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.