Tuesday 21 May 2024

Pornography and Partial Subjectivity in Crash

Stating Crash is a pornographic novel is not to court controversy. The gratuity of bodies smashed, gouged, and maimed by car crashes, the ick factor of fusing the violence and sexuality of the wreck is simultaneously the book's appeal and the prophylactic that occasions its notoriety. What attracts many to Crash is what turns off the less prepared reader and shews them away from Ballard's other, more conventional litfic and science fiction. What Ballard accomplishes in Crash is a distillation of the pornographic gaze in extremis. Unlike porn proper, which leaves nothing to the imagination but is supposed to, as a psychologist puts it, achieve an "instantaneous stirring of the genitals", the wanton prose of Crash disassociates sex from arousal and accomplishes an evacuation of all erotic content. What, in other contexts, would be considered hot is cold and bleak. The narrator, one James Ballard, documents his entry into the underground fetishism of cars and sex following a fatal accident. There are bangs, and there are bangs. Human bodies or car bodies, there's no distinction between seminal fluid and oil. Warped radiators and broken glass are intimate discards as much as empty condom packets. Scars and injuries are prized reminders of past explosive entanglements between cars. But it's all described matter of factly. There's nothing lecherous or leering. The explicit is rendered without a desire to titillate. And as Crash's conceit is supposed to be fetishistic, there's no notion of joy, feeling, pleasure, satisfaction, or even desire on show. Cars and sex chase each other around London's motorways, but seemingly without an end.

In Signs and Machines, Lazzarato dissects capitalism's reliance on partial subjectivities and the reflex actions of machinic enslavement. I.e. The direction of social behaviour through command and response to signals, as if each of us are cogs and switches in a vast machine. To understand power and exploitation we must relinquish philosophies of the subject and attune our theoretical tools to the unthought/barely acknowledged, and the constitution of the relations that operate below subjectivity's radar. Something he praises Foucault, Deleuze, and particularly Guattari for for doing a lot of the intellectual heavy lifting. As it happens, Lazzarato uses driving as an example of one of these partial subjectivities. He talks about how it is a learned competence, but how for most driving to work or driving into town is a semi-conscious performance. The driver melds with the car, adopts a practical sense for navigating the roads and, more often than not, the journey evaporates from memory no sooner it is completed. Being alert as one pilots through one way systems and chooses appropriate traffic lanes is a semi-subjective state almost akin to reflex. The mind is often elsewhere, focused on what's blaring out of the speakers, engrossed in chatting with passengers, or day dreaming about tea time. Likewise at work, discipline and control has dulled us to the point where subjectivity is actively demobilised. We are relays and switches in the machine. Subjectivity only comes into play when something has gone wrong, or we are called upon to design new circuits to enable the signals to flow more smoothly.

Ballard captures the experience of a fused partial subjectivity by bringing together the mechanical body - the car - with the fleshy body's sexual mechanics. Bataille's writing on eroticism was fascinated by the dissolution of subjectivity in sex and the orgasm and, of course, Marx's diagnosis of alienation argued that capitalism meant we only found our humanity in our animal functions - eating, sleeping, and procreating. Crashing together the two partialities creates a new mangled subjectivity or way of being. This is far removed from the 'man' whose death Foucault declaimed, and is something else. The sex in car wrecks is joyless, but so is the desire to court serious injury and death at the intersection. All there is is unfathomable obsession, which is condensed in the figure of Vaughan. A former TV scientist off the nation's screens since his own crash, he has gone from rounded public intellectual - the epitome of 'man' - to a condensation of the one-dimensional. He habitually turns up at smash scenes with his cameras, pores over the images, and obsesses over his goal: a fatal collision with Elizabeth Taylor's Limousine. He has a death drive for a death drive, and the novel begins with this end: the mangled body of Vaughan pinned in the wreckage of a kamikaze launch from a flyover.

The perversity of Crash is not so much the shock of improbably extreme sex between improbably extreme people, or the eroticisation of serious injury or death, but in truthiness. Ballard's imagined community of fetishists cuts up door panels and human limbs to assert the materiality of mutability. Car parts and body parts are thrown together, rammed in an ugly metaphor of the possibilities and becomings technological augmentations have opened to us. And all of these surpass the 'man' of Western philosophy, whose obsolescence is unceremoniously hurled through the windscreen.

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