Below: J.G. Ballard. Photo by Simon Durrant, from i-D magazine, 1987.
Below: Excerpt from Ballard’s 1977 Vogue essay. Via Gideon Defoe.
A post at Buzzfeed has been doing the rounds this week, on how author J.G. Ballard “predicted social media in 1977”. According to Buzzfeed, “he made this uncanny observation in a Vogue essay”, reproduced above.
When I first read the Vogue excerpt, I was sceptical of the connection, believing that, if anything, it proved that Ballard predicted reality TV rather than social media. Nonetheless, I asked my associate, Dr Simon Sellars, formerly of Monash University and a published researcher of Ballard’s work, to give his opinion. Dr Sellars declined my request for an interview, stating that he was still in the depths of an ongoing research project on the topography of cereal boxes, which has been “consuming” all his time. However, he did grant me permission to reproduce an excerpt from his forthcoming memoir, Applied Ballardianism, about life through a Ballardian lens.
Dr Sellars’ conclusion? Ballard predicted both reality TV and social media…
For more on Ballard and social media, see Dr Sellars’ introduction to Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967-2008 (HarperCollins, 2012).
Excerpted from Applied Ballardianism:
J.G. Ballard wrote about nothing but virtual worlds, the shared hallucinations of the everyday: suburban streets, billboards, the benevolent dystopias of advertising, the dominance of television, the savage euphoria of motorway systems. The role of his fiction, as he repeatedly emphasised, was cautionary. He once told an interviewer: ‘I’m trying to say “Dangerous bends ahead. Slow down.”’ Yet much of his appeal to the cyberpunks lay in the seduction of his techno-visions. The fetishistic charge given off by the character of Gabrielle in Crash, her crippled body clad in leg irons, remade and remodelled, constantly depicted in geometric conjunctions with leather car seats and steering wheels, is transmutable to the femme fatale Molly in William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Molly herself is an anti-heroine clad in leather and silver shades, toting sleek weaponry that appears moulded to the contours of her body.
Ballard began as a writer of science fiction. As a schoolboy, I devoured SF yet his name was only obliquely familiar, mainly from blurbs on other books, a cult figure inhabiting an elliptical orbit far distant from planets Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke. What exactly was a young lad, keen on space opera and Doc Smith’s Lensmen series in particular, to make of stories described by bored copywriters as ‘chill splinters of unreality’ and ‘the source of a bleak new evil’? But after Bruce Sterling anointed him as the patron saint of the cyberpunk movement in Mirrorshades, I noticed him everywhere. Everyone began to namedrop him – musicians, filmmakers, artists, architects – in books, interviews, song lyrics. I recall my surprise at discovering a 1987 interview with him in i-D magazine, that tireless documenter of the extravagant and ultra-expressive style cults of the 80s. What was this peripheral figure from my sci-fi apprenticeship doing there, mixing it with i-D’s self-described lunatic crew of ‘Greboes, Waifs, Wannabees, Heavy Metal Christians, Sloane Rebels and Nocturnal Vampettes’?
Yet he was more ‘punk’ than any of them. Closing the interview, a remarkable sidebar collected some of his more striking thoughts, and I marvelled at his ability to discourse on apparently anything. Here was Ballard on Live Aid: ‘You couldn’t mount another. The TV tube is like a flagging piece of nervous tissue – you need a bigger and bigger charge to get a kick out of it.’ On TV news: ‘It’s not news … it’s entertainment news. A documentary on brain surgery is about entertainment brain surgery. But then again, maybe the vital discoveries are going to be made in the area of entertainment brain surgery.’ On yuppies: ‘[They] aren’t interested in having kids, they are their own kids.’
He crafted his observations in a way that was both delimiting and exhilarating. The attraction to TV, for example, a medium always uppermost in his thought, was couched in a way that bordered on abject disgust – ‘flagging nervous tissue’ – but also elided completely the boundaries between the body and technology, forging the reader’s cyborgian afterbirth with pleasurable, sentient energy. So primed, I eventually began to understand the ironic underbelly of his ‘dangerous bends’ equation. ‘But of course,’ he told a different interviewer, playing games with our perception of him, ‘there’s a small part of me which has always said, “Dangerous bends ahead. Speed up.” Because I’m curious to know…’
Above: Ballard’s Superego, live on YouTube.
Accompanying the i-D interview, Simon Durrant’s grainy, monochrome portraiture compounded this abnormal charisma. Wearing a black shirt, Ballard stares off camera, his expression one of detached certitude. He pinches his thumb and forefinger together under his left eye, pulling the skin of the cheekbone down to reveal his wide, opaque pupils. It is an overtly theatrical gesture, pregnant with symbolism, a coded missive. As a young man, I spent a good deal of time trying to divine the true meaning of that gesture, in tandem with the future-shockwaves contained within the interview. What exactly was he staring at?
Ballard could expose the vacuity and never-attainable levels of satisfaction that power the logic of the consumerist engine, yet he was not above the thrill of it all, for he understood the liberating charge that comes from total abandonment. He saw the capturing, framing and enhancement of perversity by modern technology as beneficial, an unprecedented ‘back door pass into the realm of psychopathology’. The focus on televised irreality was deliberate, pronounced. Ballard copped to being a TV junkie. His research for his novel Hello America didn’t involve flying to the US, he said, it came from watching The Rockford Files. He was fascinated by the ‘kind of inward collapse’ brought about by new technology. ‘Deregulation of the airwaves,’ he told i-D, ‘will lead to a deregulation of the imagination.’ In the future, ‘ultimately every home will be transformed into its own TV studio. We’ll all be simultaneously actor, director and screenwriter in our own soap opera. People will start screening themselves. They will become their own TV programmes.’
Remarkably, a decade before the i-D interview, in 1977, Ballard had already tested this idea in his short story ‘The Intensive Care Unit’, with its near-future setting where ordinances are in place to prevent people from meeting in person. All interaction is mediated through personal cameras and TV screens. To talk to someone, even intimates, it becomes necessary to log onto one’s personal TV channel. [This story can be seen as the fictional partner to the Vogue essay referenced by Buzzfeed].
Eventually the narrator decides to enact the unthinkable: he brings his family together to meet in the flesh. But they are all overwhelmed by this unmediated interaction and experience reality overload. Overcome with bloodlust, they hack each other to pieces using household scissors. Like Deleuze, Ballard saw television’s functions as surveillance and control. In a 1988 interview, he explicitly states this while recycling a passage (about ‘pre-empting original response’) from the introduction to his novel Crash:
The danger with TV is that it predigests and pre-empts any kind of original response by the viewer. It just feeds the viewer a kind of reality. (It has in fact become the new reality, just like processed food has become the staple diet of many people in the West.) This force feeding makes us rather like a lot of bullocks in pens.
In medical terms, the way an intensive care unit protects at the same time as it strips away privacy echoes Ballard’s view that we welcome the colonisation of our own bodies. In the story ‘The Intensive Care Unit’, every human action is monitored and recorded, yet the narrator notes the ‘admirable conventions’ and ‘liberating affectlessness’ of this world, which afford him the chance to ‘explore the fullest range of sexual possibility’ through clandestine pornographic channels catering to all tastes. The narrator feels safe and protected. ‘The Intensive Care Unit’ was written well before CCTV was introduced in the UK in the late 1980s, yet it imparts the uncanny feeling that there is a form of surveillance guiding the story’s networked reality, even though this is never directly stated. The characters’ televised broadcasts are ostensibly for private and personal use, but there is an uneasy sense that what they are recording is also being transmitted elsewhere, the cameras part of a linked grid. This is emphasised when the narrator refers to the key events of his life as lived under the ‘benevolent gaze of the television camera’, as if the camera has the power to confer, or withdraw, life and death itself.
Above: man trapped in elevator for 41 hours, live on CCTV.
Here, Ballard also seems to anticipate the coming world of reality TV, where the boundaries between private and public spheres have dissolved. Even in Crash, from 1973, there are sequences that prefigure the way people behave in a world of instant celebrity, where there are cameras everywhere and we might be plunged through one side of the screen to the other in an instant:
Watching him from my car, parked alongside his own, I could see that even now Vaughan was dramatizing himself for the benefit of these anonymous passers-by, holding his position in the spotlight as if waiting for invisible television cameras to frame him.
The camera as a self-aware entity is a crucial motif in Ballard, but it breaks free in his later work to become fully autonomous, increasingly unfathomable. In ‘The Intensive Care Unit’, the characters play up to the omniscient cameras. Despite the narrator’s affection for his mediated society, he harbours a desire to push the boundaries, to break the frame, hence his plan to bring the family together. This seems a classic SF device: in a sterile dystopia, where everyone is controlled and kept in their place by invisible forces, the rebel makes a stand by puncturing the mediated boundaries of his life. It can be seen in films such as Logan’s Run, THX 1138 and The Truman Show. Yet in Ballard, the narrator has no desire to escape the camera’s gaze. On one level, he appears trapped within the intensities of a completely mediated world, the boundaries of the body dissolving in an all-seeing, all-encompassing electronic gaze.
Death, the final release, is willingly performed for the camera, so thoroughly assimilated as to become naturalised and normal. The narrator retains his admiration for the benevolent camera, intending to make a ‘complete record … of this unique event’. He affectionately thinks of the controlled slaughter of his family as ‘the ultimate home movie’, and is more than happy ‘within the generous rectangle of the TV screen’. There is no question of escaping or of trying to find a world beyond the gaze. For the narrator this is undesirable or even impossible, about as improbable as an astronaut leaving the boundaries of the universe to see what is on the other side. Any transcendence through death will still be enacted within the logic of the electronic gaze.
As we have seen, in later interviews, post ‘Intensive Care’, Ballard would continue to refine his views on affirmative social isolation, enthusing about the possibilities of private media and suggesting that the average home would soon acquire the processing power of a small TV studio, enabling us to broadcast our intimate fantasies to one another. In 1982 he enthusiastically told V. Vale that ‘Everybody will be doing it, everybody will be living inside a TV studio. That’s what the domestic home aspires to these days … We’re all going to be starring in our own sit-coms, and they’ll be very strange sit-coms, too, like the inside of our heads. That’s going to come, I’m absolutely sure of that, and it’ll really shake up everything.’
Needless to say, for Ballard there was always a dark side. Today, online persona factories frame a fluid performativity enabled by the irresistible connective tissue of social media. What is YouTube – now inevitably banal, smoothly integrated into the fabric of everyday life – if not the medium for each of us to design and star in ‘our own sit-coms’? Anyone familiar with ‘The Intensive Care Unit’ will surely recognise the dark shadow of those ‘very strange’ productions (indeed, of what we now recognise as social media), with its disturbing warning about the dangers that await when we have the capacity to broadcast ‘the inside of our heads’. Ballard’s futurism, always potent, extremely well reasoned and argued – frequently alarming – was, above all, uncannily accurate.
He did not flinch, and he expected us not to. What’s more, he was right.
- Dr Simon Sellars, 2013