Wednesday, 30 November 2005

Schnitzel on Roses

One of many things I'm going to have to figure out how to pull off without looking like a pathetic tosser when I finally finish my stupid dissertation (like coming up with a title - I'm still looking for ideas - got any? let's have 'em) is how to fully acknowledge exactly how many of the good ideas in it originated with Dorian. Ideas like the one in chapter 2 which is so good (and so inexplicably original) that I'm mortally afeard some faster person will happen onto it before I get this thing finished, and like the very nice thickening and lateralising tangents I'm adding to the intro this week, all drawn from the Negativland book which accompanied the CD of theirs Dorian bought last week.

I've taken the liberty of uploading an mp3 of Negativland's hilarious cutup of Julie Andrews singing "My Favorite Things" for your listening pleasure - since the CD came with two badges one of which said "steal music" and the other "steal content" I figured they really couldn't complain. (Metro Goldwyn-Mayer might, though. Do your worst, MGM! But be warned I will delete your comments if you use bad language.) Listen to it here. But only if you like hearing about nose cream on kittens and so forth.

The book is called Two Relationships to a Cultural Public Domain. It puts the case that imitation and appropriation, repurposing found material, are key and foundational human activities, essential to the viability of a culture (which is absolutely true), and that copying is demonised wherever art is seen first and foremost as a negotiable commodity and as a great lingua franca only secondarily, if at all. What's useful to me about their particular formulation of this topic is that they present adaptation-like activities, cultural recyclings, as A) amazingly cool and a bit sexy, and B) completely antithetical to corporate & capitalistic moneymaking. That fits with what I'd already written, that adaptation is an irritant in the popular cinema machine because it doesn't tally with the myth of the creative genius film author, and that myth is the main way we reclaim industrially produced movies for "art". It gives me another example of what's challenging to whom about adaptation and of why that challengingness makes attractive crusading fodder for some upstart temperaments.

I've been putting off building in this stuff (new media activism, culture jamming, creative commons etc) for at least a year, out of despair at where to begin on it, but maybe it's not going to be as hard as my superego has been telling me.


Pavlov's Cat said...

It doesn't tally with the myth of the creative genius book author, either -- so it's an irritant in the Literature as High Art machine as well, a point I'm sure you also make.

Surely it's your supervisor's job to give you help with the problem about how to build in the new stuff?

Norman Gerre said...

Thanks for the implicit link to the Negativland essay. (The full text is online.) And that Julie Andews mashup is fantastic.

If you're adding a section on creative commons etc., you might throw in something on fans. Fanfiction writers go in more for unofficial sequels and episodes, but there are always people writing straight adaptations. And there's the burgeoning fan-film community too. It's interesting that the genius myth is alive and well there -- you frequently see disclaimers to the effect that Joss Whedon is God, J.K. Rowling the greatest writer in the literary canon, etc.

Hil said...

Hi Laura. Are you familiar with Lawrence Lessig's free culture presentation:

which has the refrain:

*Creativity and innovation always builds on the past.
*The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it.
*Free societies enable the future by limiting this power of the past.
*Ours is less and less a free society.

Re fan fiction, I think that within fan communitites the motivation for writing it is often as a 'gift' to the community.

Lucy Tartan said...

Thank you Pavlov, Norman, and Hil for three very useful and thoughtful comments. I am reading Lessig's book Free Culture (2004) at the moment. I'm not certain how it might fit in with my thing but it's interesting for its own sake, so that's good enough for now. The paper you linked to, Hil, reads like an alternate-universe revision of Harold Bloom's big theory about how poets always have to do battle with their precursors - have to get out from under the stultifying weight of the hightoned past - and can only do it by misreading the precursors. Bloom also thinks poetry gets harder as history accumulates because there's more to get out from under. Distortions and "infidelities" in adaptation then are psychic defences against the goodness of the past.

It's the exact opposite line to what you & Norman suggest about fan writing, which I think is a much more attractive model for what it is that motivates the making of good faith and genuine adaptations - the nice old notions of homage, reverence, paying dues, and acknowledgement. The only fan writing I know anything at all about is Austen-related. I will certainly look for places to put in little bits and pieces about fan writing.

It is only little bits an pieces that I'm going to add, though. The dissertation is about film adaptation and not strictly about the different issues collecting round new media. The main line I'm pushing is that theories of adaptation need to make room for the spirit of love and loving engagement, one way I see that happening is through the spirit of collection, like a bowerbird, and I'm having fun acting that out by collecting loads and loads of odd bits and pieces (anecdotes, analogies, sidetracks) for the collectioneering chapters. The Negativland project appeals because it gives full weight to the sheer pleasure and enjoyment attached to recycling cultural materials.

Pavlov, I think the myth of promethean authorship is far less mythical in connection with literary production than it is with filmmaking. Would you agree?

Pavlov's Cat said...

Hmmm. I'm a literature person, not a cinema studies person, so it's hard for me to tell because I simply haven't done the reading. And of course if one is of a literary bent, then one almost ignores the director and looks for the screenplay credit in any case ... :-)

If by 'less mythical' you mean 'more accurate', then yes -- unlike a movie, a work of literature really is produced (usually!) by just one person. And from the high Romantic conception of the artist onwards there is that massive privileging of the single writer-figure and you have only to hang around at writers' festivals and watch the fans to see how powerful it is. Devoted (and non-academic) readers really do idolise writers.

There are also the fights one has about interpretation with such readers, who say 'But if the author says she didn't MEAN what you've just said, then you must be wrong.' Most readers and certain kinds of writers are very big on authorial intention and very loth to let it go. Which also contributes to that writer-as-god thing.

It even works negatively, by which I mean, say, the case of JM Coetzee -- famously taciturn, but the punters can still get very snaky at festivals and such when he won't do the self-revealing thing, as if the oracle had refused to utter.

NB -- I was serious about the supervisor -- helping with that kind of thing is his/her job.

Galaxy said...

Is adaptation 'completely antithetical to corporate & capitalistic moneymaking'? My first thought when I read this was about the 'blockbuster' concept, where adaptations of existing cultural products are made into films precisely because they can exploit an already established audience (think Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings) and therefore make a great deal of money. In this instance adaptation is part of a business strategy by organisations who have diverse interests. It's true that the directors of such films are not considered 'auteurs', but I think it is more the critics, reviewers, 'upstart temperaments' who might be irritated by the reworking of existing material--'they've run out of ideas'--rather than 'the popular cinema machine'. Since you mention culture jamming etc, the kind of recycling you're talking about is clearly that by individuals or small non-profit organisations rather than Sony--more along the lines of poaching and ways of using ala Michel de Certeau--but I suppose my thought is that it isn't necessarily about adaptation as such, as it is about the institutional site and power relations in which such recycling occurs.

Anonymous said...

I am out of my depth here, but that never stops me.

On the most superficial level, adaptation is enabled by capitalism in the sense that a mythical entity "IP" is transferred by contract, along with some "rights" which are actually just rules which the parties agree to obey. Typically these rules enable some kind of consultation with the original author, in return for which s/he shuts their gob about the resulting mess because s/he has "taken the money".

See Ursula Le Guin and Philip Pullman in relation to this.

This consultation is a halfways tilt of the head to the next level of adaptation – that the author has crafted an entity which now lives in the culture, which the author tries to protect. The Le Guin saw her characters in Earthsea as black, and changing them to white defaces them and steals her meaning.

Then, one level down again in my impromptu schematic, the author is the inheritor and requoter of an entire heritage. Genre, convention, form and reader expectation – it is all created by someone else. You can't write about ents, because Tolkien created them, but where did Tolkien get his dwarves and orcs? When does material become matter, as in the Matter of Arthur? When am I entitled to write about a horde of ents charging the embattled dwarves?

Murky stuff here. Not so much about capitalism, more to do with the idea of the self. And yes, the construct of the self is profoundly bound up with capitalism. But on an experiential level, I feel guilty about ents, but not about dwarves. For some reason, an important delight in the experience of LOTR is the participation in a fresh universe. It is the innovative bit that is owned, and it is the innovative bit that I crave as a reader.

So I note the reworking of the dwarves, but I don't use the new idea of the ent. After all, the very notion of art in our society is bound up with the new.

Part of the ownership thing which feeds back to cultural history is the concept of integrity. If I read a graphic novel which refers to Gilgamesh, for instance, and realise that the author has no idea what s/he is referring to, then I get shitty and kick the rubbish bin. Something has been ignorantly attacked. If someone rewrites Gilgamesh as a bikie story, that is something else, an addition to the matter, a gloss and descant on a shared tradition.

Shifting sideways, there is also a sense in which ownership is relinquished as soon as I write something. I don't own this comment after I post it. In important ways, you do, as it has been read, has become part of you. It influences you, changes you. (trivially I know, but the principle is vital).

So, in film for instance, I should be entitled to rework the material I experience, to create something else that is born from my response. The owner of the Coke logo should not be able to stop me creating defaced images; the owners of images from our cinema past should not define how I respond to it.

Just as Coke claims to own the log, I claim to own my response, my experience of it, the contents of my own head.

The Coke logo is a good example, because they have tried to own both the colour and the cursive font, both of which are simple inheritances from the past.

There's a lot more to this. A whole thesis from you, for a start.

- barista

Pavlov's Cat said...

Apropos issues of ent guilt and Coke logo memory: your use of the word 'promethean' (I'm not sure in how specialist a sense you were using it) made me think of Peter Carey's novel My Life as a Fake, which is a sort of fictionalised re-telling of the Ern Malley hoax, which in its turn is a wonderful example of radical reworking: McAuley and Stewart wrote the 'poems' using whole phrases and lines out of a book on drains and something else I have forgotten - some sort of technical manual, I think.

In Carey's book, the imaginary Ern Malley materialises as a figure who is unmistakably, for anyone who has read Frankenstein, a version of Frankenstein's monster: the Promethean over-reacher has created a being who has turned on him. Carey is sampling/re-working/adapting/pinching from Stewart, McAuley, Max Harris (who after all took the bait and published Ern Malley's poems, thereby 'creating' him further) -- and Mary Shelley.

Multifarious issues of reader response and interpretation arise. To say nothing of Harris's only child Samela who lives here in Adelaide, and her hypothetical rights to a share of the profits from Carey's book. You could write another book about it.

Lucy Tartan said...

Wow, thank you, Galaxy, Barista, and Pavlov. Out of the riches you've provided I'll just pick one to be going on with for the present - the knotting of threads adaptation, capitalism, and readerly responsiveness. I wonder what you people reading here might think of this idea: adaptation, understood as reworking an already finished product, is an important part of the culture industry's procedures for making maximium profit from minimal outlay (as Galaxy's example of the Harry Potter / LoTR franchises shows). At the same time, it's a key expression of the desire to claim one's inheritance and to pass it on that Barista wrote about so interestingly ("rework the material I experience"). The two modalities, or discourses, are in conflict....but perhaps only until copyright on the source work has expired. Rad adaptations of out-of-copyright "classics" tend to be the ones adaptation theorists champion least halfheartedly. Conversely, I never seem to read a review of a movie based on a recent novel which commends (or recommends) an adaptation which asserts the right to renovate the property. I'm thinking aloud here....

The coke logo example reminds me of Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin's L'Amour - ai ai ai! is all I can say now about that can of worms! (Except that their audacity is impressive.)

Pavlov's Cat said...

A quick PS -- I don't know what the exact equivalent is of 'reader response' in film theory, but the Peter Carey example above was to do with audience recognition of material being re-worked -- I'm wondering where intepretation fits into this whole business of (re)appropriation and reworking. I'm sure most people who read the Carey wouldn't have picked up the Frankenstein refs (but they're obvious -- if you've read the Shelley). Or, say, kids watching Clueless cluelessly, as it were. Is it about generating multiple meanings at different levels of recognition?

Galaxy said...

On the one hand, from a film-as- business perspective I think adaptations of existing successful cultural works are a way of minimising the risk of failure in an enormously expensive business. Executives and indeed anyone are, if not clueless about what stories will give them a return on their investment, then at the very least not able to predict with certainty what will prevent a loss on any given film project. Adaptations of existing works which already have global audiences are one way of minimising the riskiness of the business and work together with other strategies such as merchandising and overseas sales. Some make the argument that the film is just one aspect of a much larger enterprise around a cultural product. Again LotR with its tourism franchises and engraved gold rings available for purchase are illustrative. Actually, while watching Da Kath and Kim Code the other night, I thought their commentary on The Da Vinci Code as franchising/adaptation enterprise was insightful: there was the children's bath book, the video game and, of course, the tour Kath and Kel had just returned from (Still not as good as a Bryce Courtenay book though ; ))

The question of contemporary adaptations of contemporary works does seem to attract more negative reaction, as if somehow one is sullying the original work, emptying it of meaning, rather than contributing other nuances. Personally, I don't think a corporate adaptation is somehow inferior to a culture jammer's reworking of a text. They have different motivations certainly, but neither have a claim to a 'better interpretation' or use of an existing text. I wonder where Tarantino's films fit in this discussion? He is afforded auteur status by many and yet a key aspect of his 'signature' is his reinterpretation/repackaging of Asian cinema... What about adapations that are lauded? Sin City for example. Does Frank Miller's choosing of Rodriguez make all the difference in the critical reception?

On the question of 'claiming one's inheritance', I wonder to what extent an investigation into the function of narrative would be helpful? I don't know that I'm suggesting you look at Propp's Morphology of the Folk Tale or even the work of Levi-Strauss, but maybe there is something in identifying specific narrative elements that resonate across eras and cultures. At the very least, if you agree that cultural artefacts arise out of cultural and historical contexts then a question arises about why Clueless and Emma (with Gwyneth Paltrow) were released with in a year of one another 180 years after Austen's novel was first published. What use is being made of Austen's work that reveals something about US/UK society a decade ago? Almost certainly something about the centrality of young women in the public sphere at the cultural moment of the third wave of feminism, I would hazard.

And Mary Shelley herself borrowed from a story for her cautionary tale, in turn spawning a whole Frankenstein's Monster industry, from the first terrible stage play to the Hammer Horrors, to the Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Munsters. I shouldn't forget to mention the Twix Ad (it's online somewhere). I think the Rocky Horror Show adaptation is a good example of the way adaptatations explore contemporary issues. If one reading of Shelley's work allows for explorations of what it means to be human, then Rocky (released in 1975? at the height of gay and feminist rights movements)presents sexuality and its free expression as a key component of human-ness; Mary Shelley's Dr Frankenstein created a creature as a means of discovering the key to human life; Frank'n'Further creates an entirely sexual being in Rocky.

Lucy Tartan said...

Here's Sherry Levine (with a little help from her friends):

The world is filled to suffocating. Man has placed his token on every stone. Every word, every image, is leased and mortgaged. We know that a picture is but a space in which a variety of images, none of them original, blend and clash. A picture is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture. Similar to those eternal copyists Bouvard and Pecuchet, we indicate the profound ridiculousness that is precisely the truth of painting. We can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. Succeeding the painter, the plagiarist no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings, impressions, but rather this immense encyclopedia from which he draws. The viewer is the tablet on which all the quotations that make up a painting are inscribed without any of them being lost. A painting’s meaning lies not in its origin, but in its destination. The birth of the viewer must be at the cost of the painter.


"Audience recognition of material being re-worked" - that's the very navel of the how-to-theorise-&-criticise-adaptation issue, Pavlov, & I'm overjoyed you typed it into the box, because you bringing it up it must mean I'm throwing out the kinds of shoots and runners that naturally find their way to the subject. AFAIK there is very little scholarship on the subject that's native to film theory - there's plenty in broader narratology, and lots of good useful stuff has appeared recently in literary studies about how necessary active readerly participation is for the activation of allusions in a literary work. Recognition matters. I'm arguing that a good way to evaluate adaptation is to consider how much it allows viewers to make sense of their own moments of remembering and recognition. I view it as an ethical question: not only should it be seen as decent and honest for one artist to acknowledge his relationship with his precursor, but the newly derived artwork should also acknowledge that its own audience is perhaps similarly indebted - "hey, that's MY Jane Austen!" "NO, she's MINE!!"

In adaptation studies the trend is pushing in the exact opposite direction - toward more and more forceful statements to the effect that allusion-like relations between films and books they're based on can't be allowed to matter to criticism, no matter how obvious and essential they are to fully informed film spectators, because (my pet peeve creeping in here) supposedly implies an elitist assumption that the only audiences worth bothering about have all read every one of the 1082 titles in the Penguin Classics library.

Phooey to that. What about the people who HAVE read the book? The movie is addressed to them too! to quote that sage Baz Lurhmann again, good art has something for everybody.