An edited excerpt from my book-in-progress The Medium Picture, this is from chapter 5, “Metaphors Be With You.”
I ordered the seven-inch of Jawbox’s 1993 single, “Motorist,” as soon as I knew it was available. The lyrics, even for a Jawbox song, were striking. “Accidental, maybe,” ponders J. Robbins, “restraints too frayed to withhold me.”[i] Paul Virilio once wrote that whenever we invent a new technology, we also invent a new kind of accident.[ii] We might never again invent a technology that is so prone to accidents as we have with the automobile. Hearing them play it live again reminded me of the wreckage of artifacts piled up in my head around the song.
Over Zach Borocas’ lurching beat and Kim Coletta’s chugging bass, as well as his and Bill Barbot’s dual, dueling guitar feedback, Robbins yells, “when you examined the wreck, what did you see? Glass everywhere and wheels still spinning free.” I remember immediately thinking of the 1973 J.G. Ballard novel, Crash. In the simplest of terms, Crash is about a group of people who fetishize car crashes. Most of them have been in actual accidents, but they also stage their own. They are sexually aroused by the impact as well as the aftermath, the energies and the injuries.
Though I hadn’t read it, I thought Robbins had. I found out recently that the song is actually about a car accident that happened in Chicago while Jawbox was on tour. While back in town during the last night of the band’s 2019 summer reunion tour, Robbins told the story on stage at the Metro. In light of this new information, I’ve tried to rewire my interpretation of the song. In my head Jawbox’s “Motorist” remains connected to Ballard’s Crash.
Compare Robbins’ singing, “cracked gauges carry messages for me. Calls and responses you can’t see” to Ballard writing, “The wounds on my knees and chest were beacons tuned to a series of beckoning transmitters, carrying the signals, unknown to myself, which would unlock this immense stasis and free these drivers for the real destinations set for their vehicles, the paradises of the electric highway.”[iii] This motorized mysticism, the idea that technology enables and endures unintended uses and conjures and communicates unintended messages runs parallel to the cult of the car. Scriptures superimposed on the roads. Messages, transmitters, signals, all performing a discourse of dread, dialogue of deadly trauma.
Automobile-accident numbers are routinely trotted out in comparison to whatever disaster is threatening human lives at the time. Gun violence, viral plagues, and various cancers are all measured at least annually against the deaths we inflict driving these vehicles. As Zadie Smith writes in The Guardian, quoting Ballard himself, “Like the characters in Crash we are willing participants in what Ballard called ‘a pandemic cataclysm that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and injures millions.’ The death-drive, Thanatos, is not what drivers secretly feel, it’s what driving explicitly is.”[iv] When we hear the statistics, we might worry for a second, noting those we know who’ve passed away on the road or been maimed by molded metal, but we soon continue our car-enabled commutes undeterred.
Death isn’t the only Freudian trope that these stories stir up. Sex is wound into the car accident as well, both as pornography and as intimacy. “When Ballard called Crash the first ‘pornographic novel about technology’,” Smith continues, “he referred not only to a certain kind of content but to pornography as an organizing principle…” We might not enjoy pornography or admit that we do, but we all understand it as a concept. It’s meaning is not a mystery. In Crash, it acts as a skewed skeuomorph. As Ballard writes, it is “as if the presence of the car mediated an element which alone made sense of the sexual act.”[v] And aren’t cars always already sexualized? The metaphor is close at hand: pistons and spark plugs, revving and thrusting, hands gripping curves and contours galore.
The jutting juxtaposition of body parts and auto parts and the blending of bodily fluids and engine oils might be more disturbing when thought of as intimacy than as pornography.[vi] “The real shock of Crash is not that people have sex in or near cars,” Smith writes, “but that technology has entered into even our most intimate human relations.” Consider the difference between the phrase “fucking the car” and “making love to the car.” It’s not the violence of the sex act but the intimate presence of technology there that chafes our sensibilities. It’s not the sexual appropriation of a mechanical contrivance but the emotional possibility of love that bothers us. “Traditional warnings against the evils of mediation reach an ironic zenith in this portrait of ‘the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect’,”[vii] Dominic Pettman notes grimly. With sex and technology crammed together in this context, we can’t decide if it’s better or worse to care.
No matter how you feel about them, car-crashes and sexual encounters force one thing on everyone: exposure. From fender benders to total immobility, no one wants to get caught in the act, caught with their pants down, in flagrante delicto. Ballard himself described Crash as a forced look in the mirror. “You can see your reflection in the luminescent dash,” Daniel Miller sings on The Normal’s Crash-inspired track, “Warm Leatherette.”[viii] “Seduced reflection in the chrome,” Siouxsie Sioux adds on the Creatures’ Ballardian “Miss the Girl.”[ix] “New way to see what’s laid plain in front of me,” Robbins wails on “Motorist.” “Nothing better than a look at what I shouldn’t see.”
No one wants to get caught with their body thrown clear at odd angles, the contents of their car strewn, the whole of their very lives lying limp on the pavement. Every illicit tryst implies its own exit strategy. On “Motorist,” Robbins concludes, “Turn your back, just drive on past, because nothing is better than getting out fast.”
Look hard and then look away. The fastest car is the getaway.
It’s been over a decade. A decade without Ballard. It should be more noticeable. Like filling an empty pool with emptiness, to paraphrase China Miéville.[x] A void of perspective, crumbling and gaping at our heels. Everyone should feel it. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: This is the way, step inside.
His work has been translated to the screen by directors with styles as varied as Steven Spielberg (Empire of the Sun) and David Cronenberg (Crash). He was interviewed by countless talented writers, including Jon Savage, V. Vale, Will Self, Richard Kadrey, John Gray, Simon Sellars, and Mark Dery. His influence is found in sound from Joy Division, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Sisters of Mercy, K.K. Null, and Gary Numan to Madonna, Radiohead, Trevor Horn, Cadence Weapon, and Danny Brown, as well as the aforementioned Creatures and The Normal. His writing and thinking are broad enough to elude categories and focused enough to remain absolutely singular. His work gerrymanders genre distinctions, defining and defying its own boundaries as it goes. I think of him in the same way I think of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Samuel R. Delany: as giants beyond genre.
“I suppose we are moving into a realm where inner space is no longer just inside our skulls but is in the terrain we see around us in everyday life,” Ballard said in 1974:
We are moving into a world where the elements of fiction are that world—and by fiction I mean anything invented to serve imaginative ends, whether it is invented by an advertising agency, a politician, an airline, or what have you. These elements have now crowded out the old-fashioned elements of reality.[xi]
Since then a lot of mental offloading and cognitive outsourcing has occurred, our inner thoughts texture-mapped onto every surface. In that meantime some of Ballard’s children have emerged in mongrel forms and curtained corners of mass media. Think Wild Palms or Jackass or the ever-blurring lines between reality and show, news and entertainment. “It’s not news,” he wrote, “it’s entertainment news. A documentary on brain surgery is about entertainment brain surgery.” Inversely, Ballard collaged and kludged together the sets of his own Atrocity Exhibition out of internal organs: “[T]he nervous systems of the characters have been externalized, as part of the reversal of the interior and exterior worlds. Highways, office blocks, faces, and street signs are perceived as if they were elements in a malfunctioning central nervous system.”[xii] Michel de Certeau once wrote, “books are only metaphors of the body.”[xiii] Ballard often seemed to be crash-testing that idea.
The transmedia spread of everted inner space is nowhere more evident than on this confounded internet. William Gibson said as much in his novel Spook Country.[xiv] Michel de Certeau wrote elsewhere, “what the map cuts up, the story cuts across.”[xv] These are maps of different terrain and stories of a different cut. As Simon Sellars points out, unlike the cyberpunks who followed him, Ballard’s maps of these near futures weren’t as celebratory as they were cautionary: Dangerous Curves Ahead. Slow Down.[xvi]
[i] J. Robbins, “Motorist.” On “Motorist” b/w “Jackpot Plus” [7” single]. Recorded by Jawbox. Washington, DC: Dischord Records, 1993.
[iii] J.G. Ballard, Crash: A Novel. London: Jonathan Cape, 1973, p. 44.
[iv] Zadie Smith, “Sex and Wheels: Zadie Smith on J.G. Ballard’s Crash.” The Guardian, July 4, 2014.
[v] Ballard, 1973, p. xii.
[vi] For examples regarding David Cronenberg’s 1996 film adaptation, see Martin Barker, Jane Arthurs & Ramaswami Harindranath, The Crash Controversy: Censorship Campaigns and Film Reception. London: Wallflower Press, 2001.
[vii] Dominic Pettman, After the Orgy: Toward a Politics of Exhaustion, New York: SUNY Press, 2002, p. 80. Pettman is quoting from Andrea Juno, 1984.
[viii] Daniel Miller, “T.V.O.D.” b/w “Warm Leatherette” [7” single]. Recorded by The Normal. London: Mute Records, 1978. Daniel Miller and a friend had written a screenplay based on Ballards’ Crash. When they couldn’t get it made, Miller condensed it into the song “Warm Leatherette.” Of course, this single, as auspicious as it turned out to be, was made much more popular by Grace Jones when she covered it in 1980.
[ix] Siouxsie Sioux & Budgie, “Miss the Girl” b/w “Hot Springs in the Snow” [7” single]. Recorded by The Creatures. London: Wonderland, 1983.
[x] China Miéville. (2008). Introduction. In J. G. Ballard, Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, an Autobiography. New York: Liveright, pp. ix-xiv.
[xi] Quoted in J. G. Ballard. (2012). Extreme Metaphors: Collected Interviews. Simon Sellars & Dan O’Hara, Eds. London: Fourth Estate, p. 62; see also Ballard (1985), Crash: A Novel. New York: Vintage, p. 4-5.
[xii] J. G. Ballard. (1970). The Atrocity Exhibition. London: Jonathan Cape, p. 76.
[xiii] Michel de Certeau. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, p. 140.
[xiv] William Gibson. (2007). Spook Country. New York: Putnam, pp. 63-64.
[xv] de Certeau, 1984, p. 129.
[xvi] Simon Sellars. (2018). Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe. Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic.