On the Cutting Room Floor (Part Two)

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‘Untitled V’ © Jason Hopkins

The following post is part of an early, discarded draft of the introduction to my PhD thesis on monster mashups. Having just completed a second, and (hopefully) infinitely more readable version, I thought it would be fitting to celebrate by looking back to where I started. Since it will no longer become part of any published work, I’m sharing it here on my blog for posterity. There is of course a reason this was cut—so take it with a grain of salt! It unfolds over two parts; you can find part one here

As the monster undergoes changes in our society’s narratives, so too does our society’s way of telling and distributing those stories. When I suggested in part one of this post that the form and distribution of neo-historical monster mashups contributed to their posthuman nature as cultural objects, I was suggesting that, in twenty-first-century culture, globalisation and transmediation contribute to the fragmentation of meaning. Both the figure of the author and that of the subject are becoming decentred by our processes of cultural production and consumption. Much like an academic essay, popular culture is inherently relational, ‘always defined, implicitly or explicitly, in contrast to other conceptual categories’.[1] Drawing on Storey’s first of six theories of popular culture, Peeren advocates the following definition:

Popular culture comprises those cultural artefacts that are seen and talked about by large audiences, whose members do not always fit neatly into a social class or any other category of social differentiation. One of the most important aspects of this definition of popular culture is that it reaches across the entire social spectrum, even if not everyone interprets its products in the same manner. […] In the end popular culture, as I regard it, is the site where the struggle between dominant culture and the cultures of marginalized social groups is most openly and indeed most democratically played out.[2]

This approach to popular culture, which emphasises its plural interpretations and relational nature, is compatible with a posthumanist framework. Like posthumanism, popular culture decentres the subject, using the language of dominant culture to ‘work through’ its influence and become something other.

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Katja Novitskova, “Approximation V Chameleon” (2013). Photo: Achim Hatzius

The first contributor to the posthumanity of popular culture is globalisation. As Herbrechter argues, globalisation ‘is inherently posthumanist because at the very moment something like “humanity” seems geographically and representationally realizable, the “referent” of this humanity disappears and dissolves into its constituent and its others’.[3] In other words, we understand the term ‘humanity’ as a concept, but whenever we try to conceptualise an example of this humanity we are forced to acknowledge that this example falls short of the concept. Our referent is always elsewhere. Over the past century the structure of the world’s population has shifted from a series of isolated local communities to a series of localised global communities. Though lack of education and access to technology still limits participation in the global community, these limits are far less pervasive than they were even ten years ago. In the capitalist world, which is also increasingly global, consumers are becoming steadily more involved with the products they consume, sometimes even dictating or appropriating their production. This complicates our understanding of the process of interpretation as taking place between an ‘author’ figure and a ‘reader’ figure.

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Likewise, transmediation and crossmediation complicate readings of texts and their audiences by splitting the same narrative across multiple media platforms. Crossmediation does this by simply transplanting a story from one medium to another – for example with both a novelisation and video game version of an upcoming film. Transmediation expands one story across multiple media, with as little overlap as possible. The Assassin’s Creed novels, for example, tell stories that are completely new, but are supplemental to the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise. In this case, as with many examples of transmediation, these stories reference each other, and fans are encouraged to purchase both to obtain a ‘complete’ understanding of the narrative. Both of these processes of remediation reflect the current state of the consumer market, where audiences demand both more and more content from their favourite products, as well as more niche products. If this material is not available from the product’s producer, fans will often create it themselves.[4] This is especially true outside of the Western world, where storytelling methods are developing independently of the fixed commercial structures of the west.

The general expansion of a cultural product’s distribution and the change in its distribution method are both related to the recent and ongoing shift in our modes of cultural consumption. In the twenty-first century, the consumer is increasingly a producer/consumer (or prosumer)[5] in a participatory culture that rejects the idea of passive spectatorship. As we have seen, one result of this shift is the remix or mashup. As author William Gibson describes:

Today’s audience isn’t listening at all – it’s participating. Indeed, audience is as antique a term as record, the one archaically passive, the other archaically physical. The record, not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital […] the recombinant (the bootleg, the remix, the mash-up) has become the characteristic pivot at the turn of our two centuries.

Even when audiences do not actively participate in an object’s creation, they often respond to that object in an active and social – though also highly personal – way, for example on social media or through fan fiction.

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For Henry Jenkins, rather than ‘talking about media producers and consumers as occupying separate roles, we might now see them as participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands’.[7] This blurring of the border between producer and consumer is made possible by recent technological advances like the internet, and has wide-reaching implications for authorial supremacy, and for existing power structures in media production. As Bruce Sterling asserts in his digital remix ‘Death of the Author 2.0’:

The user-producer is a concept that speak [sic] to the digital experience and the freedoms that this digital culture allow [sic] for ordinary people to become artist and producer. This model fundamentally challenges the traditional assumptions of author, it moves away from the idea of the romantic notion of authorship, which saw authorship and cultural production as an isolated activity of a genius sitting and creating something out of nothing.[8]

Sterling’s title clearly references Roland Barthes’ comments in Image, Music, Text on the ‘death’ of the author. Like the humanist subject, the author ‘is a modern figure, a product of our society in so far as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the “human person”’. Referring here to the same cultural process that brought us humanism, Barthes argues that authorial intention is ultimately useless as a hermeneutical tool, serving only to grant the figure of ‘the author’ (or ‘the artist’) an unrealistically pivotal role.

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Cover image from Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’

As with so many of the ‘deaths’ ushered in by poststructuralism, the death of the author has never quite been realised in either academia or popular culture. Even in popular music, where the success of the ‘vocal artist’ is more and more a team effort,[10] the figure and power of the author lives on.  Remix (along with other forms of participatory culture) fulfils Barthes’ description of the author in a way other texts still struggle to do: as ‘a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture […] the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them’.[11] Though Barthes would not have been familiar with remix culture at the time of this description, it strongly evokes the remix ideology.

For Barthes, efforts to ‘decipher’ texts in an authorless world become meaningless.[12] Without authorial intention, there can be no inherent meaning. As Gunkel asserts in response, this means that ‘the objective of the reader, listener, or viewer is not to unearth and decode some secret meaning situated outside of and just below the surface of the text, but to engage with the material of the text itself, to disentangle and trace out its various threads, and to evaluate the resulting combinations, contradictions, and resonances’.[13] This new objective, which resonates with the aim of the critical analysis approach to texts, is increasingly popular in contemporary criticism, and vital to any analysis of remix culture.

Into this world monsters emerge, perfectly suited to play to the needs of the posthuman era’s prosumer. They symbolise the other, but also the self and the self-as-other. Their identity is mutable. Monsters are heavy with the weight of history, and rich with historical meaning. Their use in everything from folk tales to breakfast cereal marketing makes them endlessly versatile. They have come signify nothing, and thus are capable of signifying everything. They are the ideal posthuman vehicle, always elsewhere.

[1] John Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, 5th edn (London: Pearson Longman, 2001), p. 1.

[2] Esther Peeren, Intersubjectivities and Popular Culture: Bakhtin and Beyond (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), pp. 21, 23.

[3] Stefan Herbrechter, Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 142.

[4] Consider the example of Susan Byles’ performance on Britain’s Got Talent in Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (New York: NYU Press, 2013), pp. 9–16. The network failed to spread the video widely themselves, but fans did so on their own terms, clipping parts of the broadcast and sharing them on YouTube and other social media. This represented unintended and unplanned publicity for the network. See also Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2012).

[5] See Jenkins, Ford and Green, Spreadable Media.

[6] William Gibson, ‘God’s Little Toys: Confessions of a Cut & Paste Artist’, WIRED Magazine, 2005, para. 11–12 <http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/13.07/gibson.html> [accessed 14 January 2015].

[7] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), p. 3.

[8] Bruce Sterling, ‘Death of the Author 2.0’, WIRED Magazine, 2007, para. 1 <http://www.wired.com/2007/09/death-of-the-au/> [accessed 27 January 2015].

[9] Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, trans. by Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), pp. 142–143.

[10] David J. Gunkel, ‘What Does It Matter Who Is Speaking? Authorship, Authority, and the Mashup’, Popular Music and Society, 35 (2012), 71–91 (p. 20).

[11] Barthes, Image, Music, Text, p. 146.

[12] Barthes, Image, Music, Text, p. 147.

[13] Gunkel, ‘What Does It Matter Who Is Speaking?’, p. 86.

Victorian Monsters? Strategies of Appropriation in the Neo-Victorian Mashup

Octopus Portrait, © Yumiko Utsu, from the Victoriana: The Art of Revival exhibition
Octopus Portrait, © Yumiko Utsu, from the Victoriana: The Art of Revival exhibition

This post originally appeared on the Victorianist, the postgraduate blog of the British Association for Victorian Studies, on 18 May 2015. It is reposted here with the kind permission of the editors.

I should probably preface this post by admitting that I’m not a real Victorianist. The Victorians were one of my undergraduate passions, and I continued to read and write all about them during my MA, but somehow I was always more interested in how we speak about the Victorians today than in how they actually spoke to themselves or to us. It was the fantasy of the Victorians that I found most intriguing. For the purposes of today’s post this works out well, because although the texts and subcultures I’m currently researching are often set in the nineteenth century, borrowing Victorian politics and aesthetics, they aren’t really Victorian either.

Specifically, I’m talking about the monster mashup, in this case the kind that appropriates objects, texts and contexts from the long nineteenth century and combines them with a very twenty-first century monster culture. These mashups come in many flavours, and can be found in virtually every artistic medium. You’ve got computer and console games like Fallen London or The Order: 1886. There are monster mashups in film and television, like Van Helsing (2004) and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful (2014). They’re also in the fine arts, and a rich selection of monster mashups found themselves displayed at the recent Victoriana: The Art of Revival exhibition in 2013.

You’ll also find monster mashups, perhaps more predictably, among the ranks of comics and graphic novels – consider Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999) or Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer (2009). And of course there are novels, like Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula (1992|2011) or Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker (2009). Arguably the best-known monster mashup in novel form is the ‘novel-as-mashup‘, popularised with 2009’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and continuing with such groan (or grin) provoking titles as Wuthering Bites (2010) and Grave Expectations (2011). These mashups lift the very words, sentences, and chapters from the texts they appropriate, changing a word here, a paragraph there to create a new (if ultimately very similar) text. From lowbrow to highbrow, drama to comedy, there’s a monster mashup for everyone.

'Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went.'
‘Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went.’

The targets of these mashups aren’t exclusively from the nineteenth century, but an overwhelming number have thus far turned to the Regency and Victorian eras of Britain’s literary history for their source material. Copyright laws are no doubt partly responsible for this, as is the fact that we’ve got so much physical and visual material to draw on from the nineteenth century onward. The public education system is another likely culprit, as the most popular mashups (and the ones that attract the most media attention) tend to involve the classics of art and literature that most children in the Anglo-American world are introduced to during their early education. These are also the texts that have been kept alive by a seemingly endless series of adaptations, whether on the stage, by the BBC, or in cinemas.

A few weeks ago one of my fellow Cardiff PhDs, Daný van Dam, shared a post on Gail Carriger’s ‘Parasol Protectorate’ series (2009-2012), another monster mashup set in Victorian London. She wrote the following about the series’ Victorian appropriations:

Like many other neo-Victorian novels, Carriger’s books return not so much to the Victorian period and its history as to contemporary ideas about the Victorians, projecting present-day concerns upon an earlier period.

The precise nature of the relationship between neo-Victorian fiction and the past it references is something neo-Victorian studies is very interested in. In her book History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction, Kate Mitchell puts the situation this way:

‘The issue turns upon the question of whether history is equated, in fiction, with superficial detail; an accumulation of references to clothing, furniture, décor and the like, that produces the past in terms of its objects, as a series of clichés, without engaging its complexities as a unique historical moment that is now produced in a particular relationship to the present. […] Can these novels recreate the past in a meaningful way or are they playing nineteenth-century dress-ups?’ Kate Mitchell, History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Victorian Afterimages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 3.

With the monster mashup, answering this question is usually fairly straightforward: this is clearly a case of dress-up. In appropriating historical texts and contexts, these overtly fantastical monster mashups don’t necessarily seek to restore or revise the past, but rather to bring it back to life as a new text, and in a new context. They are twenty-first century texts in a Victorian coat. Regardless of their apparent superficiality, these kinds of creations and discussions are important in postmodern culture. Dress-up and performance serve their own purposes, and nostalgia can be an end as well as a means. 

Screenshot from Failbetter Studios' browser-based game 'Fallen London'.
Screenshot from Failbetter Studios’ browser-based game ‘Fallen London’, which allows you to play as a citizen of this monstrous city.

Postmodern theorist and critic Fredric Jameson has frequently returned to the subject of historicity and nostalgia in his work, often in conjunction with utopia. Both nostalgia and utopia, he argues, paradoxically evoke a kind of perpetual present by fetishising either the past or the future. Unfortunately, both are doomed to creative and subversive failure – nostalgia because its narrative of the past ultimately only serves to circumscribe the present, and utopia because its totalising narrative of the future inevitably morphs into dystopia. It is the failed deployment of these two elements that has resulted in postmodernism’s stagnation or end of history.

Nevertheless, Jameson continues to pursue these twin impulses of utopia and nostalgia, aiming to contribute to:

[T]he reawakening of that historicity which our system – offering itself as the very end of history – necessary [sic] represses and paralyzes. This is the sense in which utopology revives long dormant parts of the mind, organs of political and historical and social imagination which have virtually atrophied for lack of use, muscles of praxis we have long since ceased exercising, revolutionary gestures we have lost the habit of performing, even subliminally.

For Jameson, in other words, though nostalgia and utopia are both doomed to failure and stagnation, the urge to imagine, to fantasise, and to create using these impulses remains vitally important. In this sense the creation of history-saturated fantasies is much more for the sake of present-day culture than it is an homage to history. Neo-Victorian fantasies help keep both history and imagination alive in popular culture, giving them a much-needed stretching.

Dan Hillier, ‘Mother’ (2006). Altered engraving.
Dan Hillier, ‘Mother’ (2006). Altered engraving.

As a side effect of the way they ‘stretch’ history, monster mashups also manage to revitalise history, mythologise it, and even change it in a sense. These texts encourage discussion between disparate groups of people. They also force old texts into new contexts, revealing our historical and hermeneutical distance from (and closeness to) the old contexts. This recontextualisation of the Victorians can sometimes have productive results.

To give one example, these reality-blurring and genre-bending monster texts often draw attention to the constructed nature of the self, and the problems inherent in contemporary representations of identity and otherness. Monstrous others have stood in for racial, sexual, and social minorities for hundreds of years, but in the words of Judith Halberstam, in contemporary Gothic the monster is no longer totalising:

The monstrous body that once represented everything is now represented as potentially meaning anything – it may be the outcast, the outlaw, the parasite, the pervert, the embodiment of the uncontrollable sexual and violent urges, the foreigner, the misfit. The monster is all of these but monstrosity has become a conspiracy of bodies rather than a singular form.

In contemporary Gothic, monsters are us, and we are all monstrous. In any case, through this ‘conspiracy of bodies’, neo-historical monster mashups can call out cases of imperialism, colonialism, or patriarchy without singling out a particular minority victim. Monsters represent otherness, but not a particular Other. Symbolically they oscillate between the centre and the margins, endlessly deferred. Consider Travis Louie, for example, with his fantastical portraits of Victorians. These both call us to identify with the characters they depict and present those characters as alien. Louie has a whole series of these ‘Victorian cryptozoology‘ images as well, which evoke discourses of imperialism and colonialism.

© Travis Louie
© Travis Louie

Naturally this oscillation doesn’t automatically mean that using monsters in mashup texts is unproblematic. Specific monsters are still socially marked in different ways – the homoerotic male vampire, the sexy female robot, the lower-class zombie – but monsters do add a layer of mediation, a buffer between audience and story. Texts like these open discussions of otherness that might otherwise be met with resistance or increasingly negative accusations of ‘political correctness’. And, as always, imagining difference in the past potentially creates space for difference in the present. History and its cultural traces provide the foundations and reference points for today’s ideologies.

Roland Barthes has a great deal to say about the way history and tradition become myth. For Barthes, mythologies are formed to perpetuate an idea of society that adheres to the current ideologies of the ruling class and its media. Mashups, as part of the domain of popular culture, certainly contribute to the perpetuation of society’s myths (the nation, heterosexuality, gender, etc.). They are rarely subversive in the traditional sense, but because of their appropriative nature it is difficult for anyone to control which ideas and ideologies are communicated to audiences and readers. There is always ample room for divergent interpretation.

anno-draculaIn writing about the process of mythologisation, Barthes also refers to the tendency of socially constructed notions, narratives, and assumptions to become ‘naturalised’ in the process, or taken unquestioningly as given within a particular culture. Monstrous or fantastical history inherently resists such naturalisation, because it refuses to be taken entirely seriously, though certainly possible to politicise it. Monster mashups make history strange – or sometimes reveal the strangeness of history. Kim Newman has claimed that he initially decided to write Anno Dracula in response to Thatcherism and the rise of neo-Victorian political sentiment in the late 80s. This novel describes a Victorian England in which Dracula had succeeded in Bram Stoker’s novel, and come to rule over Great Britain. In this alternate history, which can be read as ironically similar to our own, Newman re-evaluates stereotypically ‘Victorian values’ as monstrous, ultimately showing that we often see what we want to see where the Victorians are concerned.

In a discussion of the Neo-Victorian graphic novels of Alan Moore, also extremely political, Jason B. Jones argues that what makes such mashups subversive is not their disregard for literary categories or forms, but their potential redefinition of our very identities and cultural spaces. He states: ‘[s]uch game playing foregrounds the extimate aspects of historical change, as something neither wholly external nor subjective’. In other words, texts that mix history and fiction while also playing with genre convention make the reader more readily aware of the constructed nature of even the most serious history. 

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Roland Barthes and Spaces of Attunement

Conference header REVISED

Whereas this week I’m busy with preparations for two conference presentations at guest universities, at the end of March I was a passive observer at two separate sets of conferences, both at my very own Cardiff University. My department hosted the ‘Roland Barthes at 100’ conference, the School of Planning and Geography across the way held a ‘Spaces of Attunement’ symposium, and both ran over the same two days at the very end of March.

I was originally only registered for ‘Spaces of Attunement’, but because Neil Badmington, the organisor of ‘Roland Barthes at 100’, is my secondary thesis supervisor, I ended up spending some time there helping out. I even chaired my first panel, on Barthes and visual culture, where I got to hear two very different papers. Stella Baraklianou (from the University of Huddersfield) gave a presentation on the punctum in digital art and photography, citing work by Idris Khan and Eva Stenram. Freelance scholar Jayne Sheridan talked about the border between commercialism and art, using the Chanel N°5 commercial directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, ‘Train de Nuit’:

Though I heard many fine presentations during the two-day conference, the one that stuck out for me the most was Michael Wood’s opening keynote ‘French Lessons’, which I mentioned in last week’s post. Wood talked about many things, but primarily he was concerned with how even when we read Barthes well, when we read him outside of the French we misread him. Our reading may not be wrong, but we are missing something. For Wood one of the intervening factors in this misreading is the fact that in French, beauty is often more important than exactitude. Practically, this often means that French philosophers have a weakness for aphorism – they cannot resist the witty maxim. As I summarised last week, maxims are caricatures of language, and can’t be academically defended. The truth in a maxim is either too trivial to be ‘really’ true, or is not wholly true.

Wood used an example from Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980), summarised in this old post by Michael Sacasas:

Barthes was taken by the way that a photograph suggests both the “that-has-been” and the “this-will-die” aspects of a photographic subject. His most famous discussion of this dual gesture involved a photograph of his mother, which does not appear in the book. But a shot of [failed assassin Lewis] Powell is used to illustrate a very similar point. It is captioned, ‘He is dead, and he is going to die …’ The photograph simultaneously witnesses to three related realities. Powell was; he is no more; and, in the moment captured by this photograph, he is on his way to death.

The idea that an object in a photograph is either dead or is going to die may be true, though exceptions could no doubt be found. If it is true, how much inherent meaning does it have? All living things die – this is not something that needs explanation. Rather than genuinely attempting revolution, the maxim is merely the platform upon which we can build the arguments and ideas we want to.

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‘He is dead, and he is going to die …’

For Wood, though, this is the entire point of the maxim: it can be used for anything. Citing Adorno’s Minima Moralia (1951), in which he posits that the problem with philosophers is that they want to be right, Wood suggested that being right (or exact) is not so important in literature – at least not in the sense that many people try to impose upon it. Instead, literature expresses a love of arguments without wanting to win.

With that in mind, I trekked across campus to the lovely and imposing Glamorgan building for a fabulous lunch and a change of topic. The order of the day was a posthuman exploration of ‘attunement to the world in all its particularity, strangeness, enchantment and horror’. Suitably prepared for this experience by Wood’s defense of arguments without victories and questions without answers, I sat in on an animal studies panel that included Joanna Latimer on the idea of ‘being/living alongside’ as opposed to ‘being/living with’ nonhumans, Lesley Green on environmental humanities, apartheid, and the baboon problem at Table Mountain National Park, and Karolina Rucinska on transgenic animals and Enviropig. This was followed by a fascinating keynote by Mara Miele, cataloguing the EmoFarm project, an experiment on emotional response in sheep.

I wish my building was this imposing.
I wish my building was this imposing.

Before we closed off the day with a reception, we split into small groups for some discussion, which started off awkwardly but ultimately yielded some interesting ideas and connections. If I can find the time to post about any of these things at greater length, I will definitely do so. Each presentation gave me a lot to think about. For the moment, though, I should probably get back to my other deadlines. Until next week!