Grave New World

BBC Radio 3 10/11/98

David Gale talks to leading thinkers about their radical vision of the future.

J.G. Ballard writes about the collisions between people and a world transformed by technology. In the 1970s he wrote the novel 'Crash', recently filmed by David Cronenberg, in which his protagonists derived erotic satisfaction from car crashes. Other works, such as 'The Atrocity Exhibition', 'High Rise' and most recently 'Cocaine Nights', explore a territory in which the self is splintered and invaded by a myth-ridden mediascape that has eclipsed the real world.

Jim Ballard; many of the characters in your books seem to be able to thrive in circumstances that most people would find fairly destabilizing, to say the least, and these circumstances appear to be futuristic extensions of things that are already going on in our current experience. Do you think that you might have therefore laid out a blueprint for personality types that could thrive in the 21st Century?

Of course some people over the years have suggested that mental illness is a kind of adaptation to the sort of circumstances that will arise in the future. As we move towards a more and more psychotic landscape, the psychotic traits are signs of a sort of, you know, a kind of Darwinian adaptation. After all, my grandparents, were they able to visit this country today, Western Europe or the United States for that matter, would find it an extraordinary place; I mean a landscape of sensation, dominated by the mass media, who're selling everything on the strength of... eroticism, violence, and, in terms of advertising, huge claims to a sort of mythic wonderland of possibility that buying the latest, you know, refrigerator or electric toothbrush will usher you into. My grandparents would have thought this place absolutely mad, and they might well think that someone as disturbed as some of the characters in my fiction were rather sensible in the way they behaved.

So a conventional psychoanalytic view would be that we can adjust, we must be well adjusted, and the psychopath is not well adjusted. So are we leaving behind the notion of being well adjusted?

Well the psychopath may not be well adjusted to a society such as existed, say, 30 or 40 years ago, but there are periods of history, and we've passed through quite a number of them and are still doing so where, you know, the psychopath is highly adjusted to whatever, you know, is going on around him, and look at the Second World War; look at the former Yugoslavia today. Psychopaths roved both these sort of nightmare terrains and were probably the best adapted of all. I mean the sane and cautious and quotes 'well adjusted' were the people who sadly were unable to cope.

I mean, another conventional view of the genesis of psychopathy would lay the originating incidence at the door of the family. But you don't seem to write about that much, you seem to think we have a pathogenic media culture that is as powerful if not more powerful than anything your parents could do to you.

I think that's true, I mean I take the view that... the environment today is itself so filled with pressures of every conceivable kind - the pressures to conform, the pressures to amuse oneself, the pressures to find oneself - and the constant bombardment of everyday life by advertising, the media landscape, together represent a continuing kind of challenge to one's sanity. And, of course, many of my characters are wilting under the pressure; they don't want to buy any more refrigerators or electric toothbrushes, you know, they want to find some truth about themselves, so they embark, generally speaking in my fiction, on some sort of voyage of discovery.

If you look at a book of mine like 'The Atrocity Exhibition', there you have this psychiatrist who's having a mental breakdown, who is obsessed with what he sees as the great tragedies of the mid-20th Century, above all the assassination of Kennedy, and he sets up a whole series of psychodramas in which Kennedy is, as it were, assassinated again, Marilyn Monroe commits suicide again, and so on. But as he himself says, he wants to kill Kennedy, but in a way that makes sense. He's trying to re-mythologise these terrible tragedies in order to lay them to rest. And outwardly some of his behaviour in 'The Atrocity exhibition' might seem very bizarre, but in fact it's all logically constructed. They're constructing their own logical alternative universe to what they see as a sort of poisoned realm. Which is a fair description of the world today, still.

So, by that token, in 'Crash', the people who seek that great physical intimacy with automobiles and parts of automobiles are embarked on a sort of healing process.

Absolutely. Absolutely. They're faced with a conundrum that faces almost all the characters in my fiction; sensation rules our world, and a sort of perverse logic is operating which thrives on violence, and to some extent, a lesser extent I think, sex. The media landscape is saturated with images of violence and sexuality, desperately trying to extract a sort of flicker, a galvanic response from the sort of dead frog's leg of, you know, the human spirit, and my characters are trying to sort of establish a more meaningful sort of psychological circuitry, that at present is completely overwhelmed by our sort of perverse entertainment landscape.

You've spoken about predictive mythologies, as distinct from mythologies that were shaped in the distant past, and that our aids to living in a rather unchanging present; I suspect you think that the present is changing so fast that the old conceptions of mythology are no longer useful. Predictive mythologies are those which you have said equip us to live in the future. If you're not bound to be psychopathic, if you don't tend to be hysterical, what predictive mythologies, or strategies if you like, can you conceive of that would help get people through this media informational avalanche that seems to induce such tremendous stress?

Well, the 20th Century has been a huge manufacturer of what I call predictive mythologies. I mean one of the greatest is the notion of space travel; the idea that one day mankind will leave this planet and move outwards into the solar system, colonizing other planets, and then beyond the solar system into, you know, the universe as a whole. I would say that that dream of colonization of space has rather faded now because the problems of moving large populations out into space are so... well, they're virtually insuperable. That's I think one of the greatest predictive mythologies of the 20th Century, the notion of space travel, but there've been others.

The others, the sort of classic Wellsian, I suppose, dream of a society perfected by science, it's the dream one saw laid out in Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World', countless novels and films, the notion that science, sensibly applied to social problems, will solve most of them, and that we can all live in a kind of Corbusier world where tensions are defused by enlightened social legislation, and so on. That's another great predictive mythology. Hasn't really worked out; human beings perhaps haven't evolved sufficiently to be able to enjoy living in high rise blocks or, you know, something like Corbusier's radient city seems much too regimented. We seem to need a certain element of sort of street level chaos in our lives. We aren't as enlightened as we'd like to be; but that's another great predictive mythology.

Another is that vision of the better life which advertising has been trying to convince us of, you know, again for the last sixty, seventy years: Buy the latest model Buick, move into the right style of ranch home, make sure your wife is dressed in, you know, in the latest high street fashions - and life will seem better. It's complete mythology, as complete as anything, you know, the ancient Greeks came up with. And it's extremely potent, only most people half believe it. In fact you can say today that we live entirely on a whole system of predictive mythologies that actually are all we have to give our lives any meaning.

There's the predictive mythology of the obsolete body: There is a vocal cyber -community who say that technology allows us now a digitised electro-space, or something like that, where we can communicate more freely than ever before. Do you buy into that one? What about the internet?

I am extremely impressed by the internet. I think it's a whole series of private universes that are paraded across the screen in an absolutely riveting way. It's a form of self-publishing that is obviously just in it's infancy now.

Virtual reality is something slightly different. I mean I take for granted that eventually virtual reality systems will be available to us which create a simulated reality that is more convincing than that which our central nervous systems create. I mean one must remember the brain is itself a virtual reality machine, the illusion we have of the real world, of factories and streets and office blocks and other people talking to us is itself a virtual reality simulation generated by our brains.

I think when the first true virtual reality systems become available, and contain more visual information and are more visually convincing than ordinary reality, the temptation for the human race will be to enter this virtual reality system and close the door behind it. I mean, I think there's a danger there because one will really be able to enter into a fantasy world which, unlike all fantasies in the past, would be more convincing than everyday reality.

In two hundred years' time it may be possible to author your own virtual reality, but there may come a point at which the social will simply collapse in favour of highly individualized, designed virtual worlds?

I think that probably will happen, and it creates all sorts of moral dilemmas. I mean when people enter their virtual reality world, where they can play games with their own psychopathologies, where if they want to they can assume, you know, the role of any character in history, or any imaginary character, if they want one day be a Nobel Prize winning physicist, and the next day, you know, play a concentration camp commandant, they'll be able to step beyond the sort of conventional bounds of morality alogether; I mean one would be morally free to play with one's own psychopathology as a game. That's rather dangerous, putting it mildly.

I mean to some extent that happens today, I mean, sort of, one can watch violent films on, you know, one's own TV set, read pretty psychotic novels, and briefly enter into the world of 'Die Hard 3' or novels of William Burroughs or the Marquis De Sade, but generally, you know, one switches off and turns the last page and returns to, you know, the business of making one's supper. But I mean I can imagine a virtual reality world so rich that one scarcely bothers to leave it, except for sort of basic necessities. I imagine it will come and will pose a vast challenge to society as we know it.

When we talk like this, highly speculatively, these things may not come about but nevertheless, they seem to be fascinating things to talk about, and here we are talking about them at the end of the 20th Century - why are they so fascinating? It may be that we don't get virtual reality that's as good as the real thing, but it's certainly compelling to think about. Why is that?

Of course we already do get a kind of virtual reality that is superior to the real thing; the average cinema screen contains more units of visual information than our eyes perceive in ordinary reality, that's why the big screen is so much more gripping than the small TV screen.

Why are we fascinated by, you know, the prospect of virtual reality systems and talk about them? Well I mean they offer such a challenge to our perception of what a sort of sane life in a sane society is. I think people do perceive now that there is a radical, a whole series even, of radical alternatives to the present world. They look back on the 20th Century and they see it as a period of gigantic advances, and yet they see it as exhibiting deep flaws. Not just its great world wars, and its violent and often psychopathic entertainment culture, but that there's something missing from the world that we all inhabit. I think most people realise the gods have died, we've lost our faith in the far future, and that we're living in a commodified world where everything has a price tag; a world filled with, you know, dreams that money can buy, but dreams that soon pall.

I think people perceive that life is probably meaningless, that we're an accident of fate biologically, and that societies that we inhabit, far from being social structures that reflect deep, enduring needs, are in fact gim- crack, almost extemporized sets of rules that someone in charge of a lifeboat might impose on survivors sitting around him; so many biscuits per day, you know, and half a pint of water. And that society's just a set of opportunistic conventions that we accept in order to facilitate ordinary life, just as we accept that we drive in this country on the left side of the road; and we all know that that doesn't reflect some deep pre-existing meaning within our lives.

I think most people realise that for all it's complexity contemporary society is an artificial construct that can be moved offstage at a moment's notice, as people find at times of war, as I found during the Second World War as a child in Shanghai. You know, reality is just a stage set that can be pushed aside, and a very different set of rules can then apply.

I mean, given the hollowness of existence, I think people are beginning to wonder, sort of, what does life really offer us in terms of it's possibilities. Some people reach out to bizarre cults, others move into drugs, but these are all rather desperate remedies and I don't think they touch the truth.

You're talking about a difficulty of being social, but you move across and almost talk about the difficulty of being, period. As if the 20th Century saw, amongst other things, the peak of the social, and it's decline, and that we've run out of strategies, and that some of our most alluring options seem to be recreational psychopathology in cyberspace.

Well, I think that puts it very neatly, and that's what I fear. I mean, what do we see at the end of the 20th Century? We see the churches empty, in the West that is, and people in the most advanced societies, in Western Europe and the United States, moving more and more into gated communities, where security is the dominant concern. And that's in many ways to be deplored, I mean if you think of what society invests in the training of it's leading professionals, it's doctors, architects, lawyers and so on, for them then to opt out and move into a gated community where they exist behind huge arrays of electronic padlocks, and have no interaction with the rest of society in their social hours, is a deplorable state of affairs. I think the way in which the gated community is springing up all over the world now is an ominous sign. It's a sign that something is deeply wrong with the societies that have evolved at the end of the 20th Century, and it's not... people aren't moving into gated communities simply to avoid muggers and housebreakers, they're moving into gated communities to get away from other people. Even people like themselves, that's the curious thing. 'Cos inside most gated communities there's very little social life; people are happy to enter their executive houses and stay there.

In your recent book, 'Cocaine Nights', the book takes place in a community off the Costa Del Sol; you introduce the figure of Bobby Crawford, tennis coach, who's a psychopath by just about anybody's definition.

Well of course Crawford is in many ways a benevolent psychopath who is trying to revive this moribund community.

Could you read us an excerpt?

Yes I think, as the psychiatrist in the book remarks: "In a sense, Crawford may be the saviour of the entire Costa Del Sol, and even the wider world beyond that. You've been to Gibraltar? One of the last outposts of small-scale greed, openly dedicated to corruption; no wonder the Brussels bureauocrats are trying to close it down.

Our governments are preparing for a future without work, and that includes the petty criminals. Leisure societies lie ahead of us like those you see on this coast. People will still work - or rather, some people will still work, but only for a decade of their lives. They will retire in their late thirties, with fifty years of idleness in front of them.

A billion balconies facing the sun; still, it means a final goodbye to wars and ideologies. But how do you energize people, give them some sense of community? A world lying on it's back is vulnerable to any cunning predator.

Politics are a pastime for a professional cast and fail to excite the rest of us. Religious belief demands a vast effort of imaginative and emotional commitment, difficult to muster if you're still groggy from last night's sleeping pill.

Only one thing is left which can rouse people, threaten them directly and force them to act together: Crime? Crime and transgressive behaviour. By which I mean all activities which aren't necessarily illegal, but provoke us and tap our need for strong emotion, quicken the nervous system and jump the synapses, deadened by leisure and inaction."

The book takes place in a gated community, also an echo of the idea of a sort of gated self, which is propogated by the entertainment culture. The entertainment culture sells increasingly virtualized, isolated experiences, rather more cheaply than the real estate involved in the gated community, much more widely available, and you end up with, you know, the gated community of me.

Absolutely. I think you know, it's a return to the self in a way, and an awareness, a rather terrifying awareness that... that self is probably without meaning. That's the fearful prospect a little further down the road, that people will accept that their lives are meaningless and that everything else is a fiction designed to assuage, you know, the sort of desperate anxiety of a meaningless world.

That's a frightening terminus to disembark onto.

Jim Ballard, thank you very much.