The Monster Returns | Thesis Extract

Note: This post’s feature image is a still from “If Found…”, an Irish video game from dreamfeel that includes a trans protagonist, as well as many other LGBTQ+ characters!

It has been a great many months since I have posted here, but I have returned to share a sample of the fruits of my labour! Yes, it’s true; the dissertation has been written, submitted, and graded (first class honours, baby!). I am incredibly proud of it, and will definitely post the full paper somewhere, but I do feel a blog post is not the place for that! Still, this blog was made to document the progression of my research, so it’s only fitting that I would post even just a little bit of the culmination of all that work.

There has also been a seemingly endless spew of invective and ignorant pieces about trans people, both in Ireland and the world beyond. But why get into fights on Twitter with people who do not want to learn, only attack those they do not understand?

Instead I want to post this extract from the introduction of my dissertation, as an indirect counter to the misinformation and fear-mongering that has been spread recently.

So please, enjoy!

Of Monsters and Thems: Problematising Cis-Heteronormativity in Old Norse and Old English Scholarship.

“[C]riticism worthy of its name arises from commitments deeper than professionalism.”

(Lawrence Buell, quoted in Postcolonial Ecocriticism, 11)

Allow me to preface this dissertation by stating clearly that I am a transgender, non-binary, queer individual.  That is to say, I am not cisgender, and I am not heterosexual. I feel it is important to make clear that I am not speaking over trans or queer voices – I am one. I by no means have any authority to speak on behalf of any other member of the LGBTQ+ community, but the fact remains that there are not enough trans voices in Old Norse and Old English scholarship, and, as I have been handed a megaphone (that is, the opportunity to write a thesis) it seems unwise to let the moment pass in silence. There is, inevitably, a personal element to this thesis, disguised only thinly by the passive voice, but the issue of prejudice against transgender, non-binary, and even intersex people is larger than any one individual and impacts not only our view of the world in the twenty-first century, but, as it pertains to this thesis, our perception of pre-Christian Scandinavia and early medieval England. 

The queer theory and subsequently, criticism, that does exist in Old Norse and Old English academic spaces1 is largely limited to the heterosexual/homosexual binary, and some discussion of (implicitly cisgender) gender transgression, the most radical of which I have seen is the proposal that the valkyries are a distinct gender outside of the male/female binary2 (see Self’s “The Valkyrie’s Gender: Old Norse Shield-Maidens and Valkyries as a Third Gender”). Queer theory itself possesses gaps and silences that need to be filled; namely a neglect of transgender issues, non-binary genders, and intersexuality. Old Norse and Old English scholars have, like much of the modern Western world, assumed that the male/female gender and sexual binary system is ‘natural’, and thus a historically and geographically universal truth. Unsurprisingly, this presupposition has influenced interpretations and criticism of Old Norse and Old English texts and figures. The aim of my dissertation is to bring transgender and non-binary perspectives to the fore by examining cissexist attitudes and prejudice against trans and non-binary people within theoretical and critical approaches. Subsequently, through close reading, I will illustrate how our perception of Old Norse and Old English texts and figures changes when re-examined through a more trans-inclusive lens.

  1. I do, of course, stand on the shoulders of giants while shouting into my megaphone. Incredible scholars applying a queer perspective to Old Norse and Old English literature include, but are not limited to: Amy Jefford Franks, Rebecca Merkelbach, Richard E. Zeikowitz, Kathleen M. Self, David Clark, Gareth Lloyd-Evans, Brit Solli, Glenn Burger, and Stephen Kruger.
  2. Self refers to the valkyries’ gender as a ‘third’ gender rather than using the non-binary umbrella. The issue with the language around ‘third’ genders is that “by framing variations of gender productions as dismissable deviants, we ignore the nature of personhood” (Jefford Franks, “Óðinn as a queer deity…”, 33).

Queer and Related Terminology

It is important to note at this point that when using the term ‘queer’ in academic discourse, it does not necessarily hold the same meaning as it does in the vernacular of LGBTQ+ spaces. In fact, ‘queer’ is widely considered to be a homophobic and transphobic slur. Many LGBTQ+ people have reclaimed slurs, that is, subverted their negative connotations and remade them into something empowering instead. However, in much the same way that white people cannot reclaim racial slurs, non-LGBTQ+ individuals cannot reclaim slurs used specifically to disempower, Otherise, or vilify LGBTQ+ people.

According to Eric Savoy in his essay “You Can’t Go Homo Again”, the term ‘queer’ entered the academic sphere in the early 1990s; he specifically cites the Lesbian and Gay Studies Conference held at Rutgers University in 1991 (129). ‘Queer’, Savoy explains, was a term borrowed from a political activist group called Queer Nation. They had broken away from the New York branch of ACT UP (“the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power”) in the early months of 1990, and were committed to “acknowledg[ing] and deploy[ing] gay and lesbian anger in specific, highly volatile, antihomophobic demonstrations” (141).  In its inchoate state at that time, ‘queer’ “slipped frequently, often in the same performance, between synonymity with gay or lesbian positionalities and an anxious marking of distance from those critical perspectives” (129). In fact, by the time the MLA Convention in New York rolled around in 1992, queerness in academia had taken on a defiant hue and had “an oppositional relation to the gay and the lesbian” (emphasis in original, 130). The contention between gay and lesbian studies and queer theory is difficult to reconcile. Many people dedicated years of their lives to fighting for a legitimate space for gay and lesbian studies in academic spaces, and unsurprisingly, wanted to remain being taken seriously. Thus, they were hesitant when queer theorists began to demand the focus be shifted to queer theory instead of gay and lesbian studies. On the other hand, the frustration of queer theorists in the nineties is difficult to dismiss.  It is exhausting to constantly contort yourself in order to remain palatable to those who would deny you a voice, representation, and basic human rights.

While keeping its history and some of its more negative connotations in mind, ‘queer’ still remains a fitting term for its eponymous theoretical and critical approach. Richard E. Zeikowitz, in his essay “Befriending the Medieval Queer”, asserts that ‘queer’ can “signify any nonnormative behavior, relationship, or identity occurring at a specific moment”, and also “describe an alternative form of desire that threatens the stability of the dominant norm” (67). Jefford Franks3 translates Solli’s poetic definition in which “queer is not defined as an essence, but as a position that implies resistance to the prevailing norm of power” (“Óðinn as a queer deity…”, 32). It should also be stressed that queer is intended to be an umbrella term. There are a myriad of far more specific terms found in the vernacular of the LGBTQ+ community that have as yet not found their way into academic spaces. For instance, what is meant by the term ‘non-binary’, in the context of a discussion on gender? The Transgender Equality Network of Ireland (TENI) defines non-binary as:

“An umbrella term for gender identities that fall outside the gender binary of male or female. This includes individuals whose gender identity is neither exclusively male nor female, a combination of male and female or between or beyond genders. Similar to the usage of transgender, people under the non-binary umbrella may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms.”

Helpful Terms and Definitions

It is important to keep in mind this idea of non-binary as another one of these umbrella terms, rather than a third gender. There are countless gender identities that fall under the category of non-binary; gender fluid individuals, for example, “experience different gender identities at different times” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). This thesis will demonstrate how, say, Loki can be interpreted as a non-binary figure, but will not delve into more specific identities. Loki could arguably be labelled as genderfluid, or androgyne – such discussion can become tedious, however, if one is unfamiliar with modern queer jargon. Thus for the sake of simplicity, the remainder of the dissertation will use broader umbrella terms like ‘transgender’ and ‘non-binary’.

3. It should be noted that Amy Jefford Franks uses they/them pronouns.

Another term which will be useful to keep in mind is ‘cisgender’. A person who is cisgender is simply someone who is not transgender, i.e. “a person whose gender identity and gender expression is aligned with the sex assigned at birth” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). Cisgender is an important term because it “acknowledges that everyone has a gender identity” and so “a non-trans identity is not presented as normal or natural which stigmatises a trans identity as abnormal or unnatural” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). In a similar vein is the term ‘cissexism’, which is the “assumption that a cisgender identity is more authentic or natural than a trans identity” and that “a person’s sex assigned at birth always remains their real gender” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). The system under which modern Western society functions is what is known as a cis-heteropatriarchy, a “society in which men are an oppressive force over women, and within which cisgender and heterosexual identities are assumed as the default” (Jefford Franks, “Óðinn as a queer deity…”, 31). This system or model is “seen as a colonial force in both historic and modern concepts” (32). Literatures of the past have been colonised by reading them through the lens of cis-heteronormative contructs. Chapter One, in particular, will examine the ways in which the cis-heteropatriarchy has been naturalised, and how this affects our interpretations and criticisms of Old English and Old Norse texts.

People who are intersex are “individuals who are born with sex characteristics (such as chromosomes, genitals, and/or hormonal structure) that do not belong strictly to male or female categories, or that belong to both at the same time” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). Many intersex individuals do not identify themselves as being members of the LGBTQ+ community (InterACT, “FAQ: Intersex, Gender, and LGBTQIA+”). I will, however, be including issues surrounding intersexuality, because cissexist and cisnormative attitudes also affect intersex people. Doctors can use language to describe intersex bodies (such as ‘disorder of sex development’) which is rejected by intersex people because it often “supports the idea that their bodies are wrong, or up to doctors to ‘fix’” (InterACT, “FAQ: What is intersex?”). Intersex people assert that they are not ‘disordered’ or ‘broken’, but simply have different bodies that do not fit in neatly with the male/female sexual binary system. The language used by medical institutions to discuss intersex people is reminiscent of the language historically used to describe queer and transgender people4.  Feminist psychology has produced many works based on the gender/sex distinction (that is, gender as cultural and sex as biological or ‘natural’), but intersexuality “poses a fundamental challenge to the assumed ‘naturalness’ of biological sex” and insists that we should “see ‘sex’ (as much as ‘gender’) as socially constructed” (Kitzinger, 494). A more detailed conversation about intersex issues can be found both in this introductory chapter, and in Chapter One.

4. It was not until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association ceased to consider homosexuality as a mental disorder (Lyons, “Psychiatrists, in a Shift, Declare Homosexuality No Mental Illness”). The WHO only announced in 2019 that it no longer classified being transgender a mental or behavioural disorder (BBC, “Transgender no longer recognised as ‘disorder’ by WHO”). The WHO have given countries globally until  January 2022 to implement changes for transgender healthcare.

A more recent but important term to know is ‘TERF’, an acronym that stands for ‘trans exclusionary radical feminist’ (Pearce et al., 677). Thanks to technological phenomena like the Internet and social media, trans people have become more and more visible in feminist activism, “prompting a concurrent rise in discrimination, most notably from within the radical feminist movement” (Munro, 23). Many TERFs do not refer to themselves as such, however, instead preferring to label themselves as ‘gender critical’. This is a misleading term as it denotes “less a critical approach to gender, and more an emphasis on claiming ‘biologically defined’ notions of femaleness and womanhood over gender identity and social concepts of gender” (681). Trans-exclusionary radical feminists argue that allowing people to self-determine their gender will give ‘men’ – which, it should be noted, “is a category frequently presumed to encompass trans women and non-binary people assigned male at birth” – an opportunity to invade women-only spaces (Pearce et al., 680). The extent to which TERF rhetoric and attitudes affect trans activists and perpetuate harmful cissexist prejudice will be explored in greater detail in Chapter One.

January 2021 update: Find the full dissertation here.

MAP OF THE SOUL: Dissertation Bibliography

Just in case you wanted to look further into anything I discussed in my dissertation, here is the bibliography! (MLA)

Bibliography

Allen, Graham. Intertextuality. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2011.

Baron, Frank. “Who Was Demian?” The German Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 1, 1976, pp. 45–49. 

“BTS Special Interview [Entertainment Weekly / 2016.11.07]”. Youtube, uploaded by KBS World TV, 7 November 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqlLES_i5rk. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.

“BTS speech at the United Nations | UNICEF.” YouTube, uploaded by UNICEF, 24 September 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=oTe4f-bBEKg. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.

“BTS (방탄소년단) ‘피 땀 눈물 (Blood Sweat & Tears)’ Official MV”. Youtube, uploaded by ibighit, 9 Oct 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hmE9f-TEutc.

“BTS (방탄소년단) ‘봄날 (Spring Day)’ Official MV”. Youtube, uploaded by ibighit, 12 Feb 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEeFrLSkMm8. Accessed 10 Apr 2019.

Dahir, Ikran. “After BTS Used This Professor’s Book As Inspiration, It Became A Bestseller In Korea”. Buzzfeed News, 7 June 2018, https://www.buzzfeed.com/ikrd/bts-made-this-book-a-bestseller-in-korea?utm_term=.pvPNzmdl6#.iiyRg8yMX. Accessed 27 Apr 2019.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary theory: an introduction. University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Firchow, P. E. “Ezra Pound’s Imagism and the Tradition.” Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 18, no. 3, 1981, pp. 379–385. 

Gans, Herbert J., and Gifford Phillips. “Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis.” Leonardo, vol. 12, no. 2, 1979, pp. 175–176. 

Hesse, Hermann. Demian. Translated by W.J. Strachan, Penguin Classics, 2017.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. 2nd ed., Oxfordshire, Routledge, 2013.

—. The Politics of Postmodernism. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2002.

Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia 202: Further Reflections.” henryjenkins.org, 2011, henryjenkins.org/blog/2011/08/defining_transmedia_further_re.html. Accessed 20 Oct 2018.

K., J. “BTS Talks About Using “Demian” In “WINGS” Concept And Names Variety Show They’d Like To Appear On”. Soompi, 17 Oct 2016, https://www.soompi.com/article/907457wpp/bts-talks-using-demian-wings-concept-names-variety-show-theyd-like-appear. Accessed 28 Feb 2019.

Le Guin, Ursula. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. The Wind’s Twelve Quarters & The Compass Rose, Gollancz, 2015, pp. 254-262.

“Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh”. Translated by Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, Webexhibits, c. 24 Jan 1885, http://www.webexhibits.org/vangogh/letter/15/393.htm. Accessed 27 Apr 2019.

 “LOVE MYSELF.” love-myself, https://www.love-myself.org/eng/home. Accessed 25 Apr 2019.

Lyotard, Jean François. The Postmodern Condition. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Manchester UP, 1983.

Monteros, Maria. “Halsey Praises BTS’ Success After the Group Makes Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2019”. Newsweek, 17 Apr 2019, https://www.newsweek.com/bts-among-times-100-most-influential-people-2019-1399425. Accessed 27 Apr 2019.

Mueller, Gustav E. “Hermann Hesse.” Books Abroad, vol. 21, no. 2, 1947, pp. 146–152. 

Mundy, John. “Postmodernism and Music Video.” Critical Survey, vol. 6, no. 2, 1994, pp. 259–266. 

Roberts, Peter. “From West to East And Back Again: Faith, Doubt and Education in Hermann Hesse’s Later Work.” Journal of Philosophy of Education, vol. 42, no. 2, 2008, pp. 249 – 268.

Sleight, Graham. Introduction. The Wind’s Twelve Quarters & The Compass Rose, by Ursula Le Guin, Gollancz, 2015, pp. v – ix.

Tusken, Lewis W. “Hermann Hesse’s ‘Roβhalde’: The Story in the Paintings.” Monatshefte, vol. 77, no. 1, 1985, pp. 60–66. 

Van den Haag, Ernest. “Reflections on Mass Culture.” The American Scholar, vol. 29, no. 2, 1960, pp. 227–234.

Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: the Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. Methuen, 1984.

Yonhap. “Suicide No. 1 cause of death for S. Korean teens, youths.” The Korea Herald, 26 Apr 2018, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20180426000581. Accessed 24 Apr 2019.

MAP OF THE SOUL: Conclusion (5/5)

CONCLUSION

“[I]f I am no good now, I shall be no good later on either, but if later on, then now too. For corn is corn, though people from the city may take it for grass at first”.

(“Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh”)

If, fifty years from now, BTS are looked back upon as artists that were worth something, then they are worth investigating today. It is easy to dismiss what is deemed popular as surface, depthless, meaningless. However, our exploration during these last few chapters has given us evidence to the contrary; it has become difficult to deny the significance of the work that Bangtan are doing. We have seen them challenge notions of originality and superiority; bring awareness to the mental health crisis in today’s youth, particularly in South Korea; subvert harmful metanarratives and encourage difference and individuality; bridge cultural borders and transcend language through music; dismantle notions of superiority with regard to the Western canon, and even blur the lines between high and popular or mass culture.

Having worked with BTS on their latest album, Halsey explains that “[b]ehind those three letters are seven astounding young men who believe that music is stronger than the barriers of language. It’s a universal dialect” (Monteros, Newsweek). This is echoed in Gifford Phillips’s writing, which argues that “[i]f real art is indeed trans-cultural, it is because of the unique ‘language’ in which art communicates – a language of expressive forms” (175). If we take this to be true, then BTS’s work is certainly what Phillips calls “real” art, as is Hesse’s and Le Guin’s. Does that move BTS from the realm of pop culture to high art, however?

In his essay “Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, Fredric Jameson discusses that there are currently “notions of the waning or extinction of the hundred-year-old modern movement (or to its ideological or aesthetic repudiation)” (59). He also brings attention to the “prophetic elitism and authoritarianism of the modern movement” when it comes to high art (59). Most notably, however, Jameson explains that there is one “fundamental feature” which appears again and again in the Postmodernisms he discusses;

[N]amely, the effacement in them of the older (essentially high-modernist) frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture and the emergence of new kinds of texts infused with the forms, categories, and contents of that very culture industry so passionately denounced by all the ideologies of the modern. (59-60)

BTS’s use of an arguably Postmodernist form, the music video, and their adaptations of Hesse’s and Le Guin’s works, most definitely fit Jameson’s description above. They challenge the superiority of the Western canon and notion of high art at all with their music, music videos, and even by virtue of the fact that they are South Korean. Bangtan bridge a cultural gap with cross-cultural adaptations, and establish a sense of universality between the East and West. Their work rejects the clear-cut polarised binaries such as that of East/West, white/non-white, or high culture/mass culture.

Herbert J. Gans believes that “[a]s long as high culture is the culture of an elite – and of ‘cultural experts’ – the rest of the population will go along with their standards”, but as Phillips argues, this view entirely “excludes the possibility of transcendent art” (175). Thus, as BTS have proven, popular culture can and does produce so-called ‘real’ art as well as transcendent art, and makes high culture works (like Demian or “Omelas”) accessible to a larger population. One of their more recent albums, “Love Yourself: Tear” used a book entitled Into The Magic Shop by Dr James R. Doty as inspiration; it didn’t take long after the album’s release for the book to become a bestseller in South Korea (Dahir). In an interview with Buzzfeed, Dr Doty explains that BTS’s popularity has:

[…] not only resulted in my book becoming a best-seller in Korea, but has resulted in a dramatic increase in exposure of the book to many others around the world – boosting sales and promoting the message of the power of having an open heart and of love, which I appreciate and which is needed more than ever. (Dahir)

Therefore, BTS’s influence and popularity, their very status as pop culture, has in fact enabled them to spread ‘high literature’ to thousands, if not millions, of more readers. Furthermore, though some members of BTS’s audience may not get any sort of gratification, or experience any emotional resonation, with the source texts, their experience with BTS’s adaptation still brings that aforementioned ‘spirit’ to large swathes of people. One still sees the bildungsroman nature of Demian in the “WINGS” short films; and one still feels the bittersweetness of “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” when watching the “Spring Day” music video. Should these be considered any less valuable, simply because they are experienced via cross-cultural, popular adaptations?

Ernest van den Haag asserts that true, high culture classics “cannot be irrelevant, for they deal with subjects relevant to the universal human predicament in ways to be experienced perenially” (228-229). By this definition, BTS’s work, their adaptations, their message, are classic. Human beings will always experience the process of growing up and discovering themselves; they will always question, wonder, love, and extend a hand of friendship, or at the very least allyship. Human beings will always tell stories, and retell them with their own unique contribution. They will always make music. These are undeniably universal human experiences. It is true that BTS’s adaptations are tailored towards a twenty-first century, young audience; however, it is difficult to imagine that Hesse wrote Demian with this same audience in mind, and yet, because of Bangtan, it is precisely this audience that is reading the novel today.

In the same essay, van den Haag goes on to group mass culture with “diversion from boredom” and “time killing” (229). In his view, no “serious writer” would set out to produce a work with the sole intention of making an audience happy (230). Again, however, I would like to bring your attention back to the quote which introduced this dissertation:

The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. (Le Guin, 256-257)

It seems almost dangerous to dismiss happiness in this way, especially when we consider the alternative. Would BTS’s work be ‘better’, then, if they encouraged their audience to wallow in their sadness? If instead of combating the mental health crisis in twenty-first-century youth, they promoted it? 

The final challenge that BTS pose us is this: to view happiness as a complex idea that is worthy of its position as an artist’s muse, and also of exploration, investigation, and experimentation. If we were to shift our perspective and look at happiness as something other than surface and frivolous, what could we stand to gain? In a time where walls – both physical and figurative – are being built between people, the hand of universality and happiness that BTS are extending seems crucial. Rather than walls, Bangtan Sonyeondan build bridges, through their music, their videos, their art.

Note: this post’s feature image is taken from Unicef’s official website, where you can find out more information about the “Love Myself” campaign.

MAP OF THE SOUL: Chapter Two: Intertextuality (3/5)

CHAPTER TWO: INTERTEXTUALITY

“Meaning becomes something which exists between a text and all the other texts to which it refers and relates, moving out from the independent text into a network of textual relations.”

(Allen, 1)

In the last chapter, we established that adaptations contribute to stories and form a sort of continuum. By extension of this, we are informed by the source text as well as other adaptations we have witnessed from the continuum. This more or less constitutes intertextuality, or at least illustrates how it functions. The term ‘intertextuality’ was only coined as recently as the sixties, by literary critic Julia Kristeva. As mentioned before, Hutcheon wrote about the nature of adaptations almost speaking to one another, breaking down notions of superiority and originality, of the possibility of witnessing an adaptation before the source text, and how that might influence a person’s experience of a particular story. Additionally, Henry Jenkins argues that adaptations instead make “unique contributions” to a story, building onto its world rather than trying to replace it (2011, italics in original). Much of what Jenkins and Hutcheon write is applicable even when turning our attention away from adaptation and towards intertextuality. That notion of a dialogue between texts is, of course, the defining idea of intertextuality.

In order to fully understand what intertextuality involves, it is important to explain what is meant by a ‘dialogue’ between texts. Texts which are dialogic (which is, arguably, all of them) have “meaning and logic dependent upon what has previously been said and on how they will be received by others” (Allen, 19). Throughout the course of this chapter, we will look at intertextuality while taking for granted that all texts are dialogic; that is, that no text has independent, isolated meaning. Graham Allen goes so far as to argue that to “interpret a text, to discover its meaning, or meanings, is to trace [its textual] relations” (1). Take, for example, the previous chapter; in order to examine the reason why BTS might have adapted Demian, we first had to examine what Demian meant to its original author, Hesse. Already, a dialogue was beginning to form. We delved even further by exploring Hesse’s personal life, putting Demian in conversation with its author as an adolescent, and then with each member of BTS, and also with their videos, as well as the socio-historical context of both BTS and Hermann Hesse. These complex connections all feed into our reading of Demian and our interpretation of the “WINGS” album.

This chapter will pay particular attention to Le Guin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, which was first published in 1973. In an introduction to a collection of Le Guin’s works, Graham Sleight describes the story as forming “a particular question about society and the price of living the good life” (vi). Stories like “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” are what Le Guin calls ‘psychomyths’, stories “outside real time, past or future” (vi).

The nature of the question that Le Guin poses through the story of Omelas is explained as follows in James’s ‘lost soul’ passage:

[I]f the hypothesis were offered of us a world in which Messrs Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain? (Le Guin, 254)

The central idea from which “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” was born also appears in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, though Le Guin has stated that in actuality, the idea was fresh in her mind having stumbled upon the myth again in William James’s “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (254). By mentioning this in a brief preamble before the beginning of the story, one can already see intertextuality at work. This question has been played out before, in the works of Dostoyevsky and James, and Le Guin’s pre-existing knowledge of each of their interpretations informed her own writing, both consciously and unconsciously.

Le Guin even admits that ‘Omelas’ is simply ‘Salem, Orgeon’ backwards. She writes: “Salem equals schelomo equals salaam equals Peace. Melas. O melas. Omelas. Homme hélas” (255). The very name of this fictional place is in dialogue with other meanings, other connotations, even with other words from other languages that simply sound similar.

Furthermore, Le Guin explicitly states that some of James’s writing is directly applicable to “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. One such excerpt is this:

All the higher, more penetrating ideals are revolutionary. They present themselves far less in the guise of effects of past experience than in that of probable causes of future experience, factors to which the environment and the lessons it has so far taught us must learn to bend. (Le Guin, 255).

Our attention is immediately drawn to the idea that ideals, to James, and to Le Guin, are the “probable causes of future experience” (255). If our ideals hold such power, then they become vital factors in the shaping of the world around us, no matter what cultural/social/political/historical context we inhabit.

Now we must establish the ideals that Ursula Le Guin may have wished would influence the future experiences of the human race, and then see how this might spark a conversation between Le Guin and BTS. Bangtan, for example, are known to have discussed the importance of mental health awareness, particularly in young people; South Korea, after all, has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world (The Korea Herald). This may shed a new light on our perception of “Omelas”; as William James described, enjoying the utopia that Omelas offered always means that one is benefitting from the suffering of another. To consciously accept such a bargain says volumes about one’s own ideals, and according to the logic of Le Guin and James, gives us a glimpse into the future experience of human beings. As mentioned in the last chapter, BTS have dedicated large swathes of their time and influence to promoting ideals of self-love, self-realisation, and the attainment of happiness. For them to accept the offer of the world of Omelas would be for them to choose who does and does not deserve their message. Thus, it may be argued, BTS are actually encouraging their audience to be the ones who walk away from Omelas. This is asserted by the carousel which appears at several points throughout the video. It is rusted, broken down, and evidently out of use, yet the words “you never walk alone” can still be made out in yellow paint across the top. It seems that though the people of Omelas have forgotten this sentiment; if you are the ‘lost soul’, sacrificed for the happiness of others, then you always walk alone. What individual can say that they have never felt like they have been a lost soul, or suffered alone, in silence? It appears that BTS, through their “Spring Day” music video, are offering their answer to the question of the lost soul. Even if they should find themselves in Omelas, their ideals would force them to leave. Looking at the video, it appears that Jungkook is the first to decide to leave; he is pictured alone in a train carriage, and also alone when looking at the message on the carousel. However, by the end of the music video, the rest of the members of BTS have joined him.

Omelas only makes its appearance in a single BTS music video, rather than a series, as was the case with Demian. The music video for their song “Spring Day”, which was released in February of 2017, is not as heavy-handed with borrowed, allusive imagery as the short films for the “WINGS” album were. The only explicit reference connecting the music video with Le Guin’s short story is the fluorescent sign hanging above a motel that reads “Omelas” (01:07). Notably, a smaller sign to the right reads “no vacancies”. This utopia is inaccessible. Furthermore, at various points throughout the video, members are shown holding up their hands to form a sort of frame around their view; this, it may be argued, helps to highlight the snap-shot nature of the events going on around them. If they are to stand by their ideals, the paradise they live in must be temporary. Like the psychomyth, the utopia exists outside of time.

The lack of a logical narrative in the “Spring Day” music video (and the decision to depict “Omelas” in the music video form at all, really) is reminiscient of a Postmodernist style. These fragments of allusive imagery are arguably the way we conceptualise our reality in the twenty-first-century; a sort of non-sensical mosaic that encompasses contemporary day-to-day life. Thus we move to the third chapter, on Postmodernism, to examine the extent to which the postmodern permeates BTS’s work overall.

Note: this post’s feature image is taken from Wikipedia. By Source, Fair use.

MAP OF THE SOUL: Chapter One: Adaptation (2/5)

CHAPTER ONE: ADAPTATION

“One lesson is that to be second is not to be secondary or inferior; likewise, to be first is not to be originary or authoritative.”

(Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, xv)

The first, and arguably most obvious, way this essay will begin exploring the relationship between the works of BTS, Hesse, and Le Guin, is through the lens of adaptation theory. In its most basic and simplistic form, Linda Hutcheon describes adaptation as “repetition, but repetition without replication” (A Theory of Adaptation, 7). What Hutcheon means by this will become clearer as we go on; first, though, this chapter will examine why creators adapt in the first place, the advantages and disadvantages of adaptation, the particularly curious notion of cross-cultural adaptations, and even reformatting, that is, adapting a story from one medium (e.g. a novel) to another (e.g. a music video).

Adaptations, due to their inherently repetitive nature, are generally viewed as inferior to the original or ‘source’ text. It is possible that a ‘source text’ could, of course, be a film, and not a work of the written word at all. However, for the sake of convenience, the term ‘source text’ will be used to refer to an original story, or the form a story took, for the remainder of this chapter. Furthermore, while the music video as a narrative medium will be discussed more thoroughly in the chapter on Postmodernism, it is important to keep in mind that general attitudes towards the music video as a form play an important role when looking at BTS’s adaptation of Hesse and Le Guin’s stories. Hutcheon mentions two key words relevant to attitudes towards adaptations: iconophobia, which is “a suspicion of the visual”; and logophilia, which is the “love of the word as sacred” (A Theory of Adaptation, 4). Adaptations are seen as inferior not only because they are inherently repetitive of the source text, but also because often adaptations are reformatted to what are largely considered ‘lower’ forms of media. Our logophilic tendencies dismiss visual adaptations before we have even viewed them. Though film has increasingly crept its way closer to the title of a form of high art, the music video has yet to be taken seriously, especially in an academic setting. This, however, is something that makes BTS’s adaptations of Demian and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” even more intriguing; they have taken pieces of high art and adapted them to a pop culture form. In A Theory of Adaptation, Hutcheon discusses this desire in adapters to “shift cultural level[s]”, though this term is generally used when taking a piece of pop culture and bringing it to a high art form. BTS flip this on its head, though it may be argued they are still raising their own cultural level by doing so. In bringing prominent writers like Hesse and Le Guin into their work, BTS make a statement about their own artistic ambitions; of course, adaptations have long been used to “engage in a larger social or cultural critique” (A Theory of Adaptation, 94).

There are a myriad of advantages and disadvantages to consider when telling a story through any particular medium, written text included. However, when it comes to adaptation, Henry Jenkins aptly states that “[i]deally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story” (2011, italics in original). As the Modernist poet T.S. Eliot put it, “art is derived from other art; stories are born of other stories” (A Theory of Adaptation, 2). Though adaptation is often looked at as inferior for its rehashing of a story already told, it may be more productive to instead look at adaptation as a contribution to the story, as Jenkins puts it, rather than a mindless retelling. Adaptations have been a huge part of Western culture for a long time. The Modernist movement in the early twentieth century prided itself on drawing heavily from other works, traditions, and styles, and applying them to a modern (often post-war) context; to “make it new”, as Ezra Pound famously stated (Firchow, 379).

One of the most interesting things about BTS’s adaptations, however, is that they are both reformatted (from written text to lyrics/music video) and also transcultural. This curious dynamic requires close scrutiny. Pop culture is often spoken about with “negatively judgmental rhetoric […], as if it is more tainted with capitalism than is high art” (A Theory of Adaptation, 31). When discussing a Korean pop boy band, for example, one is not usually met with intellectual curiosity. More often it is a condescending lift of the eyebrow. BTS are not Western artists; they are not white; they are all-male, but generally appeal to a female fanbase; they rarely sing in English; they rap; their general ‘sound’ is upbeat pop; and their visual presentation is androgynous. To compare them to high culture artists like Hesse or Le Guin is uncommon, but does not mean that there is nothing to gain from such a comparison.

Not only does an adaptation add its own novelty to a story, but it also, whether purposefully or not, is stamped by its cultural and historical space. There are variations in adaptations because of the adapter’s own personal influence shining through in their work. Hesse, in the early twentieth century, in the West, lived in a vastly different cultural context when writing Demian than BTS did when conceptualising their “WINGS” album in 2016 in South Korea. The Demian story, with their adaptation, has been brought across centuries, languages, and cultural borders – it has even crossed over from the realm of high art, literature, to pop culture music and music video. BTS have taken Pound’s advice and made Demian new.

Furthermore, before the twentieth century, it was commonplace, even vital, to interpret works while keeping the author’s biographical detail to the fore, as well as the political, social, and historical context in which they wrote. However by the twentieth century, through the growing influence of formalist approaches, the academic literary scene stopped taking these factors into account so heavily. Yet when looking at adaptation, biographical detail, and political/social/historical context, once again become important to keep in mind. One must ask why they have adapted this piece, and from where their urge to adapt came. Put simply, “[c]ontext conditions meaning” (A Theory of Adaptation, 145).

It may be interesting to note when reading Demian, for example, that as a child, Hermann Hesse was exposed to a kind of Christianity which “was a most intense pietism, combining a scrupulous soul-searching inwardness with a sense of sin and unworthiness in the presence of a transcendent and holy God absolutely revealed in His Biblical Word” (Mueller, 146). This doubtlessly leads one to think of the opening pages of the novel, that conflict between the two worlds Emil Sinclair finds himself caught between, as though good and evil were visible, tangible things he could see. In the second chapter, when Max Demian proposes Emil look at the story of Cain and Abel from an alternative perspective, Emil says that Max “left [him] standing there more baffled than[he] had ever been before in [his] life” (Hesse, 24). Here, Hesse’s biographical detail becomes undeniably intertwined with Demian – the themes of Christianity, of guilt and sin, and of incredibly intense inward reflection and deep thought. Of course, one can still read and enjoy Demian without reading into Hermann Hesse’s personal life; however, to completely ignore any sort of biographical detail or external factors relating to the context in which it was produced when dealing with the novel from a critical perspective, does seem to be purposefully naïve.

Moreover, Mueller describes the novel as an “educational” one (149). He states:

Its protagonist is the symbol for clear, logical thought, the friend and guide, who gradually leads Sinclair out of “bourgeois” respectability, “proletarian” chaos, “romantic” irresponsibility, finally to meet and love Demian’s “mother,” Frau Eva, who symbolizes the love of this world with its painful contrasts and opposites (149).

BTS discussed their reasons for adapting Demian briefly in an interview in October 2016 with reporter Shim Yeon Hee on KBS, a South Korean public broadcasting service. Kim Namjoon stated that they “felt that there were a lot of similarities between parts of [Demian]and the things[they] wanted to say”, leading them to use symbols from the novel in their music videos (“BTS Talks About Using “Demian” In “WINGS” Concept). In a separate interview in November of that same year, Kim Namjoon describes the concept of the “WINGS” album as being “about boys encountered with temptations” (“BTS Special Interview”, 00:55).

The question of why BTS adapted Demian becomes most clear, however, during their speech at the United Nations in September 2018. Kim Namjoon spoke about grappling with your conception of your self, and coming to love yourself along with all of the mistakes you have made:

And maybe I made a mistake yesterday, but yesterday’s me is still me. Today, I am who I am with all of my faults and my mistakes. Tomorrow, I might be a tiny bit wiser, and that’ll be me too. These faults and mistakes are what I am, making up the brightest stars in the constellation of my life. I have come to love myself for who I am, for who I was, and for who I hope to become (“BTS speech at the United Nations | UNICEF”, 03:50).

Mueller calls Hesse’s writing “confessional, personal, functional, alive, written with the heart’s blood”, and that is exactly what BTS have attempted to emulate in their work, almost a century after Demian was first published (151). It is less the logical narrative of a story that BTS have adapted from Demian, but the ‘spirit’ of the novel, namely its nature as a bildungsroman, moving its themes, and even characters, easily from the literary form, to the visual.

In order to determine what Demian might mean to BTS, we must first look at what Demian meant to Hesse. Frank Baron suggests that the character of Max Demian is actually based on a boy Hesse met during his time at Maulbronn Seminary named Gustav Zeller. Baron writes that in both Demian and Zeller, “one recognizes an attempt to shape new myths in an age for which old beliefs are no longer genuinely meaningful” (48). For Hesse/Sinclair, Zeller/Demian “was also Cain, the unrepentant thief, a Messiah, the guiding spirit of Nietzsche, and a symbolic representation of an outside force which Sinclair absorbed ultimately in the process of self-realization” (48). Max Demian is not so much a character as a concept, a way of thinking, a way of being; it is not unreasonable to argue that even over a century later, Demian resonated with Bangtan Sonyeondan for the same reasons Zeller did with Hesse.

The cross-cultural element to BTS’s “WINGS” adds a fascinating dimension to their adaptation of Demian and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. As Hutcheon beautifully puts it, “stories travel to different cultures and different media” (A Theory of Adaptation, 31). It is also not a one-way system, however; both Hesse and Le Guin were interested in and influenced by Eastern philosophy, and this carried into their writing. Peter Roberts writes that Hesse was “a man of the West who turned to the idea of ‘the East’ in seeking to understand himself and his society” (249). This permeates Demian, where Emil Sinclair turns to an alternative philosophy in order to understand both himself and the world around him, also. One may term this as a ‘mutual cultural exchange’. There is a back-and-forth between Hesse, Le Guin, and BTS. They each draw from each other’s traditions, philosophies, and narrative styles, while putting a novel spin on their work.

It is also interesting to note that the music video is a Western creation. In much the same way Hesse and Le Guin adapted Eastern philosophy for their own work, Bangtan – along with hundreds, if not thousands, of other Eastern artists – have adapted the Western form of the music video for their own work. This will be explored in greater detail in the chapter on intertextuality. Of the three approaches dealt with in this dissertation, adaptation and intertextuality in particular are linked most closely. Adaptations speak to each other, particularly if one has encountered the source text, or even a different adaptation of the same source text. Additionally, one may be prompted to read or view the source text, having first witnessed the story in its adapted form. In the year after BTS’s “WINGS” album was released, the sales for Demian spiked massively in South Korea. To Hutcheon, this challenges “the authority of any notion of priority” (A Theory of Adaptation, xv).

Through adaptation and intertextuality, the story of Emil Sinclair and Max Demian exists in a sort of continuum, rather than being simply confined to the original novel. BTS are contributors to this continuum, as twenty-first-century adapters; they have added their own shard to the mosaic, so to speak. But it would be an untruth to pretend we do not see the other shards. We need only step back to reveal the whole mosaic, and watch as each shard informs the other, as well as us. This brings us to our next perspective – intertextuality.

Note: this post’s feature image is taken from Wikipedia. By Aleister26 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

MAP OF THE SOUL: Introduction (1/5)

Welcome! I thought it would be interesting to post my undergrad dissertation to this blog, in between other, more informal posts! Enjoy!

“An examination of the cultural significance of the work of Bangtan Sonyeondan and an exploration into the relationship between their music videos and the literary works of Hermann Hesse and Ursula Le Guin.

I would like to thank Prof. Alex Davis for his open mind and endless patience while supervising this project.

This dissertation is dedicated to BTS, for all the light and love they bring into the world.

INTRODUCTION

“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid.”

(Le Guin,256-257)

In 2013 Big Hit Entertainment, a South Korean entertainment company, debuted their first boy group, Bangtan Sonyeondan, better known as BTS, with their single “No More Dream”. The group is comprised of seven members: Kim Seokjin; Min Yoongi; Jung Hoseok; Kim Namjoon; Park Jimin; Kim Taehyung; and Jeon Jungkook. In just six short years, BTS have become one of the biggest boy groups in the world, breaking records previously set by One Direction, Justin Bieber, and even the Beatles. In 2017 they won their first Billboard Music Award for Top Social Artist, breaking Bieber’s winning streak, and gaining a record amount of fan votes – over 300 million. Listing off Bangtan’s plethora of awards and achievements alone would surpass the word count limit for this essay; suffice to say, BTS have become a global force in a way that Korean artists have never done before. In the last twelve months alone, they have completed their first world tour, sold out two concerts at Wembley stadium, and appeared at the Grammys, performed on Saturday Night Live, the Graham Norton Show, and the Late Late Show with James Corden, to name but a few.

It should be stated clearly, however, that their success in the West is not what has made them suddenly worth examining. The borderline infuriating surprise at the quality of BTS’s content, as well as their international success, is proof enough that Western intellectual superiority still tinges our perception of what makes ‘good’ art, and what makes art ‘successful’. The band has done many collaborations with Western artists, such as Halsey, Fall Out Boy, Ed Sheeran, and the Chainsmokers. However, their discography, which now includes hundreds of songs, thus far contains just one song composed with lyrics sung exclusively in English. BTS have transcended language with their music, their music videos, and most significantly, their message.

Put simply, the band’s message is this: love yourself. Having rocketed into the global spotlight, BTS have taken their platform and used it to further this message of self-love, hope, and mental-health awareness (several of the members have had experiences with depression and anxiety, and even suicidal ideation – unsurprising when you consider that, according to The Korea Herald, the main cause of death in young people in South Korea in recent years is suicide). In November 2017, BTS launched the LOVE MYSELF movement, a two-year anti-violence campaign, in conjunction with the Korean and Japanese Committee for UNICEF. The campaign’s website home page reads “[w]ith our love and care, this world can be turned into a better place where people can dream of tomorrow” (LOVE MYSELF). In September 2018, BTS’s Kim Namjoon gave a speech at the launch of ‘Youth 2030: The UN Youth Strategy’, where he urged young people all across the world to love and be kind to themselves. He encouraged a practical form of self-love, by embracing even the ugliest parts of one’s self, stating of himself; “[t]hese faults and mistakes are what I am, making up the brightest stars in the constellation of my life” (04:14). This message of hope and love is a universal one, and has consequently reached millions upon millions of people all over the world.

Boy bands such as BTS are often brushed aside as frivolous for many reasons: they make pop music, and so lack any ‘proper’ meaning; their fan base is comprised largely of young women; the members are too optimisitic, or try too hard to seem likeable. Undeniably, however, BTS largely make people happy, and, taking a page from Le Guin’s book, it seems unwise to brush this happiness off as something uncomplicated, unintelligent, or unimportant. Due to the enormity of Bangtan’s influence, which only grows each day, it seems only right to survey what it is the band are doing, and how. For example, one of the most fascinating things about the band’s work is their adaptations of literary texts. At first glance, their selected texts appear peculiar; thus far, Bangtan have exclusively adapted texts written by Western authors. Curiously, most of these authors have had a fascination with Eastern philosophy at some point in their lives. Thus, the following chapters will explore the global cultural significance of BTS’s work by examining their adaptations of Hermann Hesse’s novel Demian and Ursula Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. More specifically, each of the three chapters will focus on a specific perspective; adaptation theory, intertextuality, and Postmodernism, respectively.

The first chapter, on adaptation, will investigate the nature of cross-cultural adaptation, and transmedia. Demian and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” are brought across time and cultural space through BTS’s adaptations, which prompts us to ask why it is that the band selected these texts. Then, in the second chapter, which deals with intertextuality, the discussion will build onto the ideas established in the previous chapter, and consider the conversation BTS wish to have with Le Guin’s world of “Omelas” through their music video “Spring Day”. Much of adaptation theory overlaps with the ideas surrounding intertextuality; to avoid repetetive statements or observations, Chapter One will deal primarily with Demian, and Chapter Two will place its focus on “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. Finally, the third chapter will study the relationship between the texts from the perspective of Postmodernism. It will examine the way that BTS use the music video to challenge metanarratives, or even the way the music video most accurately represents the way we construct reality in the twenty-first century.

The ultimate aim of this essay is to achieve a perspective as comprehensive as possible of the significance of BTS’s work. By combining each of these critical approaches, as well as studying their relationship with the works of Hermann Hesse and Ursula Le Guin, we should be left with a greater understanding of how, and why, Bangtan Sonyeondan have become an international success.

Note: this post’s feature image is the album cover of BTS’s EP, “Map of the Soul: Persona”. Taken from Wikipedia.