sexta-feira, 6 de abril de 2012

A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun - John Gray's Straw Dogs on J.G.Ballard's Cocaine Nights and the New Transgressions

The days when the economy was dominated by agriculture are long gone. Those of industry are nearly over. Economic life is no longer geared chiefly to production. To what then is it geared? To distraction.
Contemporary capitalism is prodigiously productive, but the imperative that drives it is not productivity. It is to keep boredom at bay. Where affluence is the rule the chief threat is the loss of desire. With wants so quickly sated, the economy soon comes to depend on the manufacture of ever more exotic needs.
What is new is not that prosperity depends on stimulating demand. It is that it cannot continue without inventing new vices. The economy is driven by an imperative of perpetual novelty, and its health has come to depend on the manufacture of transgression. The spectre that haunts it is glut - not of physical goods only, but of experiences that have palled. New experiences become obsolete even more quickly than do physical commodities.
Adherents of 'traditional values' rail against contemporary licence. They have chosen to forget what every traditional society understood - that virtue cannot do without the solace of vice. More to the point, they are blind to the economic necessity of new vices. Designer drugs and designer sex are prototypical twenty-first-century commodities. This is not because, in the words of J.H. Prynne's poem:

travel, habit and silence are all money

- though that is what they are. It is because new vices are prophylactics against the loss of desire. Ecstasy, Viagra, the S-and-M parlours of New York and Frankfurt are not just aids to pleasure. They are antidotes to boredom. In a time when satiety is a threat to prosperity, pleasures that were forbidden in the past have become the staples of the new economy.

Perhaps we are lucky to be spared the rigours of idleness. In his novel Cocaine Nights, J.G. Ballard presents the Club Nautico, an exclusive enclave for rich British retirees in the Spanish resort of Estrella del Mar:

The memory-erasing white architecture; the enforced leisure that fossilised the nervous system; the almost Africanised aspect, but a North Africa invented by someone who had never visited the Maghreb; the apparent absence of any social structure; the timelessness of a world beyond boredom, with no past, no future and a diminishing present. Perhaps this is what a leisure-dominated future would resemble? Nothing would ever happen in this affectless realm, where entropic drift calmed the surfaces of a thousand swimming pools.

In order to stave off psychic entropy, society resorts to unorthodox therapies:

Our governments are preparing for a future without work. . . . People will work, or rather some people will work, but only for a decade of their lives.

They will retire in their late thirties, with fifty years of idleness in front of them. ... A billion balconies facing the sun.

Only the thrill of the forbidden can lighten the burden of a life of leisure:

Only one thing is left which can rouse people. . . . Crime, and transgressive behaviour - by which I mean all activities that aren't necessarily illegal, but provoke us and tap our need for strong emotion, quicken the nervous system and jump the synapses deadened by leisure and inaction.

Ballard's prospect of 'a billion balconies facing the sun' has proved to be deceptive. In the twenty-first century the rich work harder than they have ever done. Even the poor are spared the perils that go with having too much time on their hands.

But the problems of social control in an overworked society are not so different from those in a world of enforced leisure. In a later novel, Super-Cannes, Ballard portrays the model business community of Eden-Olympia, where the accidie of burnt-out executives is treated with a regime of 'carefully metered violence, a microdose of madness like the minute traces of strychnine in a nerve tonic'.

The remedy for senseless work is a therapeutic regime of senseless violence — carefully choreographed street fights, muggings, burglaries, rapes and other, even more deviant recreations.

The rationale of this regime is explained by the resident psychologist who orchestrates these experiments in controlled psychopathy:

'The consumer society hungers for the deviant and the unexpected. What else can drive the bizarre shifts in the entertainment landscape that will keep us buying?'
Today the doses of madness that keep us sane are supplied by new technologies. Anyone online has a limitless supply of virtual sex and violence. But what will happen when we run out of new vices? How will satiety and idleness be staved off when designer sex, drugs and violence no longer sell?

At that point, we may be sure, morality will come back into fashion. We may not be far from a time when 'morality' is marketed as a new brand of transgression.

Can I be your friend?

John Gray. Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. London, Granta books, 2002, p. 162-166.

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