Where Heidegger meets Ballard…

JG Ballard, Writer

The examples Heidegger chose are seemingly far removed from the forms of art which saturate our world today. This seems especially true when talking about JG Ballard, a science fiction writer whose primary influences include Freud and Dali. And yet it seems as though Heidegger’s view of art is highly applicable to Ballardian fiction. For Heidegger art can be identified in what it does for society and the individual. It can function to ‘found’ the world of a society and for an individual already in such a world it can ‘light up’ this world and Being itself. These are both instances of unconcealment.[1] Art can shape and even constitute the background world of meanings within which the whole experience of an age runs. If this isn’t too crude a point, I think there may be something along these lines going on in Ballard’s work. His major themes were desire and human nature in a post-industrial (sometimes post-apocalyptic) society, which are in tune with what our world has become. Not just a ‘realistic’ representation, but a hyper-real portrayal. As Will Self notes “Ballard may have started out as a science fiction writer – now his texts read as social fact.”[2]


Heidegger explored a process of emergence and limit in terms of ‘aletheia’ though we shouldn’t neglect the importance of other terms such as world and earth. The use of such terms is specific, world as a “clearing of paths for the essential guiding directions with which all decision complies” – every decision is based on something concealed – whereas earth is connected to world at the same time it is ‘belligerent’ with it.[3] We may take ‘aletheia’ to signify the process of opening up (unconcealment of beings) a space of clearing as well as of change and disclosure. In conjunction to this there is a sense of veiling and self-seclusion, which is inextricably a part of unconcealment and refers to what cannot be said or thought within a particular historical epoch.[4] Heidegger went as far as to claim that “Truth, in its essence, is un-truth.” The acceptance that there is much that cannot be said within a certain schema indicates that there is a limit to any such framework of knowledge.


Heidegger points us to the peasant shoes painted by Van Gogh as the shoes disclose that which would normally go unacknowledged – specifically the world of the peasant – and even taken for granted. What the equipment, the pair of shoes are, in truth is unconcealed. In a sense it would have been remained unconscious had it not been brought forth in art. This is the truth of the essence of tools and products. It is not that the stroke of a paintbrush determines the truth. It is the work of art as an end or rather a “happening”. The role of manifestation is not to be assigned to the aspect of Dasein called ‘techne’, even as it brings forth the essence of tools and products.[5] It is the work of art itself and in that sense is a “happening of truth”. We shouldn’t take this to mean that the work of art is a form of representation; rather it opens up and portrays a world to us as viewers.


It is not that the peasant shoes are symbolic of a truth about the life of a peasant. Heidegger wants us to refrain from stating what we already know and resist any temptation to explicate it in this reading of artwork. The peasant woman wears the shoes in the field; this is where the shoes function as she is unaware of them and going about her work. In spite of the “undefined space” we encounter the peasant shoes, the lack of mud and so on, – which we might think would deprive us of any hint of the function of these shoes – Heidegger notes the ways in which the shoes reveal to us the world of the peasant.[6] There is the pervasive worry carried with the shoes as equipment which “vibrates the silent call of the earth”, while the ‘withstood want’ and the menace of death hang in the air. The shoes belong to the earth and are protected in the peasant’s world. The open region ‘happens’ in the midst of beings, in which there belongs the world and the earth that clash with one another by nature and can only emerge in the clearing as such.


Perhaps in Heideggerian terms we find a “secondary world” is disclosed in Ballardian fiction, itself a construct from the media landscape which Ballard describes as “a map in search of a territory”.[7] It is a search for something in ordinary reality which meshes with this secondary reality, only to magnify ecological disasters, violent confrontations, the personal tragedies of celebrities and politicians. And all under clean veneer of bourgeois life which isn’t quite satisfactory for white professionals. For Ballard we live in an environment saturated to the extent that we live in a “two-tier world” torn between everyday life and this media landscape. In his works there is always an ugly secret which in some way helps maintain the bourgeois veneer and in other times it helps tear it apart as in High-Rise.


The high-rise apartment building in which High-Rise is set emerges, sets its own limits and opens up a space from which the characters then emerge. They seem to be an extension of the building, the deterioration of conditions in the high-rise is matched by the descent of the inhabitants into a semi-primitive mode of living. This is the change that was set by the initial clearing that the building is in itself, the different levels of the building, its hierarchy and the trajectory of the story are a disclosure of worlds. The first ten floors are said to represent the working-class in the building, with the next twenty-five floors being the middle-class and the top five are the ruling-class. This stratified structure collapses into competing tribes, then further to disassociated hunter-gatherers and then to a battle of the sexes. This partly connects with the way Heidegger viewed art in terms of historical significance.


The artworks of every age lay out how that time is ready to see and value things. It is debatable whether or not it is meant that art is constitutive of a world (an ontological point) or that art unveils a world a people already has (an epistemic point). We’ll put aside this debate, but note that the epistemic and the ontological are not totally irreconcilable.[8] History can be broken down into epochs distinguishable by their particular understanding of Being which is embodied in artworks. The ‘look and outlook’ is embedded in a physical thing by the artist. It stands there for the masses and lends concrete presence to the basic values and world-view of the group. Art is world-founding for Heidegger, when a work of art happens a thrust enters history and it can first begin or begin again. So it is art which is the origin of each successive world.[9] Heidegger sometimes draws the conclusion that there is no art in the modern age. Perhaps we lack a world or our world derives its unity from another source.


The role of art is not world-founding today. Instead it reminds us of what we’re lacking and there could be a great deal of truth in that. It just unconceals the concealment we are subject to and the absence of a unifying point to what we do. At that level it may begin to put pieces of a new world in place in order to constitute the unity ours now lacks. It’s highly disputable whether or not modern art rises to even that standard. It seems possible that Ballard was engaged in the unconcealment of the concealed, only to unveil a missing unity to his audience. The role of art has been subverted to service technology and ‘enframing’, it’s much more like a resource with cultural-economic value that can be determined through comparison with other works.[10] The exceptions are in the private, which is the reason that Heidegger picked Van Gogh’s painting as an unconcealment of its Being and that could not be found in the simple observing of some shoes in daily life.


The epistemic power of art is in the insight that need have no impact on the structure of one’s world, the unveiling of the structure the world has for us and the peasant woman. Heidegger may have hoped that this epistemic effect will lead to a constitutive one – the artwork lights up the world in a way that gives it a manifest unity it had lacked previously. It does so by embodying a new overall point. In High-Rise and Crash the unity is found in transgression, though it’s not less clear how this may reconstitute a world. It opens up an ideal of a different relation to equipment, the way out of ‘enframing’ and technology by beginning to construct the new world we can hope will come. As we live in the world which has been partially opened up by the artwork, we become its ‘preservers’. The temple constitutes its people’s world, but the painting has the power to begin to construct a new world for us. In both instances the piece of art is a ‘becoming’ and a ‘happening’ of truth.


What are we to make of the unsettling fixation on violence in Ballard’s work with this in mind? In 1986 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”.[11] Ballard went on to claim it was sex which filled this role in the 1960s, but now sex is no longer a “new frontier” and increasingly violence has replaced it in this role. The media landscape of narratives thrives on such sensation and requires sensation to go on, like a drowsy beast we find ourselves in need of constant electric shocks just to stay awake. The electric shocks are provided by violence today. This is particular pertinent in Crash where Ballard graphically explores the eroticism of the car-crash, with a coldly surgical description of mangled bodies and twisted wreckage. This is where it seems Ballard demonstrates the absence of a unity. But there is a more direct way that the car-crash meshes with Heideggerian thought.[12]


As Heidegger notes of the hammer, the driver is hardly aware of the car in the middle of driving and its function as a means of transport is obscured. It’s not just about ends and purposes, rather it is the world as equipment where we engage in tasks. The world is no neutral space of objects and subjects where interaction could take place. To see the hammer and the plank as ‘things’ is to stop hammering, the hammer is no longer just something used for a purpose along with the nail and the plank serves as a material to work with. It is almost as though the machine functions almost as an extension of the body. In order to be truly aware of the car as a vehicle we have to stop driving, or in this case we have to actually crash the car. The collision is the moment at which the head of the hammer falls off and we finally become aware of the tool as a ‘thing’. The hammer is for hammering in terms of its significance for Dasein, whose concern is for its own Being, it is towards-which and for-the-sake-of-which; ultimately the hammer is for-the-sake-of Dasein.[13]

[1] Richardson, J; Heidegger (2012, Routledge) pg.294-311

[2] Self, W; Crash: A Homage to JG Ballard http://will-self.com/2010/04/19/crash-homage-to-jg-ballard/#.T5AWgB4NNvk.facebook

[3] Heidegger, M: The Origin of the Work of Art, Basic Writings (edited by David Farrell Krell|2010, Routledge) pg.165-182

[4] Kul-want, Christopher: Philosophers on Art from Kant to the Postmodernists (2010, Columbia University Press) pg.118-148

[5] Kul-want, Christopher: Philosophers on Art from Kant to the Postmodernists (2010, Columbia University Press) pg.118-148

[6] Heidegger, M: The Origin of the Work of Art, Basic Writings (edited by David Farrell Krell|2010, Routledge) pg.146-165

[7] JG Ballard interview, Face to Face: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyZPRL90hNY

[8] If we accept this dichotomy in Heidegger’s work then we should keep in mind that the multiplicity of shared practices requires unity to become a world. The artwork provides such unity, going as far as to give them a destiny. At the same time, the piece pulls together a world by the way it manifests such unity and the work of art calls attention to it repeatedly through its own conspicuous presence. This is how the epistemic meets the ontological.

Richardson, J; Heidegger (2012, Routledge) pg.294-311

[9] This may demonstrate a nostalgia for the past of Greek and medieval when art was principally religious. The temple and the cathedral gave convincing embodiment to the qualities of the divine and the human. The religious nostalgia is significant given his post-monotheism and sympathy with the Pagan plethora of Greek gods that Heidegger held in common with Nietzsche. This is what oriented these societies in their worlds and this is how ‘look and outlook’ are shaped. Heidegger holds out with hope that art may someday play this role again.

Richardson, J; Heidegger (2012, Routledge) pg.342-360

[10] Richardson, J; Heidegger (2012, Routledge) pg.294-311

[11] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SS6MWpFX_N0Future Now, with JG Ballard (1986)

[12] The car-crash fits in well with notions of authenticity, less so in the Nietzschean sense of a ‘becoming’ of who we are. It is more in accordance with Heidegger’s talk of being-toward-death – the path we must all walk towards it – which provides the push to extricate ourselves from the ‘dictatorship of They’. In Crash the character Vaughan is literally propelled towards death in search of sexual fulfilment. Notably the death in the opening chapter graphically sets out the risk of this adventure before we are even confronted with how the protagonist ‘got into this’ – the first car crash he survived. Authenticity is not a moral ideal here, just as for Heidegger it is a self-directed ideal and it is just one means of relating our being to Being. Inauthenticity is not excluded as a way to relate our being to Being, it’s just that there is truth in authentic behaviour. There is something amoral in both instances, yet Ballard would have agreed that the behaviour of his characters in Crash unconceal a truth about desire.

[13] Purcell, M; Levinas and Theology (2006, Cambridge Press) pg.74-78

About Joshua 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.
Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed