I’ve recently received two calls for papers that both imply that there is something intellectually questionable about the case-study model of adaptation. One describes it as “much-maligned”; the other calls it “rather limiting and limited,” especially when compared to the “big questions” of adaptation, the history of adaptation, and on adaptation as scholarly practice.
Patrick Cattrysse has a lot to answer for. In his recent Descriptive Adaptation Studies (2014) he derides the “endless accumulation of ad hoc case studies,” which hitherto have dominated much adaptation studies research, and advocates instead a general focus on “corpus-based research into wider trends of adaptational behavior and the roles and functions of sets of adaptations.” He cites my edited collection Adaptation, Translation and Transformation (2012) as an example of the former approach, in which the various contributors offer diverse interventions as to what the terms “adaptation” and “translation” might signify in various contexts, and how practitioners have tried to develop a relationship between the two.
What disturbs me about all these observations is that they assume some kind of binary opposition between the particular and the general; the particularized “case-study” cannot address the more “general” questions of adaptation studies and its future theoretical developments. Such oppositions, I believe, inhibit rather than benefit future research, as they impose a western-originated framework on a discipline which, by its very nature, should be transnational in focus.
My attention was drawn once again to this issue yesterday, when I visited the Ankara State Museum of Painting and Sculpture (Ankara Devlet Resim ve Heykel Müzesi). Opened in 1930 in a purpose-built structure, it houses a rich collection of Turkish art from the late nineteenth century to the present day. As in all museums, the work of individual artists is prominently on display; they include Şeker Ahmet Paşa, Zekai Paşa, Halil Paşa, İbrahim Çallı, Hikmet Onat and Namık İsmail.
What is perhaps more significant, however, is the purpose for which the museum was intended. Opened by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, it was designed to foster the cultural development of the nation by providing an outlet for artists to show off their work. This was considered highly significant: many of them had studied abroad, and Atatürk wanted to show how they had absorbed the lessons of other artistic traditions (in the west and elsewhere) and used them to create new forms. The exhibits show distinct Impressionist, Cubist, and Dadaist influences, for instance.
Although the individual artists adapted their knowledge to create idiosyncratic, often striking works, their paintings served a more general purpose of advancing the nation’s sense of cultural well-being. On this view, the relationship between general and particular is not oppositional but symbiotic; one cannot exist without the other. As I walked around the gallery, looking at the paintings with subjects as diverse as Anatolian landscapes past and present, İstanbul sea-views, Ottoman dignitaries and Atatürk himself, I could not help but recall how many creative individuals practiced (and continue to practice) their work in the belief that they are serving the nation. They might be recognized as artists in their own right – great actors, film stars, painters, and so on – but they also claim a higher purpose.
While Ayşe H. Köksal is right in claiming that this model can be considered exclusivist insofar as it is designed “not so much to shore up an existing [Ottoman] social order as to provide the script for a new [Kemalist] one” (although this is not always the case), the fact remains that the case-study (in this case, the individual art-work contained within the framework of the Ankara State Museum) tells us a lot about the relationship between adaptation and cultural politics. Moreover this model is defiantly transnational; how many other regimes have employed similar strategies in order to reinforce state ideologies?
In Making Stories (2002), Jerome Bruner offers a model of adaptation based on an interplay between individuals and the communities they inhabit. Individuals learn how to “adapt” to their environments through socialization – learning behavioral, artistic and psychological conventions. At the same time they initiate a process of adaptation within their environments through a variety of strategies, including cultural products such as films, paintings, or plays. These products can help transform the way people think about the world around them. This continual process of give-and-take - of individuals adapting to and at the same time inspiring others to adapt – is how societies evolve.
To think otherwise – by favoring a “general” at the expense of a “particular” focus on adaptation - is to re-invoke a colonialist way of thinking which adaptation studies consciously seeks to avoid, as its practitioners try and find ways of understanding one another, as well as looking for transnational and transdisciplinary models.
I appreciate the amount of work being undertaken in the discipline, but I wish that some of the thinking could be a little more “out of the box.”