J.G. Ballard and the Mediascape

By Scott Bukatman

The terrain is changing within the postmodern condition, and under the pressures of a continuous movement of perceived implosion the landscape is increasingly figured as a mediascape. The science fiction writer who has been the longest inhabitant of this new territory is J.G. Ballard. Ballard's science fiction has rejected the explosive trajectories associated with the macrocosmic realms of faster-than-light travel and galactic empire, in favor of the imploded realms of what he has termed "inner space".

Such a term might imply that Ballard is constructing a psychological science fiction, a science fiction centered upon individual subjectivity, but this is not quite the inner space to which he refers. His work is marked instead by its sustained refusal of individual psychology and his construction of a world which itself bears the marks of the writer's own interior, but socially derived, landscape. The cities, jungles, highways, and suburbs of Ballard's fiction are relentlessly claustrophobic, yet empty; spectacular, but not seductive; relentlessly meaningful, yet resistant to logic. The repetition and obsessiveness of these works suspends temporality while it shrinks space. His characters are without ego, and they become only a part of the landscape, and the landscape becomes a schizophrenic projection of a de-psychologized, but fully colonized, consciousness. As in melodrama or surrealism, everything becomes at once objective and subjective.

The iconography of Ballard's landscape bears strong affinities to Pop Art, and especially the darker Pop of the British wing of the movement, as represented by the work of the Independent Group in the late 1950s and early 1960s ("Artists were revealing a sense of the city... as a symbol-thick scene"). To the Independent Group "science fiction was one of the few areas in which modern technology was being discussed."

The future as presented in Crash (1973), High-Rise (1975), and The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) might well be called, after the famed Independent Group exhibition of contemporary art, "This is Tomorrow." That 1956 event, celebrating the arrival of the present into the future, also turned to science fiction as the metaphorical discourse most appropriate to contemporary life, but rejected much of the utopian flavor of the genre. Commercial and technological cultures were accepted as fact in Pop, just as the SF in the British journal New Worlds (a frequent publisher of Ballard) advocated: "Before we begin to investigate [the effects of a new industrial revolution], we must accept the existence of the situation. This... is what authors are now beginning to do."

Richard Hamilton's collage, JUST WHAT IS IT THAT MAKES TODAY'S HOMES SO DIFFERENT, SO APPEALING? was a poster design for the 1956 exhibition and tabulated the emergent Pop iconography.

There is thus a link between science fiction and Pop. "In essence," Ballard has written, "science fiction is a response to science and technology as perceived by the inhabitants of the consumer goods society." New Worlds' fiction, dominated by the influence of J.G. Ballard and its editor Michael Moorcock, was littered with the signs of consumer culture: advertisements, news broadcasts and billboards; commodities, chrome, and cars; reentering space capsules; Jackie Kennedy, Andy Warhol, and Lee Harvey Oswald; cleaning products, satellites, and supermarkets; Elizabeth Taylor.

This panoply of pop images and forms comprises the mediascape (in Situationism and SF): an external reality ontologically transformed by the multiplicity of electronic signals in the air. Reality becomes an extension of the mass media – television especially, but also color magazines, billboards, rock and roll radio, and even cinema and newspapers (TRAK news agency – "We don't report the news – We write it"). First the public's response to reality and finally reality itself are affected. David Pringle notes that in stories such as Ballard's "The Subliminal Man," where huge "billboards" flash a constant barrage of subliminal advertising messages, "even the unconscious is annexed by the media landscape." Television especially exerts a fascination for Ballard: "I think it's terribly important to watch TV. I think there's a sort of minimum number of hours of TV you ought to watch every day, and unless you're watching 3 or 4 hours of TV a day you're just closing your eyes to... the creation of reality that TV achieves."

Ballard's story, "The Intensive Care Unit" (1977), is an Information Age update of E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" (1909); it also recalls the social science fiction of the 1950s, but with an unprecedented savagery. Ballard stages a future in which all social interaction occurs through the medium of television – schooling, marriage, child-rearing – there is no unmediated personal contact. The surrogate experience provided by the media has fully usurped, and even surpassed, the potentials of actual existence. A doctor by training, the protagonist observes as his "more neurotic patients... presented themselves with the disjointed cutting, aggressive zooms and split-screen techniques that went far beyond the worst excesses of experimental cinema." By contrast, his own family life is modeled on very different cinemas: "I relished the elegantly stylized way in which we now presented ourselves to each other – fortunately we had moved from the earnestness of Bergman and the more facile mannerisms of Fellini and Hitchcock to the classical serenity and wit of Rene Clair and Max Ophuls, though the children, with their love of the hand-held camera, still resembled so many budding Godards". Cinematic style becomes a part of social and gestural rhetoric, an integral part of the presentation of self in the era of terminal identity. Mysteriously driven to meet his wife and children in the flesh, the protagonist triggers off a kind of nuclear family war. "True closeness is television closeness," he belatedly concludes. "Only at a distance could one find that true closeness to another human being which, with grace, might transform itself into love".

Ballard's mission is to sift through the array of signals in order to locate the latent meanings in the mediascape – to tease out the "deviant logic" found in the random geometries of pop–historical artifacts: "In the past we have always assumed that the external world around us has represented reality, however confusing or uncertain, and that the inner world of our minds, its dreams, hopes, ambitions, represented the realm of fantasy and the imagination. These roles, too, it seems to me, have been reversed." The distinction between "latent and manifest content... now needs to be applied to the external world of so-called reality."

Max Ernst: Garden Airplane Traps

Objects in juxtaposition allude to an infinity of significance which reason alone cannot possible contain: "Captain Webster studied the documents laid out on Dr. Nathan's demonstration table. These were: (1) a spectroheliogram of the sun; (2) tarmac and take-off checks for the B29 Superfortress Enola Gay; (3) electroencephalogram of Albert Einstein; (4) transverse section through a Pre-Cambrian Trilobite; (5) photograph taken at noon, 7th August, 1945, of the sand-sea, Quattara Depression; (6) Max Ernst's 'Garden Airplane Traps.' He turned to Dr. Nathan. 'You say these constitute an assassination weapon?" Ballard's reference to Ernst inevitably recalls that artist's dadaist recourse to collage as the means of exploring the relation between the private psyche and the public world. Drawing his materials from medical and mechanical catalogs, as well as engravings and illustrations om the history of the fine arts, Ernst permitted a new logic to emerge, ne at odds with traditional reason. In Ballard's text, which so clearly derive from Ernst's strategies, it is only the fact of coincidence that is meaningful, the randomness of collision, the cut-ups of a post modern experience that's already cut up.

Ballard discusses the field of science fiction by providing another collage: "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 newsreel images 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." Ballard's language is reminiscent of Situationist rhetoric in its attention to the meaningful structures of "everyday life" and its random wanderings – its dérive – through the territories of consumer existence.

A necessary ambivalence pervades these texts that makes them easier to quote than to paraphrase. The increasing compression of Ballard's prose through the 1960s renders it even more resistant to summary, as it moved closer to the condition of the advertisement ("What can Saul Bellow and John Updike do that J. Walter Thompson, the world's largest advertising agency and its greatest producer of fiction, can't do better?").

To this end Ballard developed the form of the "condensed novel." As Pringle and James Goddard describe them, "the narratives are stripped of surplus verbiage and compounded until they are only skeletal representations of what they might otherwise have been." The linear progress of the minimal narrative that remains is further broken by a division into separately headed paragraphs; the temporal and spatial relations between fragments are variant. As did the cut-ups, Ballard's narrational style derives from the collage techniques of the surrealists: "The techniques of surrealism have a particular relevance at this moment, when the fictional elements in the world around us are multiplying to the point where it is almost impossible to distinguish between the 'real' and the 'false' – the terms no longer have any meaning."

In 1958 Ballard created an entire novel designed to go on billboards. According to Ballard’s friend and Ambit editor, Martin Bax, “It’s eight frames photocopied with famous Ballard characters like Coma and Kline. Most of the text you can’t read because when you see things on billboards you don’t read the small print, so the text is deliberately blurred – you can only read the headlines and some remarks.” According to Ballard: "(These are) a series of four facing-page spreads that were specimen pages I put together in the late 50s... sample pages of a new kind of novel, entirely consisting of magazine-style headlines and layouts, with a deliberately meaningless text, the idea being that the imaginative content could be carried by the headlines and overall design, so making obsolete the need for a traditional text except for virtually decorative purposes... The pages from the Project For A New Novel were made at a time when I was working on a chemical society journal in London, and the lettering was taken from the US magazine Chemical and Engineering News  -- I liked the stylish typography. I also like the scientific content, and used stories from Chem. Eng. News to provide the text of my novel. Curiously enough, far from being meaningless, the science news stories somehow become fictionalized by the headings around them."

The implosion of meaning in the mediascape, in blip culture, dictates the rise of new literary forms. The "novels" operate as a condensation of the iconography of consumer culture and the compactness of consumerist forms. The traditions of "literature" prevent readers from engaging with the realism of such supposedly "experimental" writing. In the absence of such preconceptions, Ballard argues that people "would realize that Burroughs' narrative techniques, or my own in their way, would be an immediately recognizable reflection of the way life is actually experienced." He continues by defining the state of terminal culture and image addiction: "We live in quantified non-linear terms – we switch on television sets, switch them off half an hour later, speak on the telephone, read magazines, dream and so forth. We don't live our lives in linear terms in the sense that the Victorians did."

Both the cut-ups of William Burroughs and Ballard's condensed novels continue the collagist traditions of their modernist forebears in the surrealist, dadaist, and cubist projects. Given the fullness of that appropriation, it would be false to immediately confer a "postmodern " status upon these writers, and yet the history of postmodern science fiction (and indeed, post modernism itself) is inconceivable without them. Clearly the writers of cyberpunk, a thoroughly post modern phenomenon, derive much from Burroughs and Ballard. The shift from modernism to postmodernism is evident in Ballard's recognition that his and Burroughs's techniques are largely mimetic of a profoundly transformed reality.

The prejudice against "experimental" writing, which prevents readers from perceiving the mimetic aspects of their prose, has been elided in the more narratively grounded work of the cyberpunks. There, cut-ups and condensations moved from being antinarrative experimental practices (even within science fiction's own avantgarde) to a phenomenon grounded in lived reality. The notorious first sentence of William Gibson's Neuromancer, for example ("The sky above the port was the color of television turned to a dead channel"), describes the reality of "Chiba City," but it also recalls Ernst's collages, filtered through the white-noise sensibilities of electronic culture. Ballard and Burroughs, then, are crucial transitional figures positioned between the psychoanalytic modernism of the Surrealists and the electronic post modernism of the cyberpunks.

Thus the development of new spectacular forms is a project that dominates the production of recent science fiction, and the compression of Ballard's work will find echoes, not only in cyberpunk, but also in the music video aesthetic of Max Headroom and the dense layering of panels in Howard Chaykin's comics. Note that Ballard does not necessarily embrace the emergent order of things, and the series of technological disaster novels he has produced reveal a profound suspicion of the new cultural formations.

Yet the act of acceptance is paramount: Ballard's protagonists are marked by their acceptance of the altered circumstances of reality: "In The Drowned World, the hero, Kerans, is the only one to do anything meaningful. His decision to stay, to come to terms with the changes taking place within himself, to understand the logic of his relationship with the shifting biological kingdom... is a totally meaningful course of action. The behavior of the other people, which superficially appears to be meaningful-getting the hell out, or draining the lagoons – is totally meaningless." This acceptance, as noted, extends to the new forms of the mediascape: the shifting electronic kingdom. There is an acknowledgment, rare in fiction, that this is where we all live.

Scott Bukatman holds a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies from New York University. He is the author of three books: Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, published by Duke University Press (1993), one of the earliest book-length studies of cyberculture; a monograph on Blade Runner commissioned by the British Film Institute; and a collection of essays, Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century. His writing highlights the ways in which popular media (film, comics) and genres (science fiction, musicals, superhero narratives) mediate between new technologies and human perceptual and bodily experience. You are encouraged to purchase these books from your favorite bookseller.