Travelling gothic

Posted by Jennifer Lawn on September 02, 2008 in Dr Jennifer Lawn, Guest Blog tagged with

It’s nice to have the opportunity to “chat” with you in this virtual space.  Your programme of study looks fantastic, and I hope you’re enjoying it. 



Still from Kitchen Sink (1989), dir. Alison Maclean (just to get you into the Kiwi gothic mood)



When I wrote the introduction for the multidisciplinary anthology Gothic NZ (University of Otago Press, 2006), I found myself in hot water with some reviewers.  I emphasised the mobility of gothic by approaching it as a mode, not a genre; as a way of seeing, feeling, and existing, rather than a definable set of contents and themes.  This refusal to lay down clear parameters disturbed some readers, who — quite fairly — expected that the whole point of anthology-making is to explain who’s “in,” who’s “out,” and why.  My fellow editors and I had opened the gates, and gothic was at large!

As fans of “global gothic,” maybe you’re prepared to run with the idea of gothic as a mode.  How else could we explain the diaspora of gothic from the scenes of Catholic depravity and Old Europe found in gothic revival literature to, say, stories about embittered families camped out in farm shacks in provincial New Zealand?  Gothic border-crosses to the furthest reaches of the earth and rejuvenates itself in the process.  (Geographically, you can’t get further away from Western Europe than New Zealand, unless we want to inaugurate the category of “Antarctic gothic”; and as the last major habitable land mass in the world to be settled, perhaps around 800 years ago, these islands might also claim a particular relation to “newness”).

But if gothic travels well, what is that travels?  Or to put the question another way, is there some “gothic kernel” to be found in every representation that we call “gothic” in its spread from old world to new and across disciplinary borders — from literature, cinema, music and fashion into the visual arts, advertising, children’s literature, contemporary architecture, philosophy, metapsychology?  Is “global gothic” a form of propagation — or contagion?  Renovation, or exhaustion?  And are those who seek to narrow the borders doing so in the name of intellectual discrimination, good taste, or a necessary defence of gothic proper?  In characterising gothic by its mobility I took a sidestep around these questions, and I’d like to present some examples for your consideration. 

Mieke Bal’s idea of “travelling concepts” helps me find a pathway here.  I like her approach to cultural analysis, because she expresses the idea that objects change in the process of studying them — they become fuzzy, wriggly, unstable.  Here’s how she puts the work of cultural analysis in Travelling Concepts in the Humanities: A Rough Guide (2002):

You don’t apply one method; you conduct a meeting between several, a meeting in which the object participates, so that, together, object and methods can become a new, not firmly delineated, field.  This is where travel becomes the unstable ground of cultural analysis.  At first sight, the object is simpler than anthropology’s: a text, a piece of music, a film, a painting.  But, after returning from your travels, the object constructed turns out to no longer be the “thing” that so fascinated you when you chose it.  It has become a living creature, embedded in all the questions and considerations that the mud of your travel spattered onto it, and that surround it like a “field”. (p. 4)

But Bal also cautions against any “unwarranted and casual ‘application’ of concepts” that diffuses their force (p. 33).

Let’s test out some texts and images cited in Gothic NZ and see if we can authenticate their gothic genealogy.  I’m going to immediately set aside the supernatural, in the form of the “big three” monsters of gothic horror: vampires, zombies, and ghosts.  What’s immediately apparent about NZ literature and film is that these supernatural creatures rarely appear.  [read an aside on this point]  Instead, we seem to specialise in flesh-and-blood monsters, most often the bloke sitting at the table with the rest of the family (or sometimes his daughter).

Jane Campion’s film The Piano (1992) is probably the single best-known example of Kiwi gothic.  It’s classic female gothic in the tradition of Jane Eyre, transferred to a colonial New Zealand setting (with an added twist: the illegitimate child is not the suspected offspring of the byronic hero, but rather the heroine, and the child plays a rather nasty role in bringing about the plot climax).  As a number of critics have noted, the ethnic politics of The Piano are rather conservative.  Violent colonial ways have to be superceded, just as patriarchal tyranny and authoritarian social orders had to be dispensed with in the early exponents of female gothic.  A new social order emerges: the white settler, who has spilt blood, literally, to claim a legitimate sense of belonging in (and ownership of) the new land.

How about Peter Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures?  It’s based on the true story of two girls who murdered the mother of one of them in 1954, and it’s Jackson’s most brilliant work (the Lord of the Rings is just kid stuff).  Heavenly Creatures has a gothic flavour in its foregrounding of perverse desire and intergenerational transfusions, reinforced by a kind of hysteria in Jackson’s very busy camerawork; but its not genre cinema in the same sense as The Piano.  You can argue that a kind of colonial haunting pervades the story, in the girls’ longing for the lost mother: that is Mother England, the origin that the southern city of Christchurch miserably fails to replicate (Michelle Elleray’s article "Heavenly Creatures in Godzone” follows this cue). 

Here are two further images that we included in Gothic NZ.  They do not have specifically New Zealand referents; as editors, we were quite keen to move beyond rural and provincial scenes that have become clichés in Kiwi gothic iconography.  New Zealand isn’t just one big isolated farm … or at least not quite!

 Chris Braddock, "Jezebel" (2001), 600×600 mm, cibachrome

Chris Braddock’s photograph “Jezebel” is one of a series of images from a collaborative project with artist/tattooist/hip hop performer Otis Frizzell.  Sacred symbols are tattoed close to parts of the body that serve an erotic and/or excretory function.  Here the gothic fascination with sacral decadence is evoked.  In an accompanying essay, Mark Jackson refers to the ‘resonance between tattoo and taboo, between the doubling of a skin incision and a realm of prohibitions, profanities and the sacred.”  [click here to see more of Chris Braddock’s work]

This image is from a series of road safety “social good” advertisements run by Land Transport New Zealand.  It’s rather blatantly playing to young males’ castration anxieties.  Other images in the series include razor blades and close-ups of badly stitched, scarred, cross-eyed crash victims.  Here the idea developed in an accompanying essay by Stephen Turner and Scott Wilson is the interplay between death and advertising, usually a form devoted to commodifying our desires.

Problematic though it is, I’m still attracted to the idea that what unites all the manifestations of global gothic is a sense of haunting.  I like this idea in particular because it recasts the “gothic kernel” as a penumbra — that in-between space between being existing and not existing.  This definition embraces the undefinable and questions the quality of “is-ness”: you can only say what gothic “is” by refuting the ordinary-world assumption of “being” as any identity that occupies a singular space and time.  Push the idea of haunting further, though, and you end up with a Derridean-inflected “hauntology”: not a “theory of everything gothic,” but a “gothic theory of everything.” As Catherine Spooner noted in one of her blogs, Alexandra Warwick has written a really useful commentary on gothic exhaustion in her article "Feeling Gothicky?" Warwick concludes that it may well be time to pronounce gothic dead, as victim of its own success. The trouble is, as a field of study at least, Kiwi gothic has only recently been born!

For the rest of the blogs this month, I’m thinking of exploring topics like Maori gothic and colonial trauma, Scottish migration and the art of the miserable, and Kiwi gothic visual artists.  Let me know if there are any particular texts or issues you’d like to cover (including your thoughts on settler or postcolonial gothic more widely — Kiwi gothic is rather a minority taste).

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