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9ballMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at

A hotel room is a prison

that changes from town to town
a bed four walls and a window
a clean and scratchy towel

A hotel room is a prison
that always waits for me
a prison with a wake-up call
and an in-house laundry

Mark Sandman

For the second installment of our series on business hotels I intend to re-interpret the standard business hotel experience as described in my earlier post through the lens of ReSearch’s “J.G. Ballard: Conversations,” which I have been reading over the past few weeks. Ballard probably needs no introduction to the literate public, but for those who have yet to fall until his influence, he is the author of “Empire of the Sun” and “Crash” who wrote dozens of fantastic semi-Sci Fi short stories in the late 1950s and through the 1960s including “Prima Belladonna,” Thirteen to Centaurus,” and “The Terminal Beach.”

Ballard novels, in my opinion, are not as uniformly satisfying as his short stories; at novel length his “obsessions,” beach resorts, empty swimming pools, gated communities, plastic surgery, car crashes, the interplay of sexuality and technology, tend to wear a little thin. In “Conversations,” Ballard offers the following defense of his insularity and thematic repetition: “I think the values of bourgeois society by and large have triumphed. We’re living in a world where people at the age of 22 and 23 are thinking about their mortgages. It is a fact, and there’s nothing much on can do about it, except cultivate one’s obsessions and one’s own imagination” (144), but this approach works better in his short stories (which Ballard has not written for nearly two decades now), where his limited set of concerns are reflected and replayed through a panoply of settings and situations such that he resembles a virtuoso musician building off of certain stable base elements to create endless riffs and improvisations.

As a boy, Ballard was, famously, incarcerated in a Japanese prison camp in Shanghai, and this formative experience feeds both his autobiographical “Empire of the Sun” and his short stories. But instead of literal prisons with externally imposed walls and limitations, Ballard’s characters seem over and over again to be immured within prisons of their own creation. Story after story features some variation on one of two related themes; scientists careening off on private quests that eventually destroy them or people seemingly sequestered or restrained who turn out to be acting in psychic complicity with their imprisonment. Ballard himself admits to the centrality of the prison experience in “Conversations” when Mark Pauline asks him “Writing Empire of the Sun hasn’t helped you forget those horrible years in the camp” and Ballard responds “But I’ve been writing about it all the time–I just wrote about it in disguise” (138).

The ReSearch publications are the premiere American versions of Ballard’s work, overseen by one V. Vale, who, to all appearances, is a full-fledged Ballard maniac. The volume which I am reading at present is mostly a record of Vale’s telephone conversations with Ballard and other Ballardians including the composer Graeme Revell and Ballard’s archivist, David Pringle. After reading the transcripts of these conversations over the course of the past week it became clear to me that Ballard has a lot to say about that particular semi-reality fugue state described in my earlier post. As noted above, Ballard has a special fascination with self-imposed psychic incarceration: “I have a nightmare vision of a gated community of extremely expensive houses inside a larger gated community. It’s bizarre” (72). This post takes up the dual themes of self-immurement and the mind-meld that occurs between the individual and their media systems. These two themes may not seem to be obviously related, but after reading through 300 pages of Ballard on the telephone, all of his particular obsessions do indeed seem intertwined, and connected with time spent in business hotels.

i) Ballard on why Surrealism no longer obtains: “Classical surrealism, beginning after the First World War, made a very clear distinction between the outer world of reality {…} and the inner world of imagination {…} But after the Second World War, particularly as the media landscape developed enormously–thanks to television, mass advertising and the whole consumer goods landscape–the distinction between our reality and inner fantasy began to break down {…} This means that it’s very difficult to maintain the dichotomy, that contrast that the Surrealists required {…} As I’ve said before, in the last 20 years if you stop somebody in the street and ask the time, you might look at a watch with Mickey Mouse on the dial {…} It cuts the ground from under classical Surrealism” (166).

When viewing CNN International, a personal obsession that I feel no urge to see in my own home, where I own no TV, but cannot resist when in its presence in a hotel setting, seems to me to exist somewhere between the ‘real’ world and the interiority of my own mind. Read the rest of this entry »

social-media-conversionMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at

Statement on Intent and Concern #II: On “role drift”

This post is the second in my thirty-fifth birthday series, and takes up that sexiest of subjects, “role-drift.”  In this post I will connect Laud Humphreys’ investigation of “the Tearoom Trade,” that is, casual homosexual encounters in public toilets, the initiation process in the United States military, and the conversion of Paul the Apostle.  Those easily offended by sociological explanations of religion, of sexual preference, or of the comradeship among soldiers should cease reading immediately.

Recently, I finished reading a book–which, as my next post will detail, is a somewhat rare occurrence.  The book was Laud Humphreys’ “The Tearoom Trade,” published in 1970.  It concerns men hooking up with other men, usually strangers, in the public restroom facilities in St. Louis, and it is an eye-opening read.  The blurb on the book jacket pretty much tells the story: “Many American men seek impersonal sex in public restrooms.  Called ‘tearooms’ in the argot of the homosexual subculture, these restrooms are accessible to and easily recognized by those who wish to engage in anonymous sexual encounters {…} By passing as deviant, the author was able to engage in systematic observations of homosexual acts in public settings.  Methodologists will be interested {…} in this unusual application of participant-observation strategies.”  Indeed, methodologists everywhere, I can say without hesitation, were and are all ears.  But the odd thing is that Humphreys, married and purportedly straight when he conducted his research, later divorced his wife and came out as gay.

Now, it may not be considered particularly odd that someone, sociologist or no, who spends several months or years in public toilets observing “insertors” and “insertees” would himself come out eventually, and Humphreys’ persistent use of “us” and “we” to refer to the denizens of the restrooms of St. Louis appears, in retrospect, to be something of a “tell.”  Consider, for instance, sentences such as the following: “when a group of us were locked in a restroom and attacked by several youths, we spoke in defense and out of fear {…} This event ruptured the reserve among us and resulted in a series of conversations among those who shared this adventure for several days afterward” (12), and several other similar uses of plural pronouns.  (It may be of interest here that Humphreys and his study of tearooms enjoyed a brief week in the sun a few years ago when Senator Larry Craig of Idaho was arrested in an airport bathroom stall for foot-tapping–Humphreys covered this topic as well, making clear that foot-tapping was, in 1970, a well-established method of making contact from stall to stall, and already in use by police decoys so many decades ago (20, 87).)

Indeed, the whole study is fascinating, and peppered with wonderfully matter-of-fact passages such as: “There is a great deal of difference in the volumes of homosexual activity that these accommodations shelter.  In some, one might wait for months before observing a deviant act.  In others, the volume approaches orgiastic dimensions.  One summer afternoon, for instance, I witnessed twenty acts of fellatio is the course of an hour while waiting out a thunderstorm in a tearoom.  For one who wishes to participate in (or study) such activity, the primary consideration is one of finding where the action is” (6) (alert readers will recognize the influence of Erving Goffman here; Goffman’s study of gambling establishments is titled “Where the Action Is”).  But the passage which really caught my attention deals with what Humphreys calls “role instability” or “role drift.”  He makes two major points; i) those who start out pitching tend to end up catching; “It appears that, during the career of any one participant, the role of insertor tends to be transposed into that of insertee” (55) (Humphreys attributes this tendency to “the aging crisis” common to tearoom participants); ii) “If {straights} remain exposed ‘too long’ to the action, they cease to operate as straights” (56).  Humphreys here is not referring to men who one day, by accident, may wander into an operational tearoom, but rather to members of the parks department or vice squad who, over time, may be exposed to a wider swath of tearoom activity.  Here is the key passage:

“When some communication continues to exist, parents tend to be ‘turned on’ by their pot-smoking offspring.  Spectators tend to be drawn into mob action, and kibitzers into card games.  Even police may adopt the roles they are assigned to eliminate:

‘It is a well-known phenomenon that when officers are left too long on the vice-squad–the maximum allowable at  any one time being four to five years–they begin to ‘go over’, adopting the behaviorisms and mores 0f the criminals with whom they are dealing, and shifting their primary allegiance'”(Here, Humphreys is quoting from Elliot Liebow’s Tally’s Corner from 1967.  My emphasis).

It is a well-known phenomenon that when officers are left too long on the vice-squad they begin to ‘go over’. The moment I read this, having known of Humphreys’ own history before I read his book, I immediately recognized either a brilliant justification for future defection or an alternative, sociologically-based, theory for how sexual preference is formed. Read the rest of this entry »

MForm Function Bangleatthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at

Statement of Intent and Concern: Berger and Luckmann on Typification and Reification

Everything’s connected.  Reading the classics, which do not talk about sunsets, has made many sunsets, in all their colors, intelligible to me.
Fernando Pessoa

An apprehension of reification as a modality of consciousness is dependent upon at least relative derefication of consciousness, which is a comparatively late development in history and in any individual biography.
Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman

This is the first in a projected series of posts which will represent an attempt on my part to synthesize a variety of theoretical and practical concerns that confront me as I approach thirty-five.  This post will begin with Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, a book we have looked at before here on Sympathies.  I have re-posted the original post so that readers can familiarize themselves with the work.

A good deal of the writing on this blog has taken as its theme the relationship between the individual and the institution, and we have seen various attempts to come to terms with the ideal stance of one who, as we all do, exists within the grasp of institutionalization.  In The Social Construction of Reality, Berger and Luckmann spend 45 pages on the topic of institutionalization, and what they have to say provides me with my jumping off point.  They make the point that while man (and yes, The Social Construction of Reality, published in 1966, uses the outdated gender-specific catch-all term for humanity), makes his world, he is given to losing sight of this and projecting (“reifying”) aspects of the social world so that they are perceived as entirely external and beyond his control.  “Man’s self-production is always, and of necessity, a social enterprise.  Men together produce a human environment, with the totality of its socio-cultural and psychological formations” (51), but, being prone to reification, they will sometimes “{apprehend} the products of human activity as if there were something else than human products–such as facts of nature, results of cosmic law, or manifestations of divine will.  Reification implies that man is capable of forgetting his own authorship of the human world {and experiencing it} as a strange facticity, {…} over which he has no control” (89).

When mis-apprehending (social) reality as something other than the product of his own action and consciousness, he forgets that “the social world was made by men–and, therefore, can be remade by them,” but, ironically, “reification is a modality of consciousness {…} Even when apprehending the world in reified terms, man continues to produce it” (89).

Even when apprehending the world in reified terms, man continues to produce it.  I would like to extrapolate this to mean that the perception of sedimented, externally controlled or created, facticity continually creates the very facticity in question.  Put slightly differently, the denial of agency diminishes, uncreates, free-will, while the exercise of free-will depends in large part, perhaps entirely, on the strength of one’s belief in it.

Now, this is not to argue that reification is simply false-consciousness, or that groupings within society do not go to considerable trouble to perpetuate and legitimate reification of their activities.  Berger and Luckmann make this quite clear in their analysis of what they call “socially segregated subuniverses of meaning” such as “Hindu castes, the Chinese literary bureaucracy, or the priestly coteries of ancient Egypt” (85), not to mention lawyers, doctors, television pundits, university English departments.  They write that subuniverses  “become esoteric enclaves {…} to all but those who have been properly initiated into their mysteries {…} The outsiders have to be kept out {but} If the subuniverse requires various special privileges and recognitions from the larger society, there is the problem of keeping out the outsiders and at the same time having them acknowledge the legitimacy of this procedure.  This is done through various techniques of intimidation {…} mystification and, generally, the manipulation of prestige symbols” (87).
And generally the manipulation of prestige symbols.  Indeed.  Those who engage, consciously or unconsciously, in the manipulation of prestige symbols are, in Berger and Luckmann’s language, involved in creating a “typification.”  The acceptance of typifications, in turn, sediments social facticity and brings into being a taken-for-grantedness in the performance of social actors.  “The typification of forms of action requires that these have an objective sense {…} In the course of the action there is an identification of the self with the objective sense of the action {…} Although there continues to be a marginal awareness of the body and other aspects of the self not directly involved in the action, the actor, for that moment, apprehends himself essentially in identification with the socially objectified action {…} In other words, a segment of the self is objectified in terms of the socially available typifications” (72-3).  The authors point out that after the actions of the typified actor have been carried out, in, say, the privacy of the home, the meditation chamber, the confessional, the actor may re-establish a certain “role distance,” but this distance is apt to shrink again when the times comes once again for the actor to take up the role by re-activating the segment of the self objectified in terms of the currently applicable socially available typification.

This discussion inevitably brings us back to Mr. Inch’s post about sartorial conformism/ non-conformism.  Longtime readers will recall that Mr. Inch wrote, “Reflection on MT’s devotion to this apparently innocuous task, knotting a piece of cloth around his neck each morning, leads us towards what has become a key element of many recent theories of ideology. Derived from Pascal’s advice to non-believers, ‘kneel and pray, and then you will believe’, the French philosopher Louis Althusser sought to assert the materiality of ideas, and how ideology works through our actions as well as our words to define us as certain sorts of subjects.  For Michel Foucault, one of Althusser’s students who sought to break with Marxism and the concept of ideology, the knotting of that neck-tie might have been considered a ‘practice of the self’, a way of disciplining oneself in line with a particular matrix of power and knowledge. The question that I think both of these thinkers struggle to address, however, is the extent to which we are able to shape our own selves, rather than simply being shaped by power.  What scope do we have to resist the power embedded in these apparently mundane everyday motions? {…} By kneeling to pray, or standing in front of the mirror adjusting the knot, we perform belief and so take on socially available identities.  And as for the rest of us in that office – what was the effect of not knotting the tie each morning? At times there were no doubt some who reveled in the non-conformity of that not knotting.  In truth, however, did our alternative practices of the self not simply reproduce a slightly different, perhaps less respect-able but nonetheless conformist, relationship to the rules and rituals that regulated life in that particular setting?  Was not wearing a necktie not just another kind of necktie after all?”

In truth, however, did our alternative practices of the self not simply reproduce a slightly different, perhaps less respect-able but nonetheless conformist, relationship to the rules and rituals that regulated life in that particular setting? Read the rest of this entry »

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