Interdisciplinary Gothic

Posted by kevincorstorphine on June 24, 2011 in Dr Kevin Corstorphine, Guest Blog tagged with , , , ,

It’s a dark and rainy day in Scarborough and I’m attending a very interesting interdisciplinary symposium (which you can see here) which brings together academics, performance artists/practitioners, digital artists, and musicians to discuss commonalities and synergies. I’m talking later about my research on Gothic fiction but was wondering how it would fit with such a broad spectrum of themes. There seems to be no need for concern. There has been talk of an art installation that only operates when there is no one in the room, making absence central to the subjectivity of the viewer. A proposed use of augmented reality technology to let the dead come to life and speak as part of a tourist trail experience. The use of ‘found’ material to create haunting environmental soundscapes, and a topic I’ve been haunted by since the first blog post here: the sex lives of deep sea creatures (in this case Krill). I’ve just listened to a presentation on the problems of detecting species for conservation purposes and whether or not we can infer absence by lack of presence on a given day, or as Donald Rumsfeld said about weapons of mass destruction, ‘the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence’. This was discussed in terms of Plato’s cave, but Derrida’s concept of hauntology might be equally valuable. The idea that the endangered species is a kind of spectre, ‘neither being nor non-being’, is a very Gothic one, and speaks to current anxieties about how we relate to our environment. We are haunted not by the presence, but of the absence of extinct species. Ambiguity, of course, is an integral component of the Gothic from Burke’s conception of the sublime as something ‘dark, uncertain, and confused’ to Hawthorne’s suggestion in ‘Young Goodman Brown’ that the entire tale might be caused by Brown having, ‘fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting’, or Utterson’s inability to describe Stevenson’s Mr Hyde. This all reminds me of Rumsfeld’s other famous claim that Osama Bin Laden was ‘either alive and well or alive and not too well or not alive.’

Another topic under discussion is the development of speech technology for non-speaking individuals. The artificiality of having to use a robotic voice can have a huge impact on people’s lives through the way in which they relate to others, leading potentially to isolation and a sense of being cut off. The key ideas here of the disembodied voice, the uncanny, and fear of the other are Gothic ones, albeit manipulated to cause fear by the novelist, and the very things to be avoided by the developer of such technologies. It makes me wonder though, if the Gothic scholar’s perspective can be useful in such work. We seem to dabble constantly in sociology and politics, but can an understanding of how fear and alienation work be applied to the individual scale and put to such positive uses as well as critique? Given the Gothic’s history of equating disability with evil this may be particularly appropriate. I’ve not read it yet but a search has uncovered a recent book on the subject of disability and the Gothic (Ruth Bienstock Anolik’s Demons of the Mind, reviewed on this site!).

There are presentations about virtual worlds and videogames too, something I’m touching on in my presentation in relation to survival horror. Videogames in general seem to share a natural affinity with the Gothic through the player’s embodiment within a spectral avatar, and the use of Gothic imagery is omnipresent, particularly a kind of faux-medievalism. Even a game like Super Mario Brothers, despite its vibrant palette of primary colours, deals with a female in distress, a hero’s descendit ad infernos exploration of a labyrinthine underworld and his confrontations with the monstrous. Above all, though, it’s about death, endlessly repeated as the jovial plumber is killed, only to be brought back to life and put once again zombie-like under the player’s domineering control.

Embodiment in virtual worlds such as Second Life is under discussion, and how social networking changes the nature of human interaction. Are we changed if we do not appear as we are, or if, like Carwin in Wieland, our voice is relocated into another space? Perhaps like Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, though, overexposure to the Gothic has warped my perspectives and I’m seeing things that aren’t there. Nonetheless, it’s good to experience some true interdisciplinarity and hear what people are up to beyond the places, as Burns would have it, ‘whare ghaists and houlets nightly cry.’

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