Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Adaptation and Perception: Media Convergence: Mainz 2015

Last week I attended a conference on “Adaptation, Perception, and Media Convergence” in Mainz, Germany, and gave a talk on perception and metaphor.  Although including some of the ideas – of mindfulness, mesearch and psychology – that I have explored elsewhere, I felt that something about this presentation was fundamentally wrong.  I could not explain why at the time, but I understood that I had not really put across what I wanted to say.  The talk can be accessed at

It was only this week, four days after the presentation that I began to understand what had happened.  In advocating a form of adaptation studies based on perception and self-reflection, I had gone too far in the individualistic direction, and thereby abandoned the notion of a community of purpose that I believe underpins all forms of adaptation studies.  It is all very well learning how to reflect, but we need to shape our reflections according to the communities we inhabit so that we can continue communicating – and thereby adapting to new situations.  This form of work underpins all screenplay writing in the movies, as well as in the academic field.  In advocating a move towards perception as self-reflection, I had ended up becoming dogmatic; a state of being that is quite contrary to that which adaptation studies should promote.  We need to listen to others as well as ourselves – as Jerome Bruner suggests in Making Stories (2002) – adaptation evolves out of reconciling the perpetual tensions between individual and community values.

The conference as a whole vividly illustrated the truth of this notion.  While listening to and commenting on the papers, I understood that “convergence” actually had two meanings.  It not only referred to textual issues – where media and other texts come to have shared purposes and shared meanings – but it also described the ways in which people from disparate backgrounds come together to discuss similar issues while acknowledging the presence of different ways of thinking.  Kamilla Elliott’s talk on “Add-app-Tation” vividly illustrated the first meaning of “convergence” as she showed how the creation of new apps helped to encourage a variety of approaches to Shakespeare study that did not involve close textual reading.  This did not mean that textual reading should be abandoned altogether; on the contrary Elliott showed how it could be approached in a different way through visual as well as verbal means.  Some of the apps she showed might have seemed childish to older academics; but they might prove exceptionally useful to those encountering Shakespeare for the first time.  The apps could thereby help to expand the Shakespearean community of purpose across a wider cross-section of the people.

Heiko Hecht’s presentation on the effects of furniture, lighting, and their relationship to adaptation reinforced this notion.  By presenting a series of empirical experiments conducted within his department (of psychology), he showed how notions of color and space invariably depended on perception rather than any objective standards.  Such perceptions might differ across cultures – “redness” might signify something different in the Republic of Turkey rather than Germany – but at the same time there existed a shared meaning that could be considered transcultural.  The conflict between these two values of transculturality and culture-specificity is what prompts individuals to adapt.

Rainer Emig’s piece offered some interesting points for adaptation scholars to consider.  Is there such a concept as “authorship,” or has it been superseded by “transmediality” or “convergence”?  Does adaptation studies want to be multi-disciplinary or does it aspire to become a separate discipline?  And does there need to be an accepted body of knowledge (which we might term “theory”) that separates adaptation studies from other disciplines?  As I listened to the talk, I bore in mind a statement made during a coffee break by one of the other participants: those academics who proclaim that their work is “original” or “ground-breaking” might actually be working in a spirit contrary to what Emig suggests.  If adaptation studies values convergence, then it follows that any theoretical or methodological advances within the discipline should evolve out of consultations between people.  Maybe there’s no need to go over old ground – for example, by asking “what adaptation studies is” – but maybe we need to think more carefully about how (or whether) the discipline needs to adapt theories developed in other disciplines for its own particular purposes.

This thought sprung to mind once more as I listened to Pascal Nicklas’s talk on adaptation and neuro-cognition.  He put forward a model of cognition – developed by Arthur M. Jacobs of the University of Berlin and adapted by Nicklas himself – proposing that the human brain works differently when confronted with a literary as opposed to another form of text.  While we might be prompted to ask basic questions as “what defines a literary text?” the model still goes a long way towards explaining the pleasure we might experience when rereading a literary text (as opposed to watching a literary adaptation).  Put another way, Jacobs’s model might help to justify in more empirical terms what Bruner says about the ways in which individuals learn how to adapt to different cultures and different situations.  The fact that Nicklas presented the model in such an accessible and enthusiastic manner suggested a willingness to involve the community in re-shaping individual perceptions, and thereby expand adaptation studies’ field of research.

Dan Hassler-Forest’s talk made similar points through showing different forms of video clip.  While arguing – as I had done – that adaptation creates its own forms of narrative he simultaneously suggested that such narratives converged with other narratives so as to render them comprehensible to others.  The authors of “new” narratives, so to speak, built on “old” values.

One of the most interesting side-issues that emerged from the conference was to learn about government policy as practiced in the United Kingdom, where universities are expected to make an “impact,” through initiatives that help to change (adapt?) existing policies.  Other initiatives, such as going out in to high schools and integrating with wider members of the community, are described as “outreach,” which possesses lesser value than “impact” insofar as it has no effect on government policies.  The Mainz conference had both “impact” and “outreach” in other ways; it made an “impact” in the way it brought people with different approaches to adaptation studies together and made them reflect on what they were doing, and how they could communicate better with each other.  This was something I learned through painful experience, even though it took four days to understand it.  The conference’s “outreach” consisted of integrating papers from different subject interests together – media studies, psychology, cognitive studies, literature – and showing how they might collaborate more closely with one another.  At last it seems that the discipline is beginning to move away from the literature-film-media paradigm into other areas of research.  That is not to say that everyone agrees with what’s being done (there were several “full and frank” discussions throughout the conference), but nonetheless they remain prepared to commit themselves to an ad hoc, as well as transnational community of purpose dedicated to the discipline.

I learned recently that consequent on my presentation, some colleagues believed I was not in favor of adaptation studies.  Far from it: I think its emphasis on learning, shifting perceptions and reflection (both individual as well as community) renders it one of the most exciting places to be within the academic world.  The Mainz conference admirably reinforced this belief.  For this, I’d like to thank Pascal, Dan and Sibylle, as well as all the hard-working people who helped to make this event such an intellectual eye-opener.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Adaptation, Perception, Metaphor

In the mid-1980s I studied for my MA and D.Phil. at the University of Sussex at a time when cultural materialism enjoyed a peak of popularity.  The volume Political Shakespeare edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield originated out of work done in the Renaissance Studies seminar:[i] with contributions by graduate learners and an afterword by Raymond Williams, it was hailed at the time as a landmark text dragging Shakespeare out of the liberal humanists’ clutches and planting him at the center of the contemporary political agenda.  Texts such as The Tempest offered trenchant postcolonial critiques, while stage adaptations such as the Michaels Bogdanov and Pennington’s English Shakespeare Company rendering of the histories provided insights into Britain’s (lack of) influence in the global socio-economic order.  Implacably opposed to the Thatcherite government, the cultural materialists envisaged a time when literature would occupy a central position in a politicized curriculum dedicated to creating new communities of resistance.  Anyone advocating the power of the imagination was summarily dismissed: I remember one professor branding the Renaissance scholar Frances A. Yates as “potty,” on account of her suggestion that the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Elizabethan writing – spearheaded by Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare – referred as much to the development of psychological awareness as political consciousness.
Three decades later the theoretical wheel has turned full circle.  While politics (with a small ‘p’) continues to occupy an important place in critics’ minds, they also admit the possibility of imaginative transformation permitting artists and viewers alike to explore new constructions of being.  Recently broadcast on BBC Two Scotland (with a forthcoming repeat on BBC Four over Christmas), Lachlan Goudie’s History of Scottish Art offers a prime example.  In a program discussing Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his contemporaries, Goudie suggested that members of the so-called “Glasgow Group” embraced a transmedial view of art; they not only worked with canvas and paint but with architecture, design and handicrafts.  Through formal as well as stylistic innovations they infused their productions with an imaginative power designed to draw viewers into close artistic communication.  This process proved liberating: artists no longer felt constrained by the need for ‘relevance’ as they enjoyed a new-found freedom to experiment.  In the next program, “Long Horizons,” Goudie argued that artists of the Sixties such as Eduardo Paolozzi created surrealist collages comprised of popular cultural products designed to prompt reflection on whether the binary separating the conscious from the subconscious response needs to be rethought.  We are reminded of the capacity of the imagination to transform belief.
What bearing does this shift from politics to the imagination have on adaptation studies?  I recently encountered Dan Hassler-Forest’s and Pascal Nicklas’s edited collection The Politics of Adaptation, which boldly announces its desire to foreground “the political and ideological contexts and power relations in which artistic adaptations take place.”  They are concerned with the ways in which globalization and media convergence influence production and distribution, emphasizing “the importance of adaptation as a tool of appropriation and power negotiation in racial and postcolonial debates, as well as in terms of biopolitics and gender” (11).  Through case studies the book maps “larger ideological shifts, especially while examining the interaction between a particular text and its cultural reception” (12).  I find these statement fascinating as they appear to recycle (adapt, perhaps?) the arguments proposed by cultural materialists all those years ago.  Yet I would not thereby assume that Hassler and Nicklas are returning to the past; read in conjunction with Simone Murray’s seminal work on The Adaptation Industry (2012), we understand how the visual media has been dominated by corporate interests dictating the construction of individual adaptations for film and television.  Noam Chomsky’s recent film Requiem for the American Dream offers a chilling reminder about how our perceptions of the world have been shaped by big business.  Movies and television provide one of the principal means to accomplish this task.
On the other hand I would query whether institutions dominate individuals as much as they would like to believe.  Müge İplekçi’s Turkish novel Mount Qaf (Kafdağı) (2008, English translation 2012) follows a number of recent fictional works by showing how the individual/institutional opposition is a western construct existing primarily within the realm of the imagination.  But what if we were to cast off this belief and assume instead that we were members of an anima mundi wherein questions of life, death, belief or non-belief (binaries with their origins in the west) no longer assumed any significance?  What if we approached life as a series of moments to be enjoyed on their own terms as opportunities for adaptation so that we could enrich the lives of those around us?  This Anatolian-inspired faith in the power of the universe might be considered “romantic” by many westerners, evoking Keats, Wordsworth or philosophers such as Goethe with his notion of the weltanschauung.  Nonetheless İplekçi raises two points about adaptation studies which have been largely overlooked to date.  First, the discipline should acknowledge cultural, philosophical and ideological differences that challenge several of its most basic assumptions, especially the use of binaries (source/target text being the most obvious).  Second, adaptation studies as a discipline should concentrate exclusively on the literature-film-media studies paradigm but engage us on a daily basis.  We spend our entire existences learning how to adapt to new situations and new phenomena; until we build self-referentiality into our theoretical work, the discipline will remain on the academic margins, an adjunct to the ‘real business’ of more established fields within the humanities or social sciences.
I do not need to belabor the point about moving towards a more reflective construction of adaptation studies acknowledging the capacity of the imagination to transform the world around us.  Our focus of interest should extend to other types of text – paintings, sculptures and literary fiction not necessarily based on a specific source.  Several colleagues in Fan Studies have enthusiastically embraced this mode of analysis by showing how individual lives have been transformed by Star Wars or the Jane Austen cycle of adaptations, to give but two examples.  I believe that adaptation studies should draw on their insights while extending them into new avenues of research.  It’s not only films that redefine our perceptions – any text can possess similar transformative potential.
For this purpose, I’ve found recent theories of mindfulness extremely beneficial.  Developed by cognitive psychologists and frequently invoked as a means to combat depression, mindfulness encourages living in the moment; to observe our changing thoughts and feelings without judging them.  Rather we should value our capacity to adapt and thereby work towards a better life.  I’ve written extensively about the subject elsewhere; for the purposes of this presentation, I argue that mindfulness places perception at the center of our existences.  Our response to a text promote further adaptation as we make sense of new information or new insights (Raw, “Psychology and Adaptation,” 89-101).  We should also acknowledge the capacity of our imaginations to express the inexpressible.  This is an important point, common to all writers and spectators at cinematic or televisual transactions, which has hitherto received scant attention in adaptation studies.  Susan Sontag drew attention several years ago to our tendency to use metaphor to describe illness, or to use illnesses metaphorically to sum up adverse situations.  The use of metaphor becomes a form of shorthand, a means to stimulate unconscious associations in the interlocutor’s mind (86).  The same phenomenon also crops up in creative thinking and/or problem workshops pitched at business communities, wherein “metaphors and analogies can be really helpful to get […] something that is difficult to share with words” (“Impact Innovation”).  Metaphors do not require explanation; they possess a unique capacity to stimulate and enrich experience.[ii]
What I advocate is a model of adaptation studies that might seem superficially retrograde, flying in the face of the cultural materialist or postmodern thought that underpins existing theories by foregrounding the importance of authorial intention.  In cinematic or televisual events the viewer’s or the fan’s perception assumes equal importance as that of the director or screenwriter.  Through comparing their interpretations, we can learn a lot about how texts are consumed in a variety of socio-temporal contexts.  This model foregrounds mindful engagement: we are not solely concerned with transmediality per se but try to make sense of our shifting reactions to texts as well as those producing them.  We engage in mesearch as well as research, more accurately defined as a quest for self-knowledge through scholarship (Rees).  Metaphors provide a means to communicate the outcomes of this quest to others as well as foregrounding ourselves at the center of the creative process.  The binaries separating “artists” from “critics,” or “actors” from “spectators” no longer matter: everyone should meditate on the relationship between perception and ontology.  It is this seemingly endless process of discovery and rediscovery that renders adaptation studies so endlessly fascinating.

“Black Culture.”  Artsnight.  Dir. George Cathro.  Perf. George the Poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson.  BBC Two 30 Oct. 2015.  Television.

Dollimore, Jonathan, and Alan Sinfield, eds.  Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism.  Manchester: Manchester UP., 1985.  Print.

“Dympna Callaghan.”  Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences: Faculty Directory.  2014.  Web. 2 Dec. 2015.

Hassler-Forest, Dan, and Pascal Nicklas, eds.  The Politics of Adaptation: Media Convergence and Ideology.  New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015.  Print.    

The History of Scottish Art.  Dir.  Pauline Law.  Perf.  Lachlan Goudie.  BBC Scotland 2015.  Television.

“How to Express the Inexpressible.”  Impact Innovation 1 May 2014.  Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

İplekçi, Müge.  Mount Qaf.  Trans.  Nilgün Dungan.  London: Milet, 2012.  Print.

Murray, Simone.  The Adaptation Industry: The Cultural Economy of Contemporary Literary Adaptation.  London and New York: Routledge, 2012.  Print.

Raw, Laurence.  “Psychology and Adaptation: The Work of Jerome Bruner.”  Linguaculture (2014):  89-101.  Print.

Rees, Emma.  “Self-Reflective Study: The Rise of ‘Mesearch.’”  THES 19 Mar 2015.  Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

Requiem for the American Dream.  Dir.  Peter D. Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, Jared P. Scott.  Perf. Noam Chomsky.  Naked City Films/ PF Pictures, 2015.  Film.

Sontag, Susan.  Illness as Metaphor.  New York: Farrar, Strous and Giroux, 1979.  Print.

[i] At least one member of that group went on to pursue a successful academic career; now the William A. Safire Professor of Modern Letters at Syracuse, Dympna Callaghan began her career at Sussex (“Dympna Callaghan”).
[ii] According to the performance poet George the Poet, our power to create and savor mataphor lies at the heart of all individual and social change (“Black Culture”).