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  • Ballard’s Crash-Body
  • Paul Youngquist

When I heard the crash on the hiway I knew what it was from the start I went down to the scene of destruction And a picture was stamped on my heart. I didn’t hear nobody pray, dear brother, I didn’t hear nobody pray; I heard the crash on the hiway But I didn’t hear nobody pray.

—Roy Acuff



One catastrophic instant can change your life forever.

J. G. Ballard’s Crash reveals the destiny of the human body in a world of automotive disaster: a new crash-body, ungodly offspring of cars and signs. Set in the concrete landscape of late industrial culture, the novel views the world through a wide-angle lens that deprives it of depth, rendering it an interminable surface. Ballard’s prose is that of the camera—flat, mechanical, omni-detailed, “hyperreal”—and shows that to write in a technological culture is to represent its technologies of perception. The hyper-reality of Ballard’s style is the representational effect of photography, the after-image in another medium of a pervasive perception technology. That’s why Vaughan, the sinister hero of Crash, is not a writer but a camera-monkey; the writer in the narrative, auspiciously named Ballard, takes up a position subordinate to the photographer, who becomes the subject of writing, the condition of narration: “Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash” (1). From its first sentence to its last, Crash pursues the image of Vaughan, its narrative alpha and omega. And that image is photographic, both product and producer of other images. Vaughan is defined by the technologies of photography that condition his perception, as in the following moment of recognition:

The tall man with the camera sauntered across the roof. I looked through the rear window of his car. The passenger seat was loaded with photographic equipment—cameras, a tripod, a carton packed with flashbulbs. A cine-camera was fastened to a dashboard clamp.

He walked back to his car, camera held like a weapon by its pistol grip. As he reached the balcony his face was lit by the headlamps of the police car. I realized that I had seen his pock-marked face many times before, projected from a dozen forgotten magazine profiles—this was Vaughan, Dr Robert Vaughan.


Handsome is as handsome does; technologies of photography become the condition of all that Vaughan does and is. Identity is an effect of the photographic image, which is always already a technological representation, capable of being reproduced and disseminated. Photography is thus the a priori of (re)cognition in the technological culture of Crash. Ballard’s prose double-exposes this cultural function. With the disinterestedness of a camera, it reveals the operation of the lens in the language of the hyperreal. Stylistically and analytically, Ballard ‘s book is photo-Kantian.

And its world becomes a surface. One of the effects of the lens upon representation is to flatten it out, reconfiguring the image in a space of two dimensions, a surface without depth. Contiguity, mark of the metonym, regulates relations in such a space. As a result things lose substance. Boundaries lapse and features merge. Where difference once distinguished, contiguity now associates, deferring the substantive identity of things. Where a boundary once ruled, as between humanity and machine, a blur now occurs, creating unprecedented relations and new possibilities. Consider the effects of Vaughan’s camera upon the all too human act of love:

Vaughan stood at my shoulder, like an instructor ready to help a promising pupil. As I stared down at the photograph of myself at Renata’s breast, Vaughan leaned across me, his real attention elsewhere. With a broken thumbnail, its rim caked with engine oil, he pointed to the chromium window-sill and its junction with the overstretched strap of the young woman’s brassiere. By some freak of photography these two formed a sling of metal and nylon from which the distorted nipple seemed to extrude itself into my mouth.


Photography breeds freaks by reconfiguring things. Boundaries that would assert substantive differences, as between metal and flesh, fall to new associations through the intervention...

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