Adaptation after Modernisms: Three Takeaways from Brno

Eckart Voigts, “Adaptation after Modernisms: Three Takeaways from Brno”

I. “Adaptation and Modernisms”: The Desire for Order in Adaptation Studies 

At the annual conference 2019 of the Association of Adaptation Studies, the title was carefully phrased in the plural: “Adaptation and Modernisms”. In many ways, Brno, Czech Republic, where it was held at the Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University, 19 to 20th September 2019, was an ideal place to discuss the relationship between Adaptation Studies and modernisms as its modernist legacies that go far beyond Mies van der Rohe’s world-famous Villa Tugendhat. In particular, the neo-formalist trend in Adaptation Studies, here represented for instance by the neo-structuralist approach by Lars Elleström who is a prominent theorist in intermedial studies, was well represented. In his abstract and keynote paper, Elleström characteristically insisted on the values of categorizations, typologies, and the negotiation and disputation of borders: “My initial observation is that it is impossible to navigate in one’s material and mental surrounding if one does not categorize objects and phenomena; otherwise everything would be a blur – difficult to grasp and to explain” (in Adaptation and Modernisms, 2019). Exchange “blur” for the plurality of post-structuralism and you can see how this desire for order and orderly methodologies and terminologies can be described as post-postmodern. Maybe the ongoing structuralist and formalist concerns in Adaptation Studies constitute a palpable undercurrent of re-modernist strand at the conference (although the term ‘remodernism’ – introduced by Stuckism in art since 2002 – was largely absent from discussions). In Adaptation and Appropriation, Sanders notes that Adaptation Studies seems to favour at least an “open structuralism” derived from Gérard Genette, so that it has become intertextually and intermedially inclusive of any text that is written in an “adaptive mode” (Sanders 18).

A paper that seemed to conjoin a neo-formalist drive with the desire to re-historicize Adaptation Studies was provided by Kamilla Elliott. Elliott addressed the so-called Augustan Age as “a period in which adaptation was a celebrated theoretical object, both formally and culturally” (in Adaptation and Modernisms) – a characteristic intervention that seeks to combine supposedly incompatible strands in Adaptation Studies and a plea for Adaptation Studies to become less historically myopic.

What I also found notable at the conference were those rare papers that addressed the hashtag-decorated paradigms of recent political discussions, such as #blacklivesmatter, #metoo, #extinctionrebellion, #anthropocene or #posthuman. One of the few papers that seemed heavily invested in some of these debates was Kyle Meikle’s “Is Adaptation Sustainable?” He asked if, and “how ‘adaptation’ might remain sustainable—as a practice, as a principle, in the humanities, in humanity” (Meikle in Adaptation and Modernisms 2019, the paper has now been published in Adaptation (Meikle 2020)). It seems obvious to me that Meikle’s paper, while it may have no immediate repercussions on the practices and methodologies of intertextual and intermedial analysis, pinpoints an important and neglected broader dimension of the term ‘adaptation’. Meikle seems to pick up Ursula K. Heise’s recent point that both extinction and adaptation are prevalent “narrative metaphors for different kinds of cultural engagement with ongoing processes of modernization and globalization” (Heise 2016: 51). Adaptation, Heise holds in a memorable phrase, is “self-perpetuation through changeable forms” (56) and she shows how adaptation has “assumed new respectability” (57) among environmentalists. Maybe, then, adaptation is one possible answer to the urgent and pressing questions posed by the ongoing extinction rebellion.

Marcus Nicolls offered the – to me – most striking new metaphor (or analogy?) in a field that has been rife (maybe all-too-rife) with metaphors and analogies: Adaptation as entropy. He considered “how texts putrefy, and how readers and adapters become worms within this process” (Nicholls in Adaptation and Modernisms 2019).  As I have always viewed adaptation as ‘reception-in-action’, as a practice that gives new materiality and presence to intense but hidden and reclusive prior reading processes, this view of adapting/reading as a productive transformative ‘worming’ speaks to me, although the term ‘entropy’ of course suggests adaptation as textual decline. On the contrary, however, as adaptations carry prior order in them (and as they re-order previously existing orders), they are higher in complexity (and thus more vulnerable to entropy). Maybe adaptations are thus as complex as cathedrals and therefore “a creative engagement of generative decay” (Nicholls in Adaptations and Modernisms 2019), partaking in the universal processes of entropy – a perspective that seems more fundamental, cosmic (or even mythic) than merely the exploitation of earth by humanity (or textual universes by voracious markets) in the capitalocene (Moore 2017). 

II. Auto-Modernity, Pseudo-Modernism, Digímodernism and Metamodernism

Secondly, I would like to briefly survey the various ‘modernisms’ that have emerged after the end of modernism, and touch upon ways in which they relate to Adaptation Studies, invoking prevalent terms such as automodern, digimodern, remodern or metamodern and their various conceptualizations. 

One term that has hitherto been missing from Adaptation Studies it ‘auto-modernity’. As I have argued in a new contribution to Adaptation (Voigts 2020), practices of adaptation have been re-shaped by the Rise of the Robots (Ford 2015), the ongoing (fourth) industrial revolution associated with Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, and their various applications. The cultural impact of AI, however, has remained largely unnoticed by adaptation studies. As hybrid writing practices which emerge as a consequence of digital coding in electronic media, and therefore also transform the materiality of ‘classic’ media, we may want to test the validity of Robert Samuels’ term auto‐modernity (2008) and ask ourselves if we are increasingly entering a future of auto-adaptation. For a recent example, read the article that “GPT-3” “wrote” for the Guardian on 8 September 2018. Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 (GPT-3) is an autoregressive language model that uses deep learning to produce human-like text. It is an adaptation machine fed by big data, even if the article was not written by GPT-3, but is the product of a human-machine network (for instance, the entire introductory passage was written by a human, with lots of post-editing.)

Automated writing practices executed through artificial neural networks or deep-learning applications that algorithmically recognize and imitate (therefore, we might argue, appropriate and adapt) textual or musical patterns as further typical manifestations of aesthetic practices in an information-rich environment. Deep-learning ‘artificial intelligence’ produces a posthuman aesthetics by automated generators of literature, music, art, and other fields of human creativity. Such aesthetic writing practices through algorithmic artificial intelligence include self-learning computer programmes that publish Twitter messages, write love poetry, short stories, and reviews, compose music, sing, draw, create film trailers, write film screenplays, and predict the plot of the new season of Game of Thrones. Adam Daniel King’s text-generation project talktotransformer has now gone behind a paywall in an attempt to monetize automated writing engines ( Machine texts are increasingly becoming indistinguishable from human texts and we can predict a world in which machine adaptation will become indistinguishable from human adaptation. With Lev Manovich, who diagnosed a new kind of ‘cultural AI’ in 2018, we can hold that automated processes in the creative arts have now gained a broad economic and cultural impact. The term auto-modernity seems to offer a term for this ‘robotic’ adaptation practices in the second machine age. Samuels argued in 2008 that “postmodern theorists have failed to account for the ways digital youth are combining automation with autonomy.” (Samuels 221). In his sanguine perspective, shaped by the MIT, he does not regard “individual freedom and mechanical predetermination as opposing social forces”, as digerati turn to automation in order to express their autonomy, “combining of human and machine into a single circuit of interactivity”. Whereas Samuels is mostly concerned with the dualism of ego-casting and socially beneficent networking, he seems to underestimate the radical change brought by the interconnected digital world holds large quantities of available data, generating an ever-changing space of permanent copy and constant adaptation. The current pandemic brought on by COVID-19 is likely to intensify modes of digital, non-bodily interconnectedness as the Adaptation Studies network (among many others) adapts to virtual conferencing.

How do AI applications relate to the terminology of digimodernism, first developed as “pseudo-modernism” in a 2006 article in Philosophy Now and subsequently developed in (Alan Kirby 2009)? Digimodernist texts, Kirby held, were characterized by “onwardness, haphazardness, evanescence, and anonymous, social and multiple authorship” (Kirby 2009: 155).

Whereas for Samuels, autonomy and automation were the key words, Kirby focused largely on participatory culture – in ways similar to the influential and more elaborate work of Henry Jenkins. It is interesting that Kirby developed his first differentiation between postmodernism and pseudo-modernism by invoking the difference of a frequently adapted Victorian novel Great Expectations and Big Brother:

Great Expectations will exist materially whether anyone reads it or not. Once Dickens had finished writing it and the publisher released it into the world, its ‘material textuality’ – its selection of words – was made and finished, even though its meanings, how people interpret it, would remain largely up for grabs. […] Big Brother on the other hand, to take a typical pseudo-modern cultural text, would not exist materially if nobody phoned up to vote its contestants off. Voting is thus part of the material textuality of the programme – the telephoning viewers write the programme themselves (Kirby 2006).

While we may wonder how Great Expectations could ever exemplify postmodernism (apart from being material for nostalgic, neo-Victorian, postmodernist rewritings), we can also note that Kirby clearly identified the changes in materiality as a key playing field of post-postmodernist discourse. Is material textuality a precondition for adaptation and might that explain why Great Expectations is adapted? Very obviously Big Brother did also pass through various kinds of international re-formattings that might be described as adaptations. Kirby usefully casts the shift as a change in activities, but significantly activities in reception rather than production: “In postmodernism, one read, watched, listened, as before. In pseudo-modernism one phones, clicks, presses, surfs, chooses, moves, downloads” (Kirby 2006).

While we still read, watch, listen, more easily than in the print age, given the increased accessibility of data, the other activities outlined by Kirby have indeed changed the contextual situation of reading, watching, and listening. 

The final of these diagnoses of a post-post-modernism discussed here is that of metamodernism. At the AAS conference in Brno, it was the most frequently invoked post-postmodernism. The paper by Carol Poole, for instance, quotes Alexandra Dumitrescu’s 2007 definition: “‘the metamodern turn is also a turn towards the story, but not merely to the story as entertainment […] but as meaningful narrative that involves the audience […] a turn that restores the story its meaning, which somehow expresses the hope of restoring meaning to one’s life’ (Dumitrescu 2007)” (in Adaptation and Modernisms 2019). Pamela Demory also invokes the term: “Metamodernism incorporates many of the stylistic and formal conventions of postmodernism, but moves beyond the cynicism and empty signifiers of postmodern art toward a new sincerity characterized by a sense of earnestness and hope” (in Adaptation and Modernisms2019). This understanding of metamodernism casts it as a new sincerity or, to use David Foster Wallace’s term, ‘post-irony’. According to Vermeulen and van den Akker (2010), the ‘meta-‘ here does not indicate meta-reference, but an oscillation between modernist naiveté, idealism, and sincerity and the liquefying subject positions of postmodernist play. It seems that that attitude of metamodernism to postmodern is just as ambivalent as that of postmodernism to modernism, and just as hesitant to declare a decisive rupture or break with previous cultural tendencies. We seem to find the same notion of ‘oscillation’ here that is such a useful term in Adaptation Studies.

III. Adaptation and Pastiche: Legacies of Postmodernism

In some ways, postmodernism was the elephant in the room at Brno, Czech Republic. It is quite clear that the postmodernism is probably the most important ancestor of Adaptation Studies as it emerged from the potent milieus of intertextuality and intermediality since the 1970s. Our field’s most prominent theorist, Linda Hutcheon, has been heavily invested in all kinds of intertextual and postmodern genres and modes (adaptation, parody, irony). Hutcheon is also one of the scholars who have sought for decades to have the term ‘postmodern’ replaced with more appropriate terminologies for the contemporary cultural situation (2002: 166). As I have argued elsewhere, it is the focus on liminal narrations and performances that conjoins postmodern and adaptationist approaches. Adaptation studies has clear ties to post-structuralism (Straumann 2015: 250) and anti-essentialism (Voigts-Virchow 2014: 64-67), inviting anti-essentialist approaches informed by Mikhail Bakhtin (Cutchins 2014: 51), Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Homi Bhabha (Emig 2012: 15-19, 21).

It is, therefore, somewhat surprising that the relationship of adaptation and pastiche has been underrepresented in Adaptation Studies, or, following Hutcheon, simply described as one of the modes of adaptation (Leitch 2012: 95). After all, in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Fredric Jameson diagnosed a post-world war II capitalist culture that has fallen prey to the twin predators of static nostalgia and empty pastiche. If pastiche is indeed the key mode of capitalist cultural production, then why has it been so rarely addressed in Adaptation Studies? 

There are many roads Adaptation Studies can take from Brno 2019, even if the one to Dijon has intermittently been barred by COVID-19. I, for one, would like to see more research on the relationship between adaptation and pastiche, that quintessentially postmodern genre. In Adaptation and Appropriation, Julie Sanders briefly touches on the term ‘pastiche’, either as a medley, bricolage or remix (the dominant usage in the arts) or as an imitation of style (predominant usage in literature). Linda Hutcheon, who discusses pastiche in the context of her Theory of Parody as a mode of rewriting that does not allow for adaptation (“Pastiche usually has to remain within the same genre as its model, whereas parody allows for adaptation”, 2000: 38) largely disregards the term in her subsequent Theory of Adaptation. Instead, she seems to argue that adaptations as announced, declared, and marked repetitions are, in fact, closer to pastiches than to parodies that create more distance to the referenced Ur-text. Probably because the emphasis in Adaptation Studies is on transcoding and media change, the genre of pastiche seems to have been neglected.

One narrative universe that is permeated with notions of pastiche is that of Sherlock Holmes. In a recent unpublished M.A. thesis I supervised, by Jana Straube, this terminology is explored in interesting ways. Straube discusses three Holmes pastiches, “A Study in Emerald” by Neil Gaiman, A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, and The Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Dibdin.

Straube notes that Julie Sanders’ Adaptation and Appropriation lists pastiches as “works that carry out an extended imitation of the style of a single artist or writer” (144), but argues that Richard Dyer’s monograph Pastiche (2007) shows that pastiche is more than mere stylistic imitation. Originally derived from the Italian ‘pasticcio,’ meaning a pie – a mixed dish (2007: 8), this sense of mixed materiality was later applied to cases in art where a painter would adapt another artist’s designs. Dyer isolates two rather distinct notions of the term pastiche, combination (ibid. 9) or ‘pasticcio’, and imitation (21) – and arguably both are at work in processes of adaptation, too. In fact, what I have discussed as recombinant adaptation might be described as pasticcio in the sense of Dyer. In the same vein, any adaptation has aspects of evaluative imitation in it, and thus employs techniques of pastiche. Both ‘deformation’ and ‘discrepancy’ – textual relations that are established in pastiche according to Dyer, are part and parcel of adaptations. Deformation “selects, accentuates, exaggerates, concentrates” (Dyer 2007: 56) from a given text. Discrepancy introduces something “inconsistent or inappropriate in an aspect of the writing” in order to see more clearly “the style that is being pastiched” (Dyer 58). If then a pastiche seems to adapt a previous text in a textually signalled and unconcealed imitation (Dyer 24), how can it be clearly differentiated from an adaptation (unless we hold on to the very narrow notion of adaptation as transcoding)? With Dyer (133), we might conclude that both adaptations and pastiches emerge for their affect, the pleasure of repeating a past text, the joyous feeling of recognizing the past in a present text.

Works Cited

Adaptation and Modernisms. Book of Abstracts. Annual conference of the Association of Adaptation Studies, held at the Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic, 19th‐20th September 2019.

Cutchins, Dennis. “Bakhtin, Transation and Adaptation”. Translation and Adaptation in Theatre and Film. Ed. Katja Krebs. New York: Routledge, 2014: 36-62.

Dyer, Richard. Pastiche. London, New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Emig, Rainer. “Adaptation in Theory”. Adaptation and Cultural Appropriation: Literature, Film, and the Arts. Eds.  Pascal Nicklas, and Oliver Lindner. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012: 14-24.

Ford, Martin. Rise of the Robots. New York: Basic Books, 2015.

GPT-3. “A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human?” The Guardian 8 September 2020. Online.

Heise, Ursula K. “Extinction/Adaptation”. Time: A Vocabulary of the Present. Eds. Amy Elias and Joel Burges. New York: NYU Press, 2016.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. London & New York: Routledge, 2013.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-century Art Forms. Urbana and Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernim. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Kirby, Alan. “The Death of Postmodernism And Beyond” Philosophy Now 58:34-37 (2006).

Kirby, Alan. Digimodernism. How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure Our Culture. London: Bloomsbury, 2009.

Leitch, Tom. “Adaptation and Intertextuality, or, What isn’t an Adaptation, and What Does it Matter?” A Companion to Literature, Film, and Adaptation, Ed. Deborah Cartmell. Oxford: Blackwell, 87-104.

Manovich, Lev. AI Aesthetics. Moscow: Strelka Press, 2018.

Meikle, Kyle. “Is Adaptation Studies Sustainable?” Adaptation (Oxford University Press 21 July 2020). 

Moore, Jason W. (Ed.). Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Oakland: PM Press, 2016.

Samuels, Robert. “Auto-Modernity after Postmodernism: Autonomy and Automation in Culture, Technology, and Education.” Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected. Ed. Tara McPherson.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 219–240. 

Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. 2nd ed. London/New York: Routledge, 2016. 

Straumann, Barbara “Adaptation – Remediation – Transmediality” Handbook of Intermediality. Ed. Gabriele Rippl. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2015: 306-324.

Vermeulen, Timotheus, and Robin  van den Akker. “Notes on Metamodernism”. Journal of Aesthetics and Culture 2 (2010): 1–14. 

Voigts, Eckart. “Algorithms, Artificial Intelligence, and Posthuman Adaptation: Adapting as Cultural Technique”, Adaptation (Oxford University Press 6 May 2020).

Voigts-Virchow, Eckart. “Anti-Essentialist Versions of Aggregate Alice: A Grin Without a Cat”. Translation and Adaptation in Theatre and Film. Ed. Katja Krebs. New York: Routledge, 2014: 63–77.