In April 2009, J. G. Ballard died at the age of 78. By the end of his life he was recognised as one of the greatest British writers of the latter half of the twentieth century. The acclaim his work has garnered stems from its unsettling ability to describe the present in collision with near but unexpected futures. His narratives operate according to the temporalities of car crashes, epidemics, and physiological shocks. The word ‘Ballardian’ has entered the Collins Dictionary as a term denoting ‘dystopian modernity’, but given how our contemporary cultural environment is so overstocked with examples of this genre, it may be time to reassess his work as offering something beyond the kinds of disaster-porn now ubiquitous in video games, film, television, and literature. What he presents is not the self-indulgent bleakness we see in many of today’s dystopias but an anatomy of collective desires operating under the pathogenic influences of mass society and technology. To this extent, he remains relevant to us not as a dystopist but as an anatomist.
Ballard broke off his medical training at Cambridge to pursue a literary career, but his fictions betray a fascination with medicine. As he puts it in one interview,
“I found that medicine was a sort of fiction – all that anatomy and physiology. Gray’s Anatomy is the greatest novel of the twentieth century. By comparison with our ordinary experience of our bodies, to read Gray’s Anatomy is to be presented with what appears to be a fantastic fiction, an epic vastly beyond War and Peace and about as difficult to read.”
His 1975 novel High-Rise offers an anatomy of modern urban life. The narrative describes the unravelling of the social fabric of a luxury, high-tech apartment block in London’s docklands. The wealthy middle-class occupants of the building descend into mindless violence, forming warring bands and tribes as the power fails and food runs out. Read as a straightforward dystopia, the text is very much of its time. The 70s was a dystopian decade, with books such as Alvin and Heidi Toffler’s Future Shock (1970) and Martin Pawley’s The Private Future (1973) predicting mass social dysfunction as a result of urbanisation and rapid technological change. While Ballard shares with these authors a concern with the pressures late twentieth-century life was putting on the human organism, it is too reductive to read him as a pedlar of panic. For all his apparent pessimism, Ballard retained a strangely hopeful view of the future.
We can read High-Rise as a kind of utopia disguised as dystopia. The text’s utopianism is premised upon the tenacity of the human nervous system and its ability to break out of the social, psychological, technological and architectural structures in which modernity imprisons it. The breakdown of civil and moral order inside the high-rise complex is Ballard’s attempt to produce the clinical picture of a neurological revolt against middle-class conformity. Ballard once said that his greatest fear for the future was that it would be boring, ‘a vast, conforming suburb of the soul’. At the outset of the book, life in the high-rise is eventless. This is what drives Ballard’s characters to violence, but it is depicted as a physiological process in which the inner spaces of the building become an expression of the interiors of the body. The residents ‘moving along the corridors were the cells in a network of arteries, the lights in their apartments the neurones of a brain’. Once the power begins to fail, the darkened floors become ‘dead strata in a fading brain’. The main character, Robert Laing, is a doctor who teaches physiology. He observes at one point that the face of the high-rise resembles less a ‘habitable architecture’ than a ‘diagram of a mysterious psychic event’.
Ballard’s fictional building was inspired by the Brutalist architecture of Erno Goldfinger, whose famous London tower blocks appeared in the 60s and early 70s. Buildings such as Balfron Tower and Trellick Tower were intended by Goldfinger to be part of a utopian solution to the post-War housing shortage and the problems of city-living generally, but they came to be loathed for their ugliness and were associated with social decline as the 70s went on. Stories of Goldfinger’s reputedly tyrannical demeanour lead Ian Fleming to name his most famous Bond villain after the architect.
Ballard’s fictional version of Goldfinger, Anthony Royal, lives in the penthouse of his building, just as Goldfinger once did at Balfron Tower. But Royal is depicted less as a villain than as an astute witness. He is the only character in the novel to recognise what is truly taking place. The occupants of the high-rise are all middle-class professionals, what we would today call the ‘cognitive elite’: they are accountants, stockbrokers, television executives, doctors and academics. When they revolt, they are revolting against an environment that has been fashioned to accommodate their intellect and cultivation, but not their collective wellbeing. From his remove, Royal realises that the social disintegration going on below him is the effect of a middle-class intelligence revolting against the prison it has built for itself:
“Royal detested this orthodoxy of the intelligent. Visiting his neighbours’ apartments, he would find himself physically repelled by the contours of an award-winning coffee-pot, by the well-modulated colour schemes, by the good taste and intelligence that, Midas-like, had transformed everything in these apartments into an ideal marriage of function and design. In a sense, these people were the vanguard of a well-to-do and well-educated proletariat of the future, boxed up in these expensive apartments with their elegant furniture and intelligent sensibilities, and no possibility of escape. Royal would have given anything for one vulgar mantelpiece ornament, one less than snow-white lavatory bowl, one hint of hope. Thank God that they were at last breaking out of this fur-lined prison.”
The residents’ breakout is described as a kind of de-evolution, a traversal of neurological strata and a recollection of deeply buried evolutionary tendencies. Ballard suggests that it is only through such a de-evolutionary descent into our deep past that we can hope to overcome the impasses of the contemporary. The novel ends with Laing looking with hope towards the future as he sees the lights in a near-by tower block start to fade.
This insistence on the future is much more characteristic of the optimism of certain strands of the early twentieth-century avant-gardes than of the postmodernism with which Ballard is too often associated. The Surrealists, for example, sought in the 1920s and 30s to base a political revolution on Freud’s conception of the unconscious as a field of dangerous but potentially liberatory desires normally repressed by social conventions. Ballard insisted that his major influence was the Surrealist painting of artists such as Paul Delvaux and Max Ernst, both of whom are referenced in his second novel The Drowned World (1962). That book depicts a future London submerged by melting ice caps. Ballard’s prescience regarding climate change has often been noted, but his concern here as in his other books is to show humanity being compelled by catastrophe to rethink its own evolutionary story and its place in the vast timescales of the Earth’s history. The landscape of a submerged, tropical London is the occasion for a journey back down the levels of the human spinal cord, the vertebrae of which are, as one character puts it, junctions of our pre-human past:
“The further down the CNS you move, from the hind-brain through the medulla into the spinal cord, the further you descend back into the neuronic past. For example, the junction between the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, between T-12 and L-1, is the great zone of transit between the gill-breathing fish and the airbreathing amphibians with their respiratory rib-cages, the very junction where we stand now on the shores of this lagoon, between the Paleozoic and Triassic Eras.”
The human spinal cord is a piece of fossilised deep time, while the human intelligence is a traversal up through its levels. The anatomy of the spinal column thus provides a symbolic key for understanding where modernity may be leading us. In pictures by Spanish Surrealist Oscar Dominguez, Ballard discerns what he enigmatically called ‘spinal landscapes’, or intertwinings of inner and outer worlds. Dominguez’s Untitled (1936) depicts abstract vertical forms that resemble rock towers. Ernst uses the same technique in paintings such as Solitary and Conjugal Trees (1940). Goldfinger’s towers seem versions of these spinal landscapes, which appear to Ballard to hold some secret about the intersection of the human nervous system and the external environment. In his most experimental book, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Ballard speculates that ‘World War III’ will be ‘fought out on the spinal battlefields, in terms of the postures we assume, of our traumas mimetized in the angle of a wall or balcony’.
Thomas Moynihan’s recent book Spinal Catastrophism: A Secret History shows the extent to which Ballard’s catastrophic scenarios involve a traumatic externalisation of the central nervous system. This is precisely what happens in High-Rise, where the intelligence seems traumatised by its verticality, imprisoned by its tower-form. From an evolutionary point of view, upright posture liberates mammalian intelligence by directing our eyes upwards. Our verticality is what allows us to become technological beings because it frees the hands. This is the signal event of our deep anatomical past, but it comes at a cost.
The Welsh writer Elaine Morgan contributed some important work in evolutionary anthropology on this topic. Morgan theorised that the verticality of the human spine comes as a shock to the organism:
“The mammalian spine evolved over a hundred million years and reached a high degree of efficiency, on the assumption that mammals are creatures with one leg at each corner and that they walk with their spine in a horizontal plane. Under those conditions the blueprint is one that would command the admiration of any professional engineer. The vertebral column is designed on cantilever principles, as a single shallow arch supported by two pairs of movable pillars; the weight of the internal organs is vertically suspended from the arch and evenly distributed along the length of it. Such a mammal resembles a walking bridge.
Our distant ancestors departed from this time-honoured mode of locomotion and converted themselves into walking towers, with a high centre of gravity and a narrow base.”
The tower-form of human intelligence is a traumatic rupture in our evolutionary history, one that Ballard anatomises through narratives of impending change, collapse and transformation. The built environment, to the extent that it is an expression of the central nervous system, encodes the impact of a trauma that we have yet to reckon with, but which returns out of the future like a forgotten prophecy. Ballard’s anatomical portrait shares some of the pessimism of Freud, who insisted that social and technological progress will never dissolve the primitive antagonisms written into our constitution. Like Oedipus, we are committed to an obscure fate of our own making, and all the more so when we try to escape it through the poisoned gift of our ingenuity. But Ballard can also be read in terms of a more hopeful insistence on the possibilities of a future that remains part of humanity’s unfinished evolutionary story. By reading him, we enter into the prognosis.
Aidan Tynan is a Senior Lecturer in English literature at Cardiff University. He is the author of The Desert in Modern Literature and Philosophy: Wasteland Aesthetics (Edinburgh, 2020) and Deleuze’s Literary Clinic: Criticism and the Politics of Symptoms (Edinburgh, 2012). He is co-editor of Credo Credit Crisis: Speculations on Faith and Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) and Deleuze and the Schizoanalysis of Literature (Bloomsbury, 2015).
Baxter, Jeannette, J. G. Ballard’s Surrealist Imagination: Spectacular Authorship (Farnham:
Gasiorek, Andrzej, J. G. Ballard (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005).
Knowles, Tom (ed), Special Issue: J. G. Ballard and the ‘Natural’ world, Green Letters, 22:
Moynihan, Thomas, Spinal Catastrophism: A Secret History (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2019).
 Ballard, Extreme Metaphors: Collected Interviews (London: Fourth Estate, 2012), p. 28.
 Ballard, Extreme Metaphors, p. 148.
 Ballard, High-Rise (London: HarperCollins,  2006), p. 40.
 Ibid. p. 75.
 Ibid. p. 25.
 Ibid. p. 81.
 Ballard, The Drowned World (London: Fourth Estate,  2014), p. 44.
 Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition (London: Flamingo,  1993), p. 41.
 Ibid. p. 7.
 Morgan, The Scars of Evolution: What Our Bodies Tell Us About Human Origins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 25.