Henry Somers-Hall is a Philosopher currently teaching at Royal Holloway, University of London. He co-edited the Cambridge Companion to Deleuze and has written two monographs on Deleuze:
Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)
Hegel, Deleuze and the Critique of Representation: Dialectics of Negation and Difference (Albany: SUNY Press, 2012)
I know Henry because he contacted me to use a detail of my drawing Field 4 for the cover of the second of these books, which I was very happy to agree to.
When I knew that Henry was going along to visit Mirrorcity recently, I asked if he would write some thoughts for this blog which he very kindly agreed to.
Here they are..
‘JG Ballard believed that reality had already exceeded the visions conjured by science fiction by the end of the 20th century.’
The Ballardian Plato
I want to explore here the significance of the fictional exceeding the real, with reference to some of the works in the Mirrorcity exhibition. In what sense does the real exceed the fictional? Ballard’s claim is that the modern world essentially involves an inversion of the categories of the real and the fictional:
We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind: mass merchandising, advertising, politics considered as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the pre-empting of any free or imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. (RE/Search #8/9: J. G. Ballard. RE/Search Publications, 1984, 97-8)
The world is run through with categories of thought that allow us to live with ease and without consideration – the paradigm being for Ballard the suburb, ‘the optimum of what people want’ (R/S, 15) which is also ‘the death of the soul’ (R/S, 15). In response to the simulacra of the modern world, the artist’s role is, by a parallel inversion, to open moments of reality within the fictional.
For the writer in particular, it is less and less necessary for him to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent reality. (R/S, 98)
As such, for Ballard, the artist’s role is one of the selection and sorting of different images. The artist applies a test to experience, and chooses those images which escape from convention and the death of the soul. This question of the selection of the real places the artist in dialogue with the philosopher (and indeed, Ballard himself claims that ‘science fiction at least attempts to place a philosophical and metaphysical frame around the most important events within our lives and consciousness’ [R/S, 97]). Ballard’s project here reiterates the aims of the founder of the Western philosophical tradition, Plato. The key question that Plato asks is how we can tell the difference between the real and the pretender – how can we determine the differences between our encounters which have a basis in reality, and those which are merely illusory. By way of example, in the dialogue, the Statesman, Plato asks what it is for someone to be a statesman, and develops the definition of statesmanship as ‘knowledge of the collective rearing of human beings.’ (Plato, Statesman, 267d) Once we have this definition, we are still faced with a difficulty, however, as it appears that there are a large number of people who fulfil this description: ‘merchants, farmers, millers and bakers’ (Statesman, 267e). The task of philosophy is not to formulate definitions, but to select those beings that are legitimate, and the rejection of those who are not, a process Plato equates with the separation of precious metals from their alloyed state by means of fire. Merchants, farmers, millers and bakers all fulfil the definition of the statesman, so we cannot determine the difference between them by simply relying on the way that they appear. Rather, philosophy takes the form of genealogy. For Plato, philosophy involves seeing which entities can be seen as copies of an eternal realm of forms, and which are merely transient appearances. Those that participate in permanence are real objects, whereas those that do not are mere simulacra. In many dialogues, we have the introduction of a myth. In the Statesman, the visitor introduces the fable of two cosmic eras, that of Cronos, and the present age of Zeus. Each of these gods allows ordered existence to carry on in the world by ensuring that the universe continues to revolve around its circle. By incorporating a myth into the structure of our enquiry, we are able to resolve the question of which of the various contenders is in actual fact the statesman. That is, myth provides an archetype by which to properly separate the pure gold of the statesman from the mixed elements of the other figures. How does it do this? Well, these gods’ governance of the universe provides us with a model by which to assess which of the claimants is the true statesman. Thus, ultimately it is mythology that completes the philosophical project of Plato’s dialogues. How does this process of selection relate to Ballard?
Icons and Phantasms
For Plato, the world of appearances contains just shadows or copies of real things. Those copies that resemble real things have more reality than those which do not. An important point to note, however, is that there are two ways in which something can be a copy of, or resemble, something else. The visitor sets these two ways out in the Sophist:
Visitor: One type of imitation I see is the art of likeness-making. That’s the one we have whenever someone produces an imitation by keeping to the proportions of length, breadth, and depth of his model, and also by keeping to the appropriate colours of its parts.
Theaetetus: But don’t all imitators try to do that?
Visitor: Not the ones who sculpt or draw very large works. If they reproduced the true proportions of their beautiful subjects, you see, the upper parts would appear smaller than they should, and the lower parts would appear larger, because we see the upper parts from further away and the lower parts from closer. (Sophist, 235d-236a)
Something can therefore resemble the way something is (in which case it is an icon), or just in the way in which sculptors may employ tricks of perspective, it can resemble the way something appears (in which case it is a phantasm). The true statesman resembles the Idea or form of the statesman in the first of these senses. The pretender only resembles the appearance of the form, not the form itself. The problem, therefore, is to distinguish the candidates who bear a true likeness from those which merely appear to. At the heart of the difference between real images and fictional images for Plato is therefore a difference in the conception of space. There is a difference between the way something appears, and the way it actually is – the geometry of the painter and the geometry of the architect. For Plato, what is privileged is the geometry of the object understood in its mathematical clarity, outside of the vicissitudes of temporal experience. For Ballard, on the contrary, clarity is precisely what obscures our understanding of the essence of things. His story ‘The Intensive Care Unit,’ for instance, extrapolates to a society where interactions between individuals are only permitted via television. This sense of the clearly defined is an extrapolation of the clarity aimed at in the modern city. Ballard talks of Dusseldorf as the city ‘where nothing is ever allowed out of place.’ (R/S, 15) This clarity of vision, where the world is clearly demarcated, is the limit of the ‘voluntary self-limitations which allow human beings to go out, sit down, walk down the streets, take planes, and lead bourgeois lives with videos and word processors.’ (R/S, 21)
Here we can see the first essential difference between the Platonism of Ballard and that of Plato himself. For Plato, it is the illusory that is unclear. We can’t determine whether objects of appearance are tall or short, beautiful or ugly, because they are in space and time, and hence can at different moments have contrary properties. Clarity occurs when we consider the world apart from the way that it appears. For Ballard, on the contrary, it is the clarity of the world that is an illusion. As he puts it,
The mere existence of our own sort of musculatures, the particular skeletal morphology of the mammal, not to mention the whole vast system of inventions and dampers and blocks and subterfuges of various kinds – elaborate mental languages and visa systems that operate on all sorts of borders of the brain, which is in itself an incredibly elaborate structure – if you could only shine a light through the whole of it, existence would seem as bright as the sun! As shocking as a blast of sunlight, or a blare of noise. (R/S, 21)
Central to Ballard’s approach are, therefore, ‘perceptual dislocations’ (R/S, 51) that break through the web of fictions that constitute reality. There are two moments to the Ballardian approach. First, there is the dislocation that breaks through the banalities of the fictional. Second, there is the real that we then encounter. Works such as the photo-montages of Stezaker create images through juxtaposition that prevent the normal functioning of the mental languages and visa systems of the brain by slipping between categories. As such they disrupt the smooth assimilation of the visual stimuli they present. Similarly, Tim Etchells’ City Changes projects a set of mutually contradictory descriptions of the city. In these cases, we have the mode of disorientation and fragmentation that opens the way to the real.
We can find an example of this defamiliarisation of space in Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition:
Tallis stood behind the door of the lounge, shielded from the sunlight of the balcony, and considered the white cube of the room. At intervals, Karen Novotny moved across it, carrying out a series of random acts. Already, she was confusing the perspectives of the room, transforming it into a dislocated clock. She noticed Tallis behind the door and walked towards him. Tallis waited for her to leave. Her figure interrupted the junction between the walls in the corner on his right. After a few seconds her presence became an unbearable intrusion into the geometry of the room. (Ballard, Atrocity Exhibition, 43)
Here, what is behind appearances is not the unified object, freed from the contradictions of appearance, but instead a fragmented space, without the unity of the elaborations of the brain. As an exploration of this realm prior to the fictions of the real, Ballard writes that ‘fiction is a branch of neurology: the scenarios of nerve and blood vessel are the written mythologies of memory and desire.’ (R/S, 149) Just as with Plato the exploration of the individual is also the exploration of the city, so it is with Ballard, who notes that from the architectural spaces of the city, we could reconstitute the psychology of a people. (R/S, 44) Such a fragmentation, therefore, does not simply open out onto a new perspective, but also onto the complex network of affects and interrelations that gives rise to our neurology. In this aspect, Emma McNally’s works go beyond the simple fragmentation of perception to posit an order behind our world that does not share the structure of the object, but rather presents the complex traces and paths that lie behind our simple conception of the world. This is the second moment of Ballard’s model. In this sense, one can draw a connection between the inversion of Platonism in Ballard’s writing, and many of the artworks on display at Mirrorcity.
Today’s sound is Seth Guy’s Deeper River (version 4) …
‘A treated prepared microphone recording originally made at City Airport. Wind, rain, and aircraft providing much of the noise and atmospheric sounds throughout. As with previous “Deeper Rivers”, headphones are advised':