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debord-guide1Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at

In the comments section for my earlier post “On Staying in Business Hotels II: A Ballardian Perspective,” Mr. Andrew Inch introduces the concept of “psychogeography” in relation to Ballard: “His vision of the ignored edges of urban life, and the sinister presences that inhabit these spaces seems to reveal a deep engagement with the psychic impacts, and psychotic tendencies of late modern capitalism. Business hotels certainly fit squarely within the Ballardian imagination.”  Andrew points out that psychogeography is also a fitting description for Walter Benjamin’s method, if it could be called that, and indeed Benjamin’s rambling and unstructured yet somehow systematic exploration of European cities, Paris, Naples, Marseilles, will be the subject of a future series of posts.

This post, on the other hand, will put a period on Ballardania for the time being by offering a run-down of some of the highlights of Re/Search’s “J.G. Ballard: Conversations.”  We will also investigate the intersections between the Ballard material and nuggets from the inimitable 1981 film My Dinner With Andre. For readers who wish to follow up on Ballard, Re/Search has issued a whole book of Ballard quotes.  Also, The Complete Short Stories are available in two volumes, and are the best place to start digging into Ballard.

Re/Search’s 350 page book of Ballard on the phone is, admittedly, for fans only, and in these conversations Ballard runs true to form by going around and around on his pet “obsessions.” Occasionally he falls into outright repetition, but for the most part each conversation sheds new light on already familiar ground. The striking thing about reading Ballard, whether in novel form or here, is the degree to which Ballard’s interests intersect only casually with my own. Running down the list: swimming pools, beach resorts, and gated communities; Ronald Reagan; plastic surgery; the evolution of sexuality through technology; car crashes, airplane crashes; William Burroughs–none of these topics keep me up nights.

World War II; deserts; Miami; obsessed scientists on a futile quest–we’re getting warmer, but still not really where I live. The collaboration and complicity of the individual in the media landscapes and power structures that surround them; turning conspiracy theory inside out to ask not what they do to us but what we allow and even facilitate–this is interesting territory, but the thing is while I have no especial interest in gated communities, in plastic surgery, or in Miami, I like to read Ballard hold forth on all of the above topics and more–not because I am interested in them, but because he is.

Most of the conversations recorded in the book are between Ballard and V.Vale, the publisher of Re/Search books (a U.S. imprint) and apparently Ballard’s biggest fan.  At one point, Vale and Ballard discuss the feedback loop between popular culture images of professions and how members of that profession or group behave in real life:

V. VALE: “I saw a magazine article describing the search and seizure of a Mafia home in which a huge collection of books and videotapes on the Mafia was found.  The final comment of the article was, ‘They’re looking to the movies to learn how to act.'”

BALLARD: “Right; the actual Mafia gangsters are watching the movies to learn how to get ‘in style.’  It’s terribly funny that” (307).

It is, of course, far from surprising that would-be gangsters would model themselves off of The Godfather or The Sopranos; and we have come to almost expect this kind of synergy between image and action where a person’s authenticity is established precisely through the degree to which their behavior corresponds with their fictional counterparts.  But before we conclude that this kind of modeling is confined to those living on the fringes of legality and respectability, we should recall the part in My Dinner With Andre where Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn discuss the redundancy of the theater in an age of constant performance:

ANDRE: “You know, that was one of the reasons that Grotowski gave up the theater. He just felt that people in their lives now were performing so well that performance in the theater was sort of superfluous, and in a way obscene.”

WALLY: “Hum!”

ANDRE: “I mean, isn’t it amazing how often a doctor will live up to our expectation of how a doctor should look? I mean, you see a terrorist on television: he looks just like a terrorist. I mean, we live in a world in which fathers, or single people, or artists, are all trying to live up to someone’s fantasy of how a father, or a single person, or an artist, should look and behave! They all act as if they know exactly how they ought to conduct themselves at every single moment. And they all seem totally self-confident.”

There is pure gold here, but…what exactly is a doctor supposed to look like?  Do we know a doctor when we see one based on the fact that the doctor’s physical appearance and bearing conforms to a pre-existing “doctor” ideal, or is it more that the setting and trappings of the medical situation–that is, where we encounter a doctor in his or her professional guise–give the man or woman in question a sort of aura of doctorhood which is quite separable from raw physical image?  I think perhaps the latter, which is what Ballard suggests in what is my favorite quotation in the book: “People take you at face value.  Any role that people see you in they will accept, by and large.  That seems to be a rule of life” (127). When we encounter someone who appears to inhabit a certain role by dint of the trappings of that role–uniform, badge, necktie, the contextual paraphernalia that surrounds the person–all of these add up to a kind of fait accompli of identity. Read the rest of this entry »

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