Adaptation and Convergence of Media: “High” Cultural Intermediality versus Popular Culture Intermediality

Adaptation and Convergence of Media: “High” Cultural Intermediality versus Popular Culture Intermediality
by Lily Díaz, Magda Dragu and Leena Elittä, Editors

Aalto University Press, Espoo, Finland, 2018
276 pp., illus. Trade, €40.00
ISBN: 978-9526083117.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
October 2019

Intermediality is booming business, and quite some recent publications have difficulties in finding their own position as well as defining their unique selling proposition in a field that is still struggling with the definition of its fundamental concepts. The problem here is not “convergence culture” but concepts such as intermediality and transmediality, both at the center of many heated debates. Adaptation and Convergence of Media is obviously handicapped by the same problem, not because it makes a confusion between inter- and transmediality, that is between the combination of media within single works or practices (inter) and the shift from one medium to another (trans), or between these twin notions and Henry Jenkins’s “convergence culture”, but because it introduces new stakes that are not always addressed in the various contributions of the volume, interesting as they may be in themselves.

But to be fair, for I did read this book with pleasure, let me start with words of praise. One can only welcome the decision of the editorial team to reopen the aesthetic discussion on intermediality and to broaden the purely mediatic and/or semiotic study of intermediality in light of Dick Higgins’s critical and artistic work on “intermedia”, a notion coined by this Fluxus artist and theoretician in 1966 –at a moment when the critical discourse on media issues was still strongly dominated by Clement Greenberg’s Modernist belief in medium specificity. As the introduction by Magda Dragu and the first chapter by Ken Friedman and Lily Díaz, both superbly written and based on an excellent, although narrowly Anglo-Saxon and German literature review, help understand, it makes much sense to go beyond the formalist point of view and to tackle media issues in historical, political, and artistic terms as well. The enlarged historical and cultural frame is then illustrated with the help of 11 case studies, which are all the more stimulating since they present and analyze work from less known cultural traditions and languages (Scandinavia, Eastern Europe). This is a very fresh take on “internationalization” and “globalization” that can only be welcomed by all those who value diversity in non-conformist terms (we all know what “conformist rebellion” currently mean in today’s cultural studies and media research – I will quote some examples below). I particularly appreciated the chapter on Jaroslav Foglar’s youth literature (an example of cleverly contextualized word and image analysis of a Czech artist under Soviet rule), but actually all case studies offer interesting insights on works and problems that are either well known (John Cage reading through Finnegans Wake, for instance) or not known at all except by a tiny group of specialists (for example the gender dimensions of writing the Kalevala, the national Finnish epos). More generally, it should be underlined that the gender dimension of many analyses is always highly enriching.

However, the book clearly wants to do too much; more precisely it does not really do what it actually promises to do. Granted, there is a strong theoretical ethos that runs through the whole volume, which is certainly a positive feature. But if the editors manage to maintain a sharp distinction between adaptation and convergence culture, their strong focus on adaptation is always in danger of blurring the boundaries between intermediality and transmediality (in practice, both are of course not always easy to distinguish, but that difficulty should function as a warning system). Moreover, the danger of overtheorization is never far away. Do we really need a quotation by Lacan when discussing issues of domination? And is it necessary to ritually join in today’s (or yesterday’s?) name-dropping by connecting John Cage and James Joyce to one or two sentences by Jacques Rancière on the reconfiguration of the visible? I think there is no better way of shallowly streamlining and normalizing Cage’s manipulation of Finnegan’s Wake than to “explain” it via some free-floating slogans borrowed from Rancière, while using Lacan’s authority to defend anti-authoritative stances is also not deprived of some paradox. But this is the price to pay for all “marginal” (I mean: geographically and linguistically peripheral) scholarship to make itself noticed in today’s global concert.

More problematic is the fact that the fascinating topic highlighted by the title of the book, namely the high versus low divide in the field of intermediality, is never really analyzed. It is true that examples are borrowed from both the “high” brow and the “low” brow spheres, but whereas one is expecting an in-depth discussion of the different ways in which high and low address the issue of intermediality, all contributors make painstaking efforts to show how the difference between the brows is no longer relevant. One easily admits that the distinction between high and low should be open to debate, if not to deconstruction, but such a stance is a straw man’s argument. The liberal, postmodern view defended by Adaptation and Convergence of Media is not wrong per se, but readers may wonder why the editors at the same time emphasize the word “versus” in the title of their book, which is a revitalizing take on a very old discussion, while at the same time doing all they can to downsize in all chapters the possibly polemical question of a real difference between intermediality in high art and intermediality in low art.