Gareth Powell mentioned that he’s moderating a book club discussion of Samuel R. Delaney’s brilliant space opera, Nova over at SFX Magazine and asked me for my take. I’m grading essays just now but wasn’t sufficiently wise to resist, so here it is:
Samuel Delany’s writing has always fascinated me. On the one hand he’s an extraordinarily sensual writer. His futures jangle your nerves. In the ‘Star Pit’ you feel his narrator’s dejection at being confined within a mere galaxy – a galaxy!
But Delaney has also retooled SF to explore identity, language and social ontology. In Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand he portrays an interstellar civilization in which gender is differently coded from ours by shifting the functions of the masculine and feminine pronouns. In this post-gender world everyone is ‘she’ or ‘a woman’ regardless of sex. ‘He’ is reserved for any human/alien object of sexual desire. Reading Stars helps you think of gender as a mutable cultural virus rather than as destiny or “nature” . Delany thus re-engineers theories about the way language mediates thought current in Critical Theory and Poststructuralism and bodies them in an alien flesh we can regard as our own. With his path breaking exploration of queer identity this suffices to make him one of the most important (and underrated) political writers of our time.
It’s been a long time since my first adolescent reading of Nova. I remember being utterly seduced by the sensory detail and complexity of its star-faring future. I didn’t get the sophisticated games with language then, but the colour and difficulty of his world was unlike anything in the ascetic utopias of Asimov or Clark. Also Delany’s work had none of the hideous Oxbridge-Male ennui that spoilt even the greatest of British New Wavers. It was hard SF with Starships, alien skies and cyborgs reconstructed for a poly-sexual heterotopia. Without Delaney, there’d be no Gibson, Sterling and no Iain M. Banks. He could be more important than all of those figures.
Back in 1999 I argued that that J G Ballard’s novel Crash employs a system of interlinked metaphors to construct an entirely self-referential system of desire and symbolic action: a ‘cyborgian symbolic’. The auto-destructive desires of Vaughan, ‘James Ballard’, Gabrielle and other members of Ballard’s ‘crash-pack’ refer always to a singular and impossible event which is coded for by the detritus of auto-collisions. For example, the hoodlum scientist Vaughan remarks of his longed for death in an auto-collision with Elizabeth Taylor that it would be ‘a unique vehicle collision, one that would transform all our dreams and fantasies’ (Ballard 1995: 130).
The actual collision with which Ballard opens the novel is, by contrast, Vaughan’s ‘one true accident’ (Ibid., p. 7). Instead of meeting in terminal embrace with a dying star, Vaughan’s car careens into an arline bus below the London Airport Flyover. Yet it is the non-coincidence of accident and crash that keeps the machinery of representation functioning. Every token or keepsake – Gabrielle’s alluring thigh wound, Vaughan’s sectioned nipple – signifies ‘the repeated failure of the cyborgian universe to knit together’ (Roden 2002). This closed, self-referential system is secured by the radical metaphoricity of Crash, its repeated deployment of metaphors of formal conjunction as models of reference itself (Derrida 1982).
If the semantics of Crash, on my original reading, is Derridean, the logic of desire that it elicits is Lacanian: a symbolic system tied to excremental fragments by an absent real.
I think that the logic of terminal metaphor successfully captures some of the workings of Ballard’s incomparable text. However, it is important to distinguish a literary close-reading from any interpretation of social reality. The self-referential character of Ballard’s text means that it it is appropriate to view it as an internally coherent, windowless monad, not a representation of the way technologies actually mediate our agency. The absent referent indicated by the imaginary auto-disaster can articulate Vaughan’s desires because his role just is to express the exigencies of the symbolic structure woven in the novel:
The … rules which authorise the exchange of signifying modules are ‘memorialised in the scarred contours of his face and chest’ (Ballard 1995: 147). In the classic Lacanian formula, James desires the desire of the Other: ‘to be involved in a second collision, this time under Vaughan’s eyes’ (Ballard 1995: 146).6 It is only in so far as Vaughan ‘[mimes] the equations between the styling of a motor-car and the organic elements of his body’ (Ballard 1995: 170), modulating the symbolic requirements of Ballard’s narrative with his histrionic body, that he can remain its primary sexual focus (Roden 2002).
Vaughan is that Ballardian stock in trade, a totemic figure of authority (characteristically a scientist) who valorizes senseless concatenations of bodies and technique. Modern technological systems furnish rich material for fantasies of apocalypse or transcendence. But these are rarely if ever reasons for acting. However apocalyptic their rhetoric, the 9-11 hijackers articulated a political aim – the ejection of Western power from the Islamic Middle East. The unabomber, Ted Kaczinsky, likewise, had a reasoned analysis of the effects of technological complexity. Most transhumanists hold down mundane day jobs whose contribution to their dreams of technological transcendence are liable to be marginal at best. Despite seeming violent or far-fetched these goals can never be equivalent to Vaughan’s since no subject can occupy the position from which he speaks and acts.
Even those of us affected by the poetry of ‘derelict filling stations’ use cars, analgesics and computers to reach destinations, relieve headaches and write up pilot studies. So what, if anything, does Crash reveal about the way modern technology affects us? Ballard indicated in his introduction to the French edition that the novel was intended as a warning against a contemporary world pathologically abstracted by ubiquitous media. Freud’s distinction between manifest and latent content of dreams, he wrote ‘needs to be applied to the external world’ (Ballard 1995: 5). But the technological world of the early 21st Century is not a symbol but a mesh of things, pumped by geographically dispersed flows of energy, matter and information. A system of this order is not a psyche, or a text – despite having psychic and textual parts – thus carries no meaning, latent or otherwise. The pathological dreams of its psychic parts may function as tradable commodities – gossip or porn; otherwise these replicate in the margins of culture without impact on the wider system.
Nonetheless, Crash can be read as a kind of formal allegory for the proliferation of modern technological systems, violently incised onto the bodies of its protagonists – much as Adorno ‘reads’ the dialectic between serial method and tonal fragment in The Philosophy of Modern Music. For while our individual dealings with technique may be practically rational, technical systems arguably develop in ways that no single agent can control or predict, let alone intend. The logic of the parts may be functional, but the logic of technological networks is, to use a term coined by Baudrillard in his seminal essay on Crash, ‘hyper-functional’, without goal or norm. In Ballard’s novel, this counter-final evolution is recuperated by treating its proliferating violence as if it were something that could be desired.
Ballard, J.G (1995) Crash, (London: Vintage).
Baudrillard, Jean (1994). ‘Crash’. Simulacra and Simulations, tr. Sheila Faria Glaser, Anne Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 111-119.
Derrida, Jacques, (1982), ‘White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy’. Margins of Philosophy, tr. Alan Bass. (Brighton: Harvester), 207-272.
Roden, David (2002), ‘Cyborgian Subjects and the Auto-Destruction of Metaphor’, in Crash Cultures: Modernity, Mediation and the Material, Jane Arthurs and Iain Grant (eds), (Bristol: Intellect Books), pp. 89-100.