April 23, 2009
Crash: Apocalypse and Prophecy In, With, and Through J. G. Ballard
— Jeremy Biles
That writer J. G. Ballard died this past Sunday, in the midst of the global economic crash, makes perfectly sad sense. Ballard was a harbinger of an apocalypse brought on by unrestrained commercialization, and a prophetic voice for both the possibilities and the pathologies of our increasingly technologized world. His books make startling use of religious idioms in conjuring dystopias of intensely image-fraught mass-media landscapes populated by characters in whom bodily injury and mental illness are conflated.
Ballard was strongly influenced by innovations in visual art. In his avant-garde science fiction, he adapted the techniques of montage, hallucinatory visions, fetishistic fragmentation, and shocking juxtaposition practiced by the surrealists (whom he described as the "best guides to the underworld" of human desire). Pop Art, with its incorporation of commercial imagery, heightened his sensitivity to the inexorable spread of the mass media landscape and the commodification of everyday life. And like the work of his beloved Salvador Dali - that scatophilic surrealist with pop proclivities - Ballard's obscene fiction has not failed to shock its audience.
In fact, obscenity is a key feature of much of Ballard's work, which has been reviled for its "pornographic" exploration of sexual paraphilias. The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), for example, was the subject of an obscenity trial, while Crash (1973) provoked one potential publisher to reject the manuscript with a note reading, "This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish."
But it would be a mistake simply to condemn or dismiss Ballard's obscenity. Obscenity was, for the author, one element of his prophetic mode of writing. "The writer," claimed Ballard, "has no business making moral judgments....I think it's far better, as [William] Burroughs did and I've tried to do in my small way, to tell the truth." Obscenity is a component of prophetic truth-telling, a means to reveal the diseases of contemporary reality.
One obscene aspect of today's culture that Ballard dealt with in books like The Atrocity Exhibition is consumerism, particularly in the forms of two principle corollaries of postindustrial capitalism: celebrity worship and commodity fetishism. If "worship" and "fetishism" call up associations with religion, it's with good reason. Critic Walter Benjamin, already more than sixty years ago, claimed that capitalism itself is an obscene religion: "Capitalism is a purely cultic religion, without dogma"; it is "perhaps the most extreme [religion] there ever was." The sacralization of capitalism means that "religion is [not about] the reform of being, but rather its obliteration."
Without reducing Ballard's fiction to some kind of allegory, one could say that this shocking work reveals the cultic aspects of the capitalist-consumerist religion, conveying its excesses in an array of deranged sacraments of obliteration. While the modes of these sacraments in his fiction are numerous - ranging from ritualized sex to celebrity martyrdom - perhaps the most conspicuous form is the "eucharist" of the car crash, as he describes it in The Atrocity Exhibition.
Ballard's Exhibition is a series of "condensed novels," fragmentary chapters whose narrator is likewise fragmented by the onslaught of mass media images and the collision of human bodies with machines - cars above all. The automobile, in Ballard's work, is the commodity fetish par excellence, a totem of mass consumption. Car crashes, in which human bodies and machines are violently brought into contact, and thus metaphorically fused, establish a point of impact with a negative form of transcendence: a harrowing ritual of sacrificial obliteration and totemic communion.
One commentator has suggested that the car crash "represents the (post)industrial equivalent of the crucifixion," with the medieval Christian Cult of the Wounds being reconfigured in the context of wrecks. In particular, celebrity car crashes - prime objects of public enthrallment - take on a mystical aspect, soliciting experiences of "mass religious ecstasy" in which those convening around the spectacle "[identify] with people and places not physically present." Under this sacrificial aspect, the cult of celebrity encourages a simultaneous unification with the celebrity personality and an "obliteration of the self" (Darius).
If this strikes you as depraved and disgusting - obscene - that's because the truth it reveals is obscene. The eucharistic car crash that Ballard described more than thirty years ago, in which Christopher Sharrett sees Ballard presenting "the bankruptcy of American mass ritual," proffers a poisonous host: the wreck dramatizes the illness of a people in the thrall of the religion of capitalism, a culture so intensely fixated on its commodities that it seeks violent communion with them. Today, that crash reverberates in the form of a global economic collapse - a sacrificial obliteration whose victims include all but those privileged few who perhaps stand in most need of a shock.
Walter Benjamin, "Capitalism as Religion," in The Frankfurt School on Religion: Key Writings by the Major Thinkers, ed. Eduardo Mendieta. For more on Benjamin and capitalism as an "obscene religion," see Slavoj Zizek, The Parallax View, p. 118.
Julian Darius, "Car Crash Crucifixion Culture," and Christopher Sharrett, "Crash Culture and American Blood Ritual," in Car Crash Culture, ed. Mikita Brottman.
Obituaries of J. G. Ballard can be found in The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/04/19/books/AP-EU-Obit JGBallard.html?_r=1&emc=eta1), in The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/apr/19/jg-ballard-author-dies-aged-78), and in
The New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2009/04/j-g-ballard.html).
J. G. Ballard offers a "reevaluation" of Salvador Dali in "Shock and Gore," in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/may/26/art.film
Jeremy Biles holds a PhD in Religion and Literature from the University of Chicago Divinity School and is the author of Ecce Monstrum: Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form (Fordham University Press, 2007).