Crossing into the Twisted World


Crossing into the Twisted World

You might consider it a form of situational insanity. You see, our ability to assimilate the unusual is limited, and these limits are quickly reached and surpassed when we travel to alien planets. We experience too much novelty; it becomes unbearable, and the mind seeks relief through the buffering process of analogizing.

So explains the attendant to Marvin Flynn, the protagonist of Robert Sheckley’s 1968 science fiction novel Mindswap. He continues, explaining the danger of this particular type of mental lapse so often accompanying tourist excursions to other worlds:

Analogy assures us that this is like that; it forms a bridge between the accepted known and the unacceptable unknown…however, under the continued and unremitting impact of the unknown, even the analogizing faculty can become distorted. Unable to handle the flood of data by the normal process of conceptual analogizing, the subject becomes victim to ‘perceptual’ analogizing. This state is what we call ‘metaphoric deformation’ [1].

What may not be clear from this passage is that ‘travel’ is no longer corporeal, but rather a “mechanical-hypnotic technique” that separates mind from body subsequently reinserting it into an alien host. Travel, tourism and cross cultural interaction is no longer a case of linguistic negotiation between the mundane and the alien, but the instantaneous shift of subjectivity. Unable to come up with linguistically-based analogies at such dizzying speeds, we substitute wholesale what we perceive with more familiar personae.

In addition to metaphoric deformation, plain old criminal mischief is as much a threat to travelers of the future as it is today. Like the tourist returning to his hotel to find his wallet lifted, Flynn immediately learns that his original body has been stolen by the renegade Martian Ze Kraggash. The na├»ve mark is left with no recourse other than to jump from one alien subjectivity to the next in hot pursuit of his own body, and soon enough the Known Universe is exhausted by the hunt. Finally cornered, in his last-gasp attempt at escape, Kraggash — who has at this climax taken on the guise of Flynn’s executioner, though still in our protagonist’s body-jumps through the Ring of Fire into the Twisted World, the unknowable realm. Realm, from the Latin regimen, “rule” is in itself a misleading moniker for the Twisted World. There is certainly no rule of law, and it is “neither twisted nor a world” but pure “logical deformation” [2]. It is here, quite beyond any notion of subjectivity, that the final confrontation takes place. Our protagonist Flynn at last seemingly emerges with his original body, but we are left to wonder if he has returned home to Terra or has instead fallen for one of the tricks of the Twisted World. By the close of the story it is clear that he has only reached a plane where the known meets the “unthought, the exterior, the surface, the simulacrum, the fold, lines of flight, what resists assimilation, what remains foreign even within a presumed identity…” [3].

It is only the breakdown of this barrier between inside and outside, his final acceptance of the Lacanian Real, that has perhaps saved our protagonist. As Zizek explains in Looking Awry, “our common everyday reality, the reality of the social universe in which we assume our usual roles of kind-hearted, decent people, turns out to be an illusion that rests on a certain ‘repression,’ on overlooking the real of our desire” [4]. In talking of the writing experience Sheckley himself captures the liberating sense of facing these desires: “It’s a high, this writing thing, a kind of drug, and once you experience it nothing else is ever the same. Ordinary life seems like a prison sentence in comparison to the freedom of writing” [5]. Perhaps Flynn has come to terms with his repression, catching a glimpse of his desire, as he at last settles into the Twisted World and in turn frees himself from the “prison” of ordinary life. It is then Sheckley’s narrative of cascading subjectivities and his protagonist’s final acceptance of the Real that takes the schizophrenic introspection of a story such as Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly to a different level.

These days we could easily transpose the Flaming Fing separating the Known Universe from the Twisted World with Virilio’s artificial horizon, the screen, and its concomitant “premature death of any living language” [6]. With little if any capacity to slow down the constant stream of images, we are undoubtedly coming down with a severe case of metaphoric deformation. Our engagement of new information media — not merely a type of technology, but also a technique of perception — echoes Sheckley’s “mechanical-hypnotic technique” of projecting one’s mind. The almost pure subjective experience of Mindswap trumps Virilio’s flood of images, but the pursuit of virtuality, often expressed as the utopian separation of mind from body, and the consequent distopian confrontation with the renegade self and the Reality of desire, is certainly nothing new [7].

The artificial horizon then remains as our razor edge border between our mundane, corporeal existence and the “continued, unremitting impact of the unknown.” More and more something akin to the situational insanity of Sheckley’s perceptual analogy is replacing the process of linguistic negotiation between cultures in a geographic contact zone. The instantaneous and continuous comparison of the visual market [8], transposed over global networks of information media, does away with the gradual construction of linguistic or even experiential knowledge of others. Osama bin Laden in his cave becomes the savage Indian to George W. Bush’s Cowboy. Likewise, we are now the corrupted pagan Meccans to bin Laden’s original community of the Prophet Muhammad and the muhajjarin, who fled to Medina initiating year zero of Islamic history. You may either be with us or against us, but you will never escape our economy of metaphor.

The next logical step is to take pursuit of the renegade self through the Ring of Fire, beyond the artificial horizon — but perhaps we have already made that crossing, or maybe the artificial horizon has somehow collapsed before our very eyes. As Zizek puts it,

One should therefore turn around the standard reading according to which, the WTC explosions were the intrusion of the Real which shattered our illusory Sphere: quite on the contrary, it is prior to the WTC collapse that we lived in our reality, perceiving the Third World horrors as something which is not effectively part of our social reality, as something which exists (for us) as a spectral apparition on the (TV) screen… [9].

So was it the events of September Eleventh, the terrorists as renegade self, that traced our ring of fire? The chaotic violence so firmly placed beyond the artificial horizon is here, somehow the chase to the ends of the Known Universe had been initiated years before. But what is more, “the social reality is then nothing but a fragile, symbolic cobweb that can at any moment be torn aside by an intrusion of the [R]eal” [10]. Now all laws of the international community have collapsed, ironically enough, in the name of the rule of law; nor does our endless war follow any rules demanding proof of legitimate national threat. These breakdowns of cause and effect are particularly ominous. Sheckley tells us that this relationship is the first to go in the face of complete logical deformation.

As more than one critic has pointed out, postmodernity no longer captures the contemporary cultural-political milieu. Any spatial and temporal metaphor of linearity simply grasps at our near catatonic denial of the Real. We have set about to rebuild Iraq in our own image, and our president, intoxicated with the promise of historical immortality, has promised to do the same for the rest of the Middle East. Would it come as any surprise if we were to find ourselves poised on the verge of attaining our ultimate desire, face to face with our own reflection as executioner? We are crossing into the Twisted World.


[1] Robert Sheckley, The People Trap plus Mindswap, New York: Ace Books, 1968, p. 282.

[2] Sheckley, p. 451.

[3] Elizabeth Grosz, Architecture from the Outside, Cambridge: MIT University Press, 2001, p. 64-5.

[4] Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry, Cambridge: MIT University Press, 1992, p. 17.


[6] Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb, London and New York: Verso, 2000, p. 71.

[7] Grosz, p. 135 and Zizek, chapter 1.

[8] Virilio, p. 60-1.

[9] Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, New York: The Wooster Press, 2001, p. 18.

[10] Zizek, Looking…, p. 17.

James Conlon is an educational technologist at the Visual Media Center in the Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University. His academic and professional interests began with the social history of the Near East in the Medieval period and have extend to include the contemporary relevance of the region’s material legacy. Although most of his professional projects are centered in this part of the world, he now explores the broader issues of experimenting with different modes of representation to better express, teach and live with change in the built environment.