Sounding Surrealist Historiography: Listening to 'Concrete Island'

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Baxter, Jeannette (2016)

What does Ballardian inner space sound like? Starting from this question, I lend an ear to Concrete Island ([1974] 1985), the second of Ballard’s ‘concrete and steel trilogy’, and the most sonorous of his inner-space fictions. Paying particular attention to the sound-space-matter interface of Concrete Island, I explore how the text’s soundscape engages in a process of Surrealist historiography; that is, a counter-historical process of enquiry that, if we listen to it, mobilises alternative ways of thinking about the inter-animating presences of history, subjectivity, memory and technology in postwar culture. In this respect, Concrete Island builds on the counter-historical impulses of preceding short stories and novels, such as The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) and Crash ([1973] 1995), which force the reader into visual confrontations with postwar histories. But it does so by opening Ballard’s predominantly visual mode of Surrealist historiography up to questions of sound, noise and aurality. Drawing on related writings by André Breton and Jean Luc Nancy, a reader with a keen ear for Surrealism, I explore the importance of hearing, sound and aurality alongside vision in the shaping of the modern self. I then consider Concrete Island’s soundscape in relation to two forms of visual archive on display throughout the novel: a visual archive of the forgotten past; and a visual archive of an exhausted future. Bringing Ballard’s soundscape and visual archives into dialogue, I suggest, might just make room for forgotten histories to sound in ways that encourage us to see ourselves and our histories differently.
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