sexta-feira, 22 de junho de 2012

J.G.Ballard "Crash" by Roger Luckhurst

The volumes of Helen's thighs pressing against my hips, her left fist buried in my shoulder, her mouth grasping at my own, the shape and moisture of her anus as I stroked it with my ring finger, were each overlaid by the inventories of a benevolent technology — the moulded binnacle of the instrument dials, the jutting carapace of the steering column shroud, the extravagant pistol grip of the handbrake. I felt the warm vinyl of the seat beside me, and then stroked the damp aisle of Helen's perineum. Her hand pressed against my right testicle. The plastic laminates around me, the colour of washed anthracite, were the same tones as her pubic hairs parted at the vestibule of her vulva. The passenger compartment enclosed us like a machine generating from our sexual act an homunculus of blood, semen and engine coolant. (Ballard 1975: 68)

How are we supposed to read a paragraph like that?

Ballard's book, published in 1973, has the rare distinction of causing not one but three separate controversies over the course of 30 years. First, as a novel, the relentless incantation of the sexual possibilities of the car Crash , the perverse interpénétration of metal and flesh, listed exhaustively in precise technical prose by a character named James Ballard, prompted the first manuscript reader to report that the author was "beyond psychiatric help." The resolute neutrality of tone, assisted by the conflation of author and character, might well support a reading of Crash as a Swiftian satire, but it has also provoked many to assert the moral position they find so woefully lacking in the book. "A writer needs a moral viewpoint, some system of belief." Peter Nicholls complained. Without it, "Ballard is advocating a life-style quite likely to involve the sudden death of yourself or those you love" (Nicholls 1975: 28, 31). Ballard gave no help to confused readers seeking reassurance in authorial intention. In his introduction to the French edition, Ballard claimed that the book was "cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape" (Ballard1984: 98). He then withdrew this claim, "which I have always regretted . . . Crash is not a cautionary tale. Crash is what it appears to be. It is a psychopathic hymn" (Self J.G. Ballard, Crash 513 1995: 348). His most illuminating statement was the least helpful in terms of managing intent: the book embodies a "terminal irony, where not even the writer knows where he stands," he said in response to Nicholls' essay (Ballard 1976: 51). Nicholls' literal-minded and earnest condemnation of course only gave sustenance to Crash as a cult novel, the little read but notorious final statement of the experiments in stretching the boundaries of genre and taste associated with New Wave SF. The book existed somewhere between SF's focus on the technological transformation of the human and a long avant-garde tradition investigating the extremity where sex and death elide. Marginality became a token of its authenticity.

After a long period of quiet, in which Ballard and even Crash were domesticated by the mainstream success of his autobiographical fiction Empire of the Sun (1984), a second controversy erupted, albeit in a different context. In 1991, the academic journal Science Fiction Studies translated Jean Baudrillard's short essay on Crash . Written in 1976, after the French edition of Ballard's novel appeared, the essay had been left out of the shortened first English translation of Baudrillard's most famous polemic, Simulacra and Simulation. In this book Baudrillard, a former Marxist sociologist and key theorist of postmodernism, declared that we had reached an era where the real world had vanished into mediation. We now inhabited a hyper-real world where there could be no reference outside television, cinema, or the ceaseless circulation of media images. The simulacra is a copy whose original is lost: simulations function "as a set of signs dedicated exclusively to their recurrence as signs, and no longer at all to their real' end" (Baudrillard 1994: 21). There was no reference, no truth, no history in hyper-reality, but there was also no alienation or despair either. Instead, we lived in a sort of glazed, blissed-out state, enfolded in a self-sustaining mediated fiction. The opening essay of Baudrillard's book, "The Precession of Simulacra," had become central to many definitions of postmodernism in the American academy when published separately in the 1980s. To find that Crash was one of Baudrillard's few cultural examples of this new logic belatedly placed Ballard's book at the core of postmodernism. Indeed, Scott Bukatman soon claimed that postmodernism itself was "inconceivable" without Ballard (Bukatman 1993: 46). Baudrillard absolutely accepted the novel's logic, and quickly dismissed Ballard's cautionary preface. James Ballard's trajectory towards full acceptance of a "sexuality that is without referentiality and without limits," where "this mixture of body and technology is totally immanent - it is the reversion of the one into the other," clearly worked for Baudrillard as a story of immersion in an artificial hyper-reality, the new order of being delivered by technologically saturated environments like the motorway (Baudrillard 1991: 314). The book's fascination with mediation — car Crash es are obsessively photographed and restaged by the "hoodlum scientist" Robert Vaughan and his fellow researchers - produces dizzying moments of recursion, where the sense of original and copy are lost. In one scene, a test Crash is watched in real time, then replayed on film: "The audience of thirty or so visitors stared at the screen, waiting for something to happen. As we watched, our own ghostly images stood silently in the background, hands and faces unmoving while this slow-motion collision was re-enacted. The dream-like reversal of roles made us seem less real than the mannequins in the car" (Ballard 1975: 110). Baudrillard also delights in the refusal of any critical or ethical distance: "is it good or bad? We can't say. It is simply fascinating, without this fascination implying any kind of value judgment whatsoever. And this is the miracle of Crash . The moral gaze . . . cannot touch it" (Baudrillard 1991: 319).

Baudrillard's amoral stance provoked a number of SF critics to respond violently in Science Fiction Studies. Vivian Sobchack, usually one of the more sophisticated theorists of the conjunction of SF and postmodernism, was sufficiently knocked off balance by Baudrillard's provocation to appeal to the direct experience of her own bodily pain after surgery. "The man is really dangerous," she warned, and wished on Baudrillard some real pain that he might rethink his theorization of the "technobody . . . that is thought always as an object, and never lived as, a subject" (Sobchack 1991: 329, 327). This vitriol was nothing compared with Ballard's own horrified reaction to seeing his novel sucked into the academic discourse of postmodernism and critical theory (Ballard 1991). This phobic response was perhaps motivated by suspicion of the professional or institutional intellectual and that Crash 's provocation was being reutilized within academic language. Ironically, Ballard's riposte only produced ever more academic discourse dedicated to trying to articulate the precise relationship between Ballard and Baudrillard. (see Ruddick 1992; Butterfield 1999; Day 2000).

The third controversy began in 1996, when the film director David Cronenberg showed his necessarily sanitized version of Crash  at the Cannes festival, to a mixed response of boos and cheers (Ballard enthusiastically supported the film and it eventually won a Special Prize, reportedly against the wishes of the chair of judges, Francis Ford Coppola). Alexander Walker, the film critic of the conservative London Evening Standard, writing from Cannes, declared the film "beyond the bounds of depravity" in its advocacy of "some of the most perverted acts and theories of sexual deviance I have ever seen propagated in main-line cinema" (Walker 1996: 16). The film was demonized in even stronger terms by the right-wing Daily Mail. For over a year, the Mail campaigned to ban this "sick" film to preserve English decency - and road safe:; The Conservative Minister at the Department for National Heritage also advocated ban without seeing the film, yet the British Board of Film Certification passed the film uncut in 1997 having commissioned research to investigate whether Crash might indeed "deprave" its audience or produce the copycat car Crash es that the Daily Mail darkly foretold. The decision to grant cinema licenses to show the film now devolved to local councils. The staunchly Tory Westminster City Council refused a lice quoting its own psychiatric expert that "sexually inexperienced people may look tr the main characters as role models" (cited Barker et al. 2001: 8). Neighboring Camden Council passed the film, producing a strange boundary — a Crash barrier? — that am through London's West End. This censorship campaign was conducted in the last months of a failing Tory government and now seems like an opportunistic attempt by a loose alliance of right-wing interests to generate some panic about the "pornography" likely to be unleashed under the (allegedly) more liberal regime of a Labour goverment.

The film produced a subsidiary academic dispute. A group working on empirical audience reception, led by Martin Barker, received a large grant for a project on Crash , and their research detailed how the Mail campaign shaped the way the film was viewed even by liberals and libertarians opposed to censorship. The polemical aspect of this project was targeted at the direction of film theory. Whilst a right-wing coalition had materially sought to constrain cultural expression, Barker argued that Crash had been discussed in the premier academic film journal Screen (in a short "debate" section of four essays in 1998) without interest in the concrete threat to civil liberties, but merely as an occasion to fine tune various critical theories. For Barker, in a rather tortured metaphor, this presented "the unedifying spectacle of abstruse clerks fiddling with their concepts ignoring Nero striking matches to set fire to their house" (Barker ital. 2001: 153).

These three Crash controversies are striking in a number of ways. Perhaps most notable is the sheer volume of discourse that Crash has now produced, a body of commentary that outweighs the original book itself many times over. This reflects the surprising longevity of Crash , for the avant-garde strategy of provocation and shock :s usually punctual, extremely limited in time and effect. What shocks is either rapidly recuperated into the history of an aesthetic form, or else comes to seem a rather quaint measure of the very constraints of the era the avant-gardist had aimed to offend. Over a period of profound social change, Crash , which is framed by a thoroughly 1960s ethos of the liberation of sexual (and deathly) energies, has nevertheless continued to provoke outrage. The text appears to have found a magical way of rejuvenating the shock effect. It might have done this in different contexts - as novel, as postmodernist token, as film - but another striking thing is the repetitive form the argument takes, in which literalists and ironists grapple inconclusively over the icy neutrality of Ballard's prose (or Baudrillard's theory or Cronenberg's film).

It is clearly this key device, Ballard's affectless monologic style, that produces all this supplementary commentary. The text absents itself from making any conclusion about the thesis it remorselessly restates page after page, and this makes it a classic instance of what Roland Barthes termed the "scriptible" text - that is, a text that has to be actively completed, to be almost cowritten by the reader if any sense of meaning or closure is to be reached (Cronenberg repeated the effect in the film by resisting explanatory voice-over or the subjective point-of-view). The neutral text therefore invites moral stricture as much as providing sufficient hooks for ironists to detect. This kind of oscillation, the unsettling experience of trying to decide on the tone of the novel, is extremely difficult to convey critically. As the lists of atrocities or perversions pile up in dense paragraphs, the reader (this reader, anyway) is caught undecidably between detecting gravity and comedy. Here is just one sentence:

I think of the Crash es of excited schizophrenics colliding head-on into stalled laundry vans in one-way streets; of manic-depressives crushed while making pointless U-turns on motorway access roads; of luckless paranoids driving at full speed into the brick walls at the ends of known culs-de-sac; of sadistic charge nurses decapitated in inverted Crash es on complex interchanges; of lesbian supermarket manageresses burning to death in the collapsed frames of their midget cars before the stoical eyes of middle-aged firemen; of autistic children crushed in rear-end collisions, their eyes less wounded in death; of buses filled with mental defectives drowning together stoically in roadside industrial canals. (Ballard 1975: 12)

On the one hand, this incantation brilliantly conveys dogged obsession, James Ballard's breach of any remaining social constraints on his traumatized imagination. The repetitive clauses intone the catalogue with almost Biblical portent, the stately syntax jarringly at odds with the semantics. On the other hand, little details render this comic: why do lesbian manageresses drive midget cars and die in front of middle-aged firemen? One almost has the sense that these adjectives are scrawled in by another hand, sabotaging the gravitas by pushing the liturgy over the edge and into absurdity. Or is the whole thing intended to be comic, anyway? J.G. Ballard, the good Freudian, might concur with Freud that jokes revolve around "unacceptable" extremes of sex and violence because "the wishes and desires of men have a right to make themselves acceptable alongside of exacting and ruthless morality" (Freud I960: 110). The novel rails against "the repressive activity of civilization" by invoking every obverse of bourgeois nicety it can command (Freud I960: 101). Is Crash a serious joke? Typically, the reader is left reaching for oxymorons like this: the book is a serious joke told with enervating energy, received with excited boredom, with a smile that might also be a rictus of pain or the start of a headache. But does languishing in neat paradoxes take us any closer to finding a way of reading Crash ?

Aidan Day has invoked the method of "close reading" for resolving the moral certainty of Crash ; for me, it only heightens the ambiguity. Yet Day is right that critical work on Crash has substantially veered away from reading the close grain of the text. In fact, I would say that much of the academic writing on Crash has demonstrated another strange readerly effect - one that might be termed involuntary repetition or discursive mimicry. Jean Baudrillard's essay deliberately sought to elide his theory or simulation with Ballard's novel, largely abandoning analysis for a rhythmic inter¬change between his own vatic style and long paragraph citations from Crash . This was motivated by Baudrillard's sense that a world of simulation abolished the possibility or any genuine critical theory. Social theory had become science fictional, whilst Ballard's fiction was social theory: "Crash  is our world: nothing in it is 'invented'" (Baudrillarn 1994: 125). Baudrillard's version of "terminal irony" is what he calls the "fatal strategy," where the object "escapes the analyst everywhere" (Baudrillard 1990: 82). All the critic can do is mimic the object, which might surrender analysis, but at least does so knowingly. Elsewhere, readings inspired by various critical theories repeat the discourse of Crash in involuntary ways. These are commentaries written in their own private theoretical languages, monologues entirely isolated from any external reference points, often embracing specific theorists or frameworks with an obsessional, near messianic belief - exactly, of course, like the fanatical project depicted in the novel. Herr Crash is not read so much as reiterated in a different register.

The new technologically mediated sexualities depicted in Crash can lend themselves very well to explanation through psychoanalytic frameworks. Crash not only lores nongenital perversion but also neatly literalizes Freud's later speculations ut the existence of a "death drive," a primitive human instinct that might actively sh for the quiescent state of death. Freud's ideas were controversially extended by I French psychoanalyst and poststructuralist Jacques Lacan. Lacan was a notoriously mailt theorist whose work, once translated, was extremely influential on film theory the 1970s and literary theory in the 1980s. A substantial critical literature on the lacanian version of Crash now exists. Dennis Foster, for instance, suggests that Crash demonstrates a failure of paternal phallic authority, unleashing generalized perversity, foster argues that this Lacanian framework can help articulate the critique that he believes underpins Crash : the book "demonstrates less how perversion originates than be way it has become fully interwoven with the forms of advertising and technology cut drive contemporary capitalism" (Foster 1993: 527). Other Lacanians seem intent only on transposing Crash into the correct psychoanalytic register. In their short entry Go Screens, debate on the film, Fred Botting and Scott Wilson helpfully suggest that Junes and Catherine Ballard's fascination with "Vaughan's dick" is "a quite literal instance of perversion — in the Lacanian sense of a turning towards the father (pere version) that foregrounds the symptom or object a supporting the paternal function" (Botting and Wilson 1998: 187). Botting and Wilson's statement is meaningful, but only to readers who share Screen's long immersion in Lacan (I have wondered if their essay might in fact be a parody of the 1970s Screen style, in the spirit of Ballard, in which case the joke is on me). The discourse is hermetically sealed and monologic; there is no counterargument, no sense of the substantial body of criticism that argues that Crash resists psychoanalytic accounts. This sense of repeating the closed, obsessional world of Crash is probably at its most extreme in Parveen Adams' Lacanian rumination about whether Crash "belongs to the register of Other jouissance, or even perverse jouissance" (Adams 1999: 61). Towards the end of this weird piece, the theory-mantra is indistinguishable from Ballardian text, even though the novel is referred to nowhere: "Where is the wound in this sequence of Crash es and car wash? Tne answer is that it is both multiple and dispersed. There are many wounds, but the whole scene is a wound . . . The wound is the opening of the gap of the Real. Life ebbs and flows through the wound" (Adams 1999: 68-9).

If Lacan is not to taste, there are other theorized versions of Crash that exhibit the same insular tendency. Brian Baker processes the book through the philosophy of eroticism formulated by Georges Bataille, concluding that Crash "conforms to the way in which Bataille understands transgression to operate" (Baker 2000: 93). The text can be handily translated into the existential terminology of Martin Heidegger: Vaughan embodies "this ecstasis or running ahead, that, for Heidegger, Dasein is revealed in its authentic being as natural" (Grant 1998: 184). There has also been a recent surge of interest in reading Crash through the lens of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, which reframes the text in radically antipsychoanalytic terms (Varga 2003). Paul Virilio, another French philosopher and vatic commentator on the apocalyptic consequences of contemporary technological milieux, and particularly the logic of the accident, will surely be along soon.

It is extremely unfair to reduce this body of work solely to a litany of discursive mimicry; these frameworks can and do provide illuminating commentary. Yet it is surely significant that Crash can support so many self-sustaining yet entirely contradictory readings. It might be that the studied neutrality of the text cunningly reshapes itself to whatever theoretical approach is thrown at it. But more likely, I think, is something I've not seen acknowledged in this flurry of criticism — that these theoretical interventions are in exactly the same avant-garde tradition as the text they ostensibly strive to "explain." Both Bataille and Lacan formulated their work in the 1920s and 1930s in critical dialogue with the Surrealist movement. Lacan published early work in the Surrealist journal Minotaur and, like Ballard, was inspired by the "paranoiac-critical method" of the painter Salvador Dali, in which the world is remade to the shape of a desire whose perversity is positively embraced and amplified. Ballard's essay on Dali was one of his central formulations of the "death of affect" thesis, leaving us to "the excitements of pain and mutilation" and the "moral freedom to pursue our own psychopathology as a game" (Ballard 1969: 25). Lacan and Ballard seem to me to make the most sense if they are understood as writing in the wake of Surrealism. Bataille, whose perversions proved too extreme even for André Breton, the leader of the Surrealists, had a revival in the 1960s when his fiction exploring ecstasy-unto-death in The Story of the Eye was finally published in English translation. Ballard's consistent defense of pornography echoes that of other 1960s thinkers finessing ideas of liberation and liberalization: Susan Sontag's "The Pornographic Imagination" is now printed as a postscript to legitimate the avant-garde provocation of The Story of the Eye.

Similarly, I think we might understand the affinity of Crash with many French poststructuralist thinkers by seeing them as the product of the same extraordinary era. Baudrillard turned savagely against his own commitment to Marxist critique in the mid-1970s, as did other radical philosophers like Jean-Francois Lyotard. The Situationist International, the last direct inheritors of Surrealism, dissolved themselves in 1972. Many alliances and activisms formed in the revolutionary 1960s split apart with acrimony; many wrote disordered books, obsessed with violence, a distant echo of the terroristic solutions chosen by many radical left wing groups in the early 1970s. After the failed revolutions of 1968, Julia Kristeva suggested, the distrust of the "political dimension" grew, and there was a turn inward to psychology, with the aim that the "violence" of the social contract "be conceived in the very place where it operates with the maximum intransigence, in other words, in personal and sexual identity itself (Kristeva 1986: 194, 209). The aim of Anti-Oedipus, cowritten by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in 1972, followed a parallel logic: it was to smash open the subjectivity held in place by Oedipal psychopathology at the service of capitalism, and return us to that state of potentiality and possibility before the constricting Self was formed. This was a key text of the antipsychiatry movement, in England a project best represented by the practice and writing of R.D. Laing, the rogue psychiatrist who was a constant point of reference for Ballard. Needless to say, think that there are many distinct parallels between this trajectory of "poststructuralim" and the arrival of Crash . The book emerged from the dissolution of an avant-garde, New Wave SF, the group brought into being by Michael Moorcock and J.G. Balllard, which adopted the language of revolutionary transformation, this time in aiming to turn a pulp genre into the vital literature of the age. It pursued its aims as relatively cohesive group between 1964 and 1970. Ballard's explorations of the new media landscape and its attendant liberation of sexual and violent energies formed one or the core projects of the New Wave. These pieces, uncategorizable hybrids of fiction acid social theory, were eventually published as The Atrocity Exhibition, a book I have at length elsewhere to place in its appropriate avant-garde contexts. The finance collapse of New Worlds magazine in 1970, in part the victim of a conservative attempt to curtail the countercultural press in England, produced some truly disordered, violent, and pessimistic books (Christopher Priest's Fugue for a Darkening Island or Michael Moorcock's Breakfast in the Ruins spring to mind), and acrimonious splits. Moorcock and Ballard are now "rival chroniclers" of the era of New Wave SF, rather Oostile to each other, as Iain M. Sinclair shows by intercutting between their versions of events in his book-length meditation on Crash (Sinclair 1999: 96). Crash , then, is a statement of dissolution, "one of the cultural markers that signaled the end of the 10s" (Sinclair 1999: 8). It is a book that flags the end of the New Wave avant-garde by pushing its logic of violent transformation to exorbitant ends.

This goes some way towards explaining the affinity of Crash with so many of the critical theoretical frameworks currently let loose in the academy. I am not convinced, however, that they do much more than translate the language of one avant-garde into another. Yet because many critics treat Crash in absolute, Vaughan-like isolation, without reference to the SF and avant-garde contexts of the early 1970s, there is a kindness to these connections and parallels. What, then, would truly start to open a reading of Crash , one that would avoid the risks of either forcing a moral commitment on it, or falling into involuntary repetition or discursive mimicry? One answer is a return to history: what Vaughan wants to escape in his endless circulation of the slick, anonymous highways, what the historical avant-garde dismissed as a dead-weight, and what many critical readings of Crash ignore because they repeat the terms the text. I would like to see more attention paid to the cultural-historical context of the novel from both long and short temporal perspectives. Jeffrey Schnapp has placed Crash suggestively at the end of a two hundred year "anthropology of speed," from the mail coach to the motorcar, where acceleration produces an "expanded sense selfhood ... a wakeful hallucinatory or visionary state in which "terror" fuses with "terrific beauty'" (Schnapp 1999: 22). In much tighter historical focus, Crash is evidently trying to make sense of a whole new technological locale: the roads of the West Way and the interchanges around London Airport (not yet named Heathrow). In 1971, Reyner Banham had written ecstatically about Los Angeles as an "autopia" where "the freeway system in its totality is now a single comprehensible place, a coherent state of mind, a complete way of life, the fourth ecology of the Angeleno" (Banham 1990: 213). The elevated section of the A40, the West Way, the site of James Ballard's transformative Crash  at the opening of the novel, had opened in 1970, and brought something of that new "ecology" to England. As Edward Piatt details in his history of the A40, this arterial road had been first built in the spirit of Utopianism in the 1930s, part of a wave of optimistic belief that the motorcar would bring into being the Radiant City. By 1970, the urban theorist Henri Lefebvre lamented the end of the democratic polis and the rise of totalitarian urban society, in part dictated by the car. What strikes me rereading Crash now is not the danger of speed but the amount of time the characters spend in traffic jams and queues, their obsessions fuelled by fumes as they inch along in heavy traffic. Ballard's vision takes shape at the very beginning of a new era of motorway transport; in this beginning he gleans its deathly logic and envisages its apocalyptic end.

The task science fiction undertakes, as I see it, is a reflection on the potential for transformation of social and psychic existence by technology. Crash is therefore an exemplary science fictional text in this regard. This is a crucial recognition if we are to begin to read it properly, even after 30 years of readings. We have to exit the traffic in off-the-peg critical theories to explain Crash , but understand it in all the complexity of its place in science fiction history and the explosive cultural-historical milieux of England in the early 1970s.


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In: A Companion to Science Fiction. edited by David Seed. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2008, pp.512-521.

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