Monday, June 13, 2011

Psychosis and the Suburb

I just finished reading J. G. Ballard's novel Super-Cannes, a scary psychological thriller that runs its gruesome course in the Silicon Valley of the Euro zone, the high-tech suburban office parks in the hills above the French Riviera.

Ballard convincingly asserts that the suburban office park is the architectural manifestation of nihilism. "Thousands of people live and work here without making a single decision about right and wrong," writes Ballard. "The moral order is engineered into their lives along with the speed limits and the security systems."

In Super-Cannes, the absence of moral agency drives executives into bouts of managed psychosis, employed to advance the greater good of executive productivity and shareholder value. As the novel advances, the degree of this executives' violence, sexual predation, and racist xenophobia become more and more intense and unnerving, but Ballard anchors it all in realism by name-dropping familiar corporations (a next-door neighbor who clubs Arabs by night is a Mitsubishi executive by day, a gruesome gunfight takes place on the roof of the Siemens carpark) - and mundane descriptions of the familiar office park landscape.

It's like a right-wing Fight Club, where repressed men band together to enforce corporate power instead of taking it down. And frankly, Ballard's vision - the Man sticking it to us with clubs, a private police force, and a hefty bribery budget to keep other authorities quiet - seems a lot more realistic than any of us sticking it to the Man.

Interestingly, right after I finished reading this, my wife had me listen to a recent This American Life podcast about psychopathy. In Act 2, Jon Ronson (author of the recent The Psychopath Test) interviews a successful business executive and finds that a lot of the traits he considers intrinsic to his success could also be interpreted as indicators of psychosis (actual doctors may find that a stretch, but the guy definitely has antisocial tendencies).

Also interestingly, there's been a flurry of articles this week about the decline of suburban office parks. A special report in Crain's Chicago Business declares that "Like the disco ball, the regional shopping mall and the McMansion, the suburban corporate headquarters campus is losing its charm," and goes on to profile several large corporations that are moving their headquarters offices back downtown.
"The whole corporate campus seems a little dated,” says Joe Mansueto, chairman and CEO of Morningstar... “We've always liked being in Chicago. It helps keep employees on the pulse of what's happening in our society. It keeps them current with cultural trends and possibly technological ones.”
Corporations moved their employees into the highly-controlled landscapes of office parks so that workers would be cloistered from competing job offers and isolated from social distractions for 60-hour work weeks. But maybe killing their workers' social connections and isolating them from creative ideas wasn't so good for profits, after all. Maybe there's still hope for sanity.

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