by Matteo Pasquinelli
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 magazine, 1967
“Fiction is a Branch of Neurology”
The novels of J.G. Ballard can describe the nature of technology and the contemporary mediascape better than any philosopher, media theorist or cultural studies academic. During the mass media revolution, while spectres of the collective imaginary were flourishing on everybody’s television screens in a genuine “atrocity exhibition”, both academic and radical theorists were imploding in the semiotics of the image: postmodernism indeed reduced the image to a linguistic sign. Ballard and other science fiction writers, meanwhile, were left alone to map the new becoming of the media unconscious. In retrospect, it is increasingly apparent how the postmodern agenda and the church of simulacra functioned as an immunisation strategy of an armchair intelligentsia against the monsters emerging from the collective Id.
Ironically, the notion of ‘collective unconscious’ can itself be interpreted as a high culture sanitisation attempt to what was visibly and consciously intensifying at the core of mass media society: libido. As much as Deleuze and Guattari recognised that delirium is always social, political and historical (something not simply isolated to the morbid intimacy of a psychoanalyst’s couch), Ballard understood that “after Freud’s exploration within the psyche it is now the outer world of reality which must be quantified and eroticised”. Significantly, he began his cartography of the machinic unconscious of the West outside the mediated discourses of philosophy and psychoanalysis. His context was the American cultural imaginary of the ’50s and ’60s that colonised the European psyche by broadcasting morbid televisual images of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Marilyn Monroe’s second lives, the Vietnam war and so on. At the time of May ’68, Ballard’s own personal “counterculture” was on the other side of the barricades, on the side of power and mass media, where he discovered far stronger and more lysergic forces than in any leftist movement. From this science-fiction perspective on the mainstream, Ballard effectively anticipated the Guattarian schizoanalysis of the collective machinic unconscious.
For an accurate introduction to the Ballardian universe, however, it may be useful to make a comparison with a sparring partner from the postmodern school. Baudrillard, once more, is worth considering for his review of Crash, where Ballard’s uncanny worlds are sanitised through the theoretical frame of Simulation. His review twisted the novel’s carnal tangle into a “semiurgy of the body” (semiurgy being the trendy neologism introduced by postmodern for ‘the art of creating new signs’). Amusingly, Ballard would dismiss this postmodern critique of his writing as “the apotheosis of the hamburger”. In a society increasingly exposed to mass media, Baudrillard is an obvious symptom of iconophilia turned to iconophobia.
‘You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe’. One of Mike Foreman’s illustrations for the abandoned illustrated version of The Atrocity Exhibition.
From the classical (and even the cybernetic) viewpoint, technology is an extension of the body. […] From Marx to McLuhan, one sees the same instrumentalist vision of machines and of language: relays, extensions, media-mediators of a Nature destined ideally to become the organic body. In this “rational” view, the body itself is only a medium. Inversely, in its baroque and apocalyptic treatment in Crash, technology is the deadly deconstruction of the body — no longer a functional medium, but an extension of death: […] all the metallurgy of accidents is inscribed in a semiurgy of the body — not in anatomy or physiology, but in a semiurgy of contusions, scars, mutilations, and wounds which are like new sexual organs opened in the body.
Baudrillard interprets Ballard’s death of affect as the postmodern haze through which everything is grey and desire is lacking. On the contrary, the death of affect actually marks an intensified longing or love for the inorganic; otherwise Ballard’s “erotisation” of the “outer world” would not be intelligible. In particular, the sophisticated relation between violence, libido and machine signals a notion of desire that is not unfamiliar within the intellectual account of masochism and the BDSM subcultures of the last decades.
In Crash, there is neither fiction nor reality — a kind of hyper-reality has abolished both. Even critical regression is no longer possible. This mutating and commutating world of simulation and death, this violently sexualized world totally lacking in desire, full of violent and violated bodies but curiously neutered, this chromatic and intensely metallic world empty of the sensorial, a world of hyper-technology without finality.
Baudrillard’s hyper(flat)-reality clearly disappointed Ballard. While for Ballard, “fiction is a branch of neurology”, Baudrillard annexed his novel to the realm of simulacra, unequivocally stating that “Crash is the first great novel of the universe of simulation, the world that we will be dealing with from now on”. In a completely opposite reading, William Burroughs wrote in the introduction to The Atrocity Exhibition: “The line between inner and outer landscapes is breaking down. Earthquakes can result from seismic upheavals within the human mind”. By illuminating the “death of affect”, Burroughs effectively underlines how “sexual arousal results from the repetition and impact of image”. Ballard’s novel The Atrocity Exhibition is indeed a sincere anti-postmodern manifesto.
“Neuronic Icons on the Spinal Highway”
Ballard’s iconology is not concerned with a flat image framed according to academic coordinates, but it is a journey into the subterranean world beyond that surface. Rather than being purely a linguistic sign, Ballard’s image is part of the collapse between “inner and outer landscapes”. A recurring codeword in The Atrocity Exhibition is “spinal”: images have nerves, they become part of the nervous system. Like Leroi-Gourhan’s anthropology, the medium of technology is an extension of the human skeleton, not a self-indulgent eye. The aesthetics of the contemporary image cannot be found through its metaphysical fabric, in the claustrophobic white cube of the art world or the minimal semiotics of the digital screen, but precisely in the externalisation of the nervous system.
[In] The Atrocity Exhibition, the nervous systems of the characters have been externalized, as part of the reversal of the interior and exterior worlds. Highways, office blocks, faces and street signs are perceived as if they were elements in a malfunctioning central nervous system.
Images are “neuronic icons on the spinal highway”, signs of a biomorphic unconscious lurking beneath the urban landscape. The diagram of these icons is a “neural interval” in the physiology of the body. In other words, the neural space we enter with Ballard is not the re-assuring social-democracy of psychoanalysis, but the “spinal battlefield” of contemporary warfare, the space of World War III and of Foucauldian “biopolitical conflicts”. Ballard has in effect inaugurated a neurospace — a carnal and physical understanding of the mediascape that only many decades later will surface from the underworld of cyberspace. Ballard’s neurospace, however, should not be considered an autonomous media sphere, but a continuum between inner and outer landscapes, between the psychological and libidinal life of any physical form and object.
The blitzkriegs will be fought out on the spinal battlefields, in terms of the postures we assume, of our traumas mimetized in the angle of a wall or balcony.
To consider The Atrocity Exhibition as a manual for the contemporary collective imaginary, another lesson is worth remembering: the image is always social and collective, and the figures of the collective imaginary are always “giants”. The image by nature is socially expansive, “commercial cosmologies” covering the unconscious of the nation. Even as early as the 1920s, Benjamin took note of the “huge images across the walls of the houses, where toothpaste and cosmetics lie handy for giants”. The conceptual origin of the ‘mediascape’ can be traced back to this particular skyline of huge advertisements, a commercial landscape of billboards associated with the American horizon of the 1950s. In two famous cryptic fragments, Ballard spreads a giant pornographic picture of Elizabeth Taylor across hundreds of such billboards.
A group of workmen on a scaffolding truck were pasting up the last of the displays, a hundred-foot-long panel that appeared to represent a section of a sand-dune. Looking at it more closely, Dr Nathan realized that in fact it was an immensely magnified portion of the skin over the iliac crest. Glancing at the billboards, Dr Nathan recognized other magnified fragments: a segment of lower lip, a right nostril, a portion of female perineum. Only an anatomist would have identified these fragments, each represented as a formal geometric pattern. At least five hundred of the signs would be needed to contain the whole of this gargantuan woman, terraced here into a quantified sand-sea.
Dr Nathan limped along the drainage culvert, peering at the huge figure of a dark-haired woman painted on the sloping walls of the blockhouse. The magnification was enormous. The wall on his right, the size of a tennis court, contained little more than the right eye and cheekbone. He recognized the woman from the billboards he had seen near the hospital — the screen actress, Elizabeth Taylor. Yet these designs were more than enormous replicas. They were equations that embodied the relationship between the identity of the film actress and the audiences who were distant reflections of her. The planes of their lives interlocked at oblique angles, fragments of personal myths fusing with the commercial cosmologies. The presiding deity of their lives the film actress provided a set of operating formulae for their passage through consciousness.
Elizabeth Taylor, as she appears on the cover of Crash.
In these two passages, Ballard deconstructs a sample of the collective imaginary (the archetypical 1950s movie star), stripping the image back to its fundamental components. First, its infrastructural medium: the skeleton of scaffoldings and billboards that turns a pop star to architecture. Second, its picture as replica: a sensuous module of a benevolent propaganda machine. Third, its pornographic focus: intimate details of the body that fall under the public eye and become part of public constructions. Fourth, the sexual nature of such an apparently neutral magnification: perineum and ilium are the scientific names for the anatomic zones where the male gaze is usually drawn. Fifth, its sexualised body is exploded into different fragments and patterns. Sixth, those replicated fragments function together as a collective image over the unconscious domain, as “a set of operating formulae for their passage through consciousness”, “equations that embodied the relationship between the identity of the film actress and the audiences who were distant reflections of her”. No other description could provide a better diagram of the basic elements of the mediascape.
Ballard is not the first writer to investigate the intoxicating effect of mass media society, but he is exceptional for offering a detailed mapping of its unconscious parallel dimension. Ballard attempts to reveal the existence of a “second narrative” behind the official version of events, and how the collective consciousness produces “emergency scenarios”, as in dreams, to face the violent stimuli emanating from the mediascape. For Ballard, the collective imaginary is a bicephalous entity that simultaneously maintains contradictory meanings and dimensions.
The media landscape of the present day is a map in search of a territory. A huge volume of sensational and often toxic imagery inundates our minds, much of it fictional in content. How do we make sense of this ceaseless flow of advertising and publicity, news and entertainment, where presidential campaigns and moon voyages are presented in terms indistinguishable from the launch of a new candy bar or deodorant? What actually happens on the level of our unconscious minds when, within minutes on the same TV screen, a prime minister is assassinated, an actress makes love, an injured child is carried from a car crash? Faced with these charged events, prepackaged emotions already in place, we can only stitch together a set of emergency scenarios, just as our sleeping minds extemporize a narrative from the unrelated memories that veer through the cortical night. In the waking dream that now constitutes everyday reality, images of a blood-spattered widow, the chromium trim of a limousine windshield, the stylized glamour of a motorcade, fuse together to provide a secondary narrative with very different meanings.
Against the contemporary dismissal of the notion of unconscious (but actually of its metaphysical and linguistic interpretations), Ballard identifies a clear energetic undercurrent behind the mediascape and the surrounding biosphere of machines. To confront this new environment, he appropriates the notion of latent and manifest content from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and applies it to external reality. According to Ballard, beneath the “benign or passive posture” of machinic civilisation and consumerist society resides a latent energy, “ambiguous even to the skilled investigator”.
From this and similar work it is clear that 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 a study of 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.
What is the nature of this dark side of the machinic landscape? Irrational violence, animal instincts, sexual impulses and natural aggressiveness emerge as constitutive of the “biomorphic horror” pulsating through the collective technological imaginary. Rather than Baudrillard’s imagined society of simulacra, the “death of affect” is actually a consequence of the molecular dissemination of a conceptual violence that makes any object, even the most aseptic one, a vector of conflict. In this sense, the “abstraction” of violence causes psychopathologies to become everyday playthings. The violence of The Atrocity Exhibition is not comparable to, for instance, the aesthetisation of sadism in Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, since the former emerges through the force of inorganic structures. Just like a sophisticated philosophy of sadomasochism, Ballard considers the abstract psychopathologies of the mediascape “as a game”, as an intrinsic means of human communication. This intuition will be useful later when introducing the notion of masochism of image.
Travers’s problem is how to come to terms with the violence that has pursued his life – not merely the violence of accident and bereavement, or the horrors of war, but the biomorphic horror of our own bodies. Travers has at last realized that the real significance of these acts of violence lies elsewhere, in what we might term “the death of affect”. Consider our most real and tender pleasures — in the excitements of pain and mutilation; in sex as the perfect arena, like a culture-bed of sterile pus, for all the veronicas of our own perversions, in voyeurism and self-disgust, in our moral freedom to pursue our own psychopathologies as a game, and in our ever greater powers of abstraction. […] The only way we can make contact with each other is in terms of conceptualizations. Violence is the conceptualization of pain. By the same token psychopathology is the conceptual system of sex.
Surprisingly, Ballard suggests his own counter-strategies for confronting the psychopathologies of the imaginary — a sort of political agenda born from the perspective of science fiction. Against both conservative puritanism and radical pessimism, against the politically correct ethos of the peace movements, Ballard professes a joyful and “just psychopathology” as the “final destination of the 20th century”. The only way to deal with the abyss, Ballard suggests, is to stare directly into it, immerse ourselves in the dark waters of the unconscious and “swim”.
 J.G. Ballard, “Does the angle between two walls have a happy ending?”, Advertiser’s Announcement, Sex: Inner Space, Ambit magazine, no. 33, 1967.
 J.G. Ballard, A Neural Interval’. Advertiser’s Announcement: A J.G. Ballard Production. Ambit magazine, no. 36, 1968.
 Jean Baudrillard, “Ballard’s Crash”, 1976. Trans. Arthur B. Evans. Science Fiction Studies 18: 313-20, #55, Nov 1991.
 J.G. Ballard, “A Response to the Invitation to Respond”, Science Fiction Studies, 18: 329, #55 (Nov. 1991): “I thought the whole problem SF faced was that its consciousness, critically speaking, had been raised to wholly inappropriate heights —the apotheosis of the hamburger. An exhilarating and challenging entertainment fiction which Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain would have relished has become a “discipline” — God help us — beloved of those like the Delany who will no doubt pour scorn on my novel of the early ’70s. The “theory and criticism of s-f”!! Vast theories and pseudo-theories are elaborated by people with not an idea in their bones. Needless to say, I totally exclude Baudrillard (whose essay on Crash I have not really wanted to understand) — I read it for the first time some years ago. Of course, his Amerique is an absolutely brilliant piece of writing, probably the most sharply clever piece of writing since Swift — brilliancies and jewels of insight in every paragraph — an intellectual Alladin’s cave. But your whole “postmodernism” view of SF strikes me as doubly sinister. SF was ALWAYS modern, but now it is “postmodern” — bourgeoisification in the form of an over-professionalized academia with nowhere to take its girlfriend for a bottle of wine and a dance is now rolling its jaws over an innocent and naive fiction that desperately needs to be left alone. You are killing us! Stay your hand! Leave us be! Turn your “intelligence” to the iconography of filling stations, cash machines, or whatever nonsense your entertainment culture deems to be the flavor of the day. We have enough intellectuals in Europe as it is; let the great USA devote itself to the spirit of the Wrights — bicycle mechanics and the sons of a bishop. The latter’s modesty and exquisitely plain prose style would be an example to you — especially his restrained but heartfelt reflections on the death of one of his sons, a model of the spirit animating SF at its best. But I fear you are trapped inside your dismal jargon.”
 Jean Baudrillard, “Ballard’s Crash”, cit.
 See: André Leroi-Gourhan, L’Homme et la matière, Paris: Albin Michel, 1943; and:
Milieu et techniques, Paris: Albin Michel, 1945.
 J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition, London: Jonathan Cape, 1970. Notes by the author added in a reissue by RE/Search Publications, San Francisco, 1990. Page numbers refer to the edition by Harper Perennial, London, 2006, p. 76.
 Ibid, p. 7.
 Walter Benjamin, “One Way Street”, in Reflections, cit., p. 86.
 J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition, cit., p. 11.
 Ibid., p. 13.
 Ibid., p. 145.
 Ibid., p. 156.
 Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, London: William Heinemann, 1962.
 J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition, cit., p. 116