‘We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality’ – Irish Murdoch,
Although J. G. Ballard’s novel The Atrocity Exhibition and Irvine Welsh’s collection of short stories The Acid House both suggest their authors would agree with Iris Murdoch’s suggestion that ‘we live in a fantasy world’, and that attempting to find a reality beneath the fantasy is one of life’s ‘great tasks’, both men deny that such a task could ever be completed. Ballard describes a modern world in which the barrier between inner, psychological, worlds and outer, material, worlds has eroded to such an extent that internal fantasies and external realties become merged into one fantasmatic entity; a phenomenon Jean Baudrillard describes as being brought about by the proliferation of images by the mass media, and the subsequent emergence of a ‘hyperreality’ in his essay Simulacra and Simulation. Ballard continues Murdoch’s line of thought by suggesting, both through the form and subject matter of The Atrocity Exhibition, that finding connections between these masses of images, discovering the underlying logics of the late-capitalist simulation is a ‘great task’ of the individual, and a task that his protagonist Talbot undertakes obsessively. However, both Ballard and Welsh would concede that such a feat is impossible. The power of the simulation is so total that, as the story ‘Snuff’ describes, the individual will either become consumed by what Peter Watkins calls the ‘Monoform’, or, if an individual attempts to exist outside of the world of simulacra, as ‘The Granton Star Cause’ demonstrates, they will be destroyed by the reality they must confront.
In his preface to The Atrocity Exhibition, William Boroughs suggests that ‘the line between inner and outer landscapes is breaking down’, and that this phenomenon is causing ‘seismic upheavals within the human mind’ – this is precisely what the novel depicts. First, Ballard’s novel describes, what he called in a 1968 interview, the ‘interzone between both spheres’ – that of ‘inner space’ and ‘the outer world of reality’ – which has emerged, one that is neither ‘solely realistic for fantastic’. When Talbot begins to ‘make certain transits’ – Ballard’s word choice already implying the movement, the “transition”, between two spaces – he describes the ‘geometry’ emerging between ‘the beckoning vents of mouth and vulva’, ‘the musculature of the young woman’, and ‘the angles in the walls of the apartment’. The inner psychological realm of Talbot’s mind, the part with which a man can be ‘beckoned’, is juxtaposed with and connected to, through his imagined ‘geometry’, with the material space of the apartment. Moreover, these two mingling realms appear as items ‘3’ and ‘4’ on a list in which item ‘2’ is the ‘media’ (AE, p. 27). The way in which ‘media’ precedes the coming together of these two realms suggests that, as Baudrillard explains, the mass media’s emerging ability to flood popular culture with images, with ‘simulacra’, is what causes the emergence of this fantastic ‘interzone’, and its replacement of an independent, material reality with a ‘hyperreality’. Baudrillard explains ‘the whole system becomes weightless’, there is ‘no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum’, the images ‘bear no relation to any reality whatsoever’ (S&S, p. 71). Furthermore, Baudrillard explicitly – and Ballard implicitly – attributes the power of mass media to distribute such powerful and various images to its underlying capitalistic structures and motivations. As Mark Fisher suggests in Capitalist Realism: ‘Capitalism is what is left when beliefs [in a material reality] have collapsed, […] all that’s left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and relics (p. 4). By describing the emergence of this ‘interzone’, brought about by the proliferation of mass media’s simulacra, Ballard exposes one of the many psychological effects of late-capitalism – fantasy becomes reality, and reality becomes fantasy.
Therefore, doggedly ‘trudging through’ the ‘relics’ becomes one of life’s ‘great tasks’; attempting to construct an individual reality out of mass media images becomes a central focus of modern existence, and this is the main preoccupation of Ballard’s protagonist Talbot. Ballard described in interviews that the mid-1960s was on the ‘cusp’ ‘of a transformation from the old print-dominated world of newspapers and magazines to the electronic world of television’, and that The Atrocity Exhibition was an attempt to ‘fragment’ this new ‘contemporary reality, so that [he] could reassemble its elements paragraph by paragraph and show its springs’. Talbot attempts such a reassembly in his connection of science with pornography: ‘For Travers science is the ultimate pornography’, Ballard writes in ‘The Assassination Weapon’, because he believes the ‘main aim’ of both ‘is to isolate objects or events from their specific contexts in time and space’ (AE, p. 49). Talbot ‘sees science and pornography moving on a kind of collision course’. Talbot is attempting to locate the connecting logics that underlie the simulacra he perceives around him. Such a connection is likely what leads Talbot to find the worlds of sexuality and science melding together – much as the inner and out worlds have previously done – in the automobile. Talbot believes that car ‘crashes play very different roles to the ones we assign them’, ‘the car crash may be perceived unconsciously as a fertilizing rather than a destructive event – a liberation of sexual energy’ (AE, p. 26). The postmodern preoccupation with locating subjective logics amongst the apparent chaos of the contemporary world is also reflected in the book’s form which is itself fragmented and diffuse, with Ballard suggesting in his 2001 author’s note that readers should ‘turn the pages until a paragraph catches [their] eye’, then ‘scan nearby paragraphs for anything that resonates’, and ‘the underlying narrative will reveal itself’ – the reader must undertake this task of connecting logics and building narratives at the formal level along with Talbot (AE, p. xi).
However, though Ballard suggests that such an undertaking may be a central ‘task’ of the postmodern individual, he also seems to suggest that failure to find a coherent narrative, to form a new reality, may be inevitable; though contemporary reality can be fragmented and its ‘springs’ exposed, it cannot meaningfully ‘reassembled’. In ‘Zodiac’ Ballard describes how Talbot’s ‘identity faded, its last fragments glimmered across the darkening landscape, lost integers in a hundred computer codes, sand-grains on a thousand beaches, fillings in a million mouths’ (AE, p. 38). For Talbot’s own identity, as well as the world in which he exists, to fragment like this, into so many tiny pieces, seems to imply that reassembling all these pieces back into one coherent identity, truth, reality, would be an impossibility. Moreover, in having Talbot’s name change multiple times throughout the book – appearing repeatedly as Talbert, Traven, Travis – Ballard seems to emphasise this point; by constructing a protagonist who, despite his best efforts, cannot solidify himself into a single entity by attempting to construct a truth or logic from the simulacra in the world around him, Ballard suggests that this ‘great task’ of modern life is an incompletable one. As Andrej Gasiorek explains in the ‘Deviant Logics’ chapter of his book JG Ballard: though Talbot’s ‘disintegrating mind connects up seemingly random obsessions’ in an attempt to ‘uncover the deeper social logics that might unite them’, the problem arises when ‘we are then forced to ask whether “the codes of insoluble dreams” with which the book opens may not be soluble after all’ – reality is not a puzzle that can be blown apart and its pieces simply put back together – irreparable damage has been done, reality has disappeared. (JGB, p. 61). Peter Watkins’ theory of ‘The Monoform’ furthers Baudrillard’s work on the simulacrum and can too be applied to Ballard. ‘The Highly structured audio-visual language’ employed by the mass media and Hollywood alike, relying as it does on ‘speed, fragmentation and hierarchical structures, the deceptive illusion of reality’ has, he suggests, the power to ‘lock mass audiences in their seats’, where they can be barraged by the media’s constructed, singular, and uncontested version of reality, making it impossible for Talbot, or any others, to construct an alternative. Fisher describes how the genius of Kafka was to ‘explore the negative atheology proper to capital’, namely that ‘the centre is missing, but we cannot stop searching for it or positing it’ (CR, p. 4). Not only is late capitalism built on fantasy, on simulacra, but the prevailing representative form of ‘reality’ is so totalising that it becomes paralysing – the individual cannot complete the ‘great task’ of constructing an alternative.
It is in Irvine Welsh’s collection The Acid House that the totalising power of the Baudrillard’s simulacra and Watkins’s Monoform become even clearer. Characters in this collection are either engulfed by the monoform, the pervasive simulacra, or destroyed when they attempt to circumvent them. In ‘Snuff’, the protagonist Ian Smith is described as ‘inhabiting a zone’ similar to the ‘interzone’ that Ballard outlines, one which ‘embraced conscious thought, dreams, and the passive viewing of the television screen, but where the boundaries of these states could not be easily discerned’ (AH, p. 71). Like Talbot, Smith’s fantasies and realities have begun to blur due to prolonged exposure to mass media images and structures – reality dissolves into fantasy. However, rather than attempting to construct an alternative, as seen in Ballard, Smith comes to be consumed by the monoformic images with which he has surrounded himself; after watching every film in his ‘Halliwell’s Film Guide’, Smith, seemingly unknowingly, films himself committing suicide. Despite the fact ‘he thinks human life is important; always sacred’ he is unable to stop himself from hanging, and the camera with its ‘cold, mechanical eye’ films the entire event before ‘the tape turns out without saying THE END, but that’s what it is’ (AH, pp. 75-6). Smith is consumed by the Monoform. His own existence is transferred from the apparently material realm into that of the simulacra, he becomes a moving image, he is assimilated to the Monoform’s version of reality. Aaron Kelly claims that Snuff ‘attests to what JG Ballard terms “the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect”’, and this is precisely what it represents: emotion, feeling, that which makes human life ‘sacred’, is usurped by, and given over to, the mass media simulation (IW, p.93).
If the realm of the fantastic, the simulacra, has a totalising enough control over human existence to consume it entirely, as ‘Snuff’ exemplifies, then the only way to defeat it, or at least find an alternative, would be to somehow exist outside of it. Adam Curtis, speaking about cotemporary broadcasting, explains how contemporary life, due to the absence of a collective material reality, is made up of ‘the empire of the self’, people are ‘trapped within themselves’, and indeed within the network of images, and the only way to change this would be to ‘take people beyond the limits of their own self’ (CR, p. 74). This is what Welsh’s story ‘The Granton Star Cause’ demonstrates – its protagonist, ‘Boab’, undergoes a Kafkaesque metamorphosis. By turning into a fly Boab is given the chance to experience the world from a non-human perspective – one that lies outside the realm of the monoform; he is granted the chance to experience a truly alternative kind of perception and reality. However, what he sees, namely the sadomasochistic sexual exploits of his parents, prove further that the simulacra have consumed reality. Although Boab’s father feels ‘full, complete, and alive’ after enduring the sadism of his mother, suggesting an apparent success in finding the ‘deeper logics’ that Talbot could not, and thus forming a complete identity in a world of fragments, Welsh undermines this by placing ‘Dolly Parton’ at the heart of the parents’ sexual fantasy – precisely the kind of celebrity figure that the mass media transforms into simulacra. (AH, p. 134-5).
Moreover, it is Boab’s metamorphosis, his chance and attempt to experience an alternative means of perceiving reality, that destroys him. Upon spotting the fly, Boab’s mother swats it with a newspaper, inadvertently killing her own son. Two things about the description of Boab’s death seem poignant. Firstly, that the injuries are described as ‘similar to the type someone could sustain in a bad car crash’ – this allusion, whether deliberate or not, to Ballard and Talbot’s symbol of contemporary life and Talbot’s attempt to stitch together its fragments, create a somewhat ironic comment on Boab’s attempted, but thwarted, effort to construct his own, new reality, just as Talbot does (AH, p. 136). Even more importantly, however, is that his cause of death is described as ‘massive internal injuries’ (AH, p. 136). Though explicitly Welsh is describing his new ‘external skeletal structure cracking open’, I believe the phrase also forms a pun; the ‘internal injuries’ Welsh describes also apply to the psychological damage that living in a simulation, living under one monolithic representation of an unsubstantiated truth, can do to the human mind. Welsh’s stories demonstrate that though humankind will spend its life living in a simulation – in a world where reality and fantasy have become one – and will attempt endlessly to piece together its fragments, trying to construct an individual truth, it is ultimately an effort made in vain. The simulation, the ruling-fantasy, will either consume you if you live too long inside it, or destroy you if you attempt to break out.
Ballard, J. G., The Atrocity Exhibition, (London: Flamingo Modern Classics, 2001).
Welsh, Irvine, The Acid House, (London: Johnathan Cape Ltd., 1994).
Ballard, J. G., ‘Munich Round-Up: Interview with J. G. Ballard’, trans. Dan O’Hara, last accessed 7 December 2018, <ballardian.com>.
- ‘Author’s Note’, The Atrocity Exhibition, (London: Flamingo Modern Classics, 2001), p. xi.
Baudrillard, Jean, ‘Simulacra and Simulation’, Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 166-184.
Burroughs, William, Preface to The Atrocity Exhibition, (London: Flamingo Modern Classics, 2001), pp. vii-viii.
Fisher, Mark, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, (London: Zero Books, 2009).
Gasiorek, Andrzej, J. G. Ballard, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005).
Kelly, Aaron, Irvine Welsh, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005).
Louit, Robert, ‘Interview with J. G. Ballard’, last accessed 7 December 2018, <jgballard.ca>.
Watkins, Peter, ‘The Media Crisis: A Perspective by Peter Watkins’, last accessed 7 December 2018, <tate.org.uk>.
Weiss, Johnathan, and J. G. Ballard, Commentary to The Atrocity Exhibition, dir. Johnathan Weiss, (UK, 2006), DVD Reel 23.