The theories about mental illness of psychiatrist R.D. Laing and his late-career commitment to anti-psychiatry have been broadly misinterpretted, historically, and in the modern day, as our ability to critically reason beyond the individual level, the heavy binarizing of pro, or anti-science, leaving little room of nuance, at the risk of being castigated as the latter. Of Arthur Janov, author of The Primal Scream, he considered Janov a grifter; that he would choose to target unprovable psychological theory about trauma as exploitative can be used to form some insight into Laing’s true intention in anti-psychiatric practice— we simply don’t know enough about the human brain to pathologize as often and, in the case of medication and treatments of the past for conditions like schizophrenia, concretely commit to change, from authority, one’s brain’s ability to function in comorbid ways, potentially in ways more harmful for one’s ability to rationally adjust to navigate an irrational world. Rightly or wrongly, this poses crucial philosophical questions about navigating what is internally disordered and what is merely normalized of the externally irrational.
“There are good reasons for being obedient, but being unable to be disobedient is not one of the best reasons.” writes Laing in The Divided Self. In the 1996 adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel Crash, perhaps even more so than the novel itself, seems to embody this principle; Ballard, the fictionalized protagonist, is an open-marriage, even their affairs seem to follow the rules of such an arrangement— it is unsatisfying, despite ostensibly being for the purposes of excitement. The plot revolves around Ballard’s involvement with Vaughan, a prophet-like figure who leads almost a cult fixated on the sexualization of their respective auto-accidents and those occupying the iconosphere— rather than fear, this evokes in them a deep affection for the fusion of humanity with the literal wreckage of technological modernity. Ballard, himself, is introduced to this concept in an accident with a woman who, while sitting in their respective wrecked cars (and visually, this is a striking scene) about to be taken to the hostpial (and later being introduced to Vaughan), exposes her breasts to him through the windshields of their cars.
“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” writes psychologist Viktor Frankl, and the key thing, it seems, to understand about the characters in Crash is that this response to an irrational world, the “rational adjustment” as Laing says, gives this otherwise completely meaningless experience a heightened, even religious aspect about what it signifies about the road capitalism has taken our society down in the form of highways, automotive culture, the proliferation of technology. Ballard, in the novel, after his accident, begins to speculate about where the sprawl of highways, automobiles, the volume accidents, the increasing horror of them, when this irrationality on the part of society will culminate in a exctinction-event-level cataclysm. “The enormous energy of the twentieth century, enough to drive the planet into a new orbit around a happier star, was being expended to maintain this immense motionless pause.” writes Ballard in the novel of the phenomenon of traffic.
Traffic as a metaphor for the run-amok expansion of our technological failings, and its effective destruction of humanistic impulse, is not a new one, and traffic/automatives, etc. are not the first technology to be met by this reaction, but perhaps the first to have an outsized impact on the world around us for as blasè as we consider the routine boredom of a traffic jam. Keith Gessen, in visiting Moscow (which is notoriously bad for drivers, infrastructurally, but is also totally unmanagable in some estimations), wrote of the experience:
“Sretenka intersected the giant Garden Ring Road, which runs around the Kremlin at a radius of about a mile and a half and marks the border of the historic city center. For much of its length, it is twelve lanes wide; at certain points, it’s eighteen. Still, it is often clogged. At the Sretenka-Garden Ring intersection, a police officer hand-operates the light to try to ease traffic, to no avail. So there was my sister, just twenty feet away from me, sitting down as I was, almost as if she were at another table. The moment extended in time; I sipped my coffee. When, eventually, the light changed and my sister moved forward a few car lengths, it was as if she had merely moved to another table. If the coffee were cheaper [$4 for a single “not particularly good” coffee], I would have brought her one.”
There’s a fixation in late-century literature about the glaringly obvious problems of our social ecology, materially present and harmful in the environmental ecology, being ignored by an oblivious, checked out mass public. Novels like Ballard’s (which he says was a misnomer to ever characterize as science fiction) fed into the spate of novels by the likes of Bret Easton Ellis in the 1980’s—a hyperfixation on the moral and material excesses of the Reagan-era at the expense of the world around the Americans living at the top; characters either live in a checked out state of ennui-laced casual terror, or are seething, and these deeply impulsive (arguably imaginary) outlets like the murders in American Psycho, represent a decaying of our very idea of the tolerable levels of sociopathy in the standard “productive” member of a supposed meritocracy within a failing (set of) empire(s). In the sequel to Less Than Zero (interesting, not least because it is aware of the film adaptation of the first novel—a commentary on the eminent consumability of all experiences in post-millennium), Imperial Bedrooms, Ellis (through Julian) writes, “It's not going to add up. Not everything's going to come together in the third act.” This is a powerful sentiment not only for understanding that where the road leads is obvious, and the anticipating is literally killing us all on a moral, motivational level; people living well, by the standards of capitalism and the influencer classes, in Ellis’ telling, have this almost Caligulan approach to riding out the apocalypse, knowing full-well everyone else is the kindling in the fire driving their lifestyles.
A theme of Imperial Bedrooms is one of casual surveillance in the Internet era, but even in the time Crash was released, the iconosphere was a fully developed place, and one where parasocial relationships, if one was sufficiently motivated and developed a framework for the intention of becoming closer to god, Vaughan's desire to die in a head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor isn’t that difficult to understand the logic of, even if you recognize it for the delusion, and ideologically extremist idea that it is. The sense of proportionality of import to any of these ideas permeates almost everything in our culture, and part of that is the outsized importance of what informs our sense of order; in one case, the state— something Vaughan rebels against in creating this cult, something Ballard (in fiction) comes to be a believer in foresaking his irrational lense on the supposedly rational world. “A little girl of seventeen in a mental hospital told me she was terrified because the Atom Bomb was inside her. That is a delusion. The statesmen of the world who boast and threaten that they have Doomsday weapons are far more dangerous, and far more estranged from 'reality' than many of the people on whom the label 'psychotic' is fixed.” wrote Laing of this particular phenomenon of building a base of power, and this is ultimately the influence of forging authority, but ultimately instilling a base of not only powerlessness, but nihilism, as an underlying ethos— faking it until you make it is a delusion in a world where ultimately whether you live or die comes down to whether or not a US president is bluffing about being willing to turn your homestead, foreign or abroad, into a parking lot.
In The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg, in his capacity as a former war planner, relays a possibly apocryphal story about then-President Elect Donald Trump being briefed about the US nuclear capability; he asks what has, or would, prevent the weapons from being used. In short? The answer is simply that the threat of their use is enough to deescalate (force a political opponent to capitulate under the threat of thousands of times the devasatation of Hirsohima, per weapon, many thousands of times over). Ellsberg, at the time, was certain war with North Korea was imminent; the US nuclear capability could have obliterated all life on Earth, North Korea was never a real threat by comparison, only a pretext to suspend civil liberties in the event of an incident— it’s not difficult to see where that, particular, road leads. More to the point, beyond Ellberg’s analysis, our ability to attack and delegitimize even the most duly-elected democratic governments is unquestionably effective; would the added threat create a world where any other outcomes than the desired ones for that of the imperial core are even possible? This was the world only beginning to take shape (in public) in much of Ballard’s earliest writings, and only validated by what our fictions tell of a larger truth reflect about the present day— even children are being desensitized to varying conceptions of what a dystopia might look like.
The danger, moving back to Crash’s most apparent message of import for the individual against this backdrop, is one Laing speaks to fairly directly: “This last possibility [of developing psychosis] is aways present if the individual begins to identify himself too exclusively with that part of him which feels unembodied.” — be this through conventional religion, or fully identifying with the dystopian, technocratic ideal of fusing man and machine in the most organic way possible; through their ineveitable traffic cataclysm. The so-called rational adjustment to this irrational condition is to learn to navigate this. For Vaughan, it was done as much as spectacle (foreboding celebrity as a motivating factor for doing anything post-millennium) as it was religious or ideological order to see this state of affairs as a means to, not an end, but the end: “He dreamed of ambassadorial limousines crashing into jack-knifing butane tankers, of taxis filled with celebrating children colliding head-on below the bright display windows of deserted supermarkets. He dreamed of alienated brothers and sisters, by chance meeting each other on collision courses on the access roads of petrochemical plants, their unconscious incest made explicit in this colliding metal, in the heamorrhages of their brain tissue flowering beneath the aluminized compression chambers and reactions vessels.”
I realize I’ve been avoiding the eroticized element of, both, the novel and the film, however, I believe viewing this film through this lens carries it own weight fairly effectively. There is, I’ll note, something in the work of Laing, that reflects ultimately why I find that element not particularly compelling, in that it is a function of what I’m describing, rather than the phenomenon itself about why these attitudes are prolific as they are prophetic as an ideology for the end of the world—both as individuals, and as a society on a planet we are ignoring our complicity in killing, indulging in the abstractions of imperialism, and ultimately, asserting to have done those on the bottom a favor: “We are effectively destroying ourselves by violence masquerading as love.”
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending:
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