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The 'DNA of the Present' in the Fossil Record of the Cold War Through the Imagery of JG Ballard, Related Sources and Documents in Various Media

Author: • Oct 7th, 2005 •

Category: academia, America, Australia, features, media landscape

by Pippa Tandy

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

“In a sense, I’m assembling the materials of an autopsy, and I’m treating reality – the reality we inhabit – almost as if it were a cadaver, or let’s say, the contents of a special kind of forensic inquisition… I regard all these as data which will play their role in whatever hypothesis I am proposing to offer, to explain the significance of mysterious and apparently unrelated objects, this huge network of ciphers, and encoded instructions – perhaps – that surround us in reality.”

– J.G. Ballard, interviewed by Graeme Revell (Summer 1983), RE/Search: J.G. Ballard (San Francisco: RE/Search Publications, 1984)

“Cadillacs, Coca Cola and cocaine, presidents and psychopaths, Norman Rockwell and the mafia… the dream of America endlessly unravels its codes, like the helix of some ideological DNA.”

– J.G. Ballard, Introduction to Hello America (1981)

Mallory stared at the distant gantries of Cape Kennedy. It was difficult to believe that he had once worked there. ‘I don’t think even Perth, Australia, is far enough. We need to set out in space again…’ ”

– J.G. Ballard, ‘Memories of the Space Age’ (1982)

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J.G. Ballard’s imagery reveals the fossil record of the Cold War as it remains in ruined installations, text, movies, photos and the contemporary psyche – the ‘helix of some ideological DNA’ as he puts it. Growing up here on the edge of the world – Perth, Western Australia – I have always been very interested in Cold War iconography, partly because of childhood memories such as the flights of the Soviet Sputnik and of John Glenn. Less fondly, I recall mucking in with a neighbour’s children to fill sandbags for his nuclear fallout shelter.

In this piece I negotiate relations between the images in Ballard’s writing and the visible relics of the Cold War. I have gathered images from ‘the media landscape’ and other sources. In early 2000 I took a research trip to the Trinity site in New Mexico and the Enola Gay archives at NASM, Washington DC. In 2002 I visited a decommissioned Titan Missile base, and a huge aircraft wrecker’s yard, both in Arizona. As most people interested in Ballard would know, there is a vast archaeology/palaeontology of the Cold War out there, and Ballard’s writing is a kind of field guide to its identification and classification.

This piece – originally presented as a Powerpoint presentation containing 39 slides and attendant discussion – is intended to promote these connections. It’s a kind of sketch for a longer piece I plan to make in another life. It comes out of a paper I presented at The American History of Science Society Annual Meeting at Milwaukee in November 2002. I planned it as a presentation where I read a paper and screened images. It didn’t quite work that way and I ended up running back and forth to a photocopy service to produce overhead transparencies as there were not enough data projectors to go around. The paper itself is an offshoot of my PhD dissertation which I am currently ‘finishing’.

– © Pippa Tandy

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Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Harvey’s anatomy of blood circulation (circa. 1628)

Fiction is a branch of neurology: the scenarios of nerve and blood vessel are the written mythologies of memory and desire.”

– J.G. Ballard, Ambit, No. 33 in 1967

For over forty years, in the late twentieth century, the Cold War and its omnipresent technologies provided the matrix, the essential mediating structure for experience of all kinds. The Cold War conditioned the possibilities, the pattern of a new culture, which was determined almost entirely by the technologies that it threw up. Through these and the cultural processes they initiated, it delineated, measured and defined the space in which newly emerging conditions of human existence came to be configured and consolidated. The priorities of the Cold War were embedded within the human, essential to life as we know it. The language and imagery of this configuration were hinged on powerful determinant metaphors making visible the relations of anxiety, power and desire that mediated the changing relations between human beings, their culture and technology.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Atomic Café, documentary film by Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader and Pierce Rafferty (1982)

I had seen these fossils before. Each of the bones I had remembered clearly, etched by the moonlight as I lay on the floor listening to the screaming of the birds as they struck in their sexual frenzy at the church tower. I remembered the shin bones of the archaic boar, and the barely human skull of a primitive valley dweller who had lived by this river a hundred thousand years earlier, the breastbone of an antelope and the crystalline spine of a fish – together the elements of a strange chimera. I remember too the terrifying skeleton of the winged man.”

– J.G. Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company (1979)

The work and writing of J.G. Ballard offers a field guide to the Cold War life world and its cultural productions. He applies his ruthless imagination to charting its phyla, to treating the evolving phenomena of the Cold War as a problem in taxonomy. He constructs sets of documents, charts, descriptions that open up the violent fusions, the unquestioned imperatives of the era of forensic inspection. For Ballard this new planet earth is ‘a deranged zoo and someone has left the cages open’. He describes his imagination at work, feeding on the ‘compost’ of ‘strange crossovers in the new communications world’, scientific and technological ‘plankton’, discarded documents from wastepaper baskets, images from World War II and the Cold War. Ballard calls all this ‘ideological DNA’ (J.G. Ballard, interviewed by Jonathan Cott, Rolling Stone, December 1987, Issue 413, p.57).

It is the key to understanding the present moment. It is not that the Cold War began and is now ended. Rather, it constitutes the cultural genetic inheritance that continues to shape our lives at every level and will do so for the foreseeable future. While the actual origins of the Cold War go further back, its structure becomes visible with the Manhattan Project and the American decision, against the advice of nuclear theorists and practitioners such as Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard and others, not to share discoveries and developments in nuclear weapons research with the Soviet Union.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Student textbook image of Klinefelter’s Syndrome chromosomes

In the field office he came across a series of large charts of mutated chromosomes. He rolled them up and took them back to his bunker. The abstract patterns were meaningless, but during his recovery he amused himself by devising suitable titles for them. (Later, passing the aircraft dump on one of his forays, he found the half-buried juke box, and tore the list of records from the selection panel, realizing that these were the most appropriate captions. Thus embroidered, the charts took on many layers of associations.)

– J.G. Ballard, ‘The Terminal Beach’, (1964)

Ballard states that ‘science fiction is a response to science and technology as perceived by the inhabitants of the consumer goods society’. The Cold War thus redefines the scope of literature and literary practices. There is no longer one literature but rather ‘fictions of every kind’. The writer must approach his subject matter ‘like a scientist or engineer’ and ‘out-imagine everyone else – scream louder, whisper more quietly’ (J.G. Ballard, ‘Fictions of Every Kind’, Books and Bookmen, Feb. 1971).

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Dr No (dir. Terence Young, 1962)

The subject matter of SF is the subject matter of everyday life: the gleam on refrigerator cabinets, the contours of a wife’s or husband’s thighs passing the newsreels on a color TV set, the conjunction of musculature and chromium artifact within an automobile interior, the unique postures of passengers on an airport escalator”

– J.G. Ballard, ‘Fictions of Every Kind’, Books and Bookmen, Feb, 1971

Ballard’s work and life parallel the growth and change in industrial technologies of World War II and the Cold War. He is both product and critic of the cultures effected by these technologies. His life experience brought him up against the material conditions of experience. His writing is informed by patterns, by repetition and return as he visits and revisits his subjects, He opens them to changing angles of vision and shifting distances and focus, as though through a set of variable focus lenses.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Alphaville (dir. Jean-Luc Godard,1965)

Thermonuclear weapons systems and soft drink commercials coexist in an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudoevents, science and pornography. Over our lives preside the great twin leitmotifs of the 20th century – sex and paranoia.

– J.G. Ballard, Introduction to the French edition of Crash, (1974)

In 1951 Lancelot Law-Whyte wrote of the ‘increasing awareness of the morphological character of many of the sciences, which are now seen to be concerned with complex structures or forms of particular kinds’. He anticipated the ‘simple and comprehensive method of describing the changing form or structure of a complex of relationships’ which was highlighted by the determination of the double helix structure of DNA two years later (Lancelot Law White, Note to ‘Chronological Survey on Form’, in Aspects of Form: A Symposium on Form in Nature and Art, 1951).

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Atomic Café, documentary film by Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader and Pierce Rafferty (1982)

Television has glamorized war for us, whether the movie drenched jungle palette of the Vietnam newsreel or the sinister black-and-white film relayed to our living rooms from the nose-cone cameras of Desert Storm’s smart bombs, which almost incite the television viewer to become a cruise missile.”

– J.G. Ballard, ‘The last Real Innocents’, The New York Times, 1991

Awareness of and interest in morphology is central to Cold War culture. Morphologies of the time are frequently articulated into culture through images. According to Lawrence Alloway, the word ‘image’ became a term that could be used to ‘describe evocative visual material from any source, with or without the status of art’, in the early 50s (Alloway, ‘The Development of British Pop’, Lucy Lippard, ed, Pop Art, 1966). This was when Ballard was reading medicine or wandering around London picking up work, writing advertising copy and selling encyclopaedias.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Kiss Me Deadly (dir. robert aldrich, 1955)

In essence, science fiction is a response to science and technology as perceived by the inhabitants of the consumer goods society, and recognizes that the role of the writer today has totally changed – he is now merely one of a huge army of people filling the environment with fictions of every kind. To survive he must be far more analytic, approaching his subject matter like a scientist or engineer. If he is to produce fiction at all, he must out-imagine everyone else, he must scream louder, whisper more quietly.

– J.G. Ballard, ‘Fictions of Every Kind’, Books and Bookmen, Feb, 1971

Also in the fifties, mechanical reproduction, spurred on by new technologies, increased the availability of images and their use in advertising and popular culture. Images thus became specimens, to be collected, reconfigured and exhibited, and ‘accessioned’ into taxonomies of desire. Both artists and the mass media gathered images from all sources into their archives.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Ice Station Zebra (dir. John Sturges,1968)

It’s photography and the cinema above all which provide us with reflections of this landscape. Television seems to me to supply a particularly important role, in the continuous flood of images with which it inundates our brain: it perceives things on our behalf, and it’s like a third eye grafted onto us.”

– J.G. Ballard, interviewed by Robert Louit, Magazine Littéraire no.87, April 1974

Magazines such as Life and Look increasingly exploited the potency of modern consumer imagery in the context of the culture and the technological events of the Cold War. Reiterated cycles of images became the currency, the everyday iconography, of the times. These images are now a vocabulary of the twentieth century, on the one hand a repository of cute kitsch, on the other, a powerful set of revelatory devices, as attested by the fact that many of the ‘key’ images of the period are now ‘owned’ by corporations.

Ballard is very aware of the power of these images. He is a visual writer, deploying images from his own archive, those of other artists and of the mass media. In collaging these images Ballard is also making a taxonomic frottage of the visual culture of his time, and a map of the human condition they inspired.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Ice Station Zebra (dir. John Sturges,1968)

The Image Maze. Talbot followed the helicopter pilot across the rain-washed concrete. For the first time, as he wandered along the embankment, one of the aircraft had landed. The slim figure of the pilot left no reflections in the silver pools. The exhibition hall was deserted. Beyond a tableau sculpture of a Saigon street execution stood a maze constructed from photographic billboards. The pilot stepped through a doorway cut into an image of Talbot’s face. He looked up at the photograph of himself, snapped with a lapel camera during his last seminar. Over the exhausted eyes presided the invisible hierarchies of the quasars. Reading the maze, Talbot made his way among the corridors. Details of his hands and mouth signposted its significant junctions.

– J.G. Ballard, ‘The University of Death’, The Atrocity Exhibition, (1970)

Ballard’s palaeontological treatment of technologies as cultural artifacts is essential for any analysis of the culture of the period. Ballard’s imagery makes visible the ontological structures of the emergent Cold War subject. It reveals the relationship between the body and the technological prosthesis of the ‘outside’ world, in which nature and artifice are violently conjoined.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1961)

The series of weapons tests had fused the sand in layers, and the pseudo-geological strata condensed the brief epochs, microseconds in duration of thermonuclear time. Typically the island inverted the geologist’s maxim, ‘The key to the past lies in the present.’ Here, the key to the present lay in the future. This island was a fossil of time future, its bunkers and blockhouses illustrating the principle that the fossil record of life was one of armour and the exoskeleton.”

– J.G. Ballard, ‘The Terminal Beach’ (1964).

The relationship between the body and the technological prosthesis of the ‘outside’ world, in which nature and artifice are violently conjoined, is apparent in both his method and subject matter, as in the ‘Terminal Beach’ quote above.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

B-29 flying over Tinian Base in the Marianas, 1945, courtesy Smithsonian Institute (National Air and Space Museum) Washington DC

In all probability the airplane is banked and is turning, although your sensations make you feel it is in straight and level flight. Don’t act according to your sensations. Check and cross check your instruments.”

– Pilot’s Information File, 1944: The Authentic World War II Guidebook for Pilots and Flight Engineers, Schiffer Military/Aviation History, Atglen Pennsylvania, 1995, Section 4, Man Goes Aloft, ‘Sense of position in Flight’, Part 9, 1 (Revised August 1, 1944)

For Ballard, the conditions of thought, action and desire are shaped by technology, via the exterior, by technology’s tropes as images and artifacts, in their military form, or, in their familiar domesticated manifestations. They are the sites for ramification of power, authority and sexuality such as the freeway, the cine-camera, the interiors of cars and fighter aircraft and most especially the omnipresent imagery of conflict and technological apocalypse, such as World War II air battles, in particular those of the Pacific war, and images of Vietnam and atomic bomb tests.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Kiss Me Deadly (dir. robert aldrich, 1955)

Brushing the flies from his mouth, Jim walked into the men’s ward. The decaying air streamed down the plywood walls, bathing the flies that fed on the bodies pied across the bunks. Identifiable by their ragged shorts and flowered dresses, and by the clogs embedded in their swollen feet, dozens of Lunghua prisoners lay on the bunks like sides of meat in a condemned slaughterhouse. Their backs and shoulders glistened with mucilage, and the splayed mouths in their ballooning cheeks still gaped as if these bloated men and women, dragged from a banquet, were gripped by a ravenous hunger.

He walked through the darkened ward, the tin of Spam held tightly to his chest, breathing through the magazines cupped over his mouth.”

– J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun (1984)

These figures, actual and imagined, have entered social and individual consciousness as recognizable and meaningful entities. The abandoned motels, rusting rocket gantries, drained swimming pools and deserted bars of Ballard’s fiction are ‘spinal landscapes’, the settings which arouse liminal memories of ‘the formation of the brain’s visual centres’ (‘The Assassination Weapon’, The Atrocity Exhibition, 1970), revealing the evolutionary development of vision and consciousness and the informing power of technology over this development.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Alphaville (dir. Jean-Luc Godard,1965)

At dusk on the second day he left the bed and went to the window for his first careful look at Cocoa Beach. Through the plastic blinds he watched the shadows bisecting the empty pool, drawing a broken diagonal across the canted floor. He remembered his few words to the cab driver. The complex geometry of this three-dimensional sundial seemed to contain the operating codes of a primitive time-machine, repeated a hundred times in all the drained swimming pools of Cape Kennedy.”

– J.G. Ballard, ‘Myths of the Near Future’ (1982)

They even suggest a parasitical relationship, in that technology exploits and mimics the structures of human consciousness in order to evolve. Ballard’s practice examines the man-made environment as a field of scientific investigation to discover the shaping processes of human subjectivity.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Atomic Café, dir. Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader and Pierce Rafferty (1982)

Identifying the island with himself, he gazed at the cars in the breaker’s yard, at the wire-mesh fence, and the concrete caisson behind him. These places of pain and ordeal were now confused with pieces of his body. He gestured towards them, trying to make a circuit of the island so that he could leave these sections of himself where they belonged. He would leave his right leg at the point of his crash, his bruised hands impaled upon the steel fence. He would place his chest where he had sat against the concrete wall. At each point a small ritual would signify the transfer of obligation from himself to the island.

He spoke aloud, a priest officiating at the eucharist of his own body.

‘I am the island.’”

– J.G. Ballard, Concrete Island (1973)

The middle decades of the twentieth century were crucial in the establishment of the rule of what Herbert Marcuse called ‘technological rationality’. The same imperative dominates military, industrial and domestic life, having entered and consolidated its authority in these spheres during this period. Futurism and its attendant discourses of streamlining, speed, growth and progress both describes and assists this colonization of the present.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Edward Steichen’s film for The Fighting Lady (1944)

Airports and airfields have always held a special magic, gateways to the infinite possibilities that only the sky can offer. In 1946, when I first came to England, a dark and derelict shell of a country, I used to dream of the runways of Wake Island and Midway, stepping stones that would carry me back across the Pacific to the China of my childhood. At school in Cambridge, and later as a medical student at King’s College, I would flee all that fossilised Gothic self-immersion and ride a borrowed motorcycle to the American airbases at Mildenhall and Lakenheath, happy to stare through the wire at the lines of silver bombers and transport planes. Airports then were places where America arrived to greet us, where the world of tomorrow touched down in Europe.

– J.G. Ballard in Blueprint: Architecture, Design and Contemporary Culture, No. 142, September, 1997

The future gets closer and closer, and even co-exists with the present in the many signs of its potential. It is glimpsed in the 1950s, and earlier in some places, in a freeway flyover, a city skyline, in the images reproduced from a biologist’s microscope or a physics laboratory. It is this period and imaginative crucible of the co-existence of present and future that J.G. Ballard calls ‘the near future’. The near future is the potential of the future in the present.

Eventually the present and future collide and the effect is that described by the computer Alpha-60 in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville: ‘But no one has lived in the past and no one will live in the future. The present is the form of all life.’

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Kiss Me Deadly (dir. robert aldrich, 1955)

The pallid skin was marked with a hatchwork of weals where his fingers had tried to scratch away the names of the cities. For a moment he resembled an Aztec priest ready to dismember himself.”

– J.G. Ballard, Hello America (1981)

To put it another way, the future is latent in the present, and the near future is the place in which this latent meaning becomes manifest, the ‘inner space’ or psyche of the everyday. Ballard creates a mythic, speculative time and space and uses it to explore the relationships between humans and technology. (‘The future is the key to the present’ – Ballard, ‘The Terminal Beach’ 1964).

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Observation bunker at Trinity Site, still from video, Pippa Tandy (2000)

Wings of light hung from his shoulders, feathered into a golden plumage drawn from the sun, the reborn ghosts of his once and future selves, conscripted to join him here in the streets of Cocoa Beach… The flow of light had begun to slow, layers of time overlaid each other, laminae of past and future fused together. Soon the tide of photons would be still, space and time would set forever.”

– J.G. Ballard, ‘Myths of the Near Future’ (1982)

The unifying technological ‘achievement’ of the century is the nuclear bomb. The first atomic device exploded at Alamogordo in July 1945 and turned the desert at ‘ground zero’ to glass. The nuclear explosion itself is a metaphor of sophisticated transformation, involving both implosion and explosion, and generating the mutative effects of radiation. As the most powerful metaphor of the century it also diminishes the power of metaphor to discriminate experience, as though the science and technology of this event appropriates language and imagery to its own ends in one momentous displacement of energy.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Alphaville (dir. Jean-Luc Godard,1965)

I want a mythology that starts now, this moment in time, and runs forward… This is a mythology that obviously draws heavily on science and technology, and also on the communications landscape (which is a completely new thing, a parallel world which we inhabit), because they play such an important part.

– J.G. Ballard interviewed by Graeme Revell, J.G. Ballard, RE/Search: (San Francisco: RE/Search Publications, 1984, 1991)

While this effect may not have been immediately apparent, the development of nuclear weapons ultimately ‘reordered’ everything from time, space and sex to food and sleep. The Cold War induced a nuclear ‘reality,’ a unitary, monolithic fact so ‘extreme’ as to be beyond metaphor. The single most extreme metaphor became banal, a mere fact of life. It provoked the ultimate, very public, death of metaphor as the primary practical means to structure knowledge, culture and the quotidian.

Ballard imagines the means to resist and revalue its received representations, to recover language and imagery from the grip of both the technocrat and the literary moralist.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Student textbook image of Klinefelter’s Syndrome chromosomes

Around the brass vent at the deep end lay a small museum of past summers – a pair of his mother’s sun-glasses, Vera’s hair clip, a wine glass, and an English Half-crown which his father had tossed into the pool for him. Jim had often spotted the silver coin, gleaming like an oyster, but he had never been able to reach it.

Jim pocketed the coin and peered at the damp walls. There was something sinister about a drained swimming-pool, and he tried to imagine what purpose it could have if it were not filled with water. It reminded him of the concrete bunkers in Tsingtao, and the bloody handprints of the maddened German gunners on the caisson walls. Perhaps murder was about to be committed in all the swimming-pools of Shanghai, and their walls were tiled so that the blood could be washed away?”

– J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun (1984)

His ‘even more extreme metaphors’ respond to this process at its end point in the everyday. Their luminary, repetitive quality parallels the reiterative, neurotic monolith of Cold War imagery but tilts it to give the reader a sideways view of the machine at work. Like the Los Alamos ‘gadget’, the monolith is now vaporized but its images and artifacts remain, a powerful mysterious presence that is the subject of Ballard’s work.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Ice Station Zebra (dir. John Sturges,1968)

In the centre of the table was a huge roulette wheel, its transparent bowl illuminated from below. It was spinning slowly, and the projected light raced across the walls and ceiling, dappling the display map of the USA and everything else in the room with a series of racing letters.

… BALTIMORE … TAMPA … NEW ORLEANS … PORTLAND … TOPEKA … TRENTON … KNOXVILLE …

As the names circled the room, Wayne felt Paco nudge him forward. Sitting at the head of the table, in the place reserved for both President and croupier, was the naked figure of Manson. Illuminated by the roulette wheel, his waxy skin glowed like a painted corpse’s…

Reflected from the glass target wall, the names of all cities of America rippled across Manson’s skin so that he resembled an aging harlequin in an alphabet suit. His left hand scratched absent-mindedly at the electric names that glimmered across his skin.”

– J.G. Ballard, Hello America (1981)

‘The nuclear reality’ – ‘technological rationality’ taken to its extreme – produce the conditions that Ballard observes in the late 1960s, that he calls ‘the death of affect’, an ‘ambiguous world’ born of ‘the marriage of reason and nightmare’. The term implies a paralysis generated by ‘sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy.’ The television screen, ‘a third eye grafted onto us’, is one of the vectors that admit technology and its implications directly to human desire.

In the leaflet handed to guests at his exhibition of crashed cars in 1970, Ballard writes:

The 20th century has given birth to a vast range of machines – computers, pilotless planes, thermonuclear weapons – where the latent identity of the machine is ambiguous. An understanding of this identity can be found in the automobile.”

– J.G. Ballard, leaflet distributed at new sculpture, New Arts Laboratory Gallery, Robert Street, London (1970).

Ballard sees in the car, or in cars and roads, the stylisation of human cruelty, sexuality and obsession, and human bodies echo this stylisation in the gestures and postures of death, disfigurement and sexual congress which take place in the site of the motorways of the modern city. And the freeway is the domestic version of the runway and weapons testing site.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Map of The Atomic Bombing of Japan, August 1945 from The Manhattan Project, United States Department of Energy, 1999, p.52

The series of weapons tests had fused the sand in layers, and the pseudo-geological strata condensed the brief epochs, microseconds in duration of thermonuclear time. Typically the island inverted the geologist’s maxim, ‘The key to the past lies in the present.’ Here, the key to the present lay in the future. This island was a fossil of time future, its bunkers and blockhouses illustrating the principle that the fossil record of life was one of armour and the exoskeleton.”

– J.G. Ballard, ‘The Terminal Beach’ (1964).

Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930. He enjoyed the privileges of life in its expatriate British community. This continued even after the ‘Rape of Nanjing’, the fighting between Japanese and Chinese forces in Shanghai and the accidental bombing of the Avenue Edward VII in 1937 and the death of 1,012 people, mostly Chinese refugees. After Pearl Harbour, however, he and his family were interned by the Japanese in a Civilian Assembly Centre, an experience that he recalls in some short stories and his novels, Empire of the Sun and its sequel The Kindness of Women.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Alphaville (dir. Jean-Luc Goddard, 1965)

At the time he had found himself wishing that Catherine had been with him – she would have liked the ziggurat hotels and apartment houses, and the vast, empty parking lots laid down by planners years before any tourist would arrive to park their cars, like a city abandoned in advance of itself.”

– J.G. Ballard, Concrete Island (1973)

In the Kindness of Women, Ballard sums up the effects of his experience of war in China:

In Shanghai, from 1937 to the dropping of the atom bombs, we had been neither combatants nor victims, but spectators roped in to watch an execution. Those who had drawn too close had been touched by the blood on the guns.”

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Aerial photograph of Tinian Base in the Marianas, 1945, courtesy Smithsonian Institute (National Air and Space Museum) Washington DC

The series of weapons tests had fused the sand in layers, and the pseudo-geological strata condensed the brief epochs, microseconds in duration of thermonuclear time. Typically the island inverted the geologist’s maxim, ‘The key to the past lies in the present.’ Here, the key to the present lay in the future. This island was a fossil of time future, its bunkers and blockhouses illustrating the principle that the fossil record of life was one of armour and the exoskeleton.”

– J.G. Ballard, ‘The Terminal Beach’ (1964)

Ballard was a student of medicine at King’s College, Cambridge for two years. The experience of the dissecting room helped model the tension between disaffection and responsibility in his writing. The experience is recalled in The Kindness of Women, as both carrying meanings to do with Ballard’s traumatic past, and as a training ground for his practice as a writer. Cadavers do not appear like the dead as much as like ‘visitors from another planet’ and the experience of dissection is ‘as close as you can get to another human being’, linked both physically and imaginatively to erotic experience.

This was central to Ballard’s concerns and methods in his writing, analogous to the clinical biopsy:

Doing anatomy was an eye-opener: one had built one’s whole life on an illusion about the integrity of one’s body, this ‘solid flesh’. One mythologizes one’s own familiar bits of flesh and tendon. Then to see a cadaver on the dissecting table and begin to dissect it myself and to find at the end of term that there was nothing left except a sort of heap of gristle and a clutch of bones with a label bearing some dead doctor’s name–-that was a tremendous experience of the lack of integrity of the flesh, and the integrity of this doctor’s spirit.”
– Ballard interviewed by Lyn Barber, Penthouse, vol 5, Sept. (1970)

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Observation bunker at Trinity Site, still from video by Pippa Tandy

Arrival at the zone. They sat in the unfading sunlight on the sloping concrete. The abandoned motorway ran off into the haze, silver firs growing through its sections. Shivering in the cold air, Talbot looked out over the landscape of broken overpasses and crushed underpasses. The pilot walked down the slope to a rusting grader surrounding by tyres and fuel drums. Beyond it a quonset tilted into a pool of mud. Talbot waited for the young woman to speak to him, but she stared at her hands, lips clenched against her teeth. Against the drab concrete the white fabric of her dress shone with an almost luminescent intensity. How long had they sat there?”

– J.G. Ballard, ‘The University of Death’, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)

Ballard’s science fiction arises precisely out of the Cold War conditions that also effect the transmission of American culture in Britain. While in the RAF in Canada, Ballard read a lot of American science fiction magazines. Back in England, (in about 1953) while waiting to be released from the RAF he wrote his first SF story, ‘Passport to Eternity’.

I was still in the RAF when I wrote that story. I wrote it at RAF Booker, which was a base for cashiered aircrew, for people being thrown out of the Air Force. We sat in this airfield, near High Wycombe, a sort of transit camp, straight out of Kafka in a way. There were great gloomy huts by the pines on the edge of these empty runways where we reject aircrew sat around, trying to keep warm by the one stove. They didn’t bother to keep us warm, and there was nothing to do. There were two squadron leaders who were in charge of processing us, and they had to wait for various documents to arrive. As mine had to come from Canada, I spent a long time there. Weeks went by, and I sat around waiting for my name to be called. Suddenly a name would be called out., the man in question would go to meet these squadron leaders, and five minutes later he would be a civilian and leave the base forever. One didn’t know when this was going to happen, so with all this spare time on my hands I thought ‘I’ll write a science fiction story!’ Which I did. I’d been reading all this stuff in Canada. For some reason I wrote ‘Passport to Eternity’, which was a sort of summary of it all in a way.”

– J.G. Ballard, ‘From Shanghai to Shepperton’, RE/Search: J.G. Ballard, San Francisco: RE/Search Publications (1984)

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Atomic Café, documentary film by Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader and Pierce Rafferty (1982)

After his arrival at the clinic Franklin’s first patient was a badly burned fighter pilot who had taxied his jet through the doors of a hanger. The second was one of the last of the astronauts, a former naval captain named Trippett. The pilot was soon beyond reach in a perpetual dusk, but Trippett had hung on, lucid for a few minutes each day. Franklin had learned a great deal from Trippett, the last man to have walked on the moon and the last to hold out against the fugues – all the early astronauts had long since retreated into a timeless world. The hundreds of fragmentary conversations, and the mysterious guilt that Trippett shared with his colleagues, like them weeping in his dreams, convinced Franklin that the sources of the malaise were to be found in the space programme itself.”

– J.G. Ballard, ‘News From the Sun’ (1982)

The story fulfils the general criteria of science fiction: it is futuristic in setting, it speculates about technologies, in particular, the relationship between boredom, leisure and technology and it predicts the development of biotechnologies and the technologies of ‘virtual reality’. The media landscape is the landscape of the psyche and marriage has a new role. Where it once was an institution in the apparatus of patriarchy, it has become an instrument of technology. Ballard also very clearly demonstrates the relationship between military technologies and leisure, something that perhaps arises from the conditions of the making of this story.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from John Sturges, Ice Station Zebra (1968)

A metallic blue light, as if in some hospital intensive care unit, shone down on the marble-skinned body of a middle-aged man lying on a surgical couch in front of a battery of television screens. He was naked except for the towel around his waste, and held an aerosol inhaler in one hand, a remote-control TV unit in the other. The blue light trembled against his white skin, and gave it a look of engorged, unhealthy activity, that of trapped venous blood struggling to return to an over-active heart. His eyes were fixed on the tiers of screens, as if his real existence resided in this ionised flow of flickering images rather than in his own restless musculature.”

– J.G. Ballard, Hello America (1981)

These conditions are those of the beginnings of the nuclear arms race, in particular the contest for nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, and the break-up of the globe into zones regulated by the speed and range of these systems was underway. The pilots who had been so much a part of the iconography of World War II were soon to be superseded by ICBMs. The displacement of human labour by machine has the effect, as it did in the industrial revolution, of defining superseded human labourers, not as inappropriate because of their human qualities, but as inadequate machines. Those ‘reject aircrew’, presumably unfit for the new world order of B-52s and jet fighters, were being returned to the quotidian where they would be enlisted as consumers.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Edward Steichen’s film for the Fighting Lady (1945)

The sunlight faded. A few inches from me, through the water-dimmed windshield, a once-human face grimaced at me. A drowned man wearing an aviator’s helmet, his mouth fixed in a death-gape, lay across the controls, arms swaying towards me in the current that flowed through the cabin door.”

– J.G. Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company (1979)

This was also the time of the exhibition ‘Parallel of Life and Art’ (1953) at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, organized by Eduardo Paolozzi, Nigel Henderson and Alison and Peter Smithson. In this exhibition the practices of sculpture, photography and architecture were set together to make an exhibition of images from reproductive media (photography of different kinds) anthropological images and objects, children’s art and other sources. It drew from the flux of images that accompanied the American rise to industrial power and the domestication of powerful technological structures in western life.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain (1940-2)

War. The possibility at last exists that war may be defeated on the linguistic plane. If war is an extreme metaphor, we may defeat it by devising metaphors that are even more extreme.

– J.G. Ballard, ‘Project for a Glossary of the Twentieth Century’, Zone 6, Incorporations, ed. Jonathon Crary and Sanford Kwinter (New York: Urzone 1992)

For example, the Smithsons’ Golden Lane City, Great Britain, a pastiche of a drawing of high rise domestic architecture, photographs of people enjoying ‘modern life’, and popular heroes Joe di Maggio and Marilyn Monroe, prefigures the media culture daily life that will become prevalent in the 1960s. Technology provides the domestic structures, both social and physical, and the images of human life that are to take place within these structures. Britain’s relationship to America is thus figured in a manner that appears as a corollary to the figure of the bleak airfield and its cold huts filled with idle airmen where Ballard wrote his first science fiction story. Both are fully articulated in ‘Passport to Eternity’, which speculates on the relationship between boredom, leisure and technology, and is an essay on desire flickering between the active fields of military and consumerist technologies.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Kiss Me Deadly (dir. Robert Aldrich, 1955)

Leached away by the camera lens, the dimension of depth is missing from the room, and the two figures have an increasingly abstract relationship to each other, and to the rectilinear forms of the settee, walls and ceiling. In this context almost anything is possible, their movements are a series of postural equations that must have some significance other than their apparent one.”

– J.G. Ballard, ‘The 60 Minute Zoom’ (1976)

In 1956 Ballard saw the exhibition ‘This is Tomorrow’, at the Whitechapel Gallery. This exhibition, seen as central to the development of British Pop Art, invokes in its title the notion of the near future. Richard Hamilton’s ‘Just What It Is That Makes Today’s Homes So Different’, a key work in this exhibition, articulates clearly the presence of the technological in the daily lives of modern humans. Ballard shared the approach to the media environment taken by these Pop Artists.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from John Sturges, Ice Station Zebra (1968)

In terms of television and the news magazines the war in Vietnam has a latent significance very different from its manifest content. Far from repelling us, it appeals to us by virtue of its complex of polyperverse acts. We must bear in mind, however sadly, that psychopathology is no longer the exclusive preserve of the degenerate and perverse. The Congo, Vietnam, Biafra—these are games that anyone can play.”

– J.G. Ballard, ‘Tolerances of the Human Face’ in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)

It was supported by his experience firstly as a technical writer and as assistant editor on the journal Chemistry & Industry. This was a journal published by the Society of Chemical Industry, in Belgrave Square where Ballard worked for three or four years, an experience he describes as ‘sailing with jaws open through a great sea of delicious plankton’. (Shanghai Jim: A Film about J.G. Ballard, produced by James Runcie, BBC, 1991)

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Photograph (1958-65) by Paul Virilio, from Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology, 1975, trans George Collins, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1995)

His face was still numb from the sea air, and he was intent on his communion with the empty sand and the block-houses. Walking along the beach, he had been surprised by the size of these concrete monsters. He had expected a chain of subterranean pill-boxes hiding within the sea wall, but many of them were massive fortresses three storeys high, larger than the parish churches in the near-by towns. The presence of the blockhouses, like the shells of the steel pontoons embedded in the wet sand, had pulled an unexpected trigger in his mind. Like all examples of cryptic architecture, in which form no longer revealed function – Mayan palaces, catacombs, Viet Cong sanctuaries, the bauxite mines at Les Baux where Cocteau had filmed Testament d’Orphée – these World War II blockhouses seemed to transcend time, complex ciphers with a powerful latent identity.”

– J.G. Ballard, ‘One Afternoon at Utah Beach’ (1978)

Ballard was less interested in adventures in outer space than in what he calls ‘inner space’, the ‘terrain’ where the inner world of the mind and the outer world of reality meet and fuse’ (Ballard, introduction to the French edition of Crash, 1974). In the late 1960s and early 1970s Ballard’s writing brought him closer and closer to the near future with works like The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1973) and High Rise (1975).

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Atomic Café, dir. Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader and Pierce Rafferty (1982)

The air shed its light.”

– J.G. Ballard, Concrete Island (1973)

The Atrocity Exhibition is about the ways in which the modern world, or the human psyche, has become an exhibition of atrocities to be viewed via the television set, films, advertising billboards and other mass media forms. It is also a novel about the ways in which the exterior world maps our desires and psychopathologies.
Its main method is the experiment.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Trinitite (Desert sand vitrified by heat of Trinity blast, detail of photograph by Pippa Tandy, 2000)

All week they had watched the montaged sequences of commercial pornographic films, listening without response to Talbert’s analysis of each posture and junction. Catherine Austin stared at the giant frames. Fossilized into the screen, the terraced images of breast and buttock had ceased to carry any meaning.”

– J.G. Ballard, ‘The Great American Nude’, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)

Ballard sets up a series of simulations in a novel that is a kind of laboratory of the technological events of the period. Recurring images in the dream landscapes of ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ and other stories include body matter such as spinal tissue, brain matter, genital and reproductive matter, muscles, blood, bone, lymphatic fluid, skeleto-muscular intersections, nerves, eyes and optic function, dactylic pads, and thighs. These are brutally juxtaposed to details of modern technology – details of car parts, instruments, helicopters, museums, and apartment blocks. He thus releases his characters’ actions and their settings from the trap of psychological realism.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Photograph of M3 looking towards Heathrow from Shepperton, by Pippa Tandy (2002)

Freud’s classic distinction between the manifest and latent content of the inner world of the psyche now has to be applied to the outer world of reality. A dominant element in this reality is technology and its instrument, the machine. In most roles the machine assumes a benign or passive posture – telephone exchanges, engineering hardware, etc. The twentieth century has also given birth to a vast range of machines – computers, pilotless planes, thermonuclear weapons – where the latent identity of the machine is ambiguous even to the skilled investigator. An understanding of this identity can be found in the automobile, which dominates the vectors of speed, aggression, violence and desire. In particular the automobile crash contains a crucial image of the machine as conceptualized psychopathology. Tests on a wide range of subjects indicate that the automobile, and in particular the automobile crash, provides a focus for the conceptualizing of a wide range of impulses involving the elements of psychopathology, sexuality and self-sacrifice.

– J.G. Ballard, ‘Crash’, in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)

Ballard uses the forensic tools of science fiction to expose the relationships between objects, the mind and the body: In ‘The Summer Cannibals’ (1969), for example, an architectonics of the body in a technological landscape is described:

A Confusion of Mathematical Models. Holding her cheap Nikon, he led the young woman down the bank. In the sunlight the drained river stretched below them, a broken checkerboard floor. At the mouth a delta of shingle formed an ocean bar, pools of warm water filled with sea urchins. Beyond the silver span of the motor bridge lay basins of cracked mud the size of ballrooms–-models of a state of mind, a curvilinear labyrinth. Handing her the camera, he began to explore the hollows around them. Images of Bardot’s body seemed to lie in these indentations, deformed elements of thigh and thorax, obscene sexual wounds. Fingering the shaving scar on his jaw, he watched the young woman waiting with her back to him. Already, without touching her, he knew intimately the repertory of her body, the anthology of junctions. His eyes turned to the multi-story car park beside the apartment blocks above the beach. Its inclined floors contained an operating formula for their passage through consciousness.”

– J.G. Ballard, ‘The Summer Cannibals’, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Trinitite (Desert sand vitrified by heat of Trinity blast, detail of photograph by Pippa Tandy, 2000)

Already too, the relic hunters were at Cape Kennedy, scouring the burning saw grass for instrument panels and flying suits and – most valuable of all – the mummified corpses of dead astronauts.

– J.G. Ballard, ‘The Dead Astronaut’, (1968)

Ballard shows how technology makes its own boneyards, the discarded shells, or evidence, of the conditions of human life. The figure of the dead airman, either recovered from his crashed plane or forever immersed in its wreckage as part of a marine dreamscape, the chrysalis of the new subject, awaiting or undergoing transformation recurs frequently.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Ice Station Zebra (dir. John Sturges; 1968)

Pirate Radio. There were a number of secret transmissions to which Travis listened: (1) medullary: images of dunes and craters, pools of ash that contained the terraced faces of Freud, Eatherly, and Garbo; (2) thoracic: the rusting shells of U-boats beached in the cove at Tsingtao, near the ruined German forts where the Chinese guides smeared bloody handprints on the caisson walls; (3) sacral: VJ Day, the bodies of Japanese troops in the paddy fields at night.

– J.G. Ballard, ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)

The palaeontological, in the form of a ‘geological layer’ of shattered glass in Crash, the last, dying dogfish of the short story, ‘The Deep End’, or the remains of an astronaut orbiting earth in a long defunct space capsule, unite past, future and present.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Gravel pit Wraysbury, photograph Pippa Tandy (2002)

Five years later, after I resigned from NASA, we made our first trip our first trip to Cape Kennedy. A few military units still guarded the derelict gantries, but already the former launching site was being used as a satellite graveyard. As the dead capsules lost orbital velocity, they homed onto the master radio beacon. As well as the American vehicles, Russian and French satellites in the joint Euro-American space projects were brought down here, the burned-out hulks of the capsules exploding across the cracked concrete.

– J.G. Ballard, ‘The Dead Astronaut’ (1968)

For Ballard the airfield is a place of gestation, and a parodic birth occurs with detonation –- or re-entry of a derelict spacecraft – at the dropping zone, or ‘ground zero’.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Still from Alphaville (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

In the field office he came across a series of large charts of mutated chromosomes. He rolled them up and took them back to his bunker. The abstract patterns were meaningless, but during his recovery he amused himself by devising suitable titles for them. (Later, passing the aircraft dump on one of his forays, he found the half-buried juke box, and tore the list of records from the selection panel, realizing that these were the most appropriate captions. Thus embroidered, the charts took on many layers of associations.)”

– J.G. Ballard, ‘The Terminal Beach’, (1964)

The concrete formations, the metallurgical and aerodynamic artefacts of World War II and the Cold War are Ballard’s specimens. The names Eniwetok, Guam, Wake Island and so on resonate as the places from which aircraft began their bombing missions or as the sites of weapons tests. Their positions in the Pacific, distant but strategic, give them particular imaginative qualities. They are archaeological sites, places to which one might return in some atavistic dream:

Beach Fatigue. After climbing the concrete incline, he reached the top of the embankment. The flat, endless terrain stretched away on all sides, a few oil derricks in the distance marking the horizon. Among the spilled sand and burst cement bags lay old tyres and beer bottles. Guam in 1947. He wandered away from here, straddling roadworks and irrigation ditches, towards a rusting quonset near the incline of the disused overpass. Here, in this terminal hut, he began to piece together some sort of existence. Inside the hut he found a set of psychological tests. Although he had no means of checking them, his answers seemed to establish an identity. He went off to forage, and came back to the hut with some documents and a coke bottle.”

– J.G. Ballard, ‘The Assassination Weapon’, The Atrocity Exhibition, 1970

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard's Cold War

Trinity street sign, Los Alamos, New Mexico, still from video by Sophia Bromfield (2000)

War. The possibility at last exists that war may be defeated on the linguistic plane. If war is an extreme metaphor, we may defeat it by devising metaphors that are even more extreme.

– J.G. Ballard, ‘Project for a Glossary of the Twentieth Century’, Zone 6, Incorporations, ed. Jonathon Crary and Sanford Kwinter (New York: Urzone 1992)

The new creature, the Cold War, imprints its presence on the physical and psychic landscapes of its time. Ballard is actively aware of this process, makes it the subject of his practice. He makes his frottages of the mineralized Cold War imprint, or biopsies of its remnants. These he assembles, orders and identifies, to suggest the possible conditions that gave rise to the phenomena of the late twentieth century.

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