Crash: Homage to JG Ballard

In memory of JG Ballard, who died a year ago today, here is the catalogue essay that Will Self wrote for the Crash exhibition at the Gagosian gallery in London recently:

“Illuminated arrays glowed through the night, like the perimeter lights of a colony of prison camps, a new gulag of penal settlements where the forced labour was shopping and spending … ” So wrote JG Ballard in his final novel, Kingdom Come, a dissection of crap modern Britain before the bubble burst. In Ballard’s evocation of society drifting waywardly into an elective collective psychopathy, it is the shopping mall that is the cynosure – at once a temple of consumerism and biosphere that, poisoned by re-circulated air and piped muzak, becomes wholly decoupled from the dull Surrey dormitory towns that surround it.

In a conversation at the time of the novel’s publication, Ballard told me that much of the inspiration for the book derived from his immediate environment: “A couple of years ago I saw that this house down the road with two enormous flagpoles outside of it, flying the Cross of St George. It sent a tremor through me – it was such a combative statement. For a start I wondered where on earth did they get them; I mean did they look up “flagpoles” in the Yellow Pages? But then it got me thinking about how people have nothing left to believe in, the props that hold society up are decayed. The monarchy is rotten … politics stinks, there’s nothing left to believe in.”

And so, under the big, button eyes of teddy bear mascots in a shopping mall, the lumpen bourgeoisie commit murder while worshipping flat-screen TVs. According to Ballard four years ago: “We’re living in quite scary times. The outward appearance is so calm, but even here in suburbia there are strange currents. I don’t want to make too much of this, but we saw it during the World Cup. Football has become a catalyst for rejecting the norm … And among these people of the flag – tourists or hooligans – there are no Asians or blacks. It’s whites only.”

If it transpires that the racist skull beneath our tolerant society is exposed during the current recession, then this will be by no means the first time that Ballard’s fiction has been startlingly prescient. Indeed, the late tetralogy of novels – Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006) – all explored the kind of willed irrationality that the author located as the wellspring of those awesome 20th century dystopias: Fascist Germany, Soviet Russia, and Maoist China. Not that this theme was a new one for Ballard. During a career that lasted half a century, many of his stories were concerned with the dialectic of social control and breakdown; but whereas most late 20th century writers either took the standpoint of the individual, or cleaved to a grand narrative of historical explanation, Ballard was perhaps unique in appreciating – and even celebrating – the ambivalence of the masses. He understood, in Bakunin’s formulation, that “the lust for destruction is also a creative desire”.

When JG Ballard died in April of last year there was, for those of us who had long appreciated the immense cultural significance of his work, a satisfying confirmation: considerable media attention was paid, with news items, features and even editorials analysing the nature of his thought and the quality of his imagination. There were also overviews that sought to assess his contribution to a number of fields from architecture to film. In the case of some artists there would have been a bitter taste to this ex post facto acknowledgement, but it was Ballard himself who said “For a writer death is always a career move”; and besides, he understood the literary culture of the English-speaking world too well not to have also comprehended why it was impossible for his stature to be fully apprehended during his lifetime.

After all, Ballard had already survived the apotheosis of his name becoming an adjectival form. Collins Dictionary defines Ballardian as “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak manmade landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, social, or environmental developments.” I’m slightly staggered by this, because it seems to me that all novels and stories should rightly concern themselves with just these things – however, I have to acknowledge that I’ve been a fully paid up Ballardian since I first read his early apocalyptic novels in the mid-1970s. The same cannot be said for the wider culture, and certainly when Ballard began writing in the late 1950s he found nothing in conventional English literary fiction that chimed with his sensibilities. At that time the so-called Angry Young Men such as Kingsley Amis and John Braine were hardly avant garde, being preoccupied just as much as those they opposed with the dramatic ironies of a hermetic and hierarchical class society.

In later years, Ballard was wont to speak of his decision to write science fiction as highly conscious, a direct function of his being passionately interested not in ossified social forms but “the next five minutes”. I doubt that anything was quite that calculated, but without lying down on the couch of psychoanalytic biography it’s hard not to see the writer’s early experiences as leading – almost ineluctably – towards the genre. Born in 1930 in Shanghai, JG Ballard’s was a comfortable upbringing – his father was a wealthy manufacturer – but all this changed when the Japanese invaded China in 1937. A period of anarchy and confusion followed, but it wasn’t until after Pearl Harbour and the entry of the Allies into the Sino-Japanese War that the Ballards, along with other British expatriates were rounded up and placed in an internment camp.

Perhaps too much attention has focused on Ballard’s three years in Lunghua Camp; this is in part a product of his own autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984) – and more so Steven Spielberg’s subsequent film adaptation, but also because the experience and its fictive recreation fulfilled certain familiar cultural paradigms. Ballard’s novel was satisfyingly empirical: a recounting of individual experiences that had historical basis in a conventional narrative form, and as such it became his most widely read book, and even – a solecism in terms of the rest of his oeuvre – was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Ballard said of Empire of the Sun that until he wrote the novel he hadn’t fully articulated to himself how much the scenes he witnessed during the War had been utilised for the furniture of his fiction: the drained swimming pools and abandoned villas of the expatriates’ cantonment; the panicked Chinese citizenry; the stylized violence of the Japanese soldiery. But the Ballardian sensibility surely has its crucible just as much in the pre-War Shanghai through which the child Ballard was either ferried in a chauffeur-driven car, or else travelled alone on reckless cycle rides. In the juxtaposition between the immiseration of the rural peasantry, driven into the city to die on the streets of hunger, and the electronic signboards flashing along the futuristic skyline of the Bund, must surely lie the crucible of that “overlit realm” that forms the very core of Ballard’s fictional world.

Pre-War Shanghai gave Ballard his intense ambivalence about technology and the emergent future. In contrast to so many Old World artists and writers he was always a lover of things American, admiring the openness and energy of its people, and hymning its technology as the true art form of the 20th century. His arrival in England in 1946 was a profound shock. He discovered not the fabled Imperial homeland that he had been inculcated with by a conventional British upper-middle class education, but a nation that looked as if it had lost the war. By now Ballard was already post-lapsarian to his core: he had witnessed firsthand a decline into barbarism, and been saved by the deployment of a “doomsday” weapon – the US atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like his one-time friend and literary influence William Burroughs, Ballard already grasped that a complete reevaluation of all values was underway. The England of the late 1940s and 50s with its smoky coal fires, black cars that looked like prams and consciously recherché culture was unable to contain him.

However, I think that the distinctive quality of Ballard’s vision owes much to this shock of the old: he always retained his neophyte’s view of England and therefore was able to perceive what was anomalous, what was mutating. Also, having been exposed to the modernity of Shanghai, Ballard, unlike his compatriots, grasped the irregular stochastic of futurity: with some probable outcomes relating not to the immediate but a distant past. He was thus a steam-punk long before the coinage.

Other perspectives came from his time as a Cambridge medical student. Ballard has said he studied medicine with the intention of becoming a psychiatrist: “And of course, my first patient would’ve been myself.” But while an immersion in psychopathology is characteristic of his work, so is saturation in the visceral and the organic. In both The Kindness of Women (1991), and his final book, the memoir Miracles of Life (2008), Ballard wrote vividly about his experiences of dissecting cadavers, about the beauty of the human anatomy – and it’s to this that we can attribute the forensic quality of his prose, the single detail linked causally to an entire structure – whether physical or psychic.

Ballard broke off his medical studies and enlisted in the RAF. His time training as a pilot in Canada was as influential as his abortive doctoring. When he came to write science fiction Ballard may have eschewed sagas of extraterrestrial exploration in favour of his own voyages into what he termed “inner space”, but there’s no doubt that the altitudinous perspective of the flyer informed his approach to planet earth. About Ballard’s work there is always a sense of wonder at the fact of our being earthbound at all – while the escape from surly gravity is into dream as much as flight, and once again he grasped immediately that the scaling-down of the US space programme meant the end of Prometheanism as it had been understood since the Enlightenment.

So, a child Modernist, a proto-steam punk, a camp survivor, a fleeing rather than a flying doctor, and an airman manqué: by the time Ballard came to settle in the effortlessly dull Surrey dormitory town of Shepperton in the early 1960s, most of the key elements of his writing persona were intact. The final turn of the screw was yet to come in the form of the premature and shocking death of his wife, Mary, leaving Ballard to raise three small children as a single parent. Again, not wishing to overly psychoanalyse, the stories Ballard had already published in New Worlds, and the novels The Wind from Nowhere (1961) and The Drowned World (1962) may have had a dystopic cast and a phantasmagorical feel, but this was nothing compared with what followed.

“Humanity is an atrocity exhibition at which we are unwilling spectators.” So Ballard wrote in The Atrocity Exhibition (1969), the story cycle that stands at the ground zero of his explosive body of work. Around it is the fallout from this literary experiment, and although successive blast waves can be identified they are by no means discrete, either thematically or chronologically. The apocalyptic novels fade into a trilogy of narratives preoccupied with the impact of present innovations in the built environment on the human psyche: Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and High-Rise (1975). In turn these fade into a wave of eco-parables, such as The Day of Creation (1987) and Rushing to Paradise (1994). Scattered right across the plain of destruction are the glittering fragments of Ballard’s shorter fictions, stories in which he was fully liberated to contemplate everything from cloud-sculpting as an art form, to the super-saturation of the planet by its human cargo.

The Atrocity Exhibition was written over four years from 1966 to 1969, and while looping through the separate stories is the notion of a psychiatrist suffering from a mental breakdown, this in no way constitutes a unifying narrative. Rather the cycle epitomises Ballard’s espoused credo of “trusting to (his) obsessions”. Here in the late 1960s, with the Vietnam War being televised and the space race at full tilt, Ballard descried the next five minutes in which sex and technology would be indissolubly wed, with the mass media acting as officiant.

One of the stories in the collection is entitled The Assassination of Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race, a nod to Alfred Jarry’s The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race. Ballard was much influenced by Jarry’s cod-philosophical creation, pataphysics, which can loosely be defined as the study of how the universe beyond this one is determined by the unexpected. (An alternative view – equally applicable to Ballard – is that pataphysics concerns itself with the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects to descriptions of their virtuality.)

Indeed, while in the late 1950s and early 1960s Ballard took an interest in emergent Pop Art, the deeper currents in his thinking that now swam to the surface had their origin in the French avant-garde of the Surrealists, Dadaist and Situationists. On the basis of the Kennedy fragment alone, The Atrocity Exhibition would have received the attention of the censors, as it was an obscenity prosecution was launched in England due to another Jarryesque passage entitled Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, a parody of a US election pamphlet. Needless to say, Ballard declined to appear for the defence on the basis that he intended obscenity.

It is significant that Ballard’s most sustained statement of his literary method occurs in the introduction to the French edition of Crash; it is here that he definitively rejects the 19th century naturalistic novel with its omniscient narrator determining the fates of characters imbued with “freewill” – in essence a small-scale model of the Judaeo-Christian cosmology. The uneasiness with which Ballard’s work – barring Empire of the Sun – was met by the literary establishment in the English-speaking world, recalls to my mind Bob Dylan’s lines in Ballad of a Thin Man: “Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is / Do you Mr Jones.”

What was happening was the smuggling into English discourse of sinisterly Frenchified ideas, and the philosopher to whom Ballard has most affinities is his near-anagram Jean Baudrillard. Like Baudrillard, Ballard understood that the impact of mass media upon reality was fundamental, that the more a totalising coherence was strived for, the more it would create a “hyperreality” in which simulations and simulacra took the role of actual events. For Ballard as for Baudrillard, an illusory “end” to history has already occurred: there are no longer any complete explanations, only postmodern exchanges of highly-charged symbolic “happenings” in a Maussian intercultural potlatch.

Just as Baudrillard was vilified for his book-length contention that The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991), so Ballard was charged with – in his novel Crash – having anticipated the death of Diana Spencer on the Parisian Peripherique in 1997. In truth, it was Ballard’s intuitive grasp on the choreography of mediatised reality that made so many of his fictions subsequently take place. From his unerring situation of the internecine tower block in High-Rise exactly where Canary Wharf would rise a decade later, to his anticipations of global warming and the entertainment genre of “reality television”, Ballard’s ability to conceive of “the next five minutes” was not some occult, seer-like capability, but the hard-headed product of understanding the work of man in the age of its – and our – technological reproducibility.

And all of this was framed within an acute perception of the urban environment that has distinct affinities with Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Just as for Ballard the individual is best understood as a function of his or her productive relations, so the city is best interpreted as a conjunction of motorway slip roads, gated developments and shopping malls. Living as he did for a half a century in the path of the edge city being extruded by the London conurbation, Ballard was well-placed to see quite how outmoded the Neoclassical conception of the polis had become. During a period when the bulk of English fiction remained perversely static: frozen in realms of metropolitan chichi, suburban kitsch and bucolic charm, Ballard’s narratives cruised the concretised periphery.

Which is where we came in, and it seems perverse to leave without having considered so many other aspects of Ballard’s writing: his willingness to use his own imagination as an experimental test bed, his precocious metrosexuality (that most womanly of male writers, he is always comfortable with homoeroticism), his avowal that “sex plus technology equals the future” – and the seeming-perversities that this necessarily entails, his curious ambivalence towards violence – and so on.

When Ballard died the location of his “influence” in this genre or that medium was a relatively easy task to undertake. What was more difficult for commentators to grasp was how insidiously in the preceding five decades the Ballardian had become … the commonplace. Bleak manmade landscapes, the psychological effects of technological, social and environmental developments – this is the dystopian society we all live in now. Ballard may have started out as a science fiction writer – now his texts read as social fact.