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February 27, 2010

27-2-10 Ballard

“…I feel that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decades. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass-merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the preempting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.”

J.G. Ballard, Introduction to the ‘95 edition of ‘Crash’

Ballard writes pretty much the best summary of his project as a writer in that paragraph. I’ve posted it in several forums and mails over the years because it seems almost a statement of the obvious once it’s articulated.

I mentioned in one of my early attempts at blog a line from ‘A House Is Not A Motel’ from the Love album Forever Changes: the news today will be the movies for tomorrow.

Look at TV documentaries and even news broadcasts, increasingly presented in a montage of reenactments, graphics, illustrative images shuffled into reportage, post-editing effects, reporters gesturing insanely, offering opinion and speculation against location shots intended to suggest that being near the scene of the news represents being near the truth of the story.

As recently as 1985 it was possible to present A. J. P. Taylor’s ‘How Wars End’, a series of TV lectures comprising an academic in front of a camera delivering a dense stream of information without notes. Taylor was at the time in the early phase of Parkinson’s Disease and incipient amnesia and even so was able, and given the time, to elaborate a detailed case, which also speaks for the assumptions made by TV execs about the quality of attention brought to the series by its viewers.

I first read Ballard’s ‘Crash’ when it was published in 1973 and was mesmerised by its bleak romanticisation of the car as status accessory and environment. In effect he had only elaborated on the motor industry’s sexualisation of its product reported in Vance Packard’s surprise best-seller on Ernest Dichter’s motivational research contribution to advertising ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ (1956). It was Dichter who alerted the ad agencies to the role of ‘the car as Mistress’ to the predominantly male decision-makers in the purchase of the ostensibly ‘family car’.

Ballard also played with the cultural location of the car in a 1970 exhibition, ‘Crashed Cars’  – just that, salvaged car-wrecks presented unadorned as art.

What a disappointment David Cronenberg’s movie of the book was. The creeping unease in the book emerges from the relentless anonymous banality of its settings and trappings; Cronenberg presents Vaughan, the ringleader of the cell of car fetishists as a bug-eyed obsessive rather than a charismatic sociopath and e.g. substitutes a staged car-crash reenactment for the book’s references to filmed car-crash tests as specialist porn.

Re-reading the book it seemed that Ballard had transplanted a kind of 19th century nature-mysticism and transferred its romanticism from Wordsworth’s ‘impulse from the vernal wood’ to adoration of polypropylene mouldings and ‘instrument binnacles’, high-rise blocks and underpasses.

This found echoes in the Ultravox track ‘My Sex’ and most iconically in The Normal’s barking electronica, ‘Warm Leatherette’.

I just remembered a TV documentary I once saw about Japanese car-manufacturers’ methodical research to break into the US car market in the 70’s. A designer recalled a car show he attended as a junior,with the Head of his Design Dept. Observing his boss’ gaze over one particular new model, he asked what had caught his attention, expecting to pick up some esoteric detail of car appraisal.

‘I’m imagining’ his boss told him ‘a sunny Sunday afternoon, washing the car on my driveway, and how a good sponge-full of soapy water would run off those curves.’

  1. Curiously, the only thing I remember from “The Hidden Persuaders” – which I found incredibly eye-opening when I read it in about 1970 – was the experiment with the colour of washing powder packets. All the rest has gone except for the title and author, but that must have struck a chord.

    Comment by Sue Jones — February 27, 2010 @ 11:05 pm
  2. I’ve never had much interest in cars, being a non-driver. But I did used to enjoy ear-wigging the conversations of the young men at my previous job, who were often looking through the second-hand cars on the web or in the paper. Apparently the worst insult one can give a vehicle is “that’s a bit of a woman’s car.” When they were looking for something for the wife or girlfriend however, they would often dismiss potential vehicles as “that’s too much car for her”. So I do wonder, are the adverts that are clearly aimed at female drivers showing a vehicle which really reflects what the average female driver wants, or just one that she can probably get away with, without disturbing her partner’s inner Clarkson?

    Comment by Sue Jones — February 28, 2010 @ 8:31 pm
  3. It’s been ages since I read it, though I discovered it in the garage recently (loads of Stuff in the garage but no car) and want to read it again now, 50[!] years on. D’you remember the failed promotion for Stork: send in a couple of wrappers and get free nylon stockings? The Housewife reacted badly to the association of margarine and feet.
    And the initial failure of Mary Baker cake-mix, the cake in a packet, using powdered egg; just add water. The Housewife felt like it was cheating and didn’t go for it until they took the powder out and flashed on the box ‘Add an egg!’ and suddenly it was OK again and tumbled off the supermarket shelves.

    Comment by admin — March 1, 2010 @ 9:34 pm
  4. Now you’ve reminded me, those do come back…. I think I’ve still got a copy somewhere at my parents’ house. I shall look for it on Saturday, in between delivering shopping, darning a jumper and hunting for any remaining guitar books.

    Comment by Sue Jones — March 1, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

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