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J. G. Ballard Conversations

by V. Vale, Editor
RE/Search Publications, San Francisco, 2005
360 pp., illus. 50 b/w. Paper, $19.99
ISBN: 1-889307-13-0.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
Digital Technology and Culture, Washington State University--Vancouver


J[ames]. G[Graham]. Ballard is a UK writer well known for his moody painterly eye, especially with regard to technology and deserted and wrecked landscapes, both internal and external. One does not have to read Ballard's entire corpus to get at his most salient ideas, however. RE/Search Publications, the San Francisco publisher behind the Modern Primitives series, has issued a series of collected interviews with Ballard. J. G. Ballard Conversations is the latest of these collections. In this collection of compelling interviews, Ballard lives up to his title "The Prophet of the 21st Century" as he illuminates the human condition across a variety of topics.

Ballard's conversational topics in this collection are numerous: the neo-conservatives and George W. Bush, the destruction of the World Trade Center, globalization, religion, the triumph of emotions over rationalism, corporate media, surveillance and control, the death of cinema, the colonizing of our existence, the end of the Age of Reason, the Internet, and the ascendance of machine morality.

Speaking of morality, Ballard says, "We seem to have subcontracted out the moral dimensions of our lives. We rely on someone else to make moral decisions for us. . . . The fewer moral decisions we make, the better." Moving through life with decisions made by others, we can, Ballard says, "get on with the business of unwrapping the latest piece of candy" (73).

The price to be paid for a lifestyle free of moral responsibility is boredom, says Ballard, and a great deal of current cultural attraction with "reality" in any form, from television shows to driving an SUV, is a desperate search for something that is not packaged and contrived, something that is authentic. "I'm frightened that the possibilities of a genuine dystopia may be much more appealing than any utopian project that people can come up with," Ballard concludes (74).

Rather than existentialism, Ballard talks about religion, but not in a religious way. Instead, according to his archivist David Pringle, "Foundationally, he's like the best Surrealist poets. Yet what's amazing is how he has annexed cutting-edge science and technology into his writing. And he's a philosopher–you find these stand-alone philosophical observations that rank with the best by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. . . . [For example when he says] 'The unseen powers of universe' [he] doesn't mean any conventional idea of 'God,' but rather this sense of the mystery of the universe" (214).

On more pragmatic issues, Ballard is equally thought provoking. For example, of the current conflict in Iraq, Ballard says there seems to be no connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, "so what we have is a sort of substitute phenomenon. "Saddam is a substitute target" (87) and the invasion of Iraq is "a kind of compensation activity [meant to] assuage all that repressed anger and frustration stemming from not being able to find bin Laden. It's a sort of surrogate activity, a substitute activity" (104). Even as a substitute activity, the invasion of Iraq was sold to the people of the United States and United Kingdom as a moral imperative. Leaders of both nations felt compelled to attack for religious reasons, says Ballard, and this eliminated many of the avenues for productive dissent, as there is little if any defense when emotionalism overcomes reason. Such use of enlightened reason does not bode well for the future where crimes will be committed "for the most enlightened reasons. When the crimes are committed by the most high-minded people for the best reasons, you have no defense, do you? That's the real threat. And that will come" (292).

There are other conversational threads in J. G. Ballard Conversations, all circling around Ballard's main concern with a psychopathic future where sexuality, human relations, the economy, communications, and technology are all going haywire.

Overall, Ballard's tone is hopeful: "I've always thought that my fiction on the whole presented a kind of optimistic message" (186). That message is that we can remake the world around us through the power of imagination, "which after all is all we've got. I mean the central nervous system is faced with a world of Marriott hotels and ex-actors turned world leaders," he says (276). This collision of private and public imagination, both subject to manufacture by mass media, presents a distinct challenge to the imaginative writer. No longer will overlays of, say, classical Surrealism work to help one discern the "real" from the manufactured. Instead, says Ballard, one has to approach obliquely, "he's got to get behind everything; somehow find a door out of the movie set and get behind it." Getting behind everything means getting hard-edged information, hard facts, hard news, "the sort of things that really do feed the imagination" (178).

In the end it is the churning imagination that provides significance to one's work, says Ballard. Inventing alternate worlds, some completely fictional, others close to the reality of one's life is a mysterious business, one that often reveals that "so many of the ordinary things that fill our lives are rather bizarre" (188). The temptation is to live in "provinces of the imagination without facing the central challenges of the day" (198). But, as J. G. Ballard Conversations makes quite clear, effective use of speculation and imagination gives one the power to remake the world, to get as close as possible to reality, to foster truth, to hold back the night.



Updated 1st June 2006

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