Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Problem of Appropriation - “But is it Gothic?”

One of the common catchphrases of the Gothic Reading group here at Sheffield U is the question “but is it Gothic?” and it’s something that often sparks off serious debate.

(Nerd Alert: incoming heavy geekery and/or hard fanboying. You have been warned).

One would be forgiven for thinking that a TV show that includes ghosts, vampires, technology of the past erupting into the present, possession, frankensteinien creations, sublime monsters, and zombies would slip comfortably into the Gothic genre. Yet who would call The Transformers 1984 anime, the show which includes all these elements, Gothic? A show about giant fighting robots that turn into vehicles hardly smacks of Poe influences or dark terror, but an argument could be conceivably created to argue just that. And therein lies the problem of appropriation that I want to talk about today.

Octane, pursued by Cyclonus, Scourge and his Sweeps,
finds the ghost of Starscream floating in his crypt.
But is it Gothic?

The nature of Gothic is that it is pervasive: it lingers like an infection in society, occasionally resurfacing (as it has recently) into the mainstream consciousness. It’s a nice symmetry with the nature of the genre itself, which deals in pasts long thought buried which return to haunt the present (much like the transformers buried for aeons in a ship under the eart- Okay, I'll stop now). The problem is in over-identification, or rather, the appropriation of texts for the great and growing Gothic canon. The example which always comes to mind here, is that of Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut. While I love the text as one of my favourite books of all time, I have never considered it as Gothic. Yet Maria Beville in Gothic-postmodernism: Voicing the Terrors of Postmodernity makes a convincing argument that this text, in its exploration of trauma, can be defined as Gothic. Beville argues that we do not need the paraphernalia of the Gothic, that postmodernist literature touched on contemporary terrors, positing this as Gothic’s supreme purpose.

While I can see this point of view, and the argument is both well made and interesting, I believe that sometimes this kind of textual appropriation can become all too common- Does terror in a text make it Gothic? What about that terrifying section of The Land Before Time VIII with the albertosaurus? Does that make it Gothic? Such thinking perhaps blurs the boundaries of the genre, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I can’t exactly claim innocence of this crime, though. All too easily I see myself identifying certain elements within TV shows, books, films, anything, and attempting to press them into service for the Gothicist in me. But is it Gothic? 

"A-Are we Gothic, Ducky? why am I
suddenly filled with existential dread!"
Let’s take 2002’s Blade 2 as an example. Here we have a film with vampires, the drinking of blood, labyrinthine sewers, warped familial legacies, and the sins of the father damning the future of the son. A big swing on the Goth-O-Meter towards “Gothic”. But the film does seem rejects its Gothicity (is that a word?), performing as an action blockbuster where the hero fights against all odds to defeat the cursed villain with explosions and guile.

The scenes push for a more action-line than horror, though those elements are there. You could, if you were so inclined, make an argument that it is Gothic in some ways, but the film is quintessentially Action, rather than Gothic in genre. Mary Going, a fellow PhD researcher at Sheffield coined an interesting term to resolve this, stating that such texts have ‘Gothic flavours’, and it is a phrase that I think should definitely find some traction, evoking perhaps the taste of blood, of decay and bonemeal, or dusty tombs. And Gothic flavours pervade a lot of artistic output, especially in the contemporary environment.

Sunglasses indoors are still cool, Gothic or not.
Texts like Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Text and E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, for example, evoke a sense of the Gothic while not explicitly adhering to the genre. While I believe I could make a somewhat convincing argument for the Gothicity (I’m going to make it happen) of such texts, perhaps I shouldn’t. While it’s interesting to analyse the Gothic flavours of such texts, which can prove valuable in terms of the new ways in which these Gothic tropes are employed, to label these texts as Gothic does them a disservice. It foregrounds issues of terror, death and potential mental illness, which may or may not be main focus of such texts, but merely part of larger themes and subsequently may obfuscate, or worse colour, other readings of the text.

The same retroactive appropriation of texts often occurs in my main research area, that of metafiction. Metafiction, dealing with self-conscious fiction, is often attributed to the earliest of novels- Tristram Shandy is often cited, along with Shamela and even The Canterbury Tales for their elements which make clear their fictitious natures. Linda Hutcheon, in Narcissistic Narrative addresses this issue, arguing that while Metafiction is a relatively recent classification (coined in 1970 by William H. Gass), there have still been metafictitious elements for as long as there have been novels. The aforementioned texts, while displaying the motifs we now catagorise as metafiction, should not be claimed by metafiction, but rather seen as precursors, as containing, if I may, metafictional flavours. On a side note, I imagine that metafictional flavours would probably taste of tongue, or the taste of a tongue that has been rubbed on a book, or of smells. Tasty.

Pictured: Gothic Flavours. 
I think that appropriation is unstoppable in our academic works, as Gothicists, as we are often so enamoured with our lovely little Gothic, our slice of terror, our wonderful everliving genre, that we see it everywhere. And while it is certainly interesting, and often enlightening, to cast our beady vulture eye over other texts and pluck from them the decaying veins of the Gothic, perhaps, in answer to that time old question “but is it Gothic?” we should perhaps be suggesting that it has Gothic flavours. Or, alternatively, is Beville right in asserting that the age of Gothic as defined by a specific set of paraphernalia is over? But... is it Gothic?

"I was sparkling before Vampires made it cool, Octane!"
This question, as luck would have it, is the next theme for this term’s Gothic Reading Group! How fortuitious! Sheffield Gothic will be meeting to discuss texts that we think might be Gothic in flavour, if not in nature, bringing to light a few hidden gems that we think deserve a bit more attention. Stay tuned for the upcoming schedule and please do get in touch if you’d like to come down one day and join us by contacting:

Danny ‘Decepticon’ Southward is a PhD researcher in contemporary Gothic and post-postmodernism at the university of Sheffield. His work focuses on metamodernism, metafiction and creative writing (and also apparently Transformers). He’s not obsessed with Transformers. Honest. No, really. Maybe a little. Okay, quite a lot. FIRRIB, amiright? 

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