I’d like to open with a kind of history. This history takes many forms and surfaces in many different places with the names of the actors sometimes replaced. Occasionally, the role of the nation-state is assumed by religion and at other times it is the gods of classical antiquity who take the lead. Regardless of which iteration of this history you have heard, its narrative will be familiar to you for it is a narrative of loss.
Once upon a time, people lived in tribes. These tribes were small social entities made up of a number of different family groups that pooled their resources. Members of tribes lived together, worked together and died together and this permanent state of communion with others made their lives meaningful. Of course, human nature being what it is, tribes could not peacefully co-exist and the tribes soon began conquering each other until their dominion extended over millions of people and thousands of miles of territory. Because these abstract tribal groupings were a lot harder to manage than a couple of families that had been living and working together for generations, tribal elders began reinventing themselves as governments who began to rule over abstract political entities known as kingdoms and principalities then as nations and states. Of course, nation states were never anything more than a way of referring to the territory under the control of one particular government but they stuck around for long enough that people began to forget their tribal loyalties and began to see their nationality as a fundamental fact about themselves, a fact no different to their sex, their gender, their sexuality or their race, a fact that took the form of a noun.
Continue reading →
A little while ago, I reprinted my Vector piece on cinematic adaptations of the works of J. G. Ballard. One of the themes of Ballard’s work I used to pull together the different films was the concept of a benign psychopathology. This concept serves to unite the different works from the various stages of Ballard’s writing career and also forms the heart of his development of an old surrealist saw into a form of proto-postmodernism. The idea, at its simplest, is that Humanity has become detached from the environment in which its emotional hardwiring evolved. From a world of mountains, deserts, forests, swamps and plains we have moved into a world of cities, motorways, cars and conference centres. A world constructed largely by us, for us. However, despite this world being supposedly designed to suit our needs, we find ourselves paradoxically distant from it : Either the architecture surrounding us reflects our position and role in society thereby dehumanising us, Or it is an abstract expression of some impractical aesthetic ideal and it alienates us. Our reliance upon the car and the city is physically and psychologically toxic and yet we cannot return to the state of nature we once lived in. We die in car accidents by the hundreds of thousand and yet we still drive to work. We self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, losing ourselves in the pleasures of consumerism and empty sensuality and yet we do not seek to change the world. The co-dependent and unhealthy relationship we have with our environment is a benign psychopathology, a form of madness created by an attempt to adapt to an unnatural environment. A form of controlled and evolutionarily beneficial madness. A form of high-functioning dementia this benign psychopathology is an attempt to reformat our emotional hardwiring and set up a new set of stimulus-responses that are better suited to our new world.
In Ballard’s early Science Fiction novel The Drowned World (1962), the character Dr Robert Kerans is horrified when Captain Strangman drains the lagoon and makes it possible for humanity to resettle the ruins of a drowned city. In Crash (1973), the character of Ballard develops an attraction for people maimed in car crashes as automobile accidents become fetishised. In Cocaine Nights (1996), Charles Prentice comes to realise that rape, arson, theft and murder are not anti-social activities but rather necessary tools for the creation of social cohesion. Throughout Ballard’s work, the severing of Humanity’s emotional connection to the environment allowing the development of benign psychopathologies invariably results from some terrible event. An event which Ballard scholars have come to refer to as The Death of Affect, drawing upon a chapter in Ballard’s central work The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) in which a couple visit the scene of a car crash only to find that the site has been drained of all emotional content :
“These infrequent visits, dictated by whatever private logic, now seemed to provide nothing. An immense internal silence presided over this area of cement and pines, a terminal moraine of the emotions that held its debris of memory and regret, like the rubbish in the pockets of a dead schoolboy he had examined” [Page 108]
Of course, benign psychopathologies do not have to take the form of a sexual predilection for car accidents. They can be much more mundane. Much more common. Much more familiar. Nicolas Klotz’s Heartbeat Detector — based upon the French novel La Question Humaine by Francois Emmanuel — is an exploration of the idea that certain psychopathologies can survive the death of their host organism, living on in the cultural aether to rewire whole new generations to fit with new and emerging forms of environmental unpleasantness. A process of adaptation that is noticeable in certain chilling linguistic similarities.
Continue reading →
Back in July of 2009, I put up an article about some of the attempts to adapt J. G. Ballard’s work for the screen and, in particular, Harley Cokliss’ take on “Crash!”, one of the sections from Ballard’s experimental novel/short-story collection The Atrocity Exhibition (1969). That article was written in order to help me work out a few ideas for a much longer piece I was writing for Vector – The Critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. That longer piece turned out quite nicely and, as it has been a bit slow around here recently, I have obtained permission to republish it online – at least until the BSFA sorts out their mooted online archive.
So, many thanks to Niall Harrison for giving me permission to republish this online and I suggest that all those not already members join the BSFA immediately, if only to get the chance to read Vector.
Continue reading →
I am currently researching a piece on the films of J. G. Ballard and I came across what appears to be a rather interesting cinematic feedback loop. In 1996, David Cronenberg adapted Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash. Crash was an expansion of the ideas contained in “Crash!”, one of the sections of Ballard’s splendidly disjointed modernist collection of condensed novels The Atrocity Exhibition (1969).
However, the line between “Crash!” (1969) and Crash (1996) is not that typical of most literary adaptations. Traditionally, the progress of forms is from short story to novel and from novel to film. However, in this case, the line is broken by a cinematic interloper. In between the publication of The Atrocity Exhibition and the publication of Crash (1973), Ballard’s ideas found their way into a short film by Harley Cokliss. Not only starring but also written and narrated by Ballard himself, Crash! (1971) is somewhere between a televised essay, a work of audiovisual art and a traditional short film. It is also quite a distinctive work when compared to its literary precursor and successor. Indeed, by looking at the changes between the different Crash pieces, it is possible to gain an insight into Ballard’s methodologies.
Continue reading →
As has been noted elsewhere, James Graham Ballard died on Sunday. This was not an unexpected event. Ballard had publically announced his terminal prostate cancer and had even written an autobiography Miracles of Life (2008) which served to tidy up some of the biographical facts that might have been glossed over in Ballard’s fictionalised memoirs Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991).
I first experienced Ballard’s writing at school. I remember an English Lit timed assignment in which we had to read and write an essay about his short story “The Drowned Giant”. As a teenaged atheist and a cynic I immediately latched onto the story’s imagery of a wonderous and sacred thing appearing as a bloated decaying corpse. A corpse which is defaced and brutalised and mis-used by humanity until all that is left of it is skeletal ignorance and self-serving mystery and evasion. Not being the most voracious of teenaged readers, my love of Ballard would lie mostly dormant until rediscovering his work via David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Crash (1973) However, I think that Ballard only really clicked for me when I read Cocaine Nights (1996)
Continue reading →