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Transcultural Adaptation: An International Symposium

Scholars working in Adaptation Studies frequently argue that adaptation is a strategy which ensures the survival of narratives across borders – be it that of time, space, or different media. Inasmuch as species adapt by virtue of getting accustomed to changes in their environment, cultural properties become involved in “adaptive encounters” that transform them on a fundamental level. Yet this notion applies not only to the fields of biology and Adaptation Studies – current migration processes and their complex social, political, and psychological dimensions are a reflection of a similar phenomenon. It is becoming increasingly evident that in the course of the adaptation process both the immigrants and the destination societies themselves must undergo substantial changes. Each adaptive encounter – be it on the level of people, texts, films or other artifacts – provokes change in all parties involved, and the sheer reality of millions of people leaving their homes and adapting to other cultures raises questions which are of key importance not only to the field of Adaptation Studies, but to society at large.

The exact nature of transcultural adaptation processes was investigated during a symposium that took place at TU Dresden (Germany) in November 2018. The event traversed many boundaries as it brought together a diverse list of scholars (both experienced researchers and junior academics) from different countries, including Austria, Germany, Poland, Russia, the UK, and the US. The event was organized by Wieland Schwanebeck (TU Dresden) with the explicit aim of investigating cultural encounters that are not simply about the straightforward transition from one culture into the other, but which (in the spirit of Fernando Ortiz, who coined the idea of transculturalism in his book Cuban Counterpoint, 1940) see all parties change in fundamental ways, and which are the rule rather than the exception in a globalized world.

Having been officially opened by Christian Prunitsch, the Dean of the Faculty of Linguistics, Literary, and Cultural Studies of TU Dresden, the symposium kicked off with a keynote lecture by Iain Robert Smith (London), who proposed a distant (rather than close) reading of world cinema to look for bigger trajectories. In his discussion of trends in global cinema, Smith borrowed Richard Dawkins’s concept of the meme to trace the different ways in which cultural signifiers change and evolve as they travel the world and pass through the hands of various adaptors, moving beyond national borders and emancipating themselves from the source material. He substantiated his argument by investigating the adaptive history of such iconic cultural texts as Star Wars (1977) and Dracula (1897) to show how they continually evolve and influence one another, sometimes all but losing the link to the alleged “original.”

The keynote lecture was followed by an interdisciplinary panel discussion, headlined “What We Talk about When We Talk about Adaptation,” with input from Klaus Reinhardt and Judith Miggelbrink, professors working in Applied Zoology and Human Geography at TU Dresden, respectively. Both of them offered their own understanding of the term “adaptation,” from the biological understanding of adaptation as an evolutionary process that enhances a species’ ability to survive in a new environment, to the field of human geography, where “adaptation” is used in relation with the migration processes of people, to the yet more malleable definition(s) offered by the disciplines of literature and Adaptation Studies. The discussion aimed at probing different perspectives on adaptation, while drawing attention to how far the concept of adaptation has come from its Darwinist origins towards other disciplines, including politics and sociology. In the course of the discussion, it became clear that a common denominator is hard to come by, yet the dialogue between the various disciplines provided a valid point of departure for the context of the symposium – in the words of the philosopher Wolfgang Welsch, transculturalism in the context of the university is “not just about bringing together people from diverse backgrounds, but about having them produce work that reflects all of these different backgrounds” (Welsch 2010, 55, our translation).

The subsequent panels of the symposium highlighted individual aspects of transcultural Adaptation Studies and singled in on different theoretical or media-related angles. A theoretical panel on the concept of transcultural thought saw the speakers explore terminological difficulties that permeate the field of Adaptation Studies. Kyle Meikle (Baltimore) discussed the meanings of the prefix trans- in transcultural adaptation with an eye on its significance in contemporary political debates (including those on transgender and transnationalism), arguing for the ambiguous quality of the signifier as simultaneously essentialist and anti-essentialist [see Figure 1]. Eckart Voigts (Braunschweig), in his similarly thorough exploration of the contested notion of appropriation, presented various examples of cultural borrowing and sampling and argued for the fluid texture of culture in suggesting that cultural appropriation in particular is a somewhat unfairly maligned concept.

Transcultural Adaptation: An International Symposium
Tatiana Ageeva and Wieland Schwanebeck, TU Dresden, Germany, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Kyle Meikle (University of Baltimore) presents "Trans/Adaptation".

The next panels investigated transcultural adaptive traffic in the world of cinema and in other media contexts. Adineh Khojastehpour (Wuppertal) presented a case study of Dariush Mehrjui’s Sara (1992), an Iranian film based on Henrik Ibsen’s seminal play, A Doll’s House (1879) that indigenizes the source material by way of a transcultural encoding of Ibsen’s key motifs (like the dance), while Martina Pfeiler (Bochum) investigated how Ulrich Steindorff’s lost film Dämon des Meeres (1931) adjusted Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick (1851) to the context of late-1920s Germany. Sonja Schillings (Gießen) and Brygida Gasztold (Koszalin) shed light on two writers whose works tackle the theme of immigration and cutting ties with one’s cultural origins: Schillings discussed Saul Bellow’s novel Augie March (1953), not just a radical text in terms of its identity politics but also one that saw its author consciously shift away from the interior mood of his first books and towards a more universal assessment of the human condition. The focus of Gasztold’s paper was Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation (2010), a nuanced take on the topics of assimilation and also a continuation of tropes of early 20th-century Jewish-American fiction. Other literary journeys were outlined by the following panel, in which Sarah Heinz (Vienna) discussed Chigozie Obioma’s novel The Fishermen (2015) as a severe critique of colonial power structures where the characters perform individual transcultural adaptations. She also pursued a more general argument on the parallels between adaptation and the mode of parable which features prominently in Obioma’s book. Dunja Mohr (Erfurt), on the other hand, took her cue from the bicentennial celebrations surrounding Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), reading Ahmed Saadawi’s novel Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013) as a complex take on the idea of the non-domesticated other in the US war on global terror, concluding that Shelley’s creature finds a fitting equivalent in the patchwork quality of Saadawi’s critically acclaimed book.

Political dimensions of transcultural displacements of cultural content continued right into the panel on Strategic Appropriations, which saw Katrin Frisch (Berlin) analyze the appropriation of pop-cultural symbols and icons in memes used by alt-right groups, with her examples including the “Pepe the Frog” meme and the OK gesture. Frisch also examined the cultural practices of trolling and “shit-posting” on image boards as a way to blur the boundaries between what can and cannot be said and as a common method of trying out radical ideas before fully embracing them. Elena Semenova presented some findings of her Kazan-based research group on how comics have been appropriated as an educational resource in order to carry out psychology studies on bullying in Russian schools.

The final day of the symposium kicked off with a keynote lecture by Ivo Ritzer (Bayreuth), who provocatively argued against the dominant notion of adaptation in world cinema, where the Global South is usually plotted as a derivative culture that feeds on the West’s alleged originality. In an inspired attempt to decenter the discussion and to establish a politics of speaking-to (in the spirit of Gayatri Spivak), Ritzer discussed a number of films, including Last Man Standing (1996), Walter Hill’s remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), which subscribes to polyphony and to the heterogeneous logic of hybridity.

The final conference panel focused on the adaptation history of the works of William Shakespeare, offering insight into two strikingly different takes on his oeuvre [see Figure 2]. Udo Bomnüter (Berlin) presented Alexander Abela’s film Makibefo (1999), a version of Macbeth that transports the story into Southern Madagascar and not only employs the local people of the Antandroy tribe as actors in the film, but also makes extensive use of the Antandroy culture to enrich the Shakespearean text. Julia Hoydis (Cologne) examined another translocation of a Shakespeare play: Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider (2014). She argued that this Indian film carried a heavy political message and caused a great deal of controversy not only for offering an unconventional take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but also for its dissenting political agenda. This film subverts the Shakespearean plot to fill the play with a completely new meaning, condensing Hamlet’s famous monologue into a political slogan, but, even more importantly, it employs Shakespeare strategically as a “crutch” that uses the disguise of a reverent adaptation of a canonical text in order to reach a larger audience and to present a story set in the war in Kashmir.

Transcultural Adaptation: An International Symposium
Tatiana Ageeva and Wieland Schwanebeck, TU Dresden, Germany, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Bettina Jansen (TU Dresden) chairs the panel "Shakespeare on Tour" with Julia Hoydis (University of Cologne) and Udo Bomnüter (DEKRA Academy, Berlin).

Some of the conference proceedings will be published within the next year, and there will also be a follow-up event. For more details, see: www.tu-dresden.de/slk/transcultural-adaptation.

Works Cited

Wolfgang Welsch. “Was ist eigentlich Transkulturalität?” Hochschule als transkultureller Raum? Kultur, Bildung und Differenz in der Universität, edited by Lucyna Darowska, Thomas Lüttenberg, and Claudia Machold, transcript, 2010, pp. 39-66.