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9ballMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at craftfollowsconcept.com

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 »

best00code46Matthew Thomas, Tokyo

Note: This post was originally published at craftfollowsconcept.com

The TV was turned to CNN, which was focused on violence somewhere.  I could not tell where.  The experts in their suits and hairsprayed hair presented the conflict as if conflict was inevitable.  They agreed it was happening now and could be prevented, but at the same time at the conclusion of the piece they smiled politely and signed off as if the violence was also occurring in a land so distant it might as well be the past.

Emily Maloney

The post below is based on my own experiences staying in a variety of hotels while on business throughout 2008, and takes up the effect of CNN International on the psyche of the business traveler as well as providing a sort of psychograph of the business hotel experience.

Three features of business hotels that bear mention:

i) Like airports, all business hotels share a single ethos, an un-pindownable character that feels, wherever one happens to be geographically speaking, of a piece.

ii) The effect of the television offerings, in particular CNN International, on the business traveler, is one of overwhelming relaxation, bordering on complacency and even numbness.

iii) As a corollary to i), it is far easier to enumerate how business hotels resemble one another than to lay out any salient differences. Oddly, minor local variations only seem to further reinforce a central sameness.

Checking into an 11th floor room at a classic example of the species, for instance the Numzau Tokyu Hotel, half an hour south of Tokyo, Japan, one is affected at once by that strangely pleasant fugue state, a state of mind almost exactly halfway between bliss and malaise, attendant on “business” hotels. Once inside of a business hotel, especially those neither top-of-the-line nor down-and-out, one is confronted with a kind of disembodied space which seems at once connected to a global network of similar hotels–this accomplished largely through the simultaneously soothing and hypnotizing effect of CNN International–and disconnected from the local environment–one feels sucked in to global weirdness through a combination of the flat, post-political window of CNN International, the persistent low hum of the air conditioner, and the anodyne staleness, almost spartan, quality of the decor. Oddly, any “artwork” or decorative flourishes that a hotel room may have only serve to further this sense of featurelessness; the art in question being almost exclusively of the most banal nature–bland seascapes, abstracts denuded of all edge or verve, and those odd non-paintings that, try as you might, you forget the very subject seconds after exiting your room.

One has to remind oneself that being on a business trip means that there is work to be done–the TV, the slight high, which even the most weary traveler may not be entirely immune from, which results from contact with the bowing attendants, the men in black, the cute, blushing young lady who carries your bag, the knowledge that your company is footing the bill–all this lulls you into a kind of sleep of the spirit. Turning on the TV, you feels that you could spend years, lifetimes staring at CNN’s Larry King Live, their post-racial female anchors who bring that special Code 46 feel of the non-overt future, and the exquisitely paralyzing “World Weather,” before awakening in another age, the Rip Van Winkle of the travel world. When CNN finally wears out its welcome, my choices of pay channels open up the fascinating worlds of…Golf (the Golf Channel), silicone starlets (the Playboy Channel), intimate acts in close-up (the “adult channel”), and, most fittingly, drama set in outer space (the Battlstar Galatica channel). This profile of options, Golf, softcore, hardcore, and outer space, the result, presumably, of reams of data on the tastes of business travelers like me, the mobile working male, I want to find depressing, but the menu has something beautifully efficient about it. Not wanting to get sucked into the anesthesizing vortex of any of these choices, I have to force myself to rise from the supine contemplation of the only-vaguely Chinese news anchor to pick up Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality.

My senses are momentarily quickened by report of an attack on a hotel in Pakistan: a horrific assault which has taken place at a Marriott in Islamabad. Oddly, the reality of this event quickly fades, and what Richard Todd calls the “non-ness” of the Marriott up the road (“The Thing Itself, 101), strangely, becomes the non-ness of violence–the attack in Islamabad conveys, through the lens of the CNN International, not exactly shock, but a continuing and deepening sense of global weirdness only slightly tinged by fear resting on the realization that as a business traveler in exactly this kind of hotel, I am the target. Oddly, this realization is not as disturbing as it ought to be: the fugue state is such that I am more in, more of, Islamabad than Numazu, but not wholly there either–I am poised somewhere between Islamabad and Battlestar Galactica, cavorting with post-racial android news anchors who bring me news of a planet this 11th floor, air-conditioned bubble of a non-space has left far behind.

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