Ballard: Our need for catastrophes

The cultural revolution of the 1960s had an undeniably profound impact on the people who lived amidst its birth pangs. In 1986 a film crew came to make a short documentary about the writer JG Ballard. In the interview, Ballard pointed out that the world which we inhabit requires a certain amount of oil to make the cogs go around and keep the wheels turning.

For Ballard it was sex which played such a role in the 1960s, but now sex is no longer a new frontier and increasingly violence has become the oil which keeps the wheels turning. The media landscape of narratives thrives on sensation and requires sensation to go on, like a drowsy beast we find ourselves in need of constant electric shocks just to stay awake. Ballard suggests that the electric shocks are provided more so by violence today.

A major focus of Ballardian fiction is a secondary world which has been constructed on the media landscape of television, film, radio and the press etc. For Ballard we live in an environment saturated to the extent that we live in a two-tier world, we inhabit a dual reality. The immediate reality of everyday life and the secondary reality forged as the media acts as a map in search of a territory. It is a search for something in ordinary reality which meshes with this secondary reality, only to magnify disasters, confrontations, personal tragedies and so on. As Ballard put it in the introduction to Crash (1973):

Crash, of course, is not concerned with an imaginary disaster, however imminent, but with a pandemic cataclysm that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and injures millions. Do we see, in the car crash, a sinister portent of a nightmare marriage between sex and technology? Will modern technology provide us with hitherto undreamed-of means for tapping our own psychopathologies? Is this harnessing of our innate perversity conceivably of benefit to us? Is there some deviant logic unfolding more powerful than that provided by reason?

At once this secondary world is the subject matter of Ballard’s novels, it is described and developments within it are predicted. Too often do we assume that the violence on television is bad for us, the truth about violence is good for us and cannot be repressed. The edge is a cautionary one, e.g. “Dangerous Bends Ahead, Slow Down!” with the paradox being Crash in which Ballard bellows “Dangerous Bends Ahead, Speed Up!” All in an appreciation of the chaos underneath the surface of modern civilisation. Ballard may have basked in the fires of this chaos, but he was ultimately on the side of it.

About JT White

a writer and journalist living in the UK where he works as Africa editor and researcher for the World Weekly. White is a philosophy graduate, specialising in political thought, and maintained a blog for several years. His main focus is national and international politics having written on subjects as seemingly far apart as US elections, Russian nationalism and the state of modern Britain.
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