Science Fiction Studies

#58 = Volume 19, Part 3 = November 1992

Nicholas Ruddick


Ballard’s novel Crash (1973), in its author’s words the "first pornographic novel based on technology" ("Some Words" 49), is an extreme fiction.1 Ballard tells a prepublication anecdote about it that is both credible and revealing:

One of the publisher’s readers was either a psychiatrist or the wife of a psychiatrist, and she wrote the most damning and vituperative reader’s report [the publisher] ever received. It included the statement: "The author is beyond psychiatric help." (Burns 22)

This reader’s reaction, based on a confusion between fiction and reality— between the narrator and the author—might be dismissed as naive, were it not for the fact that Ballard invites such confusion. The narrator-protagonist of Crash is named "James Ballard," although this is not finally confirmed until the beginning of Chapter 8. This investiture of the narrator with the authority of the author through the name of the author strongly suggests that Crash is autobiographical—a personal statement that from the point of view of an unsympathetic critic may be read as an indulgence in an unfortunate and grotesque sexual fetishism, perhaps (given that Crash originates in Ballard’s earlier controversial fiction, The Atrocity Exhibition [1970]), as a piece of atrocious exhibitionism.

Jean Baudrillard’s essay, "Ballard’s Crash," was first published in 1976, first summarized in English by Jonathan Benison in the November 1984 issue of Foundation, and recently reproduced in translation in SFS’s special issue on "Science Fiction and Postmodernism" (#55, November 1991). It is upon Baudrillard’s essay, together with the critical responses to it by Ballard and others in SFS, that I wish to focus. For what we have here between Baudrillard and Ballard is, if not a head-on collision over Crash, then at least an awkward fender-bender. This is unexpected because we probably assumed that the critic and the novelist, whose sympathy for one another’s work is well known, were traveling harmoniously in the same direction.

The special issue of SFS begins with an editorial introduction entitled "Postmodernism’s SF/SF’s Postmodernism" by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. This is followed by two essays by Baudrillard, "Simulacra and Science Fiction" (1980) and "Ballard’s Crash" (1976).2 Baudrillard’s pieces are followed by five short essays, under the combined heading "In Response to Jean Baudrillard," by N. Katherine Hayles, David Porush, Brooks Landon, Vivian Sobchack, and Ballard himself. Ballard’s piece, the shortest, consists of one paragraph entitled "A Response to the Invitation to Respond."

In his piece, Ballard is absolutely scathing about postmodernist criticism of science fiction. He believes that an "over-professionalized academia" has turned its capacity for theorizing onto "an innocent and naive fiction that desperately needs to be left alone" ("A Response" 329). This leads to what he calls "the apotheosis of the hamburger" (329). However, Ballard claims that he "totally exclude[s] Baudrillard" from his attack (329). In an interview published earlier in Science Fiction Eye, Ballard spoke favorably of Baudrillard’s America (Di Filippo 72). Now Ballard speaks of the same work as "an absolutely brilliant piece of writing, probably the most sharply clever piece of writing since intellectual Aladdin’s cave" ("A Response" 329). As for Baudrillard’s essay on Crash, however, which is presumably the specific text to which he is currently responding, Ballard claims enigmatically that "I have not really wanted to understand [it]" (329).3

So what is it, then, that Ballard is objecting to? It cannot be Csicsery-Ronay’s introduction, because this was clearly written after Ballard’s response was received. In it, Csicsery-Ronay expresses bewilderment at Ballard’s attack, but he rationalizes it as the novelist’s defense of territory: Ballard’s "tirade against academic criticism and the concept of postmodernism is, I believe, an attempt to protect a border: not between SF and mainstream fiction, but between the fields of art and the locusts of rationalistic analysis" (307).

It might appear that Ballard is objecting to the other four responses by academics to Baudrillard’s article (but see Note 3 below). Hayles’s piece, "The Borders of Madness," attacks Baudrillard for having missed the desire for transcendence she reads in Crash, and chastises him for nihilistically ignoring the "moral point" (323) that Ballard has explicitly stated as his intention in the novel. Porush’s piece, "The Architextuality of Transcendence," doesn’t mention Ballard at all, but attacks the Baudrillard of "Simulacra and Science Fiction" as a high priest of the temple of the text who can only bemoan his dispossession. Brooks Landon’s "Responding to the Killer B’s" is a celebration of the power of Crash and an expression of pleasure that Baudrillard, "our first master of digital criticism," seems to have matched Ballard as one of the masters of "digital narrative" (327). Vivian Sobchack in "Baudrillard’s Obscenity" returns us to Hayles’s idea that Baudrillard has dangerously missed the moral point of Crash—which is not, however, Hayles’s transcendence but the literal "dead end" that the "techno-body" of postmodern culture is driving us toward (328).

It is very hard to see what in these four short academic responses Ballard might find objectionable. Three out of four unreservedly celebrate Crash as a major work. Two out of four elevate Ballard above Baudrillard himself, claiming the critic has misread the novelist. One ignores Ballard, concentrating on the weaknesses of Baudrillard. There seems little evidence here that postmodern critics tend in Ballard’s case to, say, elevate a fashionable theorist over the creative artist. Surely Ballard cannot be suggesting that his own fiction is "innocent and naive" ("A Response" 329), and not worth serious critical examination? Was there ever a work of fiction that is less "innocent and naive" than Crash? What, then, is motivating Ballard’s anger in his "Response"?

I think that Ballard’s anger is directed not so much against postmodernist criticism in general, but specifically against Baudrillard’s piece on Crash. I view Baudrillard’s essay as a serious misreading, possibly even a shameless distortion, of Crash’s themes. In this I am in agreement with two of the SFS responders, although not necessarily for the same reasons. I do not know for certain why Ballard directs his anger against postmodernist criticism rather than against Baudrillard, who is in my view the real object of his attack. I will speculate, however, about this in my conclusion. But first I will deal with what I see as Baudrillard’s misinterpretation of Crash.

Baudrillard’s reading of Crash is summarized in the following passage in the penultimate paragraph of his article:

In Crash, there is neither fiction nor reality—a kind of hyper-reality has abolished both. Even critical regression is no longer possible. This mutating and commutating world of simulation and death, this violently sexualized world totally lacking in desire, full of violent and violated bodies but curiously neutered, this chromatic and intensely metallic world empty of the sensorial, a world of hyper-technology without finality—is it good or bad? We can’t say. It is simply fascinating, without this fascination implying any kind of value judgment whatsoever. And this is the miracle of Crash. The moral gaze—the critical judgmentalism that is still a part of the old world’s functionality—cannot touch it. Crash is hypercritical, in the sense of being beyond the critical. ("Ballard’s Crash" 319)

Baudrillard goes on to note that the text is actually beyond the reach of its author, who in his introduction to the French edition speaks of Crash as a cautionary work. Baudrillard also praises the novel for achieving a "level of absence of all finality and critical negativity" unmatched save in Nashville and A Clockwork Orange (319).4

This is not exactly a naive reading, but it is a highly impressionistic one. Ballard’s intention vis-à-vis Crash has been clearly, frequently, and lengthily expressed. He has stated, for example, that the novel was a logical outgrowth of his ongoing project to expose the internal nature of catastrophe at both the cultural and individual level:

Crash! [sic] takes up its position as a cataclysmic novel of the present-day in line with my previous novels of world cataclysm set in the near or immediate future—The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World.

Crash!, of course, is not concerned with an imaginary disaster, however imminent, but with a pandemic cataclysm institutionalised in all industrial societies that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and injures millions. Do we see, in the car crash, a sinister portent of a nightmare marriage between sex and technology? ("Some Words" 49)

The genealogy of the novel implied here is supported by Ballard’s own oeuvre. The novel has its seed in the chapter of The Atrocity Exhibition called "Crash!" (with an exclamation point) (121-25). This short fiction offers itself as a meditation on "the latent sexual content of the automobile crash" (121). The story concludes that for crash victims, "the car crash is seen as a fertilizing rather than a destructive experience, a liberation of sexual and machine libido" (125). In Ballard’s recent novel, The Kindness of Women (1991), the section called "The Exhibition" clarifies the significance of what has long been an important motif in Ballard’s fiction (208-29).

Baudrillard’s strategy is to suggest that the text has escaped its author’s intention. There is certainly nothing theoretically wrong with dismissing the author’s stated intentions, even when these are clearly stated, as in the case of Ballard’s comments on Crash. But such a dismissal ought to be supported by evidence derived from analysis of the text, context, and intertext, and this has been where Baudrillard’s reading has been lacking.

For Baudrillard, Crash seems to confirm his own insights into the supersession of the real by the hyperreal (I am using Baudrillard’s definition of hyperreality from his "The Precession of Simulacra").5 But though the concept of the real is at stake in Crash, it is not in my view at stake in the way Baudrillard imagines. In Crash, as everywhere in Ballard’s so-called disaster fiction from The Drowned World (1962) to High-Rise (1976), the real has not been nor is it in the process of being abolished. Far from it: the catastrophe, whatever form it takes, actually signifies the liberation of a "deep" real (associated with the unconscious), that has been until then latent in a "shallow" manifest reality (held in place by mechanisms of repression).

"Ballard," the narrator of Crash, is involved in a car crash that has the consequence of transforming his awareness about his own real desires. These are congruent with the desires of the late 20th-century technological culture that he embodies. The car "accident" is no accident, but the product of a psychopathology operating at the cultural level that is worked out according to a post-Freudian logic. Sexuality is, as Baudrillard himself notes, "no more than the rarefaction of a drive called desire" ("Ballard’s Crash" 316). Baudrillard reads the "violently sexualized world" in Crash as one at the same time "totally lacking in desire," sexuality having become absorbed by the "universe of simulation" (319). However, the sexualization of the automobile for the narrator after his crash surely functions as a metaphor of revelation of the real object of his desire, namely death and reunification with the organic realm. Far from being abolished, this is desire intensified and freed; but it is a desire beyond the pleasure principle, absolutely unamenable to reason and hostile to consciousness. The violent, perverse, graphically-depicted death-oriented sexuality in Crash is an extended metaphor for this insatiable cultural death-lust.6

In spite of this, there are two aspects of Crash that seem strongly to support Baudrillard’s reading of the text. The first is the way in which the name of the protagonist seems to obliterate the gap between the fictional and the real worlds, so that a new hyperreal synthesis emerges. The second is the way in which the protagonist’s perceptions of the totally artificial, totally mediated landscape of Crash are rendered in a manner that makes them seem to partake of a Baudrillardian hyperreality—as in this passage, for example:

The flashing lances of afternoon light deflected from the chromium panel tore at my skin. The hard jazz of radiator grilles, the motion of cars moving towards London Airport along the sunlit oncoming lanes, the street furniture and route indicators—all these seemed threatening and super-real, as exciting as the accelerating pintables of a sinister amusement arcade released onto these highways. (49)

As far as the first aspect is concerned, both author and text provide clear evidence that the primary function of the protagonist’s name is not to confuse fiction and fact, nor to hyperrealize the real. When asked in an interview, for example, whether he finds the scarring in Crash sexually arousing, Ballard replied: "Me personally, or the writer? Well the man Ballard doesn’t find them a turn-on at all. If I see someone deeply mutilated or scarred, I don’t feel aroused in any way" (Vale 48). In the text, the narrator is not a science-fiction writer and the West London landscape is depicted with a heightened realism found frequently in the ominous near-future landscapes of Ballard’s fiction of the 1970s.7

Crash exists in a textual vacuum only for the naive reader, such as the publisher’s reader mentioned earlier. For those aware of Crash’s intertextual relation with Ballard’s other fiction, the author’s superimposition of his name upon his protagonist is metaphorical, offering a provocative analogy with the way that latent reality, freed of repression, superimposes itself upon manifest reality in the fictional world of the text. It does not have to do with Baudrillard’s idea that the closure of the gap between fiction and fact at the textual level is an analogue of the hyperrealization of empirical or social reality.

As for the hyperrealization of the protagonist’s perception, this too has little to do with Baudrillardian hyperreality. The post-traumatic narrator glimpses here not a Baudrillardian universe of simulation but a manifest world tinged with latent desire, a conscious world into which the unconscious is leaking, rendering it dreamlike, but at the same time paradoxically more real. Baudrillard finds the novel "truly saturated with an intense initiatory power" (319), ushering in a world beyond the reach of the moral gaze. But surely Crash’s vision of incipient "autogeddon" (106) is threatening and admonitory? Any urge to transcend the moral—or the real—falters (to quote the paragraph preceeding the one above) "before the solid reality of the motorway embankments, with their constant and unswerving geometry, and before the finite areas of the car-park aprons" (49).

A passage from a 1983 interview clarifies the quite differing agendas of Ballard the novelist and Baudrillard the sociologist:

[Re/Search]: Baudrillard said that in modern society, the only way man can approximate the idea of sacrifice, or a social will rather than a privatized life, is in the idea of the violent or accidental death; for example, the car crash. Do you see your treatment of violence in that sense?

JGB: Maybe I’m at heart rather anti-social. Or rather, let’s say, an extreme solitary—I think that’s probably true. The social dimension isn’t really what I’m interested in. (Vale 47)

In the rest of his long answer, Ballard goes on to speak of his interest in the "liberating effect" of trauma, while at the same time insisting that he has no "sentimental delusion about violence" (47). In essence, Ballard’s interest in car crashes is psychological, with the idea that there is a direct connection between the individual unconscious and apparently external sociological phenomena. Ballard uses individual character to represent aspects of human desire, the expression of which is the external landscape, and the power of which is attested to by the fact that in the late twentieth century the landscape which Western civilization inhabits is increasingly artificial. As desire has both conscious and unconscious levels, so does the landscape. The catastrophic interactions between individual and landscape in Ballard’s fiction are expressions of the disjunctions between conscious and unconscious desire at the psychic level. The unconscious level respresents real desire, the intractable ground of being, and it is Ballard’s project to make this reality manifest, with the very Freudian—and ultimately moral—idea of bringing to light what is dark.

As he gazes at the contemporary scene, Baudrillard notices the same cultural symptoms that Ballard does—affectlessness, apparently meaningless circulation, the sense of impending catastrophe. It is no wonder that Ballard celebrates Baudrillard’s brilliant reading of American culture in America (1986). But whereas Baudrillard celebrates—even if ironically—the "marvelously affectless succession of signs, images, faces, and ritual acts" on American roads (America 5), or America’s orgiastic and ecstatic indifference as a "radical modernity" attained (96-97), for Ballard there remains the project of exposing the real (unconscious) desire beneath the debauch of fiction. Baudrillard the hyperrealist is at his best consciously a poet of the surface of things. In this he is a postmodernist par excellence, and this is, it seems to me, why Ballard, for whom such surfaces are equally fascinating but also terrifying for what they conceal, is so ambivalent toward him. It is surely this ambivalence that causes Ballard to attack, in his "Response to the Invitation to Respond" to Baudrillard’s essays, not Baudrillard, but postmodernism itself.


1. "Atrocity Exhibition and Crash!, in which I equate the crash with sexuality, were both extreme hypotheses, extreme metaphors to describe an extreme situation" (Burns 22).

2. No indication is given in SFS of when the essays were first published. This did not affect Ballard’s response, however, as he makes it clear that he had read Baudrillard on Crash "some years ago" ("A Response" 329).

3. Since concluding this essay, I have learned that Ballard’s piece is a transcript of a letter dated 19 April 1991 from Ballard to Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., in response to Csicsery-Ronay’s request for Ballard’s reaction to Baudrillard’s essays. Ballard had not read the other critics’ responses when he replied, though he knew the identities of some of them. I am grateful to the editors of SFS for making this correspondence available to me.

4. It is not clear in the latter case whether he means the movie or the novel.

5. "Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal" ("The Precession of Simulacra" 2).

6. Freud, in "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" (1920), seems to me to have already diagnosed the problem with Crash’s narrator: "The mechanical violence of the trauma would liberate a quantity of sexual excitation which, owing to the lack of preparation for anxiety, would have a traumatic effect" (33).

7. As in the very similar West London-based landscapes in Concrete Island (1976) and High-Rise (1976), and the Shepperton studios in The Unlimited Dream Company (1979).


Ballard, J.G. The Atrocity Exhibition. 1970. London: Triad/Panther, 1979.

—————. Crash. 1973. New York: Pinnacle, 1974.

—————. "Some Words About Crash!" Foundation 9:45-54, Nov 1975.

—————. The Kindness of Women. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1991.

—————. "A Response to the Invitation to Respond." SFS 18:329, #55, Nov 1991.

Baudrillard, Jean. "Ballard’s Crash." 1976. Trans. Arthur B. Evans. SFS 18:313-20, #55, Nov 1991.

—————. "The Precession of Simulacra." Simulations. By Baudrillard. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman. NY: Semiotext(e), 1983. 1-79.

—————. America. 1986. Trans. Chris Turner. London: Verso, 1989.

Benison, Jonathan. "Jean Baudrillard on the Current State of SF." Foundation 32:25- 42, Nov 1984.

Burns, Alan, & Charles Sugnet. "[Interview with] J.G. Ballard." The Imagination on Trial: British and American Writers Discuss Their Working Methods. Eds. Burns & Sugnet. London: Allison, 1981. 15-30.

Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. [Editorial Introduction:] "Postmodernism’s SF/SF’s Postmodernism." SFS 18:305-08, #55, Nov 1991.

Di Filippo, Paul. "Ballard’s Anatomy: An Interview." Science Fiction Eye 8:66-75, Winter 1991.

Freud, Sigmund. "Beyond the Pleasure Principle." 1920. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. XVIII (1920-1922). Ed. & trans. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth, 1955. 7-64.

Hayles, N. Katherine. "The Borders of Madness." SFS 18:321-23, #55, Nov 1991.

Landon, Brooks. "Responding to the Killer B’s." SFS 18:326-27, #55, Nov 1991.

Sobchack, Vivian. "Baudrillard’s Obscenity." SFS 18:327-29, #55, Nov 1991.

Vale & Andrea Juno, ed. Re/Search: J.G. Ballard. San Francisco: Re/Search, 1984.

Abstract.—J.G. Ballard’s vehement general attack on postmodern criticism of science fiction in a recent issue of SFS seems curiously unmotivated. However, it might perhaps be explained by Ballard’s anger at Jean Baudrillard’s misreading of Ballard’s novel Crash, mitigated by Ballard’s admiration for Baudrillard’s other writings. (NR)

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