April 3, 2014
University of Toronto
From the colloquia series “Feminist & Queer Approaches to Technoscience”
Ashley Scarlett: Dr. Zabet Patterson is a force. Since completing a PhD in rhetoric at UC Berkeley in 2007, she’s not only taken up an assistant professorship in the art department at Stony Brook but also has a forthcoming book with Viking Press, manuscripts in the works, an essay you will hear today, and another project simmering on the back burner. Not to mention countless presentations as well as articles and curated exhibitions. While the numbers are impressive, it’s the caliber and intrigue of Dr. Patterson’s work, on an often-overlooked history of art and confrontational technology in the post–World War II era, that really stands out. I first encountered Dr. Patterson’s work earlier this year in a brief search for a course that I am taking. While historical narratives surrounding the Bell Laboratories are many, critical explorations and analyses of their artistic significance are shockingly few. The reason for this is frequently explained as being twofold. The first is that much of what was being created was purportedly for scientific and technological purposes rather than in the name of art. The second reason was that there was a general disavowal [of the laboratories] by prominent artists at the time, particularly those affiliated with conceptualism, as a result of its integral role within the burgeoning military–industrial complex in the late 1960s.
It is at this complex axis between the artistic, the technological, the scientific, and, troublingly, the militaristically violent that Patterson excavates and populates a rich historical analysis of forgotten media works. In her article on Kenneth Knowlton and Stan VanDerBeek’s Poemfield, she transforms a seemingly primitive piece of computer-animated cinema into a consciously insightful meditation on the emergence of the still very much illusive materiality of digital imaging. Selfishly, I’ve really appreciated one of the last lines of the piece, which talks about computation as a new material for art. This kind of rich excavation was also present in an earlier publication, “From the Gun Controller to the Mandala: The Cybernetic Cinema of John and James Whitney.” While this article traces the dubious history of analog computer graphics, it underlines the seeming perfection of vision that the machine offers, to demonstrate how in their film Permutations permutations the Whitney brothers offered a peek at the nonrepresentational, a means of accessing pure perception. Shifting gears, if only slightly, today Patterson will be discussing text, sex, and the speculative fiction of J.G. Ballard. Thank you very much for joining us.
Zabet Patterson: Thank you so much, Ashley, and thank you, Patrick, for inviting me to speak in this. This is, as was noted, a little bit afield from some of my other work. Whereas some of my other work is on computational neutrality, this is about scientific rhetoric and the ways in which the bureaucracy of science and its language works through conceptualism and language in this time period. So this is going to be on The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard, and, specifically, looking at the pornographic imaginary that I believe haunts and animates The Atrocity Exhibition. So what is The Atrocity Exhibition? It’s a very strange book. It’s described in some places as a flickering video collage in written form. It’s comprised of fifteen sections; Ballard called them a series of “condensed novels.” It moves at the outer limits of literary form, a structure between poetry and prose. It’s inter-spliced with images that are both textual and pictorial, photographs that dissolve into sky and landscape, illustrations that both mimic and parody conventional medical diagrams. The tone is perversely deadpan. The text is impacted, in the sense of a tooth or a fracture. There’s a continual refraction of character, plot, and narrative; figures, images, and tropes echo one another across sections, setting the whole into this kind of constantly shifting motion. Characters change names; they die, repeatedly; they’re fragmented; they’re mimetically refigured in a sprawl of individual body parts. Interior and exterior worlds become not so much muddled as profoundly inextricable. In short, The Atrocity Exhibition is a text which is very difficult to pin down; however, it’s also a text about how we go about pinning things down, locating and classifying through description, through diagrams, through measurement, and through the creation, overarchingly, of precise, repetitive lists. Yet, like a renewed Manhattan Project, the scientific rhetoric of The Atrocity Exhibition is ultimately dedicated towards destruction. William Burroughs described the book as ammunition, literally blowing up the image. He went on to say that “since people are made of image, this is literally an explosive book.” Karen Beckman argues, discussing Crash, that the text moves beyond the limits of the material body, imagining movements and intersections the biologically based conception of sexual difference might foreclose. It allows the possibility of folding these newly imagined movements and intersections of mediums back onto the body, perhaps transforming the seemingly fixed limits of the body in that process. I would argue that The Atrocity Exhibition is dedicated to doing something very similar and that it offers similar possibilities.
Prior to The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard’s books and short stories were far more linear in their construction, much more typically narrative. But once he moved into writing The Atrocity Exhibition, he was seeking to engage with a world that, he argued, simply couldn’t be understood in these terms. So instead he moves onto themes—obsessions, we might call them—which occur in an almost traumatic repetition throughout the book. Celebrity: Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Jacqueline Kennedy. Accidents: automobiles, death. Photography; cinema; trauma; psychoanalysis; car parks; exchange circuits; pornography. Some of these themes look forward to Ballard’s better-known work Crash and some of his other writings; however, in some sense you can find the genesis of these works in The Atrocity Exhibition. It is densely, endlessly referential, continually resisting any kind of fixity. It explodes outward. The terms, events, figures, and tropes continually slip and slide; they’re continually redetermined. Characters, scenes, incidents, and events appear and reappear in different contexts. The text is fundamentally unstable. It continually rewrites itself, and it doesn’t rewrite itself in the sense of an “either/or”; it’s always operating in this gesture of “and, and, and.” And what this generates is a sense of bodies and events that don’t have clearly defined limits.
This makes sense for a text which is this fundamentally disjointed. Ballard originally published the material in a number of strikingly different forms and contexts before it was collected as The Atrocity Exhibition. A number of sections were printed as short stories in various magazines: Encounter, ICA-Eventsheet, Transatlantic Review, the International Times. One of the short stories, “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” was initially published in 1968. It was in a small booklet by Bill Butler, who ran something called the Unicorn Bookshop. As a result of his distribution of this booklet, along with works by Burroughs and Bataille, he was charged with selling obscene materials and the works were confiscated. The trial ended on a technicality, and the charge against the Reagan piece was dropped on the grounds that the envelope containing the seized copy was sealed. Two years later, a similar strategy of containment was required when Doubleday, a week prior to the scheduled June 1970 release, decided to pull The Atrocity Exhibition from their publication list. The head of Doubleday demanded that not only production be canceled, but that all extant copies of the book be destroyed due to its libelous and obscene nature. It was then picked up by Dutton, who also decided that the book was libelous and obscene and therefore unpublishable for the American market. It was eventually gathered and published in the UK in 1970 by Jonathan Cape Press as The Atrocity Exhibition; however—I find this fascinating—the first edition was published in Denmark by Rhodos Press.
So what I want to do for a little bit is look at some of the visual rhetoric that circulates around this text by looking at some of the covers. This is kind of blurry, it’s tricky to see, but it’s a car crash, and the obvious reference for this first published cover was Andy Warhol’s 1964 Death and Disaster series, which is a bright, single-note aquamarine printing of a post-accident, documentary shot of the inside of a wrecked car, with a partial vision of the lifeless occupant, clearly mirroring the aesthetic of the work Saturday Disaster from 1963. And a similar aesthetic—serial repetition, continually with a difference—is at work in this early printing of “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” which was done in the International Times. And this is a close up from another section of this, so you’ve got this blood-red text on this very Warholian background of serial repetition, but again it’s always repetition with a difference. For Warhol, as for Ballard, there isn’t any such thing as exact repetition. When The Atrocity Exhibition was eventually published in the US in 1972 by Grove Press, it took on a very different title, Love and Napalm: Export USA. It went, after that, in and out of print until 1990, when it was published as The Atrocity Exhibition—the title Ballard had originally intended—by Research Publications, extensively annotated with new illustrations and photos and added onto with several additional short stories. So, again, this is a text which is tricky to pin down. It occurs and recurs in various formats; illustrations appear; they vanish; Ballard adds annotation; he adds additional materials—and so it’s constantly swirling. It’s never entirely stable. The transition between The Atrocity Exhibition and Love and Napalm: Export USA is instructive in both imagery and valance of the types of fears and containment that are necessitated by this not quite a “novel” novel that Ballard has written.
This is the first cover of The Atrocity Exhibition. It shows a body—female, of course—divided into components, which are all in the process of spilling out. And the cover for the pulped US edition, which is definitely not identical by any stretch of the imagination—it’s sanitized compared to the original publication from the UK—nevertheless shows a very similar concern with the atomization of the body and the translation and fusing of the body and the inanimate. In the first one, you’ve got the body fused with these kind of dresser drawers, something manmade, like a terraced building or something. In the second, the body fuses with this abstract idea of landscape figure. Both, I would argue, are concerned with seeing and not seeing and the body in parts. To a certain degree, this is an idea which was kind of in the air at that point. This is the original poster for Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, and again we’ve got this female body opening up into drawers and component bits. And so what we’re seeing here seems to be kind of a woman as compartmentalized body going around. Interestingly, the first issue of IT, which would later publish some of Ballard’s works, has an announcement in 1966 for two art shows: one is Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece—which, as Julia Bryan-Wilson has carefully illustrated, specifically transfers the violence of Vietnam onto the site of the female body in performance—and then the second one, this gigantic woman room created in the Stockholm Modern Museum by Jean Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Per Olof Ultvedt. On one level, this is merely representing an extension of the pervasive association of pop cultural imagery with the sexualized, chopped up female body that we find at the origins of pop a decade before in the work of Richard Hamilton and the Independent Group, and which was very quickly internalized into pop culture. But there’s also something very specific about this, which is the compartmentalization of the female body into various chambers or rooms—so, a space of interiority divided up into further stacked, sequential interiorities.
But again, it’s this iteration of The Atrocity Exhibition, the one with the compartmentalized body meme, that got pulped in the United States. This is the one that was deemed too controversial, too dangerous for the US to bring to market. Instead we get Love and Napalm: Export USA. So we can see a pretty obvious connection here with Kubrick’s memento mori image for the later Full Metal Jacket. In both of them, the hippie generation of psychedelically colored flowers and peace signs has been ground down in the battlefields of faraway Vietnam and the horrors of chemical warfare. So the change seems in many ways an obvious enough ruse—America has long held the pornography of violence and the pornography of sex to very, very different standards—reflecting perhaps the very distinction between outer and inner space that Ballard’s writing and imagery sought to address. Vietnam was distant; its violence was external. The sexual revolution, on the other hand, “make love not war,” was an internal revolution about the spirit and the body, and its radical challenge was not militaristic but lay at the heart of traditional ideas and conceptions of gender and societal roles. The switch of Love and Napalm allows Ballard’s pornography to superficially become associated with the traditional violence of war rather than with this newly ruptured mental landscape of psychosexual liberation and trauma.
So, curiously, the violence of war was more acceptable in some sense, but it’s also this kind of violence that has been discussed much more extensively in the literature on J.G. Ballard. The pornographic has seemed to be substantially harder to come to terms with. So for the rest of this paper, I’m going to look at a couple of different ways of approaching the pornographic in Ballard’s novel, largely by examining a single passage from the text called “The Sex Kit.” I’m going to return to this, one might say, traumatically, certainly repeatedly. The passage comes from the sixth chapter of The Atrocity Exhibition; it’s called “The Great American Nude.” I would argue that “The Sex Kit” is the hinge on which much of the novel pivots. It’s a dissociated list itemizing a radically dismembered body. In this, it mimetizes the novel as a whole, while offering a prismatic view of identity, endlessly refracting. In this kit, a character, Karen Novotny, is both excessively visible, as a collection of partial objects and partial scenarios, and missing entirely. She is simultaneously obsessively mapped and completely unmapped. The characters call this an “adequate picture” to enable reconstitution—not the real thing, but something “even more stimulating.” So I’m going to read it as an extended quote:
The Sex Kit. “In a sense,” Dr. Nathan explained to Koester, “one may regard this as a kit, which Talbert has devised, entitled ‘Karen Novotny’—it might even be feasible to market it commercially. It contains the following items: 1) Pad of pubic hair, 2) a latex face mask, 3) six detachable mouths, 4) a set of smiles, 5) a pair of breasts, left nipple marked by a small ulcer, 6) a set of non-chafe orifices, 7) photo cut-outs of a number of narrative situations—the girl doing this and that, 8) a list of dialogue samples, of inane chatter, 9) a set of noise levels, 10) descriptive techniques for a variety of sex acts, 11) a torn anal detrusor muscle, 12) a glossary of idioms and catch phrases, 13) an analysis of odour traces (from various vents), mostly purines, etc., 14) a chart of body temperatures (auxiliary, buccal, rectal), 15) slide of vaginal smears, chiefly Ortho-Gynol jelly, 16) a set of blood pressures, systolic 120, diastolic 70 rising to 200/150 at onset of orgasm… ” Deferring to Koester, Dr. Nathan put down the transcript. “There are one or two other bits and pieces, but together the inventory is an adequate picture of a woman, who could easily be reconstituted from it. In fact, such a list may well be even more stimulating than the real thing. Now that sex is becoming more and more a conceptual act, an intellectualization divorced from affect and physiology alike, one has to bear in mind the positive merits of the sexual perversions.
The figure constructing this kit, Talbert, is in some sense—a loose sense—the central figure in The Atrocity Exhibition. He’s not quite a character in the traditional senses of the term. Ballard articulates the core identity as Traven, but the figure in various different chapters appears as a plethora of Ts: Traven, Talbot, Tallis, Trabert, Travis, Talbert, Travers—with the additional complication that a few of these names had appeared in Ballard’s previously published work as well. In an interview, Ballard commented that “in effect they’re the same character, but their role in the stories is not to be characters in the sense that… any other character in the retrospective novel is a character, an identifiable human being rather like those we recognise among our friends, acquaintances, and so on.” Later in the interview, Ballard brings up the following passage as a portrait of the man’s identity, much in the same way, perhaps, that “The Sex Kit” operates as a portrait of Karen:
Kodachrome. Captain Kirby, M15, studied the prints. They showed: 1) a thick-set man in an Air Force jacket, unshaven face half-hidden by the dented hat-peak; 2) a transverse section through the spinal level T-12; 3) a crayon self-portrait by David Feary, seven-year-old schizophrenic at the Belmont Asylum, Sutton; 4) radio-spectra from the quasar CTA 102; 5) an antero-posterior radiograph of a skull, estimated capacity 1500 cc; 6) spectro-heliogram of the sun taken with the K line of calcium; 7) left and right handprints showing massive scarring between second and third metacarpal bones. To Dr. Nathan he said, “And all these make up one picture?”
Ballard holds that these seemingly disparate elements make up “a composite portrait of this man’s identity.” For an era in which single identity is increasingly difficult, in Traven we’re offered a whole multiplex of contacts with different points. Ballard stated in an interview that “Traven sees pornography as a kind of hyper-analytic response to sexuality,” perhaps the same kind of hyper-analytic response that we’re seeing in these various kits. “Traven takes the view ‘What is actually going on?’… [Traven] explores what most people” (and this is continuing to quote Ballard) “would regard as pretty frightening pornographic imagery; he explores it with the kind of eye of a forensic pathologist. He treats sexual desire as if it was something stretched out on an autopsy table; he takes a woman’s body and dismantles it—not literally but almost literally—and constructs a kit, which is literally that,” thus “The Sex Kit.” But while the kit is constructed by Traven, it doesn’t figure Traven or Talbert or Travers or Travis, it figures Karen Novotny. Karen Novotny is the sometimes girlfriend of the central character and, importantly, a frequent participant in T’s restating of violent accidents as well as his various experiments. She is a figure that the T character and others refers to as the “modulus,” the “switching center.” Throughout The Atrocity Exhibition, Karen Novotny offers a centerpiece of excessive visibility. Visibility at its maximum extension, in the case of “The Sex Kit.” She is photographed, X-rayed, graphed, and charted. He constantly manipulates, transforms, refigures, and represents her body to her and to others. Yet in all these figurations, she represents not herself but that which is read onto her. In the planes of her body, in the contours of her breasts and thighs, Talbert seemed to mimetize all of his dreams and obsessions.
“The Sex Kit” is part of chapter six, “The Great American Nude,” and this is a chapter in which Novotny’s visibility is constantly at issue. She enters into the chapter under surveillance. “All week this hunched figure with his high forehead and insane sunglasses had been photographing her with his cine camera. To her annoyance he had even inserted zooms from the film in his little festival of dirty movies.” The landscape Novotny is moving in in this moment is one that is appropriate to “The Sex Kit”: it’s a sculpture garden, but it’s a sculpture garden that is made up of impossibly enlarged pieces of women’s body parts, photographs, Mia Farrow, Elizabeth Taylor, segmented into parts and fitted together in frames. And then this display is represented on a smaller scale on the program that Ballard describes. As Novotny tries to escape this surveillance, he stops photographing her and instead he just watches her, holding the program she dropped. He matches the image in the photograph to her body; a fragmented picture of the film actress thus becomes an original document and Novotny herself becomes a secondary representation. Novotny, as she is depicted here, becomes a picture of a fragmented picture. With Karen, as with many of the other figures in the book, the fragment consistently assumes priority in a continuous exchange and transformation. “The Sex Kit,” again, is a priori composed of fragments. It’s a laconic list. Its parts don’t fit neatly together and they double and replicate internally. It offers a prismatic view of identity—an adequate picture to enable reconstruction, not the real thing, but something “even more stimulating.” It is a kit, not to make Karen Novotny, but to make a Karen Novotny. So what’s on offer? Six mouths, a detachable “set of smiles,” “narrative situations,” “dialogue,” “an analysis of odour,” a chart of temperatures, and, most instructively, a “set of blood pressures.”
On the one hand, this kit is profoundly reassuring. It offers, in some ways, a nearly perfect visibility of something which is particularly difficult to see. In Hard Core, Linda Williams suggests that hard-core pornography operates on the principle of maximum visibility, which is an obsessive seeking of the visible truth of sexual pleasure itself. Following Foucault, Williams argues that this push towards visibility is part of the very will to knowledge/power of the scientia sexualis, which positions the female orgasm as itself the confession of an organizing truth. Thus the reassurance of this kit: it has found a way to make the female orgasm visible. That is its end point, its ultimate object. The representation of orgasm is caught in the gaze of medicine through the staggered blips of rising blood pressure. The confession is, of course, involuntary. It has to be involuntary if it is to be believed. Visibility here is central because it allows knowledge and certainty, or rather truth. This truth is perhaps even more significant in the space of The Atrocity Exhibition because it is able to serve as a ground or an anchor in a space where such things are hard to come by.
The Atrocity Exhibition is first and foremost a space of free-floating anxiety. How to cope with this anxiety? Lists, organizing documents, photographic enlargements enlarged even further, to the scope of landscapes. All for the desire of seeing more. This is the seeing enabled by the fluorescent glow of the scientific laboratory, the harsh illumination of the doctor’s office. There is a similar rhetoric at work in the image that Phoebe Gloeckner has drawn to illustrate “The Sex Kit” passage. It appears opposite it in the text. The image shifts uncannily and bizarrely between image and death, shifts between skin and a cross section of underscoring muscle. It also offers some of the objects of “The Sex Kit”: the ulcerated nipple, a microscopic view of vaginal smear, a formula up in the corner that could stand in for odor analysis. This one is more conventional pornographic imagery. This image deals in the overtly visible, but it also deals in something which is underneath the visible, something that can’t be seen without prosthetic vision. But significantly, the central part of the image is a sexual encounter, stretched out on an autopsy table, dissected and labeled. This is visibility maxed out, moving past pornography, moving past the terrain of arousal and desire. This focus on the analysis and breakdown of the body into operating elements is a mode of vision which Ballard sees in many ways as essentially fusing science and pornography, both of which he sees as rhetorics of maximum visibility. Elsewhere he would state that
science is moving into an area where its obsessions begin to isolate completely its subject under the lens of its microscope, away from its links with the rest of nature. This is always the risk with science as a whole. The pornographic imagination detaches certain parts of the human anatomy from the human being and becomes obsessively focused on the breast or the genitalia, or what have you. That sort of obsession with what I call quantified functions is what lies at the core of science; there is a shedding of all responsibility by the scientist who is just looking at a particular subject with a tendency to ignore the contingent links.
Yet, framed as it is by a deadpan scientific rationality, this kit is terrifying as much as it is reassuring, though perhaps less terrifying than the deafening anxiety that it’s seeking to cope with. You’ve got active dismemberment and this kind of nightmarish proposal of a set of semi-autonomous partial objects, like Lewis Carroll’s smile without a cat in Wonderland. “The Sex Kit” is a deeply, deeply uncanny proposition, related to what Zizek terms, in A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, as organs without bodies. They’re put in a suitcase. They can travel around on their own. Zizek claims that there’s an undead quality to the partial object, immortal in its deadness itself. It goes on, it insists, you can’t destroy it. The more you cut, it the more it insists—it goes on. This dimension of a diabolical undeadness, this is what partial objects are about. So the partial object we’re seeing is emerging here as something which it is necessary to control and contain. It is done here with tight lines of scientific rationality because control is of continual, ever-rising importance here. These partial objects, at their limits, act to a certain degree as the very activity of sex does. They provoke the essential question of the limits of subjectivity through a confrontation with the other. The other is both another person brought frighteningly close to our own intimate, bodily interiority and, significantly, the even more frighteningly other that is our own self— that is interior in the sense that it is inside us, without being truly identical with or reducible to us.
Lacan called this “extimacy,” a play on the term intimacy. And Jacques-Alain Miller expanded on it in a reading of Lacan: “Extimacy,” he says, “is not the contrary of intimacy. Extimacy says the intimate is Other—like a foreign body, a parasite.” Extimacy is the other at the heart of the intimate, and intimate otherness. So where intimacy is the idea that two individual people can be very closely intertwined, Lacan coins this term extimacy to express the idea that at the core of this supposedly, very supposedly, self-identical subject that relates to other people, there is always already another person or rather another thing that is both infinitely intimate with us, contingent with us, but also distant because there is no such thing as a self that is identical with the self. Thus in extimacy we’re not only in a relationship to others, we are in a relationship to ourselves that is usually covered over—except, of course, in moments that cause splitting, such as intense, profound anxiety. In this there’s sexuality: we’re not just placed in a potentially terrifying relationship with another person, but we’re placed in a terrifying relationship with an other which is in our own self, hence “The Sex Kit” again.
These partial objects meant to make a Karen Novotny do not just render her as a body in pieces, rather they articulate a self that is constantly divided against itself, and this, then, is at the height of what the sexual encounter in The Atrocity Exhibition is. It’s used to offer an extreme liminal moment, the moment when you can tear down the boundary between self and other—which, again, is not a boundary to begin with, but an uncanny dissolution and fusing in which we become aware of the many ways in which the self is not the self. The self—“The Sex Kit,” the self kit—does nothing so much as remind us that Traven is not just taking Karen Novotny to pieces, but he’s taking her to pieces in such a way that he’s rendering a complex portrait of his own identity. So the self is a portrait of his self as he experiences his own self’s division, his collection of drives, his bundles of conflicting imperatives articulated as a set of nodes and contacts. Thus one way of reading “The Sex Kit” is through this link between science and a pornographic vision of simultaneous mapping and unmapping of the self, strangely one that is completely appropriate to the landscape that Ballard proposes.
This is just one other way of understanding it, which is as a diagram, a reading that is suggested by both textual and intertextual material. The third paragraph in the chapter begins with the phrase “a diagram of bones.” This is a phrase that repeats throughout the text, and it appears elsewhere in other chapters, but initially it appeared in Ballard’s work in an advertisement that he took out in Ambit. As he states in “The Marginalia”: “At the time of writing The Atrocity Exhibition I was publishing a series of paid advertisements in Ambit and other magazines. Sadly, I ran out of cash and my application for a grant—I asked for funds to pay for ads in Time and American Vogue—was turned down”—which really is a shame because I think Vogue would be improved vastly by some of Ballard’s advertisements.
“The Great American Nude” references directly the third ad in the series, which takes a picture from a bondage magazine and superimposes the following text: “In her face the diagram of bones forms a geometry of murder. After Freud’s exploration within the psyche it is now the outer world of reality which must be quantified and eroticised.” So this ad is taken from a media landscape and then it’s resituated in another media landscape, as a kind of détournement—to steal a term from situationist practice, since we’re engaging in wholesale theft and appropriation—it’s an occupation and transformation. Rather than advertising a product, though, it advertises a Freudian project. The outer world is to be quantified and eroticized. The face is underscored by a diagram, a diagram which is a geometry of murder, a geometry of death, a geometry of dissolution in the making. Visually, in this advertisement, there’s a certain similarity between body and landscape, which is in dialogue with the earlier covers as well. They both have similar curves and soft shadows. Significantly, they both burn out to white. The woman’s body is differentiated from the landscape through clothing and a mask. The landscape is a horizon of water dissolving into the sky and into the woman. In this dissolution it is unmappable; it is prone to continual shifts. This landscape is not one which is readily open to quantification; it can only be understood through its visual relation to the woman’s body, which is itself oriented through the reference to the diagram.
To talk about the idea of the diagram I’m going to turn to Deleuze. Deleuze famously calls the diagram an “abstract machine,” and he’s writing in much the same time that Ballard is. He writes that it operates by matter not by substance, by function not by form. Specifically, as well, he insists that it is neither index, icon, nor symbol. The terms are taken from Peirce, who himself understood the diagram within one of these categories. He saw the diagram as “an Icon, and an icon of intelligible relations in the constitution of its Object.” Deleuze, as is his wont, diverts these terms in order to articulate that “the diagrammatic or abstract machine does not function to represent, even something real, but rather constructs a real that is yet to come, a new type of reality.” The diagram is engaged in a process of rewriting both the past and the present, rearticulating time as well as space. And again, specifically, it does not represent. This is a telling statement for Deleuze, whose work Difference and Repetition has undertaken a critique of the project of representation as such. Representation for Deleuze acts to consolidate the relationship of subject and object. Difference works, in contrast, to undermine the stability of representation and hinders the stability of object relations. The diagram, then, offers something that steps outside of this process, this project of representation. Deleuze goes on to describe the diagram:
the diagram is highly unstable or fluid, continually churning up matter and functions in a way likely to create change. … Every diagram is intersocial and constantly evolving. It never functions in order to represent a persisting world, but produces a new kind of reality, a new model of truth. It is neither the subject of history, nor does it survey history. It makes history by unmaking perceiving realities and constituting hundreds of points of emergence or creativity, unexpected conjunctions or improbable continuums. It doubles history with a sense of continual evolution.
The diagram differs from the representational structure in its instability. It operates instead as a display of the relations between forces. In this language, the diagram is endlessly unstable, churning, changing, constantly evolving, constantly unmaking. It is the site of both destruction and creation. It is never representational, in the sense of fixing and freezing a particular order in place, but is rather endlessly, performatively transgressive. The diagram is the punk of figures, behaving badly and disrupting the social order. We can make a list; the diagram is an open system. The diagram does not distinguish between the artificial and the natural; it operates by matter and function not substance or form. It is fluid and unstable, constantly evolving. It transforms our understanding of space and time. It tears up history in an endless, violent jouissance. It doesn’t represent; it creates anew. In this reading which Deleuze presents, the diagram edges sidelong towards a dreaming, endlessly fluid social practice. To read diagrammatically, to read “The Sex Kit” as a diagram— something which is gestured towards in both the text and the extra-textual material of the advertisement—is to understand it as fundamentally disruptive. It rewrites both past and future through a provocation of instability. It doesn’t represent but rather produces a new kind of reality, a new model of truth. In this case, this particular case of “The Sex Kit,” it is particularly disruptive of the idea of bodily boundaries in a way that potentially transforms the idea of bodily limits altogether, rewriting self, the world, body, machine, and landscape as a set of interlocking assemblages—a morass of parts that come together and dissociate in ever-shifting ways.
Curiously, this creates a pornographic imaginary that’s strangely in line with Susan Sontag’s description of the pornographic imagination in her essay from roughly the same time period. Sontag states that
If within the last century art conceived as an autonomous activity has come to be invested with an unprecedented stature—the nearest thing to a sacramental activity acknowledged by secular society—it is because one of the tasks art has assumed is making forays into and taking up positions on the frontiers of consciousness (often very dangerous to the artist as a person) and reporting back what’s there. Being a freelance explorer of spiritual dangers, the artist gains a certain license to behave differently from other people… His job is inventing trophies of his experiences—objects and gestures that fascinate and enthrall, not merely (as described by older notions of the artist) edify or entertain. His principal means of fascinating is to advance one step further in the dialectic of outrage. He seeks to make his work repulsive, obscure, inaccessible; in short, to give what is, or what seems to be, not wanted. The exemplary modern artist is a broker in madness.
Sontag goes on to state that most pornography points to something even more general than sexual damage:
I mean the traumatic failure of modern capitalist society to provide authentic outlets for the perennial human flair for high-temperature visionary obsessions, to satisfy the appetite for exalted self-transcending modes of concentration and seriousness. The need of human beings to transcend “the personal” is no less profound than the need to be a person, an individual. But this society serves that need poorly.
So one way to understand the Ballard of The Atrocity Exhibition is as somebody taking up a position on the frontiers of consciousness and reporting back. The Atrocity Exhibition both represents and presents the idea of art as experiment, art as research—research into social structures, research into gender dynamics. It’s the paradigm that would become predominant for art from the 1960s up to the present. Ballard literalizes this idea. Not only is his art a kind of research, it emblematizes this idea through evoking the scientific experiment over and over again, the data collection.
As ’70s conceptual art was fascinated by—as well as mocking and parroting lightly, and also not lightly—the informational processes of info culture and cybernetics, Ballard is looking into limit cases of the pornographic imaginary for dismantling and rebuilding the body. He would later state that “pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other in the most urgent and ruthless way,” and that he is offering “a warning against that brutal, erotic, and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape.” While the circuits of use and exchange are well lit, one might even say overlit, by the pages of The Atrocity Exhibition, it is also attempting a certain productivity to do with the dismantling limits of the body. This is apparent, I would argue, even in the earliest covers of The Atrocity Exhibition, which blur out the boundaries between human and machinic, between body and landscape and construction. But to close, I’d like to turn to one more kit.
Like “The Sex Kit,” this is a set of partial objects. This one, however, is explicitly about the development of the human, and it suggests an expanded set through the inclusion of not just human forms but machinic forms, and the inclusion of not just the mouth but also the nose as potential sites for sexual encounter. It suggests a temporality that goes forward and also backward. And it suggests as well that this is not a closed set. As parts, these are in combination and recombination, terrifying and fascinating. They offer different threads of human and machinic development. They offer the chance to do it again, all over again in a new way.