The Jay S. Bybee Memo Considered as a Pop Tune

Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months. Now that everything had returned to normal, he was surprised that there had been no obvious beginning, no point beyond which their lives had moved into a clearly more sinister dimension. With its forty floors and thousand apartments, its supermarket and swimming-pools, bank and junior school – all in effect abandoned in the sky – the high-rise offered more than enough opportunities for violence and confrontation. Certainly his own studio apartment on the 25th floor was the last place Laing would have chosen as an early skirmish-ground. This over-priced cell, slotted almost at random into the cliff face of the apartment building, he had bought after his divorce specifically for its peace, quiet and anonymity. Curiously enough, despite all Laing’s efforts to detach himself from his two thousand neighbors and the regime of trivial disputes and irritation that provided their only corporate life, it was here if anywhere that the first significant event had taken place – on this balcony where he now squatted beside a fire of telephone directories, eating the roast hindquarters of the Alsatian before setting off to his lecture at the medical school.

That is the opening paragraph of J.G. Ballard’s ‘High Rise,’ my personal favorite novel by one of my favorite writers. I pulled it off the shelf this morning as I organized my thoughts – more like urges – into hopefully this coherent form. Rereading it, I noticed for the first time the key to it all: “Now that everything had returned to normal . . . on this balcony where he now squatted beside a fire of telephone directories, eating the roast hindquarters of the Alsatian before setting off to his lecture at the medical school.” Welcome to the New Normal.

I can understand the inclination to think that Everything Happens For A Reason, as information and events specific to this past week have dovetailed into a more specific focus and understanding, but what really has been happening is the ceaseless search for some personal understanding and coherence (revelation?) that allows for the explosion of some kind of critical mass of thought, once that relevant particle hits. News of Ballard’s death brought together questions I’ve been asking myself about orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and my deep feelings of anger and outrage over something that has been lost and seems likely to never return.

Ballard is more notorious than appreciated, going back over 40 years to the ‘The Atrocity Exhibition‘ and titles like ‘Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan’ and ‘The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race,’ which seem designed to offend every possible sensibility and viewpoint. Considering the state of our culture and its attention span, Ballard’s sole point may apparently be to offend. But Ballard is simultaneously a satirist and a surrealist, and his point is actually to have us see, dear readers, that we are the ones who want to fuck Ronald Reagan, we are the ones who endlessly watch the news footage of a disaster for some kind of mindless, material comfort. He is unkind, and necessary. He is the heterodox man in an orthodox culture.

What would seem unexpected and jarring is that Ballard was a good, suburban bourgeois, neatly dressed, thoughtfully and clearly spoken, a bit bland in person and readings. I feel that generally those who are most publicly demonstrative about their heterodoxy are actually the most orthodox, while the ones who focus their attention on their ideas and their work, not their clothes, hair and lifestyle, have the questions that are the most upsetting. Ballard was the latter, an artist who clearly spent a great deal of time and effort, with complete dedication, thinking through his ideas to their absolute ends, no matter where it brought him. He was involved in a car crash, and using the experiential material and thinking it through to the end (as composers naturally do) produced ‘Crash,’ his notorious and I think strangest novel. The experience of a car crash can be transformative, at least for a brief time (I myself once had to crawl out of the shattered back window of an upside-down car, and the memory of that whole day seems like part of a separate and secret life I’ve had, the one moment connecting the consciousness of what I know in my mind and an entire unexplored, parallel universe), and Ballard pushes that unimaginably far, to the point where the wounds from a crash become new sexual organs, the human body itself becomes something different – the survivor of a crash becomes a new species. It is pornographic, but not erotic, and misapprehended. David Cronenberg’s version is a disappointment, surprising since his own idea that biology is destiny (his own sensibility expressed in ‘Shivers,’ which is contemporaneous with ‘High Rise’) seems to elide so naturally with Ballard. But the movie is dull, exceedingly literal and superficial, seeing the essence of ‘Crash’ as nothing more than some sort of kink. Aside from the tremendous theme by Howard Shore, it is utterly forgettable.

Focusing on sex in Ballard’s work is unfair to his art, since he easily produced as much work, if not more, about dreams, environmental and man-made disasters, and what happens when we mix technological progress with mankind’s inherent atavism. That is the conceit of ‘High Rise,’ with its tribes of bourgeois professionals roaming the hostile floors of a state-of-the-art condominium development. It’s also the core idea that brings us to ‘Crash,’ where the most important part of the book – and what is sorely missing from the film – is the confluence of three salient features of Western, especially American, society; car culture (and the sexualization of the car) as a centerpiece of society, the worship of celebrity, and the underlying and pervasive acceptance and thrill of violence. The characters watch slow motion film of car crashes, the very experience allowed by technology, as they themselves experience their bodies in new ways due to technology; the characters seek sexual fulfillment (although this is never actually achieved, crucially) by crashing their own cars; and finally, and most important, one character is obsessed with driving his car head-on into that of Elizabeth Taylor’s, the logical culmination of the fetish of the car, the fetish of celebrity, the fetish of the capabilities of technology and the fetish of voyeuristic violence.

A great deal of his work hints at the possible ways in which we may cause our own extinction, especially ways in which our technology creates a world uninhabitable to humans. After writing about it for decades, this is now something fairly pervasive in the public mind. Ballard examines this on both the small scale – ‘High Rise’ – and large – ‘The Drowned World,’ ‘The Crystal World.’ He also thinks about the remnants that we would leave behind, and has said that the literature of the future would be made up of billboards, pamphlets, take-out menus (we can add government memos to the list, more on that below) And so ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ is written in the form of a clinical study. Ballard does not write about sex per se, but how we feel about sex. He is not promoting any particular idea, he is not a propagandist, he is a moralist. Where he is misunderstood is in our own perceptions. We are inclined to not just consider an idea that is offered to us but to assume that the person offering it is an advocate, we are so inundated with slogans, awareness raising, public advocacy and the fiction that there are two sides to every argument and one must prevail. We have a decadent ruling class that offers opportunities for professional, public scolds, and we confuse this with actual morals and values. Ballard is a Socratic Moralist, he is showing us the implications of our own impulses and actions, and then leaving us with the responsibility to consider the questions. He means to upset us.

Which of course brings me to Rock Cookie Bottom, specifically this song:

In the form of a pop song, this is the literature of the future, a government memo, seeking to essentially say that the government can do whatever it wants to human beings and it is never anything less than completely lawful. Setting it to song shocks us anew and makes us think about just what is being said here. Note how the author is at pains to determine what suffering is, and that torture has no component of suffereing. Is he a human being, or a cyborg sent from the future? It’s not reasoning we are listening to by psychopathology, from the pen of a Federal Judge, Jay S. Bybee. A respected member of the American ruling class – I doubt Ballard ever got to hear this, which is a bit of a shame.

Are you upset? You should be. We have had eight years in which our ruling class – politicians, professional scolds and ignoramuses, self-identified journalists, corporate leaders, media propagandists – have not bothered to ask anyone, especially themselves, the fundamental question: “why am I afraid?” Why were they afraid? They were soft, pampered, unchallenged, unquestioned, their values limited to the consideration of how much money a person was producing and who won the narrow, limited, shallow argument of the moment. They saw and know nothing of the world and the people in it except for themselves, each and everyone a peer and/or colleague of some sort and, lacking knowledge, imagination and especially empathy, they thought this was the whole world in itself. So when they saw the spectacle of 3,000 mostly anonymous and mostly middle-class people murdered on the screens (and their whole world is what’s on that screen) they thought, I’m next and pissed their pants – I’m talking about you, Christopher Hitchens. Then they looked for comfort and safety. Unfortunately, the man towards whom they turned their gaze and aspirations was a coward, and one so full of unearned self-esteem that he considers his cowardice, and ignorance, the pinnacle of aspiration. Even worse, he surrounded himself with those just like him – no surprise really considering that this is norm for the ruling class, the Political-Media Industrial Complex. And since they were fearful, they explicitly and implicitly encouraged fear among their ruling class peers – not so much of a challenge, really – then throughout the rest of the country. The last is a tragedy, and certainly people are responsible for their own courage and convictions, but the ruling class did everything in their power to encourage this fear, for which none of them, even the very few who admit being wrong about things that were obviously wrong at the time, have ever admitted responsibility in this. They seem unable to consider that there is anything other than fear, that this country is a set of beliefs and values, not a geographic region formed through various tribes and feudal states through the centuries, that our home is in our documents, and not our “homeland.” They use the term “existential threat” and then set about destroying America. There are no good guys in this story, those supposedly on the right side of values, like Johnathan Alter and Nancy Pelosi thought torture and spying on all Americans were acceptable. Because it happened – not to them, of course – but with me watching, all history is now different, because it’s about me. They are atavistic. They are atavistic, and they have technology.

Consider this argument; Paul Wolfowitz is one of those principally responsible for this country waging war against Iraq. He has indicated that his motivation, which to him was sincere, was based on information showing that Saddam Hussein and Iraq were politically and operationally responsible for 9/11. This indication came to him via technology, what I wager is some sort of data-mining concordance, a count of the number of certain words captured in communications intelligence and stored in a database. The tally, whatever it was, proved the point to Wolfowitz. The technology gave him an answer, and he trusted it. This is the “chatter” that is presented to us but never explained; the number of certain words. Of course there’s little context and no understanding – technology has neither. We do, if we exercise them, but technology is an object of worship, and so not to be questioned. The bridge from atavism to technology means relinquishing the wearying burdens of thought and responsibility. The machines, having answered the tough questions, provide a sense of comfort and safety.

And consider this; fearful rulers, knowing and feeling only fear, can think only of creating fear in others. What better way to do this than to torture and kill? Instead of thinking strategically and tactically, instead of using imagination and realizing that, having succeeded once, there will be no more planes flown into buildings, that the scientific and engineering challenges in producing nuclear or biological weapons are so great that the only people we should fear in that regard are ourselves, we tortured. They scared us, we’ll scare them, they hurt us, we’ll hurt them, they killed us, we’ll kill them. Pure atavism. And we’ll torture them until they confess to what our technology already proved. This is a double and compounded bit of insanity. The technology proved nothing, it just provided an opportunity, and excuse, for fearful people to remain fearful, while torture does only two things; confirms the utter power of the state over the victim and elicits the exact language that the torturer wants to hear. As Elaine Scarry points out so brilliantly and chillingly, torture only produces pain, for which there is no real language, and so that pain destroys the victim’s language, leaving him with only the empty, meaningless reproduction of the words the torturer gives him. To say torture is immoral doesn’t even begin to describe just how deep and inhumane an evil it is. Torture only destroys, and so torturers are purely barbarians.

Atavism, worship, barbarism, and finally the idea that Bush “kept us safe.” By the 2004 election, it was no secret that America tortures anyone, spies on everyone and was waging a war against Iraq for no other reason than to make other people hurt and fear. Yet, because Bush “kept us safe,” he was re-elected. Like Arthur with Excalibur, there was some magical thinking going on. Of course, the facts that Bush did nothing to prevent 9/11, despite ample information and warning, and that terrorist attacks continued in the country afterward is conveniently forgotten, for it doesn’t fit into the received and revealed wisdom that worship requires, and the worship of the Presidency and its magical powers is now a prominent feature of the ruling class. If the shrinking, frightened Bush kept us safe, than just try to comprehend the fear in the ruling class. The feat that a terrorist was coming to get them, as individuals! The bizarre consensus was that al-Qaeda was made up of some kind of supermen, eight feet tall, able to teleport from place to place, able to appear in the guise of regular “folks,” able to broadcast secret messages via grainy, incoherent propaganda and, of course, able to both destroy the existence of the United States and also to conquer the world, or at least restore the Caliphate. Why this consensus? Well, they told us, and who are we to actually think critically about it. And after seeing the “chilling” video of scrawny men in pajamas clambering on the monkey bars, who would doubt them:

Under grave, existential threat from a Kindergarten recess class, the ruling class turned to the only people who could protect them, Kindergartners. And Excalibur was technology. Who needs Knights, certainly who needs thinking, when we have magic? It was all so comforting, so safe. These are the people Ballard warned us about.

As human beings we desire comfort and safety, and we all should have it. Let’s just be careful of where we seek it. We seek recreation; the Cubs Scouts and youth baseball are two places we could find comfort and safety, but would you really want Jay Bybee around your kids? We seek it in art as well, which I also understand but find I accept less and less. I want to say here that I am not necessarily right, but these are my thoughts. A lot of the enduring art of the past is comforting in that we can understand that people in very different times and situations had the same thoughts and desires we have, that humanity endures and can be enduringly sympathetic. I personally find Brahms tremendously comforting at times, because he gives me the sense that he has experienced life and it is part of his art. But Brahms is a part of the past, and for everything that confirms his experience to me, there are things about my experience that would be totally alien to him. My era, society and country are different than his in real ways. He would think of being German as in some ways being part of a race, a language, a specific culture. I think of being American as being part of a shared idea that accepts a huge variety of races, languages and cultures. He would think of state power being exercised by brutal fiat, responsible to no one and amoral as the natural, enduring state of affairs. I think of it as the antithesis of the idea of what this country is and is meant to be. That idea was waterboarded, it was drowned (and let’s be honest, waterboarding simulates dying by being actual drowning). This country was placed in the hands of pathetic, weak-willed, ignorant cowards who were completely unworthy of it. As to whether the idea will recover and return, it’s an open question, and I’m not completely confident in it. So to think that this idea, which I deeply and implicitly cherish, has been tortured to death, and that I, by accident of birth and history, witnessed it, is lastingly sickening and tragic to me.

Yes, I want my safety and comfort, and I make art as well, and in no way can I imagine making comforting and safe art, where that is both end means and the ends. I will make art that asks questions and offers possibilities and, especially, hope, and there will be moments of comfort and safety, but there is such a greater context to my life and our times that it must seek to encompass the expression of so many other things. And I do not want the art of my time to offer only comfort and safety, or to put it another way to offer only answers. I want art that is sincere and self-questioning, that is certain about the questions but not about the answers, that understands it is part of a vast community of other artists and that it belongs to a deep tradition, but that seeks to make its own way in the world as well, that wins us over by it’s qualities without attempting to ingratiate. I want it not to “seek itself outside itself,” and never stop seeking. I want it to strive further, to fail and regroup and once it finds itself finding a settling place, to flee and start the journey again. Rock Cookie Bottom is a great example of what I mean, as is this song from Sufjan Stevens – the form and style and familiar and pleasing, and the content is unexpected and provocative. There is no danger in listening to these songs, but they don’t leave us with the normal sense of neatly limited satisfaction, they stimulate to much to be simply ‘consumed’ like a product. In the superb “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” there is a profound and welcome ambivalence about technology, which is used to protect and most also be destroyed. The show has the question that no member of the ruling class ever bothered to imagine after 9/11. I admire these works, this is my particular taste and values, and the reason for my critical judgments – it’s not because I hate anything, but because I want to love everything.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.


  • Finally! Not to trivialize the weightier concerns addressed earlier in this post, but I’m delighted to see someone else acknowledging The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a wondrously strange and dark show that isn’t getting its due. Truly, the genre show that troubled times call for, regardless of whether anyone is watching. (That audience will probably all opt for the upcoming movie instead, which just looks like more and bigger explosions.)

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