The starting point of this dissertation is a history of ideas tacitly organized around the conception of adaptation as a formal object—which is to say as a specific kind of intertext defined by its incorporation of material drawn from one or more precursor works. Within this framework, scholars have struggled against a set of recurrent methodological pitfalls having to do with the relative importance of medium specificity, the place and purpose of aesthetic evaluation, and the perennial reappearance of that critical bugbear, fidelity. Recognizing that the blanket acceptance or rejection of these concepts has so far done little to curb the problems associated with them, I argue in favour of treating these conceptual sticking points as symptoms of a more basic problem: the formal model of adaptation itself. In response, I make a case for shifting critical focus away from what adaptations as cultural objects are to what adaptation as a cultural discourse does. Accordingly, my approach in this project is primarily meta-critical and methodological. I lead with an analysis of the intellectual history that centralized an ontological definition of adaptation and maintained its basic assumptions even as post-structuralist thought and sociological inquiry began to influence the field. As this analysis proceeds, however, my attention increasingly moves towards articulating a performative model of adaptation, which turns around the idea that what makes adaptations adaptations is not inherent in any given object; it is generated as part of the cultural work performed through identifying one text with another, in contexts of production as much as in the processes of reception. In developing this model, I explore how it accounts for the role of desire in the recurrence of fidelity discourse, the (non)literal materiality of adaptations, the shifting mediascapes of digital culture, and the embodied work of interpreting adaptation as such.
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Thesis advisor: Dickinson, Peter
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