In 1939 Norbert Elias published his research called ‘The Civilising Process’ which is described to be as one of the most significant and founding works of the twentieth-century sociology. His work examines the process of how Western Societies have associated themselves with being “civilised” when compared to other forbearing and neighbouring societies. His research examined the transformation of the concepts ‘shame’ and ’embarrassment’ of societies in regards with behavioural etiquette and violence. Elias further considered the effects of socio-economic, socio-cultural backgrounds and reciprocity within the growth of state monopolies. The novel High-Rise by J.G. Ballard, is a significant work of post-modern dystopian literature exploring similar concepts of the work provided by Norbert Elias. This essay will aim to critically examine the operation and limits of the ‘Civilising Process’ theory portrayed by the characters in the novel High Rise by James Graham Ballard in the context of psychological dissatisfaction.
While modernism supports the notion of a universal truth and the rational thinking followed by science and reason is the path of evolution, the postmodernist approach suggests that the notion of having a universal truth can not exist and that there irrationality exists among mankind. It is suggested that postmodernism developed though technology and it’s use within the arts and literature, thus, High-Rise sets a postmodern approach of the consequences created by the hierarchies. Furthermore, a dystopia is described as “an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.” The novel, High Rise begins with the character Dr Laing narrating his own feelings in third person while cooking the leg of a dog, thus, shares the image of the dystopian and unpleasant environment of the novel early with the reader. Moreover, Dr Laing states “…he was surprised that there had been no obvious beginning, no point beyond which their lives had moved into a clearly more sinister dimension.” further establishing the dystopian and shifted nature of the novel beforehand. High Rise by J.G. Ballard illustrates the lives of the people, residing in a 40 floor apartment, of different socio-economic and different socio-cultural backgrounds, with each floor representing the social class of the residents. The higher the floor of residency is regarded with higher wealth and privilege. With the building incorporating social environments satisfying the residents everyday needs, such as a super-market, a gym, a swimming pool it becomes unreasonable for the residents to leave the accommodation barring for daily work. Further in the novel, tension and hostility begin to rise between the lower and higher floors due to electrical problems, where the lower floors experience light cut outs. It could be argued that the concept of electricity cut outs which leave the residents in darkness, trigger the aggression and violence of the ‘lower’ social-class that has been repressed by the ‘higher’ social-class breaking all laws and rules.
Although the novel does not have a main protagonist, the plot is predominantly revolving around three prime characters; Richard Wilder, a television producer and documentarian who lives on the second floor as a lower-class resident; Dr. Robert Laing, a doctor in the field of physiology who seeks solitude and resides on the twenty-fifth floor as a middle-class resident; and Anthony Royal, known as ‘The Architect’ who played a role in the design of the accommodation and lives in the penthouse representing the higher-class. The three major characters all show signs of psychological dissatisfaction in different ways.
Firstly, Richard Wilder in the novel is a representative of the lower class as he lives on the second floor and often reveals his frustration of being in a lower class social group through his aggressive comments and behaviours. Being a former rugby player, he depicts a rather physically strong and aggressive character to the reader and plays a crucial role in the intensifying violence within the structure as he drowns a dog in a swimming pool located on the tenth floor of the building during an electrical cut which is above his social-class. It can be argued that the repressed anger and violence in Wilder was the spark that led to the violent protest and war between the classes. Further in the novel, as Richard Wilder is now a current television producer, he decides to document the life within the isolated structure that is falling apart with the aim of showing the reality of the inequality, mistreatment, violence and could be argued to prove that he was the one to bring down such a structure making him some sort of hero.
Secondly, Anthony Royal who is known as ‘The Architect’ is seen as some sort of King or God within the structure as he lives in the penthouse and represents the wealthy higher-social class of the building. Throughout the Novel, Ballard has presented the Architect as a mystery where the reader can only assume that the Architect has a sinister plan due to the fact that he mentions that The Architect was well aware of the flaws within the apartment. Although Royal lives on the top floor with luxury, wealth, entertainment and power, it could be argued that he has an interest and curiosity for the lower social classes. Furthermore, it could be said that there is a sense that Royal wanted to see the limit and the breaking point of the lower class people of the residence and how they would behave in isolation and violence.
Lastly, Dr. Robert Laing who resides on the twenty-fifth floor is the representative of the middle-class and unlike Richard Wilder and The Architect, Dr. Robert Laing begins with being at peace with his social class and only seeks privacy and remoteness. His character is portrayed as calm and simply adjusting to his new environment. In the beginning of the novel, Laing seems to be content with his new environment as he does participate in discussions of the structure of the building merely listens, however, as the plot evolves, Laing is presented as a character who was confused all along in regards of what he wanted and desired and then evolves into a character who longs for the creation of an isolated world which is ruled and controlled by himself. His character transforms from being comfortable to a frustrated character who desires something else but can not figure out his wishes, to then, becoming a predominant piece of a structure.
The three main characters, Richard Wilder, The Architect Anthony Royal and Dr. Robert Laing represent a chronic psychological dissatisfaction within different social and economic classes. A psychological dissatisfaction is referred to the feeling of “wishing for something more but not knowing what it is”. It would seem that most of the characters in the novel, mainly Wilder, Royal and Laing are constantly in the search of something however never truly know what they are in search of. Moreover, all three characters portray their desire in different ways. Wilder, throughout the novel unveils his dissatisfaction through rude, inappropriate or aggressive behaviour. Even in his marriage he does not have loyalty which further proves that he is dissatisfied with the majority of his life, thus has intercourse with other women and is the character that breaks all the ‘rules’ and begins the protests within the High Rise. The Architect on the other hand, although has all of the resources and is seen as a God figure by the residents of the High Rise, seems as he is also not at peace. The character depicts a dissatisfaction and desires to see and experience some sort of excitement through violence and chaos by not fixing the problems of the High Rise although he is well aware of them. And lastly and most importantly, Dr Laing, from the beginning of the novel demonstrates a chronic dissatisfaction. Laing had first moved to High Rise on the advice of his sister because she had described the residents of the accommodation as ‘clones’ which shows that Laing was not satisfied with his life outside of High Rise. During the novel, Laing grows as a character and although wanted to be isolated in the beginning, he then realises that his own isolation would not be enough to satisfy him, however, he desired a place of isolation where he was in power.
The theme of ‘class’ or the social status one holds in a society is significant in the novel as it is one of the main reasons the structure falls apart. A social status of a person is usually decided by one’s socio-economic level. However, according to scholars, a persons socio-economic factors may change through time thus, should not be the premise of deciding ones status within a society. Marx argues that an individuals class should be identified according to all of their ‘societal interests’. Economic interests and these interests will be in line with a conscious common goal, and the interests of each class will be different. He suggests that the position of someone in the class hierarchy is determined by the role of the person in the main production process. As a result, more power in society has a higher class, which in turn affects those directly connected to the production process.Since, the relationship between one’s power and the class level in society will be directly proportional. As different classes have their own goals, they “clash” in the way of achieving their goals. Rather, this class struggle becomes tougher among those who have a common interest and are already in a position of high power to achieve an adequate living environment, but who are targeting more sophisticated positions and lifestyles.
The theory of ‘Civilising Process’ by Norbert Elias suggests that psychology and sociology are intertwined. His theory suggests that “a particular psychological balance of tensions derives from a drive and affect economy that varies across different times and places, shaped by social relationships that Elias called figurations. Post-Medieval figurations in Western Europe were mainly characterised by rising self-control, expanding foresight, and a growing restraint of emotions and impulses, what he called a civilising process” Furthermore, he argues that social change occurs automatically, ‘one-directional’ and is certain to happen suggesting that ‘social disintegration’ has a significant place in his theory, other scholars such as Jonathan Fletcher and Abram de Swaan argue differently, stating that the civilising process can not be identified as to being complete and ‘a permanent state’, as it has a changing nature of unpredictability and is capable of reversing.
When analysing J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise, it is clear that his work portrays a ‘decivilising’ process, opposing Norbert Elias’ theory. A significant theme in Ballard’s novel is the social and psychological element of a closed and isolated community, as he has created a ‘world within a world’ where the environment of the residents alter the nature of the residents, as they loose their sense of moral, ethics and become violent. The ‘decivilisation’ aspect of the novel presents an environment with no rules and no laws, and although outside of the High-Rise structure, rules and laws exist, it seems to not matter for the individuals that reside in the building. The ‘animal like’ behaviour, as seen at the end of the novel where the women have become cannibalistic feasting on the dead bodies of men, depicts the image of social ethics being left behind. Although Norbert Elias has argued that Western societies are considered more civilised, the work or J.G. Ballard clearly portrays that the concept of ‘civilised’ is fragile and can easily be broken if not handled properly, with equality.
The novel High-Rise by J.G. Ballard, is an under-appriciated work of literature which reveals a possibility of an irrational, isolated community and the consequences such communities would create. There has been many novels, such as 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley which paint a dystopian picture of the future to it’s readers, through the development of technology, the growth of the power of states, the inequality between the hierarchies. However, High Rise takes an approach of the imbalance of powers between classes, the physical environment and it’s psychological factors, combined with the developments of technology creating an unpleasant environment for everyone. It shows that, an environment can have an effect on any individual from any social-economical group as seen with the three major characters of the novel. Richard Wilder and the Architect, although came from different social-economical backgrounds as one was of lower-class and the other from higher-class, both suffered from dissatisfaction of where they were in their lives. Neither not having enough nor having more than enough resources and privileges did not pursue and encourage a civilising process, hence, was merely the starting point of a decivilising process. Laing as a character who was in a middle-class environment, who’s main aim by moving in to the high rise was isolation, also became power driven in the irrational envrionment.
High Rise is a significant literary work which portrays how inequality, inadequate regulation could result in the demolition of a society. The novel, renders the disturbing image of human behaviour after going through repression and how under certain circumstances such as High Rise, what is accepted as ethical and ordinary behaviour today, could be reshaped, and disturbing and destructive behaviour could be accepted as the new ordinary behaviour.