Simon Sellars - a hybrid theory-fiction litcrit-cum-SF novel. An existential odyssey weaving together lived experience and theoretical insight, this startling autobiographical hyperfiction surveys and dissects a world where everything connects and global technological delirium is the norm
Simon Sellars, Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe, Urbanomic, 2018.
An existential odyssey weaving together lived experience and theoretical insight, this startling autobiographical hyperfiction surveys and dissects a world where everything connects and global technological delirium is the norm.
The mediascapes of late capitalism reconfigure erotic responses and trigger primal aggression; under constant surveillance, we occupy simulations of ourselves, private estates on a hyperconnected globe; fictions reprogram reality, memories are rewritten by the future…
Fleeing the excesses of 1990s cyberculture, a young researcher sets out to systematically analyse the obsessively reiterated themes of a writer who prophesied the disorienting future we now inhabit. The story of his failure is as disturbingly psychotropic as those of his magus―J.G. Ballard, prophet of the post-postmodern, voluptuary of the car crash, surgeon of the pathological virtualities pulsing beneath the surface of reality.
Plagued by obsessive fears, defeated by the tedium of academia, yet still certain that everything connects to Ballard, his academic thesis collapses into a series of delirious travelogues, deranged speculations and tormented meditations on time, memory, and loss. Abandoning literary interpretation and renouncing all scholarly distance, he finally accepts the deep assignment that has run throughout his entire life, and embarks on a rogue fieldwork project: Applied Ballardianism, a new discipline and a new ideal for living. Only the darkest impulses, the most morbid obsessions, and the most apocalyptic paranoia can uncover the technological mutations of inner space.
An existential odyssey inextricably weaving together lived experience and theoretical insight, this startling autobiographical hyperfiction surveys and dissects a world where everything connects and global technological delirium is the norm―a world become unmistakably Ballardian.
A brilliantly written genre mashup […] a wonderfully original mix of cultural theory, literary exegesis, travelogue and psychopathological memoir.–PD Smith
A curious, unsettling text, full of weird obsessions and mysterious drives. Gleefully, on page after page, it tears up the conventions of literary criticism, autobiography, and fiction and spits them out the other side. –Robert Barry
Applied Ballardianism is an astonishing book, part fictionalized hallucinatory memoir, part essential Ballard primer, all written in the style of the great man himself. Whether you’re new to JG Ballard or a lifelong fan, this is a thrilling read, cut through with equal parts black humor, cultural insight, and existential horror. – Tim Maughan
In Applied Ballardianism, Simon Sellars has invented a genre all his own. But what is it, exactly? Postmodern autopathography? Rough Guide to the Desert of the Real? Notes toward a mental breakdown? The missing link between Ballard and Virilio, psychogeography and edgeland studies, Mad Max and Videodrome? One thing is certain: Applied Ballardianism is the only book you’ll need when you’re marooned on a concrete island, barricaded in a high rise that’s descending into anarchy, or cast away on some Enewetak of the unconscious. – Mark Dery
At first, Simon Sellars appears to be a character in a JG Ballard novel. Then Ballard appears to be a character in a Simon Sellars novel. Then not just the characters but the whole setting and ambience appear to be at once Ballardian and Sellarsian. Then you finish the book and you seem to be a character in a novel the two of them conspired to write. And your perception of the world is never the same again.–McKenzie Wark, author of A Hacker Manifesto, Gamer Theory, and Telesthesia
This is a book of critical epistemology, of questioning what it is we know, what it is we can know, about and through literary texts. The refracted fluorescence of our own critical passions and compulsions visits us outlandishly, like lights in the sky.–Brendan Gillott
Applied Ballardianism is an astonishing book, part fictionalized hallucinatory memoir, part essential Ballard primer, all written in the style of the great man himself. Whether you're new to J.G. Ballard or a lifelong fan, this is a thrilling read, cut through with equal parts black humor, cultural insight, and existential horror. ―Tim Maughan
An intensely worked and engaged encounter. I admired the persistence, “honesty,” and elective madness. The storms carried me through, all the way. ―Iain Sinclair
Simon Sellars: That list is an interesting exercise, but I don’t feel a part of any genre. Most people see Applied Ballardianism as a hybrid work in that it combines theoretical elements with a fictional format, but even that’s not quite accurate. The subtitle is ‘Memoir from a Parallel Universe’ and I do see it as the story of my life at a certain moment in time, when I’d returned to my PhD on Ballard after a ten-year absence and was struggling to complete it. The apocalyptic and science fictional elements have a basis in reality – they’re psychologically true to my imagination and the way I viewed the world during that time. And the theoretical elements bubble to the surface, no matter how nonsensical, as the protagonist, my alter ego, tries to make sense of his life as a failed academic and stalker of the object of his desire: J.G. Ballard.
If people claim theory-fiction as a genre of the moment, then perhaps that’s because everyone is so bored with critical theory now. Theory has failed to make sense of a world that has become so extreme and chaotic at every turn. But we retain the primal urge to make order from chaos, to root seismic cultural changes in a comforting theoretical framework. Maybe that’s why theory has become unstable, frayed at the edges, spliced with other forms. - Simon Sellars
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“Crash changed my life,” writes Simon Sellars. The co-editor of Extreme Metaphors (2012), a collection of JG Ballard interviews, Sellars is a self-confessed obsessive, a “Ballardian”. But Applied Ballardianism is no dry scholarly study of the bard of Shepperton. This brilliantly written genre mashup is ostensibly a memoir of the author’s obsession and his attempt to write a doctoral thesis on his idol.
Overwhelmed by self-loathing and disillusioned by academia (“my PhD was nothing more than a set of rusted and broken callipers for a crippled mind”), he plunges headlong into Ballardian “inner space”, a disturbing mirror world where reality and dream merge. He travels to Tangier to find William Burroughs’s “Interzone”, has close encounters with UFOs, searches for the spirit world in Japan, works as a gonzo travel writer island-hopping in the Pacific, and returns to his hometown Melbourne, (“built on the rubble of autogeddon”) where he prowls the freeways with a sinister Ballardian figure.
The thesis remains unwritten. Instead we have Applied Ballardianism – a wonderfully original mix of cultural theory, literary exegesis, travelogue and psychopathological memoir. As Ballard said, “Dangerous bends ahead. Slow down.” - PD Smithhttps://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/aug/24/applied-ballardianism-by-simon-sellars-jg-ballard
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 Augé, 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.
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. - Lyle Hopwood
Our autocatalytic world renders the tropes of classical science-fiction obsolete. Romantic fabulation, deployed prior to the space race and the globalization of telecommunications, breaks down when confronted by a technoscientific paradigm no longer operating at the limit of an extrinsic unknown. The explosion of information technology has accelerated our obsessive desire to collocate, index, order, and tag every coordinate across every scale of the planet and cosmos, blurring of the traditional distinction between reality and imagination: “when there is no more virgin ground left to the imagination, when the map covers all the territory, something like the reality principle disappears.”
In the wake of this unmooring, British writer J.G. Ballard steered science-fiction away from the fanciful explorations of his predecessors and toward an area much more potent and transgressive. Instead of moving outwardly toward the stars, Ballard’s fictions crashed back onto Earth, disintegrating into claustrophobic expeditions through “inner space,” a zone where the sanctity of sober perception is defiled by the bleeding-in of apocalyptic hallucination and perverted sexual fantasy. These works occupied what Ballard claimed was “the more serious fringe of science fiction,” in which “dream and reality become fused together, each retaining its own distinctive quality and yet in some way assuming the role of its opposite, and where by an undeniable logic black simultaneously becomes white.” In inner space, so-called reality exists as only one of many in an amalgamation of competing fictions, a multiverse in which to question one’s sanity is to miss the point entirely.
A lifelong obsession with Ballard’s peculiar explorations of terrestrial existence lead to Simon Sellars’s imagined interdimensional connection with the author, a sacred bond that would never be formally christened save for one graceless photograph taken at a London Q&A. The first in UK publisher Urbanomic’s new series “K-Pulp: Adventures in Theory-Fiction,” the Australian Sellars’s new genre-curious book Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe is a series of descents “into the mirror world,” a travelogue in which all roads lead to Ballard. Imprisoned within the mad Ballardian universe of his own making, the banality of mass media appears more alien than the most egregious of speculative fantasy. Half pulp-inflected autofiction, half maniacal lit crit, the book chronicles Sellars’s lifelong, brainsick obsession with an author and his prophetic visions of mass spiritual atrophy.
What began in 1996 as Sellars’s PhD dissertation on Ballard ends more than twenty years later as a psychopathological fever dream through the spatiotemporal chaos of late capitalism. The story begins with Sellars’s ham-fisted forays in academia, where he synthesizes a naive Ballardian hagiography with an attempt to exceed cyberpunk cliché. Firmly scholarship-agnostic from the start, Sellars’s fringe paranormal interests consistently lead him into clashes with the more orthodox members of his field. After inadvertently starting a riot at a sci-fi conference in Liverpool (he declares the death of the genre to a crowd of sheepish devotees), Sellars flees the academy, a triumphant exit fueled by humiliation and crippling self-doubt. The spiral downwards leads Sellars through Spanish paramilitary hacktivists, back-alley steampunk derelicts, and a UFO sighting in the You Yangs Mountain range.
Back in civilian life, dissatisfied with his slowly putrefying relationship, Sellars quits his menial administrative job and rushes to northern Japan after a series of tsunamis strike the region. Once there, after encountering the mythical oddities of disaster-stricken Tohoku, Sellars can’t help but imagine himself as one of Ballard’s hurtling anti-heroes, franticly chasing carnage like Travers in The Atrocity Exhibition or Vaughan in Crash. Even in northernmost Honshu, far from the dusty labyrinths of doctoral research, Sellars is unable to shake his incorrigible demigod: “For some reason, I thought of Ballard. Despite everything, he refused to leave me and on this occasion even appeared to issue a warning.”
Sellars next leverages a written account of his tsunami-chase to land a job as a travel writer. This “quintessential Ballardian profession” allows him to visit various scenes in a parallel Ballardosphere, from close encounters in Den Haag to thermonuclear testing sites in the Northern Mariana Islands.
Punctuated by broadcasts from Andrei Tarkovsky’s bizarre diaries, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythology, and Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archaeology, a peculiarly Ballardian paranoia penetrates Sellars’s psyche throughout every adventure. In the author’s world, the most ordinary of events are infused with the most coded of meanings—strange ciphers that that only he can disentangle. As the distance between dreams and out-of-body experiences compresses, Sellars’s dire peregrinations through inner space drive him to a lifestyle he calls “Applied Ballardianism.”
In a recent online discussion with the publisher that occurred simultaneously across several social media platforms, Sellars recalled that many of the book’s sentences on Ballard’s early works survive untouched from early drafts of his thesis. Serving as supplementary guides, these literary excavations thread his intimate narrative together with Ballard’s semiurgy of suburban sprawls, barren forecourts, boiling interstates, time anomalies, meaningful coincidences.
Years spent sleeplessly trawling the Internet has allowed Sellars to accumulate a familiarity with some of the more bewildering impulses of human nature. Of particular interest to him is the real-world phenomenon of “micronations,” where an individual or community declares their bedroom or isolated plot of land a separate country. Sellars finds Ballard’s last quartet of novels illuminative of micronationalist psychology. For example, in Ballard’s final novel Kingdom Come, a London suburb’s beloved Metro Centre shopping mall is overtaken by a phrenetic band of guerilla patrons. The mall becomes their republic, as Ballard demonstrates that the ambient dread accompanying consumer-cultural logic leads to a stylized brand of neo-fascism.
Kingdom Come embodies the obverse of a consistent, complementary Ballardian theme, wherein a character retreats into the safe haven of his own mind to escape an unpredictable world. In Ballard’s short story “The Enormous Space,” the protagonist, Ballantyne, allows his delusions to consume him after seceding into his home. He seeks refuge in his private psychosis, the only shelter from an infinitely more chaotic outside. Sellars sympathizes with both kinds of psycho-spatial sovereigns in his book, embodying both roles. He plunges headlong into reckless micronationalist violence during shameful streetside brawls. He becomes the dignified psychotic while locating another dimension through Ballard’s similes. And yet, despite his better judgement, both positions inevitably bring him into a more intimate relationship with his ill-chosen mentor. Applied Ballardianism is a book about our private islands, inexplicably shored by the texts that never leave us. - Michael Eby brooklynrail.org/2018/11/books/Simon-SellarssApplied-Ballardianism-Memoir-from-a-Parallel-Universe
Ballardian times. In Mark Fisher’s books, Capitalist Realism and Ghosts of My Life, and in Simon Reynolds’ Retromania, it is proposed that late capitalism has exhausted the future. For the last examples of meaningful cultural theory concerning the future, we must return to the late 90s and stand-out texts such as Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun (although we might consider The Matrix, too, with its "peak of human civilisation" stuck in 1999). For much of the mainstream, and as a more-or-less general description of the 21st century’s globalised culture, the future has dissolved into an ineffable present, and the past has become a theme park – as in Stranger Things. And the most curious thing: none of this is surprising, because forty years ago J.G. Ballard made that idea the core of his work. At first, he did it in a catastrophic or post-apocalyptic way (as in his early novels The Drowned World, The Drought and The Crystal World), but soon even that genre-bound appeal to a possible future was unnecessary as his catastrophes became confined to the present or some faintly parallel world – like the short stories in his Vermilion Sands collection.
A new online work by Simon Sellars of Ballardian fame, which I assume will eventually be a published work in book form is coming to fruition that seems to fit that same gambit for our own time in comic relief and scholarly pastiche and parody; or, if not, then a work in process published on Applied Ballardianism. Simon Sellars is well known for his Ballardian site which gave us up to date interviews, critiques, exposes, fiction, and news, etc. on the late J.G. Ballard. The new site seems to take it a step further by presenting a pseudo-scholarly work and theory on Ballard in a fictionalize form and space of imaginal possibility.
In the section of the site under About we are introduced to a strange figure in the personage of a man (whose anonymity remains, his name is never disclosed) one who as the pseudo-scholar Dr Ricardo Battista, School of Specialisation in Cryogenics, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Hartwell University, Melbourne, Australia tells us left a work on J.G. Ballard named: Applied Ballardianism: A Theory of Nothing.
The said Dr Ricardo Battista as academic bore presents the figure of the anonymous theoretician as a mad man, an apophenic-schizophrenic whose ruminations in the first-person singular seem more like the conspiracist ravings of a fringe lunatic. As Battista describes it “‘Apophenia’, broadly speaking, describes a schizotypal cognitive condition—the mental state of perceiving patterns in meaningless, random and unrelated data. William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition brought apophenia to public attention.” The man who is never named once worked for the Dr as a research assistant. It was at that time he began to notice the subject’s – as he terms him – peculiarities,
In the final installment, or the latest one? —we meet a paranoid tripster who enters the author’s life, a nurse masked bandit of psychic traumas. Our author, who seems in this place to be in Melbourne, Australia awakens from his strange journey like a fragmented Picasso painting, his “face was a bloody mess. My nose had been smashed to the side like a Picasso painting, my left ear was sliced almost in two and the lower half of my upper front teeth had sheared away.”
Like our own fragmented lives we are pitched into this tome without support or anchor, wandering through vignettes of a life that may or may not resemble actuality, but are assured to fit the world of our dark wastelands across a global disaster zone that has yet to find its apocalyptic finish. In the end maybe there is no end, only the fragments of a journey without beginning or end, a clock-work periodical of theory-fictions that dribble out of the madness of our age, encyclicals to the dementia and paranoia of our apophatic times. - socialecologies.wordpress.com/tag/simon-sellars/
There are not many authors who have published over twenty books of which I own and have read all of them. J G Ballard is one. I have discovered quite a few Ballard-obsessives in my readings and Simon Sellars is clearly one.
It has been suggested that this book is an example of Theory-Fiction. It clearly meets the definition I coined in the previous link for Theory-Fiction. So a book on Ballard and a new type of fiction, how could I resist?
Whatever else this book may be, it is clearly a (semi-)autobiographical novel. We follow the early activities of a man who clearly resembles or, indeed, is Simon Sellars. He starts off with his account of growing up with the Internet, mocking those who did not really understand it. He then attacks the gaggle of Californian cyberhippies [who] had come to dominate cyberculture. He claims to be a cyberwarrior and starts taking weird pills. This is all straightforward stuff, with many others feeling the same way.
We go on to follow his life. Indeed, this may be theory-fiction; it is also a Bildungsroman. He follows the career path of other young people: casual jobs, drugs and a loss of direction. He reads a magazine in the warehouse where he works, which includes an interview with Ballard. It open his eyes to the world around him. The future is going to be boring,’ he announced. ‘The suburbanisation of the planet will continue, and the suburbanisation of the soul will follow soon after.
Much of the rest of the book follows both his life and career, which is full of ups and downs, but, more particularly, how the Ballardian view of the universe coincides both with his own life and how it explains the world around him. We see this almost immediately. - The Modern Novel
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One Small Node Of Reality Left: Applied Ballardianism (interview @ The Quietus )
ABCcru: Applied Ballardianism and Accelerationism
The first chapter-title gets us where we’re going, a place where we’ve already been for some time: ‘PSYCHIC COMBAT’. Net-induced dreams, violent urges, weird politics. A fast-decaying line between ‘I’ and ‘it’. It’s quite the welcome. And we all know who to blame, who it was that predicted the arrival: ‘Crash changed my life by torching everything that came before’. J.G. Ballard is perhaps the most-read prophet of the twenty-first century; his work has predictive capacities that put Nostradamus, Marx and The Matrix to shame. He’s up there with Guy Debord, in my view, as an indispensable ‘Guide to the Millennium’ that we’re still painfully entering. Whole swathes of the contemporary media landscape are unimaginable without his shaping hand. The word ‘Ballardian’ might (should) soon replace ‘Orwellian’ as the go-to handle for the situation in which modernity finds itself. His mark on fiction is immense. He saved sci-fi from Star Wars.
For all this, there’s still a surprising lack of critical work on Ballard. It’s not entirely clear that Simon Sellars’ Applied Ballardianism answers to this lack, or even that it intends to. Sellars is the co-editor of 2012’s Extreme Metaphors, a collection of interviews with Ballard which represents one of the most significant and useful resources for Ballard scholars and enthusiasts. In that book, a small representation of the novelist’s many recorded conversations with scholars, fans and journalists, Ballard’s socio-psychological theories and reflections on the state of the day’s fiction are laid out as a guide for the perplexed (or the merely curious). Extreme Metaphors is a ‘resource’ in exactly this sense – go in, dig around, extract what seems useful. In this, it stands in some contrast to the book at hand, which takes a rather more immersed and live-action approach to Ballard’s views.
Sellars has also published academic and journalistic work on Ballard and allied issues – architecture, trash culture, digital catastrophe – and he’s a co-author of Micronations: The Lonely Planet Guide to Home-Made Nations (of which more later). Applied Ballardianism doesn’t sit quite comfortably with any of these bodies of work. Somewhere between a cultural-studies exposition and a semi-autobiographical novel, the book combines a delusive map of literary academia with fugue-ish travelogues and cynical reflections on the author’s native Australia. These various territories are contained within the virtual circumference of the Ballardosphere, an unsteady edifice of speculation, insight and paranoiac fantasy into which Sellars entered in the course of studying for a PhD on Ballard’s work. This isn’t exactly a scholarly book, then, a fact that its subtitle Memoir from a Parallel Universe might already suggest – though it occasionally does attempt to be one.
Applied Ballardianism begins, and fitfully continues, as a book about writing a PhD thesis, from first enthusiasms to ultimate failures: ‘I can trace my decline. That is one of the bittersweet benefits of survival’. A dropout and waster, fighting ‘an internal war’, Sellars (or ‘Sellars’) bounces between uninspiring jobs and pours his free time into the pallid fervour of the early Nineties internet, as the Web went WorldWide and its denizens took on the name ‘cyberpunk’. The point of entry here was William Gibson’s seminal novel Neuromancer, in which fraying and disturbed cyborg-doll-people jack into the mainframe of a barely-human legacy capitalism, high on a cocktail of stims, sushi and violence, in an attempt to steal, or destroy, or at least meet something powerful and intelligent called Wintermute. They move through a kaleidoscopic favela of cyberspace, prosthetics and failed states, reversed Satans rocketing into a war against Babylon. Sellars’ attempt to graft this aesthetic onto his own life was, by his admission, unsuccessful. Plagued with ‘Information Fatigue Syndrome’, caught in a semi-bogus ennui, he turns to Ballard, and more specifically to Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash: ‘Desperate to break free of my inexplicable stupor, I succumbed to Crash’s spell.’
The basic mode of Applied Ballardianism is set from this point on. The ‘inner space’ of Ballard’s fictive psychopaths is to be mapped onto the actual space of the world; the tiny novelistic tweaks he makes to the near-future are to be read as acts of almost vatic cultural diagnosis. Indeed, Sellars implies, Ballard’s reach is so broad that it could almost be synonymous with (post?-)modernity itself. Towards the end of the book he dreams of creating
Ballard is deleting Baudrillard, even as his writing is defining, detailing and approving the ‘Baudrillardian’ ethic. It’s a coincidence, of course, that the Englishman’s name lettristically surrounds and abbreviates the Frenchman’s – but the coincidence is itself the most Ballardian of occurrences. The truth is always stranger than the theory.
Abandoning (or abandoned by) the ‘dismal jargon’ of the poststructuralist academy, Sellars instead pitches himself into a hallucinogenic realm of hunch and conspiracy, one where the themes of Ballard’s novels find uncanny and often unhinged confirmation at the intersection of his crumbling life and his jumbled mind. The defining critical motive of Applied Ballardianism is located in its (well-founded) claim that Ballard’s writing proposes a conspiracist epistemology, where no chain of happenstance can avoid being reinterpreted as a sinister pattern. The algorithmic governance of society fuses with chemtrails and global-warming hoaxers: ‘Crash is concerned with the logic of the accident, using the mechanism of ambivalence to record a vision of humanity simultaneously enthralled and destroyed by its technological environment’. Enthrallment seems apposite here – one of the things the present book narrates is its author’s miserable servitude to Ballard, or at least to his fantasised version of Ballard. Throughout his travels Sellars is tortured by an obsessive desire to see the Ballard in everything, and that desire tails him in the guise of a cavalcade of oddballs, hacks, criminals and questionable ‘experts’. There are hauntings by UFOs, encounters with Japanese psychics, explorations of Lovecraftian ruins. The ‘real’ reality in which Sellars labours to complete (or escape) his studies insists on melting away into a cacophony of hyperlinked suspicions and contrary advice. This generalised weirdness is itself straight out of Ballard, as Sellars notes: ‘It is not Crash that is science fiction but the world.’
The science-fictionality of Applied Ballardianism shares much with that of its textual master. In Ballard, the fictional world is the same as the real world except for everywhere it isn’t, and these tiny clinamina, usually found in upgrades to social rather than material technologies – self-sustaining high-rises, secessionist shopping-centres – are hard to square with the lasers-and-lightspeed account of sci-fi that’s most familiar to a cinema-going audience. Ballard himself had a complex relationship with science fiction, and in certain senses his work seems outside of the genre’s ambit. Of course, the lack of warpgates and extraterrestrials isn’t much to the point. In his 1984 sci-fi study Starboard Wine, Samuel R. Delaney proposes that one can best think of genre not as a function of ‘content’ but rather of what he terms ‘reading protocols’. (This is a concept he seems to have taken from Jacques Derrida’s Positions: ‘reading is transformational […] But this transformation cannot be executed however one wishes. It requires protocols of reading.’) Such protocols are instructions for ‘how to read’ a given text; they translate an as-yet-undetermined and highly flexible text into a particular useable sense. Delaney’s example of such a protocol is the sentence ‘Her world exploded’, which has a rather different meaning under the rule of a sci-fi protocol than it does under that of a romance. This is to say that in Ballard, it is something like radical literalness that makes the work science-fiction: the apartment-block in High Rise is not a figure for the Tower of Babel, the trans-Saharan river unleashed in The Day of Creation is not some parallel of Eden. These fictions are real, and they turn our world into something rich, and strange, and increasingly recognisable. For Sellars, the protocol is Ballard himself, an arterial voice infiltrating everything around him and bearing it away. So here we are: ‘Earth – the one true alien planet.’
But it’s the endless potential for anonymity and repetition that he found most compelling, and most telling with regard to the direction of travel: ‘The future is going to be boring. […] The suburbanisation of the planet will continue, and the suburbanisation of the soul will follow soon thereafter.’ In the 1980 novel The Unlimited Dream Country, Ballard reworks Shepperton as an impregnable and inescapable field of force wrought around the mysterious person of the suicidal pilot Blake, who crashes a light aircraft into the nearby Thames only to emerge gifted with the power of flight and an ability to transform himself into animals at will. Unable to leave the suburbs, Blake builds a cult around himself, messiah of his tiny realm. The dormitory town becomes a kingdom of dreams, separated from the international hustle of the nearby city.
Sellars sees in Ballard a dual motion, the desire both to separate oneself from the interlocking non-places of the modern world and to escape into them, to live as a reckless castaway in a world of one’s own making. For Sellars himself, this manifests as a restless tracking across the globe: Dutch techno clubs, Pacific island dependencies with their ‘volatile nationalisms’, faded English seaside towns. He scores a job as a travel writer for a guidebook company, only to find that ‘the job involves gathering facts and figures and updating perishable information’, and not much else. In his search for an outside to the whirling spectacle of the Ballardosphere, Sellars only confirms Ballard’s charge that tourism is the ‘the great soporific’: the deepest layer of a global hallucination.
The other option is retreat, the occupation of a particularism so delirious that it reaches a kind of psychic escape-velocity. Here, Sellars’ interest in micronations comes into play. He obsesses over these ‘heterotopias’, zones of exception in which the usual rules are thought (or imagined) not to apply. He hopes to find something like that which is presented in Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, a quasi-spiritual journey to the sanctum of inner space. But what he finds instead is asinine violence and suspicious indifference, a set of reactionary fantasies acted out by farmers declaring themselves princes, and pirate-radio DJs self-crowned as monarchs of abandoned military installations. The isolation that Ballard depicts in Concrete Island is a function not of freedom but of abandonment; its upshot is confusion and despair. Sellars’ central text for this insight is Ballard’s short story ‘My Dream of Flying to Wake Island’ (a personal favourite of mine as well), in which an ex-astronaut called Melville attempts to escape the trauma and humiliation of a mental breakdown which occurred aboard his space station and was broadcast live to a sickly-fascinated global audience. Banished to the coastal home of his psychotherapist for intensive treatment, Melville fills his time on the beach, exhuming the fuselage of a World War II fighter plane. Beset with flashbacks as he sits in the ruined cockpit, thumbing fetishised photos of Wake Island, he plots to repair the plane and escape to the lonely Pacific atoll. As his psychosis deepens, this imagined island utopia takes over; the actual details of his life shimmer and fluctuate: ‘At times he was certain that his entire memory of having trained as an astronaut was a fantasy, part of some complex delusional system, an extreme metaphor of his real ambition.’ For Sellars too, the initiation of the PhD project turns into something delusive and obscurely motivated; not a desire to explain or understand Ballard’s writing, but rather to reveal and rework himself though it, to strand himself on its distant shores.
This is a book of critical epistemology, of questioning what it is we know, what it is we can know, about and through literary texts. The refracted fluorescence of our own critical passions and compulsions visits us outlandishly, like lights in the sky.
“In another life, I might have joined a radical church, a star cult. In this one, I attempted a PhD.”
To engage thoughtfully with the work and life of science fiction*-and-literary-and-postmodernist author J.G. Ballard is, perhaps, to risk transforming oneself into a J.G. Ballard protagonist who must struggle through a J.G. Ballard world without the benefit of J.G. Ballard constructing the plot of his or her trajectory. Such is the lesson of Applied Ballardism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe, Simon Sellars’ much-anticipated exploration of how a greatly admired author can colonize a person’s imagination to an extent that borders on the dangerous.
Written as an unflinching and self-critical semi-fictional autobiography — Sellars’ account and narrative voice reminded me more than a little of Dostoevsky’s self-hating narrator in Notes from the Underground even though it’s over a decade since I read that — as well as a story of a man afflicted with symptoms of a disease we don’t yet have a name for, or the side-effects of a treatment we don’t yet have in our particular universe, Applied Ballardism is bookended with accounts of Sellars’ attempts to become a credentialed scholar specializing in J.G. Ballard’s life and work. As usual, his failures are more interesting than his successes, as Sellars comes to grips with what it really means to live in a world that seems hell-bent on fulfilling every prophetic scrap of J.G. Ballard’s fiction simultaneously.
For those unfamiliar with Ballard (I dread having here to even try to encapsulate what his work is like, but at least am comforted by the fact that the people who know more about him than I do, on the whole, are not the types to be abusive jerks about it. Ballardians are cool people.), he started out in the 1960s writing what are usually called “Elemental Apocalypse” fiction — several short novels exploring different ways in which human civilization might end and how an ordinary schmoe, interested and intelligent but largely passive, might experience them. Works like The Drowned World (my personal favorite from this period), The Crystal World, The Wind From Nowhere and The Drought (aka The Burning World), along with an early run of truly imaginative and excellent short stories, earned Ballard an early reputation as a potential master of the genre, and today he is usually accounted as same even though most of his later work has a debatable place within it (for more on this issue, check out D. Harlan Wilson’s volume on Ballard in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction collection).*
Ballard himself encapsulated his relationship to science fiction in his 2008 autobiography Miracles of Life, in which he said he’d originally been drawn to science fiction because it examined the trend towards “politics conducted as a branch of advertising.” Sellars points out that this arresting phrase, which has only become more reflective of reality as time has moved on, first appeared in 1973, in Ballard’s introduction to one of his most famous novels, Crash.**
It’s with Ballard’s later work, though, that Sellars comes mostly to grips. Most prominently, the controversial Crash (made into a film by Stephen Soderbergh and David Cronenberg) and The Atrocity Exhibition (which I still consider one of the worst books that I’ve ever read twice, and one of the best books that I’ve ever screamed at and wanted to throw against a wall) inhabit his and his reader’s thoughts as Sellars proceeds through a failed PhD, a nightmarish turn as a presenter at conferences-cum-explorer of Europe’s experiment with cyberpunk chic in the 1990s, a turn as his English teacher girlfriend’s assistant in Japan, a moderately successful but ultimately unsatisfying career as a travel writer, and an uncertain participant in the odd paranormal experience or two.
Where for me the book really gets going is in its second half, roughly, in which our hero’s publisher has put him in charge of covering the North Pacific for its updated travel guides. The region is still studded with detritus, both physical and cultural, from World War II, and it is in exploring these islands that he comes most intimately close to what J.G. Ballard always pointed to as the formative experience of his life, in which the author-to-be (as depicted in the novel and film of Empire of the Sun) essentially grew up in and around a prison camp in Shanghai where the Japanese kept captured expatriates like Ballard’s family during the War. Images from Ballard’s and Sellars’ experiences echo each other in complex and (of course) disturbing ways as Sellars explores what the war did to these islands, especially as regards Japan’s relationship to them. I kind of want to hunt up the “real” Sellars’ Lonely Planet guidebooks now, after this interlude.
It’s a struggle for all of us to cope with what our species has made of the world even as we are all still driven by the impulses and instincts of brains and nervous systems that evolved to cope with the world as it was before we ruled and ruined it. Every change we have made to it — Ballard famously uses architecture as the lens through which to examine this, and Sellars extends this work admirably throughout Applied Ballardianism — has changed us, but not necessarily in ways that improve our fitness to live with what we have done. Thus we are a society of paranoiacs, drifters, and denialists, hyper-aware of our images, of how we are perceived, even as we rage against being judged solely on appearances as compared with the impossible perfection projected by mass media. Ballard was telling us about this over and over, in more or less (usually less) palatable fictions, and Sellars, bouncing as he does between the strictly factual and the imagined-but-still-grounded fantastical, firmly drives the message home, in the process reminding us that science fiction — that literature — isn’t for sissies, even as he rails against what has become of the genre we at Skiffy and Fanty dearly love:
In the face of this cultural tidal wave, what is science fiction? Does it matter anymore? Does the genre matter? What possible purpose could be served by marking its boundaries if the only alien planet is Earth. Reality has hemorrhaged uncontrollably, rendering genre policing a pointless pursuit, the preserve of those unwilling or unable to confront the fluidity of a phenomenon that threatens to erase us at the same time as it promises to liberate.By contrast, Sellars continues, novels like Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition confirm that “we all speak science fiction.” Even those who have never picked up an Asimov, a Heinlein, a Clarke, a Vonnegut novel know the lingo, think in its terms.
As I finished the book, I became increasingly curious about something I can never directly know. How would someone who decided to read Applied Ballardianism before any of Ballard’s own work come to apprehend that work? Could it be a good preparation for Ballard’s idiosyncracies and obsessions, or would it create too strong a set of pre-conceptions? If any of you readers of Skiffy and Fanty choose to take this route, I’m eager to hear your thoughts on the matter.
Regardless, whether you’re already a Ballardian or someone who is just thinking maybe they should check out the man’s work someday, Applied Ballardianism should be on your radar. And in your library.
*I, for one, agree with Wilson et al that all of Ballard’s work can be accounted as science fiction because “the world has become science fiction.”
**A book that many argue marks Ballard’s departure from the genre, perhaps for good, but just as many view as entirely science fictional in its exploration of sexual pathology, inner-space, and how both are colonized by the automobile and its overwhelming attendant infrastructure — and what happens to both when that and human bodies collide. I cannot opine on this. Crash is very likely the one Ballard novel that I will never, ever read (though I have seen the film adaptation); it hits way too close to home for me. I spent a decade working as a night shift emergency services dispatcher for a statewide agency responsible for a vast swath of territory, simultaneously taking phone calls from panicked, injured crash victims so distraught and confused that they didn’t know where they were or what precisely had happened, and struggling via radio to coordinate the emergency response needed to give them the assistance they were begging me for (I’ve even listened to people die). The experience has left me with a ruined nervous system and a set of phobias most find comic: though I know intellectually that automobile crashes are rare occurrences in most individuals’ lives, I think of them as constant ones that mean every car trip, even just a few blocks to the store, puts me at severe risk of screeching, crushing, hemorrhaging injury or death. I have to do special breathing exercises before I get behind the wheel or even sit in the passenger’s seat to this day. I’m probably the only person you’ll meet who is more afraid of travel by car than of flying, falling or public speaking. So no, I’ll pass on Crash. -
Applied Ballardianism is an almost apocalyptic novel, occupied by paranoiacs, uncaring machines, technological ghosts, dream realities, micronations, and mysterious thugs. The unnamed protagonist (who we might assume is the author himself due to the book’s subtitle, Memoir From a Parallel Universe) lives in a world haunted by the life and work of J.G. Ballard. Applied Ballardianism walks the line between theory and fiction. Sellars writes with the understanding that anything that happens to him can be understood through what Ballard has written. The author becomes the prophet, the writer of holy writ. His novels and short stories become sacred tomes, their contents divine.
The Ballardian of Sellars’ novel exists in a reality fragmented by the limitations of the lens through which it is viewed. The world loses its tactility, it becomes an accumulated mass of footnotes and figures. Each moment, the means of returning the mind to Ballard, of navigating a loose series of connections until the protagonist can find this sense of familiarity. He is not lured into these surrealities, so much as he is desperate to find them. In scenes like his trip to the Dubai airport—where he finds himself unable to enter the country and, rather than accepting defeat and returning to the mundanity of his everyday life, takes it upon himself to reshape the airport into a temporal anomaly. His surroundings become a phantasmagorical world, shaped by Chris Marker’s film of the same setting. We could go so far as to say that the Dubai airport of Applied Ballardianism is the same Dubai airport of Stopover In Dubai (Chris Marker, 2011). It is a slow and uneventful space, subject to the uninterested—even bored—tools of surveillance. But, where Stopover In Dubai uses these tools to undercut the drama of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh’s assassination, Applied Ballardianism begs for these tools to turn his reality cinematic. The Ballardian desperately searches for a means of fictionalizing his own existence. He searches for ways to imbue his reality with the theoretical implications of Marker’s film. He does not want to reference other work, so much as he wants to inhabit it. “She sat down two rows ahead of me. / She hadn’t seen me. / She couldn’t see me.”
Waiting at the airport, he finds himself concerned with who might be watching him. A conspiratorial form takes shape. Fiction makes every aspect of reality purposeful. Every stranger knows one another, every location is tied together with the same symbols. Rather than referencing the superficial qualities of a scene, Sellars utilizes these references as a kind of semiotic infrastructure. The unending references to Ballard become the webbing that connects each new location, each new moment in time. Applied Ballardianism, more than most, is built out of these intricate references, where inspirations are not only mentioned, but woven into the novel’s structure and vocabulary. And in this regard, Ballard and Marker are not only talked about, but they are emulated as well. Flickering between pastiche and collage. The reference becomes the novel. The world becomes violently and endlessly interconnected.
The Ballardian speaks with distant and ghostly figures in Japan, he’s followed by children in Tangiers, beat to hell by thugs (multiple times), and all along the way he speaks with a variety of people, all repeating the same short phrase: “Tune into the signal.” Often, Applied Ballardianism takes the form of a kind of hallucinatory travelogue. Where trips through Europe and Asia are detailed with memories of fugue states and strange encounters more than tourist spots and affordable restaurants. Sellars looks for mutations and distortions in the international simulacra. Searching for informants knowledgeable on the occult branches of academia he has found himself operating within.
And throughout this search, Applied Ballardianism’s desires as an erotic text become increasingly prevalent. There is a kind of perversion at work here. In the same way that Ballard’s Crash engenders the car collision as a moment of heightened sexuality, Sellars finds himself caught in the allure of these liminal spaces scattered across the globe. The hallucinatory travelogue becomes a linguistic tool. It converts these constant references to Ballard (and his work) into this previously mentioned semiotic infrastructure. The ghostly figures in Japan become occult cultural theorists. “Rather than paranormality, the dislocated realities endured by [Ballard’s] characters were merely the result of dissociative fugue states.” Wanderings through foreign spaces become a search for meaning and interconnectivity. In a scene towards the end of the novel, we listen in on a conversation between the narrator and his PhD supervisor. Flipping through pages of various novels and short stories, the narrator says, “Connections can arise at any point, wormholes into subordinate universes… I have learned how to see—everything is connected to everything else.” The supervisor looks on exhaustedly and dismisses the thought. Simultaneously, we realize that witnessing the vast interconnectivity of this semiotic infrastructure comes at the cost of the accessibility we have to our mundane reality.
This is where the car crash happens. This is where we enter the fugue state. Ballard invades your thoughts and the semiotic infrastructure becomes visible. “Tune into the signal.” You begin to see every way that Sellars has revised our reality into something that is deeply and endlessly connected. Each new figure is an agent of the greater Ballardian world. “Tune into the signal.” There are messages traveling overhead. You’ll never know they’re there until they find you. And when they do, you’ll no longer be able to avoid them. They’ll follow you wherever you go, leading you into the fugue state, into self-destructive scenes, and eccentric conversations. The signal turns the simulacra into mush. The facade is coated in dust and grime. Cracks become unbearably noticeable. The draw towards paranoia and occult mysteries becomes intense and erotic. The car crash happens again, only now you’ve done it on purpose. You’ve pulled yourself back into the fugue state. You’ve begun to search for the signal on your own. Tuning into CCTV feeds online and following threatening figures into foreign spaces.
And in these moments we are able to see what Sellars has done. He has taken Ballard and converted him into the subject of his own work. He has become Crash’s crash, the entryway into liminal space. And here might be where we find the most impressive moments of Applied Ballardianism. Rather than using cultural theory to inform his fiction as Ballard has, Sellars fictionalizes the theoretical apparatus itself. Plot is replaced with praxis, analysis, conclusions. The Ballardian’s conversation with his supervisor shifts from falling action to an elaboration on research methods. The narrative of Applied Ballardianism is built from the formation and development of the novel’s titular branch of theory.
Everything is Ballard. Every string connecting every picture. Every moment in time. Every third word in every third sentence. Theory becomes arduous and mystical. Conclusions are written before hypotheses. The narrator does not ask himself whether something connects to Ballard, he finds the means by which it must. And this is what Sellars has done so well. He has created a perverse legitimacy in these moments, and curated these analyses so well that you might begin to believe them, that everything connects back to the cult science fiction author himself. And all this has come to only accentuates the ghostly and subversive hyper-realities hidden all around us in plain sight. Sellars’ novel reveals the strings behind the curtain, everything that they’re connected to, and all of the paths that they have taken. - Mike Corrao
Hermitix - Applied Ballardianism with Simon Sellars