‘There’s nothing like a photograph for reminding you about difference’, reads a quote by Professor Stuart Hall, printed large on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery. ‘There it is. It stares you ineradicably in the face’.
The images that form the ‘Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948’ exhibit this quotation adorns represent ‘difference’ in various ways for the people gathered to view them. For some, it’s primarily a temporal difference. For the most part, the images show people who are long dead. For others, it’s a racial difference – and the absence of visual representations of black individuals from this period in history is part of what The Missing Chapter, an ongoing archive research programme supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, aims to remedy.
I was in London over the weekend, and decided to pop in for a visit. I deal a bit with photographic representations of otherness in my thesis, and it’s an area of research I find particularly interesting. Travis Louie, one of the artists I’m researching, has explicitly tied his decision to reproduce the Victorian photographic motif to the ‘the immigrant experience in North America from the late 18th century through the early 20th century’, which he sees as ‘a convincing record of such things’. Himself a descendent of Chinese immigrants, Louie recalls seeing old, black-and-white photographs hanging in the homes of childhood friends, and wondering why his family had none. Quite simply, he discovered, his ancestors were too poor to afford this kind of historical capital, and so their image has since faded from memory. For Louie, this lack of retrospective representation contributes in part to present-day racism and discrimination. You can read a bit more about Travis Louie’s work here.
On the exhibition homepage, the National Portrait Gallery explains the importance of making these images visible:
These portraits of individuals of African and Asian heritage bear witness to Britain’s imperial history of empire and expansion. They highlight an important and complex black presence in Britain before 1948, a watershed moment when the Empire Windrush brought the first large group of Caribbean immigrants to Britain. Research is ongoing and new information emerges continuously.
The exhibition is smaller and less obtrusive than I expected – except for the first room, which contains the quotation by Professor Hall and a number of enlarged photographs. This room is intentionally arresting; walls painted black, instantly visible from the stairway. The images themselves also stop you in your tracks, enlarged and printed in incredibly high quality. Unless you were to read the captions (or, in some cases, to note the clothing) you would never assume they were more than 100 years old.
The images can be found in three rooms of the gallery, and in the last two rooms you have to spend a moment or two searching. Despite the added trouble, I actually found this to be a very apt choice, as it makes the photographs feel like an important, embedded part of the gallery as a whole. While the first room holds a series of enlarged portraits, the rest of the collection mainly consists of smaller photographs and cabinet cards. These, like the larger images, seem chosen to evoke a sense of connection between the viewer and the picture, and I found myself eager for more information about these people, beyond the brief descriptions offered alongside the photographs.
Too often in historical representation, perhaps especially in Victorian representations, we get only one, very narrow perspective on the past. Now, certain movements and moments – neo-Victorianism, postcolonial steampunk, this exhibition – are confronting us with the narrowness of out experience. The result, in my opinion, is extremely rewarding.
‘Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948’ will continue to run until 11 December 2016, and I highly recommend it – not least because it’s completely free. There will also be a one-day conference on 21 October, which will mark the end of the project’s three-year funding.
This week’s guest post was written by Daný van Dam, who recently submitted her PhD on postcolonial neo-Victorian fiction at Cardiff University.
Together with Megen and with Akira Suwa, she is putting together a special issue of the online journal Assuming Gender on the theme of ‘Consuming Gender’ (submission deadline 16 October 2016, see here). At present, Daný is setting up a new research project on non-English-language neo-Victorian writing.
Five women are missing. One was last seen when visiting a travelling circus. A well-off family notified the police when their daughter went missing after meeting someone in town – not long after, the girl’s mother also disappeared. A fourth woman, struggling with mental health issues, hasn’t been heard from since her first visit to a psychiatrist. Considering her state, the police are concerned about suicide. The fifth woman disappeared close to an old cemetery – people in the neighbourhood claim the cemetery is used for dark and satanic rituals. The police are looking for clues. The only name that links all five women is Dr. M…
A few weeks ago, we went to the theatre for my birthday present – a performance. At this point, my birthday was long past, but due to a bout of the flu, I’d missed my original gift. I chose to drag my partner, who’s less of a classical music buff than I am, along to a performance of Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion by the Dutch, The Hague-based company OPERA2DAY. This blog provides some details about the show as well as my opinion about it.
OPERA2DAY are known for their alternative approaches to classical performances – in 2012 and 2013, they performed a collection of ‘lamenti’ – melancholic songs – by different composers in an old and empty hospital building in The Hague under the title Dolhuys Kermis. The title, which can be translated as ‘madhouse fair’, refers to asylums and madhouses in earlier centuries being open to the (paying) public for visiting, so people could gape at the supposed madness within.
Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion was performed in the Royal Theatre in The Hague, but here, too, OPERA2DAY didn’t limit themselves to the stage. The performance was preceded by a selection of ‘side programmes’ in the different foyers of the theatre. The indefinability and repetitiveness of these mini-performances pointed back to the madness of Dolhuys Kermis – and of course, the theme of madness returns in Dr. Miracle, with one of the five women disappearing after a visit to a psychiatrist.
Dr. Miracle’s potential victim is not the only one in the performance who may be mad – another candidate is the good doctor himself. Dr. Miracle is a travelling illusionist. During one of his shows, he makes a mistake, leading to the death of an unknown young woman he asked to participate in the act. As she dies, Dr. Miracle catches a glimpse of what he thinks is the eternal light of the hereafter. Inspired by this experience, Dr. Miracle continues to experiment in an attempt to capture the moment of transition between life and death, but his attempts become increasingly cruel. As he becomes more and more willing to risk the lives of others, Dr. Miracle loses his own grip on life and the everyday world, no longer able to distinguish between the real and the illusionary.
With Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion, OPERA2DAY wants to bring to life the period from the fin de siècle to the early twentieth century. While spiritualism was still a popular form of entertainment at this time (and taken seriously by many of its followers), scientific developments also rationalised what was before seen as mysterious and magical. Illusionism and spiritualism became increasingly close, with illusionists seemingly knowing things beyond what was normally possible and offering communications with the dead.
Dr. Miracle is played by Woedy Woet, a prize-winning Dutch illusionist who performs the tricks taking place on stage. His role is a silent one, though Tom Jansen provides a voice-over representing the doctor’s thoughts. In the programme booklet of Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion, director Serge van Veggel provides a historical background for the performance. Writing about opera, he states that, like many things, operas mirrored the concerns of their age. Magic, psychology and spiritualism, as well as a touch of horror, played a large role in nineteenth and early twentieth-century opera. The pieces sung and performed in Dr. Miracle do not come from one opera. Instead, the performance can be considered a ‘pasticcio’ – the Italian word for pasty, in which various elements become one coherent dish. Pieces from operas and ballets from, among others, Bellini, Offenbach, Verdi, Wagner and Stravinsky are brought together to create a new narrative with different meanings. At the same time, the familiar pieces evoke their original contexts, providing the performance with additional layers.
Director Van Veggel also engages with performance history, seeing nineteenth and twentieth-century developments in recording imagery and sound as a way for performers to be given a life beyond death. The three sopranos taking the roles of three of Dr. Miracle’s victims perform in the ‘bel canto’ singing tradition, which focused on refinement and elegance, singing in the service of the text and the performance as a whole. They provide an homage to legendary opera singers from Dr. Miracle’s age, especially Nellie Melba, Lilli Lehmann and Adelina Patti.
While Dr. Miracle’s Last Illusion is a wonderful piece of work, the performance itself (the actual opera and dance pieces, taking place on stage) did not live up to the standard set by the larger whole around it. To be fair, this may have been because my expectations were very high. Nevertheless, the show as a whole was definitely worth visiting.
If you happen to read this from the Netherlands and are willing to invest a few hours of your time: for each performance, OPERA2DAY needs several volunteers for a moment of audience-participation. These volunteers get to attend the performance for free. For more information, see here (in Dutch).
A few weeks ago I introduced you to ‘Lady Got Bustle’, a steampunk rendering of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s 1992 hit ‘Baby Got Back’. This video was just a bit of fan-made fun, but steampunk is a musical genre in its own right. Happily for my research, it’s chock full of monsters and strange creatures.
There are also plenty of steampunk bands making other kinds of music, even within the genre of historical monster mashup. Steam Powered Giraffe, an American band, performs a variety of different musical styles on the basis that they are 100-year-old automata. Initially pressed into service as war robots, they quickly gave up violence for a life on the stage. They do folk, pop, rock, and vaudeville, all in their own version of close harmony.
There are many monsters and fantastical creatures in Professor Elemental’s universe, from zombies to dinosaurs to Jeffrey the orang-utan butler. He has also invented an eclectic collection of augmented trousers with various functions, including (most notably) fighting and time travel. His songs (see ‘Fighting Trousers’) verge on parody – as, to be honest, does most of chap hop – but can also be unexpectedly sensible at times (‘Don’t Feed The Trolls’).
I’ll leave you with the video for ‘Sir, You Are Being Hunted’, in which Professor Elemental’s Inter-dimensional Trousers have malfunctioned, trapping him and the viewer in a monster-infested forest that looks suspiciously like the some back wood in Brighton:
This week’s post may at first blush seem entirely unrelated to my research on monsters, mashups, and popular culture, but it has more to do with these topics than you might think.
It will also blow your mind.
A number of years ago I discovered that a member of my immediate family could not visualise things in their mind, or bring to mind what something tasted or sounded like. We both assumed that this was a well-documented phenomenon, like colour-blindness or other altered perceptions. Last year, we learned that no one had actually bothered to study it before, and that it apparently affects a surprisingly large number of people – perhaps one in fifty. It’s called ‘aphantasia’, literally ‘without mental image’.
If you tell me to imagine a beach, I ruminate on the “concept” of a beach. I know there’s sand. I know there’s water. I know there’s a sun, maybe a lifeguard. I know facts about beaches. I know a beach when I see it, and I can do verbal gymnastics with the word itself.
But I cannot flash to beaches I’ve visited. I have no visual, audio, emotional or otherwise sensory experience. I have no capacity to create any kind of mental image of a beach, whether I close my eyes or open them, whether I’m reading the word in a book or concentrating on the idea for hours at a time—or whether I’m standing on the beach itself.
Ross’s writing process is equally interesting to those of us who are used to imagining a scene by visualising it. In the (rather lengthy) excerpt below, he describes how he imagines scenes when he is writing general prose:
First I think of a noun in my milk voice: cupcake. Then I think of a verb: cough. Finally an adjective: hairy. What if there was a hairy monster that coughs out cupcakes? Now I wonder how he feels about that. Does he wish he was scarier? Is he regulated by the FDA? Does he get to subtract Weight Watchers points whenever he coughs? Are his sneezes savory or sweet? Is the flu delicious?
If I don’t like the combination of words I’ve picked, I keep Mad Libbing until the concept piques my interest.
This has always struck me as an incredibly inefficient way to imagine things, because I can’t hold the scene in my mind. I have to keep reminding myself, “the monster is hairy” and “the sneeze-saltines are sitting on a teal counter.” But I thought, maybe that’s just how it is.
Overall, I find writing fiction torturous. All writers say this, obviously, but I’ve come to realize that they usually mean the “writing” part: They can’t stop daydreaming long enough to put it on the page. I love the writing and hate the imagining, which is why I churn out 50 dry essays for every nugget of fiction.
Perhaps my favourite part of Ross’s account is where he explains how hard he found it to believe that a ‘mind’s eye’ actually existed:
Even after the Exeter study, I was certain that what we had here was a failure to communicate. You say potato, I say potato. Let me be clear: I know nobody can see fantastical images through their actual eyes. But I was equally sure nobody could “see” them with some fanciful “mind’s eye,” either. That was just a colorful figure of speech, like “the bee’s knees” or “the cat’s pajamas.”
For Ross, it was the people who could picture things in their minds who were unusual. ‘Imagine your phone buzzes with breaking news’, he writes. ‘WASHINGTON SCIENTISTS DISCOVER TAIL-LESS MAN. Well then what are you?’
U. Exeter’s Adam Zeman, who coined the term last year, remains adamant that aphantasia is ‘not a disorder’, though ‘it makes quite an important difference to their experience of life because many of us spend our lives with imagery hovering somewhere in the mind’s eye which we inspect from time to time, it’s a variability of human experience.’
‘We have known of the existence of people with no mind’s eye for more than a century’, writes the New Scientist:
In 1880, Francis Galton conducted an experiment in which people had to imagine themselves sitting at their breakfast table, and to rate the illumination, definition and colouring of the table and the objects on it. Some found it easy to imagine the table, including Galton’s cousin, Charles Darwin, for whom the scene was “as distinct as if I had photos before me”. But a few individuals drew a total blank.
Zeman’s speculation about whether the ‘mind’s eye’ is a key part of human experience is part of what interests me so much about the condition. What perception do we define as human perception, and how do we account for natural variability in that perception? Are the people who saw a gold and white dress somehow less ‘human’ than those who saw a black and blue dress? Ross comments on this question as well:
I think what makes us human is that we know we’re the galactic punchline, but we can still laugh at the setup. The cosmos got me good on this one. How beautiful that such electrical epiphany is not just the province of the child. And were the bee’s knees real, too? And have the cats worn pajamas all along?
Are people who can’t picture things ‘inhuman’ or ‘disabled’ in some way. Of course not, you’re probably thinking, but why does their existence (or ours, from Ross’s perspective) surprise us so much? Furthermore, how do they then consume popular culture, which is intensely reliant on familiar modes of phantasia, and what does a piece of art geared towards a person with aphantasia look like? For me the question immediately becomes: ‘How many people with aphantasia are working in the arts, and how many have sat before me in an English Literature classroom?’
The answer potentially has huge implications for the humanities, and as someone teaching in English Literature I wonder how effective our current methods of approaching reading and meaning actually are. When I mentioned the condition to my colleagues at Cardiff University, many jokingly responded with something along the lines of: ‘What, you mean someone without an imagination?’A recent article by Mo Costandi in the Guardian explores the potential impact of aphantasia on education. He writes:
One study shows that using mental imagery helps primary school pupils learn and understand new scientific words, and that their subjective reports of the vividness of their images is closely related to the extent to which imagery enhances their learning. Visualisation techniques are also helpful for the teaching and learning of mathematics and computer science, both of which involve an understanding of the patterns within numbers, and creating mental representations of the spatial relationships between them.
While Costandi’s article is fascinating, the title (‘If you can’t imagine things, how can you learn?’) is poorly found. People with aphantasia still imagine things, they just do so very differently than people without aphantasia. Their experience is not inherently less rich, or less creative. It is simply rich and creative in a way the rest of us cannot imagine.
The article essentially concludes the same thing – aphantasia is not a disability in any traditional sense:
“We know that children with aphantasia tend not to enjoy descriptive texts, and this may well influence their reading comprehension,” says neurologist Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter who, together with his colleagues, gave the condition its name last year. “But there isn’t any evidence directly linking it to learning disabilities yet.”
While it’s good to know that aphantasia doesn’t affect reading comprehension more generally, current evidence says little about how metaphorical language is perceived. Descriptive passages in novels may be out, but what kinds of description? My aphantasiac family member is an avid reader, and passages like this one, from the opening of Iain Banks’ A Song of Stone (1997), are no problem:
So comparing things to ideas still seems to carry impact and emotion, while comparing things to other things, as in the opening passage of Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume (1985), becomes more problematic:
The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies.
The beet was Rasputin’s favorite vegetable. You could see it in his eyes.
This is part of what Adam Zeman’s AHRC project, ‘The Eye’s Mind’, aims to discover, but I suspect there’s enough work on this subject to go around for a good long while. I would be fascinated to know if any of you reading this identify as aphantastic, especially if you happen to work in the arts or creative industries. You can take an abridged version of the aphantasia test at this link.
Or, better yet, let me know if any of you are researchers at Cardiff, Exeter, Bristol or Bath, and would want to set up a GW4-funded project with me to explore these questions. (You can also contact Adam Zeman about his neurological research into aphantasia at email@example.com.)
As part of the final chapter of my PhD thesis, which takes a fan studies approach to historical monster mashups, I’ve recently been researching audience statistics for Pemberley Digital’s various series. Pemberley Digital is an online broadcasting company that specialises in serialised YouTube adaptations of classic literature. Specifically, I wanted to know whether Frankenstein, MD, an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), had a different audience than their other productions. Unlike Pemberley Digital’s other shows, Frankenstein, MD represented a genre shift from drama to horror. How might this affect their viewership?
Pemberley Digital’s representatives were very happy to send over screenshots of their YouTube demographics data, which yielded some very interesting results. Below are the audience demographics for the two most popular Pemberley Digital series, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (based on Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice) and Emma Approved (based on Austen’s 1815 novel Emma).
As you can see from the infographics, the audience for these series overwhelmingly identifies as female, and most are under the age of 24.
Unlike its other shows, Pemberley Digital produced Frankenstein, MD in cooperation with PBS Digital Studios, part of the online arm of the American Public Broadcasting Service (a free-to-view, non-profit, and largely educational media platform). This meant that while I could obtain demographics for all the extra videos produced for Frankenstein, MD (spinoff vlogs by Iggy DeLacey and Eli Lavenza) from Pemberley Digital, I would need to approach PBS Digital Studios for statistics on the main episodes. Fortunately, they too were happy to provide the information I needed.
As you can see, viewers for Frankenstein, MD content skew slightly older and identify more often as male – especially on main episodes of the series. Part of this difference in demographics is no doubt due to the diverse makeup of PBS audiences more generally. It’s likely that, due to its more diverse content, PBS Digital Studios simply has more men in its audience than Pemberley Digital, and these viewers were attracted to the show because it was broadcast on the PBS YouTube channel. The Frankenstein, MDproduction team, which is composed much more heavily of men than the average Pemberley Digital production, may also have helped skew the demographic. As a social network, YouTube users are split pretty evenly between male and female, though many gender stereotypes prevail nonetheless.
While I’m still working out what exactly this data can tell me about the audiences of historical monster mashup, it also led me to the question of who generally watches horror. Surely, as one Flavorwire list of ‘50 Must-See Horror Films Directed by Women’ points out:
Genre filmmaking has a reputation as a man’s field. That goes for audiences as well as filmmakers. To the novice, it’s easy to see why. For a long time women’s bodies have been used to titillate male adolescent horror fans — shrieking, squirming, disposable ciphers.
As it turns out, however, the audience for horror on big screen and small is not as male-dominated as one might expect. In fact, several recent studieshave suggested that it’s pretty much 50/50 (these studies tend to stick pretty strictly to a binary gender system).
Of course, this information will likely come as no surprise to scholars of the Gothic, a genre with a strong history of female readership (and viewership), but it’s worth noting that horror’s popularity with women crosses into visual media as well as textual media. In a 2003 Los Angeles Times article, Lorenza Munoz argues that female support for horror not only fuels its box office success, but ‘has revolutionized the genre’:
No marketing decision on these horror films is made without considering how to attract girls and women younger than 25, added Russell Schwartz, head of marketing for New Line Cinema, which distributed “Texas.”
“This young audience has been such a boon to movies over the past five years,” he said, noting that “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer” reinvigorated the genre and introduced it to a new generation of girls. “They can go in groups on a Friday night.
“It becomes a pack thing, the same way an action movie is a pack thing for guys.”
Weinstein, who began distributing Barker’s “Hellraiser” movies starting with the third in the series after he launched Miramax’s Dimension Films label, said Barker had to convince him that females should be targeted in the marketing campaign.
“I questioned that,” said Weinstein. “I didn’t realize that women were as big an audience as men. It’s not perception of action or violence” that draws them. “What you are selling is fright.”
[…] “The girls run the show.”
If these excerpts interest you, then I strongly recommend you check out the entire article (it’s a short read).
Of course, the fact that women make up 50% of the audience doesn’t mean that women are well represented behind the scenes of horror cinema. You may be aware that women only make up 4,7% of the Hollywood film directors in the past five years. Horror is lurking at the very back of the industry, with the crews on these films just 9% female on average. There have been numerous calls for female-led horror in the past few years, but it remains to be seen whether things will actually improve for women making horror as dramatically as it has for horror’s audiences.
In case you missed my original post on the subject, I’ve been writing regular recaps of Penny Dreadful for the Victorianist, a researcher blog with the British Association for Victorian Studies. After each episode, I talked readers through what we’d seen, reflected on what previous episodes and seasons had brought, and speculated on what was to come – sometimes with the help of various academic theories. This week, the last instalment (covering the two-part season three finale) went online.
Here’s a (largely) spoiler-free excerpt from my final post, to give you a taste of the review series as a whole:
For me, Penny Dreadful’s greatest success this season was the way it captured a sense of religious dread. With this I don’t mean the way it used religious figures or Christian iconography to signal a supernatural evil, though it does so in many cases. Instead, I’m talking about the way it explores themes of existential angst, and lets its viewers experience both the desire for salvation and the fear of damnation.
John Logan argued that Penny Dreadful ‘has always been about a woman grappling with God and faith’, but never did I expect this journey to be played out so literally. In previous seasons, even when it manifested itself more physically, viewers have always been allowed to read Vanessa’s faith and possession metaphorically, as a way for her to cope with the mental issues that have plagued her since her youth. We were never quite certain if Vanessa was possessed by a demon, or if she was her own demon.
Happy reading – and let me know what you thought of the show in the comments!
The following post was originally delivered as part of a Cardiff BookTalk screening of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). After watching the film, three academics (including myself) delivered short presentations on the story’s cultural contexts. A report of the event will be available shortly, but you can find the contents of my presentation reproduced below, with some minor modifications and corrections.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) the creature has the following to say about human communication:
I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it. (Chapter 12, paragraph 9)
Here the creature identifies communication (in this case, speech) as a stimulant that, when used correctly, produces human emotion – a ‘godlike science’ much like the one Victor Frankenstein used to give him life.
Fittingly, it was Mary Shelley’s communication of emotion nearly 200 years ago that provided the spark of life for the Frankenstein myth, which is still very much with us. She didn’t immortalise Frankenstein alone, however. Other texts, in other media and over many decades, have contributed to the legend and remade it along the way.
Rather than tracing all of these adaptations and revisions, which is a formidable task even for Wikipedia, instead I want to address one question:
What does it take to make a text immortal?
In his 1987 reception history of Mary Shelley’s novel, Chris Baldick suggests that all books (and Frankenstein in particular) have this potential:
Books themselves behave monstrously towards their creators, running loose from authorial intention and turning to mock their begetters by displaying a vitality of their own. […Shelley’s] novel manages to achieve a double feat of self-referentiality, both its composition and its subsequent cultural status miming the central moments of its own story. Like the monster it contains, the novel is assembled from dead fragments to make a living whole, and as a published work, it escapes Mary Shelley’s textual frame and acquires its independent life outside it, as a myth. (p. 30)
For Baldick, then, something about the novel itself encourages textual resurrection and transformation. This by itself is not enough, of course. In an article about the cultural success of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield suggest that ‘the key to cultural survival of a text is to adapt it to a changing audience; the key to cultural growth of a reputation is to expand it beyond the text’s native reach’ (p. 432).
As demonstrated by their choice of authors, the actual content of the stories matters less for the immortality of a text than the cultural processes that take over once they are written. Shakespeare’s melodrama is worlds away from Austen’s understated comedy of manners, and Shelley’s serious, somber work again differs dramatically from Shakespeare and Austen. There is no exact formula for writing an immortal story. Instead (for Troost and Greenfield), it takes three forces: fictionalisation of the author, adaptation, and travesty. So. both author and text need to come alive in fiction as well as in history, and new audiences need to feel free to use the author’s name and work in ways they were probably never meant to be used. Only then does a text enter the realm of myth.
Iconic images and ‘little personal stories’ are key ingredients in bringing the author to life (p. 442). We’ve got an iconic image, painted by Richard Rothwell in the mid nineteenth century, and we have the story of Frankenstein’s inception at Villa Diodat, by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. This is the story that is most often revisited when Shelley makes an appearance in fiction. While Mary Shelley herself hasn’t quite reached the same level of fictionalisation as Shakespeare or Austen, she has made cameos in a number of films and television shows – usually works of genre fiction (fantasy, horror, sci-fi).
In a 1997 episode of Highlander: The Series, Duncan MacLeod visits Lord Byron and the Shelleys, inspiring Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. In the 10th season of the TV show Supernatural, which aired just last year, the Stynes are an ancient family of magic practitioners, who had to change their surname from Frankenstein after Mary Shelley wrote about them. In the 1990 film Frankenstein, Unbound (based on a 1973 novel of the same name), a scientist travels back in time to meet Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, as well as Mary Shelley herself (played by Bridget Fonda). In a 2006 episode of the children’s animated series Time Warp Trio, Frankenstein’s creature becomes real and shows up in the main character’s apartment, necessitating a trip back to 1816 Switzerland to bring him face to face with his creator – Mary Shelley.
Fictionalisation of the author? Check. What about adaptation, then? As Troost and Greenfield write:
Works of literature prosper not through simple reproductions but through re-interpretations, quotations and transformations […] Megastardom for a writer comes only by being adapted to interest an audience far beyond the natural one. (p. 431, 438)
Shelley’s other work has received minimal attention from adaptors, but her best-known novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, absolutely fits this category. Its most iconic adaptation, the 1931 film version directed by James Whale, has also spawned countless adaptations, references, and reimaginings.
Again, it would be futile to try and take you through more than a small sampling of these adaptations, but as it’s always more effective to show than to tell, I’ve put together a brief montage:
The last clip in this montage is from an episode of Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, a show that ran from 2010 to 2012 on the Adult Swim network. In the show, fictional and historical characters seek help at Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory, which is accessible through a series of space-time portals. The scene, in which Frankenstein’s creature and Adolf Hitler have a beer together at the local pub, is one great example of the unexpected ways in which Frankenstein’s creature can be read.
The show could also easily be considered a case of what Troost and Greenfield call travesty – extreme adaptations that stretch our definition of the term. While some may even appear to attack the text they are adapting, Troost and Greenfield argue that they too are vital to a text’s immortality: ‘travesties are themselves markers of high reputation and respond to textual transformations that have already occurred’, and ‘transformations that play against the forms and reputations of the works actually promote them while mocking them’ (p. 439).
In the case of Frankenstein, we have examples of the story stretching far beyond what we would traditionally call adaptation. The text is embedded in our very language. Think of Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat, the Frankenfish, Frankenfoods or Frankenstorms. My current research is on Frankenfiction. All of these references carry the text far beyond its natural habitat, to new audiences and new meanings.
Without all three of these elements – adaptation, travesty, and fictionalization – our relationship to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would be quite different, 200 years on. In the end, as Baldick argues: ‘That series of adaptations, allusions, accretions, analogues, parodies, and plain misreadings which follows upon Mary Shelley’s novel is not just a supplementary component of the myth; it is the myth’ (p. 4).
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and James Whale’s Frankenstein, and Kenneth Branaugh’s Frankenstein, and Pemberley Digital’s Frankenstein are all Frankenstein. Every time we read or watch them, we recreate Frankenstein as well.
In the end, the story of Frankenstein has power because we give it power, by using it over and over again. If you love Frankenstein, then – whether we’re talking about the novel or the film or some other version – the best thing you can do to ensure it lives on for another 200 years is to keep watching it, keep reading it, and keep re-writing it. Keep re-stitching it into something new. And while you’re at it, add a few anachronous bolts (or gears) for good measure.
Baldick, Chris, In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987)
Troost, Linda, and Sayre Greenfield, ‘“Strange Mutations”: Shakespeare, Austen and Cultural Success’, Shakespeare, 6 (2010), 431–45
Salvagepunk is an idea and framework I’ve been toying with for a couple of weeks, and which I borrow loosely from Evan Calder Williams’ Combined and Uneven Apocalypse (2011). In this book, Calder Williams looks at the way apocalyptic fantasies function in late capitalist culture. Salvagepunk is a useful way to approach other modes of cultural production as well, however. It’s a framework that is indebted to both cyberpunk and steampunk, and which is especially useful to apply to remix culture, sharing, as it often does, a politics and aesthetic with the notion of salvage. More recently, this subject has been explored in a Leftist quarterly called Salvage.
Salvage – a term that, in English, was originally associated with the payment received ‘for saving a ship from wreck or capture’ – only came to describe the act of saving itself in the late 19th century with the dawn of the salvage corps. As cities grew, and the risk of large-scale property loss became more central, insurance underwriters found it profitable to establish fire salvage services to reduce losses. A later meaning, evolving during WWI, refers to the ‘recycling of waste material’: put explicitly, the combing of battlefields by the British Army’s Salvage Corps (a ghoulish double entendre), which re-purposed the parts and property of fallen machines and soldiers for continuing use in the war effort.
In each case, salvage is a response to the opportunity for profit or, at the very least, for minimising financial loss. As Calder Williams writes, the primary definition of salvage today is also ‘waste sorting and value recuperation’ (p. 35, emphasis mine). Salvage is not only the logical extreme at the end of history, it is also the logical extension of capitalist values: for every object a market value. Nothing is ever really junk. Assuming we want to move outside of the capitalist logic that makes us consume our own past again and again in various iterations (which may or may not be our goal), something different is needed.
For Calder Williams, the end of history that postmodernism signalled was, like all apocalypses, never really the end. Rather than simple rebellion (a rebellion he calls a kind of ‘apologist participation’ on p. 30) against the historical metanarratives that have led us to this present reality, we must instead look for the alternate stories within those metanarratives. Most importantly, we must struggle against ‘current trendlines of nostalgia, the melancholia of buried history, and static mourning for radical antagonistic pasts seemingly absent from contemporary resistance to capitalism’. Cultural modes of historiography like steampunk fall too close to these trendlines for Calder Williams – but does the historical monster mashup? Steampunk brings the past back to life in order to fetishise it, and many fans of steampunk are no doubt also fans of historical monster mashup for the way it borrows these same retrofuturist aesthetics.
Now, my work on the historical monster mashup doesn’t currently focus on apocalyptic fiction – though, in a sense, all contemporary fiction is post-apocalyptic, coming as it does on the heels of postmodernism and the ‘end of history’. The texts I’m looking at do, however, seem very interested in the possibilities opened up by the salvage of the past. Whether we call the product of that salvage adaptation, remix, or historical fiction largely becomes a question of aesthetics, which in turn determines whether it can indeed be seen as an act of salvage (salvation and eventual repurposing) or a simple case of grave robbing (and ultimate waste).
Acts of salvagepunk attempt to walk a middle ground between these two extremes. They ‘strive against and away from the ruins upon which they cannot help but be built and through which they rummage’ (p. 20). It is this oscillation that renders salvagepunk distinct from postmodern instances of pastiche, Calder Williams argues:
Fundamentally opposed to pastiche, salvage realizes the eccentricity of discarded, outmoded, and forgotten things still marked by the peculiar imprint of their time of production and the store of labor and energy frozen in their form. A form from which all value has supposedly been lost. Above all, it is that work of construction, not simply getting to see what can be sold back to the industrial suppliers, but a production of ‘valueless times’ to see what values might emerge outside of the loops of circulation and accumulation. (p. 42)
In other words, in order to preserve the value of objects, we first need to destroy them. Ultimately this destruction is a creative act (p. 41). We cannot stop repeating, but we should be concerned with ‘how to repeat differently, how to make from the broken same the livelier constructs of something other’ (p. 69).
It’s been a rough couple of weeks in the world. You deserve something light and playful to take your mind off it all.
Further to my recent post on poetry and cultural appropriation, I though I would gift you with one of the most bizarre and wonderful things I have seen this month – Katherine Stewart’s ‘Lady Got Bustle’, the steampunk parody of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s 1992 hit ‘Baby Got Back’.
In this video, a group of (mostly) white people sing about how ‘when a lady slips by with her cage in the sky / Then you don’t need to ask why / You just swoon’. Is this a case of cultural appropriation? Why or why not? This certainly isn’t the first music video to appropriate Sir Mix-A-Lot’s well-known ‘Baby Got Back’, but it is the only one I know from steampunk, which may be one of the whitest subcultural trends ever (with some very noteworthy exceptions).
Here’s a definition of cultural appropriation from actress Amandla Stenberg (appropriately, on a website called Bustle):
Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture they are partaking in.
With that definition in mind, have a look at the video below (lyrics pasted beneath for your reading pleasure).
Oh good heavens, Rebecca! Gaze upon her posterior. It is vulgar in the extreme. She resembles one of those airship-captain’s doxies! But honestly, who can comprehend those roguish adventurers? Certainly, they only associate with her because she bears the common stamp of a draggle-tailed guttersnipe. It strains credibility how very – noticeable, how prominent – I say! – it’s deplorable! She’s quite simply… Steampunk!
Men favor large bustles and I cannot fib
You gentlemen may find me glib
But when a lady slips by with her cage in the sky
Then you don’t need to ask why
You just swoon, take out your salts
Now claim her for the next waltz
She’s bold and her fashion’s daring
You know that you can’t stop staring
These ladies are worth the hype
So take their daguerreotype
Those old boys try to counsel you
But that bustle creates such voodoo
Ooh, handsome bounder
Don’t be tempted to try to hound her
Just woo her, woo her
Don’t you even think of trying to fool her
You see her dancing
She’d appreciate some romancing
For she’s sweet, neat
And that bustle is packing heat
She’s tired of being told
That her fashion sense is old
Take a roguish man and see him smirk
She has to wear a skirt
So gents! (Yes?) Gents! (Yes?)
Has your lady a bustle dress? (Oh yes!)
Tell her to twirl it! (Twirl it!) Twirl it! (Twirl it!)
Twirl that party dress!
Lady has bustle!
(Tea-party face with an airship ruffle)
Lady has bustle!
They like them flounced, and long
And made of fabric strong
And when she goes up stairs, you must be careful sir
That you don’t step on her
For she’ll box your ears
Oh my! and again, Oh! My!
I shan’t tell you again sir
For that behavior is for the birds
You like a challenge?
Then chivalry’s a must sir
Find a girl with bustle
And then you’re in for a tussle
You may watch a kinetiscope
And see scrawny women thin as a rope
A real man wants ruffles
They know they need a bustle
A word to the genteel fellow, you know we like you
We won’t ever spite you
But we must be quite frank when we say that we want
A debonair man
Steampunk is most sublime
A lot of punks won’t like this rhyme
For they’re too busy trying to define it
While the rest of us want to play
For we’re here from far and near
And we wish to have a lovely time, dear
So, Darlings! (Yes?) Darlings! (Yes?)
Have we made our point at last? (Oh yes!)
Then turn around! Show it off!
And no one will dare to scoff!
Lady has bustle!
Lady has bustle!
[Director: Katherine Stewart
DP and Editor: Christopher Sheffield
from an idea by Katherine Stewart and Sue Kaff]
You’re welcome, internet.
This parody is certainly funny, but I don’t think it’s a case of appropriation. It’s not taking something negatively associated with Black culture and using it to try and be cool (unless the definition of that word has changed since I was a kid). It also definitely understands the significance of the symbol it’s appropriating (booty) and how to humorously translate this to steampunk culture (bustle) without being mocking or condescending. As always, you are welcome to disagree with me in the comments.
While I was researching this question, though, I did turn up some very interesting facts about bustles and booty.
[White women] themselves were regarded as “prostitutes” in the late nineteenth century if they exhibited this feature (Gilman, 1985, 94–101). Thus, white men and women both, when labeled “deviant,” were paralleled with “black” sexuality. Such associations, however, did not prevent middle-class white women of the period from donning bustles. This appropriation of a “big behind”—a sign of grotesquerie, later connoting a sign of luxurious beauty in the bustle—illustrates the complexities of white responses to racial and sexual difference, which elicit both repulsion and desire. (p. 101, emphasis mine)
So, it seems as though Katherine Stewart isn’t the first to make the connexion between the booty and the bustle. The Victorians (as always) were way ahead of everyone in cultural appropriations of Black bodies and fashions. If any of you Victorianists out there happen to know more about the parallels between these two beauty icons, please – let me know in the comments.
What can monsters and the monstrous tell us about earlier societies and civilisations? This week’s guest post comes from Tom de Bruin, who researches concepts of evil in early Christian literature, and is New Testament Lecturer at Newbold College of Higher Education. Read more about him and his work over on his blog.
Monsters are hot. It seems that networks are producing more and more monster shows: Penny Dreadful, The Walking Dead, and The Vampire Diaries, just to name a few. Monsters have escaped the fetters of the horror genre and broken free into blockbusters. Even classical works are being rewritten by mixing monsters with century’s old texts, to create new works and their film adaptations: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
In the ancient near east, monsters were everywhere, including ancient religious texts. The beasts of Daniel and Revelation, the giants of Genesis 6, the evil spirits, and people possessed by them are all examples of monsters and the monstrous immediately present in Biblical writings. Moving to extra-canonical works the examples are even more apparent: the tortures and tortured souls in the early Christian apocalypses, Lilith, and primordial beasts such as Leviathan and Behemoth. The monstrous nature of some of these is immediately evident in their embodiment (e.g. giants). Others are monstrous in geography or location (e.g. tortured souls) and behaviour (e.g. demon-possessed humans). All are monstrous in the impact they have on the audience, they embody otherness, threaten commonality, yet strangely attract.
What are monsters?
Defining monsters or the monstrous is decidedly difficult. The term “monster” has, in contemporary times, come to mean anything imaginary that is unnatural, frightening or excessively large. In different times monsters assumed different guises. Often, monsters are ill-constructed of mismatching parts, grotesque in their overabundance of certain organs or qualities.
Whatever the monster might be, it was a culture that designed it that way.1 So-called Monster Studies examines the roles that monsters and the monstrous play in culture: it is ‘a method of reading cultures from the monsters they engender.’2
Liminality and the Other
Culturally, monsters play an important role. They look different, they think differently, they act differently. As such they define the limits of “normal.” Wholly marginalised, they stand on the abyss of what is culturally acceptable and what is not. Beyond generally excepted ethics and aesthetics, they police ‘the boundaries of culture, usually in the service of some notion of group “purity”.’3
This delimiting role of the monstrous does not solely account for its permanent presence in cultural texts: monsters are found in texts from all ages and cultures. The monster is horrifically attractive. 4 Texts focussing on the monstrous often contain a tripartite structure in which first the monster is admitted. Then the monster is entertained and is entertaining. Finally, the monster is expelled. Entertaining the monstrous in texts is a safe manner to both describe and discourage socially unacceptable behaviour. Behaviour, that is, which remains unconsciously attractive.5 The entertaining nature of the monstrous shows that the monster is both distrusted and desired, both loathed and envied.
Temporality is key to monsters. The monster is given a temporary existence in a clearly defined space. Carnival and Halloween are contemporary cultural instances in which monstrosity is given a defined temporal existence. The monstrous exists in the text, but only during the act of reading is the monster given life. Once the predetermined time has passed, the monster disappears. Order is restored, good is distinguished from evil and the self from the other. For this is the fundament of the monster. As the monster is principally defined as being different to oneself, the monstrous becomes a symbol for everything that is wholly different from how one wishes the self were. The dichotomy between representing otherness and representing desire shows an important characteristic of the monster. it reflects ‘back parts of ourselves that are repressed’.6 The monster, entertaining as it is, grows to show us that we too are monstrous. The monster is most deeply disturbing as it is neither ‘wholly self nor wholly other’.7 As the monster portrays unacceptable behaviour, it models our – often, by necessity, deeply hidden – unacceptable thoughts and actions.
Do Monsters Exist?
Finally, in its refusal to be categorised it is moot to attempt to put monsters in fully detailed categories. Questions such as ‘Are these monsters imaginary or physical?’, ‘Are they allegorical?’, ‘Are monsters nothing more than our subconscious emotions, fears, or prejudices?’ are not useful. The value of monsters is shown in Cohen’s answer to the question ‘Do monsters really exist?’: ‘Surely they must, for if they do not, how could we?’8 Monsters, real or not, allegorical or not, manifestations of our subconscious or not, are cultural productions. As such, through an analysis of the monsters and monstrous present in a text, we can learn about the culture in which this text was produced and transmitted. As such the text becomes a witness to a social milieu, which is in part defined by the monsters it fears.
A Case Study in Monsters
Somewhere in the second century of the Common Era, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs reached their final form. A Christian author/editor created a book consisting of twelve farewell speeches, partly based on earlier texts and traditions. Each of the sons of Jacob, the patriarchs of the twelve Jewish tribes, was given a speech where he looked back on his life, prophesied about the future, and give his children advice for their lives. The advice revolves around the Christian double commandment: Love God and love your neighbour. These Testaments are full of monsters. Not physical monsters, spiritual ones. The invisible forces of darkness, often called evil spirits, are depicted having a very direct and powerful influence on the life of each person. They can influence the most important part of a human: the mind. The Testaments focus on the mind is some detail: each person consists of a human spirit that is constantly influenced by both good and evil spirits. Each person has to make sure that her mind does not become influenced by the evil spirits so that she can keep living a righteous life.
The Testaments describe the bodily nature of humans in the Testament of Ruben, the first testament. At creation, God gave mankind eight spirits that make up human nature: life, sight, hearing, smell, speech, taste, procreation and intercourse, and sleep. Soon after that Satan, God’s opponent, mixed his spirit with these and eight evil spirits were brought into being: fornication, greed, battle, flattery and trickery, arrogance, lying, unrighteousness, and sleep.9 These evil spirits are associated with various part of the body. Fornication comes from the reproduction organs, greed from the stomach, battle from the liver and gall bladder, etc. Thus certain parts of a person’s body can be associated with the forces of evil. In this way the spirit and the body are interconnected.
The association of evil actions with specific parts of the body, is a theme that is maintained throughout the Testaments. When Simeon plans to kill his brother Joseph, his hand withers for five days. The part of the body that is associated with the sin outwardly manifests itself as monstrous. The envisioned deed of the part of the body is horrible, but not only that, even the appearance of the part of the body is terrible.
Gad explains in his testament how we should understand this: ‘for by the very same things by which a man transgresses, by them is he punished’ (Testament of Gad 5.10). This seems to imply that God seeks a fitting and somewhat ironic punishment, but the Testaments require more nuance to this. If Gad’s hatred for Joseph arises in his liver, that is if the evil spirit manifests in that specific organ, it stands to reason that this organ will be influenced by that spirit. Therefore, any consequences of anger will focus on that specific organ.
The forces of evil can influence more than just parts of the body. Staying with Simeon, we read how jealous he was of Joseph. The spirit of jealousy tortured him. His body, mind, and soul were agitated. Jealousy deluded and devoured him. He would awaken to confusion. He could not think clearly, his mind was paralysed. Eventually, he concludes:
And even in sleep desire for evil appears and devours him. It confuses his soul with evil spirits, startles the body, and wakes up the mind in confusion. Thus, he appears to others as if possessed by an evil and poisonous spirit.
(Testament of Simeon 4.9)
The last sentence is key. He appears to others as someone possessed by an evil spirit. A person under the influence of the forces of darkness, that is a person whose mind has been taken over by the monstrous, such a person will appear to others as being monstrous.
Through these two examples, we can see the power of monsters in the Testaments. The Testaments are, as we discussed earlier, predominantly interested in each person’s mind. The mind has to keep making good decisions. The monsters are not physically present and can have no physical influence on the world. But, mankind can function as a means through which the invisible monstrous manifests itself in the visible world. The great danger that the Testaments wishes to warn their audience about is the other. Monsters are the other made flesh, but each person could also become the other. A person can cross the border towards the monstrous, becoming a monster herself; with monstrous limbs and a monstrous appearance. In the Testaments the other is not a group of people marginalised, but an aspect of human nature, and thus a part of each person. As a person slowly becomes the other, she no longer is herself or even that which defines her. As one lets oneself go over to the dark side, one slowly becomes the other, losing all hope of remaining oneself. In this way she becomes everything she hates.
The basis of the Testaments ethics is closely related to this. It is mankind that makes the opponent visible in the world. The ethereal monster becomes incarnate in the deeds, attitudes and even bodies of people led astray. This struggle of not only doing the opponents will, but becoming a champion of the monstrous itself is the basis of the ethical exhortation in the Testaments. The motivation for the ethics is the call to the audience not to become exactly that, which they do not want to be. The monster must stay out of the community and, preferably, out of the world too.