“A car crash harnesses elements of eroticism, aggression, desire, speed, drama, kinesthetic factors, the stylizing of motion, consumer goods, status — all these in one event. I myself see the car crash as a tremendous sexual event really: a liberation of human and machine libido (if there is such a thing)” [J G Ballard, interview in Penthouse, September 1970]
On Monday my friend Roger Luckhurst and I took to the stage (well: actually we sat on chairs on the regular floor in front of our audience) for the first of the on-going Barbican Brutalism Book Club events. We were there to chat about Ballard's Crash (1973), and chat we did. The audience was lively and engaged and a fascinating discussion ensued. For this blog-post I want to pick out something I mentioned near the end of the event, as a kind of throw-away, in order to unpack it a little. It's the idea that the true inheritor of Ballard's perverse autovision is George Lucas's Star Wars.
Roger and I discussed several aspects of Ballard's book, dwelling in particular on its repetitive monotony, in which great scads of descriptive prose not only itemise components of the interiors of cars and human sexual organs in various juxtapositions but itemise the same interiors of cars and human sexual organs over and over. It really is remarkable, re-reading Crash, how colourlessly repetitive it is, as text. The narrator, ‘James Ballard’, tells a story about bent desire: alienated from his beautiful wife Catherine, Ballard is involved in an automobile crash on the Westway, injuring himself and accidentally killing the driver of the other car. This event propels him, and the novel, through a sequence of Sadean sexual permutations: sex in cars with the widow of the man he killed, with his own wife and with the obsessed Dr. Robert Vaughan (‘former TV-scientist, turned nightmare angel of the expressways’) who drives around photographing car-crashes, crashing his own car, shagging prostitutes in cars and car-wrecks and generally pursuing his erotic life-goal, which is to die in a sexualised head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor. (Sidebar: I wonder, given that Ballard was happy to include his own name, his girlfriend's name, and to namecheck Elizabeth Taylor, why he decided to add the extra ‘A’ to the ‘Robert Vaughn’ name: a designedly Scarlet Letter perhaps?)
Anyway: the novel starts with Vaughan's death, crashing off an overpass into the roof of an airport bus passing below, killing many of the passengers. Then it rewinds the story to trace Ballard's own crash, the way it reignites his sex-life with his wife Catherine, his erotic adventures with the crippled Helen (widow of the man his crash killed) and various prostitutes, and with Vaughan, and finally back to the starting point with Vaughan's death. Mostly the novel is great chunks of prose like this:
I looked at the cabin around me. This small space was crowded with angular control surfaces and rounded section of human bodies interacting in unfamiliar junctions, like the first act of homosexual intercourse inside an Apollo capsule. The volumes of Helen's thighs, pressing against my hips, her left fist buried in my shoulder, her mouth grasping at my own, the shape and moisture of her anus as I stroked it with my ring fingers, were each overlaid by the inventories of a benevolent technology—the moulded binnacle of the instrument dials, the jutting carapace of the steering column shroud, the extravagent pistol grip of the handbrake. I felt the warm vinyl of the seat beside me, and then stroked the damp aisle of Helen's perineum. Her hand pressed against my right testicle. The plastic laminates around me, the colour of washed anthracite, were the same tones as her pubic hairs parted at the vestibule of her vulva. The passenger compartment enclosed us like a machine generating from our sexual act an homunculus of blood, sealant and engine coolant. [Crash, 62-3]Lots and lots of stuff like this, in fact: on and on it goes, capturing the fundamentally machinic monotony of porn without generating any erotic affect in the reader (I mean, ymmv I suppose: but ... really?) The exigencies of this sexual fetish naturally result in injuries for the participants and the novel lingers as fascinatedly on these wounds as on the dissociated sexualised human and car components. Everyone is scarred, some more seriously crippled, and Ballard treats their wounds as signifying marks, a kind of erotic heiroglyphic:
The whiteness of [Vaughan's] arms and chest, and the scars that marked his skin like my own, gave his body an unhealthy and metallic sheen, like the worn vinyl of the car interior. These apparently meaningless notches on his skin, like the gouges of a chisel, marked the sharp embrace of a collapsing passenger compartment, a cuneiform of the flesh formed by shattering instrument dials, fractured gear levers and parking light switches. Together they described an exact language of pain and sensation, eroticism and desire. I looked down at his penis, wondering if this too was scarred. The glans carried a sharp notch, like a canal for surplus semen of vaginal mucus. What part of some crashing car had marked this penis, and in what marriage of his orgasm and a chromium instrument head? [Crash, 71]On and on it goes, repeated tableaux of sex-acts, semen, mucus and blood spattering across instrument panels, leaking across the fluted ribbing of the vinyl upholstery, cars crashing and humans orgasming. Sex and cars, speed and excitement, coming and death.
There are lots of things we could say about this (in its day, and possibly even now) shocking novel. We could talk about its deliberate aesthetic strategies of uglification, its endless parade of increasingly strained similes, its adoption of the strategies of nineteenth-century realism (those Zola-esque blocks of text itemising every little thing in the service of a representational verisimilitude, except in this case the things beind itemised are all the same things: sexualised human body parts and the elements of car interiors). Roger and I discussed Ballard's slightly eerie successes as a prophet: how his ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ (1968) anticipated Reagan's actual rise to the Presidency, how strangely Crash itself anticipates the death of Princess Diana and the bizarre eroticised spasm of national-collective grief that car-crash entailed. And this brings me to my main point. Because I think Ballard's real prescience was in anticipating Star Wars.
This is a nonsense, of course. Crash is a violent and sexually-explicit avant-garde experiment designed to alienate its readers, claustrophobic and disturbing. Star Wars is an expansive and reassuring family-friendly adventure-entertainment about the forces of good defeating the forces of evil. They couldn't be further apart. Could they?
Well, alright. Whether you agree with my argument will depend, I think, on whether you're prepared to accept my initial premise: that Star Wars is a movie about cars.
Of course, nor all the space-ships in the Star Wars universe are cars. The imperial dreadnoughts, for instance, are on a much larger scale: battleships and aircraft carriers in space.
But many of the spaceships in Star Wars are, in effect, space cars: sporty-little numbers with seating for you and a friend, able to zip about the cosmos to take you from one adventure to another.
In this I see a palpable continuity between the Lucas of Star Wars (1977) and his previous movie, American Graffiti (1973). That Oscar-nominated film is a hymn, really, to the joys of automated youth, how much fun it is to hang out with your mates, and how much that fun is enhanced if you have cars.
Star Wars is basically the same movie, with Modesto California swapped-out for The Galaxy and an extra layer of cosmic Good/Evil bolted onto the plotting. Otherwise it's still about how much fun you can have hanging out with your friends, and how much that fun is enhanced if you have space-cars. Or, in the case of the Millennium Falcon, if you have a beat-up old space-campervan.
This doesn't, in itself, make the connection between Crash and Star Wars I realise. But the thing is: it's not just 1977's Star Wars. It's all of them. The key features of Ballard's vision is not just that it eroticises the excitement of violent and sometimes deadly car-crashes; it's that it does so in a perversely repetitive and monotonous manner, driving (as it were) on and on at its simple central conceit, punctuating more-or-less drab accounts of characters driving around West London with the orgasmic intensities of car crashes. The neurotic, lady-macbeth-endlessly-washing-her-hands element of this is not accidental; it's a large part of what Ballard is getting at. Machines are good at repeating the same motions over and over; and Ballard is fascinated not just by the intensities but by the machinic repetitiveness of sex, the obsessive over-and-over-ness of it.
And Star Wars is not just the one movie. It's The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) and The Phantom Menace (1999) and Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) and ten thousand novelisations and fan fictions, and multiple video games, and The Clone Wars (2008-2014) and The Force Awakens (2015) and Rogue One (2016) and The Last Jedi (2017) and Solo (2018) and the forthcoming Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker (2019). It's the same story, told over and over again with a compulsive urge to return to key fetish objects, light-sabers, droids, spaceships, costumes, and various cathectically-freighted moments and actions. It's the same pattern endlessly repeated and with only trivial variation, drab exposition and travel interspersed with the death-fixated orgasmic excitement of gigantic explosions, like Ballard driving along the M4 looking for the next explosive, orgasmic crash.
The erotic fixations of the Star Wars story express a notable consistency: the pretty-faced, dark-haired, boyish-looking female lead; the fresh-faced young blonde boy (or his Jungian animus, the intense-faced young dark-haired boy) male lead, the two placed in multiple combinations with one another such that their sexual energy is always mediated by technology—a technology hyperbolically both automatic and mobile and therefore automobilic. We could peg this as a failure in diversity of representation, but it's not in the nature of erotic fixation to express diversity. It would hardly be a fixation if it did. And there's no question as to what she looks like, the girl Star Wars wants to fuck:
On and on it goes, detailing fandom's fetish objects as intently and monotonously as Ballard ever does. More, these movies insist with a perverse intensity that these somatic couplings result in physical injury and mutilation, just like Crash. Really, the longer this series goes on the more struck I am by its apotemnophilic emphasis. So many amputations!
So many prostheses, so many scars worn proudly like Ballard's erotic cunieform, the marks of the passionate, tech-mediated connection of sexually-attracted individuals:
What's really remarkable here is the way Ballard's perverse portrait of repetitive techno-eroticism has been recruited by Lucas and his heirs to power a global franchise worth billions of dollars. Ballard, were he alive, wouldn't be surprised that there's such a huge planetwide appetite for all this. From the vanilla perversity of Luke and Leia's incestuous kiss (presumably to-be-repeated in the next film, as Rey and Kylo Ren are revealed to be sister and brother) to the larger scale psycho-sexual intrafamilial pathologies of this intensely repetitive, techno-somatic visual text, we can look past the surface differences and accept how intensely Ballardian Star Wars really is.