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      research

 

 

My research is predicated on my pedagogy. For my latest book, I have been thinking about the concept of “adaptation” and “adaptation studies” broadly construed. I consider “adaptation” in the context of visual media generally—not only from literature to film. Though I argue for a broader notion of adaptation studies, at the same time, I feel that the entire discourse of the field needs refinement and precision.

In my classes, I always include contemporary, “student-friendly” media, (i.e. Instagram as a platform for new artists). But, to be clear, I don't do this because I want to “impress” the students (well, maybe a little) but because I truly believe that humanities academics need to adapt in order to remain relevant—to remain in existence even, though I hate to say it.

The humanities, including language, literature, film and art history, must adapt to the twenty-first century way of life. These disciplines can no longer be isolated and or hesitant embrace collaboration on an interdisciplinary scale.

More seriously, when humanities courses fail to engage with relevant and timely forms of adaptation, we become less able to engage with a new generation of humanists that intuitively understands the concept already. Ingrained assumptions and constructed controversy plague even the most current accounts and pedagogical approaches to adaptation.

My research began as a response to my fundamental concern with current materials available to students—and others looking for new approaches. I worried that my students will be alienated by unintuitive accounts that do not appear relevant to everyday experience.

One might ask: why should we care whether or not we are able to catch the attention of our students—after all, they never look up from their iPhones anyway. Here is why: if scholars continue to alienate potential supporters, they risk destabilizing and destructing an already vulnerable field. The act of questioning one’s own analysis, at every turn, is both an ethical act and a means of self-preservation.

Ideally, contrary to current practice, scholars would write and speak clearly in the interest of communicating clear ideas. The scholar or critic has greater obligations to transparency than the filmmaker, the author, or the artist.  Several recently published anthologies and articles are dedicated to “new trends” in adaptation studies. Nevertheless, a significant number of these contributions remain inadequate in the context of the college classroom.

The humanities are in transition. The aim of my current pedagogy/research is to create a starting point; to begin a conversation between scholars from various disciplines, and to create a climate in which humanists can learn from one another while prizing both rigor and curiosity.

To that end, I seek to be a teacher/scholar with a broad vision; not only do I aim to write with clarity about the films, TV shows, Podcasts, music videos, etc., that I love – I aim to instill that same desire in my students. It is possible to have a firm grounding in tradition, but with an eye to the future, and to our students.

 

Believing in Fiction: Beyond Truth and Falsity

I became interested in belief in fiction after reading and editing my father's book on epistemology and the movies. In that book, my father seems to embrace the "imagine-seeing thesis" which is the idea (very roughly) that movie-viewers imagine that they are seeing the action as it occurs onscreen. This thesis attempts to explain why viewers feel seemingly real emotions for characters who are entirely fictional.

Something about this idea didn't sound right to me. When I watch movies, I do not ever have the sense that I am imagining anything. But, to be sure, it is not an easy phenomenon to describe, given that nothing else in life is quite like a movie. At first, I wondered if it would be accurate to say that filmmakers are like liars and that fiction consists of lies. But the analogies quickly blew apart.

Once I began really thinking about the problem, I became more and more involved with the philosophical idea of "belief", and its relation to knowledge. And so, as you can see, the topic quickly turned into an immense project. Nevertheless, it is a project that I enjoy, as I hope that you can see when the project is finally complete.

 

A Universal Relation:

The Spatial Arrangement of Moving Images

 

Recently, I have been thinking about the word “adaptation” and “adaptation studies” broadly construed – especially in the context of visual media. One day, also recently, I decided to look up “adaptation” in the dictionary. 

 Adaptation requires an element of creative thinking, ingenuity, or luck, depending on the agents involved. The word carries a positive connotation insofar as “creativity”, “ingenuity”, and “luck” are each things we might want for ourselves.

Nevertheless, the combination of these elements is somewhat counterintuitive: we do not generally consider creative thinking and ingenuity to function in the same way as luck. Ingenuity requires effort and will power. If you want to succeed or get out of a bad situation, you have to weasel your way out with your brain—just like early1990s TV show hero McGyver. 

Luck, on the other hand, is something we wait and hope for—and when it doesn’t come our way, we do not have to blame ourselves. When we are lucky, we do not tend to take credit for our success. If I win the lottery, for examples, it isn’t because I toiled away for forty years, “workin’ for the man”. Most likely, I scraped some money together and bought myself ticket. My action may be “hopeful”, but “ingenious” is a bit strong.  How, then, can adaptation involve both luck and ingenuity?

Maybe we should consider the term in the context of Darwin. The biological definition of the “adaptation” emphasizes the agency of the organism in affecting its own change over a period of time. Something within the organism is changing to make itself function more efficiently in its environment.  Is this change in the organism caused by the organism’s will power? Or does it occur naturally, so to speak, by luck?

In a sense the question itself is nonsensical. If you are a determinist, you don’t believe that things could have turned out any differently from the way they are now. By that way of thinking, it makes little sense to ask why we are here, because the only way we could even be in a position to ask such a question is by being here already here to ask it. 

Either we are in a perfect universe, a rare gem within multitudes of crappy universes, or we are the norm, and all other universes are just like ours. Or maybe it’s neither of these. Regardless, once we begin to ask ourselves these questions, we begin to see how luck and creative thinking may not be such opposing concepts after all. 

In a literary context, the word “adaptation” has been modified to specify a transition from one medium to another: “an altered or amended version of a text…one adapted for filming, broadcasting, or production on the stage from a novel or similar literary source”.  Though this definition is strict, the other extreme—the idea that adaptations would never need to cite source material—is far too loose. 

Literary theorist Gérard Genette proposed that narratives require both a narrator and an audience (either real or implied). In writing the stories of our lives, surely we act as narrators.

But it is unclear whether or not narrators and audience members must be mutually exclusive. Can narrators also be audience members? It would appear that our lives cannot contain narrative value unless we are both the narrator and audience of our own stories. 

And yet, we know that fiction engenders emotion because it contains “universal truths”. But what is a universal, what are truths? Universals can be divided into those known by acquaintance, those known only by description and those not known either by acquaintance or by description, philosopher Bertrand Russell observed.

There are concepts, like the color red, that we begin to recognize in virtue of having seen many examples of red objects. Then there are relations, he says: spatial and temporal arrangement.

Memories, according to Russell, are similar to objects that we perceive, but in the past – a time that precedes the present. We are able to understand the concept of “past” because we know what a memory is: the image of an object in our minds. 

“...and yet the image cannot be what constitutes memory. The image is in the present, what is remembered... in the past.”

Understanding spatial relations involves seeing how at least two parts of an image relate to one another. The rug is to the left of the lamp; the cat sits on the bed.

The stories of our lives are composed of images. Memories are images, and we recognize them as such because we understand time as a linear concept. Our ability to understand these temporal relations allows us to shape our personal identities.

One of my favorite writers, Albert Camus, admired writers such as Dostoevsky, Proust, and Kafka because they “wrote in images” rather than with “reasoned arguments.” All three, he says, avoid long explanations. They concentrate instead on bringing perception -- appearances and images to life -- in the mind of the reader. This is why films are not analogous to texts and adaptations are not analogous to translations.

Last year, one of my students eloquently explained why this is so:

An adaptation is something, like a book, that has crossed into another medium, like film, different from the original…altered in a way that would help it prosper in its new environment. 

She also explains how translations differ from adaptations:

A translation… is also something that has crossed over. ..however, it is not altered to improve its success, but rather, altered to allow others to enjoy it.

There are old, outdated models for studying films, and most of them are out-dated for a reason. In the 1970s, for example, psychoanalytic film critics argued that we cannot watch a film without affirming the hegemony of capitalism or sexism.

One should note that this line of thinking leads these critics to condemn the very media form that they have devoted their lives to studying. Why would anyone want to study films if everyone agrees that they are all hegemonic? The endeavor becomes an exercise in masochism. 

Each time that visual media scholars fail to engage with students, who are also creators, they have missed another opportunity. Nostalgia keeps these scholars grasping at words and until the very end.

But students want more than abstract theorizing, more than descriptions and mountains of texts--and rightly so. Films may not be analogous to novels at all. Perhaps it is misleading to call them “texts.” Why be begrudging about it?Once we accept the differences, written narration becomes narration in light.

Undergraduates today are already past these worries. They hardly consider the difference between images and words – and that’s ok.  At the conclusion of my course on “Adaptation” at UC Riverside (in Spring 2015), my students expressed this shifting attitude much more eloquently than I could. In the final blog post of the course, one student wrote:

Today nothing is actually ‘original’, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. As the generations begin to shift…people have to change everything around in order to catch our attention [and] relate to us.

 

Works cited

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: A Essay in Method. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Russell, Bertrand, The Problems of Philosophy. Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 1912 (reprint, 2009).

 

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A belief that is never asserted

(2016)

 

Brian Leiter, on his blog, recently linked to this article on Columbia’s “mattress girl”, describing it as “a nuanced and informative piece, shedding light on contemporary college culture at one elite institution”.

And yet, despite Villarreal’s effort to provide a slightly more nuanced view of men and women’s attitudes toward sexual consent, the article is still far to general to do any real justice to the debate on either side.

So, after re-reading “Deciding to Believe”, the chapter in Bernard William’s Problems of the Self — and after several hours of unhealthily obsessive rumination on a recent personal experience — the following essay came into existence…

— — — —

The orgy

Most people, most of the time, carry a large number of beliefs that they never express to anyone else. A belief exists; it is never asserted. The result is silence.

Take two people, a man, S, and a woman, F, where…

  • S and F have sex with one another regularly.
  • S has a desire to organize an orgy (o) involving himself, F, a porn star, two parakeets, and Dr. Hodgkins, a sketchy math professor.

We will assume that S really does desire o and will carry out o, if F accepts his plan.

We will also assume that F expresses her desire clearly, without ambiguity.

Let’s look at some possible scenarios.

Note that in both the first and second scenarios, S expresses his desire for o to F prior to taking any action toward attaining it.

First Scenario

S desires o a great deal, but his desire for o is contingent upon F being a willing participant. S will only organize o if F responds positively to it and if S believes that F also desires o.

S expresses his desire for o to F.

Based on her response, S believes that F also desires o.

S organizes o.

S expresses his desire for o to F.

Based on her response, S believes that F does not share his desire for o.

S does not organize o.

Note that in this scenario, S’s decision to organize or not organize o is contingent upon two factors: he has expressed his desire for o to F AND he has formed a belief about F’s attitude toward o — namely he believes that S also desires o .

Second Scenario

S plans to execute o regardless of whether or not F responds positively to it.

Nevertheless, he expresses his desire for o to F.

S forms a belief about F’s attitude or he doesn’t.

S’s desire for o trumps his desire for F to be a willing participant.

S organizes o.

Note that in this scenario, S has no rational reason to express his desire for oto F in the first place, since his plan is not contingent upon her attitude.

S has already decided that he will take action to organize o — prior to expressing his desires or beliefs about it to F.

In Scenario One and Two, S communicates with F prior to taking action.

In Scenario Three and Four, however, S does not express his desire to organize o to F — nor does he express his beliefs about F’s attitude toward o to F — prior to taking action either way.

Third Scenario

S imagines the conversation with F and arrives at belief b, namely: “If I ask F to participate in o, she will refuse.”

S may arrive at b for a variety of reasons. He may fear, for instance, that F will be offended, or that F will confirm b, which he is not ready to accept at this juncture.

In any case, S forms bwhich causes him to remain silent about his plans.

S organizes o anyway.

Fourth Scenario

S does not communicate or express any beliefs to F about his desire for o, but — for whatever reason — decides not to carry through with his plan. His action in this scenario is his decision not to organize o.

— — — —

Of course, in each of the four scenarios, S can choose to abandon his plan — regardless of whether he expresses his desires or forms beliefs about F’s attitude toward o.

Each scenario carries a different set of consequences for F, who must form her own beliefs in accordance with the amount of information that she perceives and/or that is communicated to her directly. F will form her own beliefs about S’s actions.

But let’s say that S’s desire for the orgy trumps all other concerns and he goes ahead with it.

He has either failed to see (or does not care about) the consequences of his actions for F.

Now, because he did not express his beliefs about F to her directly, it is likely that S will misattribute F’s actions and reactions.

Worse still, F will be incapable of addressing those misattributions because she will be ignorant of them.

In other words, by choosing to remain silent, S decides that F will remain ignorant of the fact that S has already chosen for her. He has chosen to remain silent because he believes that her desires will fail to align with his.

By choosing silence, not only does S deny F the opportunity to express her opinion, he denies her the awareness that she is in a situation that would warrant an opinion in the first place.

Scenarios three and four (the scenarios in which S remains silent before taking action) consitute a particularly dark constellation of mistrust, willful concealment, and lack of concern for other humans. It is difficult to see this neatly planned set of decisions as anything other than a selfish grab for pleasure at the expense of others.

So again, to summarize:

S chooses to remain silent about his own desires because he assumes that F will not agree with those desires. Nevertheless, he takes action to fulfill his desire for o.

In this especially dark scenario, S takes deliberate and specific actions (he invites the weird old guy over for a glass of chianti, purchases the parakeets, lays the best bed linens out, etc) — all in order to increase the likelihood that the orgy will occur.

By taking these actions, S assumes either 1) that F will not think to question his odd behavior, or 2) he does not care what she thinks. The ends justify the means.

Worse still, S assumes that it is pointless to tell F about his belief that she will refuse the orgy. This move effectively robs F of her voice by denying her the precise knowledge that she would have needed to engage in conversation with him on the issue.

Surely there are reasons behind S’s decisions. Why, for instance, does S choose to remain silent and avoid expressing his desires/beliefs to F?

S may fear that if F is aware of his desires/beliefs, she will be disinclined to participate in the orgy.

But again, in these scenarios, S does not even allow F the chance to agree or disagree.

What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.

If she doesn’t know that he is planning the orgy, then she cannot disagree.

But wait, there’s more.

Something about this whole thing still doesn’t seem to make any sense. Despite S’s carefully calculated planning — even still — S must know that F will discover his plan.

Even if she does not think twice about the extra wine in the fridge or the creepy looking sexcapade invitations on the table, it is inevitable that F will learn of S’s plan. Because S has planned that F will be one of the participants in the orgy, F will become aware of S’s plan in the moment that she is confronted with it — by surprise.

At this point, either she will have the choice to opt out, or chillingly, she will not.

This aspect of the deception makes the least sense of all. What does S imagine that she will do at the point where the parakeets are pooping in her hair, the porn star is coming towards her with a gigantic vibrator and Professor Hodgkins has already started humping her leg?

Perhaps he believes that she will happily jump into the mix. But this contradicts his belief that she will not want to participate.

In fact, even if she had previously expressed a genuine desire to be involved in such an orgy, has S considered that she might now change her mind? To imagine choas is a far cry from experiencing it.

But maybe this is all too complicated and the solution is simple.

Perhaps S has convinced himself that all of F’s beliefs, her integrity, her sense of self as a human being with a voice, will be out the window after a few beers.

Or maybe S is so jaded that he doesn’t care.

But one thing is certain. We cannot say that S didn’t consider the repercussions of his actions because the repercussions were the desired outcome.

— — — —

As Bernard Williams so eloquently observes in Problems of the Self (1973):

“Belief lies at the level of what makes my acceptance sincere or insincere; it does not lie at the level of those acceptances themselves.” (140). A lack of sincerity, a will to ignorance, a jaded attitude, and a willful blindness to the thoughts and desires of other human beings. These are all of the things that build up anger in the world.

I assume that most of us are on board with the slogan: “less anger in the world is better than more anger!” If I believe something, then I accept it sincerely.

When referring to a person’s beliefs we can distinguish two types: 1) content beliefs (whether or not the belief accurately reflects truths) and 2) attitudinal beliefs (whether or not the belief sincerely reflects the attitude of the speaker). In this essay, I have been concerned with the second type: attitudinal beliefs.

A sincere attitudinal belief is contained — and remains consistent — within a larger set of beliefs. If all of this is the case, then it is in everyone’s best interest to understand how beliefs work.