Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin (Reading Applied Ballardianism)

Simon Sellars, Applied Ballardianism (Urbanomic, 2018)

I have never cared that much for science fiction, or Ballard for that matter, save for a handful of short stories. Which is obviously not the best way to start a review of a book you are passionate about and which is entitled Applied Ballardianism. But monikers and references, as always, can be fundamentally misleading, to the extent that they can be reappropriated, reinvented, and deformed—to such an extent that, in the end, they may as a matter of fact have no association with their point of origin other than a thin connective tissue of impressions, personal experiences, and vague affiliations which are subordinated to the course of time, and therefore subject to change and impermanence. Such is the case with Simon Sellars’s cross-genre work, in which (his [over-]interpretation of) the Ballardian worldview is applied to his conceptions of himself and the world in which he lives.

I fear that my reading of Applied Ballardianism may in fact be a betrayal of Sellars’s work. But the very fact that a reader can take the liberty of seeing a work in terms of their own personal sphere, can re-cognize what has already been cognized by the author, is an indication that we are in the realm of the greatest works of literature, where you are charmed, fascinated, and compelled to reinvent the text in your inner personal space, to see it as a map for how you should repeat this journey in your own terms, regardless of the stringent standards and constraints put in place by the genre, the work, or its writer. Indeed, isn’t this exactly how Simon Sellars approaches the work of Ballard?

Sellars’s encounter with Ballard does not bottom out in a Ballardian reality, though. If the Ballardian universe is how the reality of our modern world bottoms out then, surely, we can imagine building new counterfactual worlds on top of it, to make it unrecognizable or to re-cognize it. After all, what we call a foundation is merely a combination of dirt and water on the basis of which the most dazzling edifice can be erected. In other words, even if we take the Ballardian universe to be the ultimate substratum of our contemporary reality, nothing—other than the atrophy of our own imaginations—prevents us from going on to build new worlds on top of and out of the ruins of Ballardian atopias, using methods similar to those with which Ballard constructed his own world from the rubble of the twentieth century. This is how Sellars’s work at once remains faithful to Ballard and becomes disloyal to it. And if Sellars has reinvented Ballard in accordance with his personal journey and inner space, then why shouldn’t we do precisely the same thing with Applied Ballardianism?

Year 0.01 According to the Ballardian Calendar

The horizon smells of lysergic colors. On closer inspection, its texture is a combination of metallic paint and burnished leather suggestive of the great indoors of a customized corvette speeding on cruise control, en route to a vanishing point where all our psychoses finally converge. The Sun has already ceased to exist, stars gone for good. But we have long stopped romanticizing about the end of our world. Our sole interest is now the fate of counterfactual universes. This picture of the world is closer to a copy-pasted iteration of low resolution tiles from Sid Meier’s Civilization than the scholarly anthropological portraits our successors might randomly come across in the natural history museum of the human in the year 800 AB. Situationist slogans, postmodernist fables, and once-edgy lines from Baudrillard’s Cool Memories scribbled on the walls of a gated community on the outskirts of a college suburb town, now look as if all along they were nothing but great brandnames for products yet to come: Reality disposal unit ver. 2.0, deconstructed hot sci-fi dog, and after-the-orgy gummi bears. In this universe, I will surely order all three of these products online. If they are not to my satisfaction, I will talk to Emmanuella, the bot. Always the nicest person. After some simulated greetings and flirtations, we decide whether I should return the products for replacement or ask for a refund. Of course, I agree to the former, then go on to dream of Emmanuella all night: We are married, our biot children playing on an infinite lawn of pixels. We go on our honeymoon, to the East, perhaps Dubai, where she asks me: ‘Is there a good car romance in this city?’ I reply, ‘It depends, do they still use cars?’. She looks a bit disappointed, as her algorithm has been written to react with exactly such convenient endearing manners. She continues, ‘I always fancied dying in a taxi’. That’s where I drop the line I have been reciting for months, ‘If you think a car crash is sexy, you should cosplay Aaliyah’s plane crash.’ She says, ‘I’m afraid of heights’. I say, ‘If you tell me you have already done this with another lover, then maybe we should try again!’

This, however, is not how Applied Ballardianism starts or ends. This and similar scenarios are already presupposed as facts of the actual world, here and now. The hard task at this point is to make a marketable book out of them, a book where only the preface need concern itself with such plain facts.

Literary naturalist writers have long been well aware that it is easy enough to take for granted the plausibility of Darwinian deep time, to see the Sun and the vibrant pastures described with romantic elegance in earlier works of literature as mere deemphasized and disenchanted denotations. The task that lay ahead of them was to make a popular story out of such elements, to create a different world on the ruins of the world that had been razed by the likes of Darwin and Kepler. Take for instance Zola’s La Bête humaine, reputedly the first serial killer novel written in the modern vein. Jacques’s story begins with ideas of hereditary predispositions and a current world which has nothing to offer other than sexual delirium, mass psychosis, and full-scale wars, all facilitated by the technology of the locomotive and sprawling railway networks.

In this scenario, even the mindsets of the protagonists are based upon Carnot’s heat engine and Comtean black boxes. How they think and behave no longer bears any similarity to former notions of the human character, which has long ceased to exist. Characters are entropic systems predisposed to infinitely small perturbations. Even the way they are described in their ordinary moments has more in common with ugly aesthetics (comparable with the ugly mathematics—the mathematics of chaos—used to describe Carnot’s engine) than with the complex yet still humanly defined characters of Shakespeare.

If we were to adopt a provisional term for the literary style of Sellars’s book, it would be apt to call it Ballardian Naturalism. For, in a vein similar to literary naturalists, Sellars carries out on science fiction, cyberpunk, airport ‘tour-guide’ spy thrillers, and Ballard’s own work the very same operation that Zola and perhaps even Hardy (e.g., A Pair of Blue Eyes) and Crane (The Open Boat) had carried out on previous romantic and imaginativistic works of literature.

We are now in a colossal multi-level game where reality and virtuality are treated as romantic and excessively nostalgic characterizations of a world that is well and truly over. Psychoses around the self and the other, secluded pacific islands, everything we know of, and even unexplained phenomena such as UFOs are connected, parsed, and curated by the data exhaust  generated by our participation in such a game: The more you respond to the game, the more surplus affect you generate. And, in this game, the more affect you generate, the more your surplus behavior becomes a game module, and the more likely it will become the brief for a new game level. This new level might be a nightmare scenario or a cognitive bedlam—the vision of hell in Doom 3. Yet whatever its nature may be, no matter how we see it politically, how we approach it at the level of our own micro-ethical injunctions, it nevertheless opens up an explorable terrain into which new personal experimentations can be plugged, and new players added. Such a multi-scaled game is, as a whole, beyond the judgement of gods, and definitely those of humans. The only thing we can judge is how far it allows us to do something exciting—in the broadest possible sense of the term—with our psychoses.

I realize that this videogame vision of the world is by no means politically accountable, or even rational in any minimal or maximal sense. But so what? Why can’t we have it all: the worlds of political duties, the philosophical will to reason, and desiring machines—with no presumption about things such as task, responsibility, and social consciousness—tuned up to our psychoses, all side by side? After all, we do live on parallel counterfactual planets or scales of reality. Only a half-witted philosopher or a disingenuous political theorist would seek to overextend the logic of one world to all the others.

Fiction writers such as Sellars, on the other hand, much prefer to keep the logic of these levels or universes separate, showing that the game—that is, reality—becomes corrupted when you try to overstretch or reduce ideas and practices to a so-called fundamental vision of the world and how one should live in it. This is where I think fiction has far more power than philosophy to show us that not everything should be, from the start, theorized in a strict sense. The philosophical power of fiction is something apocalyptic: it reveals to us that we are bound up in multiple universes which might actually be in conflict. Without this revelation, all theories and political recipes are nothing but prejudiced exercises in naivety and provincialism, pluralism or monism. Yes, in the world of philosophy we should ultimately figure out how these competing or separate worlds can be made sense of, reconciled, connected, and maybe even annihilated. But the philosophical world too is distinct from that of fiction. In order for philosophy or theory to even begin its activity, in this sense, it must accept the sovereignty of fiction as a different world of reality—one that insinuates something of the sheer plethora of variables (worlds or world versions) that need to be accounted for—not only described, but also envisioned and exemplified.

It is in this sense that, to those who attempt so desperately to shrink reality to their flat political visions, Applied Ballardianism’s orientation may seem starkly apolitical. However, it is necessary to see this book as playing precisely the multi-level game with different political resolutions at different levels. Whereas the traditional left, in a top-down manner, overextends the notion of sociopolitical duty to individual humans at the expense of the latter’s infinitesimal yet potent complexities (desires, neuroses, traumas, unpredictability of thoughts and actions), neoliberalism, in bottom-up fashion, overstretches the notion of individual preferences into myths of game-theoretic capitalism and macroeconomic rational choice theories. Sellars, however, whether unconsciously or deliberately, does not even attempt to waste words on such feats of idleness. Depending on the resolution at which the game is played, the book is replete with fundamentally different implicit sociopolitical visions of our world. There is no contradiction here, only competing actual worlds which—and perhaps it is simply a bad habit—we are accustomed to calling the world. It is the conflict between world versions and their respective visions that is, in fact, the very constitutive element of what we name ‘reality’. Those who have a problem with understanding reality as a matter of multiple worlds in conflict should realize how fast their ideals deteriorate and how quickly they will reach Game Over.

If we were to construct a meme about the political compass of Applied Ballardianism, it wouldn’t be a south-north, east-west, active-passive, left-leaning or right-leaning compass. It would be a new cartographic chart of how contemporary political reality actually functions: intertwining diagonal axes where left, right, and unconditional accelerationism as encapsulations of major forces of the new world—i.e., a world that is not merely represented but also envisioned anew—cross over and cut across a flat picture of reality.

In the Sellarsian-Ballardian multi-level game scenario, the cyberpunk notion of ‘jacking in’ would be ridiculous, since there is already nothing but the game. At this point, the game is so prevalent that it reeks of an all-prevading nature. This is where Ballardian naturalism comes into play, as an attitude that takes the old Ballardian-Gibsonian world seriously, but refuses to be a mere transcript of it. If anything, Sellars simply asks us to take seriously the reality of cyber-jinns in Dubai’s skyscape, British playboys turned ISIL recruits, rogue plastic surgeons retained by drug lords, well-curated conspiracy theory channels aired 24/7, and islands made of less-than-ten-year-old junked luxury cars…and then to move on from such mundane realities. From this point on, literature as we know it will get its concrete material not from Neuromancer, Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, or worse, Proustian ramblings, but from Twitter and Facebook, where things are measured by new intuitions of space and time.

If the canonized term ‘Ballardian’ is taken as a designation of how our reality actually is or bottoms out, if it is a term that is implicitly agreed upon, then why would anyone want to write a ‘Ballardian’ novel? Only a naive-realist fool wants to make literature that conforms to how things actually are. On the contrary, when it is consequential, literature no longer corresponds to the given state of affairs. It departs from the world that is handed to us, yet without ever fully severing the link with it. As such, the greatest works of literature such as Applied Ballardianism are those that exact the greatest revenge on the reality that we have all, implicitly or explicitly, settled on. The worlds of the greatest works of literature are worlds whose consequences radically differ from their premises.

It is one thing to accede to how things are; it is an entirely different game to take a gamble in which things might get infinitely worse or better, or for that matter, might lead to a new, post-Ballardian territory. Therefore, to read Sellars’s book, we must go through the hard work of switching all calendars to Ballardian modernity, to the year when reality as we knew it became a field of forensic research, a theme for an anthropological amusement park, since when we can only imagine ourselves as playing in this park. The year when reality stopped making sense for those who couldn’t catch up with it or those who were very much immersed in it. Sellars’s work begins exactly from this year, where the only imaginative resources we have at our disposal are our perceptual and cognitive resources beholden to our psychoses, in one way or another permeated by a notion of one and only one reality or game that is very much Ballardian in nature.

Ballardian Autodidactus

It is no major critical revelation to say that Applied Ballardianism is in a concrete sense a child of the desert island genre, where memories, travelogues, coming-of-age stories and theoretical ruminations are set in motion by the premise of living on an island—that is, a speck of dust in an ocean of a million possible islands. Sellars’s work, in this sense, reads like Ibn al-Nafis’s Risālat Fādhil ibn Nātiq (Theologus Autodidactus) on rewind: The story begins with the day when we were resurrected, following the science-fictional catastrophe that had terminated our illusions by exposing the world for what it is. We then go back to the point when we decided to abandon our island, after many castaways and ghost-ridden shipwrecks from remote places joined us on its isolated shores. We were a community of stranded people, some nostalgic for the origin, some connected by thin threads of shared neurotic convictions. We took a journey to all these places that were once called home. But then, disillusioned of the very idea of a home, we returned to the island where the world, even though tiny, was new, where we began to learn the meaning of what it means to live on a desert island: a domain in which islands are merely counterfactual child’s games on an unbound ocean.

Applied Ballardianism does not hide the fact that it is premised on voyage and island genres. To the contrary, it makes the forgotten truth of living on the island of civilization once more loud and clear: All we can do is to dream of some home, which will always turn out to be a shabby terrestrial slum, a complete disappointment, collecting fossils (internet, cars, missiles, Atlantises and botoxed human faces) by diving into the ocean, entertaining ourselves with speculating about what these fossils are, how old they are, and how future children will play with our preserved remains.

Living on an island, one is already postulating the possibility of infinite islands without ever calling any of them ‘home’. The island could be merely a cave in which we were all born. But it could just as well be a bunker, a desolate hospital, doors shut as the flickering street lights of the outside world—once gleaming with the promise of security and landlocked adventures—go out one by one. To be once more immured in a cave is tantamount to a scheme for new escape plans, for being unsettled by what lies outside of the cave and, in the process, sailing from this to that counterfactual universe. It is exactly in this sense that Applied Ballardianism is not just a pulp fiction, but also a recipe for how we should approach the literary craft as a voyage whose point of origin is a world that used to be seen as fantastical, even science-fictive, but which, in actuality, turned out to be the current state of affairs.

The squiggly arc of Sellars’s book may appear, to many theorists indebted to decades of pure clichés and lazy intellectual reveries, as an escapist narrative or, more untowardly, a fable built on a postmodernist vision of the world. The figure of the island may seem to converge upon the most naive understandings of the world. But, as always, we should unmask the inanity of such interpretations, challenge the people for whom everything is a stereotype, those who by virtue of their mental inertia understand the island as a prison rather than a hub for traveling to different worlds. I cannot speak on behalf of Sellars, but to me as a reader for whom ideas are not merely part of an art exhibition but variables upon which my life and sanity depend, Sellars is essentially an exemplar of a traveler rather than a tourist. His Nash-like obsession with seeing every feature of the present as a Ballardian sign or an encrypted writing on the wall instigates a personal journey, a globe-trotting ride in which the Ballardian autodidact becomes something else, a seer of omens bespeaking possible worlds that press upon and distend our serene horizon.

But Sellars is no Nostradamus. He only elaborates the logical upshot of what it means to live in this reality. Unlike Nostradamus, but more like ancient philosophers, his prescient journey is a deeply transformative one. What ultimately separates a tourist or world-voyeur from a true adventurer is their differing ratio of personal transformation to sightseeing. Over the course of Applied Ballardianism we witness a complete alteration: The self that set out from this world—no matter how alien it was to the eyes of bystanders—is not the same self that ends up departing from it. We might all begin from the same common psychoses derived from the mechanisms of a reality that has subsumed us, yet this commonality means nothing to Sellars. It is just an initial condition for a dynamic system whose trajectories are yet to take shape. Just as the world and its canonical truths are shown to be fabricated, so is the author who fabricates the world.

Facts and Fictions are conjoined, and not just today but since the game began. They are all fabricated elements, but not just any random fabrication. Rather, they are systematic fabrications in which the canonical concepts of truth, consistency, and coherency are never sufficient for telling apart fact from fiction, that which is found from that which is made. Such a distinction requires many more elements which make up the critique of world-building, in which fictions are not prima facie opposed to facts. Both are building blocks of reality. The only way we can differentiate them is by accepting the thesis that we exist simultaneously in many actual—not merely possible—worlds, and that what may be fiction in one world is fact in another, and vice versa. Sellars’s work is nothing but an ode to this simple way of approaching reality, one that we have long forsaken and from which entirely new worlds can be made.

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