Grave New World
BBC Radio 3 10/11/98
Interview by David Gale
David Gale talks to leading thinkers about their radical vision of
J.G. Ballard writes about the collisions between people and a world
transformed by technology. In the 1970s he wrote the novel 'Crash',
recently filmed by David Cronenberg, in which his protagonists
derived erotic satisfaction from car crashes. Other works, such
as 'The Atrocity Exhibition', 'High Rise' and most recently 'Cocaine
Nights', explore a territory in which the self is splintered and
invaded by a myth-ridden mediascape that has eclipsed the real world.
Jim Ballard; many of the characters in your books seem to be able to
thrive in circumstances that most people would find fairly
destabilizing, to say the least, and these circumstances appear to be
futuristic extensions of things that are already going on in our
current experience. Do you think that you might have therefore laid
out a blueprint for personality types that could thrive in the 21st
Of course some people over the years have suggested that mental
illness is a kind of adaptation to the sort of circumstances that
will arise in the future. As we move towards a more and more
psychotic landscape, the psychotic traits are signs of a sort of, you
know, a kind of Darwinian adaptation. After all, my grandparents,
were they able to visit this country today, Western Europe or the
United States for that matter, would find it an extraordinary place;
I mean a landscape of sensation, dominated by the mass media, who're
selling everything on the strength of... eroticism, violence, and, in
terms of advertising, huge claims to a sort of mythic wonderland of
possibility that buying the latest, you know, refrigerator or
electric toothbrush will usher you into. My grandparents would have
thought this place absolutely mad, and they might well think that
someone as disturbed as some of the characters in my fiction were
rather sensible in the way they behaved.
So a conventional psychoanalytic view would be that we can adjust, we
must be well adjusted, and the psychopath is not well adjusted. So
are we leaving behind the notion of being well adjusted?
Well the psychopath may not be well adjusted to a society such as
existed, say, 30 or 40 years ago, but there are periods of history,
and we've passed through quite a number of them and are still doing
so where, you know, the psychopath is highly adjusted to whatever,
you know, is going on around him, and look at the Second World War;
look at the former Yugoslavia today. Psychopaths roved both these
sort of nightmare terrains and were probably the best adapted of all.
I mean the sane and cautious and quotes 'well adjusted' were the
people who sadly were unable to cope.
I mean, another conventional view of the genesis of psychopathy would
lay the originating incidence at the door of the family. But you
don't seem to write about that much, you seem to think we have a
pathogenic media culture that is as powerful if not more powerful
than anything your parents could do to you.
I think that's true, I mean I take the view that... the environment
today is itself so filled with pressures of every conceivable kind -
the pressures to conform, the pressures to amuse oneself, the
pressures to find oneself - and the constant bombardment of everyday
life by advertising, the media landscape, together represent a
continuing kind of challenge to one's sanity. And, of course, many of
my characters are wilting under the pressure; they don't want to buy
any more refrigerators or electric toothbrushes, you know, they want
to find some truth about themselves, so they embark, generally
speaking in my fiction, on some sort of voyage of discovery.
If you look at a book of mine like 'The Atrocity Exhibition', there
you have this psychiatrist who's having a mental breakdown, who is
obsessed with what he sees as the great tragedies of the mid-20th
Century, above all the assassination of Kennedy, and he sets up a
whole series of psychodramas in which Kennedy is, as it were,
assassinated again, Marilyn Monroe commits suicide again, and so on.
But as he himself says, he wants to kill Kennedy, but in a way that
makes sense. He's trying to re-mythologise these terrible tragedies
in order to lay them to rest. And outwardly some of his behaviour
in 'The Atrocity exhibition' might seem very bizarre, but in fact
it's all logically constructed. They're constructing their own
logical alternative universe to what they see as a sort of poisoned
realm. Which is a fair description of the world today, still.
So, by that token, in 'Crash', the people who seek that great
physical intimacy with automobiles and parts of automobiles are
embarked on a sort of healing process.
Absolutely. Absolutely. They're faced with a conundrum that faces
almost all the characters in my fiction; sensation rules our world,
and a sort of perverse logic is operating which thrives on violence,
and to some extent, a lesser extent I think, sex. The media landscape
is saturated with images of violence and sexuality, desperately
trying to extract a sort of flicker, a galvanic response from the
sort of dead frog's leg of, you know, the human spirit, and my
characters are trying to sort of establish a more meaningful sort of
psychological circuitry, that at present is completely overwhelmed by
our sort of perverse entertainment landscape.
You've spoken about predictive mythologies, as distinct from
mythologies that were shaped in the distant past, and that our aids
to living in a rather unchanging present; I suspect you think that
the present is changing so fast that the old conceptions of mythology
are no longer useful. Predictive mythologies are those which you have
said equip us to live in the future. If you're not bound to be
psychopathic, if you don't tend to be hysterical, what predictive
mythologies, or strategies if you like, can you conceive of that
would help get people through this media informational avalanche that
seems to induce such tremendous stress?
Well, the 20th Century has been a huge manufacturer of what I call
predictive mythologies. I mean one of the greatest is the notion of
space travel; the idea that one day mankind will leave this planet
and move outwards into the solar system, colonizing other planets,
and then beyond the solar system into, you know, the universe as a
whole. I would say that that dream of colonization of space has
rather faded now because the problems of moving large populations out
into space are so... well, they're virtually insuperable. That's I
think one of the greatest predictive mythologies of the 20th Century,
the notion of space travel, but there've been others.
The others, the sort of classic Wellsian, I suppose, dream of a
society perfected by science, it's the dream one saw laid out in
Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World', countless novels and films, the
notion that science, sensibly applied to social problems, will solve
most of them, and that we can all live in a kind of Corbusier world
where tensions are defused by enlightened social legislation, and so
on. That's another great predictive mythology. Hasn't really worked
out; human beings perhaps haven't evolved sufficiently to be able to
enjoy living in high rise blocks or, you know, something like
Corbusier's radient city seems much too regimented. We seem to need a
certain element of sort of street level chaos in our lives. We aren't
as enlightened as we'd like to be; but that's another great
Another is that vision of the better life which advertising has been
trying to convince us of, you know, again for the last sixty, seventy
years: Buy the latest model Buick, move into the right style of ranch
home, make sure your wife is dressed in, you know, in the latest high
street fashions - and life will seem better. It's complete mythology,
as complete as anything, you know, the ancient Greeks came up with.
And it's extremely potent, only most people half believe it. In fact
you can say today that we live entirely on a whole system of
predictive mythologies that actually are all we have to give our
lives any meaning.
There's the predictive mythology of the obsolete body: There is a
vocal cyber -community who say that technology allows us now a
digitised electro-space, or something like that, where we can
communicate more freely than ever before. Do you buy into that one?
What about the internet?
I am extremely impressed by the internet. I think it's a whole series
of private universes that are paraded across the screen in an
absolutely riveting way. It's a form of self-publishing that is
obviously just in it's infancy now.
Virtual reality is something slightly different. I mean I take for
granted that eventually virtual reality systems will be available to
us which create a simulated reality that is more convincing than that
which our central nervous systems create. I mean one must remember
the brain is itself a virtual reality machine, the illusion we have
of the real world, of factories and streets and office blocks and
other people talking to us is itself a virtual reality simulation
generated by our brains.
I think when the first true virtual reality systems become available,
and contain more visual information and are more visually convincing
than ordinary reality, the temptation for the human race will be to
enter this virtual reality system and close the door behind it. I
mean, I think there's a danger there because one will really be able
to enter into a fantasy world which, unlike all fantasies in the
past, would be more convincing than everyday reality.
In two hundred years' time it may be possible to author your own
virtual reality, but there may come a point at which the social will
simply collapse in favour of highly individualized, designed virtual
I think that probably will happen, and it creates all sorts of moral
dilemmas. I mean when people enter their virtual reality world, where
they can play games with their own psychopathologies, where if they
want to they can assume, you know, the role of any character in
history, or any imaginary character, if they want one day be a Nobel
Prize winning physicist, and the next day, you know, play a
concentration camp commandant, they'll be able to step beyond the
sort of conventional bounds of morality alogether; I mean one would
be morally free to play with one's own psychopathology as a game.
That's rather dangerous, putting it mildly.
I mean to some extent that happens today, I mean, sort of, one can
watch violent films on, you know, one's own TV set, read pretty
psychotic novels, and briefly enter into the world of 'Die Hard 3' or
novels of William Burroughs or the Marquis De Sade, but generally,
you know, one switches off and turns the last page and returns to,
you know, the business of making one's supper. But I mean I can
imagine a virtual reality world so rich that one scarcely bothers to
leave it, except for sort of basic necessities.
I imagine it will come and will pose a vast challenge to society as
we know it.
When we talk like this, highly speculatively, these things may not
come about but nevertheless, they seem to be fascinating things to
talk about, and here we are talking about them at the end of the 20th
Century - why are they so fascinating? It may be that we don't get
virtual reality that's as good as the real thing, but it's certainly
compelling to think about. Why is that?
Of course we already do get a kind of virtual reality that is
superior to the real thing; the average cinema screen contains more
units of visual information than our eyes perceive in ordinary
reality, that's why the big screen is so much more gripping than the
small TV screen.
Why are we fascinated by, you know, the prospect of virtual reality
systems and talk about them? Well I mean they offer such a challenge
to our perception of what a sort of sane life in a sane society is. I
think people do perceive now that there is a radical, a whole series
even, of radical alternatives to the present world. They look back on
the 20th Century and they see it as a period of gigantic advances,
and yet they see it as exhibiting deep flaws. Not just its great
world wars, and its violent and often psychopathic entertainment
culture, but that there's something missing from the world that we
all inhabit. I think most people realise the gods have died, we've
lost our faith in the far future, and that we're living in a
commodified world where everything has a price tag; a world filled
with, you know, dreams that money can buy, but dreams that soon pall.
I think people perceive that life is probably meaningless, that we're
an accident of fate biologically, and that societies that we inhabit,
far from being social structures that reflect deep, enduring needs,
are in fact gim- crack, almost extemporized sets of rules that
someone in charge of a lifeboat might impose on survivors sitting
around him; so many biscuits per day, you know, and half a pint of
water. And that society's just a set of opportunistic conventions
that we accept in order to facilitate ordinary life, just as we
accept that we drive in this country on the left side of the road;
and we all know that that doesn't reflect some deep pre-existing
meaning within our lives.
I think most people realise that for all it's complexity contemporary
society is an artificial construct that can be moved offstage at a
moment's notice, as people find at times of war, as I found during
the Second World War as a child in Shanghai. You know, reality is
just a stage set that can be pushed aside, and a very different set
of rules can then apply.
I mean, given the hollowness of existence, I think people are
beginning to wonder, sort of, what does life really offer us in terms
of it's possibilities. Some people reach out to bizarre cults, others
move into drugs, but these are all rather desperate remedies and I
don't think they touch the truth.
You're talking about a difficulty of being social, but you move
across and almost talk about the difficulty of being, period. As if
the 20th Century saw, amongst other things, the peak of the social,
and it's decline, and that we've run out of strategies, and that some
of our most alluring options seem to be recreational psychopathology
Well, I think that puts it very neatly, and that's what I fear. I
mean, what do we see at the end of the 20th Century? We see the
churches empty, in the West that is, and people in the most advanced
societies, in Western Europe and the United States, moving more and
more into gated communities, where security is the dominant concern.
And that's in many ways to be deplored, I mean if you think of what
society invests in the training of it's leading professionals, it's
doctors, architects, lawyers and so on, for them then to opt out and
move into a gated community where they exist behind huge arrays of
electronic padlocks, and have no interaction with the rest of society
in their social hours, is a deplorable state of affairs. I think the
way in which the gated community is springing up all over the world
now is an ominous sign. It's a sign that something is deeply wrong
with the societies that have evolved at the end of the 20th Century,
and it's not... people aren't moving into gated communities simply to
avoid muggers and housebreakers, they're moving into gated
communities to get away from other people. Even people like
themselves, that's the curious thing. 'Cos inside most gated
communities there's very little social life; people are happy to
enter their executive houses and stay there.
In your recent book, 'Cocaine Nights', the book takes place in a
community off the Costa Del Sol; you introduce the figure of Bobby
Crawford, tennis coach, who's a psychopath by just about anybody's
Well of course Crawford is in many ways a benevolent psychopath who
is trying to revive this moribund community.
Could you read us an excerpt?
Yes I think, as the psychiatrist in the book remarks:
"In a sense, Crawford may be the saviour of the entire Costa Del Sol,
and even the wider world beyond that. You've been to Gibraltar? One
of the last outposts of small-scale greed, openly dedicated to
corruption; no wonder the Brussels bureauocrats are trying to close
Our governements are preparing for a future without work, and that
includes the petty criminals. Leisure societies lie ahead of us like
those you see on this coast. People will still work - or rather, some
people will still work, but only for a decade of their lives. They
will retire in their late thirties, with fifty years of idleness in
front of them.
A billion balconies facing the sun; still, it means a final goodbye
to wars and ideologies. But how do you energize people, give them
some sense of community? A world lying on it's back is vulnerable to
any cunning predator.
Politics are a pastime for a professional cast and fail to excite the
rest of us. Religious belief demands a vast effort of imaginative and
emotional commitment, difficult to muster if you're still groggy from
last night's sleeping pill.
Only one thing is left which can rouse people, threaten them directly
and force them to act together: Crime? Crime and transgressive
behaviour. By which I mean all activities which aren't necessarily
illegal, but provoke us and tap our need for strong emotion, quicken
the nervous system and jump the synapses, deadened by leisure and
The book takes place in a gated community, also an echo of the idea
of a sort of gated self, which is propogated by the entertainment
culture. The entertainment culture sells increasingly virtualized,
isolated experiences, rather more cheaply than the real estate
involved in the gated community, much more widely available, and you
end up with, you know, the gated community of me.
Absolutely. I think you know, it's a return to the self in a way, and
an awareness, a rather terrifying awareness that... that self is
probably without meaning. That's the fearful prospect a little
further down the road, that people will accept that their lives are
meaningless and that everything else is a fiction designed to
assuage, you know, the sort of desperate anxiety of a meaningless
That's a frightening terminus to disembark onto.
Jim Ballard, thank you very much.
[This article originally appeared on the webpage
www.terminal1.demon.co.uk/JGBallard.htm which has been subsequently