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Excerpt from Interview with J.G. Ballard on Imagination and Obsession

Back to RE/Search #8/9: J.G. Ballard

J.G. BALLARD: I think that unless you’ve got a really powerful imagination (it doesn’t matter what the form or medium is), you will have nothing. But I can well imagine that quite accidentally, you might get some obsessive, say, who finds himself collecting footage of women’s shoes whenever they’re shown (it doesn’t matter if it’s Esther Williams walking around a swimming pool with ’40s sound, or Princess Di)—he presses his button and records all this footage of women’s shoes. He might do it without any thought to what he was doing, and it might be possible that, after accumulating 200 hours of shoes, you might have a bizarrely obsessive movie that’s absolutely riveting.

All right, you could do it consciously—you could begin to, say, store films of car crashes or street executions and the like, but you might get obsessed with people walking through doors or anything—you name it. You could just start storing the stuff, then begin to work on it to tell some second story—to overlay, say, the death and disaster footage taken from war movies or Vietnam or the Falklands or riots or what you have; to use that raw play as the starting point for your own obsessions. I think that unless you’ve got some idea of your own, you’ll get nowhere—you can juxtapose all the bizarre images in the world, but after awhile boredom sets in, doesn’t it? Unless there’s some new myth emerging . . . Nothing is more tiresome than yesterday’s experimental movie or experimental fiction . . .

R/S: Look at all the people who try to do cut-ups without any of the thinking that Burroughs does—

JGB: There’s practically only one person who can do cut-ups, and that’s Burroughs.

R/S: When we saw our first autopsy film (courtesy of SPK), we definitely experienced a visceral reaction—

JGB: Films like that do have a terrific impact, don’t they . . . when they’re new. When I was a medical student, the very first time I walked into the huge dissecting room of anatomy school (which was like a gymnasium—there were probably 50 cadavers stretched out)—even though I’d been through the war in China, I was jolted. Maybe it was the way they were all laid out, in a rather theatrical way . . . Also, they were green and yellow on these glass tables, under bright lights—that stopped me in my tracks, I may say. But after about 3 or 4 days they ceased to be human remains.

There’s the impact of novelty which is the impact of newness. But I think if you intend to do anything really original you’ve got to go beyond it—one’s own imagination has got to come into play on some level, to begin to reshape and remake the material. It’s very difficult, actually, using scientific material (even of a pretty horrific, frightening kind) in prose, producing fiction. You can’t just leave the stuff on the page without doing something to it. Very few texts stand up, particularly on their own.

R/S: We’re interested in the problem of image thresholds building up in ourselves, because we have been exposing ourselves to more and more images of a horrific kind. I wouldn’t call it a morality problem, yet—

JGB: There is an element of that, isn’t there? You could end up in that sort of affect-less realm where you suspend judgment on everything. One’s got to be very wary of denting one’s own feelings, which is what happens to people who, say, work in labs where experiments are done using animals.

There was a girl on TV the other night—there’s been some antivivisection activity going on at present, with members of animal liberation movements breaking into labs and releasing animals, many of them locked into electrodes and drips . . . She was saying that in working with lab animals, the thing that frightened her was the fact that she noticed she was becoming calloused or indifferent to the animals’ feelings. And, that this was inevitable. If you’re a man handling monkeys on a table to prepare them for some sort of operation, after awhile you just give them a goddamn thump! That’s what happens, and after awhile you don’t even notice it—the situation brutalizes you, numbs you, to any sort of response.

That’s the problem with all this stuff—unless you’re using it in some sort of informed way, out of some sort of imaginative commitment (I know that sounds like an easy get out, but it’s still true), you are in danger of being numbed to the very powerful stimuli that attracted you in the first place. I mean, you end up with the worst of both worlds!

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