THE "ATROCITY EXHIBITION" DISCUSSIONS (from the JGB list at Yahoo Groups)

9: TOLERANCES OF THE HUMAN FACE


[RMcG: 20 February 2007]

yes, a complicated chapter, a complex extension of some of the themes developed in Summer Cannibals...

let's analyze with a plot summary:

"later, tman remembered the camera crew"... a retrospective intro JGB would revisit in the opening of high-rise... so, this is a memory story -- and what better way to store it than on film... "the unusual documentary"

so back we go in time... to the day tman resigned from the institute (disassociated himself?) and co-incidently, the day the camera crew arrives... tman avoids catherine austin's "embarassed" (why?) attempt at hugging him, and meets the crew filming a nathan-approved documentary on dementia praecox (The term, dementia praecox, was first used to describe a psychotic disorder that first struck men in their teenage or young adult years, after which their intellectual functioning rapidly deteriorated)... the crew, tellingly, is arranging the people, rather than shooting "reality"... the director ignores catherine, then notices tman and "beckoned the camera crew forward".... is the director koestler?

tman runs away and the crew chases! the director, in a white safari suit, stares at tman with "unpleasant eyes"... tman is surprised... and being confused with the intellectually-depleted patients proves to be a "too sharp commentary" on his professional role at the institute, his "long and wearisome dispute" with nathan, and his "irritation" with all his colleagues... fortunately, the patients leave him at ease (again)... we learn more in one of those few bits JGB italicizes... (why does he do that? the POV is still omnipotent narrator) we discover tman goes alone into a cinema each afternoon where he is "increasingly distressed" by slo-mo newsreels of colliding cars, images which "celebrate" his wife's death, summarize his childhood memories, and bring him anxious dreams.

hmmm... rarely are we given so much information as to the causes of tman's usual "disassociation" from "narrative reality"... unhappy at work, and obsessively returning to the deserted cinema to re-watch films which reminded him of the loss of his wife, of his youth, of quivering thru anxiety nightmares, suggests he's slipping into a world of violence and irrationality, of "aggression and desire"... symbolized by the car, captured on film, and edited by the Id? however, as tman's adventures seems to be destined for the movies, let's see if it's a narrative or a montage... I'm betting on the latter...

in the next chapter, "fake newsreels", we discover one of the areas of irritation between tman and nathan: tman seems to be running some kind of death of affect experiment with housewifes and students: they are rendered insensitive to pain and feeling, and asked to put together montage photographs... the results are the usual psychotic images... nathan has cancelled the exercise, which made catherine austin sick, but the volunteers "increasingly enjoyed"... tman is obsessed by the images, and catherine wonders how he be so, as their sexual relationship appears to be the opposite...

the next chapter introduces vaughan, but in a confusing way: just as tman looks for the last time at his office (old life) "a young man in a shabby flying jacket" comes up and gets in the car... when I read thois I immediately thot of the shabby flying jacket that's appeared in all the other stories... in those cases, it was tman wearing it... might vaughan be an extension of tman? another courier from the unconscious? or a variation on koester? regardless, he is violent, and he's been committed to the institute by nathan... while tman dithers, vaughan turns on the car...

jump cut to nathan's office, where he's eyeballing bruises on a young woman's hips and butt... she claims tman did it, but catherine's not so sure... nathan decides for her... tman was "trying to make contact with her, but in a new way"... ahh... the sadistic pain/pleasure inversion?

tman, in the meantime, has spent days allowing vaughan to drive him around... they visit places of technology and death.. finally vaughan reaches a sort of peak of danger and violence and tman becomes bored with the "experiment" and abandons vaughan at a gas station...

tman meets another accident, and this time the helicopter appears with a film crew... they shoot the truck, and when tman drives out of the traffic jam, the helicopter follows him... he sees the director from the institute

jump cut to karen's apartment, where tman is suddenly curious about a character called koester, who apparently staged that day's traffic accident... "half the time we're moving about in other people's games", tman astutely observes... and we find out a bit about karen: "strange young woman, moving in a complex of undefined roles, gun moll of intellectual hoodlums with her art critical jargon and bizarre magazine subscriptions"... say, could this be claire churchill? tman asks if she'd like to be in the movies... she replies "we're all in the movies"... especially if your worldview is generated by the movies...

the next chapter, "death of affect", explicitly reveals this condition as a type of emotional entropy... time reduces all to a "debris of memory and regret" which "provide nothing" at this "terminal moraine of the emotions".... death in life, no?

jump to the gallery, where vaughan's atrocity film festival has been a success... and vaughan has been busy: at a police brawl, organizing a film fest, and writing, producing and staging a play... which leads one to wonder just how much time is passing by here... months, at least... and vaughan has met karen, only to be instantly hostile to her, and his interest in her wound areas has led tman to expose karen to vaughan whenever possible...

the next chapter is an ernst-like collage of images, a series of technological measurements and moments... nathan identifies them as "fusing devices", and hints of vaughan's impending violence and koester's film having a "surprise ending"

cut to karen being massaged by tman... it's her POV in this paragraph... they're watching the US in vietnam on TV... tman seems to have disconnected: "for days the whole world had been slow motion"... he's responded by creating his own collage of activities, a sort of watered-down version of what vaughan had done... all the while leading koester and the film crew along... she wonders why tman & koester are so antagonistic... she suspects homosexuality... then she remembers what tman has put her up to: a variation on vaughan's play, except she asks students if they'll watch her in intercourse... inventing "imaginary psychopathologies" and using her body for "unsavoury routines" ... why? "as if hoping to recapitulate his wife's death"... heavy... insofar as the whole book is also a "summary" of sorts

next, tman follows vaughan to an exhibition hall, but tman is held back by the landing chopper, and waits by a lake... he then returns in the evening, and mingles with the cinephiles... the films are also of violent and disturbing human themes, with a montage of war and death images surpassing all... cut to italics voice-over: tman is watching a slo-mo movie of roads intercut with a woman's body... she's lying on the road, and the camera's pan over her damaged body excites tman... he's reminded of the "eager deaths" of his childhood... something which he's obviously forgotten or repressed...

the next long para is a journalistic account of a situation in which japanese pows were inhumanly treated by the americans... it's matter-of-fact tone and lack of adjectives, adverbs, etc., give it a "death of affect" feel, so emotionless and lacking in morality as to be almost pornographic in its objective obsession...

now, tman nightly follows vaughan thru his rounds of cinematic mayhem... koester is still lurking around, small talking with his women, with a face that looks like a "fake newsreel"... he obviously returns later as David Cruise in Kingdom Come

cut to another montage/collage: this time a list of famous deaths -- all cultural figures -- malcolm x (death of terminal fibrillation), jayne mansfield (death of the erotic junction) marilyn (death of her moist loins), jackie (the notational death), buddy holly... who knows?

the next para -- "the sex deaths of karen notovny" -- features nathan, austin and tman watching a film of the "sex deaths" of karen... are these orgasms? regardless, tman becomes more excited about it all when he combines karen with the fantasies of violence he sees in the fake newsreels

back to the country... and tman is returning to his car... karen is in the driver's seat... she's been spying with binoculars... we discover tman likes his women with big hips (all the better for childbirth)... and karen's been away

cut to another collage of images: nathan reads a list of diseases, an analysis of feces, how parents would kill their kids, and a list of someone's faults... nathan considers these items might be part of a conceptual game, but still wonders if karen should be warned... then we get the scientific nathan rap: "tman's problem is... the biomorphic horror of our own bodies"... well, what to make of that? why is the fact our bodies change/decay of such importance to tman? is it this "horror" that makes him want to remove time from consciousness? or is his revulsion based on a rejection of the Body and celebration of the Mind?

and tman realizes the "real significance of these acts of violence lies elsewhere, in what we might term 'the death of affect'"... aha... here's an equation that makes sense: prolonged exposure dulls our emotional responses, kills our interest, renders us less "human" insofar as we can physically feel empathy for/with another person... and we become psychopathic ...

nathan then offers another dark collage of examples of this death of affect:

consider our "most real and tender pleasures" -- the excitements of pain and mutilation

"sex as the perfect arena" -- a culture-bed of sterile pus for all the veronicas (portraits) of our own perversions, in voyeurism and self-disgust, in the moral freedom to pursue our own psychopathologies as a game, and in our ever greater powers of abstraction...

OK, here's a cat with some issues about emotions... perverse? inverted? you bet... pleasure as a function of sadistic activities... and sex? it's an exhibition grounds on its own.. an "arena" where our bodies are revealed as dirty, messy, organic things and our minds hold the real meanings, which turn out to be making a game out of "the study of psychologic and behavioral dysfunction", and becoming increasingly intellectual about it... hmmm... sounds like nathan describing himself

but the good doctor goes on: "the only way we can make contact with each other is in terms of conceptualizations"... this is, of course, one of the Big Ideas in AX... that we can only deal with each other through a complex system of symbols -- language being one example, geometry another... this is hardly new stuff, but it does imply that both people have to be able to understand the concept in order to achieve contact...

actually, there's a philosophic thought called conceptualism, a theory intermediate between realism and nominalism which states that universals exist in the mind as concepts of discourse or as predicates which may be properly affirmed of reality... nominalism is the theory that there are no universal essences in reality and that the mind can frame no single concept or image corresponding to any universal or general term... basically, that only individuals exist -- not abstract entities... realism, of course, maintains that objects of sense perception or cognition exist independently of the mind...

yes, this may seem off topic, but I think that AX is ultimately about "the angle between two walls", which I now understand to be the dialectic between reality and fiction (not the dualism), and these concepts are played out by JGB in the arena of his own psychosis... his own reliance on "found" and "invisible" input

"Violence is the conceptualization of pain" ... brilliant intellectualizations by dr doom... of course, pain (physical and/or mental distress) has many conceptualizations (fear, strength, sadness, love)... but pain conceptualized into violence is pain going back in time, pain as the result of a prior intense state... "By the same token psychopathology is the conceptual system of sex" --- let's get this straight: the the study of psychologic and behavioral dysfunction is the conceptual system of sex, and by the same logic, sex is conceptualized into the the study of psychologic and behavioral dysfunction... is this a stupendous ironic joke on the 60s expression, "mind games"?... or a damning accusation that sex is little more than an intellectual exercise on various forms of dysfunctionality?

meanwhile, tman has returned to karen's apartment to create another collage -- a series of articles of various conceptualizations of sex and violence... tman begins to isolate karen from his studies, and notices of her death movie begin appearing... tman consoles her by pointing out they're only mind games

for catherine, tman's activities are evidence of his deeper psychosis, of his "deliberate summoning of the random and grotesque"... to calm him, she reads about a catalogue of imaginary diseases... which, of course, focus on the body's most symbol-ridden areas...

catherine next analyses tman, conceptualizing his embraces as "displaced affections", a "deformed marriage" represented by freud (fiction) and euclid (reality), even tho both obtained their results from deductive reasoning... tman is obsessed by obscene photographs, turning all into its "inherent pornographic possibilities"... he manhandles her and tman reminds her of koester

"Death Games (a) Conceptual" is a stunning collage of biography, madness and loss... as JG appears to attempt to explain the ways of fate as a series of intellectual games -- the point of which is to attempt to create conceptual links between the disparate juxtapositions... not the least of which is the next paragraph, "Death Games (b) Vietnam" in which nathan makes the dialectical inversion that "in terms of television and the news magazines the war in Vietnam has a latent significance very different from its manifest content.... it appeals to us by virtue of its complex and polyperverse acts"... how can this be so? because "all violence reflects the neutral exploration of sensation"... and "perversions are valuable precisely because they provide a readily accessible anthology of exploratory techniques"... wait a sec... this is scientist talk again... it's all about exploring sensations... as we seems to only be brought together by death and violence, nathan sez, we should seek out those situations to stay in contact... for nathan sex is "a model for something else" -- a fiction -- and it will progress to a new reality in which it the "something else" is all there is -- that analyzing the mental and physical aspects of sex will become sex...

this intellectual sex will allow for the guilt-free exploration of "sexual psychopathology"... this is important, we now learn, as tman has created a series of sexual deviations in order to surmount the "death of affect"... the numbing of emotions... and we have to have new ones, because the old perversions lose their power when they become too readily available, and ultimately subject to the always-new logic of fashion...

after this long, philosophic paragraph, we're back to the action as tman and karen, following and yet being stalked by vaughan, are chased by koester in his chopper... they fly under an overpass

tman is next in an auditorium, coaching a class on inventing the sex-death of che guevara... he notices vaughan in the back and decides to break with him... in tman's dreams he shows karen's wounds to vaughan

back on the embankment, tman and karen walk... tman is thinking of a new type of erotic film: roads, cars and karen... the mist clears and tman sees vaughan on the car park... the conjunction of vaughan, the car decks and karen proves erotic... it appears karen is to be raped... tman sends karen up the ramp and signals to catherine and nathan, who are parked nearby, waiting for the chopper... they leave... tman returns to the car park and goes to the stairway...

next, nathan appears on the roof of the car park... vaughan has escaped from the elevator, hurting nathan in the process... as nathan approaches the dead young woman on the roof, the chopper rises vertically, shooting the scene... nathan turns... tman is there, staring at karen... her body "like jetsam on a terminal beach"... he nods at nathan and leaves

in the final para tman is at "calm and rest" in the deserted cinemas... time for a "re-appraisal"... this time, the "sex-deaths of karen notovny" documentary merely remind him of the "affection" he had for karen "discovered after so many disappointments" within the dark theatre... after the movie he would rejoin humanity on the streets, where the noisy traffic mediated "an exquisite and undying eroticism"... does that mean tman would be different if alone?

wow... and you know what's really amazing? all that endless preoccupation with sex and violence... and once again there really isn't any actual sex or violence... yes, karen is dead, but there is no clue as to how it happened... or if it was tman or vaughan who did the deed... and it's odd tman is now calm, altho karen's death nearly always "assuages" tman's anxieties, in this case it seems that she seems to be filling some kind of role in lieu of tman, as the actual documentary starts with koester aggressively pursuing tman... is karen's death the "surprise ending" nathan predicted?

at any rate, tman has used karen all the way thru in a variety of deviant ways, "as if hoping to recapitulate his wife's death"...

in that sense, as no "surprise", what about the connection between karen and mary ballard?... at first I wondered if karen might be an extension of claire churchill (in JGB's late 60s landscape), but I'd say it recalls Mary's death, and perhaps every karen is mary, and every time karen dies it's a way of negating or reducing the psychic damage incurred not only by mary's irrational death but also by JG's now-pressing dark memories from his youth... I think I read somewhere that during this time whenever things got a too zany for JGB he felt he was lucky cause he was able to write the psychosis away... which no doubt explains the almost painful truthfulness of JG's fiction...

the death of affect is also elaborated upon... diagnosed as well as cured: tman can overcome his emotionless state by inventing a series of sexual deviations... he appears to achieve this goal -- "an exquisite and undying eroticism" -- and also seems to be fitting back into society...

as for vaughan and koester... dark brothers of kline and xero?

I didn't get a chance to introduce the other dualism I'm interested in: idealism and rationalism, which I think is another way of expressing fiction and reality... so, ultimately, is AX a dialectic on idealism (tman) and rationalism (nathan), with JGB's viewing habits tossed in as a backdrop? Or perhaps a look at the creative process itself...

anyway... a first cut, mike... on a long and complex chapter

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[RMcG: 20 February 2007]

after all this miniscule analysis, I'd like to try "big-picturing" all 9 stories... main themes/nathan rants/tman's chapter-by-chapter psychoses/ does my idea of idealism/rationalism hold water? (I take that from JGB's interview with revell, where he talks about idealism, but won't admit to a truth)

but it would be pretty e-z to collect it all...

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[MH: 21 February 2007]

RMcG wrote: anyway... a first cut, mike... on a long and complex chapter

Yes ... after the rather limited chapters that preceded it - "Great American Nude" and "Summer Cannibals" - this is a much more complicated, and interesting, story.

It's different stylistically as well - more like a traditional narrative, despite the complexity of the content. This is noticeable in the first few sentences: "Later, Travers remembered the camera crew which had visited the Institute, and the unusual documentary they had filmed among the cypress-screened lawns. He had first noticed the unit as he loaded his suitcases into the car on the afternoon he resigned." The story reads rather like a half-way-house between "Atrocity Exhibition" and "Crash" - or "High Rise".

Another thing that struck me about TOTHF is the extent of the autobiographical material in it. Firstly, Travers is obsessed with his wife's death in a car crash, and with his memories and feelings about it ... the enactment of Karen's death at the end of the story is in some oblique way a replay of that event. Secondly, there's the lengthy "Too Bad" section, based on JGB's memories of Shanghai after the end of World War II - of which more shortly.

And there's more of a sense of the existence of time in this chapter. Right at the start we are told about Travers remembering the events of the day he left the Institute (Travers looks back to the past), and at the end he's contemplating going out into the crowded streets with their 'undying eroticism' (Travers looks ahead to the future).

These aspects of TOTHF make Travers appear more human, albeit psychologically stressed, compared to most of his other incarnations. This was the last chapter to be written, and it's as if - after all the attempts made by the different versions of himself - T-Man is finally breaking through to his own humanity. Perhaps this final attempt at redeeming himself will be successful?

But as T-Man seems to regain a sense of what it is to be human, Dr. Nathan grows more extreme. TOTHF is the occasion for one of Nathan's most powerful set speeches, concerning the 'death of affect', which ends with the conclusion that "the only way we can make contact with each other is in terms of conceptualizations. Violence is the conceptualization of pain. By the same token psychopathology is the conceptual system of sex."

How might we understand this? Well, pain and sex are feelings/activities that in the past were central to lives of all humans (indeed, to all vertebrates) ... and at one time they were central to *our* lives as well. But for us, today, "pain" and "sex" represent something else. To a large extent they've lost their links to the natural world: "sex" is more like a game that we play, and "pain" is not so much physical pain but located in our minds, in our reactions to what's happening to us, the way others behave towards us, and so on. This is really just a reflection of JGB's point that "outside a relatively few enclaves in Western Europe and the United States for the past few decades, the vast majority of the world has always lived the sort of life I lived in Shanghai, in that close proximity to violence, death, disease ..." ('From Shanghai to Shepperton'). So what this means is that we approach pain and sex in a more mediated (or conceptualised) way.

But once we lose this 'natural link' between pain/sex and the world around us, there are no pre-ordained restrictions on what can be done with our new, conceptualised versions. And one of JGB's key theses is that in this situation we must rely on our imagination, because only that way will we find some sort of meaning in a changed world: "I am a great believer in the need of imagination to transform everything, otherwise we'll have to take the world as we find it, and I don't think we should. We should re-make the world ... The madman does that ... The psychopath does that ... But the real job is to re-make the world in a way that is meaningful ..." (Re/Search 8/9, p. 159).

But Nathan, being the epitome of rationality, has no way of limiting the excesses of conceptualisation. So in his next little set speech, he concludes: "why not, for example, use our own children for all kinds of obscene games? Given that we can only make contact with each other through the new alphabet of sensation and violence, the death of a child or, on a larger scale, the war in Vietnam, should be regarded as for the public good." From which the only conclusion, surely, is that it is Nathan, rather than Travers, who is unhinged. They both have a similar diagnosis of our condition ... but Nathan ends up with his logical and inhuman conclusion, whereas Travers may find a form of peace after his explorations of the imagination.

Key to Travers' "explorations" are his feelings about his wife's death in a car crash four years earlier. These seem to match JGB's own feelings: for example, in the annotations for TOTHF he says "clearly, my younger self was hoping to understand his wife's meaningless death. Nature's betrayal of this young woman seemed to be mimicked in the larger ambiguities to which the modem world was so eager to give birth, and its finish line was that death of affect, the lack of feeling, which seemed inseparable from the communications landscape."

So it's not unexpected that the first use of the phrase "Death of Affect" is as the heading of the paragraph where Travers revisits the site of the fatal car crash. There's a suggestion that Travers is puzzled by the way this event has lost meaning for him: "After four years the oil stains had vanished. These infrequent visits, dictated by whatever private logic, now seemed to provide nothing. An immense internal silence presided ..."

Now that the meaning of his wife's car crash is no longer apparent, Travers is able to ponder how Karen might re-create the accident "in terms of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the '50s school of highway engineering or, most soigne of all, the Embarcadero Freeway?" And later, he is able to reconceive his wife's death as a series of conceptual games. Her death is still important to him, but distance can give it the possibility of altered meanings ... so he can now start to relate his wife's death to what else is happening around him, and his own personal experience of "death of affect" becomes that of the modern world.

Therefore when Travers is in the exhibition hall watching a series of atrocity films, he is able to relate these back to elements of his own history. The "images of neurosurgery and organ transplants, autism and senile dementia, auto-disasters and plane crashes, ... newsreels from the Congo and Vietnam" make him think of his wife in death, and this turns his mind back to his childhood in Shanghai in the section titled "Too Bad".

But "too bad" for whom? For the wretched Japanese soldiers? Or for the young Travers, who keeps looking forward to his trip to Japan, and is always turned back ("too bad", "never mind"). Here we have the contraposition of "pain" in its natural sense as displayed in the situation of the Japanese soldiers, and "pain" in the internalised, conceptualised, sense of the disappointments of the teenage boy.

After the enactment on the top of the multi-storey car park that results in Karen's death, Travers rests in the deserted cinema, and decides that at the conclusion of the film, "he would go out into the crowded streets. The noisy traffic mediated an exquisite and undying eroticism." I'd agree with Rick when he says that Travers seems to be ready to fit back into society. At last, T-Man can go back into the world - possibly to join Vaughan in his imaginative explorations of eroticism. In a way, he has at last got beyond his wife's death. Onwards to "Crash"!

......

Here's a few comments on specific points that Rick raised:

RMcG wrote: we discover one of the areas of irritation between tman and nathan: tman seems to be running some kind of death of affect experiment with housewifes and students: they are rendered insensitive to pain and feeling, and asked to put together montage photographs... the results are the usual psychotic images... nathan has cancelled the exercise, which made catherine austin sick

At the beginning we're told about Travers' "long and wearisome dispute with Nathan", and at the end when they are both looking at Karen's body, Travers nods at Nathan and leaves. Some point proved between them?...

So what was at issue between the two of them at the Institute? I'd see it as the difference between Travers' use of imagination and Nathan's unchecked rationality. So in a way, maybe it's Nathan who is T-man's real alter-ego?

And I might as well throw in here a related point about Travers. Early on in TOTHF, when Catherine Austin wonders about his interest in photos of "strange sexual wounds, imaginary Vietnam atrocities, the deformed mouth of Jacqueline Kennedy", she wonders to herself "Why was Travers obsessed by these images? Their own sexual relationship was marked by an almost seraphic tenderness ...". Is there perhaps some element of autobiographical puzzlement here? ... that neither JGB nor his friends can quite understand how he can be obsessed with all that stuff? "After all," they must say to themselves, "he seems pretty normal most of the time."

RMcG wrote: .. an "arena" where our bodies are revealed as dirty, messy, organic things and our minds hold the real meanings, which turn out to be making a game out of "the study of psychologic and behavioral dysfunction", and becoming increasingly intellectual about it... hmmm... sounds like nathan describing himself

Exactly!

RMcG wrote: ... and we find out a bit about karen: "strange young woman, moving in a complex of undefined roles, gun moll of intellectual hoodlums with her art critical jargon and bizarre magazine subscriptions"... say, could this be claire churchill?

Perhaps more like Pamela Zoline. Wasn't she involved with the New Arts Lab, and helped with the Crashed Cars Exhibition? (I have a feeling someone's suggested this comparison before - possibly David P.)

RMcG wrote: ... and you know what's really amazing? all that endless  preoccupation with sex and violence... and once again there really isn't any actual sex or violence... yes, karen is dead, but there is no clue as to how it happened... or if it was tman or vaughan who did the deed...

Yes ... in a way the violence is all in the mind, or to use JGB's term "conceptual", and needs to be explored with the use of the imagination. If our problem is that reality has become internalised, our path doesn't lie back towards an unobtainable "natural existence", but forwards ... using our imagination and conceptualisations. Which is why JGB says that "perhaps psychopathology should be kept alive as a repository - probably the last repository - of the imagination" (J. G. Ballard: Quotes, p. 225).

RMcG wrote: what about the connection between karen and mary ballard?... at first I wondered if karen might be an extension of claire churchill (in JGB's late 60s landscape), but I'd say it recalls Mary's death, and perhaps every karen is mary, and every time karen dies it's a way of negating or reducing the psychic damage incurred not only by mary's irrational death but also by JG's now-pressing dark memories from his youth...

Agreed ... she dies over and over again.

RMcG wrote: yes, this may seem off topic, but I think that AX is ultimately about "the angle between two walls", which I now understand to be the dialectic between reality and fiction (not the dualism), and these concepts are played out by JGB in the arena of his own psychosis... his own reliance on "found" and "invisible" input

... so, ultimately, is AX a dialectic on idealism (tman) and rationalism (nathan)

I'd say "imagination" rather than "idealism" - though I suspect we're trying to say something similar. That's one for the wrap-up discussion!

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[RMcG: 21 February 2007]

just a few observations....

MH wrote: It's different stylistically as well - more like a traditional narrative, despite the complexity of the content. This is noticeable in the first few sentences: "Later, Travers remembered the camera crew which had visited the Institute, and the unusual documentary they had filmed among the cypress-screened lawns. He had first noticed the unit as he loaded his suitcases into the car on the afternoon he resigned." The story reads rather like a half-way-house between "Atrocity Exhibition" and "Crash" - or "High Rise".

whereas other stories veered towards TV and advertising copy, I think this one is the most "painterly" with its endless emphasis on collages...

MH wrote: Another thing that struck me about TOTHF is the extent of the autobiographical material in it. These aspects of TOTHF make Travers appear more human, albeit psychologically stressed, compared to most of his other incarnations. This was the last chapter to be written, and it's as if - after all the attempts made by the different versions of himself - T-Man is finally breaking through to his own humanity. Perhaps this final attempt at redeeming himself will be successful?

yes, I agree: and this is the first story in which cultural icons are not used as "intermediaries"... karen is the "mary"... the background "noise" for tman is war this time out... generalized, not a personality... a step forward?

MH wrote: But once we lose this 'natural link' between pain/sex and the world around us, there are no pre-ordained restrictions on what can be done with our new, conceptualised versions. And one of JGB's key theses is that in this situation we must rely on our imagination, because only that way will we find some sort of meaning in a changed world: "I am a great believer in the need of imagination to transform everything, otherwise we'll have to take the world as we find it, and I don't think we should. We should re-make the world ... The madman does that ... The psychopath does that ... But the real job is to re-make the world in a way that is meaningful ..." (Re/Search 8/9, p. 159).

spot on, mike... I think this is JGB's longstanding theme... "in a way that is meaningful"... that's the defining point...

MH wrote: But Nathan, being the epitome of rationality, has no way of limiting the excesses of conceptualisation. Nathan ends up with his logical and inhuman conclusion, whereas Travers may find a form of peace after his explorations of the imagination.

I think we'll see this now in most of the nathan/tman stuff when we revisit all the stories...

MH wrote: Now that the meaning of his wife's car crash is no longer apparent, Travers is able to ponder how Karen might re-create the accident "in terms of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the '50s school of highway engineering or, most soigne of all, the Embarcadero Freeway?" And later, he is able to reconceive his wife's death as a series of conceptual games. Her death is still important to him, but distance can give it the possibility of altered meanings ... so he can now start to relate his wife's death to what else is happening around him, and his own personal experience of "death of affect" becomes that of the modern world.

I think it's any meaning for tman... he seems to be groping around uselessly til the magic conjunction appears: vaughan, karen & the car park... vaughan represents an id-like violence, karen seems plastic in what tman wants her to represent, and the car park... well, it has an inclined plane, like a beach... or a woman's body

death of affect is also vulnerable to time... it becomes stronger as time passes... perhaps that's one reason why time has been collapsed in this collection?

MH wrote: But "too bad" for whom? For the wretched Japanese soldiers? Or for the young Travers, who keeps looking forward to his trip to Japan, and is always turned back ("too bad", "never mind"). Here we have the contraposition of "pain" in its natural sense as displayed in the situation of the Japanese soldiers, and "pain" in the internalised, conceptualised, sense of the disappointments of the teenage boy.

isn't tman like a teenaged boy thru all of this? he's self-centred, irritable, horny, drawn to mindless violence and has an imaginary relationship with cultural icons...

MH wrote: So what was at issue between the two of them at the Institute? I'd see it as the difference between Travers' use of imagination and Nathan's unchecked rationality. So in a way, maybe it's Nathan who is T-man's real alter-ego?

I bet you're right...

MH wrote: And I might as well throw in here a related point about Travers. Early on in TOTHF, when Catherine Austin wonders about his interest in photos of "strange sexual wounds, imaginary Vietnam atrocities, the deformed  mouth of Jacqueline Kennedy", she wonders to herself "Why was Travers  obsessed by these images? Their own sexual relationship was marked by an almost seraphic tenderness ...". Is there perhaps some element of autobiographical puzzlement here? ... that neither JGB nor his friends can quite understand how he can be obsessed with all that stuff? "After all," they must say to themselves, "he seems pretty normal most of the time."

who knows what lurks in the mind of man? it was a sexy, violent time, and JG was on his way to creating his badboy rep, which would define him as an outsider til Empire and popular appreciation... he could be quiet on the outside, porno star on the inside...

MH wrote: Yes ... in a way the violence is all in the mind, or to use JGB's term "conceptual", and needs to be explored with the use of the imagination. If our problem is that reality has become internalised, our path doesn't lie back towards an unobtainable "natural existence", but forwards ... using our imagination and conceptualisations. Which is why JGB says that "perhaps psychopathology should be kept alive as a repository - probably the last repository - of the imagination" (J. G. Ballard: Quotes, p. 225).

question on this: my understanding of the term psychopathology is that it's the "study" of mental & physical defects from a medical or psychoanalytic POV... why is JG always focussing on the "form" -- the study of -- rather than the wackiness itself...

MH wrote: I'd say "imagination" rather than "idealism" - though I suspect we're trying to say something similar. That's one for the wrap-up discussion!

well, I'm coming from here... I scanned this last week)... I'd say "idealism" and imagination are very close, if not one and the same

In philosophy, you can be a "realist" or you can be an "idealist”. You are a realist if you believe that the universe exists independently of our minds, and that it would be more or less the same even if we weren't around to observe it. You are an idealist if you believe that reality is somehow mentally generated, that we "make" the world. Idealism may seem a little daft at first blush.

Yet even die-hard realists will concede that some aspects of the world - color and fragrance, for example; or humor -- are projected onto it by our mental activity; in a universe devoid of mind nothing would be red or sweet smelling or funny. Indeed, modern physics tells us that solidity itself is an illusion, that the seemingly real objects around us - rocks and trees, tables and chairs - are mostly empty space. And if you take a closer look at the more provocative claims associated with idealism, they're not always as outrageous as they sound.

When idealists say that we "make the stars," they don't mean that we make them the way a brickmaker makes a brick; rather, they mean that we make them conceptually, right down to the elementary particles of which they consist. (But how, you ask, could we have made the sun if it was around long before we were? By making time too, the idealist knowingly replies.)

It was more than two centuries ago that Immanuel Kant brought idealism to respectability. Kant argued that the world as we know it is a mind-created representation, behind which lurks an unknowable realm of "things-in-themselves." Soon Hegel and Fichte came along and dumped the thing-in-itself, leaving nothing but pure mind. The resulting "absolute idealism" dominated Western philosophy up to the beginning of the 20th century. Then, in Britain and America, the tide turned toward realism, owing to the influence of philosophers like G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell and William James.

Realism was further bolstered by the prestige of science, which seemed to be converging on a complete description of an objective, external world.

In recent decades, Thomas Kuhn, Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam and others have moved away from the more extreme forms of realism, while, on the Continent, Jacques Derrida sounded a rather idealist note by maintaining that reality is nothing but a text that we write and rewrite.

Today, though, the consensus probably tips toward realism - in part because of the strenuous pro-realist arguments of certain philosophers from Australia, where the bright sunlight is said make everything look really real.

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[MH: 22 February 2007]

RMcG quoting MH: Nathan ends up with his logical and inhuman conclusion, whereas Travers may find a form of peace after his explorations of the imagination.

Then RMcG wrote: I think we'll see this now in most of the nathan/tman stuff when we revisit all the stories...

And in most of the stories, Nathan seems to end up with a minor injury of some sort: he's hobbling around, or he's got a bruise. What's that all about?

RMcG wrote: I think it's any meaning for tman... he seems to be groping around uselessly til the magic conjunction appears: vaughan, karen & the car park... vaughan represents an id-like violence, karen seems plastic in what tman wants her to represent, and the car park... well, it has an inclined plane, like a beach... or a woman's body

Yes, I see what you mean ... his projects that keep him "moving from art gallery to conference hall" don't really get him anywhere, do they? ... at least directly.

And I think we can take the elements that form the "magic conjunction" as something like: Vaughan - stands for psychopathology, the imagination, the unconscious; Karen - represents personal history and relationships; the multi-storey car park - stands for technology, modern life. And Travers "solution" lies in relating all three, making them all work together ... so we get a conjunction, a modulus, things meeting at an angle.

RMcG wrote: isn't tman like a teenaged boy thru all of this? he's self-centred, irritable, horny, drawn to mindless violence and has an imaginary relationship with cultural icons...

And sometimes he's withdrawn and a bit sulky!

RMcG wrote: question on this: my understanding of the term psychopathology is that it's the "study" of mental & physical defects from a medical or psychoanalytic POV... why is JG always focussing on the "form" -- the study of -- rather than the wackiness itself...

I think it's because he sees psychopathology as a stimulant to the imagination, so he's interested in its effects on our thoughts. I came across something he said about "Crash" that bears on this: "I've never said that car crashes are sexually exciting; I've been in a car crash, and I can tell you it did nothing for my libido! What I have said is that the idea of car crashes is sexually exciting, which is very different and, in a way, much more disturbing." (J. G. Ballard: Quotes, p. 228)

RMcG wrote: well, I'm coming from here... I scanned this last week)...

I've now found that stuff you quoted, it's available online and is from a review of Michael Frayn's book "The Human Touch".

The review of "The Human Touch", quoted by RMcG: In recent decades, Thomas Kuhn, Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam and others have moved away from the more extreme forms of realism.

Well once you start referring to Rorty and Putnam, you're moving into my territory, Rick ... in fact I've got a series of philosophy web pages which has stuff on Putnam in particular. If you go to http://www.holli.co.uk/philosophy.htm you'll also find lots on realism and similar topics. I can hardly pretend it's bedtime reading, though ;)

Most of that stuff was written two or three years ago, and as I was doing it I felt that it might somehow be connected up to JGB's writings. So once I'd finished, I decided to re-read JGB's fiction, together with the Re/Search books, to see if I could develop that idea further. I was particularly taken with a claim by the philosopher John Gray to the effect that "Ballard's fictional achievement is to have communicated a vision of what fulfilment might mean in a time of nihilism".

Well I had fun re-reading JGB and ended up with numerous quotes on my PC, but precious little else. Inspiration was lacking ... I felt I was getting nowhere fast and didn't take it any further. So it's ironic that after we've both trawled through the detail of At. Ex., Rick's ended up mentioning Rorty and Putnam.

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[RMcG: 22 February 2007]

MH wrote: Well once you start referring to Rorty and Putnam, you're moving into my territory, Rick ... in fact I've got a series of philosophy web pages which has stuff on Putnam in particular. If you go to http://www.holli.co.uk/philosophy.htm you'll also find lots on realism and similar topics. I can hardly pretend it's bedtime reading, though ;)

mike...

I have to say I have poked around yr philosophic section... yeah, heavy stuff

OK, here's some heavy stuff back... you know how I'm going on about norbert brown and his life against death book... one of the key chapters of that tome is called "Apollo and Dionysus", and it deals with a lot of the concepts we've discussed during this AX escapade...

now, I don't expect any of you to read this, (except you mike) and it's really long... so I might suggest you print it out...

also, I can't use italics or any other text enhancers brown used, so it's bland looking

but it does say a lot about AX... or at least it says a lot about "object-loss", which equates it to the death of Mary, death of affect, childhood, fantasies, realism, etc...

<book chapter snipped>


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