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

Author: • Dec 28th, 2012 •

Category: academia, airports, alternate worlds, CCTV, consumerism, death of affect, features, gated communities, Lead Story, Marc Auge, micronations, Shanghai, suburbia, surveillance, the middle classes, urban revolt

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.’


ZONES OF TRANSITION: MICRONATIONALISM IN THE WORK OF J.G. BALLARD
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]


NOTES


[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.

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