Two Questions Concerning Applied Ballardianism

RM: Immediately in The Drowned World, you have the fictional theory of ‘neuronics’ playing a really important role. You have to buy into that theoretical position to be compelled by the story. This is what theory fiction means to me. It’s not a genre but more a question, or even a problem: in what different ways can the two cross over, and in what ways to they need each other?[1]

Two questions come to mind when discussing the above quote by Robin Mackay, itself a response to Simon Sellars’s Applied Ballardianism (which has dethroned Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia as the archetypal “theory-fiction” text). 1) What is Ballard’s role in the development of this “question” of theory-fiction? And 2) What does theory-fiction mean in relation to this text?

First of all, Ballard is responsible (directly and indirectly) for many of the concepts that were incorporated and built upon in the earliest ruminations on theory-fiction. I am here thinking of Mark Fisher’s Flatline Constructs, which places Ballard in a rhizome connecting him to Baudrillard, McLuhan, Freud, William Gibson, “Deleuze-Guattari” and others. Central to both Fisher and Sellars’s understandings of theory-fiction is Ballard’s characterisation of inner space, as a Spinozistic interpretation of bodies as capable of both affecting and being affected. As sites of pure Event, bodies are inseparable from the landscapes they inhabit, and so Ballard’s “inner” is in fact a folding-out onto “outer” ground; a cybernetics, or, more precisely, a geo-traumatics.  In The Drowned World, we see the submerged landscape producing psychological and physiological symptoms within the bodies it contains; in The Atrocity Exhibition, the same kinds of changes are apparent, though this time, they are brought about via immersion within the “media landscape”. Ballard conceives of mediatization as a  generalisation of trauma, evoked through the repetition of violent and unprecedented images, and for which the body experiences schizophrenic breakdown and overspill of affect. Ballard’s T- character(s) in The Atrocity Exhibition attempt a form of “catastrophe management” through repetition and re-enactment of televised events: the Kennedy assassination, the Monroe car crash, and so on. These rituals are simultaneously themselves responses to the traumas brought on through mediatization, attempts (by Ballard and his characters) to represent these events and their associated affects as the only legitimate and rational response, and a continuation of the logic of breakdown – a positive experiencing of the trauma mode as a deterriorialization, leading to inorganic breakthrough.[2]

These ideas are what make Ballard’s key works (The Drowned WorldThe Atrocity Exhibition, and Crash) theory-fiction: the texts cannot be approached without engaging with them on these terms. Sellars would concur. His explanation for the experimental form adopted by Applied Ballardianism is that it is the result of trying to faithfully capture and respond to a particular Ballard quote: “The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume it is a complete fiction conversely, the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads.[3] The book – and perhaps by extension, Ballard himself – also interpret theory-fiction in another way. “We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind”, says Ballard.[4] Our thoughts and perceptions are always-already pervaded by the fictional “mode”, including any “theory” we might derive from or within it. Given this, the role of effective writing is to invent the reality.”[5] Hence the shift from Ballard’s earliest fictions – the ones that fabulate an extraordinary natural event (The Drowned WorldThe Crystal World, et al) – to the immediate (or im-mediate) traumas of unnatural (sub)urban life (CrashHigh-Rise).

Sellars’s book reads as an account of trying to “invent the reality” of its writer’s psychic life in the most authentic conceivable manner – as a “memoir from a parallel universe”. But it succeeds as theory-fiction in a third sense, not directly related to the two outlined above. The novel’s (?) parallel narrator begins by attempting to render Ballard as a latent philosopher, who uses the shell of fiction in order to disseminate deep-seated “truths” about the real world (Def. 1). Yet – and it’s no spoiler to reveal this, all fiction requires dramatic tension after all – this task does not play out as the narrator expects. The planned exercise quickly becomes a living-out of Ballard’s “extreme metaphors”, an experiencing and intensifying of psychic traumas across the fault lines of the narrator’s entire life. “Why did I always shove aside the positive implications of Ballard’s work, the message of resistance it carried, in favour of the dark desires that had driven his characters to reach that point? I suppose it reflected my own cynical worldview, my own fatal inwardness that ensured I found little joy in anything.”[6] Ballard’s own moralistic framework guaranteed that he himself, when faced with a precarious juncture, would always take the blue pill: “Dangerous bends ahead. Slow down.” Sellars’s doppelganger, without the framework, the grounding of thought and desire, is free to take the path to psychosis. “Dangerous bends ahead. Speed up.”[7]

It is this exposure of a lack of grounding in the narrator’s interpretation of his deep assignment that,  perversely, re-inverts Applied Ballardianism into a cautionary tale. In every interview, Sellars is adamant: “It’s a mistake to read a political agenda into Ballard – or Applied Ballardianism. I don’t advise it.[8] But the book, and it’s author’s message, Negarestani shows, are hardly apolitical; instead, their engagements with politics demonstrate a

playing precisely [of] the multi-level game with different political resolutions at different levels. […] Depending on the resolution at which the game is played, the book is replete with fundamentally different 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’.[9]

Sellars has characterised the book as an exercise in failure, failure of the very idea of applying Ballardianism – at least in the sense his narrator attempts, as an ideal for living. As his life becomes mediatized by the very media warning him against its dangers, the narrator’s journey amounts to an exploration of inner space in the term’s most restricted sense: as a solipsism, or phenomenology. Now the character sees orbs in the sky, ghosts on airfields, Ballardian ley lines, everywhere. Cast adrift from the media Events central to Ballard’s texts, the narrator’s theory-fiction has folded back in on itself, as conspiracy theory. It’s no wonder that he briefly turns to the Mandela Effect as a potential re-grounding agent, for unifying his cognitively dissonant memories.

To recapitulate, we see Applied Ballardianism as theory-fiction in a threefold sense. Firstly, it is a theoretical exploration of the ideas of Ballard’s fiction, conveyed in the “truly authentic” form of (quasi-)Ballardian fiction. Secondly, it is an extension and  critique of these Ballardian concepts (his original theory-fiction): specifically, of the traumas brought about by the ungrounding and deterritorializing effects of immersion within the media landscape. Thirdly, and finally, it is an expression of the traumatic effects of Ballard’s theory-fiction on the individual, and a warning against untethered free-falls through inner space. I believe that Sellars is saying, in effect, that dissociation must bottom out somewhere. The ground awaits any such schizoid free-fall, and this ground may resemble any number of things: conspiracist paranoia, hard concrete, hikikomori, windshield glass… Yet, I don’t see all theory-fiction as bad religion. If we can keep our grounding in sight, we might be able to foresee and avoid what lurks behind the cracks in reality, and at the same time, produce the condition for original thought and expression.

Notes

[1] Simon Sellars & Robin Mackay, “So Many Unrealities”, Urbanomic (10th December 2018), available online at https://www.urbanomic.com/document/so-many-unrealities/.

[2] Mark Fisher, Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction (New York: Exmilitary Press, 2018 [1999]), pp. 84-96.

[3] J.G. Ballard, from the 1995 introduction to Crash. Cf. Sellars & Mackay. The quote appears in Applied Ballardianism: Memoir From a Parallel Universe (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2018), pp. 39-40.

[4] Ballard, introduction to Crash.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Applied Ballardianism, p. 239.

[7] Ibid, p. 223.

[8] Sellars, “Simon Sellars on Applied Ballardianism”, interviewed by Tadas Vinokur for Aleatory Books (17th December 2018), available online at https://www.aleatorybooks.com/simonsellarsinterview.

[9] Reza Negarestani, “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin (Reading Applied Ballardianism)”, Toy Philosophy (9th August 2018), available online at https://toyphilosophy.com/2018/08/09/mene-mene-tekel-upharsin-reading-applied-ballardianism/.

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