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.

1 comment:

  1. I liked the post and got intrigued with Kamilla Elliott’s talk on “Add-app-Tation” - what a great idea [and title!!! as Borges said, and here comes an adapted memory version- I thank her for writing down my thoughts] - I would love to do the same thing with DON QUIXOTE!!

    Very funny the last paragraph! Why on Earth someone would understand you are not in favor of adaptation studies?!!! Hahahahahahaha