"Going mad is their only way of staying sane": Norbert Elias and the civilised violence of J. G. Ballard

Wood, J. Carter (2011). "Going mad is their only way of staying sane": Norbert Elias and the civilised violence of J. G. Ballard. In: Baxter, Jeannette and Wymer, Rowland eds. J. G. Ballard: Visions and Revisions. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 198–214.

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Much of J. G. Ballard’s writing involves variations on a recurrent theme: the interaction between twentieth-century society and enduring human psychological drives. Impulsivity, self-control and aggression are central topics for him. Thus, it is curious that his fiction has yet to be examined in light of a theory with similar interests that has greatly influenced the historical and social analysis of violence: Norbert Elias’s ‘civilising process’. This paper examines how Ballard dramatises crises and tensions within the ‘civilising’ factors Elias identified.

Elias saw the long-term growth of self-control as a central feature of increasingly complex societies, driven by economic and social interdependence, centralised monopolisation of legitimate force and increasing social pressure to restrain sexual and aggressive impulses. Historians of violence have used this theory in explaining the centuries-long decline in everyday interpersonal violence in Western Europe; however, it is far from a naïve notion of historical progress.

Indeed, the novels High-Rise and Super-Cannes highlight two factors Elias recognised about the civilising process: its potential fragility and tendency toward creating psychological dissatisfaction. High-Rise stages a ‘de-civilising process’: internal and external interdependencies are disrupted, the monopoly of force breaks down and psychological self-restraint is relaxed. The sprawling business park in Super-Cannes allows Ballard to explore a more chronic and subtle civilisational tension. As Elias noted, the ‘quest for excitement in unexciting societies’ leads to the ‘controlled decontrolling of emotional controls’ in contexts such as sport, an analysis I extend to the violent ‘games’ and ‘controlled and supervised madness’ featured in the novel.

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