Friday, September 21, 2018

Applied Ballardianism by Simon Sellars (book review)

An Augean non-place (Alice in the rabbit hole)

Applied Ballardianism by Simon Sellars is a huge novel, larger than its word count would suggest. 

It's an account of a man whose thoughts are ruled by the works of J G Ballard, the writer whose novels and essays explored the effects of changes in technology, environment and suburban development on human psychology. He encounters UFOs, thugs, strangely belligerent ferrymen, barflies, computer-game avatars, a dwarf on a bicycle, and much forbidding architecture. Several people are eager to give him drugs, one of whom is a doctor. His burning desire is to figure out how Ballard’s work ties this accelerating madness together before it all crashes to a halt.

Applied Ballardianism arrived in an ordinary, expected Amazon bubble wrap envelope, slipped under the gate. It had been loosely bagged with an order of Silverfish bait in a carton that had dented the corners of the pages. I’d ordered the baits because a population explosion of Silverfish is assailing the house. If you’re not sure what these are, they’re little silver robot-looking bugs that are to be found all along book shelves, chewing at pages and leaving ragged holes in the texts. They also favor living inside household picture frames, consuming the images and dying under the glass like self-mounting museum pieces.

A silverfish, yesterday

Applied Ballardianism's genre is described as ‘theory-fiction’, which was new to me. I had to dig for definitions. It’s a construction from philosopher and wordsmith Jean Baudrillard. DeBoer says of Baudrillard’s theory-fiction, “Theory must abandon production for seduction and revel in the ecstatic supersaturation of its own linguistic nature. Baudrillard does not have to theorize with the intention of affecting a 'reality,' but can let his theory stand as fiction or literature that persistently draws attention to its own lack of grounding.” In the book, Sellars points out the word ‘Baudrillard’ surrounds and subsumes the word ‘Ballard’.

(Picture by LH; index is not in book)

Theory-fiction is credited (by Wikipedia, and of all things, Urban Dictionary) as being pioneered by philosopher Nick Land, whose work has been described as speculative realism in which formalism and representation become continuous with respect to one another, wiping out the real object to which they ostensibly refer. “The collapse of the signifier/sign/signed triangle in semiotic theory into a duality of signifier and signed.”

This definition seems to me to be a case of having had too much to think. Just like little Jim Ballard in the movie of Ballard’s Empire of the Sun.

More simply, according to Wikipedia, Nick Land’s version ‘is noted for its unorthodox interspersion of philosophical theory with fiction, science, poetry, and performance art.’ In other words, it’s just theory – philosophy or literary theory – mixed with fiction. There’s a list of theory-fiction here, which seems to agree with Wikipedia’s definition, but even as I type that I realize I am getting caught in the Baudrillardian lobster pot of multiplying words and hoping it will help.

So, to recap, we have some theory-fiction, by Simon Sellars, which will either explain a theory by using fiction or will collapse the semiotic triangle into a duality, or both.

(Picture by LH; index is not in book)

Now I come to think of it, I’ve read theory-fiction of this type before. Valis, by Philip K Dick, which I’m not going to summarize here because we don’t have all day, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig, and probably less well known and a surprise to Sellars, The Man Who Killed Mick Jagger, by Richard Littlejohn.

ZATAOMM is the writings of a man on a long motorcycle trip with his son. He remembers he used to be someone else, and his pre-breakdown self is still inside his mind as an alter ego. As the trip progresses, he remembers that his previous self, an adjunct professor, broke down from “thinking too hard” about the philosophical concept of Quality. He now champions a different way to work on the problem of Quality, rationality, which he illustrates and practices via motorcycle maintenance. His mind begins to heal. He even works out why he sometimes dreams his son is on the other side of a glass door- it’s an analog of the door between them in his old mental hospital.

TMWKMJ has stuck in my memory since the day I read it, in 1979. As I recall, it recounts the maturing of a philosophizing, unlovable failure as he does a Grand Tour of European Culture and frets constantly because the modern world refuses to live up to the glories of his beloved Medieval Art. A run-in with violent thugs does not help matters. Having been subjected to enough philosophy to harm himself, he has internalized Nietzsche. He’s different, the superman. He must clean up his civilization. He begins with the idea of killing Mick Jagger, onstage, at the Oakland Coliseum, and he ends there as well, as his jump to make the attempt is the last line of the book.

Applied Ballardianism follows an unnamed protagonist who is styled as ‘I’. I’m going to call him ‘Sellars’ as his life follows the broad outlines of the life of Simon Sellars, the author, with whom I’m acquainted on Facebook and elsewhere online. ‘Sellars’ was working in a warehouse in the nineties, an aficionado of the cyberculture of that time, with its transhumanism, piercing rituals, hippie boosterism and much-lauded white-hat hackers. Unimpressed by their promises of a bright future, he gravitates to the scene's more nihilist cyberpunk cellar. From his new perspective, he quickly comes to see the onrushing digital world as a “tsunami of data”. Convinced he has “Information Fatigue Syndrome”, he visits a doctor to see what can be done about it. “I’m a cyberwarrior,” he tells the doctor. “And my mind is going.” This is the first of many times ‘Sellars’ sees himself start to unravel – the scale against which he measures his mental health changes exponentially, so he’s mostly drifting around the low end of an increasingly mad world. The doctor gives him some pills, imprinted with the symbol of a dove, that have unexpectedly disorienting effects.

i-D magazine Devil Girl cover

Picking up one of the cyberculture glossies – i-D magazine, the issue with a devil-girl on the cover – he reads an interview with J G Ballard.  The writer is pictured making a sanpaku-eye gesture, challenging 'Sellars' to look more closely.

He decides to “risk it all” and read Ballard’s most famous, and infamous, work, Crash. Crash’s narrator is ‘James Ballard’, whom ‘Sellars’ describes as a “rough copy of the real Ballard, a flawed clone.” We’ll hear a lot more about ‘copies’, doubles and ‘clones’ later. This is the beginning of the end for poor ‘Sellars’. Crash “snaps” him. Head filled with theories about Ballard’s oeuvre, he enrolls in university and begins to study for a PhD in Ballardianism. When his tenuous connection with cyberpunk fails – when he learns they have embraced Billy Idol and yet have no room for him, "Sellars', at their S&M parties – he throws himself into drilling down into the source of Ballard’s apparent importance.

All this puts 'Sellars' in my bailiwick, since I had some similar experiences - I was at ACM Siggraph in 1993, when Billy Idol appeared at a party there to plug that album. That was either the year I had a press badge or the year before, I forget. On seeing what was on offer, I told my editor nothing of interest happened and I couldn't be bothered to write the article. (He did not object.)

An Augean non-place (from The Fly)

‘Sellars’’ life spins out of control. His lover repudiates him. Academia fails to hang on his every word. People keep offering him those pills with the dove imprint. UFOs are spotted. Street lights mysteriously go out when he walks by them. Almost everything that happens reminds him of a Ballard story. The few that don’t remind him of postmodern philosophers or movies. (If you have not read Ballard or Baudrillard, this is not a problem as Sellars describes each piece and how it pertains.) He gets a job as a travel writer, but everywhere he goes, he sees only the Ballardian surface which by now coats every aspect of reality. Hotels and airports, the "non-places" that aren’t truly anywhere? Marc AugĂ©, and Ballard. Dubai? Mostly Ballard, some Chris Marker. The concrete bunkers of the western Atlantic coast? Virilio, and a lot of Ballard. Back home to Australia? He gets himself his own Ballardian “hoodlum scientist” and moons after him in a very Ballardian way. He’s sure everything is connected. If only he could mentally shift things into another configuration, it would all come together and make sense.

(Picture by LH; index is not in book)

Applied Ballardianism, billed as a “memoir from a parallel universe”, is a mixtape, a series of samples set to a rhythm, a supercut. It’s autobiographical (and there’s nothing more standard than a professor writing about the colossal in-fights of academia – academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small, as they say, and for a TA they’re smaller still), it’s science fiction, paranormal mystery, a critique of consumer society and a travelogue of post-modern theory.
It’s hyperreality, where fiction and reality are blended together seamlessly, both at the level of ‘Sellars’ and his wildly out of control imagination, and at the level of the reader observing Simon Sellars, the writer, extrude ‘Sellars’, his fictional double, his portal-mirror and his off-kilter double exposure.

Scalpel from Cronenberg's Dead Ringers

For more information on postmodern theoreticians, click here. For even more information, click there again.

(Note: The 'index' is not part of the book. It's from my notes. Picture selections are my own as well.)

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