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Ballard/Noys/FisherAuthor: Simon Sellars • Jan 17th, 2008 •
Ben Noys has recently published two academic articles on Ballard’s work, both of which can be found online in some form. Included is an update of a specific piece of his that I posted here on Ballardian last year, entitled ‘Crimes of the Near Future: Baudrillard/Ballard’. It’s been reworked to consider Kingdom Come in the scope of the argument, and the new version is available at the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. The other article, ‘La libido reactionnaire? The recent fiction of J.G. Ballard’, is an update — again to include Kingdom Come — of a paper Noys gave at the Sixth European Social Science History Conference in 2006. Although the new version is only available via subscription at the Journal of European Studies website, I recommend seeking out the newer piece (contact me if you want a copy).
I’ve always found the Baudrillard/Ballard symbiosis intriguing, and it’s good to see someone update it with regards to Ballard’s more recent work, rather than referring solely, as so often happens, to 16-year old arguments surrounding Baudrillard’s ‘controversial’ reading of Crash. Noys is insightful for the way he examines how each element of this ‘Beckettian “pseudo-couple” ‘ — Ballard-Baudrillard — explores the need for ‘hyper-trangression’ in a society in which cultural capital routinely produces its own drip-fed doses of ‘regulated violence’. He makes the salient point, however, that such an invocation of the ultimate crime (so memorably and shockingly revealed in Super-Cannes) risks sustaining the ‘system of simulation’, producing a simulated ‘alterity’ (defined by Baudrillard, according to Noys, as ‘Otherness, difference, and negativity in their radical forms’) that can be controlled and measured — “the melodrama of difference” in Baudrillard’s words.
Noys writes that
[s]uch melodramas include, in Britain, the continuing “debate” on the integration of asylum seekers, British Muslims, and the “underclass”. In this way alterity is given an identitarian form, at once threatening and open to neutralisation within the body politic.
However, rather than taking the usual line of critics of Baudrillard, who only see ‘absolute pessimism in the face of inescapable systems’, Noys ends by developing a different strand in Baudrillard’s work: its earlier, provocative suggestion that ‘becoming banal’ may just break this feedback loop. Noys uses Kingdom Come to effectively illustrate the point, highlighting its ‘self-criticism’ of Ballard’s most recent novels and their fascination with trangression, and the novel’s subsequent descent into a kind of entropic inertia that recalls his earliest fiction. In this sense, an indifference to the all-encompassing gaze of the spectacle might just break the ‘vicious circle of incitement’. I tend to agree: in an age of instant celebrity in which anyone at all can become a star — a process unconnected with outmoded notions of ‘talent’ or ‘skill’ — the end result is, as we so often see, a total trade-off in terms of psychological health, security and well-being. ‘Becoming banal’ is therefore not a bad strategy to undertake. Remaining anonymous, withdrawing, embracing obscurity — it may just be the most radical strategy anyone could hope to deploy.
Regarding the ‘La libido reactionnaire?’ article, note that my comments below refer to the updated version, in which Noys considers the vexed question of Ballard’s politics.
‘Is J.G. Ballard a reactionary?’ Noys asks, in light of France’s ‘New Reactionaries controversy’, in which the ‘subversive gestures’ of writers including Michel Houellebecq were accused of actually serving ‘the agenda of the right’ rather than the automatic assumption that they were left-leaning. Noys looks at ways in which Ballard’s work seems to be endorsing the ‘reactionary libido’, via Zizek’s formualtion of the ‘obscene underside of the law’, and the sense that Ballard’s recent work apparently upholds the ‘”rightist” admiration for those willing to do the dirty work’. That’s an interesting equation, and in this light I couldn’t help but think of Ballard’s ‘psychopaths-as-saints’ as having more than a little in common with film vigilantes such as Dirty Harry and the Charles Bronson character in Death Wish. However, Noys suggests that Ballard’s turn towards the crime and thriller genres in his later work suggests ‘that his interrogation of what passes for politics is also an interrogation of what passes for fiction… As he did with science fiction, Ballard reworks existing elements of a genre to produce a new form of work’.
Noys makes the excellent point, echoed here on ballardian.com on a number of occasions, that ‘while [Ballard's] work is recognized as provocative and controversial, this is neutralized through the construction of an ‘eccentric’ authorial persona’. Noys sees this reductive process as deriving from the success of Empire of the Sun and the way in which that book’s ‘biographical keys’ have nullified some of the more extreme conclusions reached in his other fiction, especially the disturbing — and unanswered questions — Ballard raises about ‘regression, sexual deviance and the role of violence and radicalism in the arts’ (to quote, as Noys does, Michel Delville on Ballard).
In the end Noys sees this nullification as a result of the stifling ‘constriction of the terms of literary and cultural debate in Britain’, and ends by calling for critical re-engagement with Ballard’s most urgent concerns. Although I’m not sure he ever satisfactorily answers the question, ‘Is J.G. Ballard a reactionary?’, ultimately I’m not sure he has to. His article opens up many productive lines of enquiry that hopefully will be picked up by future analysts of Ballard’s work (as he writes, critical engagement is the key), although, I fear, not by the lazy journalism that distils the Ballardian essence to the British public, neutering Crash, puffing up Empire of the Sun, and completely ignoring the vast body of work Ballard has produced in and around these two iconic tomes.
One final point: as much as I enjoyed these two articles, I am still waiting for someone to take up Roger Luckhurst’s speculation, that the academic tendency to produce ‘theorized versions’ of Ballard (especially Crash), by reading the work through Bataille, Lacan, Baudrillard and so on, is because
these theoretical interventions are in exactly the same avant-garde tradition as the text they ostensibly strive to “explain.”…[for example] Lacan and Ballard seem to me to make the most sense if they are understood as writing in the wake of Surrealism. 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. (Luckhurst, ‘J. G. Ballard’s Crash’, Companion to Science Fiction, ed. David Seed, Blackwell, 2005)
One for the future, perhaps.
Noys also edited the latest edition of Film-Philosophy, which has as its theme ‘Lacan and Film’; all articles are available online. I know just a little about Lacan, but I respond to Noy’s introduction best when he states, ‘All the essays take film seriously as a place in which change can be thought, while also engaging with the aesthetic and political choices of the films and filmmakers they analyse, as well as the constraints of contemporary image production — what Mark Fisher calls “cyber-capital” in his contribution’.
And it’s Fisher’s essay that I’m interested in for the purposes of this site. It’s an update of a post he wrote for his k-punk blog a while back, and it positions the film Basic Instinct 2 as an exercise in ‘preposterous excess…not immediately [suggesting] Lacan so much as a delirial commodity porn confection of James Bond, Ballard and Bataille … auto-erotic in the double, Ballardian sense’. Now, who can resist a come on like that? Not me.
Fisher goes on to explore how Basic Instinct 2 feels more like a sequel to Cronenberg’s Crash rather than the original Basic Instinct, providing the surprising detail that Cronenberg actually worked on the film in pre-production. None other than Sharon Stone, that ‘elegant bitch’, says that some of his traces remained, and Fisher uses that detail to ruminate on the film’s Ballardian appeal:
+ The name of the femme fatale, Catherine: ‘Even Tramell’s first name seems to be transformed into a reference to Ballard’s 60s and 70s work, in which ‘Catherine’ was a frequently recurring name.’
+ The film’s setting, a ‘phantasmatic, cybergothic London’, which, for Fisher, recalls elements in Ballard’s book that obviously were not to be found in the Toronto setting of Cronenberg’s film. As Fisher says, ‘Ballard’s principal area of interest has always been environment and architecture rather than technology: even the car in Crash functions not as a machine but as a screen on which fantasies can be projected and a scene in which they can be acted out.’
+ The film’s ‘erotics of the superficial’ with its emphasis on objects, on environmental elements, on clothing. Ultimately for Fisher, the ‘very Ballardian’ in this film is also the ‘very Lacanian’, in that the characters ‘such as they are, have no more depth than the buildings they move through or the clothes they wear.’
The rest of the essay detours via Baudrillard’s Seduction, ‘one of his most Lacanian works’, and takes in an analysis of the ‘ontological haemorrhage’ of the recent ‘news’ hysteria surrounding the missing McCann child, including the manner in which the story has been framed and reframed as if it was a live drama improvised on the spot for the TV cameras. This analysis is all very skilfully done (although perhaps Lacan is missing in action a little towards the end; I don’t have Lacanian chops so I would have liked a bit more detail on how the film relates to his work), and Fisher relates and returns it all back to Basic Instinct 2, the film, with its refusal to resolve its world, with its vision of ‘ultra-precarious cybercapital, whose endlessly weaving digital labyrinths resemble the dream work itself.’
Also of note is Fisher’s review of The Killing of John Lennon in the latest Sight & Sound, which includes the following observation:
The film works best as an analysis of assassination as plagiarism. Chapman appears as a kind of bad but spectacularly successful postmodern author, synthesizing his influences not into an act of artistic production, but of a murder, acting out in the (hyper)real what had previously only happened on the page and the screen. Chapman becomes Travis (whose name was itself a cinematic reference, to Mick Travis in If), stalking a New York transformed by Bickle’s misanthropy and misguided sense of mission into a sin city that can only be redeemed by a symbolic act of murder. Chapman declares that he didn’t only kill Lennon; he ended an era, the Sixties. Yet Chapman’s killing of the star can be seen as in many ways an attempt to revive the perverse montage of murder and megastardom that defined the Sixties. In J G Ballard’s definitive examination of the Sixties’ mediatized violence, The Atrocity Exhibition, the lead character (saturated in cinema and TV, and sometimes referred to as ‘Travis’) ‘wants to kill Kennedy again, but this time in a way that makes sense’. Chapman’s would-be redemptive act belongs to the same (patho) logic of ritualised violence inspired by, and taking place in, the media landscape. (Even the Dakota building is another cinema reference: Rosemary’s Baby was filmed there.)
Very effectively, both Fisher and Noys answer at least one of Luckhurst’s challenges (if not the one mentioned earlier), namely the call he sent out at the Ballard conference in May last year for Ballard to be ‘rescued from the novel’, a form with which, as Fisher has said on his blog, ‘Ballard is clearly bored’, suggesting that we need to locate new, non-literary ways in which his work might be interpreted and adapted.
Interestingly, I recently came across a review of Kingdom Come in the London Book Review that got me thinking about precisely that. This anonymous review analysis states that:
As Ballard’s reputation has risen, so too have the number of critics who look to his work for a critique of where we are going. Still worse there are those who seek to discern hidden themes and patterns in the real world, who look to Ballard to find the pulse of what’s going on in the world around us.
Ouch! I have a sneaky feeling this reviewer won’t like ballardian.com, then, for I’ve never made any secret that this site has two main themes: firstly, to celebrate and critique Ballard’s work, and then to also uncover the ‘Ballardian’ out there in the real world. I feel it’s a mistake to dismiss Ballard’s relevance as a cultural critic, and to engage in purely textual, psychological readings of his work. This again is in opposition to the review, which states:
Ballard’s best work provides an oblique view of the world that is informed by his own obsessive visions and neuroses. That this can sometimes illuminate aspects of the world is almost incidental – it is certainly not the point of his work. Perhaps [in Kingdom Come] he’s simply trying to hard to be the JG Ballard that the critics are looking for. Maybe it’s time to become the JG Ballard that his fans adore instead.
To me, Ballard’s many interviews, especially the ones from his glory years — the early 70s to the early 80s — demonstrate the eye of an exceedingly sharp cultural critic and the mind of a deeply engaged philosopher. At one stage, a long time ago, I convinced myself that I preferred his interviews to his fiction. The RE/Search collection is exemplary in this regard: probed by people with a serious interest in cultural production and the media landscape, Ballard responds with a never-ending stream of insight and observation that still amazes to this day. Also run your eye over the archival interviews with Ballard I’ve posted here on the site and also the examples collected by Rick McGrath.
It’s quite clear from these that Ballard draws inspiration from popular culture, from the mass effects of consumerism and capitalism. In interviews he test these concepts, extrapolating them to their logical (and sometimes illogical) conclusions, engaging in wildly speculative flights of fancy. As a final step he plugs the results of these road tests into the hull of his fiction, providing a streamlined, supercharged iteration. Finally, more often than not, these turbocharged vehicles prove to be extraordinarily prescient, and this, to my mind, is because Ballard is so throughly grounded in the nitty-gritty mechanics of the machinery of post-late capitalism — or ‘cybercapital’, as Fisher would have it.
Yes, there’s Freud, surrealism, the shock and awe of Ballard’s life and biography as determinate causes for the power of his work, but for me — and for many others — it’s that precise evocation of post-post-modernity that really sticks to the skin and that especially powers the throbbing engine driving his career. It’s not for nothing that the Collins definition of ‘Ballardian’ refers to the worlds depicted inside Ballard’s work, as well as the world outside, ie: ‘the conditions described in Ballard’s novels & stories, esp. dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes & the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments’.
Sometimes the fiction and non-fiction blurs, loses its boundaries. Many bemoan the fact that Ballard no longer writes short stories, but I would suggest reading the many reviews and opinion pieces that have taken their place. Ostensibly rooted in real-world events, reality in fact provides a launching place for Ballard’s journalism to display as much imaginative insight as the best of his fiction: dreamy, evocative voyages into the realm of fantasy, sex and power. Reading Ballard’s recent piece on the Bilbao Guggenheim, for example, it’s impossible not to think of Cocaine Nights, perhaps Ballard’s most ‘architectural’ work, in which the built landscape guides the protagonist like some kind of artificial intelligence:
Novelty architecture dominates throughout the world, pitched like the movies at the bored teenager inside all of us. Universities need to look like airports, with an up-and-away holiday ethos. Office buildings disguise themselves as hi-tech apartment houses, everything has the chunky look of a child’s building blocks, stirring dreams of the nursery. But perhaps Gehry’s Guggenheim transcends all this. From the far side of the Styx I’ll look back on it with awe. (J.G. Ballard. ‘The larval stage of a new kind of architecture’, The Guardian, 8/10/07)
What I am trying to tell you, ultimately, is that Ben Noys and Mark Fisher are generating some of the most substantial and relevant commentaries around on Ballard’s work, bringing into sharper focus the insights of one of the most penetrating cultural critics around: J.G. Ballard. And they are doing this by breaking the frame, shattering the generic, policed boundaries surrounding Ballard’s fiction-theory.
I look forward to more.
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