Monday 4 May 2009

About the In-between

The other day James Graham Ballard died. He was known for his visions of dystopia, drawn from his own experiences of societies that succumb to the vagaries of fate.

He was one of a growing group of intellectuals concerned with the effects of politics, culture and power and what kind of environment they could produce if left to their own devices.

There is no doubt such exercises are worthwhile, and in the hands of a writer like Ballard these landscapes are indeed evocative.

Yet most of them concentrate on the result, the endpoint of a road travelled in a dream-like state from which the awakening is as sudden as it is destructive. For all their lessons, are those visions realistic?

Take The Drought, a future where pollutants have produced a film across the world's oceans that prevents evaporation. There is no more rain.

If pollutants are produced by industry, and industry relies on the multitudinous opportunity available in an essentially functioning world, then a reduction in resources - especially water - would surely diminish the effectiveness of industry and hence the spread of that water-resistant membrane.

Long before the planet awakes to an accomplished drought the signs would impinge upon the consciousness of people no matter how blind they would have been otherwise. Responses emerge, measures will be taken.

Far from dismissing the significance of potential disasters, the lead-up has its own dangers, and they are very real.

Factors such as the nature of those signs, who interprets them, what kind of power resides in those who perceive them, and to what extent do oppositions manifest - they all form a mixture which in itself creates precarious scenarios.

Any system exists because by and large it has settled itself into a state of interdependence with its environment. Change any one component and the effects are situated within the same mutuality that allowed the system to perform in the first place. The over-riding effect of the change is not so much derived from one component's nature, but the wider dynamics that result from a destroyed status-quo. It is here that the more real danger lies.

Nor is such a shift of concern a matter of convenience, not wanting to think about what a world-wide drought would mean for example.

In principle the interrelationships between pollution, industry and the oceans (even assuming that film was possible) are a function of complex systems, and so their step-by-step mitigating effects will play themselves out regardless of our judgmental interpretation of them.

As potentially pro-active beings humans have the capacity to abstract and think through the possibilities on offer. To put it mildly, it makes sense to use this capacity and consider any signs in terms of their perceived meaning by a particular demographic, culture or religion.

In the face of the current challenges it is not good enough to resort to more of the same; as if money spent so far should be augmented by even larger sums, as if already coercive governance should increase its pressure even more, as if one demographic's status inviting the allocation of resources should inevitably be cemented even further within a society's perception of itself.

All those responses belong to conventional situations. They become useless if not dangerous if applied to a newly emerging realm of the unfamiliar, a space where the possible gets redefined and where the impossible becomes part of existence.

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