From The Guardian, Tuesday, 22 June 2004
Age of unreason
In this wide-ranging interview, JG Ballard talks to Jeannette Baxter about globalisation and terrorism, government and the media, the internet and intimacy
By Jeannette Baxter
It's not difficult to see why JG Ballard has been labelled the Seer from Shepperton. His first major novel, The Drowned World, explored the implications of ecological catastrophe decades before global warming and the Kyoto Agreement entered public consciousness.
Then, in his notorious collage novel The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard predicted the rise of Ronald Reagan from Hollywood cowboy to US president. Even the parameters of Princess Diana's death in a Parisian underpass in 1997 had been sketched out, to some degree, in Crash.
As Salman Rushdie noted at the time, the novelistic nature of Diana's life was not the fairytale we'd considered it to be, but a pornographic tale of sex, death and celebrity which Ballard had written 25 years previously.
With the appearance of his 18th novel, Millennium People, Ballard demonstrated his powers of prolepsis once more: as anti-terrorist forces rolled into Heathrow airport in February 2003, Ballard was putting the finishing touches to his own work of urban terrorism, a novel which rips open with an explosion at Heathrow's Terminal 2. So what are we to make of Ballard's distinctive vision? Is his prescience born out of prophecy, or is it the product of something else?
Another, more secular approach to Ballard's work, perhaps, is to consider it as a prolonged exercise in the close reading of contemporary culture in all of its absurdities and vulgarities. Over the last 50 years, Ballard's indiscriminate and unflinching gaze has worked hard to penetrate the myriad surface realities of our disturbed modernity and to tap into its unconscious energies.
Here, Ballard talks exclusively about wine waiters, globalisation, politics and the role of the arts (literary and visual) in the twenty-first century. This interview was conducted by fax in January 2004.
Jeannette Baxter: You admit to being more of a voracious consumer of visual texts than literary ones. When did your interest in the visual arts begin and to what extent did this impress upon the trajectory of your writing? What's your impression of the contemporary arts scene?
JG Ballard: It began soon after I came to England, in the late 1940s, while I was still at school. There were no museums or galleries in Shanghai, but I was very keen on art -- I was always sketching and copying, and sometimes I think that my whole career as a writer has been the substitute work of an unfulfilled painter.
In the late 1940s in England a certain controversy still lingered over Picasso, Braque, Matisse, while the surrealists were utterly beyond the critical pale. The surrealists were a revelation, though reproductions of Chirico, Dali, Ernst were hard to come by and tended to be found in psychiatric textbooks. I devoured them.
The surrealists, and the modern movement in painting as a whole, seemed to offer a key to the strange postwar world with its threat of nuclear war. The dislocations and ambiguities, in cubism and abstract art as well as the surrealists, reminded me of my childhood in Shanghai.
I read a great deal too in the late 1940s, but from the international menu (Freud, Kafka, Camus, Orwell, Aldous Huxley) rather than the English one. But there was a defeatist strain in the modern novel (which quite appealed to me as a moody 16-year-old). A huge internal migration had taken place from Joyce onwards, and there was something airless about Ulysses. By contrast, the great modern painters, from Picasso to Francis Bacon, were eager to wrestle with the world, like the brutal lovers on one of Bacon's couches. There was a reek of semen that quickened the blood.
I don't think any particular painters have inspired me, except in a general sense. It was more a matter of corroboration. The visual arts, from Manet onwards, seemed far more open to change and experiment than the novel, though that's only partly the fault of the writers. There's something about the novel that resists innovation. In the late 1940s (and for decades later) I was desperate for change. England, Cambridge, the professional middle class needed to be laid on the analyst's couch.
Today's art scene? Very difficult to judge, since celebrity and the media presence of the artists are inextricably linked with their work. The great artists of the past century tended to become famous in the later stages of their careers, whereas today fame is built into the artists' work from the start, as in the cases of Emin and Hirst.
There's a logic today that places a greater value on celebrity the less it is accompanied by actual achievement. I don't think it's possible to touch people's imagination today by aesthetic means. Emin's bed, Hirst's sheep, the Chapmans' defaced Goyas are psychological provocations, mental tests where the aesthetic elements are no more than a framing device.
It's interesting that this should be the case. I assume it is because our environment today, by and large a media landscape, is oversaturated by aestheticising elements (TV ads, packaging, design and presentation, styling and so on) but impoverished and numbed as far as its psychological depth is concerned.
Artists (though sadly not writers) tend to move to where the battle is joined most fiercely. Everything in today's world is stylised and packaged, and Emin and Hirst are trying to say, this is a bed, this is death, this is a body. They are trying to redefine the basic elements of reality, to recapture them from the ad men who have hijacked our world.
Emin's beautiful body is her one great idea, but I suspect that she is rather prudish, which means that there are limits to the use she can make of her body and its rackety past. Meanwhile, too much is made of conceptual art - putting it crudely, someone has been shitting in Duchamp's urinal, and there is an urgent need for a strong dose of critical Parazone.
JB: In Millennium People, you make the point that the middle-class revolution in Chelsea Marina will become part of the "folkloric calendar... to be celebrated along with the last night of the Proms and the Wimbledon tennis fortnight." If revolution is inevitably repackaged, then where does it leave us? Can art ever be a vehicle for political change?
JGB: The revolutions that are repackaged tend to be pseudo-revolutions, or those that were media events in the first place. The destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 has not yet been repackaged into something with more consumer appeal, I notice. Another revolutionary event, the assassination of JFK, was rapidly defused by the intense media coverage, the endless replaying of the Zapruder film, and the vast proliferation of conspiracy theories. But Kennedy was himself largely a media construct, with an emotional appeal that was as calculated as any advertising campaign. His life and death were both complete fictions, or very nearly. A real revolution, as 9/11 was in its way, will always come out of some unexpected corner of the sky.
The point about the middle-class revolution in Millennium People is that it was pointless, that it failed. For all their efforts to throw off their chains, the revolution achieved nothing, and the rebels returned to Chelsea Marina, resuming their former lives, even more docile than before. What I'm arguing in MP is that in our totally pacified world the only acts that will have any significance at all will be acts of meaningless violence. Already we have seen signs of this - random shootings, the lack of motive for Jill Dando's murder, suicide bombings that achieve nothing, as in Israel. As MP tries to show, even a political revolution may be pointless. All this, it seems to me, means that the main danger in the future will not be from terrorist acts that advance a cause, however wrong-headed, but from terrorist acts without any cause at all. Dr Gould in MP articulates all this more fluently than I can. I agree with him.
Can art be a vehicle for political change? Yes, I assume that a large part of Blair's appeal (like Kennedy's) is aesthetic, just as a large part of the Nazi appeal lay in its triumph of the will aesthetic. I suspect that many of the great cultural shifts that prepare the way for political change are largely aesthetic. A Buick radiator grille is as much a political statement as a Rolls Royce radiator grille, one enshrining a machine aesthetic driven by a populist optimism, the other enshrining a hierarchical and exclusive social order. The ocean liner art deco of the 1930s, used to sell everything from beach holidays to vacuum cleaners, may have helped the 1945 British electorate to vote out the Tories.
JB: The majority of your novels can be read as provocative celebrations of the transformative and transgressive powers of the imagination. In Millennium People, however, the imagination is spectacularly lacking. Your cosy phrase "the upholstered apocalypse" gestures, rather worryingly, towards an imaginative and critical impasse of sorts, doesn't it? Is this decay in the life of the mind a terminal state of affairs?
JGB: Nothing is ever terminal, thank God. As we hesitate, the road unrolls itself, dividing and turning. But there is something deeply suffocating about life today in the prosperous west. Bourgeoisification, the suburbanisation of the soul, proceeds at an unnerving pace. Tyranny becomes docile and subservient, and a soft totalitarianism prevails, as obsequious as a wine waiter. Nothing is allowed to distress and unsettle us. The politics of the playgroup rules us all.
The chief role of the universities is to prolong adolescence into middle age, at which point early retirement ensures that we lack the means or the will to enforce significant change. When Markham (not JGB) uses the phrase "upholstered apocalypse" he reveals that he knows what is really going on in Chelsea Marina. That is why he is drawn to Gould, who offers a desperate escape.
My real fear is that boredom and inertia may lead people to follow a deranged leader with far fewer moral scruples than Richard Gould, that we will put on jackboots and black uniforms and the aspect of the killer simply to relieve the boredom. A vicious and genuinely mindless neo-fascism, a skilfully aestheticised racism, might be the first consequence of globalisation, when Classic Coke® and California merlot are the only drinks on the menu. At times I look around the executive housing estates of the Thames Valley and feel that it is already here, quietly waiting its day, and largely unknown to itself.
JB: Am I right in thinking that one critique which your latest novel throws up is that, in the glare of the consumerist spectacle, we have lost all sense of critical distance to the realities of capitalism and globalisation? I'm thinking specifically here of the reality of terrorism. John Gray propounds a similar thesis in Straw Dogs (your chosen book of the year for 2003) when he suggests that al-Qaida is "a byproduct of globalisation, it successfully privatised terror and projected it worldwide." What's your feeling on this?
JGB: I agree with John Gray, and was very impressed by both Straw Dogs and his al-Qaida book. What is so disturbing about the 9/11 hijackers is that they had not spent the previous years squatting in the dust on some Afghan hillside with a rusty Kalashnikov. These were highly educated engineers and architects who had spent years sitting around in shopping malls in Hamburg and London, drinking coffee and listening to the muzak. There was certainly something very modern about their chosen method of attack, from the flying school lessons, hours on the flight simulator, the use of hijacked airliners and so on. The reaction they provoked, a huge paranoid spasm that led to the Iraq war and the rise of the neo-cons, would have delighted them.
JB: The BBC comes under intense scrutiny in your latest novel. The media and the government, you suggest, are conspiring bedfellows (politics is conducted as a branch of advertising) which disseminate certain knowledges and selected truths. Your critique of the fabrication of historical reality through political spin has particular resonance as we await the outcome of the Hutton inquiry. Do you anticipate that the Hutton report will initiate any serious moves towards curbing the media-political machine? Or do we run the risk of placing too much faith in a legal narrative the likes of which we've seen before -- a 'sexed down' version of the Warren commission report?
JGB: At the time I write this, January 25, I can only guess at the Hutton report, but I'm sure there will be no threat to the political status quo, certainly not from a judge who has spent his career serving the state (and in Northern Ireland). I'm sure that knuckles will be rapped, the BBC and MoD admonished, suggestions made for a "tightening-up" of chains of command etc.
But nothing will change. The links between the media and politics are now hardwired into the national sensorium. We couldn't behave in any other way if we wanted to. Incidentally, I am not hostile to the BBC, or to the Tate Gallery (my daughters, one of whom went to UEA, worked for them for many years). The BBC helped to shape our national culture, and may well be the greatest source of education and enlightenment the world has ever known, with the possible exception of the Roman Catholic church, for all the latter's failings. But social and political change of a radical kind are now virtually impossible here.
JB: Your latest cluster of novels tests the controversial theory that transgression and murder are legitimate correctives to social inertia. If we are at once disquieted yet invigorated by acts of violence and resistance, then what implications does this lack of moral unity have for the reader?
JGB: The notions about the benefits of transgression in my last three novels are not ones I want to see fulfilled. Rather, they are extreme possibilities that may be forced into reality by the suffocating pressures of the conformist world we inhabit. Boredom and a deadening sense of total pointlessness seem to drive a lot of meaningless crimes, from the Hungerford and Columbine shootings to the Dando murder, and there have been dozens of similar crimes in the US and elsewhere over the past 30 years.
These meaningless crimes are much more difficult to explain than the 9/11 attacks, and say far more about the troubled state of the western psyche. My novels offer an extreme hypothesis which future events may disprove -- or confirm. They're in the nature of long-range weather forecasts. As I've often said, someone who puts up a road sign saying "dangerous bends ahead" is not inciting drivers to speed up, though I hope that my fiction is sufficiently ambiguous to make the accelerator seem strangely attractive. Human beings have an extraordinary instinct for self-destruction, and this ought to be out in the open where we can see it. We are not moral creatures, except for reasons of mutual advantage, sad to say...
JB: Little comment is made on the varying textures of humour in your work yet your novels are littered with jokes -- from the deadpan confrontations of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash to the wry observations of Millennium People. Why is humour important to you? And why do some readers find it so uncomfortable to laugh at your work?
JGB: I'm delighted you think that. People, particularly over-moralistic Americans, have often seen me as a pessimist and humourless to boot, yet I think I have an almost maniacal sense of humour. The problem is that it's rather deadpan. Readers say that Millennium People made them laugh aloud, which is wonderful news, but then there is something inherently funny about the idea of a middle-class revolution. But perhaps that in itself is a sign of how brainwashed the middle-classes are. The very idea that we could rebel seems preposterous.
JB: You recently turned down a CBE. Is this a move, in part, to retain your integrity as an artist?
JGB: No. I just don't want anything to do with all that nonsense, a Ruritanian charade that helps to prop up our top-heavy monarchy.
JB: In your introduction to Crash you diagnosed "the death of affect" as the culminating disease of the 20th century. What's your prognosis for the 21st century?
JGB: A century is a long time. Twenty years ago no one could have imagined the effects the internet would have -- entire relationships flourish, friendships prosper on the e-mail screen, there's a vast new intimacy and accidental poetry (from the osprey-tracking site to tours round old nuclear silos and the extraordinary aerial trip down the California coastline and a thousand others), not to mention the weirdest porn. The entire human experience seems to unveil itself like the surface of a new planet.
Whether the internet or any other technological marvel can halt the slide into boredom and conformism I seriously doubt. I suspect that (as I pointed out in Super-Cannes) the human race will inevitably move like a sleepwalker towards that vast resource it has hesitated to tap -- its own psychopathy. This adventure playground of the soul is waiting for us with its gates wide open, and admission is free.
In short, an elective psychopathy will come to our aid (as it has done many times in the past) - Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, all those willed nightmares that make up much of human history. As Wilder Penrose points out in Super-Cannes, the future will be a huge Darwinian struggle between competing psychopathies. Along with our passivity, we're entering a profoundly masochistic phase -- everyone is a victim these days, of parents, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, even love itself. And how much we enjoy it. Our happiest moments are spent trying to think up new varieties of victimhood...