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'Here's to the borderzone': life after the PhD

Author: • Dec 18th, 2008 •

Category: academia, Ballardosphere

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
Simon Sellars
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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28 Responses »

  1. Congratulations, Simon. Hope this doesn’t mean the blogwork is over? 😉

  2. well done! I’m really pleased for you, just in time for Christmas…
    Hope you do find time to keep the blog going for the obvious reasons, and at some point (ie when it is written) I’ll send the piece on Ballard and conceptual crime

  3. Simon, nice work man – and good luck with everything in the future.

    Also, it probably goes without saying but I hope you keep this up. It’s such a cracking site.

  4. Yes, congratulations, Simon, I’m sure everyone here is as appreciative of your work as you are of their contributions. Considering ballardian.com, Rick McGrath’s site, and Mike Bonsall’s concordance, it’s amazing how well and how intelligently Ballard is represented on the web. It’s a fine tribute to the man and a great resource for the rest of us. Bravo.

  5. Simon! What an intellectually and emotionally Herculean accomplishment. Very sincere and heartfelt congratulations. Now you just need to find a nice little college in Texas to hire you… — Chris

  6. Congratulations Simon. An immense achievement (as is this site). Have a tremendous Christmas…

  7. Bloody well done, sir! Whiskey and sodas all round, and pop another alsatian on the barbecue – you deserve it.

  8. Congratulations indeed Doctor Sellars!

    Your brilliant efforts are honestly humbling Simon, and don’t you dare give up the great work here.

    Can’t wait to read the whole thing…

  9. Fantastic news, Dr. Sellars… and heartfelt congrats to you on your major hoodlum intellectual accomplishments — the Ballardian site and the Ballard thesis! Given the time & energy you’ve devoted to the former, your success with the latter is even more amazing. And it was news to note your committee includes Roger and Andrzej — two heavy hitters who will have to make room for another sharp-eyed pilot in a low-flying aircraft. I can’t wait to see where all this takes you….

  10. one bit of housekeeping — Supervert should include Mike Holliday’s great JGB site in his list… we’re a fourfold symmetry (and I’m the Wind From Nowhere)

  11. I’ll just add my sincere congratulations, Dr. Sellars.

    Your dedication to the work of J.G. Ballard, this site and all of your postings are an outstanding contribution for which I am extremely grateful. Keep up the good work but…take a break now and then.

  12. Well done, phenomenal achievements! Good luck with whatever happens next…

    “…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.”

    That’s very wise advice. As JGB said, “The Internet still contains magic” – this site’s proof of that.

  13. Congratulations on your success.

    Even though a lot of the content on this website goes way over my head, it’s always been a fun and entertaining place to hang out. Plus it’s given me more than a few new perspectives on the work of Ballard.

  14. Cool! Well done. You had two tough examiners as well. Have a good Christmas.

  15. congratulations, too.

    i also think it is good to have access to something like this site. especially when it is hard to find other places to discuss (or just quietly peek into discussions) these issues. for me it always have been hard … might be my surrounding or my age, i am not sure. but in general, i would hope to find these places in other parts of our world, rather than the www.
    it seems like there are places, like in the university-sphere you worked on your thesis, perhaps. but you also said without this site as an interface to others thinking about these issues, your work would also have been hard/impossible.
    in the place i study for example it is nearly impossible to find room/humanoids for such discussions, and as i wrote before, i think it is very necessary to have contact with people or a relevance in (so called) public places. in this point i rather mean the inherent issues than the focus on the lyrical work of JGB.
    anyway, i was amused to read this post, because i was reading the posted text about the time-issues last night, when i was working on a text about a project i am currently working on. wich felt like just the thing you meant.

  16. Excelsior, Simon. I’m sure I speak for many fellow residents of Vermillion Sands when I implore you not to pull the plug on BALLARDIAN, but to consider posting at least monthly.

    This blog is so much more than a support group for unrequited fanboys. It reminds me, whenever I visit it, what an inexhaustible trove of insights JGB has given us, and how his work—both writings and interviews—can be used as a prism to refract the deeper meanings of the modern world. Academia, advertising, airports, Alain Robbe-Grillet, CCTV, celebrity culture, cult-doom peddling, death of affect, deep time, drained swimming pools, Dubai, dystopia, entropy, Ernst, flying, Freud, gated communities, geometry, Hawkwind, horror, hyperreality, and so much more: as your tag cloud suggests, everything becomes Ballardian, if we observe it from the angle between two walls.

    Thanks for serving, all these months, as our acutely insightful yet never pedantic Charles Wilson Peale, drawing back the curtain and beckoning us toward the wonder closet of the Ballardian.

  17. Congratulations, Simon, on a mammoth achievement.

  18. Tim said: Congratulations, Simon, on a mammoth achievement.

    I’ll drink to that! And thanks for publishing it here!
    Wow, a Doctorate in Ballardianism.. the mind reels.

  19. Simon;

    Your synopsis is intriguing. Any chance of you making the entire thesis available here or elsewhere? I for one, would appreciate any opportunity to read it.

  20. Thanks all! And please rest assured, there are plenty more articles to come on the site… a few interesting surprises, too.

    Gary: I was considering putting parts of my thesis on the site, however I thought that might be too self-indulgent. On the other hand, it could be a good way to get feedback…

    Have a good holiday break, all.

    Cheers, Simon

  21. “Gary: I was considering putting parts of my thesis on the site, however I thought that might be too self-indulgent. On the other hand, it could be a good way to get feedback…”

    Simon, I think it will be a very good way to get feedback. In no way do I think it to be too self-indulgent. I think it would be a treasure.

  22. Congrats, Simon!

    Yeah, put bits of the thesis up … I’d love to see them.

  23. Congratulations, Simon. This is wonderful news!

    I must admit, I got a little sentimental halfway through your article. I’ve been following Ballardian since the beginning, and can still remember the excitement of every new design tweak.

    It felt both fantastic and dramatic when the website began to garner a reputation for itself, becoming referenced as an authoritative source of Ballard news. And I can remember something close to awe when Ballardian started interviewing some of the big names in Ballard appreciation, including the writer himself! It was amazing to see how such a humble and ambitious offshoot became such a comprehensive and encompassing force. It really is much like a magazine, and offers a *fantastic* resource to both the Ballard scholar and the enthusiastic newcomer.

    So congratulations once again on your thesis, and thank you so much for these last few years. Whether or not you decide to maintain the website is of course your choice, but I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed.

    Happy holidays,

    Rhys Tranter

  24. Bravo Simon! Job well done.

    When you come to SF I’ll buy you a victory drink or two.

  25. Congratulations, Simon.
    I’m working on a JGB PhD project too (just finished the first year of it). Ballardian is a precious source for it, as I already told you. So I’ll be around every now and then. And if/when I’ll produce something worthwhile I’ll let you know.

  26. Rhys, that was such a nice comment you left. Thank you — it’s very much appreciated. Johnny, SF is high on my list of places to visit. Ignazio, good luck with the journey, and please feel free to send in submissions any time you like.

  27. Well done, Simon! Congratulations! I’m in the fourth year of my own postponed PhD slog so I can relate to the madness you describe. But it’s always encouraging to see people finish, especially when it’s such interesting work. Please let us know when your articles are published.

    I hope you’ll preserve the blog when you’re finished with it. It’s been an inspiration – one of the few that I read regularly, both for diversion and to help spur those conceptual tangents that keep me interested in my own work. And there’s still heaps here that I haven’t read yet.

    All the best!

  28. CONGRATS ON YOUR HARPERCOLLINS PUBLICATION! NOW I know why I squirreled away that bookstore gift card so many years ago- to pay for it! And even to be mentioned as a part of this blog… FAR more than I deserve!

    Yes, I’m 5 yrs. late as usual, but I’ll join the chorus of pleading for the blog….. You can get some awfully Ballardian
    reviews of your book here, you know, once it starts REALLY flooding into the Ballardian veins of our dying culture, as we turn over space travel to private businessmen, and realize that for stars to have planets is the RULE, not the exception….

    Google KEPLER EXOPLANETS –I think we’re up to about 1,100 or so planets detected now, with about
    60 in the “Goldilocks Zone” that we POSSIBLY could survive on… somewhen.

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