J. G. Ballard is dead.

posted: 22 April, 2009
248129627_2c3b9c3971I’d never say that J.G. Ballard was one of my favorite writers and I don’t think you could get me to defend his prose style under any circumstances.  But his influence on art, literature and film (which have in turn influenced me) is incalculable.  There’s been a deluge of tributes, blog posts, and other articles since his passing last week and I don’t really have anything to share myself to really justify this post.  But in grad school, through the provocations of his detractors I found myself finally connecting with his ideas.
We were assigned Crash during the second term of my Master’s course (in modern and post-modern English literature) for a seminar titled ’Postmodern Spaces’.  Crash was accompanied with some readings from Lefebvre’s The Production of Space and I believe Foucault’s essay on heterotopias.

In the week leading up to the course, the online forum used for the course exploded when one student posted a complaint that they found the work offensive.  I wish I had saved the forum thread because it turned into a shitstorm that really changed the way I perceived the other students.  I don’t remember what the initial complaint was, but once one student voiced their displeasure, the floodgates were opened.

I couldn’t believe it - we were given a brilliant text about apocalyptic technology, paraphilia, celebrity, and a million other ideas, but instead of discussing any of these, everyone was just upset about the graphic sexual content.  At first there were accusations of misogyny, which I guess I should have expected, but then one student claimed that the book contained a pro-paedophilia position.  His obtuse reading of one small sentence was his reason for making this claim, which he apparently used to leverage a formal complaint with the University against the professor who assigned the text.

I stayed out of it at first, but eventually I got fed up and posted something a seething defense.  I remember that I called the anti-Crash people ”reactionaries” and asking why the Brits say that Americans don’t understand irony whereas I, the only American in the course,  was one of the only students who wasn’t missing the point.  Eventually the professor himself posted something (though I can’t remember what he said, it was diplomatic) and discussion immediately ceased, as if the other students were terrified once they realised the professor was reading their complaints.

When everyone showed up for the seminar I expected a knife-fight but instead found a room of nervous and repressed faces.  The seminar was great, looking at Lefebvre’s ideas of space and how it was infused in Crash (from the technological trap of the car to the novel’s setting near London Airport, as airports terminals are the most Ballardian of places).  I had never been a Ballard fan before (having read some stories and a later novel when I was in high school) but after having been forced to defend him (on principle, really) I felt some sort of kinship.

Even after we discussed the cold, technical voice used by the narrator (and the decision to name that narrator James Ballard), no one seemed to be willing to concede that the purpose of the novel was not to arouse deviant prurient interests.   I remember the phrase ”the death of affect” being used quite a bit by our professor, though I don’t think anyone was listening.  The controversy over Crash permanently altered the social fabric of the class (though those relationships are situational and temporary anyway).

”He was ahead of his time” is such a cliché and it’s use is rarely justified.  I don’t think it’s even right to say that about J.G.Ballard - instead, I’d say that ”he was of his time” and that most other writers are behind theirs.  He is the Paul Virilio of fiction, a writer who is almost precognizant with his visions. 

Some tributes from my feed reader:
footnote: The other text assigned for the 'Postmodern Spaces' seminar but unassigned when no one could find it was 'Between' by Christine Brooke-Rose.  I've been meaning to read this ever since and I had a copy sitting on the shelf waiting for me, but it too was lost in the move.  I'll gladly accept a replacement as a gift!