Friday, August 21, 2015

Deconstructing the Adaptation Studies Critic

I’ve just read Thomas Leitch’s very generous review of Patrick Cattrysse’s DESCRIPTIVE ADAPTATION STUDIES published in the latest issue of ADAPTATION, where he accuses the author of being prescriptive, as well as being in favor of a “science-based discipline,” suggesting, perhaps, that there might be some conclusions to which everyone, regardless of context and culture, could subscribe.  Leitch himself prefers to describe adaptation as “endlessly debatable, revisitable, [full of] adaptable questions, insights, and leaps of faith,” even though he describes Cattrysse’s work as indispensable as well as infuriating.  The review can be accessed at

I don’t want to comment on Cattrysse’s work anymore (I reviewed it for Literature/Film Quarterly and referred to it frequently in subsequent blog-posts and essays; but what does warrant further comment is his assertion that any discipline can be “science-based.”  I wonder what that term actively signifies: does it mean that it consists of a series of indisputable precepts beyond negotiation?  Or can adaptation studies be reconfigured as a series of experiments designed to prove a particular theorem?  Will we be able to divide further essays for Adaptation or Literature/Film Quarterly into sections in a fashion similar to those used in pedagogical studies, with particular sections devoted to “problem,” “literature review,” “application,” or conclusion”?

Or is the entire notion of “science-based” disciplines the invention of critics desirous to prove that what they are doing represents an important contribution to their specific discipline?  I grew up with the work of F. R. Leavis, a controversial figure of mid-twentieth century British literary criticism, who insisted on critical objectivity; any poem, or other text, could be analyzed with scientific precision, producing a series of indisputable conclusions on content and form.  This is how I learned to “do” practical criticism; by dividing my textual analyses into content and form, I could understand in minute detail precisely what the writer was trying to communicate, with a depth of knowledge denied to ordinary readers.

I’ve just finished reading Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s satirical novel The Time Regulation Institute.  Originally published in 1961 under the Turkish title Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsü, it is a wildly funny satire of bureaucracies, where legions of people spend most of their time doing nothing.  One of Tanpınar’s major concerns lies in emphasizing the difficulties of separating truth from fiction: people believe what they want to with little concern for veracity.  The hero of the novel is an illiterate with little or no self-reliance; catapulted into prominence in the Time Regulation Institute, he has a whole past invented on his behalf that transforms him into an ideal husband, Stakhanovite worker and intellectual visionary.  No one bothers to question him, even when the Institute collapses.

Tanpınar’s satire encourages us to consider precisely how and why certain discourses are perceived as authoritative in preference to others.  In the case of the novel’s hero, it is his status at the centre of the company that renders him an authoritative figure.  The fact he is manifestly unqualified for the task doesn’t really matter; in fact, it proves a positive advantage based on the principle that ignorance is bliss.  I don’t want to press the analogy too far, but it seems to me that the reason why Leavis’s (or Cattrysse’s) assertions are given credence is for a similar reason; it’s not what they are saying that’s important, but the status of the speakers themselves.  If we accept what they are saying, then perhaps we might share their status in the future.

What has this discussion got to do with adaptation studies?  Theoretically speaking, not much.  But what Cattrysse’s comment does reveal is the presence of a battleground, where critics and theorists of different disciplines are competing for recognition of the kind Leavis enjoyed half a century ago.  The stereotypical image of scholars beavering away in their ivory towers developing ideas is nothing but a myth; adaptation studies specialists – myself included – are as publicity-conscious as anyone writing in the public sphere.

But perhaps this is no bad thing.  The more scholars contribute interventions, the more possibilities emerge for theoretically informed debate – not closed debate over “scientific” principles, as Cattrysse might assume, but debate between colleagues from various disciplinary origins as to how the discipline might advance as a self-contained unit, or how adaptation studies might be used to advance other disciplines.  We need authors like Tanpınar to skewer our pretensions, and thereby understand how scholarly positions are constructed and reconstructed across cultures.  I value Cattrysse’s comment, if only to show how the critic-as-authoritative-figure is an ideological construct that needs to be debunked.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff, Laurence--interesting and thought provoking. As always. We might see Cattrysse's assertion of adaptation studies as a science-based discipline as a counter-balance reaction to the field's 20th-century history of neglecting to try to establish what Ray calls "a presiding poetics." And we should remember that science is, at its core, also "endlessly debatable, revisitable, [full of] adaptable questions, insights, and leaps of faith." Perhaps, in its most productive light, "science-based" is a buzz phrase that accentuates the need for more systematic theoretical approaches to adaptation studies--a call to move, once and for all, away from rootless studies that use nothing more than the critic's evaluative judgments to beg the questions and prescribe the answers about what adaptation does.
    At the same time, as you point out, there is a considerably less productive light that might be shining on the term "science-based discipline." We definitely need to be on guard against these weird rearings of the New Critic's head in the field. It seems to me that some nooks and crannies in adaptation studies are serving as hidey holes for dormant New Critical urges. Such closed-system approaches definitely tend to shut down cross pollination and cause colleagues from other disciplines to, regrettably, keep their distance.