Atrocity Exhibition as Primetime Drama: Actual Real Surgery on TV pt whatever [warning: long post]

The J. G. Ballard interview that I quote a bit of below took place in 1982, and a lot of the rest of it (unquoted) feels a bit dated now, even naive – though actually given that Casualty (which of course pioneered on-screen surgical recreation as part of its general will-to-realism) started broadcasting in 1986 i suspect that Juggy’s breezy analysis was already crumpling slightly, and his adoring US-based interviewers (the RE/Search crew) just didn’t know better – US TV being relatively way more squeamish in the Scalpels and Sliced (Discoloured) Latex Skin dept than UK TV. Anyway, the first ep (on UK terrestrial this last Tue) of Nip/Tuck seemed to me to switch back against this distinction: the black comedy serial abt the ethics of the cosmetic surgery trade in florida featured a bravura stop-motion sequence of a human faced being operated on, complete with all kinds of cuts, peeling back, intrusion of sharp instruments, oozing blood etc etc (I’m not sure if it wz real footage or SFX-recreated; I’m not sure how much the distinction signifies).

Ballard: “The fact is that the medical textbook Crash Injuries does tell the truth, because it’s not primarily interested in the truth, in a sense. The man trying to analyse the difference in facial injuries caused by ’55 Pontiacs as opposed to ’58 Pontiacs in rollover is not primarily interested in anything but what he’s pursuing. He’s not interested in the effects: the damage to the human face or scalp or whatever is incidental, it’s the data he’s after. The point from which he starts, all those figures and comparisons he makes, are going to be on the basis of people who are already damaged in car crashes – they’re taken for granted. So he can leave that; his emotions aren’t aroused by the appalling injuries these people have suffered. He is simply analysing, in a scientific way like a man in a lab, the comparisons between different vehicles, different accident modes or what have you. I think one’s got to approach it in the same sort of spirit – trying, which is often presented quite incidentally.
R/S: We’re trying to rid ourselves of cliche reactions to “atrocities” as part of the overall aim of deciphering the censorship/control process that restricts the imagination and therefore life…
[extract from RE/Search No.8/9, p.20, published 1984]

Of course the risk, in the R/S mode of enquiry, is that – far from exposing and undermining processes of censorship and control – the enquirer is ENABLING them: when a surgeon looks at a traumatised body (before or after his/her own contribution) without “emotional” response, it’s (on the whole) bcz this response has been suppressed or even cauterised. Ditto when we calmly today watch same on entertaining and fitfully insightful cult TV fiction: the somatic effect derives from our own mode of coping with potentially difficult information. Bcz it’s possible to channel-flick from Songs of Praise to Dumb and Dumber, viewers evolve a practical competence in correctly reading and adopting the various modes of address expected of differing modes of TV: like surgeon’s or undertaker’s humour, this too is an internal censorship, a coping suppression, and can be reversed. Simply by being shelved in the SF section surrounded by rockets and aliens, Ballard’s own most extreme books emerged somewhat quarantined – it’s true that the etiquette in certain zones allows such information-segregation to be sidestepped, but the fact that we have to be in these zones to dfo so reinforces the segregation as much as it highlights it. We all start out by organising material we plan to absorb according to received categories, and this is probably where we’re most susceptible to “systems of control” (unless it’s when we’re trying explain our point to non-zone newcomers). (“Systems of control” in scare quotes cz unchallenged paranoia always delivers reactionary politix foax!!)

Meanwhile, in the last five years, to compete with or absorb the lessons and possibilities of the interweb (good and bad), TV has begun routinely to offer something very close to the grisly cut-ups of glamour fused with trauma that the Industrial Culture Mail-Art Dweebs of two decades heretofore believed wd release us all from our lame inhibitions. Co-optation is not defeat: at most it’s deferral. Like most TV shows, as a cut-up Nip/Tuck is a fairly tamely directed collage, funny and naughty and diverting, its underlying moralism fairly mainstream. All you need to contest this is a remote and yr wits abt you: isn’t this what Ballard wz getting at when he rejects the pursuit of a General Socialised Truth for the pursuit of micro-informational projects of one’s own? “The channelisation of desire doesn’t neutralise or negate desire, any more than the channelisation of electricity neutralises or negates electricity. As libraries with books and records, batteries store power. Repetition is what delivers this kind of battery of its powers, like a genie rubbing a lamp.”