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'Here's to the borderzone': life after the PhDAuthor: Simon Sellars • Dec 18th, 2008 •
I don’t like to get personal on this website. However, there is something I need to acknowledge, because it involves on a significant level the readers of this site and its contributors.
The final version of my doctoral thesis on Ballard was accepted and submitted today. All that remains now is to formally graduate early next year. This ends a certain phase. I began the doctorate in 1995 at Monash University, but suffered a bit of burn out and walked away from it in 1997. I didn’t read Ballard for a long time after that (having forged a subsequent career as a travel writer) and only really became fully reacquainted with his work when I started this website up in 2005. If I was being honest, I realised I was disappointed in myself for not completing the degree, and I think the website was probably a subconscious desire to reconnect with this former life. Then in 2006, through the site, I came back into contact with my supervisor and began to entertain the possibility of returning.
In April 2007 I resumed the doctorate, even though I only had just 15 months left on my enrolment. I thought that I would be able to use much of the research and notes I’d completed the first time around, but soon found that while my thematic framework was intact, my focus on technology and the psychology of new media meant that pretty much everything had to be re-researched and rewritten, as obviously ‘technology’ has changed so much in the last 10 years. I also had to reacquaint myself with theory, never easy at the best of times. In effect, then, I’ve researched and written the thesis in just under two years, and I can tell you that is far from ideal! Madness descended… (and I have absolutely no doubt that some of that insanity was manifest in some of the more, uh, shall we say, ‘esoteric’ posts here on this site.)
The one thing that really got me through that incredibly tough slog was this website and the various people who have so generously shared, swapped and critiqued ideas about Ballard’s work. There has been some debate about whether academics should keep blogs, about whether they are a distraction from the ‘real’ work of writing theses and publishing articles, but I can say from my experience that I never would have made it without this kind of interaction — as moderator of the site, filtering this constant stream of information and ideas was worth at least double the time. There have been a fair few critics of the site, too, but even that has helped to sharpen ideas, hone instincts and keep the old ego in check. It has all been incredibly stimulating. For example, those rushed, sometimes embarrassingly naive posts of mine that were written with the purpose of getting thoughts down in the heat of the moment later, magically, germinated into more mature and thoughtful ideas that were incorporated into the thesis; plus there has been a fair share of opportunity in terms of being offered work, publishing opportunities and various collaborations as a result of getting those ideas out there. In short, for anyone contemplating a PhD, I would recommend keeping a blog or website for channelling research ideas of whatever description. Doing a PhD by research can be incredibly isolating and even soul destroying, but the online experience both opened my eyes and my world to a brighter future.
I don’t know how long this site will continue now that the thesis is done and dusted; however, I am currently developing several academic articles (as well as a few other creative projects) based on the thesis chapters, so it will definitely be around for some time yet. In any case, what started as a one-man blog has now developed into a magazine-style venture with a crew of irregular contributors — there is still plenty of life here, and even real potential for a print-publishing project as an offshoot, details of which must necessarily remain quiet at this stage.
Finally, while we’re doing this, there are so many people I need to thank, both as inspiration for the thesis and for supporting, contributing to and generally keeping this website a consistent, flexible and vibrant resource.
First and foremost, J.G. Ballard, of course, whose work has been a consistent source of inspiration in my life. Ballard’s writing to me is a design for living — I treat this wisdom very seriously indeed and with the greatest respect. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to interview Mr Ballard, and I can only hope that I have contributed in some way to an understanding of the incredible complexity of his work.
Secondly, my supervisor, Andrew Milner, who went out on a limb to bring me back into the doctoral fold; himself a scholar of utopias and dystopias, Andrew’s work has greatly influenced my own. Here, I’d also like to thank my examiners, Roger Luckhurst and Andrzej Gasiorek, who, to any scholar of Ballard, need no introduction. Their feedback has been invaluable.
Thirdly, there’s a long list of colleagues, contributors, interviewees, acquaintances, co-conspirators, friends, bloggers, writers, artists, Ballard fans and observers who in some way I’ve interacted with over the past two years, and who have helped to shape either the philosophy of this site and/or the worldview of my thesis, whether its submitting articles to the site, sharing ideas or simply providing inspiring examples through their own work. So, here’s the list … and with apologies to anyone I’ve forgotten …
Thank you to: Shahin Afrassiabi, Ben Austwick, Jeannette Baxter, Mike Bonsall, David Britton, Simon Brook, Jeff Busby, Michael Butterworth, Thomas Cazals, Tim Chapman, Melanie Chilianis, Nic Clear, John Coulthart, Jordi Costa, Cousin Silas, Crashman, Mark Dery, Gabrielle Drake, Ross Farnell, Mark Fisher, John Foxx, Niklas Goldbach, Mark Goodall, Steve Goodman, Julian Gough, Pedro Groppo, Alexander Gutzmer, Owen Hatherley, Craig Hickman, Mike Holliday, Cat Hope, Lyle Hopwood, Iraklis, Isabelle Jenniches, Chris Johnston, Martin Jones, Toby Litt, Dan Lockton, Michelle Lord, Damien Love, Geoff Manaugh, Rick McGrath, Joe McNally, Joanne McNeil, Russell Miller, Chris Mitchell, Dan Mitchell, Michael Moorcock, Rocky Morrow, Joanne Murray, Chris Nakashima-Brown, Solveig Nordlund, Benjamin Noys, Dan O’Hara, Dominika Oramus, Troy Paiva, David Pescovitz, Paul Plamper, Nina Power, Rick Poynor, David Pringle, Simon Reynolds, Gwyn Richards, John Rivers, Umberto Rossi, Mike Ryan, Andy Sawyer, Sam Scoggins, Keith Seward, Pablo Sgarbi, Andy Sharp, Jamie Sherry, Iain Sinclair, Ben Slater, Matt Smith, Phil Smith, Bruce Sterling, Steven (MelbPsy), Jack Strain, Johnny Strike, Raymond Tait, Pippa Tandy, Mac Tonnies, Andrés Vaccari, Justine Vaisutis, V. Vale, William Viney, Jonathan Weiss, Paul Williams and John Carter Wood.
Also, thanks to everyone who’s ever left a comment — positive or negative — in the comment box, and especially to the countless readers who have sent tips and leads for the Ballardosphere section — perhaps my favourite part of the site.
My thesis is dedicated to Leonie Naughton, who was my film tutor in my undergraduate and honours years and who was the greatest inspiration in my academic life. Leonie passed away in 2007 but her passion, humour, wisdom and intellect will never be forgotten.
For anyone who’s interested, here’s the synopsis for my thesis:
‘The yes or no of the borderzone': J.G. Ballard’s Affirmative Dystopias
Monash University, 2008
This thesis analyses the concept of resistance and the model of interstitial space in the work of J.G. Ballard. Here, ‘interstitial’ refers to the peculiar aspect of ‘being between’ that results from globalisation and from the propensity for consumer capitalism to efface distinctions between leisure, work and product. The concomitant failure of politics to ignite imaginations and loyalties suggests that individualism is on the rise as nationalisms become eroded. Boundaries and borders are in flux, not just as points on a map, but also in the unconscious, as played out in the virtual terrain of the media landscape. The result is an increasing desire to seek out transitional zones, the margins and borderzones where indeterminacy escapes and neutralises the homogenous, instantaneous communications and media network binding the planet. The thesis charts Ballard’s mapping of the indeterminacy of transitional space in examples from his oeuvre, returning to them in other chapters with a different perspective, for his work is not discrete, possessing instead a distinct, though indirect, relationship that invites reappraisal, dependent upon context. This relationship questions certainty by suggesting that consensual reality is an illusion, a temporal simultaneity within which are nested multiple subjective realities.
Ballard embraces dystopian scenarios, including the archetypal non-space often characterised as a deadening feature of late capitalism. But this is not simply a call for nihilism. Ballard’s characters are not disengaged from their world. Rather, they embody a sense of resistance that derives from full immersion, a therapeutic confrontation with the powers of darkness, whereby merging with dystopian alienation negates its power. This is predicated on concurrency: Ballard’s writing turns objectivity into subjectivity, opens up gaps where there is room for new subjects. His scenarios can be termed ‘affirmative dystopias’, neither straight utopia nor straight dystopia, but an occupant of the interstitial space between them, perpetual oscillation between the poles – the ‘yes or no of the borderzone’, to use a phrase from his work. Here, dystopia becomes the real utopia, and utopian ideals, typically represented as a stifling of the imagination, the true dystopia. He reinhabits the frame to present a clearinghouse in which corporate and national governance is overthrown and regoverned as a ‘state of mind’.
With this in place, the thesis explores Ballard’s program of resistance using examples from six main enquiries: his reimagining of the literary genre of science fiction; his sense of micronationalism and secession; his mapping of architectural space; his deployment of cinematic tropes and techniques; his analysis of surveillance and post-consumerism; and his predictive sense of ‘prosumer’ media.
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