Many years ago, when I was doing my doctoral research, I encountered a book by Renaissance scholar Richard Levin, New Readings vs. Old Plays (1979), which wittily chronicled the ways in which critics of different generations and persuasions attacked their predecessors before putting forward new ‘radical’ interpretations of their own. He described this process as one in which “my theory can lick your theory”; a childlike statement that clearly indicates a desire on the critic’s part to set forth “better” ideas, compared to those who have written in the past.
After a long career spent writing about various topics, it’s intriguing for me to be incorporated into that rhetorical strategy. I read a conference abstract – to be presented in a session at the Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque on Friday 13 February (I am also scheduled to present in the same session, should American Airlines actually get me there!) – that will investigate whether those who have put forward models of adaptation studies in the humanities (like myself, or Tom Leitch), have taken into account the “rekindling of emergence theory in scientific circles.”
Inevitably we are accused of superficiality in our perspectives; we have apparently made “quick inferences between the paradigm of natural selection and the ‘determination’ of narrative structures and tropes in adapted works.” We need to update our notions of contemporary scientific adaptation theory, especially if we intend to place these theories in discourse with cultural objects whose meanings are still emerging in popular culture. So there you are.
The author of this abstract, Jillian St. Jacques, is obviously keen to put forward her point of view, and I shall look forward to discussing it (and writing about it in a future blog post). At present, however, I would like to make one or two points about her abstract that might help to clarify my use of Darwin in adaptation theory.
I am certainly interested in Darwin, but I am not especially concerned with his paradigm of natural selection. That principle is both culture-specific and subject to various socio-cultural forces as well as individual choice. Darwin wrote in more general terms about “adaptation,” understood in this context as the process of accommodating oneself to new surroundings. In this he prefigured the views of psychologists such as Jean Piaget.
I am not especially concerned with the relationship between Darwin and the “determination of narrative structures and tropes in adapted works.” My principal interest is in the way individuals adapt to the world around them, and translate that process of adaptation into texts of various kinds – screenplays, essays, blog posts, or whatever. Through this process of writing we can learn something about the social, cultural and psychological forces that shape the way they write.
I am a great believer in authorial intention. If we consider adaptation as a process involving psychological as well as other forms of transformation, then we cannot help but take individual viewpoints into consideration. A cinematic text, or a literary text, evolves out of collaborations between different individual viewpoints – the writer, director, editor, publisher, as well as the reader. Studying the interaction between these viewpoints helps us understand how texts are adapted and re-adapted, just like the individual who produce these adaptations.
I do not believe that there is any distinction between “emergent” and “accepted” meanings attached to any cultural artifact. If we accept that adaptation is an ongoing process, then meanings are perpetually shifting; to use that binary opposition implies a reluctance to accept the existence of plurality and diversity.
Likewise I make no distinction between adaptation in the arts or science. True transdisciplinarity implies a willingness to negotiate; to take into account recent writings on emergence theory and use them to formulate a more polysemic model of adaptation, encompassing the humanities, science, psychology, the social sciences, or whatever. On the other hand I would argue that St. Jacques has to update her notions of how other theorists have considered adaptation using Darwin as their model.
The only person who has made “quick inferences” is St. Jacques herself, who in her desire to show that her theories can lick those of other theorists, has put forward a viewpoint that can be readily challenged.
I await her paper with interest.