Tuesday, October 20, 2009

more on Ballard

on the term "Ballardian"

It has become something of a cliché - and that's perhaps the inevitable result of having an impact and becoming famous, that your ideas get simplified, reduced to a caption. So Ballardian equals "picturesque post-industrial decay", "kinky technophilia"/"pervy obsessions with celebrities". When the Diana & Dodi crash happened, apparently people in TV newsrooms were like, let's get Ballard on the phone.

His work is complex and subtle, obviously, but it's strongest ideas and insights are capable of being turned into quite easy to grasp notions. Perhaps that's why he's had such an impact, through starkly delineating what we're all semi-aware of anyway, in terms of our culture, a bit like the Burroughs idea of seeing clearly what's on the end of your fork.

on Ballard as prescient and epoch-crystallising

He was dealing with the same kind of things as Marshall McLuhan and, later, as Jean Baudrillard, but with far greater clarity, sharper perceptions, and with more style and wit than either. All that obscenity of mass communication, simulation, implosion of the social, et al stuff in Baudrillard's books is being explored earlier, and more effectively, in Ballard's stories and novels.

I don't know if in his later years, J.G. wrote much about online culture, the web and the net, later on, but it seems to be a culmination of a lot of the stuff he was dealing with. The porn-ification of everything.

on Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes and the post-Empire novels not "contributing a jot to his enduring cult…"

That assessment isn't a critical one, really, it's not about the relative merits of the books, but about what his cult is based on. It's a bit like with rock stars. Morrissey put out a number of solo albums, ranging from dire to mediocre to excellent. But the basis of his cult will always be the Smiths, those are the records that defined his style and persona and the range of things he deals with and can do. Same with the Rolling Stones -- their last album A Bigger Bang was actually a really fine album but "Stones-iness" was defined by the Sixties albums plus Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. It's hard to imagine many people starting their Stones fandom with A Bigger Bang, just as it's hard to imagine many people becoming obsessed with Morrissey on account of You Are The Quarry. But of course fans and well-disposed critics will always be eager to report a return-to-form by the idol, and that was the kind of response that greeted You are The Quarry and Ringleader of the Tormentors, as it did certain Stones albums like Tattoo You and A Bigger Bang. I think the same thing applies to Ballard's later work.

I tend to feel that at a certain point artists arrive at who they are and hone it to perfection, and their future, regrettably, involves either betraying that or falling short, or making misguided excursions into genres or styles that just don't suit them. Or, more rarely, they'll rise to those heights again but they'll be very unlikely to surpass them. In music, I tend to be most interested in the early phase of an artist's arc, when they define the nature of their contribution and exhaust all the avenues available to them, and I'm not so much engaged by the later period (the rest of their lives!) when they refine and embellish their thang (and in some cases chafe against the cage of their own style). So e.g. I can't be bothered with Elvis Costello after Punch the Clock (and you could really cut off much earlier than that with Declan) and I haven't even listened to the Morrissey albums of this decade, just hearing the singles was enough to convince me there wasn't anything much new going on. It's a bit harsh for the artists, of course, who believe they have things to contribute, often feel they get better and better at what they do, and beyond that, understandably feel they ought to count on the loyalty of fans and well-disposed critics.

It's a little different with writers as I don't start with the first work as often as I do with musicians and their discographies, but generally I do still hold to this view with artists that "best and freshest work comes first". Or it's a "rising to a relatively early peak followed by long slow fade" view of artistic production. There's plenty of exceptions (Pulp is a good one, thirteen years of awkwardness before hitting their stride!) but it's surprising -- or not so surprising, perhaps -- how often things follow that model.

on Ballard's enduring legacy

The legacy is, I guess, having come up with a completely original -- yet utterly in tune with the Zeitgeist -- way of perceiving reality -- the merging of reality and unreality (the mediasphere/entertainment-scape). To the point where it comes to seem almost obvious, even a cliché, as discussed earlier. Becoming a cliché is in lots of ways a triumphant success for any artist. You see that a lot in music. I've argued that coming up with a cliché is the highest achievement in dance music, a sound or a beat or a riff-pattern that that everyone wants to copy.

I don't know about his legacy in terms of s.f. and literature -- someone put it to me that cyberpunk was obviously indebted to Ballard, which I can't really see stylistically that much. Cyberpunk is so American, isn't it; Ballard is so utterly British. Overall, Ballard might be someone who's easier to parody than to be positively influenced by. But obviously you can see his influence in the movies and, massively, in music.

Ballard and Britishness

Much of Ballard's fiction bears the imprint of the colonial years. The protagonists are invariably known by their surnames, as if they were pupils addressing one another at a British boarding school, and the names are always in the vein of Maitland, Forrester, Sanders, Ransome. The later, protagonist of The Drought, is particularly evocative of a lost upper class England, through its association with Arthur Ransome and his series of much-loved children's adventure stories, the Swallows and Amazons series. Sometimes the vibe is slightly more modern, suggestive of the technocratic/bureaucratic culture of the former Imperialists who stayed on the newly liberated countries of Africa or the Asian subcontinent, involved in the development of their economies. But there's still much the same ambience, a stiff upper lipped, whisky-and-soda, vaguely military.

That sort of archetypally British phlegmatic and pragmatic response to calamity (keep your head, roll up your sleeves, stick together) may be why s.f.'s catastrophe subgenre has been something of an English speciality, as handled by writers like John Wyndham (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids) and John Christopher (The Death of Grass, A Wrinkle In the Skin).

See also Lord of the Rings by William Golding, which JG Ballard cited as an influence, and also argued that originally Golding had been going to write something much closer to s.f., with a nuclear war being the reason the plane crashes on the island.

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