Essay on the Novel 'Crash'

Crash 'is a warning against that brutal, erotic and over lit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape'. Should we endorse J. G. Ballard's evaluation of his own novel.

In an article concerned with David Cronenberg’s 1996 adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash (Ballard, 1973) Barbara Creed describes the narrative as exploring “powerfully and with conviction the connection drawn between desire, sex and accidental death.” and we can see that, to some extent at least, this is true. Crash concerns itself with a multiplicity of pornographies, of sex, of death, of technology and of the body. However, the gratuitous use of graphic sexual and violent imagery is, I think, part of the over all mandate of the work and it is one that extends far beyond the boundaries set by Creed in her article. In this essay I will attempt to place Ballard’s novel within a broadly Lacanian framework, assessing the notion that, even the book’s author, underestimates the extent that it concerns itself as much with the primitive and the instinctual as with the technological.

Some of the sense of the pornography of technology of Ballard’s novel is shown in Roland Barthes’ essay The New Citroen (Barthes, 1973):

“(The New Citroen) excites interest less by its substance than by the junction of its components It is well know that smoothness is always an attribute of perfection because its opposite reveals a technical and typically human operation of assembling…”

Both of these notions are displayed time and time again in Crash; the compartmentalization of both the body and the automobile into their component parts and the desperate attempt to move beyond the fragility and the imperfection of human biology. Many of the characters in the book are described as merely collections of body parts, human beings are reduced to their sexual organs, blood or broken and disabled limbs as in this passage from Chapter Two:

“My chest was severely bruised against the steering wheel, my knees crushed into the instrument panel as my body moved forwards…but my only serious injury was a severed nerve in my scalp.”

Here, Ballard’s body is deconstructed in the same way Barthes’ suggests cars are, it is not the substance of his body that is the concern but the “junction of its components”, the way the body is fitted together and the way it can be ripped asunder.

Vaughan, also, is a character that exists as, not so much a whole, thinking, feeling human being as a mechinic collection of bodily parts, he is at various times throughout the narrative described as an anus, a penis, scarified skin, eyes or fingers rather than a homogenous biological entity. His rough and scarred flesh is testament to Barthes’ point about the opposite of perfection being devoid of smoothness and sleekness.

In this way Crash does, indeed, represent a warning, as Ballard suggests, against the gratuitous reveling in technology. In his novel, the car and the aeroplane are pictured not as machines detached from the biology of the body but as prostheses of the body, at times providing an extension and at others, through the transference of bodily fluids, a symbiosis:

“The passenger compartment enclosed us like a machine generating from our sexual act an homunculus of blood, semen and engine coolant…These slender membranes, like the mucus septum of her nose which I touched with my tongue, were reflected in the glass dials of the instrument panel.”

As Scott Bukatman suggests in Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (1993:292) the landscape of Crash is de-sexualized, de-eroticised, the banal architecture of the civic scenery consists of hospitals, ring-roads and flyovers and Vaughan, Ballard and the other characters in the book seek to counter this with evermore perverse and de-humanized sexuality.

Slavoj Zizek, in his essay From the Sublime to the Ridiculous, gives us some interesting insights into the Lacanian concept of the ‘gaze’ and how it relates to cinematic pornography:

“Two key features of pornography are repetition and look. First there is the urge to repeat the same scene again and again…Furthermore, the picture or scene we are looking at must openly ‘return the gaze’…That is why one is ashamed to look at it directly.”

Both of these fit neatly into the narrative of Crash; the constant repetition of violent and sexual scenes and the mixture of fascination and terror that these scenes invoke in Ballard and the reader.

For Zizek, of course heavily influence by Lacan, the gaze of the pornographic picture is a source of jouissance, the pleasurable and yet traumatic state that threatens to swallow the subject. Jouissance, as Zizek suggests, returns our gaze and makes us feel both pleasure and shame, a sense of both sexual excitation and our own loss of control and mortality (Zizek, 1989; Lacan, 2004). It is the most primitive strata of existence.

It is easy to see how these Lacanian notions fit into Ballard’s narrative; the character of Vaughan, for instance, is the archetypal voyeur, both in terms of the naked eye and through the camera lens but it is the ‘return of the gaze’ spoken of by Zizek, of pornography, that most closely resembles the fascination with sex and death that the book portrays, as in this passage from Chapter Fourteen:

“Almost every conceivable violent confrontation between automobile and its occupants was listed: mechanisms of passenger ejection, the geometry of kneecap and hip-joint injuries, deformation of passenger compartments in head-on and rear-end collisions, injuries sustained in accidents at roundabouts…(etc)”

Here, through cataloging, death literally becomes pornography, serving only to sexually excite Ballard and Vaughan. Sex, death and technology represent, I think, a moving beyond the boundaries of being human that is also a major factor in the lure and fear of Lacanian jouissance.

The character of Gabrielle becomes an object of sexual fascination because she is literally part human, part machine:

“All the while I stared at those parts of Gabrielle’s body reflected in this nightmare technology of cripple controls…She gazed back at me through the windshield, playing with the chromium clutch treadle at if hoping that something obscene might happen”

Gabrielle’s prosthetic nature makes her all the more alluring in the novel in that she has achieved, to some extent at least, the smoothness and sleekness that Barthes alluded to in his essay and that Vaughan so obviously desires.

Her body is a symbiosis of chrome and flesh, machine and human, what Andy Sawyer and David Seed in Speaking Science Fiction: Dialogues and Interpretations call a “fractured and displaced technological identity” (Sawyer and Seed, 2000: 221). She is a concrete representation of the desire to be more than human, a desire that is, perhaps, as old as humanity itself.

Crash, then, becomes not merely concerned with the technological but also the primal, the very constituents of existence; psychologically, biologically and phylogenetically. By viewing the book’s images and themes through Lacanian psychology we can assert that Crash becomes a novel concerned with age-old psychological themes such as desire, loss of self, fear and death. Whereas we can endorse, to some extent, Ballard’s summation of his novel as being a warning from a technological space, it is also possible to see it as a warning from a distant past, the past of the Freudian Id or the Lacanian Real. It is, however the mixture of these two, the animal and the machine, the past and the future, the body and the automobile that lends to Ballard’s narrative a disturbing and unsettling tone, one that, like the characters, the reader is drawn into with both fascination and repulsion.

Works Cited

  • Ballard, J.G., Crash, London: Panther, 1973.
  • Barthes, Roland, Mythologies, London: Paladin, 1973.
  • Botting, Fred and Wilson, Scott, Automatic Lover, published in Screen, Vol. 39, 1998
  • Bukatman, Scot, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, London: Duke University, 1993.
  • Lacan, Jacques, Ecrits: A Selection, London: Routledge, 2004.
  • Nobus, Dany, Jacques Lacan and the Freudian Practice of Psychoanalysis, London: Routledge, 2000.
  • Nobus, Dany, Key Concepts in Lacanian Psychoanalysis, London: Other Press, 1998.
  • Palmer, Chrisopher, Philip K. Dick: Exhilaration and Terror of the Postmodern, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2003.
  • Palumbo, David, Erotic Universe: Sexuality and Fantastic Literature, London: Greenwood Press, 1986.
  • Sawyer, Andy and Seed, David, Speaking Science Fiction: Dialogues and Interpretations, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000.
  • Spinrad, Norman, Science Fiction in the Real World, Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.
  • Zizek, Slavoj, The Plague of Fantasies, London: Verso, 1997.
  • Zizek, Slavoj, The Sublime Object of Ideology, London: Verso, 1989.
  • Zizek, Slavoj, Organs Without Bodies: Deleuze and Consequences , London: Routledge, 2003.

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