Twenty-First-Century Gothic, Brigid Cherry, Peter Howell and Caroline Ruddell, eds.

Posted by Neal Kirk on May 12, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , ,

Twenty-First-Century Gothic, Brigid Cherry, Peter Howell and Caroline Ruddell, eds. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2010. 978-1443823890.

Reviewed by Neal Kirk, University of Lancaster.

In the 1765 preface to the second edition of The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole professed his aim of blending the ancient and modern romance, an aesthetic he had already applied to the architecture and decor of his mansion at Strawberry Hill. Viewed as the site of the first of many Gothic revivals, the mansion made an apt setting for the conference where many of the essays compiled in Twenty-First-Century Gothic were first presented. In much the same way as Walpole applied “Gothic” themes to his home, the essays collected here track the dispersal of a wide range of Gothic elements into an equally broad spectrum of contemporary culture. These essays attest to a Gothic sensibility for a contemporary Gothic revival spanning literary and economic theories, the individual and society, music and film, online fan message boards, and our own bodies and emotions. The vast spectrum of cultural nodes encompassed here is clearly a reflection of the multi-disciplinary interests of the editors Brigid Cherry, Peter Howell, and Caroline Ruddell.

The essays are impressive in their efforts at anchoring an evolving Gothic mode into tangible and scholastically useful contemporary cultural examples. Generally well argued and contained within their own right, as a collection they establish an especially useful base upon which future Gothic scholarship can build.

Investigating whether the “cultural text bespeak[s] the world within or without” (2), the collection begins with two theoretical essays that establish a dichotomy that the Gothic tends to confound: that of the psychoanalytical critical approach and the historicist (2). The focus then shifts to the interface between the personal, the mind, and the world at large, the body. Next the essays move into multi-media cultural representations beginning with a focus on cinema and anime, moving into two essays about contemporary music. The final set investigates the extent the Gothic sensibilities of the twenty-first century revival have disbursed across new media communication systems into a network of fans.

Taking a Lacanian theoretical approach Gary Farnell argues in “Theorising the Gothic for the Twenty-First Century” that “Gothic is the name for the speaking subject’s experience of approaching the Thing” (7). Unfortunately, in his effort to clarify and render the abstract concept of the Thing broadly applicable, it remains somewhat cryptic and exclusive. Farnell uses highly specific examples from The Castle of Otranto to conclude generalities about structural components of the Gothic, and the connections are shrouded in complexities. This is not say the work is flawed but in a collection otherwise highly accessible to various levels of academics and even fans, this essay is the exception.

Brian Jarvis’s “The Fall of the Hou$e of Finance Gothic Economies in House of Leaves (2000) and Lunar Park (2005)” establishes a link between representations of the fictitious haunted house and the “shadow banking” that leads to the contemporary collapse of several financial institutions (21).  In a Gothic Marxist survey, Jarvis investigates the “finance spectralities” of the current economic crisis as a Gothic sub-text, with US horror fictions providing the economic sub-textual supplement (22). Jarvis’s pairing of spectral capital in subprime housing mortgages and fictional haunted houses offers a compelling springboard for tracing similar links not only through past works of fiction and historical times of financial strain, but as a lens through which to consider the continuing contemporary economic crisis.

The collection contains two essays that focus on twentieth-century authors, Richard Matheson and Sylvia Plath, who are invoked to draw parallels to the contemporary moment. The essay on Matheson, for example, utilizes a 1950’s suburban setting to argue for a contemporary haunting and gothicization of ostensibly “safe” suburban spaces of today. Similarly, Plath’s “The Hanging Man” and the chillingly contemporary (1938-2006) use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is Margaret Bethray’s route into analyzing the Gothic gender and power complexities in the Doctor/patient relationship, with the hospital becoming a contemporary gothic location; here linked with starkness, mental breakdown and limitations of choice (74). Bethray shows that the patient’s submission to the doctor can have a self-fracturing Gothic outcome; especially as modern medicines parameters include the treatment of the mind as much, if not more than the body.

Xavier Aldana Reyes’s “Obsessed with Pain: Body Politics and Contemporary Gothic,” work rounds out the section focusing expressly on the body. It seeks to understand the impetus of the current Gothic revival by exploring cultural products that display vivid depictions of bodily pain and gore, often times putting the audience in an uncomfortable position of identification. “Has the Gothic genre pervaded the contemporary so much that suffering has become entertainment,” Reyes importantly asks, “or is the Gothic the mode through which this contemporary preoccupation with images of pain is mediated?” (53). Like many of the essays in this book, Reyes’s work aptly explores the Gothic’s transition from the page, the screen, and even the Internet and traces its dispersal into a wider cultural context.

Where Reyes focuses on the experience of watching depictions of the human body in pain, Melanie Chan explores depictions of the technologically augmented body and representations of synthetically created beings in Japanese cyberpunk anime. Working to highlight the ambivalent aspects of technological embodiment (86), Chan finds contemporary cyberpunk anime challenging ideas of an immutable human essence and the possibility of achieving a post-human existence through technological transcendence (89). As technological innovation continues, Chan’s work is a timely exploration of the effects new technologies are having on conceptions of individual subjectivity and the extent a unique human essence can be maintained as it is set in opposition to synthetically created beings.

Chan’s work transitions the focus from the singular to the societal as Dean Lockwood finds the post-punk music of bands like Joy Division, The Fall and Throbbing Gristle early channels of resistance to an increasingly pervasive and commoditized culture of extremes. Taking a Deleuzian approach to the Gothic, Lockwood analyzes the spectrality and haunting capacity of music not in Derridian terms of absence and impossibility, but as a positive form of critical leverage and cultural challenge (106). Lockwood argues that Gothic’s ambivalent association with reactive repression and transgressive potential offers a rallying call for societal change. The most obvious application of such an idea is as a tool to investigate the remix atmosphere of today’s mediascapes.

Brigid Cherry’s analysis of Gothic imagery in alternative music video highlights the hybridity and intertextuality that the Gothic mode encourages. Cherry tracks the Gothic local as it becomes unstable and emptied of specific meaning as time and space become reduced to the bare essentials in a potpourri of images (123). Cherry argues that the use of Gothic in alternative music videos can “present a re-imagining of the past that can offer an alternative mode of engagement with the present to communicate an identity that is signified as Other” (124). Such an intentional association with darkness and the monstrous other, Cherry concludes, allows for a rejection of the politics of the present, a similar rejection that Maria Mellins identifies in female vampire fans as they fashion a morbid subcultural style.

Utilizing participant observation and extensive interviews Mellins finds that some fans of vampire fictions are incorporating their interests into a wider sense of self.  For some female vampire fans, the sense of identity being formed in this way is outside of their socially sanctioned roles (140) while for other it offers escapist, carnivalesque pleasures (144). Mellins’s work wonderfully demonstrates how Gothic narratives are transitioning into a wider cultural mode, but also shaping a sense of personal identity.

Through various forms of new media a decidedly Gothic current is permeating contemporary culture. Rachel Mizsei Ward’s “Copyright Association and Gothic Sensibilities” investigates the effects such a current is having on copyrighted material. Using the legal case between the film Underworld and White Wolf’s World of Darkness roleplaying setting, Ward establishes that fans fiercely cherish a “Gothic-Punk” setting. In fact, Ward finds that fans enjoy the setting so much that the originators of such material become practically irrelevant in the face of more Gothic-Punk material.

On the whole, this collection supplies a solid scholastic foundation and invites further discussion and debate for academics as well as fans. Catherine Spooner concludes her preface to the collection calling for a focus on what twenty-first-century Gothic does, rather than attempting to establish a generic purity of what it is. The focus should be on, she writes, “how it is deployed, what kind of cultural work it performs, what meaning it produces. Seen in this light, twenty-first century Gothic retains the capacity to surprise us—to horrify, and to delight” (xii). In addition to exploring new areas of surprise, horror, and delight, this collection is an invitation to build, position, and discuss. Twenty-First-Century Gothic is an effort to map some cultural areas with the aid of a Gothic compass. Revealing as this collection is it also suggests a vast expanse of still uncharted terrain. Future scholarship will no doubt confirm the phrase that often accompanies the unknown on such a map: “here monsters be”.

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