The Drowned World

Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of 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.

–from The Drowned World, by J.G. Ballard

Another year, another hurricane in New York City. Reading my inaugural post on this blog from last October, “Irenic Sketches”, I learn that the emotional toil of last year’s storm was quite greater I think than the affective shift that occurs right now after yesterday’s storm. Last year, there had not been a major hurricane aiming at this region for sometime, the atmosphere of 2011 was intensely hysterical (to use that unfortunate but apt word), a strange cocktail of fear and cynicism that only contemporary urban agglomerations can nurture spread through the streets like a vapor, and THEN: “Nothing Happened”– which was of course not true; as I tried to narrate in my blog, towns in upstate New York and the Catskills were inundated and ruined by river flooding. In an attempt to be clever I used the work “irenic”, but in a slightly “ironic” way in that irenic means peaceful or peace-leaning–Hurricane Irene of 2011 of course was mostly peaceful here in New York City, but much less so in the less densely populated regions.

AND YET– As the chainsaws buzz on my street, cutting through two unfortunate trees whose roots could never really develop properly among the concrete sidewalks, asphalt road surface and other subterranean obstacles, I think of this storm, Hurricane Sandy 2012 as being a different storm in an obviously empirical way in that it never really rained that hard and yet the storm surge amplified with the tides inundated the tunnels and submerged the shallower regions of the city– This much is obvious, but what seems to me most important is the psychological breach that occurs when what has only been glimpsed in works of fantasy and scientific models suddenly manifests itself, and in an eerie resonant doubling at that–Not only do we have the This, the Now to contend with, but also the echo-memory of the Cassandra scream, now remembered as a strange and ridiculous prognostication. These two layers of the Spectacular Now and the Mediated Prophecy reflect against each other, creating a sort of hallucinatory hologram whose strange opalescence we attempt to navigate. This sort of phenomenon of course reached its apotheosis with 9/11, videotaped from so many angles, but as the chorus chanted: “It looks like a movie”– And now with this hurricane we have the strange artifacts of Hollywood disaster cinema like “The Day After Tomorrow” merging with the less sinister, but more potentially catastrophic effects of real global climatological crisis.

Images from movies are deliberately purloined and passed off for “what is happening right now!” as a sort of adrenaline boost to the affective realm– And as the “real” images start to accumulate, they do so in the shadow of the spectacular. Perhaps the most significant “cost” of this hurricane, as it has drowned the subway system, breached the banks of lower Manhattan, is that one can begin to imagine the destruction of a large city– Real estate being a “non-productive” asset, psychological effects become extremely influential in the asset price. Land is only worth what the landlord believes he can rent it for over the next decade or five– And as has been documented countless number of times, New York City has transitioned over the past three decades into a domain for the FIRE sector of contemporary capitalism: Finance, Insurance, Real Estate. This has left many geographic regions of industry and trade open to colonization by artistic communities and outright gentrification, luxury condominium construction, etc…

Wall Street is the mecca of global capitalism, and although trading and markets are mostly electronic these days, the physical location of the stock exchange and the agglomeration of skyscrapers in lower Manhattan are fixed resources that would be difficult to relocate– And yet don’t you think the financial elites and titans of Capitalism are right now contemplating the risk of this precarious geographic location? New York is New York because it is a wonderfully diverse marine region with many natural harbors, its rivers allow access to both the interior regions of this once-wild continent (The Hudson) and the New England coastline in a remarkably convenient way, and also the island safety of lower Manhattan supposedly provides ideal location to house an undefeatable fort and its artillery battery. All of these factors which once made this an ideal region for trade, commerce and manufacture are no longer necessary in this era of financial-absolutism. Where will this future Financial-Canaan be created once the dangers of rising ocean waters threaten the smooth uninterrupted flows necessary to capitalism’s unquenchable thirst for more and more surplus? Will this new financial-Oz be in the model of Baghdad’s “Green Zone”, a militarized fortress for the financial elite and their thousands of drones who collectively copy, cut, and paste on the spreadsheet that has slowly inseminated its digital net into the very contours of our biological mundanity?

The urban organization of the workers in the 20th century and the concomitant strikes and rioting were closely connected to the strategies of an industrial capitalism that demanded the close proximity of production centers. Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Turin –A liability to the elites nervous of masses of workers accumulating and organizing in geographically specific zones– So much for that– The process of “greenfielding” is the industrial strategy of choosing a realm that is relatively green, underdeveloped from a capitalist standpoint, and plopping a factory into this region, coordinating with local elites to ensure that the labor pool avoids the obstacles of racial disparity and conscious proletarianization. Think of the Toyota plants in Mississippi, Kentucky, Texas, Indiana, Alabama and West Virgina. Can one imagine a greenfielding of the financial sector, should rising ocean levels threaten the historic centers of trade such as New York, London and Hong Kong and movements related to Occupy Wall Street metamorphoze, spread and threaten Wall Street’s functioning? Even the countless containers filled with commodities produced in Asia, South America, or Europea are delivered to the giant distribution ports in New Jersey and Staten Island. The one-time asset of Manhattan’s watery proximity flips into a serious liability.

J.G. Ballard’s futuristic novel The Drowned World is a powerful and poetic evocation of a seriously inundated urban metropolis populated by scientists such as the narrator Kerans, the sunbathing inhabitants of decaying and moldy penthouses such as Beatrice Dahl, and the dionysian libertarian crazy neo-pirates such as Strangman, who churn the watery avenues in their paddlewheelers, playfully terrorizing the new terrain. It’s a strange book, and having read it several years ago, my notes are sketchy. Ballard isn’t very well known in the US, his novels being quite difficult to find in libraries (at least in NYC). But a certain flavor of reader and activist is obsessed with his apocalyptic and strange literary imagination. In this novel the north is sweaty, humid and hot. A journey towards the south results in heat exhaustion and death. The world is a changed place, drowned and the decayed remnants of humanity create an interesting story whose narrative I can only half remember. There is a violent showdown at the end of the novel in a part of the city that has been drained somehow– Strangman  eventually becomes dangerous and violent and his band of accomplices I remember are depicted in a slightly racist way (if I remember correctly). But the mood is what remains, “a radically new environment with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance” as I quoted above.

What is the psychological change that precipitates from the solution of catastrophic ecological disaster, as a suicidal drive replaces the survival instinct? Detachment? Decadent nonchalance? Subversive anarchism? Piratical orgies of violence?

Racing around the lagoons like the delinquent spirit of the drowned city, apotheosis of all its aimless violence and cruelty, Strangman was half-buccaneer, half-devil. Yet he had a further neuronic role, in which he seemed almost a positive influence, holding a warning mirror to Kerans, and obliquely cautioning him about the future he had chosen. It was this bond that kept them together, for otherwise Kerans would long since have left the lagoon and moved southwards.

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