Friday, February 5, 2010

Crash, by J. G. Ballard

Crash is the strangest pastoral poem I've ever read. It's too bad that it and Raymond Williams's The Country and the City were published in the same year (1973), for I could see how the addition of Crash's landscape and particular yearning for a sublation of the technology which we've grafted onto ourselves would have greatly enriched Williams's (already very rich) study.

I think it is actually quite possible to read Crash as an explicit pastoral (Vaughan and Ballard as a very bizarre Corydon and Alexis, cars as the flock they're tending—okay, that maybe a little laughable, but is it really that far off?), but I have to confess that this reading is more of an intuition than something I can point to in the text.

Something I feel a little more confident in is a reading that focuses on the peculiarly dated aspects of the work: the constant convergence of bodily and mechanical fluids seems an unlikely metaphor now when many more drivers insulate themselves from handling their car's various fluids—it's all done by mechanics now—oil changes, engine flushes, even windshield wiper fluid refills. There is an important sense, I think, in which the technology of the car has become much more abstracted from us than it was in 1973; perhaps I'm reading Ballard's dystopic projections incorrectly, but it seems as if rather than a gradual fusion of the machine and the man, a greater necessity for machines to mediate between human relations, at least in the realm of the automobile, we've been moving in the opposite direction. We may be more dependent on the automobile, but it has become further instrumentalized and less directly mediates our human interactions.

Yes, we have become Harawavian cyborgs in various ways, but I think it's also extremely important to note the ways in which the posthumanism we're expected to have grown into has occurred in very different ways from what was once anticipated. Automobiles, I feel, are less environments of their own (although they obviously determine to an extreme the built environment) than they were in the moment Ballard was writing. While we now have DVD players built into mini-vans, is the object of these innovations the creation of an environment or a more instrumental end—shutting the kids up so the parents can drive? Likewise with other innovations such as the navigation systems or rear-view cameras: while commercials still sell (for some cars) the experience of driving, higher gas prices and other factors have largely put an end to the idea that driving—or more specifically, using an automobile—is an experience worth having on its own. What sells cars now? Highly instrumental features—gas mileage, safety, cargo capacity.

Crash is, despite this change in car culture, still shocking, unsettling, and very gross. I doubt any development in the use of cars or their changing roles in our lives could change that.

P.S. I find this hilarious: a Birmingham, AL lawyer named Ballard who specializes in automobile accident litigation.

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