Multiliteracies in ELA Classrooms

Adaptations, Caliban and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

July 7th, 2014 · No Comments

Does life imitate art or does art imitate life? This question has been asked in thousands of classrooms – from Harvard university to Lac La Hache middle school.  But what if these questions have been leading us astray? What if art is life? What if art has the same biological imperative to replicate and spread its genetic code, like the rest of us genetic slaves vying and vetting each other from cradle to grave? What if Macbeth has its own parasites to fool – dodging this way and that so it can pass on its progeny? If so, who are the parasites? Who are its predators? Who does Art mate with? And what does it mean for Art to evolve? What would a chromosome look like in a poem?

According to Zoologist Matt Ridley, “In history and in evolution, progress is always a futile, Sisyphean struggle to stay in the same relative place by getting ever and ever better at things. Cars move through the congested streets of London no faster than horse-drawn carriages did a century ago. Computers have no effect on productivity because people learn to complicate and repeat tasks that have been made easier. This concept, that all progress is relative, has come to be known in biology by the name of the Red Queen, after a chess piece that Alice meets in Through the Looking Glass, who perpetually runs without getting very far because the landscape moves with her…Every creature on earth is in a Red Queen tournament with its parasites (or hosts), its predators (or prey), and above all, with its mate. (Ridley 11).

Through this lens, our genes are adapting fast enough to outsmart our competitors, parasites and predators. Our genes are driving our bodies (gene vehicles) on a continuous treadmill that won’t allow us to stop evolving. We cooperate and conflict like crabs in a bucket. Anything that threatens the spread of our DNA is a threat. Anything that helps is a friend or a mate.

The Garden of Eden isn’t about a garden. It’s about the human burden/responsibility of choice, it’s about Pandora, it’s about temptation. Like the human body, The Garden of Eden is a vehicle to pass along genetic scripts – human characteristics and traits that have been left after millions of years of evolution. The depression and shame of Raskolnikov is the result of certain evolutionary demands of the genus Homo 3 million years ago. Today, that same shame is portrayed in the movie The Machinist with Christian Bale. Both texts evolved in Red Queen fashion for their times. Crime and Punishment was a great novel, but it could never compete with Breaking Bad today.

If Art is alive and created about us and for us and by us, then why do we not embrace it like our kids? And why do we always seem to reject new Art? Why did it take so long to appreciate Duchamp’s toilet? Why did Gogol die in poverty? Well, maybe its because deep down these texts carried the hard truth of our burden to evolve. It’s painful! It’s literally death to us! And perhaps we instinctually resent and reject it for its pain and throw nostalgia, money, ethos and anything we can to slow it down. It’s same instinct as the proverbial, “Can you believe kids today?” or “Computers are turning us into Robots.” We really don’t want to run anymore.

And like the parent who takes his bratty, loud kids to the play centre in Macdonalds, the artist sends his or her adaptation in the world. Most people will hate the art but if the art somehow contains the raw truths of the Genetic codes of people, it will survive. Shameless Adaptations like, The Passion of the Christ, are always suspect.

We tend to disregard adaptations of the classics: “The manifest ubiquity of narrative adaptations in contemporary culture notwithstanding, the critical tendency has been to denigrate them as secondary and derivative in relation to what is usually (and tellingly referred to as the “original.” (Bertolottim, Hutcheon 443)

Because of the times we live in, these adaptations tend to be associated with film and abridged novels. I remember my elderly grade 8 English teacher reprimanding me because I watched the movie The Outsiders before the book. The movie wasn’t real, according to her. It wasn’t real in the same way I believe now that emoticons aren’t real English. The fact that we denigrate these particular Adaptations is cultural, but the impulse is biological. Perhaps, we resent these adaptations because of the burdens we carry to adapt and transform if we are going to survive.  And when our lives have been dedicated to studying and proclaiming expertise and authority on “real art,” new art and mediums can work to undermine the human capital we have worked so hard to acquire. Why would a Shakespearian scholar welcome the replacement of Julius Caesar with The Sopranos? This would only work to undermine his or her survival and reproduction value.   These new forms offer little economic or social incentives to an “expert” in the field.  When we dismiss Bieber’s Baby and deny it as a timeless classic, are we parasites? Are we Predators? Are we mates? Maybe we are all three at once because Art only dies when it is ignored.

The more we hate Artistic works, the more they come to life in spite of us. It’s like Lady Gaga once said, “People will talk, so let’s give them something to talk about.” And we did. We talked about Elvis’s pelvic thrusts and we were disgusted as we tuned into “Meet the Kardashians” and regretted ever signing up for Facebook while scanning our news feeds. We have been appalled by mutations. And we, soon to be crusty old teachers will denounce some electronic device that claims its art twenty years from now and throw up our arms in evolutionary exhaustion proclaiming it’s not real, it’s not real. Some of us might even say, “Sit down, put your head phones in and I want those Conventions of Reality Television Essays and the Canonical works of Reality Television tweeted in by the end of class.”  While the evolutionary treadmill motors on,  and some agent is trying to sell a “Meet the Kardashians” adaptation to a rich virtual reality art producer in the Hollywood hills. The literary genes will continue to find a way.

–Brian Boyce


Works Cited

Bortolotti, G. and Hutcheon, L. (2007). “On the Origin of Adaptations: Rethinking Fidelity Discourse and “Success” — Biologically.” New Literary History, 38(3), pp. 443-458.

Ridley, Matt. The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. Harper Perennial, New York, 2003.





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