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The Imperial Archive and Form: Lewis Carroll, Bram Stoker, and J.G. Ballard in the British Empire (Part III)

Thomas Richards 2 April 2017

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Continued from Parts I and II.


In the science of form, the ancient distinction between forma and materia remained in force well into the twentieth century. Aristotle had held that there could be form without matter, though no matter without form. As late as the 1940s Joseph Needham was still criticizing morphologists for devoting themselves to the study of living form “without much consideration of the matter with which it is indissolubly connected.” The classic texts of morphology do focus almost exclusively on the stately progress from form to form. Whether they deal with continuous or discontinuous change, the morphologists all end up by positing a structural stability in which forms join at specific junctions to compose the pattern of a whole. In On Growth and Form, D'Arcy Thompson devotes almost no space to the particular forces that cause forms to change. Nor does the scientist in Dracula take any interest in the material composition of his monster of mutation; Dracula exists for Van Helsing not as a chemical substance but as a continuum of changing forms. Form in morphology is almost entirely a matter of aesthetics, and the assumption joining all morphological thought is that all forms must turn out in the end to be beautiful, however violently they may at first jar the conventions of perception (even vampires appear at beautiful ease in their final moment of destruction). Over time the science of form has supplied a variety of aestheticisms with a basic lexicon of beauty, the vocabulary of ideal design, even as it extended the domain of the aesthetic to include new shapes of life and death.

Viewed within this tradition of morphological interpretation, J.G. Ballard's The Crystal World (1966) performs an important reversal. In Ballard's novel the traditional emphasis on the form of material gives way, temporarily at least, to a new emphasis on the material of form. Ballard's novel turns on the formal behavior of a specific material in a specific place, an unknown crystalline substance that first appears in the Republic of Cameroon on the coast of central Africa. The Crystal World examines the genesis of a new form and probes its underlying structural stability as matter. The crystals grow with predictable regularity, producing hallucinatory distortions and blurring the very lines that indicate form. This new material calls into question the unities of formal evolution as understood by Victorian morphology. It attacks the very place where forms multiply in profligate number, destroying an immensely variegated tropical ecosystem like one of those described by Darwin during his Beagle voyage. Victorian biology had marked off Africa as a place where new forms originate. In some respects Ballard's novel ought to be considered a companion piece to Joseph Needham's classic Biochemistry and Morphogenesis (1942), for in it Ballard marks off Africa as the continent where a new kind of matter is responsible for dictating a new configuration of form.

Ballard gives a specific postcolonial inflection to this new twentieth-century morphology of matter. For Ballard formal unity is quite simply no longer tenable as a metaphor for empire. In The Crystal World the unity of form is drastically modified by the introduction of a new kind of matter. Slowly expanding forces come out of Africa and threaten to take over the world, and everyone is powerless to stop them. In part this transformation of the world into a new kind of matter can be understood as a way of figuring the vast expansion of the mineral resource base of imperial Europe (even the dissolution of the colonial empires took place amidst a vast increase in the minerals processed for export from the colonies to Europe). But the expansion of the crystal forest can be better understood as a myth of decolonization without agency. Between 1960 and 1966 twelve former British colonies had become independent African nations (Cameroon had broken with France in 1960). The novel begins amidst the political debris of decolonization, and from page to page the political control of Cameroon simply erodes. The local authorities call in the army and impose a censorship around the affected zone, but Ballard makes it clear that nobody is responsible for what is happening. Playing off the convention of science fiction according to which new developments in the colonial world are assumed to originate in outer space, Ballard takes care to make the origins of the crystal form extraplanetary and obscure. The earth is predominantly crystalline, but this threatening new African crystal comes from outer space. The result is an originless species of matter that weaves a layered structure of exquisitely equilibrated forms across equatorial Africa.

The sense of the imperial whole, then, does not entirely disappear from The Crystal World. Instead, one kind of whole succeeds another. Mutations, which Bram Stoker had figured as a threat to the unity of empire, now possess a postcolonial integrity all their own. The formerly imperial whole now assumes a discontinuous and unstable form — broken, like the African continent itself, into separate nations, each with its own line of development. Ballard is fascinated by the politics of the fractured regularity of crystal growth. Crystals grow until something gets in their way, at which point they break into points and planes of disorder. Either the crystal is riddled with interstitial impurities or it bumps up against an adjacent crystal and comes to an end. The crystal is a paradigm of national growth in a postcolonial world, where nations are little wholes, self-generating systems that develop according to their own inner logic, multiplying and finally colliding. If the imperial aspirations of the nineteenth century were symbolically encapsulated in the idea of morphological lineage in which all parts formed an imperial whole, the various discrete nationalisms of twentieth-century life find representation in the idea of the discontinuous development characterized by sharp breaks, irruptions and interruptions. The empire had formerly seemed to unfold as one Darwinian world; the nations now seem to join together, Ballard perceives, as modular elements of a crystal world.

A crystal does not at first seem like a likely candidate for monstrosity. In the early modern period, monsters were fabulous beings compounded of elements from human and animal forms. The eighteenth century saw monsters as beings falling outside the logic of taxonomical groupings, while in the nineteenth century, the only monsters allowable were weak, marginal beings, which Darwin called “sports,” beings having only a marginal chance of survival due to structural defects or deformities. In each period monsters offered paradigms of contact with alterity, seeing the other respectively as an animal, a category, an inferior. Today the monster no longer represents a human, or even a remotely human, alterity. The peoples of the earth are mostly well known, so we have relegated monstrosity not merely to outer space, as in science fiction, where monsters tend to assume their most traditional forms, but also, and more tellingly, to anything scientifically unknown. The figure of Dracula remains popular in modern retellings because he conforms to both molds; he is an alien in the twin senses of the word, both a foreigner invading England and a member of a very different species falling outside the domain of conventional scientific knowledge, a being also, then as now, associated with plague and incurable disease. Today, when the unknown is very frequently a statistical construction, the monster is a fluke. Indeed the one force most capable of raising again the specter of monstrosity is the discovery of a rare statistical entity, an entity falling outside the norms of probabilistic distribution. The Crystal World is full of images of all sorts of prodigies of improbability-random variations, strange viruses, rare diseases, new kinds of matter. What happens when scientific knowledge confronts the improbable? The improbable approaches the outermost limits of positive knowledge; beyond the frontier knowledge becomes myth, a matter of aesthetics. The first part of the novel turns on Dr Sanders's investigation of the material of this new crystal form. Like all the other characters in the novel, he gives up trying to understand the material but realizes that he is still capable of appreciating its form. Approaching the edge of statistical knowledge, he stops trying to understand the material of the crystal's form and begins, like a Victorian morphologist, to appreciate the form of the crystal's material. Coming up against the sheer unknowability of the material of a new form, Sanders shows just how easy it is to return to the traditional morphological strategy of constructing an explicitly aesthetic valuation of the form of an unknown material. Ballard, however, offers a new twist, for in his novel the monstrous, far from being an ugly portent, offers entry into the realm of the beautiful.

The only form of evaluation that finally makes any sense at all of the form of the new crystal matter is aesthetic valuation. At different points in the novel, Ballard's characters attempt to comprehend the crystal growth by observing its mechanical, chemical, and gravitational tendencies. They observe that leather repels it, water dissolves it, gravity obstructs its vertical movement. The most remarkable feature of the crystal, however, is the ease with which everyone in the novel accepts it. The world's nations do not massively mobilize their technological resources to face this threat to life on the planet. Rather, people lose themselves in contemplating a new conception of life, a new unity of matter and form. In the eighteenth century Goethe had sought to discover what he called the Urpflantze, the one plant that would typify all of the different kinds of plant life. For most of his life Goethe expected to know it at once if he came upon it, for the archetypal plant would be “the strangest growth the world has ever seen.” In Ballard's novel the strange archetypal plant is a mineral that strives to fulfill an ideal aesthetic design, and most of Ballard's characters respond by acting as if, somehow, somewhere, they had seen the form before. The recognition of the beauty of the crystal growth occupies most of the novel as character after character falls rapt before the crystals, speaking in explicitly aesthetic terms of a new kind of integrity and of a heightened sense of affinity with the matter of a new form.

This aestheticization of alterity embodied as crystal is the central symbolic strategy of the novel, and it points to a powerful process of postcolonial semiosis. In The Crystal World the world's authorities can do absolutely nothing to stop the crystals from spreading across Africa or, for that matter, from travelling across the surface of the earth. But they can and do construct them as purely aesthetic artifacts. Ballard's characters feel “less concerned to find a so-called scientific explanation for the phenomenon and more concerned to see how the beauty of the spectacle had turned the keys of memory.” To represent the crystals Ballard does not draw on the arcane language of modern crystallography to introduce a new construction of the sublime. The old sublime still serves very well here, performing its traditional cultural work as Ballard explicitly summons the imagery of wave after wave of Western aesthetic valuation to make the strange familiar. Ballard's imagery has an almost canonical solidity. Images evoking the form of the new crystal material appear from medieval friezes, quattrocento Italian painting, Renaissance sculpture, Baroque architecture, Romantic poetry, Pre-Raphaelite painting. His characters can often sound like Ruskin in Venice. At no point in the novel does the crystal form make an appearance outside of its museum-case of aesthetic valuation. What finally contains the crystal form is very simply the certainty that it can and will be susceptible to representation using the received repertoire of aesthetic tropes.

The crystal “world” of central Africa thus exists primarily as a sequence of images frozen in highly artificial aesthetic frames. The world as crystal does not compose itself into one single picture; rather, there are many successive pictures, and the total effect is explicitly cinematic. “The long arc of trees hanging over the water seemed to drip and glitter with myriads of prisms, the trunks and branches sheathed by bars of yellow and carmine light that bled away across the surface of the water, as if the whole scene were being reproduced by some over-active Technicolor process.” The scenes in the novel do not reveal an essentially synchronic strategy for containing the world within the frame of a single world picture — the composed world, say, of a nineteenth-century colonial exhibition. They rather reveal a diachronic strategy of containment in which the alien crystal form is represented not singly but serially. The world cannot be packed into one single picture, but the certainty that it can be represented nevertheless has continued undiminished and results in the aesthetic raptures with which the novel's characters view even the most terrifying manifestations of material and formal alterity. In Britain the conditions of a positive knowledge had long acted to foreshorten the field of representation. By implication, only the knowable could be represented. In Ballard's novel the unknown may turn out at last to be unknowable, but even in its unknowability it remains fully susceptible to the conditions of containment imposed by the aesthetic means of Western representation.

Even the end of the world appears primarily as an aesthetic event that asserts the existence of the world as a single entity over which Western representation still presides. A crystal world is a ruined world full of the “derelict monuments” of the Western past. The first chapter of this book has shown that the idea of the world as a single geography was a product of the colonial empires of the late nineteenth century. The “world” was never more than a normative concept for imagining the implementation of empire. Similarly the “end of the world” was never more than a way of imagining the end of empire. The world ends as a whole. In The Crystal World the world is also united only by its destruction. This destruction is of a limited and partial kind, however, for the crystal apocalypse does not so much annihilate the world as transform its separate nations into little identical units of crystal. At the end of the novel the crystal is a paradigm of fractured national growth tending toward a diffuse new dominion. Frozen in crystal, the world is once again an empire of sorts. Unitary and dominating, the crystal form perpetrates a likeness that takes final precedence over the differences among nations. The tensions between the nations of the world disappear as they await final union. The crystal world must be seen as proposing a quintessentially postcolonial image: the image of an empire without colonies, an empire in which there are no colonies, an empire that manages to persist without holding colonies, an empire like Britain's today, an empire in which one of the world's largest navies exists primarily to keep up the appearance of empire.

The final metamorphosis in Ballard's novel reminds us that, even today, morphology remains an archive of imperial knowledge. In many respects the science of form epitomizes the ideological relation between archive and empire: the sciences of empire all become pseudo-sciences in their imperial fields of application. All knowledge becomes marginal at the margins. The methods, means, and procedures for constructing a positive knowledge of the world at its European center become the material for constructing a mythology of the world at its colonial periphery. This process can often be pushed so far that knowledge lapses completely into myth, as when the means of a traditional physiognomy became the tools of a racist phrenology. The effort to construct a total knowledge of the world captures the imagination, but ultimately it fails. The failure of morphology to encompass the world as one has been protracted, and even today morphology survives as marginal science like René Thom's “catastrophe theory” or the aesthetic constructions of chaotic dynamics. It remains one of the last great enduring aestheticisms of the late nineteenth century.

In the late nineteenth century the project of morphology had become a myth of knowledge not only because it equipped scientists with a new way of eliminating the monstrous and provided aestheticians with a new way of constructing the beautiful, but also and much more importantly because it provided imaginative access to a field of knowledge coextensive with the Empire itself. Morphology was imperial science, and it joined political economy and physics in making a myth of Empire as a coherent imperium of Western knowledges. Over the past one hundred years morphology has slowly slipped from prominence as Britain experimented with other ways of constructing knowledge that provided a more comprehensive access to the epistemological field of its Empire. Joseph Needham was well aware of the kind of knowledge that had succeeded morphology in its effort to figure empire as a formal totality. “Form is not the perquisite of the morphologist,” he wrote in 1942. “It exists as the essential characteristic of the whole realm of organic chemistry, and cannot be excluded either from “inorganic' chemistry or nuclear physics. But at that level it blends without distinction into order as such, and hence we should do well to give up all the arguments about form and matter, replacing them by two factors more in accordance with what we now know of the universe, that is to say, Organization and Energy.” This index of lower and higher levels of organization throughout the world was called “entropy.”


Filed under: imperialism, literature, weekend-read