Literary texts have long been understood as generative of other texts and of artistic responses that stretch across time and culture. Adaptation studies seeks to explore the cultural contexts for these afterlives and the contributions they make to the literary canon. Writers such as William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens were being adapted almost as soon as their work emerged on stage or in print and there can be no doubt that this accretive aspect to their writing ensures their literary survival. Adaptation is, then, both a response to, a reinforcer of, and a potential shaper of canon and has had particular impact as a process through the multimedia and global affordances of the 20th century onwards, from novels to theatre, from poetry to music, and from film to digital content. The aesthetic pleasure of recognizing an “original” referenced in a secondary version can be considered central to the cultural power of literature and the arts. Appropriation as a concept though moves far beyond intertextuality and introduces ideas of active critical commentary, of creative re-interpretation and of “writing back” to the original. Often defined in terms of a hostile takeover or possession, both the theory and practice of appropriation have been informed by the activist scholarship of postcolonialism, poststructuralism, feminism, and queer theory. Artistic responses can be understood as products of specific cultural politics and moments and as informed responses to perceived injustices and asymmetries of power. The empowering aspects of re-visionary writing, that has seen, for example, fairytales reclaimed for female protagonists, or voices returned to silenced or marginalized individuals and communities, through reconceived plots and the provision of alternative points of view, provide a predominantly positive history. There are, however, aspects of borrowing and appropriation that are more problematic, raising ethical questions about who has the right to speak for or on behalf of others or indeed to access, and potentially rewrite, cultural heritage. There has been debate in the arena of intercultural performance about the “right” of Western theatre directors to embed aspects of Asian culture into their work and in a number of highly controversial examples, the “right” of White artists to access the cultural references of First Nation or Black Asian and Minority Ethnic communities has been contested, leading in extreme cases to the agreed destruction of artworks. The concept of “cultural appropriation” poses important questions about the availability of artforms across cultural boundaries and about issues of access and inclusion but in turn demands approaches that perform cultural sensitivity and respect the question of provenance as well as intergenerational and cross-cultural justice.
Mary N. Layoun
First used in post–World War II historical accounts as a designation for the period that followed the independence of successful anti-colonial struggles in Asia and Africa, the origins of the postcolonial as a category of thought are multiple and diversely located: in anti-colonial movements such as Pan-Africanism and the Négritude movement and thinkers and writers including Amilcar Cabral, Aimé Césaire, W. E. B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, and Léopold Sédar Senghor; in the work of Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, founded and directed by Richard Hoggart in 1964 and subsequently directed by Stuart Hall; in the analysis of colonial discourse introduced to the Anglophone world by Edward Said’s Orientalism; in the work of a generation of well-known scholars of the postcolonial (and, often, of literary studies) that include Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Aijaz Ahmad, Ranajit Guha, and Robert J. C. Young and drawing from the Central and South American intellectual and political traditions of anti-colonial and postcolonial struggles that began over a century earlier, Mary Louise Pratt, Walter Mignolo, and John Beverly; and in the colonial historiography and history of anti-colonial resistances in South Asia of the Subaltern Studies group. After some three decades as a category of thought in and beyond the academy, a capacious and diversely defined postcolonial has produced a plethora of studies, academic and otherwise, as well as a marketing category, and a now-conventional use as a journalistic descriptor. Broadly, however, the postcolonial as a category of thought can be understood as a situated response to shifting apprehension and efforts at comprehension of the complex inequities of the late 20th and 21st centuries in the wake of European colonialism. And as important as the what of the postcolonial is the when; where; and by-, to-, and with-whom.