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The Medium Is the Monster: Canadian Adaptations of Frankenstein and the Discourse of Technology

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Friday, July 6, 2018

Guest blog by Mark A. McCutcheon, Professor of Literary Studies at Athabasca University

Like much of my work on Canadian popular culture, the idea for The Medium Is the Monster arose from my experience and research in raves and electronic dance music (EDM). The kernel of the book's first argument -- that technology is a word whose modern meaning was historically shaped by Frankenstein -- first appeared in a 2007 article, "Techno, Frankenstein, and copyright." The book's other key argument -- that Canadian pop culture, anchored in Marshall McLuhan's work, has popularized this sense of technology as manufactured monstrosity -- took shape in the keynote I delivered (in my role, then, as guest professor of Canadian Studies at the University of Bonn) at that year's conference of the Association for the Study of New English Literatures, in Jena, Germany.

That keynote discussed David Cronenberg's Videodrome and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake as Canadian adaptations of Frankenstein that also adapt McLuhan's ideas. After the keynote, though, the archive of such adaptations kept growing, and showed that reworking both Mary Shelley and Marshall McLuhan forms a pattern in Canadian Frankenstein adaptations, which, in the process, have established a monstrous sense of "technology" in pop culture and everyday speech. It quickly became evident that one can't swing an undead cat, in Canada, without hitting some reference to "technology" as manufactured monstrosity that conjures not only Frankenstein but also McLuhanesque ideas about technologies as emergent environments that shape subjects -- and pose unforeseen hazards.

I thought I had a complete study ready to pitch to publishers as early as 2009, but it was declined then, and there's something to be said for the inadvertent productivity of rejection, because other crucial evidence for the Canadian Frankenstein adaptation archive then came my way. Especially memorable finds were, first, Deadmau5, aka Joel Zimmerman, the EDM superstar whose music features Gothic motifs and whose performance practice builds on a rich tech-noir legacy in Canada's underground rave scene; and, second, Catalyst Theatre's stage Frankenstein, which debuted in Fort McMurray and led me to drill down into the national debate over the Alberta oil sands, finding there a rich vein of Frankenstein references and adaptations across a range of op-eds, analyses, and pop culture productions. (Remember how Avatar was used for "avatar-sands" activism?)

As a result, the book ended up surveying a broader spectrum of Canadian Frankenstein adaptations and citations than first expected, found among many media and cultural forms, including condensed, ephemeral, and lyrical forms that have tended not to figure in adaptation studies. So it's my hope that The Medium Is the Monster models some methods for expanding adaptation studies to recognize and analyze the adaptation work that goes into short, ephemeral cultural forms like photographs, poems, posters, and songs. (I think Maestro Fresh-Wes' "Let your backbone slide" is one of Canada's most remarkable Frankenstein adaptations...and one of Canada's best songs, period.) Relatedly, I hope this book can contribute productively to the renewed attention Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is enjoying during this bicentennial year of its first publication. But I also hope this study will help to sustain and deepen the critical reception and extension of McLuhan's ideas, which continue to prove uncannily prescient -- since the real world continues to persist in turning into science fiction.

Mark A. McCutcheon is Professor of Literary Studies at Athabasca University. His scholarly publications include articles on Canadian popular culture, Romantic literature, and copyright policy in English Studies in Canada, Digital Studies/Le champ numérique, Continuum, and Popular Music, among other scholarly journals and books. Mark has also published poetry and short fiction in literary magazines like EVENT, Existere, Carousel, and subTerrain. Originally from Toronto, Mark lives in Edmonton. His scholarly blog is www.academicalism.wordpress.com and he’s on Twitter as @sonicfiction.

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