only pioneered the style and ideology of Italian fascism, but also led directly to the imposition of totalitarianism on Italy.[42]

But this is a somewhat deceitful citation, as it neglects to mention Bey’s own admission:

D’Annunzio, like many Italian anarchists, later veered toward fascism – in fact, Mussolini (the ex-Syndicalist) himself seduced the poet along that route. By the time D’Annunzio realized his error it was too late: he was too old and sick. But Il Duce had him killed anyway – pushed off a balcony – and turned him into a ‘martyr.’[43]

Yet by focusing on D’Annunzio’s later fate, Armitage and Barbrook ironically prove Bey’s central thesis: That revolution will always be annexed by the super-absorbent powers of the State. For “Bey,” we must therefore return to those moments when there is suspension between the old world and the new, suspension of old beliefs and ideologies, of political consciousness, realizing and reinhabiting an indeterminate zone where rigid attitudes towards social organization are challenged and, in many cases, overturned, however fleetingly. Honoring the spirit of suspension, then, means foregoing the ideal of permanent revolution in favor of ongoing temporary revolution that continues to replicate, indefinitely, the rolling suspensive zones suggested by the Fiume incident. Whatever one’s own views regarding the validity of this tactic, taking Bey to task for adhering to the logic of the framework he himself has set in train seems misguided.

In any case, Bey finds an echo (if not in the idea of suspension, then certainly in the tactic of reappraisal of historical circumstance) in the philosophy of Slavoj Zizek, who returns to the roots of Stalinism as a tool to unwork the current deadlock between competing Marxist ideologies: “Even if we conclude that the Stalinist terror was the necessary outcome of the Socialist project, we are still dealing with the tragic dimension of an emancipatory project going awry, of an undertaking which fatally misperceived the consequences of its own intervention ….”[44] The validity of Zizek’s views on the matter of Stalinism has been a topic of some debate. Yet what is certain is the force within his position that urges the need to look to historical “hinges” where future outcomes take severe turns, but inside of which, paradoxically, redemptive potential lies. This same forceful argument underpins the TAZ and demands that it be assessed and debated on similar terms.

Additionally, what if it is indeed the case that, as Shantz writes, “Despite the novel twists Bey applies, and the controversy his ideas engendered in some anarchist circles, TAZ, or something very much like them, have long been a part of anarchist culture and politics [my emphasis].” Shantz cites the examples of the Wobbly union halls in the 1910s and 1920s; Spain’s “revolutionary community centres” in the 1930s and the “numerous squatted cultural centres of Europe from the 1960s to the present.” He concludes: “Wilson/Bey’s inspiration is drawn from the many heterotopias and intentional communities of history – pirate utopias, the Munich Soviet of 1919, Paris 1968, autonomist uprisings in Italy during the 1970s.”[45] Thus, Armitage and Barbrook, by choosing to highlight D’Annunzio’s later fate, and ignoring the many examples of “temporary autonomous zones” that do not compromise their beliefs (as opposed to being crushed by the ruling powers), are as guilty of selective reporting as Wilson is in their accusation.

Finally, Armitage’s critique is based mainly around the idea that Bey has in some fundamental way failed to address the dynamics of Internet activism as it was evolving at the time: “How useful are ontological anarchy and the TAZ as political tools of cybercultural analysis and tactics?”.[46] But, as mentioned, the TAZ was only ever associated with cyberculture by default, something Bey railed against in the 2003 preface: “What a joke. Time magazine identified me as a cyber-guru and ‘explained’ that the TAZ exists in cyberspace.”[47] If the TAZ became a “hip-sounding, three-letter solution” as a result of this masscult indoctrination, than that is less to do with the author and more to do with a process, by which, as Geert Lovink argues:

Certain aspects of the late eighties “Californian” mindset had to be cultivated and taken out of their political and cultural context. And this is what happened to Hakim Bey’s notion of TAZ … We could therefore easily state that TAZ has been boiled down to a late eighties concept for Internet plus rave parties. The restless souls however can easily jump over this tragic reading of the history of ideas, and open other chapters full of yet unknown, unlikely futures.[48]

This process of “boiling down” is one crucial reason why the TAZ attracted such heat. But it is not the only reason. At this juncture, it is worth returning to Wilson/Bey’s statement: “I am not trying to construct political dogma.” Yet despite that pronouncement, Bey was highly visible in the real world, debating anarchist principles on radio, in person and on the Internet, challenging and provoking long-standing views. In this light, negative reactions to the TAZ seem plausible: The author seems to step outside of the text with a flesh-and-blood presence advocating the concept as a serious political doctrine, and therefore a doctrine that can be opposed. But how seriously are we supposed to take a writer offering up this particular biography:

Hakim Bey lives in a seedy Chinese hotel where the proprietor nods out over newspaper & scratchy broadcasts of Peking Opera. The ceiling fan turns like a sluggish dervish – sweat falls on the page – the poet’s kaftan is rusty, his ovals spill ash on the rug – his monologues seem disjointed & slightly sinister – outside shuttered windows the barrio fades into palmtrees, the naive blue ocean, the philosophy of tropicalismo.[49]

Asking that question is not to imply that the ideas within the TAZ are not “serious” or “political,” rather it is to assert that Bey’s satirical biography is more Burroughs than Bakunin. Burroughs’s work undoubtedly contains deep insight into the nature and function of capitalist society, and could even serve to inspire activism under some circumstances,[50] but to attack “Hakim Bey” for failing to provide a watertight treatise on class struggle free of “political obscurantism,” as Armitage does, seems as absurd as criticizing Burroughs’ most infamous character, Dr Benway, for neglecting to follow ethical medical procedure. Moreover, the “high” style of Bey’s writing seems to confirm that “Hakim Bey” is not just a pseudonym, but as much a character as the creation of any novelist (the oratory seems to say “follow me; do as I do,” at least if the ambiguities in the text are glossed).

But if the character of “Bey” was satire, it was also a highly successful provocation. While there is no denying the complexities of, and differences between, contemporary anarchists, what is certain is that when dogma-anarchists attacked “Bey,” they held up a mirror to themselves, reflecting brightly the inflexibility of their own position. This is illustrated by Zerzan, who was moved to write: “I’ve become increasingly annoyed by [Bey’s] word-salad posturings.”[51] For Zerzan, Bey’s “Primitives & Extropians” essay is a “pathetic exercise” that blatantly retreads the “patented” TAZ formula – that is, a “stylistic mantra about the glories of inconsistency and hip-sounding, three-word solutions in capital letters.”[52] He rages against Bey’s “inconsistent, messy, open, impure, non-exclusive” text, without considering the fact that Bey might be a “fictional” narrative voice who, namedropping Sterling, Gibson and Philip K Dick, even admits that he “begin[s] to tilt a little toward my old SciFi enthusiasms.”[53]

From where does Zerzan’s anger spring from? In an essay entitled “The Case Against Art,” he writes: “Art is always about ‘something hidden.’ But does it help us connect with that hidden something? I think it moves us away from it.”[54] For Zerzan, art is a profound corruption of the natural world of the senses, a “symbolic activity” akin to shamanism that results in alienation and stratification, outsourcing memory and perception and mediating all mental functions so that we are confronted with nothing less than “the Fall of man”:

The world must be mediated by art (and human communication by language, and being by time) due to division of labor, as seen in the nature of ritual. The real object, its particularity, does not appear in ritual; instead, an abstract one is used, so that the terms of ceremonial expression are open to substitution. The conventions needed in division of labor, with its standardization and loss of the unique, are those of ritual, of symbolization …

The agent, again, is the shaman-artist, enroute to priesthood, leader by reason of mastering his own immediate desires via the symbol. All that is spontaneous, organic and instinctive is to be neutered by art and myth.[55]

Peter Lamborn Wilson. Photo via.

It is no surprise that Zerzan would take umbrage with a shamanic “character” who masters his desires “via the symbol” – namely, Bey’s program of “poetic terrorism.” What is surprising is that many aims within Zerzan’s own philosophy are actually mirrored within the TAZ. Most obviously, Zerzan also “masters the symbol” – he cannot fail to do so, enabling “human communication by language” from within the technology of writing. This is an obvious contradiction that his philosophy can never resolve,[56] thus it has no recourse but to appeal to the mysticism of primitive telepathy as an ideal that can sidestep this impasse, seemingly the type of mysticism he would decry in Bey.[57] Zerzan also recognizes that the “spectacle” is an effective framework for understanding the nature of a society in which “the representation of representation” means that daily life is nothing less than an aestheticized experience:

Daily life has become aestheticized by a saturation of images and music, largely through the electronic media, the representation of representation … the distance between artist and spectator has diminished, a narrowing that only highlights the absolute distance between aesthetic experience and what is real. This perfectly duplicates the spectacle at large: separate and manipulating, perpetual aesthetic experience and a demonstration of political power.[58]

Therefore, he requires “a sensual life in nature unmediated and unbounded by representation.” This is a striking corollary to Bey’s assertion that the “TAZ desires above all to avoid mediation, to experience its existence as immediate.”[59] These supposed polar positions become blurred further when Zerzan suggests that the “things that sustain a city are still part of the problem. Maybe in its place we’ll see fluid sites of festival, reunion, play [my emphasis].”[60] This, too, seems indistinguishable from Bey’s identification of “The TAZ as festival … Because the State is concerned primarily with Simulation rather than substance, the TAZ can ‘occupy’ these areas clandestinely and carry on its festal purposes for quite a while in relative peace.”[61] The question therefore remains: Is Zerzan responding to Bey, or is Bey anticipating Zerzan?

With his “princely” Turkish title, “Hakim Bey” can now be confirmed as a deliberate intervention designed to mock, flush out and highlight the obstinacy of much revolutionary debate, underlining the disunity that causes various factions to retreat into “fiefdom,” never uniting towards a common goal but forever condemned to infighting. This outcome is further proven by “social ecologist” Murray Bookchin, who, in his book Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm, tilts at various versions of anarchism that do not tally with his ideal conception of a “social anarchism that seeks freedom through structure and mutual responsibility, not through a vaporous, nomadic ego that eschews the preconditions for a social life.”[62]

Here, Bey endures the most sustained and scathing attack to date on the TAZ (derided as “lifestyle anarchism”), while the hapless Zerzan, despite his disavowal of Bey’s work, himself falls squarely within Bookchin’s sights, dismissed as “sanctimonious”, selfishly using anarchism as his own “primitivistic demimonde.”[63] It is not Bey’s message, then, but Bookchin’s that loudly proclaims: “Follow me; do as I do.”

Bookchin repeatedly uses Wilson’s pseudonym as a title, as in “The Bey … minces no words about his disdain for social revolution … Having eliminated the classical revolutionary aim of transforming society, the Bey patronizingly mocks those who once risked all for it.”[64] Taking umbrage at a self-satirizing pseudonym indicates the direction his attack would take. As in Zerzan, there would be no time for, indeed no room for, literature, artistic creativity or abstract thought in this version of the anarchist utopia. The arts in Bookchin’s reading, as in Zerzan’s (although the twain never did meet), are something to be despised, mistrusted, a gross distortion of the real world of politics and direct action.

This is also indicated by the straight literal interpretation Bookchin applies to the text. When Bey asks, “Why bother to confront a ‘power’ which has lost all meaning and become sheer Simulation,”[65] Bookchin retorts: “Power in quotation marks? A mere ‘Simulation’? If what is happening in Bosnia with firepower is a mere ‘simulation,’ we are living in a very safe and comfortable world indeed!”[66] The argument is akin to the uproar that followed Baudrillard’s announcement that the “Gulf War did not take place,” with certain commentators accused Baudrillard of disregarding the lives of those killed in the war, while themselves steadfastly ignoring (or simply failing to identify) Baudrillard’s main thesis.[67] The self-defeating nature of such an attack is usefully summarized by Ward, who, in his short piece on the TAZ, states:

“Bookchin and I have opposite ways of coping with people whose ideas have some kind of connection with our own but with whom we disagree. His is to pulverise them with criticism so that they won’t emerge again … As a propagandist I usually find it more useful to claim as comrades the people whose ideas are something like mine, and to stress the common ground, rather than to wither them up in a deluge of scorn.”[68] Of course, Bookchin in his later life broke with anarchism, no longer considering himself part of the movement, but no matter. The fight did have some value, as even Bey acknowledges: “I should mention that the book has been attacked as ‘dangerous’ and ‘unsavory’ – e.g., by Murray Bookchin – and this probably helped to boost sales somewhat.”[69]


“Hakim Bey” remains a deeply divisive figure, no less controversial now than “he” was then. Much of this recent resentment, highly visible online, arises from accusations leveled against Wilson’s private life, especially in Robert P. Helms’s widely circulated series of articles. Helms asserts that Wilson’s earliest writings appeared in publications released by NAMBLA and other “man-boy love” organizations (including, he claims, an early version of the TAZ). For Helms, “the pedophile writings of Hakim Bey indicate a general deceit in his philosophy, and are evidence that his concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone is inspired by opportunism, not by good will. He presents arguments for human freedom while actually wishing to create situations where he is free to put his deranged sexuality into practice.”[70]

This, in turn, has inspired a new backlash against the TAZ, in which it is claimed that Wilson’s version of anarchism serves to justify pedophilia. Much of the opprobrium directed towards him stems from a perception of pedophilia as solely concerned with the grooming of pre-pubescent children for sexual purposes, and even rape (also from a muddling of the distinction between pederasty and pedophilia).[71] In this respect, it is apposite to draw upon the research of Steven Angelides, who has written at length about the moral panics surrounding contemporary representations of pedophilia:

It scarcely mattered that that many gay and paedophile support groups … had been articulating clear distinctions between paedophilia, incest, homosexuality and child sex abuse [and] that research revealed a much smaller proportion of homosexual men engaged in sex with prepubescent children than did heterosexual men … any space for subtle distinctions between children and adolescents and between the concepts of paedophilia and child sexual abuse was almost completely eroded.[72]

It is clearly farfetched to suggest that Bey/Wilson is advocating sex with pre-pubescent children, as there is nothing in the texts to suggest this. Regarding pederasty, and regardless of one’s own views on the moral legitimacy of such sexual desire, it should also be recognized that Bey is not the first high-profile writer to admit to a sexual attraction towards adolescent boys. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg made no secret of it, yet by and large their readers do not seem to be able to have trouble separating this from their consumption of the work. Instead, the question of sexuality within Bey’s work should be analyzed within the framework of the academic writing Wilson has published under his real name, such as his non-TAZ overview of early pirate utopias:

A Foucaldian history of sexualities would indicate that such phenomena as pederasty or androphile homosexuality are behaviours rather than categories. Seen as categories, such phenomena can only be called social constructs rather than natural states of being. The imputation of “normalcy” or the privileging of one sexual behaviour over another is truly a double-edged sword for any homosexual theory, since these are precisely the terms used by heterosexual theory to discredit and condemn all same-sex love. In any case, the word “homosexual” belongs to the late 19th century, and the concepts of androphilia and pedophilia are even later refinements. The 17th century knew no such words, nor did it recognize any categories which might have been expressed in such words.[73]

As with Angelides, who applies a similarly Foucaldian perspective to the history of sexual categorization,[74] the outcome seems clear enough: To stimulate discussion surrounding the terms and definitions in place around pedophilia, and the sexual agency of adolescents, even if in Wilson’s case this means deploying a fictitious alter-ego able to express and re-internalize a controversial viewpoint that his own “objective” academic discourse could never do. Recall the notion of the “Bey” character as provocation. In the TAZ, he lists the slogans of the fictitious “Association for Ontological Anarchy,” some of which gesture towards the illicit sexual desire under question such as “YOUNG CHILDREN HAVE BEAUTIFUL FEET.”[75] Others, he writes, are “‘sincere’ slogans of the A.O.A. – [and] others are meant to rouse public apprehension & misgivings – but we’re not sure which is which.”[76]

It is that last assertion that really summarizes the objections to the TAZ, and indeed its value. Quite simply, detractors of “Bey” and Wilson were not sure which is which. Thus, the reactions to Wilson’s supposed sexual attitudes seem more to do with institutionalized homophobia brought to a head by Bey’s satirical intervention than they are to do with reasoned objections to a taboo subject that, historically, by many accounts, has not always been so. This intervention raises an important implication, one that a purely academic discourse could not to the same degree: If the TAZ, and any kind of alternative politics, can serve to reassess questions of race, disability, nationhood and gender, why can it not be used to reassess sexuality? Inevitably, the reactions of Helms and his supporters do not bode well for a movement seeking to overturn government and society on the grounds of historical irrelevance.


Peter Lamborn Wilson. Photo via.

Today, Bey/Wilson looks back on the TAZ with a mix of fondness and distance. In the 2003 preface, he writes: “T.A.Z. feels to me very much a book of the 80s, a strangely romantic and more erotic era than the 90s or the nameless decade we now inhabit”. Yet he qualifies this with an acknowledgment that today more than ever, when national boundaries appear more porous than ever, when late capitalism has triumphed and society is the spectacle,[77] “the TAZ seems more relevant than ever … it sometimes appears that the TAZ is the last and only means of creating an Outside or true space of resistance to the totality”.[78] Indeed, a case could be made that the TAZ, by virtue of the number of discourses that make use of it (as cited earlier: Queer theory, theories of race, notions of deafhood), has succeeded in reaching more people than “social anarchism,” “anarcho-primitivism” or plain “vanilla” anarchism. In so doing, it has become a lightning conductor for an ongoing debate regarding the meeting point of philosophy and politics that shows no sign of slowing or resolving. Why is it such a conductive work? The answers do not lie within dated cybercultural tropes, self-defeatist anarchist infighting or emotive sexual politics, but within a rethinking of the TAZ as an ongoing and influential node in the ever-evolving strand of alternative politics.

With a similar approach, Patricia Pisters reconsiders arguments against political readings of Deleuze and Guattari’s work, and her views are worth repeating, as the arguments she challenges – “towards the relationship between politics, cultural theory and philosophy” – are applicable to Wilson’s own writing, which is, of course, inherently Deleuzoguattarian in its operating principles. Pisters notes that: “According to Richard Rorty, the academic left in general has become powerless because it does not engage in ‘real’ politics … [a] major objection … against the academic left is the level of abstraction of many academic discourses… ‘after reading … you know everything except what to do’.”[79] However, she insists that the real political value of Deleuzoguattarian philosophy is the attention it pays to the interplay between “conscious and unconscious political activities,” of which art and artistic expression forms a part, all the more powerful in its ability to shape reality, or at least an understanding of reality, in ways that are outside of societal norms:

With the many concepts that Deleuze and Guattari have invented, it has become clear that ‘politics’ in contemporary society really takes place at the microlevel of beliefs and desires. It is this invisible level that is most important in a culture that increasingly depends on the visible, to the point where ‘capital becomes cinema’ … All theory and philosophy can do is to give tools to sharpen our perceptions and sensibilities for grasping the complexities of the various political lines that constitute the individual and the social. With this modest mission it might be possible to see where philosophy and politics can meet again, without the risk of passing round ‘a poisoned chalice’.[80]

Indeed, with this “modest mission” in mind, it is time to return to the TAZ, to the text itself, regardless of the author’s personal history, and to once again unpack the insights it holds. Bey/Wilson’s concept is not an aberration but a crucial element enmeshed within a continuum of deeply held philosophical, political, biopolitical, physiological, sexual and even metaphysical debates. It is no less relevant today, as Benjamin Noys highlights:

If, according to Sun Ra, ‘space is the place’, then what type of space is the place we want to be? From Hakim Bey’s mystical-Stirnerite ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’, to Alain Badiou’s post-Maoist invocation of ‘independent spaces’ subtracted from the State, from the ‘offensive opacity zones’ of the neo-Agambenian anarchist group ‘Tiqqun’, to Masteneh Shah-Shuja’s libertarian communist ‘zones of proletarian development’, the answer appears to be the ‘zone’, or its equivalent, as the space of liberation.[81]

Without further mentioning Bey, Noys seems to confirm the inherent characteristics of the TAZ when he suggests that we need to rethink the “zone of liberation” in a way that refuses to “leave radical politics with only consolatory and symmetrical fantasies of inexplicable and yet somehow total revolution.”[82] That “revolutionary fantasy” is also something that Bey, as we have seen, took great pains to repudiate.

Taking this cue as a sign of ongoing relevance, then, let us now repopulate the TAZ, re-examining it in the spirit with which it was created: As a satiric mirror to our own foibles. The trick in so doing, as Bey knows all too well, is never to flinch.


1 François Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States [2003], trans. Jeff Fort (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 250.
2 As Darren Tofts writes about a collection of cyberculture essays edited by Mark Dery: “Mondo 2000 did a lot to generate the cyberphilia (take anything and bung ‘cyber’ in front of it) gripping anyone who has anything to do with computers, modems and William Gibson novels … [In response] Dery has assembled writers with considerable experience of cyberculture as lived experience beyond, in [Vivian] Sobchack’s terms, ‘bumper-sticker libertarianism’.” Darren Tofts, “Flame Jamming,” 21C, no. 4 (1995): 91.
3 John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration for the Independence of Cyberspace,” 1996. http://homes.eff.org/~barlow/Declaration-Final.html (accessed 23 October 2009).
4 Douglas Rushkoff, Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace [1994] (Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2002), xxii.
5 For Semiotext(e) SF, Wilson had written a poem, “The Antarctic Autonomous Zone,” that covered some of the themes of the TAZ within a slightly fantastical setting.
6 Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle [1967] (Detroit: Black & Red, 1983), paragraph 1.
7 Hakim Bey, T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism [1991] (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2003), 99.
8 Jack Boulware, “Mondo 1995,” San Francisco News, 11 October 1995. http://www.sfweekly.com/1995-10-11/news/mondo-1995 (accessed 23 October 2009).
9 Bey, T.A.Z., 97.
10 Bey, T.A.Z., 96-7.
11 Bey, T.A.Z., 100.
12 Bey, T.A.Z., 126.
13 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude (London: Penguin, 2006), 80-1.
14 Bey, T.A.Z., 106.
15 Bey, T.A.Z., 108, 132.
16 Bey, T.A.Z., xi. Wilson also made his sympathies clear at the time of Robert Anton Wilson’s death: “Bob was a Futurist and I am a Luddite, but after a long series of letters back and forth we agreed to disagree on the subject of technology, since neither of us wanted to put ideology in the place of camaraderie … In later years … we lost touch because Bob decided to colonize the Internet and I decided not to.” Peter Lamborn Wilson, “‘Liquor and weed for him were bardic fuel’ – Peter Lamborn Wilson’s obituary for Robert Anton Wilson,” Arthur, 5 December 2007. http://www.arthurmag.com/2007/12/05/peter-lamborn-wilsons-obituary-for-robert-anton-wilson (accessed 16 October 2009).
17 Bey, T.A.Z., xi.
18 Bey, T.A.Z., 110.
19 Bey, T.A.Z., 104.
20 Bey, T.A.Z., 105.
21 Bey, T.A.Z., 104.
22 M.T. Kato, From Kung Fu to Hip Hop: Globalization, Revolution, and Popular Culture (Albany: Suny Press, 2007), 237.
23 Chris Carlsson, Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant Celebration (Edinburgh and Oakland: AK Press, 2002), 109.
24 Paddy Ladd, “Colonialism and Resistance: A Brief History of Deafhood” in Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking, ed. H-Dirksen L. Bauman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 51.
25 Charlie Hailey, Campsite: Architectures of Duration and Place (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008), 196.
26 Barbara Bender, Stonehenge: Making Space (Berg: Oxford and New York, 1998), 200.
27 Charles H. Lippy, Faith in America: Changes, Challenges, New Directions (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2006), 10.
28 John L. Jackson Jnr., Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 278.
29 Anthony Paul Farley, “Sadomasochism and the Colorline: Reflections on the Million Man March” in Black Men on Race, Gender, and Sexuality: A Critical Reader, ed. Devon W. Carbado (New York and London: New York University Press, 1999), 79.
30 Ward Churchill, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality (Oakland and Edinburgh: AP Press, 2003), 296.
31 Bey, T.A.Z., 97-8.
32 John Zerzan, “‘Hakim Bey,’ Postmodern ‘Anarchist’“ (1996) in Running on Empty: The Pathology of Civilization (Los Angeles; Feral House, 2002), 146.
33 Colin Ward, “Temporary Autonomous Zones,” Freedom, Spring 1997. http://raforum.info/spip.php?article1079&lang=fr (accessed 23 October 2009).
34 James Ingham, “Listening back from Blackburn: Virtual sound worlds and the creation of temporary autonomy” in Living Through Pop, ed. Andrew Blake (London: Routledge, 1999), 112.
35 Ingham, “Listening back from Blackburn,” 117.
36 Ingham, “Listening back from Blackburn,” 126.
37 Simon Reynolds, Generation Ecstasy (New York: Routledge, 1999), 169-70.
38 Jeff Shantz, Constructive Anarchy: Contemporary Anarchism in Action (Free Press, 2006) 105-6. http://www.freewords.org/freepress/book/14 (accessed 23 October 2009).
39 Shantz, Constructive Anarchy, 27.
40 Shantz, Constructive Anarchy, 106.
41 John Armitage, “Ontological Anarchy, the Temporary Autonomous Zone, and the Politics of Cyberculture: A Critique of Hakim Bey,” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 4: 2 (1999): 115.
42 Richard Barbrook, quoted in Armitage, “Ontological Anarchy,” 119-20.
43 Bey, T.A.Z., 125.
44 Slavoj Zizek, “No sex, please, we’re digital!” in On Belief (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 39.
45 Jeff Shantz, Living Anarchy: Theory and Practice in Anarchist Movements (Bethesda: Academica Press, 2008), 129-30.
46 Armitage, “Ontological Anarchy,” 119,
47 Bey, T.A.Z., xi.
48 Geert Lovink, Dark Fiber: Tracking Critical Internet Culture (Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 2003), 238.
49 Bey, T.A.Z., 23-4.
50 In 2005, for example, online feedback was sought for a “working list of authors, writers, and artists whose work is being considered for inclusion” in a proposed book entitled North American Anarchist Thought Since 1960. Burroughs appeared on this list, as did “Bey,” Zerzan and Murray Bookchin. http://libcom.org/forums/north-america/north-american-anarchist-thought-since-1960 (accessed 23 October 2009).
51 Zerzan, “‘Hakim Bey,’ Postmodern ‘Anarchist’,” 144.
52 Zerzan, “‘Hakim Bey,’ Postmodern ‘Anarchist’,” 146.
53 Hakim Bey, “Primitives & Extropians,” Anarchy 42 (1995). http://www.t0.or.at/hakimbey/primitiv.htm (accessed 23 October 2009).
54 John Zerzan, “The Case Against Art.” http://www.primitivism.com/case-art.htm (accessed 23 October 2009).
55 Zerzan, “The Case Against Art.”
56 As Zerzan admits: “Of course … one is subjected to that very criticism … We are all part of this: these contradictions are here, like it or not. I could go live in a cave, as some people have suggested, but I am trying to be a part of the dialogue, trying to make some kind of contribution here. So that is just the nature of the reality that we are in.” Zerzan quoted in Arthur Versluis, “Interview with John Zerzan,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism, 2/1 (2008): 156.
57 According to Zerzan: “Thinking of a world without language entails an enormous speculative leap. From where we are now it is extremely difficult to posit or fathom a life-world based on non-symbolic communication, though of course some of that exists even now. Freud guessed that a sort of telepathy held sway before language; lovers need no words, as the saying goes. These are hints in the direction of unmediated communication. I’m sure you can think of others!” Zerzan quoted in Anonymous, “Interview – John Zerzan.” http://www.primitivism.com/zerzan.htm (accessed 23 October 2009).
58 Zerzan, “The Case Against Art.”
59 Bey, T.A.Z., 109.
60 Zerzan quoted in Lawrence Jarach, “A Dialog on Primitivism: Lawrence Jarach interviews John Zerzan,” Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, no. 1 (2002). http://www.insurgentdesire.org.uk/dialog.htm (accessed 23 October 2009).
61 Bey, T.A.Z.,
62 Murray Bookchin, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm (Edinburgh and San Francisco: AK Press, 1995) 54.
63 Bookchin, Social Anarchism, 64, 60.
64 Bookchin, Social Anarchism, 20.
65 Bey, T.A.Z., 127.
66 Bookchin, Social Anarchism, 20.
67 Namely, that the conflict was more an event mediated by spectacle and technology, so that nothing is as it seems, rather than a “war” in the traditional sense with clearly defined winners, losers and outcomes
68 Ward, “Temporary Autonomous Zones.”
69 Bey, T.A.Z., ix.
70 Robert P. Helms, “Paedophilia and American anarchism – the other side of Hakim Bey.” http://libcom.org/library/paedophilia-and-american-anarchism-the-other-side-of-hakim-bey (accessed 23 October 2009).
71 On Zine Wiki: The Independent Media Wikipedia, for example, a disclaimer is added under the entry for “Hakim Bey”: “This article is included for purposes of encyclopedic completeness only. Zine Wiki does not endorse or condone the views of Hakim Bey,” before declaring: “He remains a controversial figure within the anarchist mileau [sic], due to his advocacy of paedophilia, and his position as propagandist for child rape, sexual abuse and exploitation.” http://zinewiki.com/Hakim_Bey (accessed 1 November 2009). While such sites are not renowned for independently verified data, or indeed objectivity, it should be noted that the Internet’s “echo chamber” effect means that such allegations have been repeated often online for it to become an issue surrounding the work.
72 Steven Angelides, “The Emergence of the Paedophile in the Late Twentieth Century,” Australian Historical Studies, 126 (2005: 93.
73 Peter Lamborn Wilson, Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs & European Renegadoes [1993] (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2003), 185-6.
74 For example, Angelides writes: “As a discourse, paedophilia, like that of modern homosexuality, is a decidedly Western invention of the late nineteenth century. Yet unlike homosexuality, paedophilia was not at this time the object of particular concern … In stark contrast to the discourse of homosexuality … an individual practicing intergenerational sex in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was infrequently labeled a ‘paedophile’.” Angelides, “The Emergence of the Paedophile,” 272.
75 Bey, T.A.Z., 27.
76 Bey, T.A.Z., 28.
77 As Zizek writes: ‘One of the clearest lessons of the last few decades is that capitalism is indestructible. Marx compared it to a vampire, and one of the salient points of comparison now appears to be that vampires always rise up again after being stabbed to death. Even Mao’s attempt, in the Cultural Revolution, to wipe out the traces of capitalism, ended up in its triumphant return’. Slavoj Zizek, “Resistance Is Surrender,” London Review of Books, vol. 29, no. 22, 4.
78 Bey, T.A.Z., x-xi.
79 Patricia Pisters, “Introduction” in Micropolitics of Media Culture: Reading the Rhizomes of Deleuze and Guattari, ed. Patricia Pisters (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2001), 8.
80 Pisters, “Introduction,” 25.
81 Benjamin Noys, “Space is the Place,” presentation at the ‘Is Black and Red Dead?’ Conference, The Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice, University of Nottingham, 7–8 September 2009. http://leniency.blogspot.com/2009/09/space-is-place.html (accessed 23 October 2009).
82 Noys, “Space is the Place.”

‘Flesh dissolved in an acid of light': the b-movie as second sight

by Simon Sellars

This is an earlier version of an article published in Continuum, Volume 24, Issue 5 October 2010, pages 721-33. Both versions were based on a paper given by Simon Sellars at the Monash University conference, B for bad cinema: aesthetics, politics and cultural value.

Recent academic discussions of ‘badfilm’ and ‘paracinema’ have highlighted the re-appraisal of ‘all forms of “cinematic trash”’ (Sconce 1995, 372). This article addresses the theme by contrasting films from two of the most well-known purveyors of ‘cinematic trash’: X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), directed by Roger Corman, and They Live (1988), directed by John Carpenter. In X, a scientist develops X-ray vision, seeing into the fourth dimension and something so shocking he rips his eyes out. This act is analogous with Corman’s career as purveyor of trash cinema: refraining from pushing badfilm’s power to the absolute limit; foregoing the gift of ‘second sight’; content to exist on a marginalised, second-tier, parallel reality to the Hollywood mainstream. In They Live, Carpenter re-empowers the thesis: the hero stumbles on a secret society that has developed sunglasses to see through the real to the alien-generated subliminal messages in advertising and politics. Rather than withdrawal, Carpenter’s hero declares: ‘I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass – and I’m all out of bubblegum’. Unabashed, glorying in his outsider status, Carpenter reappropriates Hollywood values in a cheap ‘bubblegum’ universe, deploying trash culture as a smart bomb that aims to prise apart not only cinematic convention but also reality itself.

Ultimately, both films, in very different historical specificities, and linked by the work of J.G. Ballard, offer up the B-movie as a response to the gathering global and economic forces of late capitalism, signified by what Slavoj Žižek identifies as the ‘ideological state apparatus’ of the Hollywood movie-making machine (2002).


Still from X.

Roger Corman, known as the ‘King of the Bs’, was a force of nature. An undeniably intelligent and daring filmmaker, more often than not he seemed a hyper-manic combination of accountant, adrenalin junky and huckster than a maverick artist with a vision. Reminiscing about an early script, he said: ‘I told [the production company] I would give them the film if they would give me all of my money back immediately as an advance against distribution and I would do the same thing on three more films, so I could set myself up as producer’ (Emery 2003, 120). He even seemed in competition with himself: ‘I did Bucket of Blood in five days and … Little Shop of Horrors in two days and a night, but that was really an experiment and a joke to see if I could do it’ (Emery 2003, 121). In 1963, Corman completed The Terror in three days on sets leftover from The Raven, also from 1963. That year, too, he somehow found the energy to direct X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, with its portrayal of Dr James Xavier, who experiments on his own eyes with a super-powerful X-ray serum. The ‘X-effect’ is exponential as Xavier begins to see through more and more layers of reality: right through his eyelids and beyond, then through walls and buildings. When he sees through a sick girl’s skin to discover a malignancy her operating doctor has missed, Xavier disables the doctor by cutting his hand and performing the operation himself, saving the girl’s life. Facing a subsequent malpractice suit, the funding for his experiments is cut. Feverish from the X-effect and sleeplessness, his grip on sanity worsens and he lashes out at a colleague, inadvertently pushing him out of an upper-floor window to his death.

Xavier hides out in a backwaters town. Under thrall to a manipulative carnival hustler, he performs circus tricks as a sideshow ‘mind reader’ (in actuality, he reads people’s ID cards through their clothing). Needing money to progress his experiments, he follows the hustler to another anonymous, small town, where, in a distortion of his former life, he looks through sick people’s skin to identify diseased internal organs. He then provides a diagnosis to the victim, who, having abandoned hope, is grateful and willing to reward him. Of course, he must hand over a cut to the hustler, becoming ever more embittered as a result.

Another colleague finds him and Xavier escapes with her. His observations become increasingly deranged: ‘I see the city as if it were unborn … Limbs without flesh, girders without stone, signs hanging without supports, wires dipping and swaying without poles … flesh dissolved in an acid of light: a city of the dead’. Wearing modified sunglasses, with a thickness that retards the X effect to some extent, he works a Las Vegas casino, winning money by seeing through card decks and slot machines. However, when his sunglasses fall off, his horribly blackened eyes are revealed to the crowd and he flees to the desert, stumbling across a religious revival tent complete with blood-and-thunder preacher. Now he has begun to see through the final layers of reality and into the heart of the universe. Recoiling in horror, Xavier addresses the preacher: ‘I’ve come to tell you what I see. There are great darknesses, and beyond the darkness, a light that glows. And in the centre of the universe: the eye that sees us all.’ The preacher exhorts: ‘You see sin and the devil! But the bible tells us what to do: if thine eye offends thee, pluck it out!’ Xavier, unable to bear the burden of seeing what no one has seen before, takes the advice and gouges out his own eyeballs.

Still from X.

There have been many interpretations of the film. Ann Reynolds sees Xavier’s condition as a cinematic corollary of Robert Smithson’s ‘ruins in reverse’, symbolising the illusory hopes of future utopias (Reynolds 2003, 116). For Akira Mizuta Lippit, Xavier’s experiments invoke ‘the nuclear age, a premonition of total catastrophe destined to follow’ (Lippit 2005, 145). But in this act of self-immolation – Xavier putting out his eyes rather than trusting the perceptual logic he has set in train[1] – there seems an even clearer analogy: namely, with Corman’s directing career. In 1961, Corman made The Intruder, which dealt with small-town racism. This raw, uncompromising film garnered excellent reviews yet failed to make money. Subsequently, ‘after [this] financial disaster … Corman never again forgot the importance of the bottom line’ (Dixon 2005). His films from then on would be designed to make money first and foremost, with ‘art’ and ‘worthiness’ as secondary commodities. In his autobiography, he even devotes an entire chapter to the ‘disaster’ that in his mind was The Intruder, an act of pathos according to William D. Routt: ‘What was the big artistic “risk” here? Apparently, as it turns out, it was Corman’s sense of personal self-worth. Yet here, as the details of financial risk are spelled out, what seems significant is risk itself, a nameless danger that posits the film maker as One against the Rest: art as a specific, fraught enterprise’ (Routt 1994, 57).

This moment of realisation reached its apex when Corman founded his production company, New World Pictures, in 1970. He would not direct another film for 20 years, [2] an absence clarified by this 1974 announcement: ‘my earlier theories of the director as auteur are undergoing some revision and I’m beginning to think the producer is more important than the director’ (Morris 2000). For Charles Griffith, screenwriter on Little Shop of Horrors (1960), such an outcome was assured insofar as Corman ‘uses half his genius to degrade his own work, and the rest to degrade the artists who work for him’ (Griffith in Gray 2000). Although Corman had given up directing himself, he still wielded power over New World’s staff directors. According to Paul Bartel, once filming had started on Bartel’s Death Race 2000 (1975), Corman excised much of the black humour in the original cut, replacing it with excessive gore and positioning it as a knock-off of Norman Jewison’s blockbuster, Rollerball, from the same year. As Bartel observed: ‘It was very important to him to be the David against the studio Goliath, and to come up with a cheap version that could be marketed along the same lines as some megaproduction’ (Gray 2000, 121). For Joe Dante, another Corman protégé, Death Race 2000 was ‘a real pop-art masterpiece before Roger got to it’ (Gray 2004, 121). Inadvertently, Corman’s autobiography confirms this angle. His account of the creative process surrounding Death Race 2000 is told entirely from his own perspective; Bartel and the screenwriters are barely mentioned: ‘When I read the story,’ Corman writes, ‘I thought: You can’t do this as a straight and serious film’ (Corman and Jerome 1990, 205).[3]

Still from X.

There is no small irony at this fate befalling Corman, whose forsaking of edgy, independent drama (typified by The Intruder) for cheap, moneymaking thrills, while running roughshod over colleagues, echoes that of Xavier. After all, the scientist was finally on the verge of a major metaphysical breakthrough only to succumb to fatal hubris. Destroying his talent, he subsists by performing cheap carnival tricks solely to raise cash before eventually rendering himself blind – literally, but also metaphorically blind to those around him.[4] Again, Corman’s autobiography hints at a literal act of self-sabotage. Reflecting on his enforced layoff from directing, Corman asks himself:

‘Did I quit out of fear? Did I let myself get wrapped up in the business of New World so I wouldn’t have to confront any insecurities I may have had about my worth as an artist, as an auteur? … Was New World a way for me to remain master of my own limited universe and reject a mainstream system that would only compromise my creative freedom and financial autonomy?’ (Corman and Jerome 1990, 231)

Today, he has pushed this logic to its bitter end: Corman’s latest productions are virtually unwatchable, a view held by detractors and admirers alike. Winston Wheeler Dixon, an avowed fan, voices the consensus:

‘These later films are extremely problematic … they are all but invisible to the public, being released solely through US cable networks, or on straight-to-home-video deals… [Their] excessive … sex and violence … makes many … uncomfortable …. [They] seem devoid of any artistic impulse whatsoever, designed solely to make money.’ (Dixon 2005)

In fighting such a longstanding resistance war against Hollywood, indeed against his own talent, Corman has marginalised himself out of existence, victim of a system that today fights back in very different ways – with absorption. As the novelist J.G. Ballard cogently observes: ‘the time span between the Rebel – the Revolution – and Total Social Acceptance is getting shorter and shorter …. In the future (this is part of the problem in the arts as well) you’ll get some radical new idea, but within 3 minutes it’s totally accepted, and it’s coming out in … your local supermarket.’ (Ballard in Savage 1978, 107).

Thus, Corman’s later work, defiantly yet ineffectually schlocky, is decidedly out of step when appropriated by a Hollywood simulacrum that has not only successfully mimicked exploitation values, but also, as Greg Villepique notes, Corman himself:

‘[Before] Jaws and Star Wars … studios allotted big budgets to historical epics and character-driven dramas while tossing off exploitation films on the cheap, so Corman was at least competing in the same ballpark as the majors (albeit from left field). Since the mid-70s, the studios’ priorities have flipped and they’ve poured all their resources into aping, with far more polish, Corman’s audience-pleasing strategies – tongue-in-cheek, $100 million Arnold Schwarzenegger and Will Smith blow ’em-ups that simply out-Corman Corman.’ (Villepique 2000)

In a world of commodity fetishism, where the lag between radicalism and flaccid cliché becomes negligible, what space can the ‘rebel’ hope to occupy?


Still from They Live.

They Live begins as a sombre affair. John Nada, a humble working-class drifter, needs a job and a place to sleep. Finding work on a construction site, he is offered a bed in a shantytown. He becomes intrigued by a nearby church and sneaks inside, overhearing a resistance group bent on bringing down the government. Later, the police discover the shantytown, bulldozing it and arresting the freedom fighters. Nada returns to the now-empty church, finding a box of sunglasses left behind.

LEFT: An alien, as seen by Nada sans shades…

Putting on a pair, he is stunned to discover that they reveal hidden messages in billboards and signs: ‘OBEY’, ‘MARRY AND REPRODUCE’, ‘SLEEP’, ‘CONFORM’. Dollar bills now read: ‘THIS IS YOUR GOD’. When he takes them off, everything is normal again. But there is an even bigger shock when the sunglasses reveal that certain people are in fact shapeshifting aliens with skeletal faces and metallic eyes. Nada flees and takes refuge in a bank, where with his enhanced vision he sees that most of the customers are aliens. At this point, the film shifts gears without warning, becoming unabashedly ‘cartoonish’. At the sight of the enemy, Nada instantly slips into cocky, wisecracking mode, a jarring transition from his previously low-key demeanour, as he blows apart the aliens while spitting out corny one-liners almost as much as bullets, like a B-film version of Arnold Schwarzenegger (he is muscle-bound, too, enhancing the comparison).

LEFT: …and as seen by Nada, with shades on.

This dramatic shift in tone has been criticised widely, with many commentators lamenting its supposed undermining of the Althusserian account of false consciousness inherent in the film’s first half. Barry Keith Grant is typical: ‘They Live … abandons its cultural critique halfway through to concentrate on [Nada’s] improbable heroics … Ironically, the film becomes exactly the kind of formulaic escapist entertainment it begins by critiquing as the opiate of the people’ (Grant 2004, 18). But what if the film is suggesting there is no way to step outside of ideology, no way to unwork false consciousness, but that the best one can do is to rework it to satisfy personal need? This then speaks of the difference between Corman and Carpenter, and ultimately of the difference in cultural value of the B-film in the 1960s (loitering in some kind of rebellious ‘outside’) and the B-film today (as fully absorbed, hyperreal selling point). Nada is like a badfilm version of Schwarzenegger’s character Doug Quaid in Total Recall (1990), who does not realise he is an undercover secret agent, but is instead brainwashed to think he is an ordinary labourer – just like Nada. But when danger comes, Quaid’s training kicks in automatically and he transforms into the lethal agent he was all along, as seamlessly as Nada does when the bullets begin to fly. Nada, then – indoctrinated, brainwashed, but subliminally aware – is the secret agent of badfilm. When he assumes his wisecracking, B-movie action stance, he is turning the autonomous, controlling intelligence the film rails against back against itself.

They Live sits within a continuum of SF works that challenge the consensus reality of consumer and mass-mediated culture. Examples include: Ray Nelson’s short story ‘Eight O’Clock in the Morning’ (1963), the basis for Carpenter’s screenplay alongside the ‘Nada’ comic strip (1985) that Nelson adapted from his story;[5] Ballard’s ‘The Subliminal Man’ (1963); Philip K. Dick’s Ubik (1969); and the films Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956), The Truman Show (1998) and The Matrix (1999). In terms of They Live, ‘The Subliminal Man’ is most revealing. In fact, it seems to have inspired ‘Eight O’Clock in the Morning’ (and therefore could be said to be the real inspiration for They Live),[6] although Nelson’s story comes off as little more than a heavy-handed rewrite with freaky aliens added for shock value. ‘The Subliminal Man’ features a world (minus aliens) in which subliminal messages control the populace through advertising and billboards, part of a society structured around conformity and planned obsolescence. There is only one make of car (only one make of everything: cigarettes, household goods, foodstuffs), produced in the same colour and specifications each year and designed to wear out at six-monthly intervals, and consumers become trapped in unbreakable shopping contracts, locked into the pursuit of false fulfilment.

Panels from Ray Nelson’s ‘Nada’, first published in Alien Encounters #6, 1985.

A man, Hathaway, becomes agitated about a series of giant signs erected on city outskirts and shopping centre perimeters. They don’t advertise anything – their facades are blank, shuttered grilles – so their true purpose is a mystery. But Hathaway believes they carry subliminal messages designed to control the populace. As he tells his doctor, Franklin, in a scene reminiscent of Nada’s futile pleas to others to understand the truth: ‘If you can’t believe your own senses what chance have you left? They’re invading your brain, if you don’t defend yourself they’ll take it over completely! We’ve got to act now before we’re all paralysed’ (Ballard 2006, 569–70). Franklin watches Hathaway climb one of the billboards, where he attacks a switch-box and destroys the sign’s grille, revealing, in another clear parallel with Carpenter’s film, a cycling and repeating display underneath:

‘The phrases, and every combination of them possible, were entirely familiar, and Franklin knew that he had been reading them for weeks as he passed up and down the expressway.


‘The Subliminal Man’, while not specifically referring to the concept of X-rays as a hard scientific process, does reveal a sense of ‘seeing beyond’ consumerism, and the fake reality consumerism begets, thereby aligning itself with both X and They Live. As Steven Connor notes in his overview of the history of X-ray vision in art, literature and myth:

‘X-rays promise a utopia of pure spiritual essences, in which it would be possible to see through the obscuring veil of materiality, and in the process leave it behind, moving to a higher plane, or to a more refined condition. [Yet] they involve an irreducible necessity for some form of material meditation, a screening, detaining, or fixing, which seems to compromise, or indefinitely to defer the immaterialist dream of a world in which all that is solid may be melted into air.’ (Connor 2008)

This dream of ‘seeing through the obscuring veil of materiality’, and the necessity for ‘material mediation’, fits well with the kind of critical terrain in the 60s and 70s that would come to position advertising as an ideological system that denies consumers ‘true’ identity by virtue of a supersaturation of all modes of informational output. For Judith Williamson, the false image of ourselves bestowed by buying into the referent system of advertising is a system which devalues and erodes our nature and obscures ‘social realities’, resulting in a situation where ‘ideology and symbolic or signifying structures combine to form a Platonic system where everything means something else, and nothing is what it is’ (Williamson 1978, 170). In fact, ‘The Subliminal Man’ fictionalises the devolutionary effects of advertising and the forbidding sense that ‘nothing is what it is’. While the story’s narrative device seems an obvious influence on Nelson, its denouement recalls both Corman and Carpenter. As Hathaway is shot by the police and falls to his death – punished, like Xavier, for the sin of knowing reality as no one else can – Franklin orders yet another new car, as if nothing has ever happened, as ‘blind’ as everyone in They Live. But while the texture of the story is undeniably prescient in its central message, that the media landscape has redefined the world as itself, it, like Corman’s film, is essentially old-style message SF: socially aware science fiction depicting one man against the system, where the hero’s rebellion is brutally crushed and his broken body used as a totem to warn the rest of society.

Panels from ‘Nada’.

What exactly was in the air in 1963? As all three texts were formulated that year, it is fruitful to analyse Ballard’s story as a hinge text that embodies elements of both Corman’s and Carpenter’s films, yet one that points the way forward to a ‘Ballardian’ solution to the problem of futile rebellion – a solution Carpenter would also arrive at. Ballard refined the thesis of ‘The Subliminal Man’ in his experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), which depicts the struggle of a schizophrenic man, ‘T-’, to formulate new sensory responses to the emergent dynamics of the burgeoning media and communications landscape in the 1960s. The Atrocity Exhibition mirrors Marshall McLuhan’s observation that the ‘medium, or process of our time – electric technology – is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life’ (McLuhan and Fiore 1967, 8). It is a work that places its protagonist ‘inside’ the image, absorbed within the Spectacle, with no ‘outside’ of which to speak or to safely retreat to. There is no limit to the multiple fantasies the media landscape feeds to ‘T-’, and which nourish his psychopathic tendencies, which then take on a life of their own: an invasion of the actual by the virtual. As Ballard puts it: ‘the nervous systems of the characters have been externalized, as part of the reversal of the interior and exterior worlds. Highways, office blocks, faces and street signs are perceived as if they were elements in a malfunctioning nervous system’ (Ballard 2001, annotations 76).

Mirroring the text’s Burroughsian cut-up narrative technique, ‘T-’ cuts and pastes the major cultural and political events of the 1960s into a bricolaged, reordered version of reality playing inside the cinema of his mind, with himself in the lead role. This is a process summarised usefully by Dominika Oramus:

‘[Ballard’s characters] live surrounded by texts which invade their minds, but they cannot focus long enough to appreciate any complex messages. The characters dream about violence and excitement in their own lives, and the mediascape (ever full of aggressive imagery) makes them long for the re-enactment of atrocities: ‘all those scenes of pain and violence that illuminated the margins of our lives’.’ (Oramus 2007, 161)

It is precisely this sense of ‘re-enactment’ that They Live inhabits, placing it further along a historical and cultural specificity that bears no relation to X, indeed to Corman’s career. In the early part of the film, Nada is as indoctrinated as everyone else, with no agency over the external conditions he finds himself in. As Carpenter intercuts banal television shows with inane conversations on the street, suggesting they are symbiotic, Nada, when asked how he plans to make ends meet, blithely parrots Reaganomics: ‘I believe in America. The opportunity will come’. Yet he does get smart, reworking those external conditions in a performative manner that evokes not only Ballard but also Simon Cottle’s sense of media consumers who, in ‘late-modern societies and, in their mediatized expression, periodically summon and galvanize collective beliefs, myths and solidarities – collective sentiments and appeals increasingly performed on a global media stage’ (Cottle 2006, 428).

Still from They Live.

Rather than Xavier’s fatal withdrawal, Nada declares, in the film’s most quoted line: ‘I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass – and I’m all out of bubblegum’. Unabashed, glorying in his outsider status, Carpenter reappropriates Hollywood values in a cheap ‘bubblegum’ universe that invades, reinvigorates and repopulates what Žižek (himself borrowing from Jean Baudrillard) calls the ‘desert of the real’ – the ideology of late capitalism (2002, 15). This intent is made blatantly clear from the opening titles, which display the words ‘They Live’ fading into graffiti on a desolate railway overpass. This simple dissolve is indicative: in Carpenter’s world, badfilm is the reality; there is no place left to stand outside of mass mediation. Perfomativity, the audience reacting within the dynamic system of media ritual enacted on the global media stage, with ‘spectators’ mirroring content back to ‘producers’, becomes, if enabled correctly, the last – the only – line of resistance.

Still from They Live.

Studying the ‘role of media in processes of manufacturing consent’, Cottle suggests that it is inadequate to conclude that mass media has an unquestioned role in enacting ironclad attitudes and frameworks through which processes such as ‘moral panics’ are channelled. Instead, he speaks to the issue of perfomativity in audience reception:

‘[Media] ritual only comes alive experientially, emotionally, subjunctively, when actively read by audiences/readerships who are prepared to ‘participate’ within it as symbolically meaningful to them, and who are prepared to accept the imagined solidarities on offer. Performativity, then, is not confined to the performative ‘doing’ of media producers but includes the ‘doing’ of ‘spectators’ as well, who actively enter into (‘commit themselves to’) the proceedings and who can identify themselves and their sentiments within them.’ (Cottle 2006, 428-9)

For Cottle, if this process can be used to enable moral panics (which are dependent on being actively ‘read’ by audiences, before being reflected back onto the global sphere), then it can also be used to re-project more intimate details of the audience’s experience and social lives, all the while remaining inside the technology of media ritual, a dynamic, interlocking system with constituent parts ‘producers, performers and participating audiences’ (Cottle 2006, 429). To return to the narrative conceit of X-ray vision, of seeing beyond, the notion of perfomativity in mediatised landscapes (mediascapes) can be seen as analogous to a form of brake or control – Connor’s ‘material mediation’ – on the capacity to see beyond. But why would we need it?

Connor describes how the very idea of X-ray vision has historically induced anxiety and terror because ‘the problem with X-rays is that, for the most part, what they like best is to go through things, and to go on going through things unless or until they meet something, like lead, that absorbs or scatters them’ (Connor 2008). To demonstrate, he identifies X as a ‘dystopia’ in which ‘every last pocket of opacity has been seared away, leaving a vitreous desert of universal transparency’, and he aligns the film with Baudrillard’s theory of hyperreality, with its preoccupation with depthlessness and the fatal blurring of private and public realms: ‘In a world in which everything must be made visible, and in which “value radiates in all directions”, the transparency of evil is indistinguishable from the evil of transparency’ (Connor 2008).

In this account, seeing everything, a process to which we willingly succumb via commodity fetishism, is the tool of an oppressive, autonomous system that exposes us to its inner workings: the truth that is revealed may not be a truth we are ontologically equipped to handle, with its inescapable highlighting of the fact that our free will has been stripped to the bone, and that this outcome has been smuggled in via our own collusion. The prediction of Baudrillard’s contemporary, Paul Virilio, is also apposite. Probed about our heavily surveilled and intrusive Western society, Virilio was asked: ‘But what shall we dream of when everything becomes visible?’ To which he replied: ‘We’ll dream of being blind’ (Wilson 1994). The disturbing parallel with Xavier’s fate need hardly be stated. Thus, for Connor, ‘the problem of how to see X-rays, or to employ them indirectly as a form of visual perception is similar to the problem … with the schoolboy fantasy of a universal acid, capable of burning through any substance: so what do you keep it in?’ (Connor 2008). Appropriate to this analysis of trash culture, Connor approaches the conundrum as Superman might. After all, ‘In order to exercise his X-ray vision, Superman would need some arrangement whereby the rays could be bounced back to him, as though he were able to exude some kind of screen which could be sent out in advance of the X-rays in order to reflect them’ (Connor 2008).

Let us return to the two films, then, with this framing question in mind: ‘If you have a narrative device that can see everything: what do you keep it in?’


LEFT: The preacher from X.

They Live subverts the thesis of X in a number of ways. Both feature apocalyptic preachers, that old B-movie staple. In X, the preacher exhorts Xavier to destroy himself and he is all too willing to comply. They Live’s preacher, however, implants the idea in Nada’s mind that there is another layer of reality of consumerism to be unpeeled, thereby leading him to the church, the sunglasses and the jouissance of self-realisation.

In one scenario, trash culture destroys the protagonist; in the other, it enables him to become complete. In both films, the sunglasses themselves, a heavily iconic popcult signifier, reinforce the division. In X, Xavier’s pair hinders his ability to see through reality, but Nada’s sunglasses allow him to see beyond, with the fullest sense of liberation – ‘like a drug’, he says.

LEFT: The preacher from They Live.

Crucially, Nada is in control of the process. He can turn the ‘high’ of popular culture on and off by taking the sunglasses on and off, whereas Xavier is helplessly trapped inside a spiralling nightmare – there is no permanent way to halt his worsening condition.[7]

Further, when Xavier is on the run, the subculture he is drawn to, filled with sideshow freaks and circus workers, is unequivocally depicted as degrading, lowlife, exploitative, even as it provides him with a living. In They Live, when Nada hides out, his subcult of freedom fighters is nourishing, welcoming, each warrior dedicated to one other: ‘There’s no need to wear your sunglasses,’ he is told. ‘We’re all human in here’.

ABOVE: X’s subcult. BELOW: They Live’s subcult.

Even the character’s names are overripe with signification. ‘X’, which refers to Xavier himself (as the film’s subtitle makes clear), is the classic signifier of negation, but also a generic marker, as in ‘Brand X’. Xavier, then, is everyman, but one who thinks he can rise above it, thus negating himself, cancelling himself out in the process. ‘Nada’, too, signifies generic values, literally nothingness (in Spanish and Portuguese, ‘nada’ means nothing) but in Carpenter, the name signifies the obvious blank slate that his character has become – the bland everyman ripe for reinscription. Inevitably, Corman’s real-world circumstances yet again mirror his film world’s inherent bias. Like Xavier, he became repulsed by what he had become, and the world towards which he was drawn: ‘Fairly early on, I began to worry that New World Pictures might become too closely associated with exploitation films … I did not want to personally be identified, even stigmatized, by exploitation filmmaking’ (Corman and Jerome 1990, 188, 189).

Between the two filmmakers, there is another critical parallel/division: as Corman did before him, Carpenter, in recent times, has forsaken directing indefinitely. Yet this too effects a very different outcome. Carpenter has embraced the world of computer games, as a consultant on the first-person shooter computer game F.E.A.R. (2005). Tellingly, he describes the game in terms of ‘cinematics’, pointing out that ‘you,’ as the user, ‘are the character’ and that there is no difference between creating a suspense scene for film or game.[8] This merger between Carpenter, films and gaming was predicted 17 years earlier in They Live. When Nada and his sidekick Frank make their way up through the floors of the alien-controlled television studio, their goal is to destroy the antenna that beams the signals masking the subliminal messages and the aliens’ real faces. In the smoking hallways, strewn with debris from their shootouts with alien guards, Nada and Frank hear voices and must decide in a split second whether to fire automatically and risk killing humans. The entire sequence, with its rapid-fire decision making seen from Nada’s perspective and its ultimate goal of blowing up a vital installation in an alien base, is nothing less than a first-person shoot ’em up computer game – in live action.

ABOVE: still from They Live. BELOW: screenshot from F.E.A.R.

Here, Carpenter seems to anticipate the badfilm zeitgeist as outlined by Brendan Murphy and Jane Mills. Murphy points to the emergence of a new mode of filmic production that not only ‘blurs production and consumption’ as a result of our Web 2.0 society, encompassing social media, the aesthetics of appropriation and the cutting-edge interactivity of computer games, but that also looks to the B-movie world as a kind of shared repository of generic, iconic signifiers that create meaning across cultural, aesthetic and even political boundaries (Murphy 2009).[9] This corresponds with what Mills highlights as the breaking down of the traditional binary opposition between Hollywood and ‘not Hollywood’ (that is, most alternative/independent cinema movements) by a globalising, hybridising process that provides a ‘fluid screenscape in which cultural phenomena flow in and out of the frame’ (Mills 2009).

How does They Live resolve these strands of cultural data? According to Janet Maslin, Carpenter directs the film ‘with B-movie bluntness, but with none of the requisite snap’, while the ‘B-movie casting is another problem’ (Maslin 1988). But there are two ways to take the badfilm tropes she criticises: as a universal sign of narrative/aesthetic weakness, or, with Murphy and Mills in mind, as a liberating mesh of codes and signifiers that actually support the film’s critique. In fact, They Live draws more from Nelson’s comic strip ‘Nada’ than from the original short story upon which both comic and film are based.[10] The comic features the same sudden shift in tone from conspiracy theory to all-out ‘superhero’ action, a narrative device de rigueur for the pulpy comic-book world but apparently not for the serious world of film that Maslin wants They Live to inhabit.

Rather than lacking ‘requisite snap’, Carpenter is in fact completely true to his source material (moreover, more faithful to pulp fiction as revealing of reality than ‘serious’ literature), even if he does make one vital modification (although this in no way devalues his respect for pulp). In They Live, when Nada finally destroys the antenna, the film ends abruptly with a groan-inducing punchline. As a woman makes love to her partner, Nada destroys the antenna and the signal is switched off. The partner’s alien face, no longer electronically masked, is suddenly revealed to the woman. As she looks on in horror, he asks, ignorant of his outward appearance and only concerned with his sexual performance: ‘What’s wrong, baby?’ This awful joke is also present in ‘Nada’, but whereas Nelson hints at a subsequent war against the aliens brought on by their unmasking, Carpenter does no such thing. Instead, he immediately cuts to the credits with absolutely no hint of a new revolution sweeping out the old, no realistic, tangible sense of political upheaval: just that final, terrible gag as the film’s exclamation point.

The same joke twice. ABOVE: Panel from ‘Nada’. BELOW: Still from They Live.

Typically, Carpenter has been criticised for not being able to deliver a sense of the world after the alien signal has been destroyed. However, to return to Žižek, not even a provocateur of his experience has been quite able to imagine what exactly comes after capitalism.[11] Far more compelling in Žižek’s discourse is the methodology by which he uses examples from popular cinema as metaphoric circuit breakers in political discussion. For Žižek, Hollywood itself is the ultimate ‘ideological state apparatus’ (Žižek 2002, 16), inherently political in that it produces a cultural product – popular film – that belongs to a wider system of ideology that invents reality and supports cultural myths and institutional structures. According to Žižek, revolutionary cinema is therefore ‘cinema as the art of appearances telling us something about reality itself, about how reality constitutes itself’. When ‘the coordinates of your reality disintegrate’, the problem becomes ‘how to reconstitute yourself’ (Žižek in Fiennes 2006). In contrast to commentators who protest that They Live sells out the leftist critique it sets up, Žižek uses the film’s sunglasses premise as a crucial metaphor for the need to unwork the ‘real message’ lying beneath Republican ideology:

‘The glasses … function as a device for the critique of ideology. In other words, they enable [Nada] to see the real message lying beneath the glossy, colorful surface. What would we see if we were to observe the Republican presidential campaign through such glasses? The first thing would be a long series of contradictions and inconsistencies.’ (Žižek 2008)

Extrapolating to the aftermath of 9/11, Žižek demonstrates how the demonisation of the Islamic enemy is seen as an insidious by-product of American global expansion. For Žižek, we must reject the binary opposition that supports a war on terror, instead adopting ‘both positions simultaneously; this can be done only if we resort to the dialectical category of totality: there is no choice between these two positions; each one is one-sided and false …. The two sides are not really opposed …. They belong to the same field … The choice between Bush and Bin Laden is not our choice; they are both “Them” against Us’ (Žižek 2002, 50-1). This instantly recalls They Live, in which Carpenter ensures there is no distinction ‘between them and us’ (aligning the film with Mills’ Hollywood/not Hollywood hybridity): the aliens in their human guise are seamlessly integrated into our world, and it is only by a trick of the light that we are able to see them differently.

In the face of this ‘dialectical category of totality’, Žižek suggests that: ‘Instead of imposing our version of universality (universal human rights etc), universality – the shared space of understanding between different cultures – should be conceived of as an infinite task of translation, a constant reworking of one’s own particular position’ (Žižek 2002, 66). This returns us to Cottle’s media performativity and to Carpenter’s latter-day career as remaker/remodeler of his own B-movie legacy. Like Corman, Carpenter has his own empire – not producing other people’s work, but recycling and remixing his own, on (at the time of writing) no fewer than five big-budget remakes of his films. Undoubtedly, he is adept at ‘constantly reworking his own position’.[12] This is in stark contrast to Corman, eternally casting himself as David against the Goliath of Hollywood, yet slaying only himself (as Žižek might argue, ‘resistance is surrender’).[13] Indeed, Routt specifically examines how Corman’s adherence to the ‘outside’, and his blindness to fluidity of hypercapitalism, constantly undercuts his position: ‘Corman’s case, particularly in the “enigma” of the way in which his taste is transformed into that of the public, seems exemplary to me partly because what he … clearly thinks of as dichotomies keep melting into one another’ (Rout 1994, 60).

Meanwhile, the default critical position is that Carpenter, the filmmaker, is in decline. As Philip Kerr caustically observes: ‘the modestly titled John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars … is no exception to this decline, in that it finds the director now feeding off his own corpse … I myself was sad to see a once inventive talent eating his own excrement’ (Kerr 2001, 44). But Carpenter has always ‘fed off his own corpse’, fully aware of dichotomies that melt into one another: his entire oeuvre features repeated motifs, aesthetics and concepts, extending down to his self-composed soundtracks, with their minimal and repetitive refrains. Further, his films borrow just as freely from the films he admires as they do from his own work. As he said in response to an interviewer who detected elements from his films in other directors’ work: ‘I’ve made money off the creativity of Howard Hawks, Sergio Leone, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, John Sturges, Orson Welles, and many many others for my entire career – how can I complain when it happens to me?’ (Bright 1999).

With this statement, Carpenter situates himself as a nodal point in Mills’ ‘fluid screenscape of cultural phenomena’. If Xavier/Corman is the hubristic, overreaching modernist, then Nada/Carpenter is the exuberant postmodernist: ‘eating his own excrement’ is perhaps the Faustian pact Carpenter pays for delivering such astonishing work, a golden period stretching from his first feature Dark Star (1974) to They Live 14 years later. Accordingly, the jamming of the signal at the end of They Live is badfilm producing its own transmission, performing its own means of production, reconstituting itself from signals beamed out, mirrored back and reworked in the endless play inherent within Murphy’s proscribed repository of generic signifiers.

In They Live, that last scene – that note of purest trash reflected back to the horrified woman, back to the viewer of the film, a mirror halting the progress of the X-ray vision that demands to see beyond into the world to come – is the product of this new, reordered transmission. As ‘material mediation’, it is the ultimate solution to the problem of reconstitution, to the metaphoric problem of unstoppable X-ray vision, which, in Žižekian terms, is very much ‘your reality disintegrating’.

It is a solution that Xavier/Corman, forever scrabbling to find an outside from which to fire bullets, was never destined to achieve.

Image found on the internet. Creator unknown.


[1] Earlier, the cocky scientist had proudly announced about his experiments: ‘I’m closing in on the gods’.
[2] According to Greg Villepique: ‘As if to formally declare himself all washed up as an artist, Corman made a surprise return to directing for the 1990 time-travel stinker Frankenstein Unbound, a film sunk by his refusal to spend a little more money on effects; nobody much noticed its brief theatrical run’ (Villepique 2000).
[3] Elsewhere, he reflects: ‘We are a violent … species. If we weren’t … the sabre-toothed tiger would be … the dominant species. But the humans killed them. I touched on this in Death Race 2000’ (Corman and Jerome 1990, 162).
[4] Xavier, of course, kills one colleague and fails to heed another’s warnings about the serum’s side effects.
[5] Both Nelson’s story and comic strip are standard alien-invasion fare. Carpenter’s reworking is markedly more political, ironic, anti-consumerist and popcult-savvy.
[6] This is further borne out by publication dates: ‘The Subliminal Man’ was published in New Worlds in January 1963, while Nelson’s story appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction in November that year.
[7] Carpenter’s masterstroke, not present in Nelson’s short story or comic strip, was to use the sunglasses as the device that reveals reality. In Nelson’s original story and comic, Nada ‘wakes up’ through hypnosis and is unable to turn the effect off.
[8] In an interview, Carpenter explains: ‘There’s a quality to [F.E.A.R.’s] visual cinematics …. I’m a video game fan from the old days, and I love first person shooter games. I’m a big fan of DOOM, but this is … a leap forward in terms of graphics which is the first thing you look at as a director. How does it look and how does it play and how does it feel? … The audience, whether it’s for a game or for a movie, invests in the characters on screen and psychologically bonds with them. What happens to them is what emotionally happens to you. In F.E.A.R., you are the character, so you already step into it, assuming that things will jump out and they will be frightening”’ (Ferrante 2005).
[9] Recall Nada’s appropriation of the Quaid character in Total Recall, the latter film itself a kind of glorified, unabashed B-movie made with Hollywood money.
[10] Amusingly, Nelson’s son Walter wrote on his father’s Facebook fan page: ‘Dad’s short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” had been pretty much continuously in print in multiple languages since the late ’60s. In the early ’80s, a friend convinced Ray to turn it into a graphic novel called ‘Nada’. The Nada comic hadn’t been on the shelves for a week before John Carpenter was on the line. The moral of this story is that Hollywood doesn’t read books, but does read comic books (er, graphic novels)’ (Nelson 2008).
[11] As he writes: ‘One of the clearest lessons of the last few decades is that capitalism is indestructible. Marx compared it to a vampire, and one of the salient points of comparison now appears to be that vampires always rise up again after being stabbed to death. Even Mao’s attempt, in the Cultural Revolution, to wipe out the traces of capitalism, ended up in its triumphant return’ (Žižek 2007, 4).
[12] And philosophical about it, too: ‘It’s a brand new world out there in terms of trying to get advertising. There’s so much going on that if you come up with a movie that people have never heard of they don’t pay attention to it – no matter how good it is. So it becomes, “Let’s remake something that maybe rings a bell and that you’ve heard of before”. That way, you’re already ahead. I’m flattered, but I understand what’s going on. They’re picking everything to remake. I think they’ve just run down the list of other titles and have finally got to mine (laughs)’ (Matloff 2007).
[13] This phrase refers to the title of Žižek’s 2007 article, in which he outlines the ‘defeat of the Left’: ‘The response of some critics on the postmodern Left to this predicament is to call for a new politics of resistance. Those who still insist on fighting state power, let alone seizing it, are accused of remaining stuck within the ‘old paradigm’: the task today, their critics say, is to resist state power by withdrawing from its terrain and creating new spaces outside its control. This is, of course, the obverse of accepting the triumph of capitalism. The politics of resistance is nothing but the moralising supplement to a Third Way Left’ (Žižek 2007, 4).


+ Ballard, J.G. 2001. The Atrocity Exhibition [1970]. London: Flamingo.
–––––– 2006. ‘The Subliminal Man’ [1963]. In The Complete Short Stories: Volume 1, 559–77. London: Harper Perennial.
+ Bright, Marc. 1999. ‘John Carpenter Speaks to the “John Carpenter Website”.’ http://www.geocities.com/j_nada/carp/interview/jcspeakstojcpage.html.
+ Connor, Steven. 2008. Pregnable of Eye: X-Rays, Vision and Magic. http://www.stevenconnor.com/xray.
+ Corman, Roger, with Jim Jerome. 1990. How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. New York and Toronto: Random House.
+ Cottle, Simon. 2006. Mediatized rituals: beyond manufacturing consent. Media, Culture & Society, 28, no. 3: 411-32.
+ Emery, Robert J. 2003. The Directors: Take Three. New York: Allworth Press.
+ Dixon, Winston Wheeler. 2005. Roger Corman. Senses of Cinema, August. http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/06/corman.html.
+ Ferrante, Anthony C. 2005. John Carpenter and game producer Rob Loftus uncover the nature of F.E.A.R. mania.com, 31 October. http://www.mania.com/john-carpenter-game-producer-rob-loftus-uncover-nature-fear_article_49967.html.
+ Grant, Barry Keith. 2004. Disorder in the Universe: John Carpenter and the Question of Genre. In The Cinema of John Carpenter: the Technique of Terror, ed. Ian Conrich and David Woods, 10-20. London and New York: Wallflower Press.
+ Gray, Beverly. 2000. Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Biography of the Godfather of Indie Filmmaking. Los Angeles: Renaissance Books.
+ Kerr, Philip. 2001. Mars bores. New Statesman, 10 December.
+ Lippit, Akira Mizuta. 2005. Atomic Light (Shadow Optics). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
+ McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. 1967. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Bantam Books.
+ Matloff, Jason. 2007. John Carpenter’s Business of Insanity. MovieMaker, 31 July. http://www.moviemaker.com/directing/article/john_carpenters_business_of_insanity.
+ Maude, Collette. 2008. They Live. Time Out. http://www.timeout.com/film/reviews/79208/they-live.html.
+ Mills, Jane. 2009. Hollywood’s ‘bad’ other. Conference paper given at B for BAD Cinema, Monash University, 15 April.
+ Morris, Gary. 2000. Roger Corman on New World Pictures: An Interview from 1974. Bright Lights Film Journal, no. 27, January. http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/27/cormaninterview1.html.
+ Murphy, Brendan. B Grade 2.0: Gondry, ‘Sweding’ and B-movie tropes in emerging social media culture. Conference paper given at B for BAD Cinema, Monash University, 15 April.
+ Nelson, Ray. 1963. ‘Eight O’Clock in the Morning’. Fantasy and Science Fiction, November.
–––––– 1985. ‘Nada’. Alien Encounters, no. 6.
+ Nelson, Walter. 2008. The Story Behind They Live. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Ray-Faraday-Nelson/44349104571?v=feed&story_fbid=91694579571.
+ Oramus, Dominika. 2007. Grave New World: The Decline of the West in the Fiction of J.G. Ballard. Warsaw: University of Warsaw.
+ Reynolds, Ann. 2003. Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
+ Routt, William D. 1994. Art, popular art. Continuum: the Australian Journal of Media and Culture, 7, no. 2.
+ Savage, Jon. 1978. J.G. Ballard, in V. Vale (ed.), Search & Destroy #7-11: The Complete Reprint, San Francisco, V/Search Publications [date not given].
+ Sconce, Jeffrey. 1995. Trashing the academy: Taste, excess, and an emerging politics of cinematic style. Screen 36: 371-93.
+ Villepique, Greg. 2000. Roger Corman. Salon, 13 June. http://www.salon.com/people/bc/2000/06/13/corman/index1.html.
+ Williamson, Judith. 1978. Decoding Advertisements. London: Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd.
+ Wilson, Louise. 1994. Cyberwar, God And Television: Interview with Paul Virilio. Ctheory.net, 1 December.
+ Woods, David. 2004. Us and Them: Authority and Identity in Carpenter’s Films. In The Cinema of John Carpenter: the Technique of Terror, ed. Ian Conrich and David Woods, 21-34. London and New York: Wallflower Press.
+ Žižek, Slavoj. 2002. Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on 11 September and Related Dates. London and New York: Verso.
–––––– 2007. Resistance Is Surrender. London Review of Books, 29, no. 22.
–––––– 2008. Through the Glasses Darkly. In These Times, 29 October. http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/3976/through_the_glasses_darkly.


+ Carpenter, John. 1988. They Live. Alive Films.
+ Corman, Roger. 1963. X: the Man with the X-Ray Eyes. Alta Vista Productions.
+ Fiennes, Sophie. 2006. The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (written and presented by Slavoj Žižek). Amoeba Film.

Postcards from the Edgelands (for Marion Shoard)

37° 40′ 60S, 144° 56′ 60E

Originally published in Infrastructure as Architecture: Designing Composite Networks, Katrina Stoll & Scott Lloyd (eds), Berlin: Jovis, 2010.

All photography by Simon Sellars.

In the built environment, the ‘edgelands’ describes the interfacial interzone between urban and rural, a mix of rubbish tips, superstores, office parks, rough-hewn farmland, gas towers, electricity pylons, wildlife and service stations. The term was coined by the environmentalist Marion Shoard, who has uncovered the hidden dynamics at work in this ‘apparently unplanned, certainly uncelebrated and largely incomprehensible territory’.[1] She maps a symbiotic relationship between the waste product, both physical and psychological, of the human world, and its co-dependency with an emergent version of the natural realm that defies all preconceived, ‘rational’ notions of sustainability and environmental care. As such, her work can serve as an instructive metaphor for architects who are willing to approach the question of infrastructure as a crucial new phase in the development of their profession.

In the edgelands, the functionalism of warehouse sheds, sewage farms and switching stations is at the same time an interlocking network of essential services. Architecture and infrastructure are inseparable, a special relationship that moves beyond what the architect Sam Jacob has described as ‘the way in which infrastructure is perceived as inert structure which exists outside of cultural significance’.[2] For Jacob, infrastructure, held within the complexity of the 21st century, must take on a new role as the ‘architecture of the global age’, a physical manifestation of the networked reality that increasingly underscores and dictates our lives. He makes the McLuhanesque suggestion that if electronic media can be thought of as an extension of our senses, then infrastructure can be seen as the projection of our corporeal reality onto physical coordinates. If Jacob is right, then architecture, traditionally at a remove from this corporeal projection (that is, removed from infrastructure’s ‘inertness’), must radically reassess its relationship to the natural world if it is to engage with the problem of infrastructure as a viable extension of architectural practice.

It is here that the ‘problem’ of the edgelands, as defined by Shoard, can help. For in the edgelands, to make such a move as Jacob’s is really just a matter of perception.

37° 37′ 54S, 144° 55′ 22E

In their pure state, the edgelands are unburdened by strict planning laws or design controls. This laxness attracts industry and commerce to them, but it also explains why the normal notions of ‘taste’, ‘aesthetics’ and ‘good judgement’ that shape the gentrified inner city ring are absent. In the edgelands of Melbourne, for example, you find super-sex superstores, Elvis floorshows, faux-Roman brothels and billboards promising longer-lasting sexual intercourse. Out on the Hume Highway, you also find a massive Sikh temple that services the needs of a community apparently unable to find a niche in Australia’s oddly stratified social order. In light of recent concern about the treatment of Indian students in Australia,[3] it seems apposite to draw a connection between the siting of the temple in the edgelands and the perceived standing, right or wrong, of the Indian community in this country, for the edgelands are the runoff of a centre shunting that which it does not understand, or that which threatens it, out to the fringe.

Near the temple, just 20km from the Central Business District, entire kangaroo colonies have been boxed in by exurban development, scrabbling for food in patches of ground trapped between rapidly expanding industrial estates on one side and ceaselessly flowing freeways on the other. With no signage warning motorists to slow down, the hapless animals become road kill. This is a perpetual process: as industry is sucked out to the edgelands, the roads reform to accommodate access to them, and the fringe gradually disappears, or is pushed further afield. Of course, Melbourne, among the world’s largest conurbations, is built around the motorcar, not animal colonies. The arterial freeway is king. Yet the roads initially adhered to the natural order. The original township was aligned along the Yarra River, while its two main streets, Flinders and Spencer, were sited alongside a river and swamp respectively. When the town grew into a city, the power grid was also aligned alongside creeks and natural water bodies. This living symbiosis underscored and inspired the manmade infrastructure, yet today the process is relentlessly top-down. When the emergent, the anarchic, rears its head, the symbiosis is ritually shunned by government planning and development, which imposes ‘urban growth boundaries’[4] to shunt the edgelands back and forth, forever mindful of the chaos embodied by the interzone that threatens to overwhelm order, reason and structure.

37° 38′ 60S, 144° 55′ 60E

Throughout the Western world, edgelands form the same relationship to the built environment as the unconscious does to the human mind: as a repository of fear, desire and repression. In Melbourne, when trouble strikes on the edge, it is invariably described in terms more akin to the Wild West, as in recent furores over ‘hoon’ car culture in the outer suburb of Mill Park.[6] New York City has its Meadowlands, a part-natural, part-industrial wilderness just five miles from the city centre, a typical in-between zone once described by the New York Times as a ‘reviled land of burning garbage dumps, of polluted canals, of smokestacked factories, and impenetrable reeds’.[6] Shoard, in turn, describes how the edgelands of England have traditionally been framed as ‘a vaguely menacing frontier land hinting that here the normal rules governing human behaviour cannot be altogether relied upon’.[8] Yet she also makes a surprising discovery. The ad-hoc nature of the edgelands in their pure state can actually be more beneficial for wildlife than redevelopment, relocation or modern agricultural techniques: ‘Wildlife habitats often survive in the interface because farming is pursued less intensively, either because the land is fragmented or because the owners are no longer altogether serious about agriculture’.[8] The forgotten nature of the edgelands, and its chaotic, fragmentary character, gives rise to new modes of being that would not have been possible otherwise, a complex, co-dependent ecology and a refuge for many species of plant life, and even startling hybrid flora. These thrive in the mixed-use soil strata deposited by multiple industries, which would not otherwise occur in nature.[9]

It is only a matter of perception.

37° 36′ 0S, 144° 56′ 60E

Behind the Sikh temple, a truck breaker yard symbolically recycles the vehicular runoff from the Hume, that intense four-lane blacktop plugged like a mainline cable directly into the city’s flagging heart. Land and equipment are similarly reused: shipping containers double as advertising hoardings, and immigrants maintain a warren of sovereign businesses, trading out of retrofitted caravans that have been grafted onto the sides of buildings and warehouses. But this ‘interfacial jungle’ – a hot mix of industry, animals, emergent wildlife and itinerant humans – is disappearing. Soon, there will be no interface, just rampant development, a monoculture. The lax planning controls that initially attracted business means that the edgelands become a dumping ground for more and more construction as the private sector rules supreme. It is this type of development, not the edgelands themselves, that is detrimental to the environment and to wildlife. It is the interface that must be preserved.

In the edgelands, past, present and future collide. Shoard points out that electricity pylons, among the edgelands’ most recognisable symbols, were not conceived of when most settlements were founded. Later, they were dumped on the edge, as close as can be to the city, where they mingle with the essential services that grew with the settlement itself, such as mills and excavation sites. The edgelands therefore offer a privileged glimpse at ‘history as in the stratified layers of an archaeological site’,[10] and even of the future. For Shoard, this archaeological element is worth preserving. She even proposes guided historical walking tours that take in the edgelands, giving people an insight into how society actually functions through the interlocking grid of infrastructure. The Sikh community, similarly dumped at the edge, points towards a potentially vital contributor to the new Australian economy waiting in the wings for acceptance and admittance into the centre. Even the signifiers of porn culture in the edgelands serve as signposts to the future, as the writer J.G. Ballard reminds us: ‘A widespread taste for pornography means that nature is alerting us to some threat of extinction’.[11]

The edgelands are where the future waits to happen.

37° 47′ 60S, 144° 54′ 0E

In seeking to preserve the delicate balance of the edgelands, Shoard diametrically opposes unrealistic approaches to ‘sustainability’ that require us to either divorce ourselves from reality by preserving the natural world no matter what, or that seek to drive away any speck of disorder, dirt or chaos in the manmade world. Instead, she acknowledges that we are part of the process, part of nature, furniture superstores, rubbish dumps and all. This is strategic. It requires a voyage to a parallel world, for preserving the environment in her view also means honouring, and maintaining, the essential character of man-made infrastructure: ‘Instead of seeing the interface as a kind of hellish landscape to be shunned, we should celebrate it. We should see reservoirs and rubbish tips as sources of fascination not only for the civil engineering and landscaping challenges they present, but for what they can tell us about the way our society is’.[12] For Shoard, it is not heritage Britain that must be preserved, but instead, found in the edgelands, ‘the architecture of our own time in all its majesty. The electricity sub-stations and rubbish tips of the interface perhaps more accurately express the character of our time than Portcullis House or the new Scottish Parliament building’. Further, it is their ‘naked functionalism’ that allows such architecture to ‘find [its] own accommodation with Nature, evolving silently and unhindered’. For example, ‘the clutter of the interface, which would be tidied out of sight by those concerned with creating an acceptable landscape there, often enhances wildlife by creating new niches that wild creatures can exploit. Throw an empty milk crate into a lake and while it may look untidy, fish will swim in and out of it and use it as part of their ecological world. Black Redstarts nest in the brickwork of derelict buildings’.[13] The electricity pylon, too, is far from the eyesore of common lore, its very presence a visual ‘reminder that [certain] plants flourish not on naturally occurring soil but a substrate of the dark grey powder of pulverised fly ash, deposited from a local power station years ago’.[14]

It is just a matter of perception.

37° 52′ 0S, 144° 49′ 60E

According to Kazys Varnelis, ‘if architects were serious about sustainability, they would call a halt to new building in the developed world right now’.[15] However, he qualifies, infrastructure should not be the next ‘fantasy’ architectural project. Nothing could be worse than a forest of ‘cell phone trees disguised as mission bells throughout Los Angeles … Please save us from OMA-designed off-shore wind farms.’[16] Yet architects can have a role to play in rethinking infrastructure, especially in light of new environmental concerns and the increasing complexity of the 21st century, all of which require a thinking through of issues that move beyond notions of aesthetics and into what Jacob describes as ‘architecture in all of its other guises: as organisation, ecology, network, system and so on’.[17] But if architects are to do the work of engineers (or, preferably, work alongside engineers) in redesigning an ailing infrastructure that is beginning to crack with the strain of the new global economy, then perhaps they should also take a cue from the engineering profession and remove ego from the process.

Undeniably, architecture is in crisis. Its practitioners are being laid off in large numbers in the United States, some even resorting to selling ice creams named after famous ‘starchitects’, about as close to their former life as they can now get.[18] Can a niche be formed within the industry of infrastructure? Once again, the electricity pylon proves instructive. Among the great artefacts of industrial design, its original lattice arrangement was created to last for perhaps a century or more. It is resilient and effective, yet has inherent flaws. The traditional width of the steel framework means that electrical conductors are not compacted together, creating a large magnetic waste-emission field and subsequent health fears for those living close to them. In addition, the pylon, as mentioned, has traditionally been thought of as a blight on the landscape. While this latter point is debatable (its Colossus-like visual quality certainly has its adherents),[19] the former is rather more pressing, and it is for both reasons that architects, fighting their constant war between form and function, have been recruited to redesign the pylon. An example is Arphenotype’s organic, ‘parametric’ design, submitted for a competition to redesign Iceland’s power grid.[20] It must surely confirm Varnelis’s worst fears. The contorted form of the Arphenotype pylon looks like a monstrous alien life form deposited on the landscape, remarkably out of place in a land of fiords and rugged countryside. The overdesigned, twisted nature of the pylons would surely render them difficult to climb and maintain, while the hanging of wires does not address the demand for a cleaner, more efficient energy field, given that it replicates the spacing and width of the original lattice design.

Arphenotype’s pylon is a sci-fi future shock, dystopia disguised as utopia, an index of the architect’s own aesthetic taste and ego rather than any utilitarian function, and an imposition on the landscape rather than a function of it.

37° 49′ 0S, 144° 58′ 0E

In the Netherlands, another call for new-generation pylons was held. It was answered by the architectural practice Zwarts and Jansma, who redesigned the pylon to reduce electrical waste emission by placing conductors closer together and higher up the towers. The supporting poles are smooth, round and unobtrusive, rather than the standard truss design.[21] This makes them both visually appealing (they are grey, blending in with the Dutch sky’s most constant shading) and less susceptible to damage and wear, a restrained, though contemporary aesthetic that is true to the original design and intent, while also reaping significant environmental rewards. As a template for a potential marriage of architecture and infrastructure, it is an example worth remembering: about how architects can play a role in redesigning infrastructure in partnership with the natural world, without recourse to either the type of wishy-washy ‘nature first’ ecocriticism that characterises the discourse of sustainability, or the typical ego-driven architectural arrogance that imposes an artificial reality layer upon the landscape. This reconnects with Shoard, who issues a call equally applicable to architects, politicians, engineers, urban planners and the general public alike: ‘The way in which we intervene will determine whether we conserve or mutilate these strange spaces … we need to see the planner not as the shaper of an entire environment but as a handmaiden, who helps along a universe he or she does not seek to control’.[22]

The first step must be to acknowledge the singular context of our lived urban experience. The enmeshing of natural and human agency has become so total now that it seems impossible, much less desirable, to disconnect from it. By refusing to acknowledge the special example of the edgelands, where nothing is what it seems and where categories blur and plane together, resisting the dictates of ‘taste’ and ‘morality’, we risk losing forever our chance to effect real change. If the edgelands really are the psychological unconscious of the built environment, then we all know what happens, in Freudian terms, when the repressed returns. This outcome, a form of collective psychosis, we surely risk, whether by governmental planning that fails to understand our emergent symbiosis with the natural world, or by unrealistic architectural design that also refuses the symbiotic by paving it over with the shiny parametrics of a disembodied virtual reality.


[1] Marion Shoard, ‘Edgelands’ in Remaking the Landscape, ed. Jennifer Jenkins (London: Profile Books, 2002), 118.
[2] Sam Jacob, ‘Ceci N’Est Pas Une Pipe: Infrastructure as Architectural Subconscious’, Strange Harvest, 20 January 2009. http://www.strangeharvest.com/2009/01/ceci-nest-pas-une-pipe-infrast.php (accessed 25 June 2010).
[3] This issue was exacerbated by the murder of Indian student Nitin Garg in Melbourne. The crime inflamed diplomatic relations between the two countries and led to charges of racism directed at the Victorian police force, which was accused of doing little to solve the case.
[4] In Melbourne 2030, the Victorian government’s 30-year plan for Melbourne’s future, an ‘urban growth boundary’ was proposed to confine ‘urban use to the developed parts of Melbourne and the designated growth areas … satellite areas … and some bayside areas … The urban growth boundary will limit urban expansion, protect valued non- urban areas, ensure ready access to infrastructure in the key transport corridors and encourage urban renewal.’ Quoted in Melbourne 2030: Planning for Sustainable Growth (Melbourne: Department of Sustainability). However, after public opinion turned against the idea, fearing the effects of congested urban space, the Victorian state premier John Brumby announced in 2008 that the metropolitan boundary would be significantly expanded. This placed Melbourne 2030 in limbo and gave rise to further criticism that the original plan was a failure at its most fundamental task – that of providing tangible responses to concrete problems.
[5] Simon Sellars, ‘The Rats that Ate Mill Park’, Ballardian, 27 March 2007. http://www.ballardian.com/the-rats-that-ate-mill-park (accessed 25 June 2010).
[6] From a 1959 editorial quoted in Robert Sullivan, The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 17.
[7] Shoard, ‘Edgelands’, 130.
[8] Shoard, ‘Edgelands’, 129.
[9] Marion Shoard, ‘A Call to Arms’ in Urban Wildscapes, ed. Anna Jorgensen (Sheffield: University of Sheffield, 2008), 47.
[10] Shoard, ‘Edgelands’, 123.
[11] J.G. Ballard, ‘News from the Sun’ [1982] in The Complete Short Stories: Volume 2 (London: Harper Perennial, 2006), 551.
[12] Shoard, ‘Edgelands’, 142.
[13] Shoard, ‘Edgelands’, 141, 129.
[14] Shoard, ‘A Call to Arms’, 47.
[15] Kazys Varnelis, ‘On performance, green architecture, and architecture fiction’, varnelis.net, 9 January 2009. http://varnelis.net/blog/on_performance_green_architecture_and_architecture_fiction (accessed 25 June 2010).
[16] Kazys Varnelis, ‘Back to infrastructure’, varnelis.net, 15 February 2009. http://varnelis.net/blog/back_to_infrastructure (accessed 25 June 2010).
[17] Jacob, ‘Ceci N’Est Pas Une Pipe’.
[18] Kristina Shevory, ‘Architect, or Whatever’, The New York Times, 20 January 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/21/garden/21architects.html (accessed 25 June 2010).
[19] For example, the Pylon Appreciation Society: http://www.pylons.org.
[20] Rose Etherington, ‘High Voltage Transmission Line Towers by Arphenotype’, Dezeen, 30 March 2009. http://www.dezeen.com/2009/03/30/high-voltage-transmisison-line-towers-by-arphenotype (accessed 25 June 2010).
[21] Zwarts and Jansma, ‘New High Voltage Pylons for the Netherlands’, zwarts.jansma.nl. http://www.zwarts.jansma.nl/artefact-2410-en.html (accessed 25 June 2010).
[22] Shoard, ‘Edgelands’, 140.

Postcards from the Edgelands (for Marion Shoard) was originally published in Infrastructure as Architecture: Designing Composite Networks, Katrina Stoll & Scott Lloyd (eds), Berlin: Jovis, 2010.

Infrastructure has played a key role in dramatically reformatting the built fabric and spatial reserves within the past one hundred years, and will continue to do so in the future. The involvement of architects is necessary to shape the development of infrastructural design.

Infrastructure as Architecture contains a selection of influential architects and writers who have critically evaluated the coupling of these fields through essays and projects. The book is structured by five organizing themes that frame the diverse approaches to the subject, namely: Infrastructure Economy, Infrastructure Ecology, Infrastructure Culture, Infrastructure Politics, and Infrastructure Space/Networks.

Sample PDF from Jovis.

Stereoscopic Urbanism: JG Ballard and the Built Environment

Ballardian: Architectural Design

Images by Michelle Lord, from Future Ruins (inspired by JG Ballard’s ‘The Ultimate City’), 2008.

‘Pulled apart by the elders, many of the sets revealed their internal wiring. The green and yellow circuitry, the blue capacitors and modulators, mingled with the bright berries of the firethorn, rival orders of a wayward nature merging again after millions of years of separate evolution.’

JG Ballard, ‘The Ultimate City’, 1976.

Ballardian: Architectural Design

Originally published in Architectures of the Near Future: Architectural Design (ed. Nic Clear), September-October 2009, pp. 82-7.

The fiction of JG Ballard was centred almost wholly on the built environment. Ballard took architectural design to its logical extreme and then contorted it further. Simon Sellars looks at how architects can learn from Ballard and, specifically, his use of urban sound as a metaphor.

In JG Ballard’s ‘The Sound-Sweep’,[1] the sonic strata of everyday urban life – a ‘frenzied hypermanic babel of jostling horns, shrilling tyres, plunging brakes and engines’[2] – is so without respite that it is literally embedded within walls and surfaces and must be vacuumed away with a device called the ‘sonovac’. The central character, Mangon, is a mute who has developed hyperacute hearing, making him a valued sound- sweep. His main client is Madame Gioconda, an ex-opera singer whose career ended with the advent of ‘ultrasonic music’. Ultrasonic producers electronically rescore classical symphonies into musical notation that operates on a subliminal level, making use of the sensorium beyond the normal range of the human ear. Supposedly the new music, ostensibly silent, has richer texture, theme and emotion, but whether this is merely a placebo effect to placate the frazzled masses remains ambiguous.

Mangon strives to resurrect Gioconda’s career, but when he does eventually stage her comeback, she botches it, her voice so cracked, out of practice and out of tune that it causes great distress to all who hear it. The story ends with Mangon driving off in his sound truck as he turns on the vehicle’s inbuilt sonovac – filled with the city’s sonic detritus – to drown out Gioconda singing like an ‘insane banshee’. Effectively, Mangon manipulates the sounds of the city to assuage his psychological turmoil.

Ballard’s story anticipates R Murray Schafer’s World Soundscape project, which aimed to reduce the noise pollution of industrial environments in favour of an ‘acoustic ecology’, eliminating so-called ‘bad’ sounds in favour of prescribed ‘good’ sounds, returning to ‘the Ursound’ supposedly found in nature, where, Schafer rhapsodises, ‘listening blindly to our ancestors and the wild creatures, we will feel it surge within us again, in our speaking and in our music’.[3] But as Geoff Manaugh notes: ‘Where the Project went wrong … was when it thought it had a kind of sonic monopoly over what sounded good. Industrial noises would be scrubbed from the city … and a nostalgic calm … infused in its place. Think church bells, not automobiles. But where would such sensory cleansing leave those … who enjoy the sounds of factories?’[4]

Ballardian: Architectural Design

‘Halloway had the distinct impression that this solitary young mute was a prisoner here, high above this museum of cars in the centre of the abandoned airport.’

JG Ballard, ‘The Ultimate City’, 1976.

For Ballard, too, neither full reliance on technology (represented by the sterile, calming aesthetic of ultrasonic music) nor the reactionary turn to nostalgia and a safe retreat into the past (ie Mangon’s initial deification of the opera singer) is posited as an adequate solution. Instead, a middle ground is sought, a strategy found throughout his career, grounded in the sense that the built environment must be met on its own terms.

In the novella ‘The Ultimate City’,[5] Ballard moves beyond Mangon’s half-aware thumbnail sketch and into a three-dimensionality: a full-scale cognitive remapping. A future ecotopia, Garden City, has developed wind power and alternative technologies after New York has fallen into ruins from the exhaustion of fossil fuels. The central character, Halloway, dissatisfied with what he sees as the dulling of the imagination in Garden City, with its organic conformity, makes his way back to the abandoned New York, where he attempts to restart the metropolis and its power supplies. Significantly, it is the noise of the city that he misses and that he is inescapably drawn to. With the help of Olds (another mute), Halloway manages to restart the generators and power supplies of a small sector of the city, bringing to life neon and traffic lights, while broadcasting sound- effects records of automobile and aircraft noise:

Halloway moved from one apartment to the next, flicking lights on and off, working the appliances in the kitchens. Mixers chattered, toasters and refrigerators hummed, warning lights glowed in control panels … Television sets came on, radios emitted a ghostly tonelessness interrupted now and then by static from the remote-controlled switching units of the tidal pumps twenty miles away.

It was only now, in this raucous light and noise, that the city was being its true self, only in this flood of cheap neon that it was really alive …[6]

Like Mangon, but on a grander scale, Halloway tunes the city rather than shutting it out, rejecting the sterile, affectless Garden City for a complete reimagining and re-envisaging of the city’s technological grid, including the acoustic footprint that so disturbed the inventors of ultrasonic music. This time, the story anticipates the Positive Soundscapes research project, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and comprising five British universities, which aims to convince architects and town planners to think beyond the traditional focus on reducing noise levels and to pay attention instead to ‘the many possibilities for creating positive environments in the soundscapes in which we live. People can completely change their perception of a sound once they have identified it. In the laboratory, many listeners prefer distant motorway noise to rushing water, until they are told what the sounds are.’[7]

I have cited these examples of urban sound in Ballard because they represent the key components of a framework he uses to critique the psychological and perceptual dimensions that are saturated in the built environment, but that seem lacking in the discourse that generates architectural practice. In a sense, Ballard’s work is about nothing but the built environment. It is often said that technology and the liminal zones of suburbia and non- place urban fields are his main characters, and indeed the buildings and zones he erects – the motorway system in Crash,[8] the apartment block in High-Rise (‘an environment built, not for man, but for man’s absence’),[9] the secessionist shopping centre in Kingdom Come[10] – all seem imbued with an artificial intelligence determined to eradicate human life as if it were a disease.

This is a gambit that brings sociologist Ron Smith’s observation into stark relief: ‘If you want to see what’s wrong with architecture today, pick up the latest issue of almost any architectural design magazine. They’re filled with pictures of interesting architecture, but you rarely see any people actually using those buildings.’[11] In Ballard, trends (and flaws) in architectural design are pursued to their logical extremes, and then bent backwards or forwards through time to go completely beyond logic. In the real world, people might complain about an escalator too far away from a baggage chute in an airport or a concourse in a mall that heats up too quickly, or overly processed floors that make far too much noise when walked upon. In Ballard, the unspoken tension and psychopathology engendered by such scenarios is recycled, reheated and allowed free rein to play itself out to the bitterest of ends.

Ballardian: Architectural Design

‘Buckmaster tried to point out to Halloway how the Twentieth Century had met its self-made death. They stood on the shores of artificial lagoons filled with chemical wastes, drove along canals silvered by metallic scum, across landscapes covered by thousands of tons of untreated garbage, fields piled high with cans, broken glass and derelict machinery.’

JG Ballard, ‘The Ultimate City’, 1976.

In High-Rise, which charts the breakdown of the social order in a neo-Corbusian residential building, at first it is the little things that niggle. These then overlay and overlap, each new escalation of hostilities a clear and logical progression from the previous strata, however bizarre each incident might seem in isolation. Parents find that the building hasn’t been designed for children: there is no free, open space, only ‘someone else’s car park’. Shared garbage disposal causes anxiety and division between residents. Raucous parties occur on the upper floors, and residents in ‘better-sited apartments’ are unsympathetic to those living below them. Dog owners are attacked for allowing their pets to urinate and defecate in the elevators, culminating in the fateful moment when one resident’s Afghan hound is drowned in the swimming pool.

Thereafter, things really take off: incidents of violent aggression morph into tribal skirmishes and warring groups cut off escalator access, barricading their apartments and ‘Balkanising’ the middle section of flats to form a buffer zone. Yet, after the system has collapsed and failed, what we are left with is more than a mere glimmer of hope, and clearly akin to a programme of resistance based on emergent psychologies and a radical new approach to the built environment: ‘Even the run-down nature of the high-rise was a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond technology where everything was either derelict or, more ambiguously, recombined in unexpected but more meaningful ways.’[12]

Yet just as Positive Soundscapes has encountered resistance in persuading architects and engineers to re- evaluate environmental sound, ‘perhaps because of barriers to communication across different disciplines’[13], chances are you will not find Ballard on the syllabus. According to Nic Clear, who has used Ballard’s work as an aid in architectural learning: ‘Within academia and architectural criticism, if such a thing still exists, there is a general disdain for “popular” fiction – writing on, and about, architecture is still very elitist – and I have met quite a bit of resistance when discussing Ballard as a serious subject.’[14]

Yet architects have no compunction about appropriating critical theory to their own ends. Peter Eisenman drew heavily on Deleuze and Baudrillard for his conception of ‘interstitial’ architecture and ‘blurred zones’, where the aim was to examine the way the virtual has invaded the actual, displacing architecture’s traditional role as an anchor for the real. Eisenman’s ‘philosophy lite’ sought to invite architecture to explore conceptual spaces located within the ‘folds’ of the built environment, with the aim of ‘refram[ing] existing urbanism, to set it off in a new direction’.[15] But surely the theory of Deleuze (which has more than a few correspondences with the work of Ballard) is designed to inspire affirmation in the reader, the user, the inhabitant; surely it must be tangible and must work in practice, in real-world terms, in that it must inspire thought and positive action to affirm its validity.

Ballardian: Architectural Design

‘Halloway was fascinated by the glimmering sheen of the metal- scummed canals, by the strange submarine melancholy of drowned cars looming up at him from abandoned lakes, by the brilliant colours of the garbage hills, by the glitter of a million cans embedded in a matrix of detergent packs and tinfoil, a kaleidoscope of everything they could wear, eat and drink.’

JG Ballard, ‘The Ultimate City’, 1976.

That to me seems the Deleuzian ideal – in fact, the Ballardian ideal. It would seem apposite to say the majority of criticism of Eisenman’s buildings implies that not only are most users unaware of the inner workings of the ‘process of the interstitial’ that built the thing, but that in the final product antagonism and negation is placed before affirmation and interaction. As Roger Kimball writes: ‘When we encounter a stairway that leads nowhere … we need [Eisenman’s] help to understand that we are being given a lesson in linguistic futility. Otherwise we might foolishly conclude that it was just a stairway that led nowhere and wonder about the sanity of the chap who paid the architect’s bill.’[16]

Ballard is interested in urbanism and spatial dynamics as a way to understand the city as narrative. The psychological dimension of urban life plays an important part, ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ the city on a sensory level. He should be required reading for anyone seriously interested in making architecture more ‘user friendly’, or to anyone who thinks that architecture should be more than a series of shiny icons designed by remote starchitects. In this, he is ideally matched with the aims of Smith, who believes that ‘to become truly great architects [architecture students] also have to be great social psychologists, community sociologists, and organizational theorists’,[17] and also those of Michael Kroelinger, who teaches a course in ‘Architectural Sociology’ at the University of Nevada that ‘underscores the importance of understanding people’s values, needs, and attitudes, from an individual level to an organizational one’.[18]

Architects: read, study and learn from Ballard’s writing. Because it should not be the job of the architect to build worlds and indulge the luxury of allowing them to fail at our expense, but that of the writer, the constructor of virtual worlds that live, breathe and die in virtuality so that we, in the actual, do not have to expire to prove a point. Only then should we overlay the virtual with the actual to create a stereoscopic representation, a truly interstitial process that places the user at the centre with the power to inform, direct, stage and manage the terms of his or her movement through time and space, perhaps nudging us one step closer to a read/write city in which we are free to ‘tune’ the built environment, [19] free to contribute to the conditions of our cohabitation.

In fact, an interdisciplinary, specifically Ballardian approach may be exactly what is required to shake architecture out of its ‘business as usual’ mentality, forcing it to confront the global economic and environmental crises just over the horizon. Ask the question: is another ‘shiny, happy’ building really what we want or need to see or inhabit?

Ballardian: Architectural Design

‘He knew now that he would never return to Garden City, with its pastoral calm … he would set off on foot, … following the memorials westwards across the continent, until he found the old man again and could help him raise his pyramids of washing machines, radiator-grilles and typewriters.’

JG Ballard, ‘The Ultimate City’, 1976.

[1] JG Ballard, ‘The Sound-Sweep’ [1960], in The Complete Short Stories, Flamingo (London), 2001.
[2] Ibid, p 106.
[3] Quoted in Brandon LaBelle, Perspectives on Sound Art, Continuum (New York and London), 2006, p 204.
[4] Geoff Manaugh, ‘Audio Architecture’, BLDGBLOG, 10 August 2007. See http://bldgblog.blogspot.com/2007/08/audio-architecture.html, accessed 26 January 2008.
[5] JG Ballard, ‘The Ultimate City’ [1976], in The Complete Short Stories, Flamingo (London), 2001.
[6] Ibid, pp 902, 907.
[7] Positive Soundscapes, ‘Project Overview’, Positive Soundscapes: A Re- evaluation of Environmental Sound. See www.positivesoundscapes.org/project_overview, accessed 26 January 2009.
[8] JG Ballard, Crash [1973], Vintage (London), 1995.
[9] JG Ballard, High-Rise [1975], Flamingo (London), 1993.
[10] JG Ballard, Kingdom Come, Fourth Estate (London), 2006.
[11] Quoted in Gian Galassi, ‘Community by Design’, UNLV Magazine, Fall 2004. See http://magazine.unlv.edu/Issues/Fall04/community.html>, accessed 26 January 2009.
[12] JG Ballard, High Rise, op cit, p 147.
[13] Positive Soundscapes, op cit.
[14] Simon Sellars, ‘Architectures of the Near Future: An Interview with Nic
Clear’, Ballardian, 24 December 2008. See www.ballardian.com/near-future-nic-clear- interview, accessed 26 January 2009.
[15] Peter Eisenman (ed), Blurred Zones: Investigations of the Interstitial: Eisenman Architects 1988–1998, Monacelli Press (New York), 2002, p 132.
[16] Roger Kimball, ‘Architecture and ideology’, New Criterion, December 2002. See http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb3345/is_4_21/ai_n28962509>, accessed 26 January 2009.
[17] Quoted in Gian Galassi, op cit.
[18] Ibid.
[19] I’ve borrowed the concept of the ‘read/write’ city from Steve Lambert of the Anti- Advertising Agency who, writing about the visual environment and street art, states: ‘Why is read/write better? Because you can consume, process, and respond. This is how we think critically. This is how we learn. You can talk back. You can express yourself. You don’t just consume expression, you create expression. Read/write is how democracy works. There’s a reason kids want to write their names on walls. There’s a reason why people take graffiti seriously. Granted, graffiti writers don’t always know how to direct this energy, but I’d argue there’s some overlap with the reasons one writes their name on a wall and the reasons one runs for the school board. Being able to write means being able to affect your environment. To change it. You exist in the world not as a consumer, but an active citizen. Read only culture creates apathy.’ From Steve Lambert, ‘Demand a Read/Write City’, The Anti-Advertising Agency, 3 October, 2008. See http://antiadvertisingagency.com/news/demand-a-readwrite-city, accessed 26 January 2009.

Text © 2009 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images © Michelle Lord.

Information on Architectures of the Near Future: Architectural Design.

Ballardian: Architectural Design

In this highly pertinent issue, guest-editor Nic Clear questions received notions of the future. Are the accepted norms of economic growth and expansion the only means by which society can develop and prosper? Should the current economic crisis be making us call into question a future of unlimited growth? Can this moment of crisis – economic, environmental and technological – enable us to make more informed choices about the type of future that we want and can actually achieve? Architectures of the Near Future offers a series of alternative voices, developing some of the neglected areas of contemporary urban life and original visions of what might be to come. Rather than providing simplistic and seductive images of an intangible shiny future, it rocks the cosy world of architecture with polemical blasts.

* Draws on topics as diverse as synthetic space, psychoanalysis, Postmodern geography, post-economics, cybernetics and developments in neurology.
* Includes an exploration of the work of JG Ballard.
* Features the work of Ben Nicholson.

Editorial (Helen Castle ).
Introduction: A Near Future (Nic Clear).
Urban Flux (Matthew Gandy).
Postindividualism: Fata Morgana and the Swindon Gout Clinic (Michael Aling).
Urban Otaku: Electric Lighting and the Noctambulist (John Culmer Bell).
The Groom’s Gospel (Bastian Glassner).
Hong Kong Labyrinths (Soki So).
Distructuring Utopias (Rubedo: Laurent-Paul Robert and Vesna Petresin Robert).
The Carbon Casino (Richard Bevan).
Cities Gone Wild (Geoff Manaugh).
London After the Rain (Nic Clear).
L.A.W.u.N. Project #21: Cybucolia (Samantha Hardingham and David Greene).
Cortical Plasticity (Dan Farmer).
The Ridiculous and the Sublime (Ben Nicholson).
Stereoscopic Urbanism: JG Ballard and the Built Environment (Simon Sellars).
The Sound Stage (George Thomson).
Recent History – Art In Ruins (Hannah Vowles and Glyn Banks/Art in Ruins and Nic Clear)

Practice Profile.
Snøhetta (Jayne Merkel).
Interior Eye.
Biochemistry Department, University of Oxford (Howard Watson).
Building Profile.
St Benedict’s School, West London (David Littlefield).
Unit Factor.
Migration Pattern Process (Simon Beames and Kenneth Fraser).
Spiller’s Bits.
Mathematics of the Ideal Pavilion (Neil Spiller).
Yeang’s Eco-Files.
Computational Building Performance Modelling and Ecodesign (Khee Poh Lam and Ken Yeang).
McLean’s Nuggets (Will McLean).
Scaleable Technology for Smart Spaces (Valentina Croci).

“Extreme Possibilities”: Mapping “the sea of time and space” in J.G. Ballard’s Pacific fictions

Ballardian: Enewetak

ABOVE: The Terminal Beach. Photo courtesy Brookings: “Beneath this concrete dome on Runit Island (part of Enewetak Atoll), built between 1977 and 1980 at a cost of about $239 million, lie 111,000 cubic yards (84,927 cubic meters) or radioactive soil and debris from Bikini and Rongelap atolls. The dome covers the 30-foot (9 meter) deep, 350-foot (107 meter) wide crated created by the May 5, 1958, Cactus test. Note the people atop the dome”.

This essay was first published in Colloquy no. 17, August 2009, pp. 44-61. Reprinted with permission.

One of the more enduring misconceptions surrounding the work of J.G. Ballard is that it operates in the classical dystopian narrative mode, [1] supposedly mining pessimism, repression and the negativity of a post-industrial age. Robert Collins’s commentary is typical, placing Ballard’s Crash (1973) at number three in a list of “the top 10 dystopian novels”:

Fictional dystopias are almost always cautionary tales – warnings of where our political, cultural and social surroundings are taking us. The novels [on this list] share common motifs: designer drugs, mass entertainment, brutality, technology, the suppression of the individual by an all-powerful state – classic preoccupations of dystopian fiction. These novels picture the worst because, as Swift demonstrated in his original cautionary tale, Gulliver’s Travels, re-inventing the present is sometimes the only way to see how bad things already are. [2]

However, as this paper will argue, to locate Ballard within this literary tradition is a fundamental misreading. The “state,” for example, barely features in his writing, and politicians or any kind of external authority are almost wholly absent. This is amplified to comical proportions when the police make a token appearance in High-Rise (1975), which depicts the breakdown of the social order in a high-tech apartment block. At first suspicious about the building’s car park, with its damaged vehicles and debris thrown from balconies, they are quickly turned away by a group of residents, who set about “pacifying the policemen, reassuring them that everything was in order, despite the garbage and broken bottles scattered around the building”; [3] the police duly leave and are never seen again, even as the high-rise descends further into anarchy. The residents prefer to remain within their “dystopia,” rather than reacting against it, embracing the “brutality and technology” that Collins thinks they should be reacting against – there is no external “Big Brother” forcing their hand. For the residents:

even the run-down nature of the high-rise was a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond technology where everything was either derelict or, more ambiguously, recombined in unexpected but more meaningful ways. [4]

This dynamic is even more apparent in the subset of “Pacific fictions” in Ballard’s oeuvre, stories set on abandoned Pacific islands where there is no need to even allude to the presence of the State, for these are stateless worlds – “between owners.” They are neither straight utopia nor classical dystopia, but an occupant of the imaginative space between: what might be termed “affirmative dystopias,” which, as this paper will argue further, reach similar conclusions as to the question of how to “revive the spirit of utopia” that Fredric Jameson does in his exhaustive study, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. As such, they provide an enduring template for Ballard’s more well-known urban works, of which Crash is the exemplar.

Ballard’s fascination with the Pacific stems from his childhood in Shanghai, where he was born and where he lived until he was 16. His semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984) draws on his experiences as an internee in the Lunghua civilian camp, and it ends with Jim (the character based on the young Ballard) witnessing the atomic flash over Nagasaki, enabling a potent metaphor for the post-war era that Ballard would consistently return to throughout his career:

The B-29s which bombed the airfield beside Lunghua Camp, near Shanghai, where I was interned during the Second World War, had reportedly flown from Guam. Pacific Islands, with their silent airstrips among the palm trees, Wake Island above all, have a potent magic for me. The runways that cross these little atolls, now mostly abandoned, seem to represent extreme states of nostalgia and possibility, doorways into another continuum. [5]

Ballardian: Wake Island

ABOVE: Wake Island. Photo courtesy USMCFLYR: “A boom from a KC-135 Stratotanker over Wake Island”.

In Ballard’s short story “My Dream of Flying to Wake Island” (1974), he returns to these “extreme states of possibility,” which overwhelm the account. The story remains in perpetual fugue – a concrete narrative arc never coalesces, and there is perpetual yearning enveloping the central character, Melville, a former astronaut who flew a solitary mission in space, during which he suffered a mental breakdown broadcast live to millions of viewers on Earth. Humiliated, he resolves to fly to remote Wake, fascinated by the island’s geographical isolation and “psychological reduction” (deriving from its real-world role as a former World War Two military base; Wake has never had a permanent indigenous population), which mirrors his own. For Melville, Wake Island is a portal. Referring to photographs of the military airstrip, he enthuses: “‘Look at those runways, everything is there. A big airport like the Wake field is a zone of tremendous possibility – a place of beginnings, by the way, not ends’.” [6] The story is indicative of Ballard’s deployment of the rich seam of metaphor provided by the region, and the manner in which he uses abandoned Pacific islands as sites of radical reinvention, imagistic buffer zones representing the sovereignty of the imagination.

According to the anarchist author Hakim Bey, classical utopias – “from Plato’s republic to Brook Farm” – depend on abstraction, which renders them susceptible to “a correspondingly high level of authoritarian control. As a result, most Utopias in practice have proven oppressive and deadening – ‘social planning’ would seem to be an offense by definition against the ‘human spirit’.” [7] In the novel Rushing to Paradise (1994), Ballard is also concerned with social planning, which, similarly, is seen as eventually numbing and destroying the human spirit. In fact, the novel indicts the very idea of utopia.


Rushing to Paradise is set on the remote (and fictional) Pacific atoll of Saint-Esprit, claimed by France as a site for possible nuclear testing, where the renegade Dr Barbara has gathered a ragtag crew on the premise of saving the island’s endangered albatross (the French have relocated the original inhabitants and set up their nuclear equipment, but abandoned the island for Muroroa). Although the mission is initially pitched as environmentalist, each crewmember has wildly differing, concealed motives for making the journey, thus rendering impossible the idea of a genuinely shared utopia. The Hawaiian, Kimo, dreams of establishing an independent Hawaiian kingdom, “rid forever of the French and American colonists,” [8] while the boy Neil is obsessed with the relics of a bygone nuclear age, and excited by the news that the French might be returning to the island for testing:

For all Dr Barbara’s passion for the albatross, the nuclear testing-ground had a stronger claim on his imagination. No bomb had ever exploded on Saint-Esprit, but the atoll, like Eniwetok, Muroroa and Bikini, was a demonstration model of Armageddon, a dream of war and death that lay beyond the reach of any moratorium. [9]

Dr Barbara has her own, highly secretive, and ultimately destructive, reasons – not to save the albatross, but to establish Saint-Esprit as a radical feminist enclave. She is determined to achieve this by any means: “If Saint-Esprit, this nondescript atoll six hundred miles south-east of Tahiti, failed to match her expectations, it would have to reshape itself into the threatened paradise for which she had campaigned so tirelessly.” [10] Superficially, this echoes Ballard’s Concrete Island (1974), in which the architect Robert Maitland, after a car accident, is stranded on a triangle of wasteland underneath a busy motorway. Feverish from his injuries, he imagines the physical environment as an outcrop of his psyche: “More and more, the island was becoming an exact model of his head.” [11] Yet the fundamental difference is that Dr Barbara wants the island of her mind to reshape everyone else’s reality, too. This makes Rushing to Paradise, at one level, an allusion to utopian gurus such as David Koresh and Jim Jones, similarly charismatic leaders who built isolated, essentially micronational, communities and coerced others into joining them, before destroying everything as the authorities closed in. As one character says to Neil, after the boy asks whether Dr Barbara’s mission is how new religions start: “there’s nothing new here. It’s the oldest religion there ever was – sheer magnetic egoism.” [12]

In Archaeologies of the Future, Jameson devotes considerable space to analysing failures in the wider utopian imagination. In his attempt to re-map the potential of utopian desire, he concludes:

What is Utopian becomes … not the commitment to a specific machinery or blueprint, but rather the commitment to imagining possible Utopias as such, in their greatest variety of forms. Utopia is no longer the invention and defense of a specific floorplan, but rather the story of all the arguments about how Utopia should be constructed in the first place. It is no longer the exhibit of an achieved Utopian construct, but rather the story of its production and of the very process of construction as such. [13]

Re-placing Rushing to Paradise within Jameson’s framework, it becomes possible to read the story of Saint-Esprit as “the story of all the arguments” about how the Pacific should be constructed.

The region has always had an unstable identity and an especially volatile sense of nationalism, from perpetually coup-ridden Fiji in the South Seas to the perpetually colonised islands north of the equator. The Republic of Palau in Micronesia is sometimes cited as an archetypal tropical utopia, but could in fact embody the root definition of “utopia,” as “no place.” It has been used as a pawn by various colonial powers almost continuously since the late 17th century, rapidly lost its traditional culture and become a melange of other cultures. It has changed hands between Spain, which enforced Christianity on the Palauans; Germany, which commanded them to work as plantation slaves; Japan, which forced them to speak a subservient form of Japanese and turned the main island into a closed-off, heavily fortified military base; and the US, which bombed the islands to get at the Japanese in a series of bloody World War Two battles and then claimed them as American territory until 1994.

Mimicking the Pacific’s jagged history, Ballard populates Saint-Esprit with idealistic Germans, scientifically-minded Japanese and single-minded Americans, as well as Kimo, symbol of an oppressed indigenous people, Dr Barbara, an archetypal British colonialist, and, crucially, Neil, an echo of young Jim himself, both teenagers obsessed with dreams of nuclear war and of holding their own among deluded and dangerous adults in an artificial community. After the death of the character Mark Bracewell, the American, Carline, verbalises a metaphor that neatly sums up these duelling versions of utopia:

Contrary to the general belief, no-one’s death diminishes us. Nature in its wisdom created death to give each of us our unique sense of life. We’re not part of the main. Each of us is an island, every bit as real as Saint-Esprit, and death is the price we pay to keep ourselves from drowning in the larger sea. Like Kimo here, we’re all island people … especially young Neil, dreaming about another kind of island. Mark Bracewell lived for twenty-seven years, and his island still floats in the sea of time and space. [14]

This seems to correspond with Jameson, who proposes to “think of our autonomous and non-communicating Utopias … as so many islands: a Utopian archipelago, islands in the net, a constellation of discontinuous centers, themselves internally decentred.” [15] This discontinuity suggests the ideal resting state for Ballard’s ideal of a neural, free zone of the imagination – a “morally free psychopathology of metaphor, as an element in one’s dreams,” [16] which, although powerful and liberatory, has a dark underside. If one tries to apply it to other people, then Micronationalism [17] – the utopian imagination, no less – turns into dangerous cultism through which lives can be destroyed, a very real danger that arises when the metaphor is literalised into “the domain where it has no place, an id-driven psychopathology that lays waste to human life.” [18] Neil’s surreal, internalised visions of nuclear war therefore contrast markedly with Dr Barbara’s hard, external authoritarianism, further corresponding to Jameson’s conception of utopian desire, which “must be marked as Utopian and thereby as partaking in a specific and very special kind of aesthetic unreality: otherwise it falls into the world and, particularly if realized, spells the end of Utopias in the way wryly distinct from the usual prognoses of their current disappearance.” [19] Subsequently, the novel sours traditional utopian thought by highlighting the oppressive hypocrisy of its “abstracted authoritarianism,” to appropriate Bey’s term. Once Kimo has used his muscle to build the community and Neil his youth to impregnate the idealistic women who flock to the island, they become expendable, with no place in a feminist paradise.

Indeed, Dr Barbara manages to kill off almost all the men (although Neil survives) when they contract fever and she administers fake medicine. By the novel’s end, she is feverish and hiding out in the forest, burrowing deeper and further away from the French authorities that have come to retake the island. This seems a deliberate reference to the legendary stories of Japanese soldiers hiding out in the Pacific jungles of Guam long after the war had ended, terrified, as is Dr Barbara, at the prospect of an imperialism perishing with the onslaught of newer, more localised and “internally decentred” voices, American-led globalism, no less – overrun by an “anti-anti-utopian” imagination (again, after Jameson, in opposition not to straight dystopia, but to unworkable utopia) that has evolved organically from the discontinuities and disjunctions of the modern world, and that is centrally represented by Neil. As Jameson writes of the wider dynamic:

Multiplicity becomes the central theme of this imaginary resolution, whose conceptual dilemma remains that of closure. Yet we may well suppose that this new development will have had some impact on the Utopian form itself, accounting for the seeming extinction of the traditional kinds and the emergence of newer more reflexive forms. [20]

Ballardian: Enewetak

ABOVE: Observers at Operation Hardtack nuclear test (1958) on Enewetak.

Neil, with his dreams of nuclear war, symbolises this “more reflexive form” and the perverse and paradoxical “absolute freedom” it brings. He comes to embody the “anti-anti-utopian” spirit of the book, or, more accurately, he embodies the Ballardian sense of “affirmative dystopia,” a sense of which is given by Gregory Stephenson’s overview:

The themes of transcendence and illusion inform nearly all of Ballard’s work, and have often been misconstrued by critics as representing a nihilistic or fatalistic preoccupation on the part of the author with devolution, decay, dissolution and entropy … these themes represent neither an expression of universal pessimism nor a negation of human values and goals, but, rather, an affirmation of the highest humanistic and metaphysical ideal: the repossession for humankind of authentic and absolute being. [21]

Rushing to Paradise is not a disaster novel per se, but in his reimagining of the apocalypse, Neil virtually wills the disaster to happen. In so doing, he does not “colonize the future with Utopian blueprints,” as the Pacific’s invading powers have so wilfully done (indeed, as Dr Barbara has done), but rather, embodies what Jameson defines as:

Disruption … the name for a new discursive strategy … which insists that its radical difference is possible and that a break is necessary. The Utopian form itself is the answer to the universal ideological conviction that no alternative is possible, that there is no alternative to the system. But it asserts this by forcing us to think the break itself, and not by offering a more traditional picture of what things would be like after the break. [22]

Jameson briefly touches upon this strain of disruption in Ballard, without referring directly to the stories under discussion here: “Ballard’s work – so rich and corrupt – testifies powerfully to the contradictions of a properly representational attempt to grasp the future directly.” [23]

Extrapolating from there, my contention is that, in his Pacific fictions, Ballard “forces us to think the break” by repeatedly drawing on the spectre of nuclear testing, of which there are numerous real-world examples in the region. French Polynesia, for instance, was employed as a testing site for almost 10 years, with the result that high radiation levels were detected 4,500km away in Fiji. Bikini Atoll was rendered uninhabitable by American nuclear tests, its inhabitants forcibly relocated, like those of Saint-Esprit, never to return. The inhabitants of Eniwetok were also forcibly relocated in 1948 to make way for American atomic bomb tests; only comparatively recently has the US government, under overwhelming global pressure, cleared the island of active waste, allowing the islanders to resettle the southern part of the atoll after 33 years in exile. In Ballard, the thermonuclear age brings with it an advanced technology that renders objective perception meaningless, thus beginning the era of simulation, an increasingly abstracted, stylised and mediated realm, riding on the decline of Japanese imperialism and the rise of American-led globalisation.

ABOVE: Nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll. Music by Cousin Silas.

To examine this motif, it is interesting to contrast Ballard’s reworking, and remapping, of the region to that of the travel writer Simon Winchester, whose The Pacific provides a thorough history of changes since the war. Ballard has written: “I used to dream of the runways of Wake Island and Midway, stepping stones that would carry me back across the Pacific to the China of my childhood.” [24] Compare with Winchester’s account of American mariners at the start of the 19th century, seizing and settling “Midway, Wake, Guam … thus creating a series of stepping-stones, a lifeline of tropical islands that led all the way to that greatest and most elusive prize, the Middle Kingdom, China” [25] – a process that leads eventually to the bombing of Japan and subsequent irradiation of Pacific islands like Eniwetok. The similarities (references to Wake Island, Midway, China, especially “stepping stones”) are startling, yet these positions are opposed nonetheless. Ballard wants to resettle, and bulwark, the imagination, where the American forces wanted to colonise and wipe clean whole territories. One wishes to explore hidden folds within the map, the other to claim every available point on the map; both coexist in paradoxical dreams of the Pacific. The paradox is even rooted in temporal reality, as Winchester notes, when he visits the island of Tonga. There, he ponders the arbitrary division of the dateline, which ensures that Tonga sees the world’s first dawn each day:

I had imagined … that I would be able to catch a glimpse of Mount Silisili [in Samoa] … just a few miles away across the water. [It] would be enjoying precisely the same clock time as here in Tonga, but exactly one day before. The simultaneous sighting of two periods of time separated by an entire 24 hours seemed a paradox well worth experiencing. [26]

In Ballard, these paradoxical time tracks form a lasting metaphor for a certain nexus of confusion in the post-war world, a notion made explicit in the note that begins Empire of the Sun: “The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour took place on Sunday morning, 7 December 1941, but as a result of time differences across the Pacific Date Line it was then already the morning of Monday, 8 December in Shanghai.” [27] For Ballard, the bomb signifies the end of history and the coming of an age of surfaces, a recombinant age of planing identities, as he makes clear in the introduction to Crash, which applies the metaphor of chronological confusion to the mediated reality of the Western world:

Increasingly, our concepts of past, present and future are being forced to revise themselves. Just as the past, in social and psychological terms, became a casualty of Hiroshima and the nuclear age, so in its turn the future is ceasing to exist, devoured by the all-voracious present … Options multiply around us, and we live in an almost infantile world where any demand, any possibility, whether for life-styles, travel, sexual roles and identities, can be satisfied instantly. [28]

The past “as a casualty of the nuclear age” would be reframed 11 years after Crash, in Empire of the Sun, the latter part of which is set in a destroyed stadium filled with prisoners and the detritus of war. Suddenly, the stadium is illuminated by light from the atom bomb exploding on Nagasaki – a blinding, overwhelming orb. Andrés Vaccari correctly identifies the world “presided over by this nuclear sun” as the “real Empire of the Sun. It is the metaphoric birth of the post-war world, the omnipresent subject of Ballard’s fiction” [29] – the coming of a nihilistic world with no boundaries, no spatial coordinates except those of inner space, the cognitive remapping of a world that has lost its bearings in time and space. [30]

Ballardian: Enewetak

ABOVE: The Cactus Dome on Runit Island, part of Enewetak Atoll. Photo courtesy Artificial Owl.

This notion of planing identities (planing time tracks) is also embodied in Ballard’s short story “The Terminal Beach” (1964), set on Eniwetok (also known as ‘Enewetak’), in which the character Traven, an ex-air force pilot, finds himself similarly searching for identity among the island’s abandoned concrete bunkers and blockhouses, which have been used for thermonuclear trials. He comes across plastic, human mannequins used in the weapons testing, with their “half-melted faces, contorted into bleary grimaces [gazing] up at him from the jumble of legs and torsos.” [31] Attempting to escape from US servicemen who appear on the island, he hides “in one of the target basins, lying among the broken bodies of the plastic models. In the hot sunlight their deformed faces gaped at him sightlessly from the tangle of limbs, their blurred smiles like those of the soundlessly laughing dead.” [32] When he scavenges among “the litter of smashed bottles and cans in the isthmus of sand separating the testing ground from the air-strip,” [33] we find layers of recent cultural history, buried and then recovered as if in an archaeological find. Confronted with this effacement of geographical and human boundaries (the latter effectively represented by the undifferentiated slagheap of molten mannequins), Traven is, in a sense, reborn, scrambling for meaning among the detritus of the old world.

The effect is replicated in Concrete Island, in which the patch of underpass comes to symbolise the archetypal liminal space of Ballardian fiction. It is a zone of buried layers of urban cartography comprising “the unintended, forgotten, abjected corners of town planning.” [34] In the fragmented post-war world, with its shifting national boundaries and national identities, Ballard seems to suggest the only effective strategy is to remake the world through bricolage, or what Andrzej Gasiorek terms “a kind of fugitive reappropriation of an otherwise seemingly monolithic set of structures and relations.” [35] In Concrete Island, Maitland, the architect, was all too willing to submit to the conformity of capitalism, favouring the demands of finance and big business over any sense of public obligation or civic duty. Gasiorek observes that he had “a predilection for modernism,” specifically “hard, affectless architecture” and “stylised concrete surfaces,” marked as “hostile to the forging of human relations … a kind of dead end for life.” [36] Before his crash, Maitland seemed a ruthless autocrat forcing people into inhumane living conditions to justify his ego, but he is confronted with the underside of this “dead end for life” when, marooned on the concrete island, he is required to come to terms with the tradition he wilfully discarded in his work. Like Traven, he uncovers historical layers paved over by the demands of the motorway system – the strictures of advanced technology:

Parts of the island dated from well before World War II. The eastern end, below the overpass, was its oldest section, with the churchyard and the ground-courses of Edwardian terraced houses. The breaker’s yard and its wrecked cars had been superimposed on the still identifiable streets and alleyways.

In the centre of the island were the air-raid shelters among which he was sitting. Attached to these was a later addition, the remains of a Civil Defence post little more than fifteen years old. [37]

Maitland meets the human equivalents of this discarded landscape in the form of Proctor and Jane, two homeless dwellers who have made the island their own, both on the run from oppressive systems of control. Jane is a victim of patriarchy, hiding from an apparently abusive husband and bitter memories of her father, and now working as a motorway prostitute. Proctor is an old tramp who has suffered ritual humiliation at the hands of the local police. The island, reconfigured by Ballard as a container of social debris (both geographical and human, as in “The Terminal Beach”) becomes a space where social relations can begin again, where the social order is decommissioned, recombined, reconstructed and reshaped in ways that subvert dominant systems of thought. Maitland comes to see the island much as Proctor and Jane do, as a psychic “go-zone” where he can escape the pressures of his relationships with his wife and mistress and of his job – free “to rove forever within the empty city of his mind.” [38]

Ballardian: Enewetak In his later career, immediately after Rushing to Paradise, Ballard embarked on a cycle of novels in which he would explore a much harder version of micronationalism, manifest in the savage gated communities of Cocaine Nights (1996) through to Kingdom Come (2006). It would no longer be necessary to look to mythical lands to remake and remodel maps of alienation – instead he began to focus on a parallel examination of the type of urban “non-place” that has come to be associated with the anthropologist Marc Augé. For Augé, our world is so saturated by superabundant fictions that it produces a conception of simultaneous time, representative of a homogenous, mediated society. The physical result is non-place, transitional zones detached from history and culture, inorganic, in-between zones where individuals are linked by this superabundance of information and technology rather than community or historical awareness, which paradoxically creates a pervasive sense of inwardness and isolation. Examples of non-place include motorways, hospitals, airports (especially duty-free zones), gated communities, business parks and housing estates – rich Ballardian territory, as the “urban disaster trilogy” of Crash, Concrete Island and High-Rise makes abundantly clear.

Ballard anticipates Augé, whose anthropological studies turned away from the “foreign field [towards] more familiar terrain,” due to the fact that “the contemporary world itself, with its accelerated transformations, is attracting anthropological scrutiny: in other words, a renewed methodical reflection on the category of otherness.” [39] In “The Terminal Beach,” Ballard describes Eniwetok as “synthetic, a man-made artefact with all the associations of a vast system of derelict concrete motorways.” [40] This is a description that foreshadows Concrete Island, and in the introduction to the latter, Ballard makes the link explicit: “The Pacific atoll may not be available, but there are other islands far nearer to home, some of them only a few steps from the pavements we tread every day. They are surrounded, not by sea, but by concrete, ringed by chain-mail fences and walled off by bomb-proof glass.” [41]

ABOVE: “A clip of the Hydrogen Bomb test at Enewetak Atoll on November 1, 1952, and the first time one was exploded. The fireball was big enough to cover most of Manhattan Island. This clip shows more of the aftermath of the nuclear cloud than most films.”

Just as Traven declares Eniwetok a “state of mind,” [42] so, too, does Maitland, indirectly, in Concrete Island when he insists: “I am the island.” [43] Here, “state” has a double meaning, as a condition of being, but also as a sovereign, independent territory. Both locations are potent symbols of the post-war era: Eniwetok, a tabula rasa of nationalism and patriotism; the motorway underpass, the archetypal non-place of supermodernity. As Traven’s existence in Eniwetok’s “thermonuclear noon” becomes increasingly hallucinatory (it is not clear whether he is dead, dying or feverish from irradiation), he finds that by saying goodbye in his mind to the disasters of the external world, he can come to terms with it. Standing among the abstract concrete blocks of the testing bunkers, he produces a strange incantation:

“Goodbye Eniwetok” … Somewhere there was a flicker of light, as if one of the blocks, like a counter on an abacus, had been plucked away.
Goodbye Los Alamos. Again, a block seemed to vanish. The corridors around him remained intact, but somewhere in his mind had appeared a small interval of neutral space.
Goodbye, Hiroshima.
Goodbye, Alamogordo.
Goodbye, Moscow, London, Paris, New York … [44]

The opening up of this “small interval” of neu(t)ral space represents a kind of psychological DMZ, an imaginative form of resistance that, along with Neil’s apocalyptic dreams, symbolises an intent that is the polar opposite to that of Dr Barbara (who, we recall, literalised a megalomania that proved unstoppable, and fatal). Traven surmises that time on Eniwetok has become “quantal,” an eternal present obliterating past and future. But is Ballard’s sense pejorative? [45] As Traven declares: “For me the hydrogen bomb was a symbol of absolute freedom. I feel it’s given me the right – the obligation, even – to do anything I want.” [46] This may well be the defining statement of the author’s career, brought into sharp relief by John Gray’s perceptive appraisal that Ballard’s “achievement is not to have staked out any kind of political position. Rather it is to have communicated a vision of what individual fulfilment might mean in a time of nihilism.” [47] It is a concept Ballard has alluded to in interview, when asked if his writing is interested in decadence:

Decadence? I can’t remember if I ever said I enjoyed the notion, except in the sense of drained swimming pools and abandoned hotels, which I don’t really see as places of decadence, but rather … as psychic zero stations, or as “Go,” in Monopoly terms. [48]

Here, Ballard appears to inform the concept of the “Temporary Autonomous Zone” (TAZ), codified by Bey in 1985 and enormously influential on anarchists, musicians and a myriad of underground artists. The TAZ calls for a mode of radical intervention in the form of creation of temporary spaces – whether “geographic, social, cultural, imaginal” [49] – that will serve to confound formalised control systems. Bey’s main focus was on the liberation of mind states, what he terms “psychotopology (and -topography)” as an antidote to the State’s “psychic imperialism”:

Only psychotopography can draw 1:1 maps of reality because only the human mind provides sufficient complexity to model the real. But a 1:1 map cannot “control” its territory because it is virtually identical with its territory. It can only be used to suggest, in a sense gesture towards, certain features. [50]

This particular strategy within the TAZ can be traced to Alfred Korzybski’s oft-repeated remark that “the map is not the territory,” since duplication is simply simulation, and able to be recouped as such. In opposition, Bey suggests that these sovereign mindscapes are enfolded within the folds of the cartographical matrix: “We are looking for ‘spaces’ with potential to flower as autonomous zones – and we are looking for times in which these spaces are relatively open, either through neglect on the part of the State or because they have somehow escaped notice by the mapmakers, or for whatever reason.”[51]

Ballard actually paraphrases Korzybski in Empire of the Sun: “Never confuse the map with the territory,” [52] while the patch of underpass in Concrete Island, built over the leavings of industrial culture, has been neglected by the State, and is so far off the map as to be invisible. Moreover, Maitland liberates an area of land or imagination (depending how we read the novel), without ever engaging directly with systems of control, with the State. As Ballard makes clear in the introduction: “What would happen if, by some freak mischance, we suffered a blow-out and plunged over the guard-rail onto a forgotten island of rubble and weeds, out of sight of the surveillance cameras?” [53] For Bey, confrontation with the State occurs through “the Spectacle,” in Guy Debord’s sense, where images rule by virtue of their monopoly of social space. Because society defines itself through the dissemination and experiencing of this space, the process appears natural, a self-contained feedback loop: “What appears is good; what is good appears.” [54] Such confrontation is doomed to failure since the machinery of simulation will merely absorb any display of “spectacular violence”. For Bey, as for Ballard, radical action therefore lies not in the deployment of spectacular violence, but in withdrawal, in becoming invisible, in merging with, and therefore rehabilitating, the by-products of supermodernity.

Ballardian: Sonsorol

ABOVE: Sonsorol. Photo by Hisayuki Kubota.

Elsewhere, Ballard’s prototypical Pacific fictions seem an obvious influence on Bey’s “Visit Port Watson!,” [55] which uses their cue to forecast similar micronational and imaginative possibilities in the region. Written as a faux travel guide, it describes the micronation of Port Watson on the Pacific island of Sonsorol (the island actually exists – it is part of Palau – but Port Watson does not). Bey charts the history of Sonsorol and its colonisation by Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, New Zealand and Australian forces. He writes that when the island finally gained independence, the Port Watson enclave was set up by the island’s “Sultan” (a legacy of Sonsorol’s fictional 17th-century invasion by Moorish pirates), who had been influenced by libertarian-anarchist philosophy while studying in America. Offshore banking funded the enclave: “the creation of wealth out of nothing, out of pure imagination.” [56] Port Watson therefore develops as a libertarian-anarchist micronation with no laws or currency save for a “computerised” barter system, where a hamburger stand is called “McBakunins,” most people refuse to work since everyone has stakes in the banking system, and “public fucking” is encouraged.

This notion of a libertarian-anarchist enclave powered by “pure imagination” has clear Ballardian overtones, [57] especially in light of Ballard’s career-long “libertarian and anarchic stance … [a] scepticism about all communal laws.” [58] As Ballard himself wrote in Empire of the Sun: “After three years in the camp the notion of patriotism meant nothing.” [59] And, like Ballard, Bey’s external mapping of utopian space can in fact be read as a travel guide to inner space, unlocking the potential of the imagination to transcend laws, authority and corporate structure, all built upon the metaphorical/micronational possibilities of the Pacific. In “Visit Port Watson!,” this is consummated in the final paragraph, where Bey “quotes” an editorial from the local gazette, written by the Sultan, in answer to whether such a utopia can exist only on a tropical island: “Sonsorol could be created anywhere – nothing stands in the way but false consciousness and the grim power of those rulers who feast on false consciousness like vampires … ‘Don’t despair: Port Watson exists within you, and you can make it real’.” [60]

This internal collapse – this conflation of inner and outer space – reminds us of the power of Ballard’s original Pacific fictions, which reinhabit the frame to present a clearinghouse in which corporate and national governance is overthrown and regoverned as a “state of mind” – dystopia becomes the real utopia, and utopian ideals, typically represented as a stifling of the imagination, the true dystopia. But Ballard’s insistence that the imagination must remain sovereign territory – the “last nature reserve,” as he has termed it [61] – also aligns him once more with Jameson, who describes “anti-anti-utopian” thought as:

a new form of thinking … a new dimension of the exercise of the imagination. It’s only when people come to realize that there is no alternative that they react against it, at least in their imaginations, and try to think of alternatives … [affording] a process where the imagination begins to question itself, to move back and forth among the possibilities. [62]

Ballard’s reimagining of the Pacific archipelago – as a vast, disjunctive region of abandonment and reinvention, with multiple islands floating in the “sea of time and space” – and its subsequent superimposition onto urban landscapes, provides an excellent example of a pluralism of utopias (multiple subjectivities) steeped in an “aesthetic unreality”: affirmative dystopias that are finally, unmistakably, Ballardian.

Ballardian: Sonsorol

ABOVE: Enewetak today. Photo by Brad Templeton.

..:: Previously on Ballardian:
+ My Dream of Flying to Tinian Island
+ How to Build a Utopia in your Spare Time


[1] According to Tom Moylan: “The critical logic of the classical dystopia is … a simplifying one. It doesn’t matter that an economic regime drives the society; it doesn’t matter that a cultural regime of interpellation shapes and directs the people; for the social evil to be named, and resisted, is nothing but the modern state in and of itself.” Tom Moylan, “‘The moment is here … and it’s important’: State, Agency, and Dystopia in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Telling’ in Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, eds Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan (New York and London: Routledge, 2003) 136.
[2] Robert Collins, “Robert Collins’s top 10 dystopian novels,” The Guardian, 24 August 2008, date of access: 29 November 2008, < http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/aug/24/top10s.dystopian.novels >.
[3] J.G. Ballard, High-Rise [1975] (London: Flamingo, 1993) 131.
[4] Ballard, High-Rise 47. David Cronenberg, discussing his film version of Crash, identified this dynamic as a cornerstone of the Ballardian technique: “The police are a very minor presence in the book and in the film, because the exercise is not to see what would happen realistically now if people did this, it’s to allow them to do it unhindered, to see where it takes them psychologically … it’s still legitimate to say that the movie is not to be taken literally or realistically but as more metaphorically.” Chris Rodley, “Crash Talk: David Cronenberg and J.G. Ballard in conversation with Chris Rodley,” Guardian Lecture [transcript], British Film Institute, 10 November 1996, date of access: 29 November 2008, .
[5] J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition [1970] (London: Flamingo, 2001), annotations 52.
[6] J.G. Ballard, “My Dream of Flying to Wake Island” [1974], The Complete Short Stories: Volume 2 (London: Flamingo, 2001) 337.
[7] Anonymous, “Visit Port Watson!” in Semiotext(e) SF, eds Rudy Rucker, Peter Lamborn Wilson and Robert Anton Wilson (New York: Autonomedia, 1989) 317.
[8] J.G. Ballard, Rushing to Paradise [1994] (New York: Picador, 1996) 12.
[9] Ballard, Rushing to Paradise 15-16.
[10] Ballard, Rushing to Paradise 10.
[11] J.G. Ballard, Concrete Island 1974] (London: Vintage, 1994) 69.
[12] Ballard, Rushing to Paradise 94.
[13] Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions [2005] (London and New York: Verso, 2007) 217.
[14] Ballard, Rushing to Paradise 74.
[15] Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future 221.
[16] Graeme Revell, “Interview with JGB by Graeme Revell” in RE/Search #8/9: J.G. Ballard, eds V. Vale and Andrea Juno (San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, 1984) 47.
[17] In a forthcoming essay, I examine in detail Ballard’s mapping of micronational space, which I describe as “predicated on a vocabulary of secession, and … filled with depictions of colonies, anomalous enclaves, virtual city-states, ‘zones of transition.’” To quote further from that piece: “The political (or, rather, anti-political) potential of these spaces is interesting, since their structure and interaction with the outside world strongly parallels the successes and failures of the real-world phenomenon of micronations. The term ‘micronation’ refers to an attempt, usually by small groups of individuals, to found small, often ephemeral ‘nations’, often without land, but sometimes claiming the types of ‘non-space’ Ballard describes. Micronational enterprises can be satirical, or a component of an art project, but occasionally they can have serious political intent. Micronations are sometimes called ‘model nations’, since they mimic the structure of independent nations and states, but are not recognised as such by established states.” Simon Sellars, “‘Zones of Transit’: Micronationalism in the work of J.G. Ballard” in J.G. Ballard: “From Shanghai to Shepperton,” eds Jeannette Baxter, Mark Currie and Rowland Wymer (Palgrave, projected date of publication: 2009).
[18] Andrzej Gasiorek, J.G. Ballard (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2005) 212.
[19] Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future 234.
[20] Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future 216.
[21] Gregory Stephenson, Out of the Night and Into the Dream: A Thematic Study of the Fiction of J.G. Ballard (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1991) 2-3.
[22] Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future 231-2.
[23] Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future 288.
[24] J.G. Ballard, “Airports,” The Observer, 14 September 1997.
[25] Simon Winchester, The Pacific (London: Arrow Books Limited, 1991) 17.
[26] Winchester, The Pacific 12.
[27] Ballard, Empire of the Sun [1984] (London: Grafton Books, 1988) 5.
[28] J.G. Ballard, “Some words about Crash!: 1. Introduction to the French edition of Crash! [sic],” Foundation, The Review of Science Fiction 9 (November 1975) 47-8.
[29] Andrés Vaccari, Awakening the Entropy Within: The Novels of J.G. Ballard, unpublished monograph, 1996.
[30] This is core subject matter that would endure right across Ballard’s career, beginning with his 1962 short story, “Thirteen to Centaurus,” and his novel from the same year, The Drowned World. While treating very different subject matters, both feature central characters haunted by dreams of a beating, burning, amniotic sun, a super-enhanced inner landscape of the mind that begins to merge with the burning sun of the external, overheated world.
[31] J.G. Ballard, “The Terminal Beach” [1964] The Complete Short Stories: Volume 2 33.
[32] Ballard, “The Terminal Beach” 44.
[33] Ballard, “The Terminal Beach” 30.
[34] Gasiorek, J.G. Ballard 110.
[35] Gasiorek, J.G. Ballard 212.
[36] Gasiorek, J.G. Ballard 120.
[37] Ballard, Concrete Island 69.
[38] Ballard, Concrete Island 142.
[39] Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, trans John Howe (London and New York: Verso, 1995) 23-4.
[40] Ballard, “The Terminal Beach” 30.
[41] Ballard, Concrete Island 4.
[42] Ballard, “The Terminal Beach” 30.
[43] Ballard, Concrete Island 71.
[44] Ballard, “The Terminal Beach” 45-6.
[45] Augé argues that non-space is a negative aspect of supermodernity, as Gasiorek indicates in his overview of Augé’s links to Ballard’s work: “[In] Ballard [the] future is a dead zone already destroyed by the relentless drive to reduce everything to the present moment and thus to collapse all the time that has passed and is still to come into the tyrannic embrace of the ever-same now, hence his claim that “the future is ceasing to exist, devoured by the all-voracious present” … Augé’s contention that the question of space has come to the fore because it is ‘difficult to make time into a principle of intelligibility, let alone a principle of identity’ fits well with Ballard’s concerns.” Gasiorek, J.G. Ballard 110.
[46] Ballard, “The Terminal Beach” 43.
[47] John Gray, “Modernity and its discontents,” New Statesman (10 May 1999) 42.
[48] Thomas Frick, “The Art of Fiction: J.G. Ballard,” Paris Review, 94 (1984) 138.
[49] Hakim Bey, “The Psychotopology of Everyday Life” in The Temporary Autonomous Zone (New York: Autonomedia, 1985), date of access: 29 November 2008 .
[50] Bey, “The Psychotopology of Everyday Life.”
[51] Bey, “The Psychotopology of Everyday Life.”
[52] Ballard, Empire of the Sun 129.
[53] Ballard, Concrete Island 5.
[54] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle [1967], trans Ken Knabb (London: Rebel Press, 2006) 9-10.
[55] Although this piece was published anonymously, it is generally agreed that Hakim Bey wrote it, given the identical stylistic and thematic consistencies to his work (“Hakim Bey” is the pseudonym of the Semiotext(e) SF co-editor, Peter Lamborn Wilson).
[56] Anonymous, “Visit Port Watson!” 317.
[57] The fact that “Visit Port Watson!” was published in an anthology along with two Ballard stories, along with an editorial acknowledgement of Ballard’s influence on the writers within, also seems to affirm, as with the links with the TAZ, Ballard’s shaping of Bey’s worldview.
[58] Gasiorek, J.G. Ballard 1, 2.
[59] Ballard, Empire of the Sun 169.
[60] Anonymous, “Visit Port Watson!” 330.
[61] J.G. Ballard, Super-Cannes [2000] (New York: Picador, 2002) 264.
[62] Quoted in Joshua Glenn, “Back to utopia: Can the antidote to today’s neoliberal triumphalism be found in the pages of far-out science fiction?,” The Boston Globe (20 November 2005).,” The Boston Globe (20 November 2005).