Friday 24 June 2022

The Question in Bodies #43: F*** the Future (iv)

A cold and stylised rapacity
Is it messed up to admit you understand why the characters in a book like Crash find their fetishes as hot as they do (even if it’s not exactly your fetish)? It’s a rhetorical question, and you don't need to answer it, but Ballard wanted us, I think, to know that he did, for he named the first-person narrator of Crash James Ballard. Ballard the protagonist, a producer of television adverts, is not Ballard the author. All they really have in common is a name, and those of you who have names you are attached to will understand what a powerful thing that is.

It is important to realise that this fictionalised Ballard – and his wife Catherine with him – are a bit kinky to begin with. Back in the 1970s, they’d have been called “swingers”, but nowadays we’d characterise them as poly, living together as a couple but being entirely honest with each other about what they describe as their “infidelities”. The kinky part lies in how, while they’re having sex, they both clearly get off on describing to other what they get up to with their various lovers. But the one thing they are really missing is affect – their tendernesses are clinical and precise; they talk of the penis, the vulva, the anus. The byproduct of the male orgasm is only ever called by its scientific name, and let me tell you, there’s more than one way in which this book is very, very seminal. The language of their relationship was always going to date, but also matters that we understand that Ballard (and for clarity, we’ll call the author Ballard and the protagonist who shares his name James from here on in) attaches no judgement whatsoever to what James and Catherine do at any point in the book. Ballard’s own take on the book’s moral status depended on who he was talking to and when he was talking. In his introduction to the 1974 French edition of the book he’d describe it as cautionary, but interviewed by Will Self twenty years later he would express regret at having done that:

“[In the introduction] I claimed that in Crash there is a moral indictment of the sinister marriage of sex and technology. Of course it isn’t anything of the sort. Crash is not a cautionary tale. Crash is what it appears to be. It is a psychopathic hymn. But it is a psychopathic hymn which has a point.” – quoted in Will Self, Junk Mail (1995)

Although I think that we can finally take him at his word here, whatever Ballard’s intention was, the text of what I’m pretty sure was his best book is straightforward in how sympathetically it treats its near-emotionless sexual adventurers – it’s the paradox of the thing, an empathic association with the profoundly dissociative. In some readers, Crash engenders that uncomfortable feeling of being a bit turned on while also being a bit repulsed, a feeling that I’m no stranger to, as you should have gathered by now.  As it goes on, a sort of commonality with the abject imaginary perversions of the neurodiverse queer arises – I keep thinking about Excision here, about how that film serves as a sort of lonely Bildingsroman for the same feelings. It’s easy for those of us who relate to our bodies in this way to claim James and Catherine for the tribe of the neurodiverse – the same distance between body and consciousness arises in their sexualities, they tend to the same formal psychological theatre of their desires.

Ballard refuses to distance himself from the fetishised abjection of James and Catherine’s kinks; his text carries a determination not only to refrain from judging his protagonists but to in fact identify with them, even to the extent of bestowing his name upon his narrator. I think this is a big part of the reason why Crash still has the power to excite, scandalise and disgust readers: when an author will not moralise or judge, it can feel for the reader like they’re riding in this story without a seatbelt, which can be upsetting or frightening just as easily (or maybe more easily) as it can be thrilling. It depends who you are.

James is aware at the start of the book that, notwithstanding their sex games (or maybe even because it’s the reason for the sex games in the first place), he’s losing Catherine. He examines from the grief and anxiety that causes from a distance, viewing it with the clinical curiosity one might view a biological phenomenon through a microscope.

Again, that almost scientific, unemotional take on sexuality isn’t an accident. Ballard knew what he was doing.

“I daresay the early decades of the next century may well be a time when we need to explore a whole new set of possibilities in our own lives, and emotions may cramp our style. I'm not saying we should abandon them all together, but that we should wait to see where they fit into the new scheme of things.” – Ballard, “Dangerous Driving”

He’s not wrong, and as our society goes through profound changes, for good and ill the way that we are expressing our emotions has changed. Several researchers have reported in recent years that psychopathy is steadily on the rise (note: see for example Bill Eddy, “Are Narcissists and Sociopaths Increasing?” Psychology Today, 30th April 2018) but this doesn’t mean that it’s the only way our feelings and their expressions are changing and it doesn’t mean that reserve, or even dissociation, is always bad. In fact, it may be the only way we learn to cope.

James’s life changes with a head-on auto collision that results in severe injury to himself and the death of the other driver, the man’s corpse thrust through his windscreen, the woman in the passenger seat staring matter-of-factly at him. James encounters, apparently by chance, but really by design, a man pretending to be a hospital orderly with an enthusiastic interest in his injuries. He also keeps bumping into the other survivor of the crash, Dr Helen Remington (once again, medics and media professionals dominate Ballard’s cast of characters). They start to meet for sex, although Helen can only orgasm when inside a car. Ballard doesn’t settle it either way, but did Helen and her dead husband impact James’s out-of-control car as part of a sex game, or has she developed a kink for potentially fatal auto collisions because of the trauma? It doesn’t really matter – often we only discover what our kinks always were after we meet them, when we see or experience a thing that powerfully affects us, and we realise how we’re wired, what pushes our buttons. Either way,  Helen draws James and then Catherine with him into her kinks, and into a community centred around gaining sexual fulfilment from near-fatal car crashes. At the centre of this is Dr Robert Vaughan – the man from the hospital – a former TV scientist.

“...Vaughan had projected a potent image, almost that of the scientist as hoodlum, driving about from laboratory to television centre on a high-powered motorcycle. Literate, ambitious, and adept at self-publicity, he was saved from being no more than a pushy careerist with a PhD by a strain of naive idealism, his strange view of the automobile and its real role in our lives.” – Ballard, Crash, chapter 6

Vaughan’s naive idealism – and idealism is, remember, a thing Ballard was at best ambivalent towards – has morphed into something else, something a little more extreme. Now he’s less a scientist, and more of an experimental pervert and voyeur, ghoulishly taking photos of collision aftermaths without anyone’s consent to keep and use as one would keep and use porn, and orchestrating recreations of celebrity car crashes with the help of a brain-damaged racing driver called Seagrave. Vaughan’s fall from grace appears to have coincided with his increasing inability to hide his consuming fetish, and his desire to implicate others in his scenarios, consensual or otherwise.

There are gaps in the backstory of Vaughan, and how he got from minor TV celebrity to disgraced pervert royalty isn’t clear exactly. His first appearance is in The Atrocity Exhibition, in the pivotal chapter “Tolerances of the Human Face”. The title here is taken from a medical text about how much trauma a human face can take before it ceases to be a face, and it is a reference repeated in Crash. Vaughan has been forcibly institutionalised by Dr Nathan in The Atrocity Exhibition, as a “first warning” to Traven. His advent there supplies some of the most electric and disturbing writing in The Atrocity Exhibition, gazing upon Ballard’s cast of ciphers with a “cold and stylised rapacity”.

In Crash, the attention of the plot, and the attention of James, Catherine and Helen, centres on Vaughan. The first line of the book frames where he is going:

“Vaughan died yesterday in his last car crash.”

Again, it's a killer opening sentence, the addition of one simple adjective opening up the Ballardian geometries of the story. And like High-Rise, the first sequence of the book – the aftermath of his demise – is also the last, contextualising and framing the whole thing. He compels, this scarred man whose sexual appetites are unhidden, unhygienic. We see him at the staging of a celebrity car crash with his hand down his trousers, masturbating in public, we see the stains of his ejaculate on his unwashed clothes. We imagine how sour he smells, his acrid breath, his sweat.

His obsessions are creepy too. Learning that James is filming an advertisement with legendary movie star Elizabeth Taylor (a figure whose person looms over The Atrocity Exhibition as well), Vaughan attempts to manoeuvre himself into a position where he can create an elaborate fetish scene involving the star’s death in a motor collision.

Vaughan is a classic example of Kristeva’s concept of the abject as something that at times both draws us close, even as it repels us. Catherine gets to engage in intercourse with Vaughan – in the back of a car driven by James, of course – but for much of the book, James fantasises about sodomising him, and Catherine encourages this, getting off on a clinical, or perhaps mechanical description of the sexual acts the two men might perform.

And when the men consummate, another consummation, in Vaughan's mind, needs to follow, and the twisted metal and mangled flesh of the novel’s beginning and end result; the automotive sex-murder of Liz Taylor thwarted, another death must to happen in its place. And always described in the language of mechanics, of a technological blueprint for a future variety of sex.

If the language of Crash’s very mechanical and precise pillow talk disturbs, with its idea of bodies as geometric figures, pistons, joints and shafts, consider how mechanical the sex act can be. Consider the two primary contexts in which people in our society specifically talk about using “lube”, and how similar in some ways those contexts are. Consider how mechanical we already are in our sexualities.

This is where we talk about Gabrielle. Gabrielle is a minor character in the text, but possibly one of its most important symbols. a social worker who bears scars of an auto crash that have transformed her body, melding her with the machine that damaged her.

“On her legs were traces of what seemed to be gas bacillus scars, faint circular depressions on the kneecaps. She noticed me staring at the scars, but made no effort to close her legs. On the sofa beside her was a chromium metal cane. As she moved I saw that the instep of each leg was held in the steel clamp of a surgical support. From the over-rigid posture of her waist I guessed that she was also wearing a back brace of some kind. She rolled the cigarette out of the machine, glancing at me with evident suspicion. I guessed that this reflex of hostility was prompted by her assumption that I had not been injured in an automobile crash, unlike Vaughan, herself and the Seagraves.” – Ballard, Crash, Chapter 10.

(Note: pro tip – don’t – do not Google “gas bacillus scar”. You’re welcome.)

Gabrielle will take James as a lover. Gabrielle’s body, transformed by her accident – the stages of the transformation recorded in Vaughan’s voyeuristic photo albums – the metal holding her legs together – the network of scars and the “corrugated ditch” on her thigh that serves as another avenue of penetration – makes her a very early literary example of the fetishised cyborg.

Maybe the next one, darling

David Cronenberg understood this.

In Cronenberg’s 1996 film adaptation of Crash, the scene with Gabrielle and James (Rosanna Arquette and James Spader) is present and, although made of implications and hints, engages fully with what it means, with the non-standard intersection of body part and body part unmistakable.

Back in the 1990s, when Crash was made, extreme body modification defined as more than a few tattoos – scarification, tongue splitting, genital piercing and more – began to move out of the underground and kink communities into the general public awareness. It is useful to note that Re/Search Publications also produced illustrated books of essays about industrial culture and a whole volume about these “modern primitives”, and marketed these books to the same people who were going to want an illustrated and annotated Atrocity Exhibition. The word “primitive” has thankfully been in large part left behind, and there’s simply not enough space to go into the profound problems that this movement and the industrial culture that worked alongside it had (note: Re/Search’s marvellous editions of Ballard sit on the same publications list as celebratory essays about neonazi-adjacent industrial artist Boyd Rice, for example, which reminds us that it’s not just the body mods that have gone mainstream). But the thing to hold on to is that this culture was never really “primitive” anyway, and that its most prominent and raw cinematic representations were the adventurers of Cronenberg’s Crash and the brutal machine fetishists of Tetsuo.

Here, Cronenberg makes it explicit: we see Vaughan being tattooed with complex quasimedical designs simulating the ideal sites of impact of the components of an automobile console on his flesh. In Cronenberg’s film, Gabrielle’s leg braces become a site of foreplay, and the awkwardness of navigating Gabrielle's cyborg legs for the sake of sex in a car is a fetishistic act in itself. She is part machine, made so by the machine she inhabits. Gabrielle’s cyborg sexuality is not defined by the machined voluptuousness of the Sorayama “gynoid”. Hers, although undeniably magnetic, is difficult, painful, industrial.

In Cronenberg’s adaptation, the lovemaking is prefaced by a scene where Gabrielle and James get into the mood by visiting a car showroom. They pretend to be looking for a vehicle that would suit Gabrielle’s legs, and Gabrielle ruthlessly teases a junior salesman as James looks on. It’s a sophomoric thing to do but we realise as we see the amused arousal of James and Gabrielle at the young man’s confusion that the tackiness of what they’re doing is the point. The theatre they’re creating is the stereotypical opening scene – the bit with the plumber or the vacuum cleaner salesman if you like – of the conceptual skinflick they picture themselves starring in.

Body fetishes are weird, slippery things. A body shape, a body part of a certain form or even a disability, when fetishised, objectifies the body it belongs to. The person becomes a tool of sexual pleasure for someone, an adult toy rather than a person. It dehumanises that person. I don’t think this is how it is for Gabrielle, though, both in the book, and more so in the film. Her own fetish for body modification lies in an action, an irreversible, painful one (compare the industrial fetishist of Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo, who penetrates his body with metal objects).

Gabrielle’s kink is to have her body changed by injury, and to have fulfilling, transforming sex with those who share those transformations. As written by Ballard, their sex scene is possibly the most notorious moment of an already notorious book. The nuts and bolts holding together Gabrielle’s shattered frame become as much the vehicle of kink as patent thigh boots or a latex hood. The scar tissue that criss-crosses her skin is a new erogenous zone. In Gabrielle, the motor car has become a vehicle for a transhuman autoeroticism.

The pun’s intended, but it works: by effecting her transformation, she is able to get off on herself.

Aside from a brief view of Gabrielle’s new orifice – Ballard’s “corrugated ditch” is already a succinct description of any number of quintessentially Cronenbergian transhuman prosthetic effects – in the film there is almost nothing to see, and everything to understand.

Which is what you’d expect, because of all the adaptations of Ballard’s fiction, Cronenberg’s Crash is easily the richest – the nearest in spirit, the most relevant to the present, and the most structurally and technically satisfying in pretty much every respect.

It's not hard to argue that Cronenberg had been in synch with Ballard for a long time. If his early film Crimes of the Future (1970) (not to be confused with his 2022 film of the same name) with its pervert scientists navigating a social dystopia had no direct connection to The Atrocity Exhibition, it certainly came from the same place. And in Shivers (1975), a tower block full of middle class professionals descends into a very different sort of apocalypse as a plague of parasites causes the inhabitants first to descend into a state of permanent orgy and then to spread out and welcome the rest of the world into their collapse.

By the time Cronenberg made Crash, then, he had already approached the New Flesh with Videodrome (1981) and had successfully and sensitively adapted Burroughs in Naked Lunch (1992).

So it makes sense that Cronenberg might have a good idea of how to make a go of adapting Crash. And it is no surprise that Cronenberg’s film is a great adaptation of a great book. It condenses and updates the text, changing and rearranging things to communicate meaning while giving the illusion that nothing has been left out, and at times adding scenes that are so in tune with the original text that it can be surprising to go back to it and find that they are not there.

The only thing that Cronenberg doesn’t – and really can’t – address is Vaughan stalking Elizabeth Taylor. Here instead Vaughan (Elias Koteas) engages in a plan with Seagrave (Peter MacNeill) to recreate the death of Jayne Mansfield that inevitably goes a little awry. In fact, it allows Vaughan the one moment in the film where genuine, uncontrolled emotion arises, when he realises he was not there to see Seagrave die, and that he was not there to die with him.

He’s contrasted here with James (Spader) and Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), whose pillow talk, at times quoted verbatim from the book, is performed in a low, even monotone. Each is introduced while fucking other people – a man at the aircraft hangar where Catherine takes her flying lessons and a camerawoman at the studio. But James’s finish is thwarted when the moment is disturbed. As they report back to each other, Catherine commiserates: “Maybe the next one, darling.” And this is the final line of the film, too, as Catherine lies next to her wrecked car, and James asks her if she is badly injured. She says no. And he responds with the same line, without irony: maybe the next one, darling. This is the film’s biggest departure: the bookends of the film focus on James and Catherine, and it is their relationship, from a place of dissociation to the end, where they find sincere, loving fulfilment in each other through near-fatal collision trauma, that frames and contextualises everything.

The profane mass

In Crash, the orgasm is a technological, staged thing, a moment of transformation, synonymous with the devastating, irreversible crunch of impact. And the transforming power of the orgasm is signified in a body modified by that trauma and wearing its signs.

Like a lot of porn, the sex these characters engage in has precise and specific forms: the repeated positions, the formal way in which each tryst begins with a single breast uncovered and cupped in a hand. And ritual is a thing porn shares with the devotional. Ballard, who clearly had a whole lot more to say about Cronenberg’s Crash than he would about Weiss’s version of The Atrocity Exhibition, made the observation himself:

“I don't want to sound too pretentious, but there's almost an undercurrent of religion to it, religion of a pagan kind. These crashes are celebrated as a kind of profane mass. Bertolucci, whom I know slightly, called the film 'a religious masterpiece' and I know what he meant. The compulsive rehearsal of the same scenario - these endless crashes being planned and executed - is in fact no more than the sort of repetitions you find in religious observance.” – Ballard, ”Dangerous Driving”

Unlike Ballard, I am not afraid of sounding pretentious.

The car crash is sacramental, because it has been made the vehicle of the orgasm. In a godless world, porn is a site of ecstasy, as transcendent and as divorced from reality and as prone to abuse and exploitation as any religion.

And porn, like religion, is a slippery thing, lubed like the workings of an internal combustion engine. The more specialist the desires, the stranger the observances.

We see the group watching a tape of crash tests, and Helen (Holly Hunter) becoming fascinated, excited and aroused by the mangled dummies and crushing metal. James and Gabrielle, on the sofa with her, draw closer. They affirm her, join in this. Everyone starts feeling up everyone else.

Although pornography is, usually, deliberately made in order to evoke a sexual response, it’s the response to it that makes it porn. You can make anything porn by contextualising it as porn. In some cases all an otherwise non-sexual thing needs in order to become porn is to be compiled in a place where it’s called erotic, each image innocuous on its own but transformed by context and repetition into something that cannot be read as other than sexually arousing. Or sexually arousing for someone, at least.

All sorts of things are erotic on the internet. elaborate piled-up hairstyles; soft onesies; headphones; chunky knit sweaters; business attire; spacesuits. It seems innocent enough, even comical. It’s how Rule 34 actually works in real life – it’s not that there’s a porn version of everything on the internet (although there is a lot of that, and frankly I’m going to be haunted by the erotic Elsa-from-Frozen photoshoot I stumbled upon while researching this for a very long time), it’s that there are places where you can find most things contextualised as porn.

This can quickly become a bit creepy. Leaving out the most problematic of all – a sexual proclivity for those who cannot consent – we might, for example, mention well-documented fetishes for alopecia, anorexia, amputees. We are back to the objectification of Gabrielle. By making the non-standard body the focus of a fetish, the bodily difference overcomes the meaning of the person, especially if that bodily difference is considered by the human being who has it as a disability, an illness or an injury. This is what Traven’s Sex Kit did in The Atrocity Exhibition: its basic horror lay in the reduction of a human into a set of eroticised components, a reification of something that we already did every day but which the internet facilitates with factory-machined efficiency.

But Gabrielle wanted this. She is her own fetish. That doesn’t mean we get to objectify her. Not that we necessarily would: by simply being what most people would find grotesque rather than sexy, the symbols of her fetish resist objectification, even while she literally becomes one with objects. Maybe that’s the point.

In Ballard’s books and Cronenberg’s adaptation of Crash alike, objects become as fleshly and erotic as flesh becomes mechanical. Cronenberg’s camera lingers over car bodywork, ogling it. A mangled car door bears a gouge resembling a vagina, penetrated by recovery machinery, aiming to extract its passengers.

Flesh and machine exist here in a sort of sexual union. 

We have here a method, if we want it, to fuck the future. And if the issue of that union proves to be unrecognisable to us, we must have the courage to act like it’s going to be OK, because the human race continues through change. 

We are alive. We are alive. The frightening thing is that this is the best we are ever going to hope for.