Ballard’s World: Reactivation not Reaction

In the future – this is part of the problem in the ‘arts’ as well – you will get some radical new idea, but within three minutes it’s totally accepted, and it’s coming out in your local supermarket.

– J.G. Ballard

Ballard loved the surrealists, but discovered that we didn’t need to express the surreality of the world because it was already being done by consumer culture. For Ballard it was Warhol and Pop-Art that was the wave of the future, at least in the period he was writing Crash and Atrocity Exhibition. As he’d say:

“We haven’t changed. It’s the public who have caught up with us. In England in the sixties and seventies, the novel was secondary, far behind the visual arts as a purveyor of the imagination for a cultivated public. This latter group preferred then to interest themselves in pop art, in David Hockney or Andy Warhol. As far as fiction was concerned, television replaced it. …

The surrealists have been the biggest influence on me, because they anticipated by about fifty years the fact that the external environment can be remade by the mind and that this is the world we inhabit now, where external reality is a complete fiction in every conceivable way.”1

This sense that reality was the fiction, and novels didn’t need to express some inner fusion of unconscious desire with reality as in surrealism, rather one needed to reverse the procedure and seek the real not out there but within… as with most philosophy one can either reverse a conceptual system or maximize it. ( I owe this to Graham Harman)

In our time of reactionary thought the only alternative is the other path of “reactivation” of thought that has been reduced to such staid formalisms under the pressure of critique and interpretation, commentary and secondary excess that creation is not needed, rather the reactivation of what was always there but hidden in the smooth crevices of time…

“The surrealists anticipated the way the mind can remake the world. Sometime in the seventies the media landscape wrapped itself around the planet and redefined reality as itself, and the amazing thing was that we all went along with it. I think that’s a huge shift in the mass consciousness. We accept the fictions of the mass media are real and most of us would be hard put to define what the real is in personal terms. Are they the little obsessions in our head? They’re about all we cling to. So we have this doubly fictive universe and I leave it to the next generation of writers to deal with it.”

Dark Realism and Disconnection

Interviewer: I wonder if, in a weird way, the car crash is an attempt to tear through the fabric of reality – to ‘break on through’, as the sixties catchphrase has it.

J.G. Ballard: I think so, absolutely. As I’ve often said, we live in a world of manufactured goods that have no individual identity, because every one is like every other one, until something forlorn or tragic happens. One is constantly struck by the fact that some old refrigerator glimpsed in a back alley has much more identity than the identical model sitting in our kitchen. And nothing is more poignant than a field full of wrecked cars, because they’ve taken on a unique identity that they never had in life

Disconnecting from both religious supernaturalism and the ultra-physicalism of naturalism I’ve been seeking through my own dark realism a post-naturalist and post-intentional theory-fiction that neither tries to reconcile these older perspectives (in the Hegelian sense), nor tries to disperse them and segment them. Rather, of late there is this sense that the Kantian world view (Umwelt) under which we’ve all been trapped has reached a hiatus in our time, and it seems what we’re seeking is neither a reversion to pre-modern thought, nor a reconciliation of idealism and materialism, but rather a new level of abstraction that allows for both our sciences and philosophies. Neurosciences tell us that we are blind to our own mental processes, and that it is deep in the brain that our decisions, our analytical and creative powers are enacted outside our conscious awareness; that the illusion of self is part of a complex interface and appendage used by the brain to interface with our environment. The battle in philosophy over the past century has been between anti-realists who say we construct reality, and realists who say reality is independent of the mind and doesn’t need interpretation or justification – it exists without us. Can we accept both perspectives without reducing them one to the other, or continuing this war between the two. What if like a Mobius strip we know and perceive both ways much like our paradoxical knowledge of quantum theory which sees both waves and particles depending on one’s perspective and experimental apparatus and quantification, etc.?

“And I thought, My God, this is the prison this planet is being turned into.”

—J.G. Ballard

The same goes for mainstream culture which has been secular-atheistic in both the West and in Communist countries. Can we re-weave a new vision that accepts neither variant of the hardliner neo-atheist nor the religious world views, but builds upon them by moving beyond their reductions? Rather than a wholly transcendent or immanent Unwelt is their an in-between, one that accepts that the universe is open and incomplete, that it is both real and fiction: an aesthetic Unwelt? Haven’t we confused our categories of Reason / Unreason long enough? The blindspot of postmodern deconstruction left us in the black hole of alterity unreconciled but also looping in an endless world of textuallity or mathematization… can we move beyond such blindness? SR seems to still either minimalize (reverse) or maximize (push to the limits/horizon) the realist and Kantian dilemma without being able to break out of the circle, so where to go?

“Freud pointed out that one has to distinguish between the manifest content of the inner world of the psyche and its latent content. I think in exactly the same way today, when the fictional elements have overwhelmed reality, one has to distinguish between the manifest content of reality and its latent content. In fact the main task of the arts seems to be more and more to isolate the real elements in this goulash of fictions from the unreal ones, and the terrain ‘inner space’ roughly describes it.”

—J.G. Ballard

In Ballard’s sense above it’s the aesthetic displacement or disconnection of objects from our consumer paradise, our bubble of fictional ready-made realities created by the market capitalism of the spectacle which must be exploded. It’s this superficial nostalgia of capitalism and it’s temporal dislocations and entrapments in an eternal now of presentism which needs to be undone, unmade, and realigned to an aesthetic not of nostalgia but of those forgotten thoughts and objects that if thrown into the back yard of our alleys, our farm fields, our junk yards suddenly take on the appearance of something so real that we begin to understand that it has been there in plain sight all this time but was never seen because it remained hidden, occulted from view by our own blinded adherence to the techno-commercial ready-mades of our false soap-opera society. Maybe exit is not so much a place but rather an aesthetic disconnection from the Disneyland of modern consumer culture which has been manufactured by a secular religion or Cathedralism bound to the nexus of academic, think tanks, media empires, and mind meld systems of command and control that have trapped us in a constructed reality. Time to break out, break away, disconnect from the prison house of culture…

“In the course of my investigations, I observed that there now exists a new race of people who are content in their little prisons, who tolerate a very high level of noise, but for whom the apartment is nothing more than a base allowing them to pass the night in comfort, as they’re absent during the day.”

—J. G. Ballard

The only thing keeping you in the prison is your belief in it. Explode it, undermine it, leave it ; for the bars are not there…

“I keep repeating that in a totally sane society the only freedom is madness. Now, we’re nowhere near being a totally sane society – we’re expected to behave in a totally sane way, and there is a danger that we could veer off into some kind of socialised madness. It seems very volatile. Politics is so totally discredited.”

—J.G. Ballard


  1. Ballard, J.G; Sellars, Simon; O’Hara, Dan. Extreme Metaphors (Kindle Locations 4567-4569). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

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