Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Beyond Adaptation

I recently came across an essay "Beyond Adaptation" by Mark Fortier in a recently-published anthology OUTERSPEARES: SHAKESPEARE, INTERMEDIA AND THE LIMITS OF ADAPTATION (U. of Toronto P., 2014).  I review the entire volume elsewhere, but this piece deserves particular attention.

Fortier claims, erroneously I think, that "most scholars of reworkings of Shakespeare have adopted a more or less limited sense of adaptation" - a concept different to parody, travesty and sequel insofar as it focuses on notions of textual equivalence, a concept which for Fortier "has a bit too much of the bureaucrat and the bean counter about it" (373).  The author prefers to borrow from Derrida, who apparently conceives adaptation as not only "particular works of secondary creation" but involves "the very possibility of culture going forward" (374).

Nonetheless Fortier manages to detect three types of textual and cultural activity that might be considered "beyond adaptation" - creating completely new work, looking at work that doesn't change, and those works that have entered into oblivion.  Shakespeare's work, he believes, contains a dismissal of the new, a mainly futile longing for constancy, a fear of change, and an expectation of oblivion (381).  So long as we speak of Shakespeare, however, the oblivion has not come and we are not beyond adaptation (384).

Many of these statements seem to be problematic, suggesting an a priori acceptance of certain (western formulated) concepts that betray a resistance to the adaptive process.  Cultures not only go forward; they can develop sideways, backwards, at a tangent - whatever direction those who inhabit such cultures choose to go.  Individuals make their own decisions as to how to adapt to their communities; likewise communities are reshaped to accommodate individual wishes.  Cultures change as a result of this two-way process; but do not necessarily go forward (a particularly Enlightenment-based concept).

I must confess to being a little confused as to what "beyond adaptation" signifies.  If, as Jean Piaget has suggested, adaptation is a process fundamental to existence, then it follows that we are perpetually adapting.  We cannot escape it, even if we want to.  Through adaptation we come to embrace different views of Shakespeare: the views I adopted of Hamlet when I was eighteen (when I wrote an essay claiming that Hamlet was not the hero of the play) are not those I possess at the moment, after having written a book on the old Shakespearean actor-manager Donald Wolfit.  If that is the case, then perhaps we should set aside the term "beyond adaptation" and replace it with "within adaptation," implying that we are always in dialogue with the texts we read, watch and engage with at whatever level.  Exactly how we make sense of them is up to us.


  1. Interesting stuff, Laurence! I agree that there are aspects of Fortier's piece that seem problematic--particularly his decision to assert that the "activity of making distinctions [about adaptation] has a bit too much of the bureaucrat and the bean counter about it" immediately after laying out a series of vague and undeveloped distinctions about adaptation.

    But to be fair about his use of the term "beyond adaptation," Fortier seems to come to the same conclusion as you: "In the realm of culture, one might postulate that there is nothing beyond adaptation," and he ends by positing his title as ironic, "one that points to, even effects the opposite of what it says."

    That said, I'm with you--the term "beyond adaptation" is not productive. The 2010 book by that title (ed. Frus & Williams) paints itself into a series of corners and blindspots trying to draw a distinction between adaptation and transformation: adaptations are "based on" other texts, while transformations (beyond adaptations) are "inspired by" other texts. These attempts to coin new terms are an all-too common occurrence in the field. We end up with a bunch of clever vocabulary, but the rock doesn't really get pushed at all.

  2. I would argue that adaptation is fundamental to our lives, not just exclusive "to the realm of culture," whatever that means.