One of my hopes for cultural history & media studies courses that I teach is that students will learn not just how to read, analyze and critique expressive culture but also get some sense of how to produce it, use it, repurpose it. Knowing how culture works is a big part of working with culture.
I’m getting some new perspectives on this ambition in my current Image of Africa class. We’re looking at a series of discrete tropes, starting from their present and going back in time to discover where they came from. One thing that really hit me as I prepared the syllabus is that in many cases, contemporary producers of popular culture are at least intuitively knowledgeable about these kinds of histories. As you move back in time to the 1950s and 1960s in American pop culture, you come to a different strata where the repurposings of pre-1945 tropes dealing with Africa and empire have a brash, almost charmingly naive feel to them, with American archetypes (and white American paternalism) wandering around happily on some new playgrounds. And then you get back into the spawning grounds of a lot of these images and iconographies and it’s again quite different.
Seeing the evidence of knowledge among contemporary producers about the history of particular cliches, stock devices and imagery makes me think of a lot of pop culture as the work of trope technicians. You sometimes get the feeling that there is the interpretative equivalent of a bunch of Keebler elves perpetually on the prowl through the increasingly accessible catalog of 20th Century film, popular fiction, comic books, music and so on, following Wikipedia’s breadcrumbs into the trope-infested wilds and then leaving their own trails of breadcrumbs behind.
Trope technicians who come back with trophies from these expeditions usually make one of two patterned, structured choices about what to do with their catch. The first strategy is to make ironic, self-referencing, usually comedic use of what they’ve found, drawing whatever venom might have been in those images from the wound by winking at the audience. That approach capitalizes on varying layers of audience familiarity and comfort with stock images and tropes while leaving an escape route. The Simpsons and Futurama are the master class version of this approach.
Anther technical path for contemporary usage of stock devices retrieved from a century (or more) of pop culture is to carefully redesign them for contemporary sensibilities while retaining the iconic essence of the image or trope in question. Often this paradoxically involves making a period piece, setting the action in the past but infusing that past with the political and social consciousness of the present. The character of Remington in The Ghost and the Darkness, played by Michael Douglas, is a spot-on example of this strategy. He’s a Great White Hunter with a close familial relationship to his pop-culture ancestor Allan Quatermain, right down to having his own version of Umslopogaas.
It’s worth looking closely at how precise the re-engineering of Remington is. He’s a wholly fictional insertion into a sort-of-true story. The film’s producers want to catch all the iconic lightning in a bottle that the Quatermain lineage can provide while forgetting all the Bwana-laden Clyde-Beattyesque paternalism in between. So Remington has his close African friend and he has his loyal tribe of natives (Masaai, of course) whose customs he knows well. Unlike Quatermain, his familiarity extends to actually participating unselfconsciously in Masaai rituals, to finding himself more at home with them than with other white people. (Here he’s borrowing a bit of archetypical DNA from Richard Francis Burton and other colonial misanthropists, though Quatermain already has some of that going on in Haggard’s novels.) Remington is a hunter with a gift, but he hates killing animals. He’s a steely-eyed man of action who worries that he’ll lose his courage when the moment comes. He doesn’t wear the typical pith-helmeted or safari-jacketed ensemble of the stock version of his character, instead favoring what one film critic called a “hippie outfit”. He’s an American Southerner who fought for the South in the Civil War and lost his family, ending up lost and adrift in Africa (but obviously bearing no racial grudges).
That’s a character who is about as carefully calibrated as an NIST atomic clock, and a big reason why the film itself is rather lifeless. But the basic strategy is a fairly sound one for serious repurposing of images and tropes with resonant but ambivalent histories.
One other common technical strategy is to do what gamers call “reskinning”, to completely port over stock narratives, images and devices into a comprehensive new visual or descriptive scheme. Avatar is the example du jour, but it often crops up in science fiction, fantasy and other speculative genres. The question here is often whether to deliberately call back to the source material or not: the paratextual material surrounding Avatar went out of its way to document Cameron’s citations of past pop culture (and in his view, historical reality as well). But sometimes contemporary producers want to hide their repurposings, or aren’t even terribly conscious of what they’ve done.
Beyond these technical approaches to cultural production, there’s more creative work that remixes, references, rethinks and comments on powerful iconography, work that by definition can’t be pigeonholed as following a particular recipe. This is not to knock the technical forms I’m describing in contrast. I think those can be taught and they have a huge variety of uses. Genuinely original, creative, artistic work by contrast is almost unteachable, certainly unpredictable, and usually idiosyncratic.