NARRATOR: In slow motion, the test cars moved towards each other on collision courses, unwinding behind them the coils that ran to the metering devices by the impact zone. As they collided the debris of wings and fender floated into the air. The cars rocked against each as they continued on their disintegrating courses. In the passenger seats the plastic models transcribed graceful arcs into the buckling roofs and windshields. Here and there a passing fender severed a torso. The air behind the cars was a carnival of arms and legs.
J.G. BALLARD: I think the key image of the 20th century is the man in the motor car. It sums up everything: the elements of speed, drama, aggression, the junction of advertising and consumer goods with the technological landscape. The sense of violence and desire, power and energy; the shared experience of moving together through an elaborately signalled landscape.
We spend a substantial part of our lives in the motor car, and the experience of driving condenses many of the experiences of being a human being in the 1970s, the marriage of the physical aspects of ourselves with the imaginative and technological aspects of our lives. I think the 20th century reaches its highest expression on the highway. Everything is there: the speed and violence of our age; the strange love affair with the machine, with its own death.
The styling of motor cars, and of the American motor car in particular, has always struck me as incredibly important, bringing together all sorts of visual and psychological factors. As an engineering structure, the car is totally uninteresting to me. I’m interested in the exact way in which it brings together the visual codes for expressing our ordinary perceptions about reality — for example, that the future is something with a fin on it — and the whole system of expectations contained in the design of the car, expectations about our freedom to move through time and space, about the identities of our own bodies, our own musculatures, the complex relationships between ourselves and the world of objects around us. These highly potent visual codes can be seen repeatedly in every aspect of the 20th century landscape. What do they mean? Have we reached a point now in the 70s where we only make sense in terms of these huge technological systems? I think so myself, and that it is the vital job of the writer to try to analyse and understand the huge significance of this metallised dream.
I’m interested in the automobile as a narrative structure, as a scenario that describes our real lives and our real fantasies. If every member of the human race were to vanish overnight, I think it would be possible to reconstitute almost every element of human psychology from the design of a vehicle like this. As a writer I feel I must try to understand the real meaning of a lot of commonplace but tremendously complicated events. I’ve always been fascinated by the complexity of movement when a woman gets out of a car.
NARRATOR: Her ungainly transit across the passenger seat through the nearside door. The overlay of her knees with the metal door flank. The conjunction of the aluminized gutter trim with the volumes of her thighs. The crushing of her left breast by the door frame, and its self extension as she continued to rise. The movement of her left hand across the chromium trim of the right headlamp assembly. Her movements distorted in the projecting carapace of the bonnet. The jut and rake of her pubis as she sits in the driver’s seat. The soft pressure of her thighs against the rim of the steering wheel.
J.G. BALLARD: The close relationship between our own bodies and the body of the motor car is obvious. American automobile stylists have been exploring for years the relationship between sexuality and the motor car body, the primitive algebra of recognition which we use in our perception of all organic forms. If the man in the motor car is the key image of the 20th century, then the automobile crash is the most significant trauma. The car crash is the most dramatic event in most people’s lives, apart from their own deaths, and in many cases the two will coincide.
Are we just victims in a totally meaningless tragedy, or does it in fact take place with our unconscious, and even conscious, connivance? Each year hundreds of thousands of people are killed in car crashes all over the world. Millions are injured. Are these arranged deaths arranged by the colliding forces of the technological landscape, by our own unconscious fantasies about power and aggression, our obsessions with consumer goods and desires, the overlaying fictions that are more and more taking the place of reality? It’s always struck me that people’s attitudes towards the car crash are very confused, that they assume an attitude that in fact is very different from their real response. If we really feared the car crash, none of us would ever be able to drive a car.
- J.G. Ballard in ‘Crash!’ (1971; dir. Harley Cokliss).
I know that my own attitudes to the crashed car are just as confused. The distorted geometry of this tremendously stylised object: let’s face it, the most powerful symbol of our civilisation. It seems to pull at all sorts of concealed triggers in the mind: the postures of people in crashed vehicles; deformed manufacturer’s styling devices (crashed General Motors cars look very different from crashed Fords); the stylisation of the instrument panel, which after all is the model for our own wounds. Driving around, each of us knows what is literally the shape of our own death.
NARRATOR: Regaining consciousness, she stared at the blood on her legs. The heavy liquid pulled at her skirt. The bruise under her left breast reached behind her sternum, seizing like a hand at her heart. She sat up, lifting herself from the broken steering wheel, uncertain for a moment whether the car windshield had been fractured. Against her forehead the strands of blood formed a torn veil. Above her knees, her hand moved towards the door lever. As she watched, the door opened and she fell out. Lifting herself, she held tightly to the car, feeling the pressure of the door slip against her hand. Turning, she stared at the waiting figure of the man she knew to be Dr Tallis.
J.G. BALLARD: I remember seeing some films on television of test crashes a few years ago. They were using American cars of the late 50s, a period I suppose when the American dream, and American confidence, were at their highest point. Metering coils trailed out of the windows and they had dummies sitting in them. They were beautifully filmed. They filmed them beautifully because they wanted to know what was happening. They weren’t interested in the aesthetics of the thing. These cars were in head-on collisions, right-angled collisions and sideswipes. And ploughing into other structures like utility poles. One could see four feet of metal suddenly become one foot. Filmed in slow motion, these crashes had a beautiful stylised grace. The power and weight of these cars gave them an immense classical dignity. It was like some strange technological ballet.
I remember looking at these films and thinking about the strange psychological dimensions they seemed to touch. They seemed to say something about the way everything becomes more and more stylised, more and more cut off from ordinary feeling. It seems to me that we have to regard everything in the world around us as fiction, as if we were living in an enormous novel, and that the kind of distinction that Freud made about the inner world of the mind, between, say, what dreams appeared to be and what they really meant, now has to be applied to the outer world of reality. All the structures in it, flyovers and motorways, office blocks and factories, are all part of this enormous novel.
Take a structure like a multi-storey car park, one of the most mysterious buildings ever built. Is it a model for some strange psychological state, some kind of vision glimpsed within its bizarre geometry? What effect does using these buildings have on us? Are the real myths of this century being written in terms of these huge unnoticed structures?
More exactly, I think that new emotions and new feelings are being created, that modern technology is beginning to reach into our dreams and change our whole way of looking at things, and perceiving reality, that more and more it is drawing us away from contemplating ourselves to contemplating its world.
J.G. Ballard 1971.
- Gabrielle Drake in ‘Crash!’ (1971; dir. Harley Cokliss).
NB: Gabrielle Drake is Nick Drake's sister.
More Ballard here.
'Warm Leatherette' by The Normal.
Inspired by Ballard's 'Crash' this was by Daniel Miller and was the first release from Mute Records.