June 13, 2004



'At the 1980 Republican Convention in San Francisco, pranksters reproduced and distributed the section of The Atrocity Exhibition called “Why I want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”, without the title and adorned with the Republican Party seal. “I’m told,” Ballard reports, “that it was accepted for what it resembled, a psychological position paper on the candidate’s subliminal appeal, commissioned from some maverick think tank.”


What does this neo-Dadaist act of would-be subversion tell us? In one sense, it has to be hailed as the perfect act of subversion. But, viewed another way, it shows that subversion is impossible now. The fate of a whole tradition of ludic intervention - passing from the Dadaists into the Surrealists and the Situationists - seems to hang in the balance. Where once the Dadaists and their inheritors could dream of invading the stage, disrupting what Burroughs - still very obviously a part of this heritage - calls the “reality studio” with logic bombs, now there is no stage - no scene, Baudrillard would say - to invade. For two reasons: first, because the frontier zones of hypercapital do not try to repress so much as absorb the irrational and the illogical, and, second, because the distinction between stage and offstage has been superceded by a coolly inclusive loop of fiction: Reagan’s career outstrips any attempt to ludically lampoon it, and demonstrates the increasingly pliability of the boundaries between the real and its simulations. For Baudrillard, the very attacks on “reality” mounted by groups such as the Surrealists function to keep the real alive (by providing it with a fabulous, dream world, ostensibly entirely alternative to but in effect dialectically complicit with the everyday world of the real) . “Surrealism was still in solidarity with the real it contested, but which it doubled and ruptured in the imaginary.” In conditions of third (and fourth-order) simulacra, the giddy vertigo of hyperreality banalizes a coolly hallucinogenic ambience, absorbing all reality into simulation. Fiction is everywhere - and therefore, in a certain sense, eliminated as a specific category. Where once Reagan’s own role as actor-president seemed “novel”, his subsequent career, in which moments from film history become montaged - in Reagan’s own hazy memory and in media accounts - with Reagan’s role in particular movies. The ludic becomes the ludicrous.
The apparent acceptance, by the Republican delegates, of the genuineness of the “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” text, is both shocking and oddly predictable, and both responses are in fact a testament to the power of Ballard’s fictions, which resides no more in their ability to mimetically reflect a pre-existing social reality than it does in their capacity to imaginatively overturn it. What Ballard achieves, rather, is what Iain Hamilton-Grant calls “realism about the hyperreal”, a homeopatic participation in the media-cybernetization of reality in late capitalism. The shock comes when we remind ourselves of (what would seem to be) the radical abberance of Ballard’s material. “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”, like many of the sections of The Atrocity Exhibition, particularly in the latter part of the novel, is presented as a report on experiments into audience responses to prepared media stimuli.

Ronald Reagan and the conceptual auto-disaster. Numerous studies have been conducted upon patients in terminal paresis (G.P.I.), placing Reagan in a series of simulated auto-crashes, e.g. multiple pile-ups, head on collisions, motorcade attacks (fantasies of Presidential assassinations remained a continuing preoccupation, subjects showing a marked polymorphic fixation on windshields an rear-trunk assemblies). Powerful erotic fantasies of an anal-sadistic character surrounded the image of the Presidential contender.

But this shock is counterposed by a sense of predictability arising from the cool elegance of Ballard’s simulations. The technical tone of Ballard’s writing - its impersonality and lack of emotional inflection - perform the function of neutralizing or normalizing the ostensibly unacceptable material. Is this simulation of the operations of Hypercontrol agencies a satire on them, or do their activities - and the whole cultural scene of which they are a part - render satire as such impossible now? What, after all, is the relationship between satire and simulation? To begin to answer that question we need to compare Ballard’s text with other, more definitively “satirical” texts. Before that, though, we need to bear in mind Jameson’s comments on the eclipse of parody by pastiche, which we shall examine, briefly, now.
This is not the place to interrogate the differences between parody and satire; we shall proceed on the assumption that, whatever differences there are between parody and satire, they share enough in common so as to be jointly subject to Jameson’s analyses. Parody, Jameson argues, depended upon a whole set of resources available to modernism but which have faded now: the individual subject, whose “inimitable” idosyncratic style, Jameson wryly observes, could precisely gave rise to imitations; a strong historical sense, which has its necessary obverse a confidence that there is a genuinely contemporary means of expression; and a commitment to collective projects, which could motivate writing and give it a political purpose. As these disappear, Jameson suggests, so does the space of parody. Individual style gives way to a “field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm”, just as the belief in progress and the faith that one could describe new times in new terms wanes, to be replaced by “the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museums of a new global culture”. Late capitalism’s “postliteracy”, meanwhile, points to “the absence of any great collective project.” What results, according to Jameson, is a depthless experience, in which the past is everywhere at the same time as the historical sense fades; we have a “society bereft of all historicity” that is simultaneously unable to present anything that is not a reheated version of the past. Pastiche displaces parody:

In this situation, parody finds itself without a vocation; it has lived, and that strange new thing pastiche comes to take its place. Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs [...]

Despite what Jameson himself writes on Ballard, one of the important difference between the Ballard text and pastiche as Jameson describes it is the absence of “nostalgia” or the “nostalgia mode” - an insistent presence in other postmodernist science fiction texts, as Jameson shows- in Ballard’s work. Indeed, Ballard’s commitment to striking textual innovations - as evidenced in the layout of the pages themselves in The Atrocity Exhibition - mark him as something of an anomaly in Jameson’s terms; in this sense, at least, Ballard seems to be continuous with modernism as Jameson understands it. Yet in certain other respects - specifically, in terms of the collapse of individual subjectivity and the failure of collective political action - Ballard is emblematic of Jameson’s postmodernity. But, unlike Jameson’s pastiche, Ballard does not imitate “a peculiar or unique idiosyncratic style.” The style that Ballard simulates in “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” - a style towards which the whole of The Atrocity Exhibition tends - is precisely lacking in any personality: if there any idiosyncracies, they belong to the tehnical register of (pseudo)scienfitic reportage, not to the characteristics of an individual subject. The fact that the text concerns a political leader draws attention to the lack of any explicit - or, more importantly when discussing satire or pardody, implicit - political teleology in Ballard’s writing. It is in this sense that “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”, like Jameson’s pastiche, is “without any of parody’s ulterior motives.”
Certainly, this is one way in which “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” differs greatly from a classical work of satire such as Swift’s Modest Proposal. A Modest Proposal is a paradigmatic work of what Joyce called “kinetic” art, produced in particular political and cultural circumstances with a particular aim, to sway an audience into action. Swift’s political purpose - his disparaging of the cruelty of certain English responses to the Irish potato famine - is marked by a certain stylistic and thematic excess (an excess that famously bypassed altogether certain of Swift’s readers, who were able to take the text at face value), whereas Ballard’s text - which emerged, no less than Swift’s, from a very particular sociocultural situation - can be defined by its flatness. This marks a move on, (even) from Burroughs. For all their linguistic inventiveness, Burroughs’ humorous “routines” such as “The All-American Deanxietized Man” remain in a classical tradition of satire through their use of exaggeration and their clear political agenda: using a series of excessive tropes, Burroughs mocks the amoral mores of American technoscience. By contrast, what Ballard’s text “lacks” is any clear designs on the reader, any of Jameson’s “ulterior motives”; the parodic text always gave central importance to the parodist behind it, his implicit but flagged attitudes and opinions, but “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” is as coldly anonymous as the texts it imitates. Whereas we hear Burroughs’ cackling at the absurb excesses of the scientists in “The All-American Deanxietized Man”, the response of Ballard to the scientists whose work he simulates is unreadable. What does “Ballard” want the reader to feel: disgust? amusement? It is unclear, and, as Baudrillard argues in relation to Crash, it is somewhat disingenuous of Ballard the author to overcode his texts - in prefatory authorial remarks - with all the traditional baggage of “warning” that they themselves clearly elude. The mode Ballard adopts in “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” is not that of (satirical) exaggeration, but is a kind of (simulated) extrapolation. The very genre of the poll or the survey, as Baudrillard shows, makes the question unanswerable, undecidable.
Despite what Ballard himself suggests, (see above), what matters is less the (possible) resemblance of “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” to (possible) reports than the circulation of simulation to which such reports already contribute. Writing on pastiche, Jameson comes upon the concept of simulation, but attributes it to Plato rather than referring - here at least - to Baudrillard’s reinvention of it. Yet Jameson’s intuition about the relationship between pastiche and simulation is important. We could perhaps suggest a correlation between Baudrillard’s third order simulacra and Jameson’s pastiche, on the one hand, and Ballard’s text on the other. What simulation in Baudrillard’s third-order sense entails is, as we have repeatedly insisted, the collapse of distance between the simulation and what is simulates. Satire, in its classical sense, we would probably want to locate as part of “First-order simulacra” - a simulation that resembles the original, but with certain tell-tale differences. Ballard simulates the simulation (the poll, the survey).'

Flatline Constructs, Chapter Four.

Posted by mark at June 13, 2004 01:47 PM | TrackBack

How about "The Secret History of World War II" in War Fever, I think, in which "old cancerbutt" (as the Butthole Surfres used to call him) becomes a corpse wired for sound? And WWII lasts two minutes. The media frenzy over one of the most sinister figures in history completely amazes me. AS if, not content with Grenada, Nicaragua, the Iran-Contra affair and maintaining a criminal silence at the ehight of the AIDs epidemic, his last bequest is legitimacy to the Irag war. Swine.

Posted by: tom kohut at June 13, 2004 08:58 PM