An Analysis of Crash (J. G. Ballard) by Joseph Suglia
“How does it feel / to be driven away from your own steering wheel?”
“If I can count six steeds,
Is their power not also my own?
I run forward and am a genuine man,
As if I had twenty-four legs.”
–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust I
An obsession, unless derailed, might be infinitely protracted. J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1973) is the record of an endlessly self-perpetuating obsession. Its sole, intense preoccupation is with the point at which orgasm and automobile wreck merge: a new form of eroticism that would not be based upon, or governed by love, jealousy, passion, or the causality of reproduction. In a consumerist society in which every form of sexual gymnastic has seemingly been exhausted, the automobile disaster is the one orgasmic event that could rupture the everyday and multiply sexual possibilities; it opens up the possibility of a stylized and formalized, violent sexuality, “divorced from any possible physical expression” (35); it gives birth to new conceptualized sex-acts “abstracted from all feeling,” from “carrying any ideas or emotions with which we cared to freight them” (129). But this is not to say that the book’s focus is exclusively or primarily sexual. Automobile-disaster eroticism in Crash serves as a metaphor that exceeds the dimensions of sex: It stands for the amorality of the experiences of the body mediated by technology.
Crash envisions the amorality of the becoming-body of technology and the becoming-technological of the body. As the obsessive martyr of automotive sexuality (a sexuality that is inseparable from photography and cinematography–in other words, cinematic scopophilia), Dr. Robert Vaughan, former computer scientist and minor television celebrity, charts out the manner in which the automobile reshapes and instrumentalizes the human body. Listening to police broadcasts on the radio to disclose the locations of accident sites, Vaughan moves breathlessly from one scene of metallic destruction to the next, witnessing the aftermath of careening vehicles that have coupled with one another, hoping to unveil the amorality of the body in an age of all-embracing technologization. Vaughan sexually experiments with and within automobiles, both “whole” and “distorted,” visualizing and staging infinite permutations of the car-collisions that he witnesses. He compiles an almanac of wounds inflicted by automobile accidents, “the keys to a new sexuality born from a perverse technology” (13). Vaughan, a scientist of automotive eroticism, is attracted to the scars, deformities, and disfigurements of car-crash victims. Vaughan maniacally follows every car-crash victim in the novel–particularly the narrator and his wife, Catherine–with camera equipment, photographing them. What interests Vaughan, however, is not the historical existences of these characters, but the amoral relationship between anonymous individuals and automobiles. A visionary prophet and pioneer, he heralds an “autogeddon” in which humanity would be simultaneously destroyed in a global car wreck.
Vaughan’s project is not merely to reach the ultimate pinnacle of erotic excitation, but to envisage the “experience” of his own mortality–an event that would presage the destruction of Western civilization–in a spectacular automobile accident. His single-minded fanaticism impels him to rehearse his own death in collisional union with a limousine transporting Elizabeth Taylor, a death that would jaunt him into a spectacular space in which his body would become pure image. Through his death, Vaughan dreams of derealizing and reincarnating himself by merging with the time and space of the image: the counter-world to all lived engagements which the Situationist philosopher Guy Debord described as “the society of the spectacle.” All lived experience in contemporary society, Debord argues, exists only to be transformed into an image. A homogeneous stream of images constitutes a world correlative to our own, an autonomous sphere of “objectivity.” Vaughan projects himself into the counter-world of the spectacle in order to remerge in it, mediating his dreams of a violent new sexuality.
Vaughan’s gospeller is the narrator, James Ballard, whose car collides with that of a woman, Dr. Helen Remington, with whom he later has a sexual liaison. The car-crash jolts the narrator out of his everyday world and transformatively resexualizes his experience of the world: “This obsession with the sexual possibilities of everything around me had been jerked loose from my mind by the crash” (29). Certainly, the crash has released the possibility of new pleasures through its projection of a futural technologized sexuality (boredom weighs heavily on the existences of the characters). But more to the point, the crash frees the narrator up for a vigorous engagement with his own body as an automobile (he effectively “dates” his car experienced as his body). When Ballard claims, unforgettably, that the “crash was the only real experience” that he “had been through for years” (39), he intends an experience of auto-affection that transcends sexuality in the restricted sense of the word. A “new junction” between his “own body and the automobile”  is formed.
By presenting this junction, Crash invites the reader to think of technology not as an instrument exterior to the body, but as a supplementary extension of human flesh: the super-sexuality of the automobile disaster expands the dimensions of the human body and widens the self’s spheres of activity. The metaphor of extension, however, is ultimately not adequate to describe this expansion. The human body melds with the vehicle that would carry it along and is reconstituted in the process: The vehicle supersedes the authority of the driver.
Beyond its science-fictional dimensions, Crash is a Nietzschean novel that projects a culture which would be beyond Good and Evil.
The world of Crash is one in which human beings are not the most important landmarks or points of orientation: “I realized that the human inhabitants of this technological landscape no longer provided its sharpest pointers, its keys to the borderzones of identity” (48). Technology reforms the human body, opening up new chains of erotic signification and new avenues of pleasure; technology reappears as the core of human nature, not as “something” divorced from, and appended to nature. New apertures are formed. New flows and fluids spurt. Now the body is reconceptualized in terms of somatic possibilities, a pathology of never-before-imagined sensations and experiences. One may no longer conceive of the wounds that sprout on the car-crash victim as forms of deformation. After Ballard’s car collides with and kills the husband of Dr. Helen Remington, the impact of the collision is defined in Ballard’s “wounds, like the contours of a woman’s body remembered in the responding pressure of one’s own skin for a few hours after a sexual act” (28). The instrument panel impresses itself upon his torso; his body is stamped by the car’s metallic sheath. We see that the car-crash marks the human body in an essential way, allowing it to expand in all directions.
This phenomenon is particularly evident in the description of Gabrielle, a character Ballard never clearly delineates in the novel. A shadowy figure born from the conjunction of sex and technology, Gabrielle blooms new sex-organs that afford her new pleasures. The narrator unshackles her leg and spinal braces, the physical marks of her initiation into technologized sexuality. He runs his fingers along the “deep buckle groove” and the “depression on her thigh, the groove worn below her breast under her right armpit by the spinal brace.” (In David Cronenberg’s film version (1996), Gabrielle (played by Roseanne Arquette) has a gaping orifice on her thigh.) These wounds are for Ballard “the templates for new genital organs, the moulds of sexual possibilities yet to be created in a hundred experimental car-crashes” (177). The narrator visualizes accidents that would multiply the lamellae of the human body, wounds that would be born from future technologies. The ordinary coordinates of heterosexuality are displaced (“[T]he nominal junction points of the sexual act… failed to provide any excitement for us” (178)) and replaced with new zones of pleasure.
At the end of the novel, Ballard’s own vital fluid baptizes Vaughan’s crushed automobile in the name of “auto-eroticism,” heralding a new age in which the soul would be substituted for undreamed-of forms of technicity, an epoch in which technology would install its machinery into the human body in order to reconceive it entirely: “With the semen in my hands I marked the crushed controls and instrument dials, defining for the last time the contours of Vaughan’s presence on the seats… Catherine and I stood back, watching these faint points of liquid glisten in the darkness, the first constellation in the new zodiac of our minds” (224). When Ballard smears his own fluid, which emanated from his wife Catherine, onto Vaughan’s demolished vehicle, it is clear that the transmission of his messiah’s gospel is represented by this christening.
This is the gospel that is everywhere implicitly articulated in the novel: Technology opens a neutral realm, an affectless, guiltless, non-moral arena. The decision to move a steering wheel to the left or to the right is not a moral decision. Indeed, all technological decisions are amoral decisions, and the total englobement of human life by technology opens the terrifying possibility of a technologically mediated psychopathology. The logical consequence of inhabiting a culture dominated by technology is the eroticization of this same technology. As the fruit of this culture, the traditional morality that serves it can only represent this eroticism under the rubric of perversion.
To write it once more, as directly as possible: J. G. Ballard is a satirist, and in this novel, he is satirizing the envelopments of technology and the psychosocial consequences of these envelopments. All-englobing technologization leads to what I call “the technological hypothesis”: Whatever is technologically possible will eventually become technologically actual. Unhappily, this forgoes ethics, which is what Ballard’s Crash is about.
P. S. Crash is not Ballard’s greatest literary work–that distinction goes to his short stories (including those collected within The Atrocity Exhibition) and Kingdom Come, his great final novel. The vocabulary of Crash (“geometry,” “stylised,” etc.) and its metaphors are repetitious.