My piece, “Writing World War III: J.G. Ballard’s Field Guide to the Cold War” is now published in the latest anthology from The Terminal Press. Click on the image for more information.
Title: Writing World War III: J. G. Ballard’s field guide to the Cold War
This thesis argues that The British writer J. G. Ballard invents a form of writing that uses a set of experimental instruments—obsessive and audacious language, images, and situations—to chart the delivery of a new, technologically constituted subject in the Cold War period during the mid to late twentieth century. This ‘science fiction’ is, according to Ballard, ‘the body’s dream of becoming a machine’. Through readings of a selection of his texts, I observe how Ballard uses his science fiction as a critical documentation of technological change. I trace the ways in which he uses strategies of experimentation and simulation informed by Freudian theory and Surrealist theory and practice and adapts them to Cold War conditions. Writings by Susan Sontag, Paul Virilio, Slavoj Žižek, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Jonathon Crary and Roland Barthes furnish useful points of reference and comparison with which to both gloss and distinguish Ballard’s achievement.
This thesis argues that Ballard identifies a new human subject, formed by Cold War technologies, which he describes as ‘the unknown civilian, Homo hydrogenensis, Eniwetok Man’. To test this idea, I begin by exploring the technological conditions of the Cold War period, to show how Ballard imaginatively engages with these conditions, observing the impact of technology on quotidian life. I analyse his obsessive engagement with the dynamic and compelling technological-cultural landscape—in which ‘the call sign of Sputnik I could be heard on one’s radio like the advance beacon of the new universe’—and his persistent pursuit of a kind of writing that will be the measure of his times.
I show how Ballard’s method takes account of investigations into the cultural and scientific significance of form in nature in the 1950s, such as the discovery of DNA, and writes of culture as a natural history. I analyse three of his earlier novels to show how he uses collage and other Surrealist methods to treat the cultural and psychic phenomena of his time as phyla in the natural world of forms, and exposes the fossil traces of memory, myth and desire in a textual frottage.
Accordingly, some of this textualization necessitates the exhibition of atrocity, the exposure of the wounds left by the impact of technology on the human psyche and body. I explore the way photography can be used as both a key to and exemplar of this fatal encounter by examining his writing as a textualization of ‘photo-death’.
Ballard’s textualization is a fiction of ‘situations’, or what he calls ‘mimetized’ or ‘false’ events, actions, performances, ‘radical juxtapositions’, situations and experiments. I explain his method in The Atrocity Exhibition as the production of a landscape of folds, and chart his persistent reiteration of language and images to effect a chronogrammatic collage that reveals the violent conjunction of humans and technology. By drawing attention to the way that his radically unstable characters wander in the undulating landscape like ghosts of technology’s violence, I analyse the text as an experimental dream of the hybridization of a technologically generated subject.
Ballard identifies ‘the death of affect’ that he sees to result from the technological plenum of modern experience as both an alarming phenomenon and an opportunity for the writer to explore beyond normative moral, social and sensible boundaries. I examine the way in which he presents the car crash as an exemplar of contemporary experience, a point of entry in which military technologies reach into quotidian life, a key to memory, desire, death and sex. I argue that motor accidents are for Ballard technological frottage, and that he appropriates frottage as a method to produce an alphabet of sex and violence in the violent connections of the body and technology. Similarly, aircraft are recognised as a key part of the fetishizing structure of technology in his work. I explore the ways in which Ballard’s piloted flying machines are technological hybrids marking the arrival of a new stage in human psychic evolution, the near future.
I then analyse stories that exemplify Ballard’s preoccupation with cinema as a space, the images that clutter the ‘media landscape’ and the architectonics of film making and viewing. From this I show that he uses the psychoanalytic dimension of film’s technologies cogently to suggest that patriarchy has been displaced by technocracy as the structuring power system of the latter twentieth century. This is seen to provide further evidence of a radical breach in the constitution of the subject between the nineteenth and the late twentieth centuries.
In my conclusion I make connections between Ballard’s most recent novel and a story written early in his career to show the persistence and historical accuracy of his writing. The ‘deviant logic’ of Ballard’s method can be seen to match that of his time. His writing correlates with, documents and explicates decisive moments and images of technology in the second half of the twentieth century, the period that he calls World War III, the site of the constitution of its new subject.