Saturday, February 13, 2016

Adaptation and ADAPTATION: Foregrounding the Personal

I have just emerged from a quite remarkable panel at the Southwest Texas PCA Conference in Albuquerque, USA.  Last year I had been blown away by a series of presentations given by high school learners that proved beyond doubt that critical theories could be accessible to everyone so long as they were sufficiently motivated.  I wrote about my experiences in a short essay now available in the latest issue (No. 3) of Dialogue: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy (

This year I was part of a panel on adaptation theory.  I delivered a short presentation reworking some of my core beliefs in the future of adaptation studies in light of comments made recently by a publisher acquaintance of mine, interpreted through the prism of a visit made to the Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque where the term “adaptation” was specifically used as a term to describe cultural and spatial adjustment over time.  I summarized my ideas in a presentation now accessible on

What really blew me away both intellectually and emotionally was a presentation given in the same panel by Jillian St. Jacques of Oregon State University.  I first encountered him last year, when he also shared a panel with me about adaptation theory, and I was intrigued by the freshness of his ideas, even if I did not necessarily agree with them (I did not necessarily need to).  For this year’s panel St. Jacques had chosen to consider “adaptation” through the lens of his own autobiography as someone born into a homophobic family, who had lived life as a trans-sexual, and subsequently chosen to set aside that role and become a family man instead.

With the aid of photographs of his own life at various stages from adolescence through middle age, coupled with incisive critical views mediated through Foucault and Judith Butler, St. Jacques made me acutely aware of just how personal adaptation studies actually is.  Whether we like it or not, that process of coming to terms with our roles imposed on us in the societies we inhabit, and trying to work through them, is fundamental to our existence, and one which inevitably involves adaptation.
This might be a controversial viewpoint to many who are either not involved in adaptation studies, or those who are just beginning on their travels through adaptation.  What can the process of transforming literary into cinematic texts, or other transformative processes variously described as translation, transmediality or remediation have to do with the kind of processes St. Jacques was referring to?  The answer is everything and nothing.  Any process of adaptation, as Jerome Bruner once said, involves the construction of narratives; these narratives are not just designed to be watched or listened to, but are fundamental to the way we think.  As we go throughout life, these narratives are shaped and reshaped, but never fixed.  Adaptation is everything in the sense that the term describes that process of shaping, but nothing in the sense that we are in a perpetual state of uncertainty.  We never know how long the narratives we construct are going to last; and whether they will satisfy us in the present or the future.  This was the main thrust of St. Jacques’s talk.

In more general terms, St. Jacques also problematized some of the terms that are often not sufficiently deconstructed in adaptation studies – for example, the ways in which “masculinity” and “femininity” are perceived.  A recent book written by Shelley Cobb has taken a feminist take on authorship; in light of St. Jacques’s talk, we might wonder what “feminist” authorship actually signifies.  From a more ontological perspective, how do we as individuals understand what being a “man” or “a woman” involves?  Maybe we have to think of adaptation as a complex process as we come to terms with ourselves as well as the worlds we inhabit.  Maybe that process is never-ending: this is what I understood from St. Jacques’s piece.

More than ever I realized how adaptation studies is a process of negotiation and re-negotiation; and that this process takes precedence over all other processes associated with the discipline such as translation, remediation or transmediality.  This negotiation is both transnational and transtextual; it not only determines how we reinterpret texts such as films, books, or material online, but also how we, as personalities, are shaped and reshaped by such texts as well as our encounters with others.
At the end of St. Jacques’s presentation, I felt as if I had been hit by an intellectual train; other participants were clearly emotionally shaken.  As I write this, some three hours after St. Jacques finished, I am still trying to come to terms with the implications of what he proposed.  I believe that adaptive process will take some considerable time.

Laurence Raw

St. Valentine’s Day 2016