Polaroid Apocalypse: On Simon Sellars’ Applied Ballardianism

‘Human memory is a vast continent that we are yet to explore in full, although we know a little more about how it works than yesterday. We used to think memory was like a tape recorder that accurately recorded sensory inputs. Now we know memory is in fact much more plastic, much more malleable, and can be erased and rewritten over and over by anyone with access to the neural circuits. Given your unhealthy penchant for viewing your life only in terms of movie references, I can guess what you’re thinking. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, right? But that is just a science fiction film, nothing more. This is reality.’

Simon Sellars,  Applied Ballardianism: Memoir From a Parallel Universe

In Simon Sellars novel the ‘Applied Ballardianism‘ of the title is a misnomer, rather than Ballard’s strange and equivocal survisions being applied to the life of this author or his anti-hero we are given a parallax vision that oscillates between self-laceration and self-diagnosis, a memoir in the sense of fragmentation – slow unraveling of obsessions that parallel the cultural demolition ongoing across the planetary mindscapes. With each vignette we are given an irreal glance of the Real, a cathartic portrayal of our global crash culture. To enter Simon’s narrative is to undergo a mutation, to become the thing one most fears, neither a victim nor a perpetrator of the horrors of modernity, but instead an instigator of a collective metamorphosis that entails total and absolute psychosis. The work does not mirror the world as much as it is the inscape of our dark transports, the shape of futurial becomings that are the very core of our inhuman transformation.

Ballard’s obsession with car parks and the endless loop of presentism (our fall into a timeless abyss of NOWS that is also a space of obscene sameness: extreme culture as a society without a future, living out its nightmares as quotidian reality) reminds us of the banality of our lives, the slow and methodical deconstruction of the human into the machinic phylum as we enter the last stages of the human extinction. Ballard like a modern shaman or psychonaut delivered his parables of our transit to oblivion – a travelogue of the world slowly vanishing under its own weight and inanity, giving us in his short stories and novels a grand tour of hell without a Virgil. In Sellar’s work the inner core of Ballard’s inscapes has moved further into the dysfunctional rhythm of Ballard’s vision, taken a detour along the futurial demarcations of civilizational collapse.

As one begins to read Sellar’s new novel one realizes what Kant must’ve meant by the “transcendental illusion,” the illusion of being able to use the same language for phenomena which are mutually untranslatable and can be grasped only in a kind of parallax view, constantly shifting perspective between two points between which no synthesis or mediation is possible.1 The Anti-Hero of Sellar’s novel seems to oscillate between the eroding reality of his own collapsing life and mind and the inscapes of Ballard’s fictional worlds without fusing them into some artificial whole or critical apparatus, rather he keeps the two worlds moving through a kaleidescope of shifting scenarios testing the validity of Ballard’s vision against the crumbling and decaying world of the protagonists own unraveling psychosis.
Sellar’s in his preface to Ballard’s interviews tells us:

Ballard was never comfortable defining his place within the canon, and had little time for contemporary literature, which he saw as stuck in the mode of the nineteenth-century ‘social novel’, unwilling or unable to confront the fragmented subjectivities induced by the new media landscape. In contrast, his stories and novels present psychosociological case studies, based on highly skilled readings of real-world trends in culture, consumerism, technology and media. Frequently, this predictive charge was fomented in the interview situation, a kind of philosophical ‘laboratory’ where he could test ideas, opinions and observations, and later smuggle them into the airlocked worlds of his fiction.

In this sense the protagonist memoirist of Sellar’s novel will follow the pattern and read the world through the lens of a Ballardian inner surcapes – the lucidity of surrealism and pop-art modes, providing a series of vignettes each of which becomes a laboratory of psychosis where ideas, opinions and observations are not so much tested as suffered as if the unraveling context of the author’s mind were reduplicating the fictional cosmos of Ballard as the terminus of a new kind of psychic journey. The operative signals of each vignette reprogramming both reader and author alike to become a participant in a world parallel to our own without falling into the temptations of literalism. If our lives are fictional then we begin to understand that the insanity around us is part of misconstrued narrative whose author left the scene of the crime long ago, and the detectives who are piecing together the details of this murderous tale are in truth ourselves.

As we comprehend our part in the manufacture of this psychotic world we begin to remake the world not so much in our own image as to expose our own part in its destruction. Commenting on the inhabitants of modern Japan (Saipan) Sellars’s memoirist offers a tepid observation: “Perhaps in time they too would secede from the outside world, scavenging the remains of the old order, forever ready for the empty horizon where they would be free to test and refine the limits of their humanity.” One needs to understand the irony of this statement, the wishful thinking on the part of the protagonist, his desperate attempt to stave off the temporal calamity of our present collapse into cultural insanity knowing all along that the world will never gain the critical density nor distance to “secede” from its own ruinous inner spaces.

Doomed to explore the last dregs of our inner landscapes through the outer universe of decay and ruination we will forever follow each other into the wastelands, where like the character in Ballard’s short story End-Game we come to know the “ironic inversion of the classical Kafkaesque situation, by which, instead of admitting his guilt to a non-existent crime, he was forced to connive in a farce maintaining his innocence of offences he knew full well he had committed…”.3 In the end we will maintain the lie (fiction) that we are innocent of our participation in the decline and fall of the human into is own ironic exclusion and effacement, duplicitous and accusatory we will blindly rehearse our small apocalypses as if they were preludes to a cinematic eclipse of Man rather than the actual and real destruction of the earth and its life support systems.

Awaiting our own execution we will act like Constantine in that same story with its sense of guiltlessness that pervades our own apocalypticism:

The psychological basis was more obscure but in some way far more threatening, the executioner beckoning his victim towards him with a beguiling smile, reassuring him that all was forgiven. Here he played upon, not those unconscious feelings of anxiety and guilt, but that innate conviction of individual survival, that obsessive preoccupation with personal immortality which is merely a disguised form of the universal fear of the image of one’s own death. It was this assurance that all was well, and the absence of any charges of guilt or responsibility, which had made so orderly the queues into the gas chambers.(p. 507)

Speaking to our apocalypticism our memoirist remembers Ballard’s fascination with the nuclear era and other dire events. Asked in an interview about his novella ‘The Ultimate City’ if it signaled a “certain relish for decay”, Ballard denied the charge, “suggesting that instead it signifies potential”. Going on to say,

The boy, he explains, is ‘trying to recapture something of the dynamism, aggression and freedom for the imagination to soar that was so lacking in the small rural town where he was brought up … The city is abandoned, and with it, suspended in time, is a whole set of formulae for expressing human energy, imagination, ambition. The clock has stopped, but it will be possible for the boy to start it up again.’

This principle of evil underlying Ballard’s vision shades into both Gorges Bataille and Jean Baudrillard’s vision of the dynamism, aggression and freedom at the core of evil, an evil beyond the moral categories, more ontologically transgressive and transparent. Bataille in his Literature and Evil commenting on the English poet William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell whose lines on energy quicken us to life through the power of evil: “Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy. Energy is Eternal Delight.”4 Bataille commenting on this states: “William Blake’s sensuality was very different from that subterfuge which denies true sensuality by seeing it solely as health. Blake’s sensuality was on the side of Energy, which is Evil, which restores it to its deepest significance. If nakedness is the work of God – if the lust of the goat is His bounty – it is the wisdom of Hell that heralds this truth.” Baudrillard following Bataille – and, even Mark Fisher’s ‘No Future’ paradigm – states that those seeking peace and stability in the world order are fabricating their own demise:

The aim of this world order is the definitive non-occurrence of events. It is, in a sense, the end of history, not on the basis of a democratic fulfillment, as Fukuyama has it, on the basis of preventive terror, of a counter-terror that puts an end to any possible events. A terror which the power exerting it ends up exerting on itself under the banner of security. There is a fierce irony here: the irony of an anti-terrorist world system that ends up internalizing terror, inflicting it on itself and emptying itself of any political substance and going so far as to turn on its own population.

This sense of the innocence of evil, that it not good is the normalcy of the world is reiterated in the Maenadic scene in Ballard’s High Rise in which the murder of an architect whose very games have brought about the destruction of a complex society of doctors, lawyers, advertising agents, scientists, artists, etc.; all part of a highly sophisticated architectural monstrosity, a skyscraper community self-imploding into ancient tribalism. In a scene much like the tearing of flesh and life of Dionysus by the Maenads (”raving ones”) we find the architect dead of knife wounds inflicted by the craze females of this sky clan community. One of the men of the decaying world of this hypermodern complex comes upon the scene, finds the architect dead, and the women:

In front of him the children in the sculpture-garden were playing with bones. The circle of women drew closer. The first flames lifted from the fire, the varnish of the antique chairs crackling swiftly. From behind their sunglasses the women were looking intently at Wilder, as if reminded that their hard work had given them a strong appetite. Together, each removed something from the deep pocket of her apron. In their bloodied hands they carried knives with narrow blades. Shy but happy now, Wilder tottered across the roof to meet his new mothers.6

Ballard’s almost matter-of-fact documentary style presents this chaotic scene as the new normalcy, a perverse world in which evil is accepted as the new good, a realm where the mimetic sacrifice of one god gives birth to another. In section sixty-six of Sellar’s novel the memoirist will give us his take on High Rise,

The circumstances that gave rise to their rampage were presaged in High-Rise, in which a man named Wilder attempts to record the building’s descent into anarchy with his all-seeing ‘cine-camera’. Proud of his working-class roots, he dreams of making a documentary of the social workings of the high-rise, but as violence takes hold and tribal warfare pits floor against floor, the camera is broken in a skirmish without having recorded a frame. Yet he continues to carry it with him, gripping it like a weapon. Wilder is obsessed with the idea that everything must be recorded in visual terms, even if the actual act of recording is a mere illusion invested in a broken-down piece of equipment. Violently catalysing the savage events, Wilder deliberately drowns a resident’s dog, triggering the chaos to come. As the building succumbs to total savagery and people are brutally killed all around him (sometimes by his own hand), his only thought is to capture the madness on film, ostensibly as part of a documentary he’s making on the building, although his real motivation is the deep-seated need to fulfil his own ‘personal biography’. He wants to capture a record of his ascent through the high-rise from the lower floors where he lives to the architect’s opulent penthouse, shaming those he feels inferior to along the way: his neighbours, members of the hated middle class.

Our latter day narcissism has extended this perverse need for fulfilling our own ‘personal biographies’ through the selfie culture of endless takes and retakes of images of images of images which no longer have the consistency of bodies in space and time, but have become free-floating artifacts disconnected from the flesh and blood reality of the Real traveling in the virtual realms of re-duplicated proliferation and multiplicity. This sense of sensuality in a vacuum harbors our transformation of sex into a new kind of pornographic violence. It was the impact of the image revolution that was always at the core of Ballard’s vision. One thinks of the late story or novella ‘Runnig Wild’ in which a massacre of a village has taken place. In a village that is completely self-regulated by media, a world in which everyone watches everyone 24/7, a site in which everything has become transparent; i.e., evil. What we discover is that in a world where no secrets can be found, where love is the order of the encoded regulatory scheme, that the children have begun to rebel. Ultimately their rebellion against all this openness, transparency, and absolute surveillance society becomes the motive for a mass massacre of the parents. As the commentator who has covered the sordid affair relates it:

My own view is that far from being an event of huge significance for the children, the murder of their parents was a matter of comparative unimportance. I believe that the actual murders were no more than a final postscript to a process of withdrawal from the external world that had begun many months beforehand, if not years. As with the Hungerford killer, Michael Ryan, or the numerous American examples of crazed gunmen opening fire on passersby, the identity of the victims probably had no special significance for them. More than this, I would argue that for such killings to take place at all, the deaths of their victims must be without any meaning.7

This sense of absolute nihil, the unbounded withdrawal from the parental world of meaning and comfort has produced in the children the psychotic hypernormalization of disaffective revenge. The children who in the novella escape detection from the screen world of video replays and endless media appropriation have become screenless and imageless, their lives no longer attached to the parental clock-work world of fixed and static televisual normalcy have entered instead a non-world where the inhuman fractures of a machinic phylum seep through into their dark psyches. In section seventy-seven of Sellar’s novel the memoirist relates ironically on the ‘Solace of Dystopia’:

I found a newspaper next to a discarded egg-and-salad sandwich. On the front page was a story about the installation of talking CCTV cameras across Britain. The cameras had loudspeakers that could shout at anyone engaging in anti-social behaviour, and competitions were being held at schools for kids to become the voice of CCTV, because the sound of a child’s voice was thought less likely to encounter resistance. Aside from the obvious Orwellianism of surveillance that talks, the idea of children shaming adults, enabled by the Surveillance State, is purely Ballardian. In Ballard’s novella Running Wild, CCTV enables children not only to shame adults but to slaughter them wholesale. In an exclusive gated community, the children that live there use surveillance to communicate with each other and evade detection by outsiders, prior to enacting their unmotivated plan to kill all the adults and disappear en masse off the face of the earth.
How did the saying go?
Our children are the future.

Later on Simon’s memoirist will ask: “Where to hide when everything is visible?” This sense that the supposed surveillance society we are creating with its ultra-transparency is producing a world without humans, a world that is a 24/7 inscape of images of images, clones of clones, a re-duplicated world of inhuman transparency to which there is no longer any escape; or, as the memoirist tells it:

Until I understood.
There is no way home.
There never really was.

In the end Simon’s protagonist is defeated by the logic of our psychopathic times, realizing that no one can overcome the insanity, and that we are all condemned in the end to our isolated cells:

I wanted a new metanarrative to emerge, one that could shed light on Ballard’s secret intent, a metanarrative taking place within a fake space capsule that becomes a human slaughterhouse filled with sexually advanced astronauts and presided over by a suicidal goddess figure. But I could not find the glue that would link it all together, having tried every available technique. …

As I sat in my apartment among the detritus of my insanity, overwhelmed by the debris of torn paper and discarded similes covering the floor, which resembled nothing so much as the accumulated junkspace from the edgelands I’d spent so much time in, I realised that all I’d managed to print out was a broken encephalogram of my decaying self.

Maybe in the end that is all any of us is left with, this sense of death and decay permeating every square inch of our lives, the notion of our media-infested lives as mere blips on a faded screen, wired by automatic scripts and algorithms we proliferate the redundancies of our shop worn ideas in an endless parade of failures.

‘We are our psychic wounds. Take away the wounds and you take away the self.’ Says the memoirist.

Without a body, without pain and touch and the actual sensual registers of an embodied consciousness we are mere images among images.

As the memoirist in a final take states:

“I yearned to rejoin my physical self, to stop drifting in and out of phase, and once I’d made that resolution the mental Polaroids stopped.”

  1. Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. The MIT Press (February 13, 2009)
  2. Ballard, J.G; Sellars, Simon; O’Hara, Dan. Extreme Metaphors (Kindle Locations 112-116). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
  3. Ballard, J. G.. The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard (p. 507). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  4. Bataille, Georges. Literature and Evil (Penguin Modern Classics) (Kindle Locations 913-915). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
  5. Baudrillard, Jean. The Intelligence of Evil. Bloomsbury Academic; Reprint edition (June 27, 2013)
  6. Ballard, J. G.. High-Rise: A Novel (p. 201). Liveright. Kindle Edition.
  7.  J G Ballard. Running Wild (Kindle Locations 703-707).

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