Fanfiction, adaptations and literary theory
It was in grade 6 that I first discovered fanfiction. In many ways, fanfiction –the creation of derivative stories by fans of previously published books, movies and other media, featuring characters or distinctive concepts, devices and worlds conceptualized by another — is a secret thing, part of a big subculture that lurks in the hearts of teenagers, their grown selves, and everyone in between.
I never internalized the shame and prejudice that surrounds the derivative fanwork community (that’s not real writing! that’s not real art!, as some idiots would say). As described by Berkowitz (2013), the media has historically marginalized, dismissed and denounced youth subcultures. Fanfiction is no different.
E. L. James converted her Twilight fanfiction into the blockbuster and bestseller Fifty Shades of Gray. Maybe half of the reading population laughed, disparaged and avoided.
Yet taken apart, fanfiction is simply another form of adaptation. Virgil took Homer’s Iliac and Odyssey, and wrote more because he wanted to know more. Popular works in contemporary media are as derivative as the original Kirk/Spock fanfiction that circulated in the 1970s and that featured in academic studies through and beyond the 1990s.
We’ve seen a rash of Disney and fairytale adaptations that aimed to subvert the original: Alice in Wonderland (2010) which put an arguably-feminist and historical lens on the original, Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) which overthrew the almost-definitive stupidity of Jack with an action-packed adventure, and Maleficent (2014), which has overt deconstructive angles portraying the titular character as a victim, antiheroine and even mother figure. I remember watching a version of Shakespeare with guns, thanks to 1996’s Romeo + Juliet. All of these are derivative works enjoyed by the mainstream media.
Regardless of its form and its audience, these derivative works can be discussed in terms of modern and post-modern criticism. A couple of years after I first discovered Harry/Hermione fanfiction, our high school literature teacher verbalized what I appreciated about fanfiction: deconstruction.
Deconstruction gave a name to this literary love I’ve been growing inside my heart.
Deconstruction: a philosophy and a theory
Deconstruction is a form of post-structural criticism applied in both philosophical and literary analysis. Largely influenced by the French Jacques Derrida, the form of analysis is a direct opposition to, well, oppositions. It is characterized by an embracement of uncertainty within the way we conceptualize ideas and the way we analyze text.
That is, there are likely no fundamental conceptual distinctions. Traditional modes of thought, especially those which emphasize oppositions, e.g. black versus white, good versus evil, are dismantled as a result.
In philosophy, these oppositions are related to an accepted fundamental truth, and its opposing derivative or secondary concept. For example, there is the idea of presence, juxtaposed to the idea of absence. In deconstruction, the tensions and contradictions surrounding these concepts are exposed. Presence is not necessarily the precursor to the definition of absence; absence can also define presence in other situations. The default “good” and the deviancy of “evil” can be challenged by exposing contradictions in their definitions.
Unlike in the formalist movement New Criticism, the work is not self-contained. Secondary concepts are a mere “construction” based on other concepts, and they do not exist independently of it.
Therefore our understanding of things is based on contrasts and relationships. Derrida coined this evaluation of meaning as différance, the difference (as we define in terms of contrasts) and an act of deferring. We defer the meaning of a concept to another concept, which is then deferred to another, and so on.
As such, it is possible to de-construct these concepts, and say that their relationships (and as a result their previously-static manifestations) are not fundamental.
Deconstruction in social debates and gender theory
When it comes to defining feminism and tackling gender in debate, I find deconstruction to be one of the most interesting approaches. In debate, we easily say “deconstruct gender roles” or “deconstruct identities”, when we argue for the redefining of norms and their relevance, or lack thereof, in society.
Naturally, no one has the time to discuss deconstruction as a form of criticism in 7 minutes. But queer theory and many branches of feminist understanding carry similarities with deconstruction.
Most debaters have probably argued the nature of gender as a historical and social construction at some point in their lives. Similarly, formal theories deny the inherency of identities as natural or essential, which is a basic facet of deconstruction.
The spectrum espoused by queer theory, veering away from a binary of men or women, and the theories of intersectionality also display much of Derrida’s différance. That is, because there is no inherency to these concepts, any person in the spectrum is defined both by self and not-self.
Debaters then move on to how currently dangerous or oppressive constructions of identity can be deconstructed for the benefit of the motion.
This is always a minefield to debate and adjudicate; the challenge makes debate even more fun.
Deconstruction in literature and arts, by example
I am an unnecessarily complicated writer, driven by very simple things. I originally wrote this article to share two pieces of derivative fanfiction that I found incredibly interesting, and then I just had to go and share my feelings on deconstruction.
The first fanfiction of this thread is Grasp the Thorn, by elyssblair (2012). The other is Love Worth Waiting For, by BooklandReeve (2014). Both are derivative of popular Disney/fairytale stories. The first, Grasp the Thorn, is a gay reimagining of Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty. The second is a lesbian reimagining of the 2013 hit Frozen and the older classic Mulan.
In effect, both of these works primarily deconstruct the literary concept of “happily ever after”, mostly by redefining it to encompass a homosexual relationship. Through the act of deferring, this also necessarily deconstructs the expected character arcs of your hero and heroine, and their fundamental characteristics as associated with masculinity and femininity.
The expansion of the story to “fill-in-the-blanks” is a way of challenging the automaticity of motivations with regards to the archetypal protagonist. Tangentially and in a meta-analysis, the “crossover” character of these works challenge the one-dimensional setting of most instructive fairytales.
Deconstruction is applied to similar effect to other fields, including legal literature and architecture. In any case, deconstruction emphasizes the performative aspects of language and, in the case of architecture, structuralist and functionalist forms. It challenges the existence of an ultimate objectivity.
Really, I like deconstruction because it basically goes wild with everything and anything. Because we define by différance, constructions and their manifestations can be as endless, limitless and as justifiable as you want it to be.
Deconstruction in medicine
As I was writing this, I thought to myself: there’s no way deconstruction can be applied in medicine –right? At best, it would be applied in the same way deconstruction is used to criticize legal jargon. That is, the application would largely be focused on public health and policy, and the social conceptualizations of “health”.
A quick search of related literature surprised me. Deconstruction as a form of analysis has pervaded medicine, though maybe not in the strictest sense of the word.
Though this journal article’s title is to say “Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences: truth, power and fascism” (Holmes & Perron, 2006), it is less a deconstruction of evidence-based medicine and more a deconstruction of the primacy of its role in medical discussion.
More interestingly, Devisch & Murray (2009) writes an article that used Derridan concepts to challenge the existence of purely “evidence-based medicine”, especially as it links back to public health theory and clinical doctrines. In ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’: deconstructing ‘evidence-based’ medical practice, the authors argue that EBM (specifically with regards to randomized controlled trials) auto-deconstructs its own objective paradigm. Even by its own standards, evidence-based practices only maintain an illusion of scientific rigour.
Because I found the thesis very interesting, I read through the whole journal article.
Briefly, the article (1) implies that the understanding of non-EBM “intuitive”, “guesswork” and other practices are defined by différance, (2) underlies the logical fallacy of accepting EBM as truth solely because of its popularity, especially since, as of the time of writing, no studies on the objective superiority of EBM have been published, and (3) suggests the scientific nationalism espoused by EBM distorts the value of non-quantitative understandings of health, pre-EBM evidence-based methodologies, and other associated truths.
Uncertainty in a post-factual world
In a post-factual world, perhaps only poststructuralist theories can predominate. Like other poststructuralist theories, deconstruction has been accused of being revolutionary, nihilist, ahistorical and apolitical. The potentially-extreme form of relativism and individual discernment associated with deconstruction justifies the destruction of objectivity.
What I find more interesting about deconstruction today is that it fits very well with the current social and political atmosphere. As both academic articles and media establishments would say, we live in a post-factual, post-truth and post-reality world where facts matter the least.
Political discussions are overriden with intense rhetoric and emotionalism. The use of facts persists, but their factual veracity is only a bonus and not a prerequisite to their discursive utility. We can retroactively justify political events that we’ve previously deemed as unforgivable and morally abhorrent (e.g. white supremacy, Nazism, that beauty pageant contestant who said we should be thankful for the centuries of Spanish rule).
In analyzing the way we analyze politicians and political discourse, it’s clear to see that previously-held standards simply do not matter. As in debating about gender politics, debates about the contribution and good governance of certain characters shift depending on presented definitions.
We can constantly redefine what it means to be a “good” president. In the practice of defining by difference and contrasts, we are empowered to say anyone is good as long as we contrast it with the behavior of someone who is “bad”. Both the goodness and the badness of such behaviors vary depending on the the needs of the person heading the discussion.
Obviously, even though I love deconstruction and post-truth discussions, this is one area where I wouldn’t mind some universal consensus and objectivity.
Okay, now that I have that out of my system… I can now go home and study. Lol. Thank God HIMA ended early or I’d be really wasting my time.