Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Nightmares at Noon

I'm still recovering somewhat from last weekend's conference on British author J.G. Ballard at the University of East Anglia. This is not only because of its particular subject matter but also the inevitable components of conference attendance (exhausting travel, finding one's way around strange cities, the creation of a social space in which conversations are brief but intense, the necessity to concentrate intensely on wildly diverse -- and possibly contradictory -- interpretations, and the enjoyable but tiring post-conference evening in the pub...)

Nonetheless, I'm very happy to say that my experience of the conference was a very positive one. This is especially so since I'm a relative novice when it comes to Ballard (or, indeed, to literary analysis), and I had gone to Norwich as much with the aim of learning something about Ballard's writing as presenting my own humble efforts at interpreting it. As at any conference, each paper had its own qualities, and some were better than others, but I must say that the overall quality of debate and discussion was very high.

Considering that Ballard's writing is probably most generally known for its violence and dark perversity (adapting a review by Ballard himself, one speaker referred to his stories as 'nightmares at noon'), the atmosphere at the conference was nothing if not cheerful and convivial. I was struck by the diversity of people who seem attracted to Ballard's work, and I have never attended a conference, I think, at which the boundaries between 'academic' and other forms of knowledge were so hard to define and, indeed, at which the distinction itself was so insignificant.

It is a rare and genuine pleasure to meet so many very fine and enjoyable people in such a short span of time.

Just to quickly make a few impressions...

It seems that that, after a long period of either being (relatively) ignored by literature scholars or of being (frequently) shoved into one of a series of all-too-simple categories, Ballard is rapidly on the way not only to being taken seriously outside his long-extant community of admirers but also to being analysed in terms of a much broader spectrum of theories and philosophies. As one plenary speaker noted, the new academic popularity of Ballard raises the spectre that his writing will be hemmed in by a series of 'closed and obsessed theory worlds', each claiming him as its own.

This is true; however, given not only the kaleidoscope of literary theories available today but also the lack of objective criteria for comparing their results, this is more a function of literary analysis itself than a comment on Ballard. Nonetheless, despite the inevitable theoretical cacophony, growing scholarly interest means a potentially greater awareness of the nuances and complexity of Ballard's fiction. And that's a good thing.

My own contribution, which sought to analyse two of Ballard's novels in terms of Norbert Elias's theory of the 'civilising process', seems to have been well received. That was gratifying, particularly as I'm not a literature person but rather a historian. I also feel that I've successfully learned a great deal not only about Ballard himself but about some of the broader contours of current literary criticism. (Some of these are very enlightening; some of them strike me as not very helpful, but this is not my field, so I don't feel so eager to expand on that point just now.)

Over the course of the conference, I felt a few half-formed intuitions that I had been developing about Ballard's work becoming more defined. I'm still not sure whether I'm on the right track or not, but when I said things along these lines, I did get some positive feedback. (Rather than a sign of insight, of course, widespread agreement can also signal banality, so that's always an alternate possibility. So, I'm not claiming any particular genius in pointing these out, and since I'm unfamiliar with a lot of the previous interpretations of Ballard's fiction, I may be unwittingly re-stating other people's observations.)

First, for example, the media undoubtedly plays an enormously important role in Ballard's fictional work and his commentary; however, in reading his novels I have found over and over again a vivid depiction of the limits of culture and mediated experience. As much as fantasy, text, image and language, I think Ballard (quite rightly) emphasises those things lying beyond them which structure real life, i.e., physics and biology.

Second, and on a related note, where some might see Ballard as celebrating the potential of technology or media to effect a transformation (or transcendence) of human nature, I find as much (if not more) a consistent message in his work about the ultimate impossibility of fundamentally changing or escaping who (and what) we are. Perhaps he is less definite than this, but at the very least he places firm emphasis on the unlikelihood of fundamental change or on what we might call the inertia of both reality and our mammalian heritage.

Third, in response to my paper, I received a very good question about how seriously we should take Ballard as a social critic. That's something about which I'm still thinking, but my immediate answer (which, so far, I still think is right) was that Ballard's sociology should be taken seriously but used carefully. For instance, as my paper sought to suggest, while not presenting a realistic 'map' of modern violence -- which, as at any other time in history, has mainly mundane and fairly straightforward causes -- Ballard's seemingly bizarre texts present a jarring vision of social life that contain useful (and accurate) insights into historical, social and psychological processes.

(Most fictional depictions of violence give a quite distorted image of its reality. I recently ran across this succinct paper by an Australian criminologist making just that point. Curiously, Ballard's fiction -- while on the surface so much more odd than, say, a typical crime novel -- might contain truer messages about violence than ostensibly more 'realistic' books.)

Fourth, and finally, while the specificities of the post-war world and its culture and technologies are vital parts of Ballard's writing, I think it is possible to put his work within a longer historical context. Some of the issues he deals with (the struggles between impulsivity and self-control, the role of violence in social relationships, the influence of technology on human life) did not simply emerge post-1945. (Although, obviously, the last half century has seen important and meaningful shifts in those topics, ones with which Ballard has presciently and poetically engaged.)

All these points, in one way or another, were in some rudimentary form in my head when we set off to travel to Norwich (via the quintessentially Ballardian atmosphere of Stansted Airport), and, along with some other interesting questions to think about, they are what is going to continue to shape my efforts to understand the work of an author who seems, at last, to be getting the attention he is due.

So, greetings and gratitude are certainly due to the organisers and other participants for a pleasant and stimulating weekend.

(The photo, by the way, is one I took of a former Second World War military emplacement near Le Hourdel, France, which, due to erosion, has since fallen on its side. Ballard himself commented on such structures in his article 'The Architecture of Death'.)

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