Updated: Jun 25, 2020
Today, in the quiet of COVID-19 lockdown, I lost my sense of which day it was for the first time. I visited one of my favourite authors, J.G. Ballard, again, wondering what he would have said about all of this unexpected craziness, him being such a futurist and an acute observer of the world. In many of his dystopian novels and often in his interviews, he talked about our fear of the void: a fear not about that something terrible is going to happen, but about that NOTHING is going to happen. It is a fear about a boring, eventless world. And I started musing about the confluence of COVID-19 and the surge in social media posts, online products especially on the social media, also maybe as a counter attack to our fear of the nothing. Maybe it is not so much about the isolation that has driven us to the web, instagram, facebook and the works, but our horror vacui of being left alone with no-one to talk to or even the possibility no human contact. Maybe our apocalyptic kenophobia is not so much about contracting the dreaded disease, but about it becoming so intense that we will need to stay in isolation, in emptiness, for much much longer and maybe indefinitely. The surreality of it all, and especially of the emptiness drives us to fill it with whatever. But what if we start losing our sense of imagination, our creativity to fill that vacuum? It's a new kind of psychopathology that seems to have kicked in. This is Ballard:
Dystopian contexts are created from within societies and they operate in history, not outside of or at the end of history. Within the dystopia of COVID-19, or a world gone wrong, there is no doubt that we are experiencing a posthuman condition of isolation of being-in-the-world, but only partially and mostly virtually so. Twenty years ago Michel Foucault and Hetherington (1997:12) already argued that an important contribution of utopian and dystopian literature has been the awareness it brought to the interplay of space, site and modes of spatial and social ordering. Currently we are finding ourselves in little bubbles or cocoons, making the best of the pandemic. This is also a thought that Hetherington (1997:43) articulated as postmodernity being entrenched in heterotopic spatiality. Similar to dystopia, a heterotopic existence in space functions in relation to other spaces and the character and nature of those space; in our present case a virus-filled world.
One wonders whether the lack of physical interaction and the abundance of cyberrelationships and telematic experiences influences will, as Ballard has often suggested in his surrealistic novels, lead to rampant violence, threat to self, insensitivity and indifference to critical socio-cultural problems. Yet, in high-crime South Africa, it has actually led to a significant decrease in criminal activity. COVID-19 most definitely brought about a significant shift in our awareness of space and the places where we operate and survive. But do we know where we are going? How to navigate the future? Then a previous series of works of mine, Ship of fools come to mind.
Are we all on a ship as fools en route to an undetermined destiny? The concept of a ship of fools was derived from the Enlightenment and the Renaissance. It was common practice was to put the outcasts of society, especially the mad ones, on a ship and send them away on the ocean. They had no captain, no destiny and no plan. Do we have a GPS?. The idea of a ship going nowhere, having no destination, and being a kind of tower of Babel, is fundamentally dystopian and defers time and purpose. In Ballard's High-rise (1975:19) he writes: "It was only fitting that the sun first appeared between the legs of the apartment blocks, raising itself over the horizon as if nervous of waking this line of giants. During the morning, from his office on the top floor of the medical school, Laing would watch their shadows swing across the parking-lots and empty plazas of the project, sluice-gates opening to admit the day. For all his reservations, Laing was the first to concede that these huge buildings had won their attempt to colonize the sky." Ballard renders the high-rise building both as an anthropomorphic space and as a dystopic capsule. So very apt to the manner in which our homes, our 'capsules' of protection, have acquired anthropomorphic meanings of defence, nesting and shelter in our dystopian world.
Ballard, J G. 1975. High-rise. London: Flamingo, HarperCollins. Foucault, M, Khalfa, J, and Murphy, J. 2006. The history of madness. New York: Routledge. Hetherington, K. 1997. The badlands of modernity: heterotopias & social ordering. A publication of the Inter- national library of sociology (founded by Karl Mannheim), edited by Urry, J, Lancaster University. London/ New York: Routledge. #CAPwithElfriedeD