Multiliteracies in ELA Classrooms

The science of cultural staying power

July 8th, 2013 · 1 Comment

I read the first paragraph of Borlotti and Hutcheon’s “On the Origin of Adaptations: Rethinking Fidelity Discourse and ‘Success’: Biologically” probably three or four times before I could continue on to read the rest of the paper with confidence. The opening’s reference to a Spike Jonze film along with the use of “biological adaptation” and “metacinematic film” in the same, early sentence, caused me to double (and triple…) check that I was reading it right. But yes, I had correctly understood what they meant: they posit that the process by which certain texts or stories become popular and maintain that popularity is a kind of cultural version of Darwin’s natural selection.

Just like its biological counterpart, “cultural selection…involves differential survival through a process of replicating into future generations” (Borlotti 449). Upon first reading this, I found it intriguing but slightly problematic. In nature, genetic changes take thousands of years. Especially given the flash-in-the-pan internet memes that are afforded momentary superstardom by currently available technology, are we perhaps talking about apples and oranges here? Cultural selection happens at the speed of the fastest internet connections. After thinking about things for a bit longer, I realized that – despite the difference in how long the two processes take – natural selection and cultural selection are, in a way, both about survival.

To further support their position, Borlotti and Hutcheon move on to discuss another biological process: mutation. Here, the similarities between natural and cultural selection are, for me, even more salient. In biology, “mutation is not a negative term”; rather, “it is judged as beneficial, neutral, or deleterious in the context of its environment” (449). Similarly, in pop culture today, mutations are the basis for many fad

To return to memes for a moment: some of the funniest and most popular memes of the past few years have involved riffing on or remixing an original piece. Whether that’s writing a caption for someone else’s image, as in LOLcats or creating an autotuned version of a familiar children’s television show.

These mutated forms of image and video are, in a way, also examples of survival. I wouldn’t be watching this clip of Mr. Rogers if he hadn’t been remixed – I watched his show as a child, but he only appears in my adult life in a remixed capacity. It is only because of mutation, a slight change to the “phenotype” of the show, that he continues to exist in my consciousness.

I find this idea really interesting, and so I’m rambling a bit. I’ll wrap up here. This leaves some of these ideas a bit unfinished, so feel free to tidy things up by adding what you think about what these authors have said.

Borlotti and Hutcheon’s natural selection analogy suggests that the only stories that survive through the years are the ones that can be seen as continuously culturally relevant. As we see with Mr. Rogers, mutation is a way that a story can remain current. The authors also point to transmedia as an indication of a story’s success: “If a narrative is adapted into many different media, we might use this proliferation of forms as a measure of success” (451). I think this popularity test could be expanded to include not just many forms of media, but many locations. If a story is truly “successful,” it may appear in many different cultures across the world. Particularly now, when communities all around the globe are connected online, a story has improved chances of survival if it is not just relevant over time, but is globally relevant right now.

– Shannon Smart (Blog Entry #2)

Tags: adaptations

1 response so far ↓

  • allisond // Jul 9th 2013 at 10:47 am

    First off, in response to your lolcat:

    Your comment about mutation in terms of memes is quite enlightening. The influx in the last several years of meme pictures with myriad different captions (like The Most Interesting Man on Earth) is a perfect example of this kind of cultural mutation.

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