A Street Car Maimed Desire: Cross-contamination of Agency between the Body and Technological Space in J.G. Ballard’s Crash (1971)

This short review will plot two technological spaces that are targeted by J.G. Ballard’s Crash as being largely responsible for our post-human, psycho-technological, and cyborg status as car-driving, city-living and camera-captured subjects. In the car and the city we find two spatial constructions infected by modernity, but we also find two spaces that infect the body and the mind of the subject immersed within this technological modernity. These spaces are created by us, but they also in a sense create us. The space and the body deployed in space have a two-way relationship marked by a certain mutual malleability. Both the individual and the technological space that surrounds the individual are in a sense soft; the constitution of each is at the whim of the other. There is a question of agency here. Henri Lefebvre summed it up when he noted that,
There is an immediate relationship between the body and its space, between the body’s deployment in space and its occupation of space. … Each living body is space and has space: it produces itself in space and is also produced by that space.

It is counterintuitive to think that we are somehow controlled by the space we inhabit, but it is this very counterintuitive feature of modernity that Ballard lays bare in his most controversial of novel. Perhaps the controversy lies more in the idea that technological space holds a certain level of agency over bodies rather than in the novel’s perverse or so-called psychopathic sexual exploration.

We might ask this question: at what time does this spatial agency function? Lefebvre uses the term ‘immediate’, which designates his opinion of what time frame exists in this sharing of agency between the body and space. But perhaps this can be thought through a little more carefully. Perhaps we can say that a higher degree of agency exists in the technological spaces that direct or produce the body because space created by bodies tends to an agency that exists only in the duration of the design, building and perhaps restoration process (let’s say that this is the period of time that the body exerts power over the spatial technological construction, bearing in mind that this time period is limited and fragmentary), whereas, once space is constructed/deployed it exerts a more permanent, less limited, and perhaps less predictable agency over the body of its creators and users. In the grand scheme of things, the agency invested in space appears to win out. It exerts power over bodies for a greater length of time. Add to this the fact that the agency held by the space that surrounds the body usually functions tacitly. The agency inscribed in space, then, is both more sustained and functions with greater stealth, which creates a world in which the body is, to a greater extent, controlled by the space it inhabits. This is the counterintuitive psycho-technological world that Ballard is exposing, which is perhaps a more unfamiliar facet of our actuality than any machine-based sexual deviancy. It is here, then, that the controversy of the novel lies.

By looking at the character’s relationship with the car, suburbia, and the camera, this review will examine the recurring trope of the text that displays the counterintuitive cross-contamination between the body and the technological space that surrounds it. It will conclude with a caution not to read the text as a cautionary tale, despite what the author himself has written on numerous occasions.

To start with the car. The text seems to dwell on one specific kind of description; the impressions made by the car on the body. The narrator gives many accounts in fine detail of the marks made by the car on the body of its user. The technological space that surrounds the car-driving individual literally inscribes, stamps, indents, shapes and engraves itself onto the bodies of the characters; the aesthetic of the body becomes a space in which the car can be recognised, the technological space of the car can be seen in limbs and on skin, traces of the technological space that the characters inhabit are embossed on their bodies. The examples are numerous. The first impression we see in detail is on the body of Dr Helen Remington’s husband. He is lying dead across the windshield. ‘His hand had struck some rigid object as he was hurled from his seat, and the pattern of a sign formed itself as I sat there … the triton signature of my radiator emblem’. This episode puts the narrator in a privileged position. Not only does he see the imprint of technology on the body, he sees it forming in front of his eyes. In other words, he sees the process of our technological cross-contamination. This is what releases his new sexuality; from that moment on he sees the technological colonization of our bodies as a fundamentally sexual process of insertion, invasion, and complete productive dependence.

The same idea is at work as we witness Ballard recognise himself as a body impressed by, and so in a sense sexually active with, his own car. He is lying in hospital inspecting his own body after his crash. ‘A semi-circle bruise marked my chest … As I looked down at myself I realized that the precise make and model-year of my car could have been reconstructed by an automobile engineer from the patterns of my wounds’. The narrator has been branded by his car; his car has forced itself upon him. There is a sense of reproduction hovering behind this scene. Like the bodies disciplined in a Fordist factory line, the body of the narrator has become a blueprint for the (re)construction and (re)production of an automobile. Donna Haraway offers an apt way to understand this episode when she remarked in her manifesto that ‘modern production seems like a dream of cyborg colonization at work.’

There are many more examples like this, but for brevity’s sake I will offer just one more. This time the direction of the impression goes the other way. The body is as much a force to encode or shape the car as the car is a force that impresses and inscribes the body. The body/car relationship is one of cross-contamination, creating an anthropo-technological machine space as well as a psycho-technological body. The most vivid example of this is the episode in which we first see Ballard prowling the motorway with Vaughan looking for accidents and picking up prostitutes. Driving along, the narrator watches Vaughan having sex with a nameless prostitute on the backseat. ‘In the triptych of images reflected in the speedometer, the clock and revolution counter, the sexual act between Vaughan and this young woman took place in the hooded grottoes of the luminescent dial’. Not only does the interior of the car reflect the sex act, the sex act actually takes place inside the surface that reflects it. The image in the reflection becomes the act itself. In other words, the car is inscribed with the sexuality of the individual user at least as much as the sexuality of the individual car-user is inscribed by their car.

This psycho-technological cross-contamination is always given by Ballard in theatrical terms. The very existence of this interdependent relationship between body and space questions the traditional boundaries between reality and fantasy. This is why the camera is so central to the text. The character’s new sexual relationship with their cars is often mediated through the camera. Until we meet Vaughan we only experience him following Ballard (and consequently ourselves as readers) with a camera in his hands gripping it like a gun; he holds in his hand the power of a new technological gaze. The images of fresh mutilations in Vaughan’s office and the important crash-test episode at the Road Research Laboratory both have filtering through them the question of where to draw the line between real-life and illusion. The scopic field of the text constantly teeters on the brink of fiction and reality, not in an attempt to question the validity of the fictional world created, but to question the ‘reality’ of the actual world that the text comments on. Like the seepage in form and agency between the body and its surrounding geography, reality and fiction are cross-contaminated in an attempt to expose our ever growing psycho-technological status. As Haraway put it, ‘the cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience … [which makes] the argument for the cyborg as a fiction mapping our social and bodily reality.’

The same seepage between the ‘real’ world and the ‘fictional’ world haunts the text’s description of landscape, as does the seepage of agency between body and space; the two are inextricably linked. Again, examples of this are numerous. But one episode in particular shows this interdependent play of agency and actuality to dazzling effect. Ballard has just returned home after his stay in hospital following his crash. He sits on his balcony watching the airport-centred suburban machine-scape go by. From here he can see endless stretches of motorway, planes taking off and landing, and congested traffic following predetermined routes around the built environment. Taking all this in, Ballard has a kind of psycho-geographic epiphany. Gazing down at ‘this immense motion sculpture’ , he feels the potency of its artifice; calling it sculpture denotes this. We then get a description that anchors onto the question of agency that we discussed in relation to the car: ‘I began to orientate myself again,’ explains Ballard, ‘around its reassuring bulk, its familiar perspectives of speed, purpose and direction’. He is a fully sexual-psycho-geographical construction here, returning to the mantle of the artificial landscape. ‘I realized,’ he continues, ‘that the human inhabitants of this technological landscape no longer provided its sharpest pointers, its key to the borderzones of identity’. In other words, the borderzones of identity do not lie in the hands of the identified. Instead they are inscribed in the space that surrounds them. The next passage makes this even clearer:
I found myself flinching with excitement towards the traffic streams on the Western Avenue interchanges. The flashing lances of afternoon light deflected from the chromium panel trim tore at my skin. The hard jazz of radiator grilles, the motion of the cars moving towards London Airport along the sunlit oncoming lanes, the street furniture and route indicators – all these seemed threatening and super-real, as exciting as the accelerating pintables of a sinister amusement arcade released on to these highways.

The moving cars have the potential to reflect the lances of light because they have the potential to distort reality; they are directly involved in the manipulation of nature or reality. Nature never appears unscathed in Ballard’s work. These reflected, manipulated lances of light also tear at his skin, replicating the cross-contaminated engraving of the body seen in the description of the car. The street furniture and route indicators tell of the agency inscribed in spatial and architectural constructions. All this marries together to give Ballard the feeling of super-reality and illusion.

To conclude I simply want to comment on what the text is doing in its defamiliarization of space and subjectivity. Ballard (the author not the character[?]) mentions in the introduction (1995) that the story is a cautionary tale, a warning to those unaware of the psycho-technological mutations of society. He also mentions this in an interview with Melvyn Bragg on BBC Television. But I would contend that the text’s status as a cautionary tale is problematic. The whole book reads as a descriptive exposition rather than a prescriptive warning sign. The text is too barren of any moral framework to be considered cautionary. Instead the tone is ambivalent to any moral decision, its most forceful gesture is to hold up for us the seepage between organism and technology, between reality and fiction, pertaining more to expose how things are rather than how things should be.

Peter William Slater

Ballard, J.G., Crash (London: Fourth Estate 2011, first published 1973)

Bragg, Melvyn. “The South Bank Show: Melvyn Bragg meets J.G. Ballard (1995)” Interview accessed at 12.33 on 14/02/2013 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfI50QX8N5g

Haraway, Donna “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s” from The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 1st Edition ed. Vincent B. Leitch (London: W.W. Norton & Co, 2001) p. 2269

Lefebrvre, Henri The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996)


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