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”).

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