Category Archives: J G Ballard

Going up? High Rise Housing, Wealth and Social Alienation

Jephcott's Homes in High Flats, 1971

Jephcott’s Homes in High Flats, 1971

The politics of wealth, inequality and austerity are hotting-up in the run-up to the general election. Anger is pervasive, from all political sides but the ‘mediamacro’ presentation of the reality and need for continued austerity remains intact it seems. This is particularly depressing for those seeking to launch renewed optimism about the possibilities for reform, progressive taxation (getting those into it who should but aren’t and those avoiding it) and initiatives to address major issues like the crisis in housing affordability and provision. Cities, like London, are spaces of dramatic excess or continued social abandonment. Yet many of those renting (public or private) in London sit adjacent to massive changes to the built environment that speak of the extraordinary excesses of consumption and accumulation among the very wealthy, despite one of the largest historical economic reverses the country has known.

There have been some excellent analyses of London’s and New York’s dramatically evolving skylines environments recently, pointing out that much of this landscape is an exclusive landscape, off-limits to those distressed and upended by the property market across the city. In the context of ongoing debates about what to do about the super-rich (as though they were inseparable from the operations of an expanding, more global, neoliberal and capitalist system) this transformation is nevertheless notable. As human societies it seems curious that the possibility of such a new landscape could not be applied to the need to face-down much social need. ‘Going up’ will not mean helping out. Yet one of the most curious features of the changes happening in London is that high rise has shaken the taint that we continue to apply to tower blocks and public housing estates – it is social composition and only partially design that separates these structures.

Talking to capital, photo Rowland Atkinson, 2014

Talking to capital, Rowland Atkinson, 2014

I was particularly struck by this change when I recently picked-up Pearl Jephcott’s study of high rise living in Glasgow from 1971 (Homes in High Flats), there is much to think about here, particularly in the context of super-prime real estate that suspends residents for the scant time they spend in these homes. Even by the early seventies the story of a new utopia was facing a rapid turnaround in fortunes for a model that had initially appeared to offer good, clean living after the mess of the slums and tenements. Jephcott’s study had meticulously considered the problems (the difficulties for families with children, noise, new feelings of isolation within vertical communities and emerging anxieties about crime) including measuring the waiting times of lifts in a rather interesting appendix! Yet this story appears old now, almost as done and dusted as many of the blocks themselves and system-built complexes like Pruitt Igoe, destroyed by another administration that had done as much to fail its own experiments by defunding it as changing social conditions overtook its initial promise. But this story continues to unfold. A recent report suggests that around 50 estates have been remodelled in London to add homes of other tenures but we also know that these stories have generated evictions and net losses of affordable homes – new rounds of expulsion in the wake of cash-strapped local authorities facing the lure of investment from private investors.

Today high rise means high profits for developers on small land footprints, increasingly conspicuous displays of wealth and panoptic views of the city for the partial elite of residents who spend perhaps only a few weeks there, leave it to grow in value unoccupied or decide to let it out. In this context it isn’t surprising that high rise can be made to deliver (despite of course the obvious anxieties that followed the attacks on the World Trade Centre fourteen years ago and after which predictions quickly emerged that high rise was doomed as the potential target of future suicide bombers). What is more surprising is the dearth of imagination and means that might see public investment channelled to deliver more housing to those on more modest means in a city with such stressed physical infrastructure. These new rounds of construction spring from the ground because they are connected to flows of capital accumulated across the global economy, both because of and despite the economic downturn. Anyone who follows the FT’s How to Spend It, their property section or the websites of the elite property vendors and luxury goods houses will know that the consumption of the rich, and their number, has been one of the most recession-proof stories at a time when housing stress, homelessness, food-banks, beds in garden sheds, precarious and zero hours contracts mark the life of the capital outside the bright lights of the super prime areas.

It is interesting that we have moved from visions of the catastrophe of tower block living, widespread height reduction and demolition programmes and the block as the stand-in for social distress and crime in popular films and news media to the shiny new landscape of the world cities and their Shards (London) and Nordstrom (NYC) developments. The residents of these blocks may already have gone mad from boredom, like the residents of J G Ballard’s High Rise (1975), who descend into chaos and warfare between the levels of their brand new block. Unlikely perhaps. But the deeper commentary that Ballard was offering rings true – a concern about an alienating physical environment, the boredom of affluence and perhaps most importantly the barely concealed violence of the wealthy. Is a city that only provides for the wealthy in the face of need not pathological? The imperatives and logics of capital accumulation, purchase, investment and renting will always trump the concerns for a city more grounded in the attempt to tackle human need unless we say it is wrong. If the height and structure of the 260 plus high rise blocks in London’s centre are an index of anything it is the de facto callousness of political systems and politicians who suggest that this is the only game in town and, worse, that somehow this benefits those on no and low incomes. It may seem a rather obvious observation but surely we need more than ever before to being these ambitions back down to earth and make cities like London work better for all citizens.

View from the Shard, Rowland Atkinson, 2014

View from the Shard, Photo, Rowland Atkinson, 2014

Advertisements

Home invasions – A discussion of Haneke’s Funny Games

This is a brief consideration of the film Funny Games. It contains the essential plot lines and is intended for those who have already watched the film.

funnygames1

It is true to say that I did not want to watch Funny Games. Like the film, my recent work* concerns anxieties around the invasion of the home, a project which has generated unsettling images, ideas and prospects in my own life. I knew the film was about a family who seem to be randomly selected by two young men who appear without notice, initially polite, the dialogue moves to a position in which social conventions are stretched before it is realised that something is deeply amiss. The householder’s prerogative to expel intruders is dismissed by the intruders and the viewer’s stomach knots at the realisation of the frailty of the family’s situation. Haneke sets-up the affluence of the gated home, the perfect family trio and their comfortable lives against a random moment. All are ready for a great fall into terror that will puncture the assumptions that they (and we) might have about the relative safety and sanctity of domestic life. As the ‘plot’ of the pair is revealed the mask of shared manners and expectations is pulled aside to reveal a calmly executed experiment both by the director and the protagonists themselves; the ‘game’ of mentally torturing and physically destroying the household step by step.

Funny Games probes a number of contemporary issues, the story of an invasion into the home life of an affluent family might itself be taken as a story of our times, probing deep anxieties and primal fears of social intrusion (the home as a place of escape from life outside the front door) and violence (home as the key but potentially vulnerable place of refuge from danger). In fact this is only one of the levels on which the film operates, the lengthy build-up of fear and abject terror appear as an enormously cruel and surgically presented exercise (the feeling that we are being ‘wound-up’ by the director is palpable). This feature of the film pushes the viewer into a deeply uneasy position, are we not complicit with a project that offers nothing more than spite against vulnerability? What makes the film more than another project in torment of the kind increasingly on offer (Saw, Hostel, Audition) is that the direct violence of the film is clearly not an intrinsic aim. The most brutal moments occur off-screen and the sound designers are used to convey the horror of these moments. Is it possible then that the kind of visual extremity on offer in our popular culture might itself be the target of the film?

The most startling points in the film reveal the deeper project of the film through the deployment of straight ‘to-camera’ asides by one of the protagonists who asks whose side we are on, what might happen next and so on. Haneke is asking us to interrogate our motives for watching such films, to consider the banalisation of violence in our filmic culture and to initiate a searching query into the emergence of torture as an on-screen phenomenon (the archetypal terrorised female, the threat or use of extreme violence, the humiliation and power exerted over the fearful). Even a moment of potential catharsis (the use of a shotgun to kill her husband, lying off-screen in agony after being stabbed to put him out of his misery, is used to kill one of the assailants) is literally rewound by the other attacker by using a remote control. This moment of fantasy highlights the insubstantiality of images and events more generally – we are unclear as to what is real, what has or is happening, what apparent truth might be unwound in favour of another’s reading of the situation. Yet these moments come as a kind of relief, revealing the apparent objectives of the film and rendering an unbearable and persistent assault as an instance that raises wider questions about the nature of entertainment in our culture.

Images of suburban life run through the film, undermining images of idyllic lifestyles by alluding to a threat that has been placed in its midst. The presence of the two attackers is ominously foretold as we remember a socially stilted encounter with neighbours where two additional figures stand in a group on a lawn. Their faces unseen from a distance and lacklustre responses to shouted greetings are later realised to signify that they were unable to reveal their entanglement with the same impostors. So danger comes to the impregnable comes of the rich with smiling faces and plausible social connections. Violence quickly appears from behind a veneer of respectability and assumed safety. Other points are made about our urban and residential life by Haneke. The (briefly) escaped wife is unable to get help from neighbours (we may speculate that they have also been killed) or whose gates and insulated homes make it impossible for her to get assistance. These events point an accusing finger at expanding suburban and gated residential lifestyles and its apparent links to diminished social contact and neighbourliness.

Who are the pair themselves? They play at revealing broken and ‘red neck’ personal histories. Yet both appear in preppy dress, foppish haircuts and college-boy grins; all intended perhaps to make all but untraceable the social roots of their violent dispositions. Haneke himself has spoken of being unsettled at the reported violence of middle-class children who commit violent acts out of a desire for thrills, rather than for revenge or material gain. In this respect the film’s soundtrack (to the extent that there is any music at all) is provided through three punctuations of a deeply atavistic, shattering metal track in which roaring guitar riffs, screams and wails allude perhaps to the unformed emotions and anxieties that might lie behind the passive faces of the two invaders. At the film’s end the closing glance into the camera by one of them is frozen as the same music kicks-in for the last time. The suggestion in this accusing stare appears to be our complicity in seeing entertainment through suffering; an anti-Hollywood vision in which the objects of our natural sympathies are destroyed is completed. All that is left is the indication of an ongoing (unending?) cycle of yet more ‘games’ and entertainment as a new house is invaded, initiated by unthreatening smiles and requests for help. Such an ending points again to Haneke’s critique of the moral emptiness of cultural industries which provide us only with new victims and shocks as the primary means of its sustenance, with little empathy for the real daily terrors and insecurities of the world outside.

Funny Games, directed by Michael Haneke, 2007, original Austrian version 1997

* Domestic Fortress: Fear and the New Home Front, with Sarah Blandy, in preparation.

A black Friday: The kingdoms to come?

Not long after I returned from living in Australia I picked up J G Ballard’s Kingdom Come, a further exploration of a semi-fictional suburban location, one of what he calls in the book rather nicely, the Heathrow towns. Ballard’s novel isn’t so much prescient as a kind of social science fiction that already resonated with contemporary events. After four years in one of the older quiet suburbs of Hobart the story resonated strongly with my experience upon emerging, blinking into the fast-paced lifestyle of what felt like an overpopulated, congested and disorderly urbanism of the British kind so despised by Daily Mail leader writers and expatriates. The book connected my own feelings of disorientation to the partially unfamiliar sites and feelings I experienced back in a now unfamiliar homeland.

ballard dreams of violenceFor those who don’t know the book it concerns a vast shopping centre which forms the centrepiece of the narrative and focal point for consumers bereft of alternative pastimes. Alongside this site Ballard recounts an obsession with sport and the conflation of cultural with hyper-nationalist zealotry that is turned against a scapegoated otherness of retiring Asians. The imagined future of the book is too painfully close to current events and fears to be shelved simply as a fiction that should not overly trouble us. Driving from the south of England to its to urban north to take up my new post I was struck by the red crosses of St George, on car bumper stickers, flying atop A-road burger bars and churches. Were there really as many when I left? Even articulations of such discomfort are themselves subjected to a kind of hostility and suspicion in the current climate.

As with many of Ballard’s books a key theme is how the veneer of civility in modern urban life can so easily be moved to reveal the cruelty, emptiness and violence of everyday life. Spectators in the novel move between the non-places of sports stadia, work and the shopping centre while channeling their boredom by bashing vulnerable migrants. The tone is aloof and clinical, suggesting a kind of moral ambivalence and complicity of the central character in the aggressive outpourings of the surrounding mob. We are left with the impression of a space that speaks for so many others – offering us nothing more than consumer distractions and hidden violence in lieu of the terror of facing the real emptiness of life. The pursuit of imagined or inherited identities, meaningless acquisition or vacuous tournaments between in and out groups on sports pitches are the means by which alienation is handled.

DSC01019

Picture courtesy Daryl Martin, CURB.

With consumer products as cheap as chips, houses are bought and sold as much for profit as homes to live in and a merry-go-round of political distractions and scapegoating of migrants and welfare scroungers important questions are raised about the nature of our social existence. Where can we go to feel joy, surprise, intrinsic interest in the over-capitalised and under-nourishing urbanism generated in the last urban renaissance? Without improving urban design and reducing social inequalities we appear compelled to pursue personal advantages and neglect others, jockeying to avoid spaces we may deem too risky or unpleasant to go near. What political and communal voices will identify ambitions of community safety, human spaces for self-development and social contact and avoid further sell-outs to large scale private capital and to an ‘anything but’ agenda that leaves private wealth untapped and public spaces and assets shoddy or dysfunctional. The rise of the political right across Europe and the gloss of respectability among its counterparts entering mainstream politics now are not surprising in this context. Inequality, social exclusion and genuine fears about local disorder, uninhibited incivility and a vacuity at the heart of political and corporate life are the bedrock of a mild economic resurgence, even as precariousness and economic disaster mark so many urban districts nationally. Ballard achieved much by offering a mirror to our lives that showed the hollow and unpleasant core to contemporary capitalism and the kind of politics and places cast in its shadow.