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Rat Cunning and Bloodshed: An Interview with Simon Sellars

Interview by Lee Rourke.

Simon Sellars is known for writing about digital culture, architecture, travel, cities and urbanism, film, animation, music, sound design, literature, and the author J.G. Ballard. He co-edited (with Dan O’Hara) the definitive collection of J.G. Ballard interviews Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1968–2008, and his website Ballardian.com is the go-to point on all things JG Ballard. His numerous papers and research can be found here.

His latest work Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe is a wondrous book, not just because of its central subject (which hovers like a spectre throughout), but it is the best example of ‘Theory Fiction’ I have read to date.

We conducted this interview over email, in which I tried to uncover each ingredient of Simon’s ‘Theory Fiction’.

It would be unwise of me not to quote the blurb for Applied Ballardianism, so here you go:

Fleeing the excesses of 90s 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 — cult author 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’

3:AM: Tell me where the idea for this book came from.

SS: Desperation. I was a failed academic with no prospects of finding my way back into that world. I’d finally completed my PhD after a ten-year break from it, but I was struggling to find work as an academic. Through the lens of my fictional alter ego, my book describes what happened to me in that intervening decade, culminating in the realisation that the project I’d devoted my adult life to was worthless. Applied Ballardianism turned the act of writing my PhD into something approaching catharsis. The book in its current state is what my completed thesis could never be.

3:AM: Was it a Ballard-based thesis?

SS: Yes. It was about ‘nodes of resistance’ in Ballard’s work. I traced the parallels between the closed-circuit communities in his stories and the real-world phenomena of micronations and gated suburbs. And I’m boring myself describing it to you, which is appropriate, given my book describes exactly that: the narrator’s tedious attempts to bolt some tenuous pop-cultural current onto a writer, Ballard, who defies categorisation.

3:AM: Why do you think Ballard is still relevant?

SS: Honestly, I’m the wrong person to ask. I identify with my narrator, who after all is a part of me, and I’m just as confused as him.

3:AM: So, was Applied Ballardianism an attempt to write Ballard out of your system?

SS: Yes. I needed to find another way to express myself. I’ve viewed the world through his lens for almost 25 years now. I wrote my first academic paper on Ballard in 1996. With this book, my education at his feet is complete. I’m a free man.

3:AM: Do you mean ‘free’ to reference Ballard in the work of others? I say this because he’s been so influential, he’s hard to shake off.

SS: I mean free in the sense that I’ve said all I can say about him, and I still haven’t reached any solid conclusions about the meaning of his work. His writing has an inbuilt resistance to critical theory. I’ve read a lot of academic treatises on Ballard and they all reach different conclusions. It’s like they’re all critiquing different authors.

3:AM: What are your thoughts on the genre of the memoir? Was this the best way to write about your experiences of reading Ballard?

SS: Sort of, although maybe I’m more attuned to the genre of autofiction. These days, everyone’s writing books about their lives but no one’s reading them. I sometimes think there are more writers now than readers. I barely read books myself, mainly because my attention span has been shot to pieces by a severe Twitter addiction, yet I’m obsessed with writing books, can’t stop thinking about it, in fact. But I find writing very hard work. Why put myself through it? After all, only rich people can truly afford the time and headspace to write books. The rest of us must work, raise kids, or both, and then eke out a few hundred words in the cracks between.

3:AM: In Applied Ballardianism, you initially liken Ballard’s backdrops to Melbourne roads via Mad Max. It’s an exciting comparison — is this something you’ve always felt? I’m thinking about being so physically far away from Ballard’s world.

SS: I don’t think distance has anything to do with it. Ballard always said his work could take place anywhere because it’s about the flattening out of experience, the emptying out of reality — the way major cities and suburbs worldwide become indistinguishable in an endless exurban monoculture. Melbourne is as Ballardian as anywhere — more so, because it’s pure. We don’t have thousands of years of culture to distract us. Just rat cunning and a tragic history of bloodshed. That’s the essence of Mad Max.

3:AM: Can you talk about the theme of ‘solipsistic narcissism’?

SS: That’s a phrase from the book: ‘All that remained was solipsistic narcissism.’ My narrator uses it to describe his condition. He’s solipsistic in that anything and anyone he encounters is filtered through his paranoid and conspiratorial tendencies. Nothing has any meaning or a valid external shape beyond that. He has this extremely debilitating ‘ability’, if you can call it that, to connect anything and everything in a narrative of some kind, rendering the outside world non-functional — except when directed inwards as fuel for the conspiracy.

He’s also extremely narcissistic, constantly viewing the world as if it is reflected in a mirror of his own design — and he must be at the centre. If he moves away from the mirror’s line of sight, he shifts his gaze so that he can see himself again. He’s quite insane. I feel very sorry for him.

3:AM: ‘Solipsistic narcissism’ puts me in mind of Simon Critchley’s writing on ‘passive nihilism’. They’re unrelated theoretically, but I wondered if Applied Ballardianism could be your own exploration of ‘solipsistic narcissism’ as a theory of the writer in the world. There is, after all, something quite solipsistic and narcissistic about the average writer, I feel.

SS: I think that’s true. I always feel intense disgust after writing, sort of a deep shame that I’ve had the nerve to raise my head above the parapet and foist my views onto the world, and especially with such a pretentious tone as Applied Ballardianism. But of course, even this constant turning inward, this perpetual self-flagellation, is inherently narcissistic. My narrator is blinded by his own self-reflection in the intense glare of an always-on popular culture screen. He lives in a virtual reality of his own design, where other people are simply blips on the screen.

3:AM: I want you to talk about inner and outer space, in the Ballardian sense, and how this permeates your book.

SS: There’s one Ballard quote that holds the key to my book. It’s from his introduction to Crash: ‘The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume that it is a complete fiction. Conversely, the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads.’

In Applied Ballardianism, my narrator obsesses over that quote. For him, it’s an ideal for living — a survival manual. He understands that consensus reality no longer exists due to the sheer amount of media — competing realities — that we consume daily. The most valid form of existence, therefore, is to trust our imagination and the way it interprets the world on our behalf and to follow that path wherever it leads us — even if it ends in psychosis, which, in Applied Ballardianism, it does. My narrator rejects the fake realities fed to him through mass media, popular culture, social media, and invents his own. And by doing that, he follows in the footsteps of numerous Ballard characters who do their best to ring in the collapse of society so that life can begin again among the ruins.

Take Vaughan in Crash. He’s an out-and-out psychopath, hell-bent on murdering innocent people to achieve his aims. Yet he’s certain he’s leading the charge towards a new world, accelerating the chaos that surrounds him: the collapsing of reality in the face of wraparound media fictions generated by advertising, cinema, TV.

My narrator updates this to our present-day maelstrom of fake news, fake online profiles, deep fake videos. He’s a victim of the age and what happens to him can be said to be a kind of mutation brought on by the dissolving of the physical body into the technological environment. The occult tendencies that he submits to are the result of multiple competing realities colliding at once, creating the illusion of demonic forces shaping our lives.

3:AM: What are you working on next?

SS: A sequel to Applied Ballardianism, actually. It won’t feature Ballard except as an unnamed influence percolating away in the background, and it won’t be so obviously based on my life. It will be set in a post-Ballardian world and will broadly explore the theme of digital ghosts. I’m trying to write it as straight science fiction but so far it’s emerged as theory-fiction yet again. I’m finding theory-fiction hard to shake off because it’s so entrenched and personal, and I established a template with that style in Applied Ballardianism, but I think I’ll go mad if I write like that again. That style is explicitly tied to a moment in time that I never want to revisit.

I just want a quiet life. Wish me luck.

Lee Rourke is the author of the cult short-story collection Everyday, the novel The Canal (winner of the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize 2010) and the poetry collection Varroa Destructor. His latest novel, Vulgar Things (‘poignant and unsettling’ – Eimear McBride) is published in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and the US by 4th Estate, Harper Collins. He is a contributing editor at 3:AM Magazine.  His third novel Glitch is to be published in October 2019 via Dead Ink Books.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 26th, 2019.