In-Between Spaces: Interstices and Borders of Identity

Editors: Amanda Gradisek and Ron Scott

“Any society is governed by the perimeter fence of its taboos.”
— Teju Cole. Known and Strange Things.

As we prepared our pitch for this special issue of Reconstruction to its publishers, we wondered out loud if maybe we had pushed our parameters a bit too far.  We asked Reconstruction if they would consider an issue solely devoted to two authors discussing two texts, one text coming from high culture, the other coming from somewhere farther down the food chain of sophistication. Co-writing is difficult, pairing disparate texts potentially worse. We were asking the editors to accept the idea that an issue consisting of both would be feasible, compelling, and, well, good.

They did, thankfully, and the results are before you.  Still, the complex nature of working under this sort of constraint quickly became evident to us as our initial acceptance of twelve abstracts dwindled to five actual essays.  As Teju Cole’s comment on borders notes in the epigraph to this section, the sorts of fences that are created in academic discourse neatly identify the academy’s own peculiarities and prejudices.  We had no illusions that this process would be different for those who sought to meet our criteria.

The desire to collaborate, and to collaborate with unlikely partners, is not new, but it is often difficult for those who undertake the challenge. An example of these tensions from theater is the long-running play Deathtrap, using as its subject the tension created by two  writers who try everything, including murder, to take sole credit for writing a Broadway hit. The fact that a tale of the murderous ways of writers who attempt to work together is one of the longest-running plays in the history of Broadway demonstrates authorial fears about the perceived perils of collaboration. With 1800 performances over fourteen years, and a film adaptation featuring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, the story’s staying power suggests that writers are often driven to take sole credit for authorship and ideas.  In the Hollywood cinematic industrial complex, pairing writers–even when they do not work together directly–is clearly so problematic that the occasional independent film focuses on this conflict. The move to adapt someone else’s work may make for an easier form of collaborative production, especially if the author of the original texts is not participating, but some stories suggest that even this form of ideological co-authorship challenges individuals who hope to own their ideas, if such a thing is possible. For example, the film Adaptation depicts the difficulty of expressing one’s own voice while working with a text written by another. This type of work suggests that the desire to own one’s ideas–whether this impulse is capitalist, humanist, or simply human–can undermine collaborative gestures.

In terms of literary collaboration or adaptation, so many films are adapted from books the list is nearly endless; often times, the film version takes primacy, no matter what the author might hope.. But in terms of adapting texts whose authors cannot be forgotten, canonical pieces become almost collaborative despite the author’s literal–but not ideological–absence from the scene of authorship. We consider here The Hours, the constant reboots of Pride and Prejudice (including Bridget Jones’s Diary), Ten Things I Hate About You, Jane Eyre, The Great Gatsby, and many, many more .The dearth of co-written texts most likely speaks for itself, but even while there have been a slew of co-written novels being marketed as young adult fiction, anxiety has arisen around how authors create a brand that is diminished (in readers’ eyes) by having a co-writer. All kinds of questions come to mind with this practice, but at a general level it speaks to the fears that arise about co-writing when vision, tone, style, and other matters of craft are considered.

High Art and Low Art in Harmony?

“We’re more of the love, blood, and rhetoric school. Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three concurrent or consecutive. But we can’t give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory. They’re all blood, you see.”

― the Player speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Tom Stoppard, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

If the first constraint for this project is the challenge of collaborative writing, the second, the pairing of two texts, might not have proved as difficult to meet. However, this project asked authors to pair texts that explicitly challenged the boundaries between canonical literature and popular cultural texts.  As the Player tells our heroes in the above epigraph, however, making connections between texts that have been anointed canonical and those that are relegated to pop culture is still not always a comfortable pairing. After all, the Player is trying to explain to our Heroes why his troupe cannot perform a Greek play, the answer being that they do not know any, being “more of the love, blood, and rhetoric school” (Stoppard).  Stoppard’s Player notes that “love” and “rhetoric” are not perhaps necessary, but “blood” always is. Love – passion or energy – is perhaps synonymous with pop culture and low art, while rhetoric – intellect or dispassionate analysis – with high, perhaps, but blood – the need to matter – connects high and low art by being both essential for life and a means by which low art makes clear our visceral natures. Blood, which in many forms appears in all of the essays in this edition, is the substance of Cole’s perimeter fence, marking taboo lines that we often fear to cross.

The construction of collaborative authorship, then, incorporates many cultural taboos about where ideas come from and how minds work.  Academic pairings have been a bit more successful, and the development of software tools that aid collaboration has been useful in eliminating the technical barriers to collaboration, but in many ways the stigma remains. Of course, any cultural move towards the acceptance of co-writing could well have been offset by the fact that  we had to go and muck up the works by asking for the pairing of texts that hypothetically at least come from different cultural worlds. And yet, to consider widely diverse texts through an intersectional methodology, from our point of view, is to identify the potential for this model of scholarly inquiry, which simultaneously communicates the lasting power of canonical literature while also establishing the theoretical and ideological value of contemporary texts that are often dismissed as simply “popular.”

All of the articles in this edition cross boundaries of genre and illustrate themes of historic as well as cultural import. These collaborative essays consider what Homi Bhabba calls the “move away from the singularities of ‘class’ and gender’ as primary conceptual and organizational categories” in The Location of Culture. Destabilizing these constructs, once considered monolithic, results in what Bhabba calls “‘in-between’ spaces” that “provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood.” These interstitial spaces “initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself.” Spivak’s consideration of the subaltern, Anzaldua’s approach to the culture of the border, and Hayles’s analysis of the post-human also are invoked in this collection, as each of these theories rely on the necessity of identity governed by borders of some kind–be they literal, conceptual, theoretical, or categorical. Foucault’s concept of the heterotopia also underscores the boundaries being pushed in these articles. The work being done in this issue is the interrogation of the nature of these in-between spaces, the borders that may or may not divide foundational categories of identity, and the way in which these inter-spaces allow for the generation of new ideas and theorizations of established categories.  Collectively, these pieces interrogate the nature of these borders, their permeability, the effects of passing through them, and the ways in which these constructions affect the categories of identity they organize.

The authors, perhaps unwisely but with our thanks, accepted these ideological and methodological challenges, and the result is before you. The six sets of authors bravely took on the task of both working collaboratively on a longer argument; they also paired texts that occasionally seemed unlikely in order to look closely at the ways in which cultural perceptions of high and low art affect interactions between texts. Thus, the edition glowing at you from your computer screen. Each piece has a theme or keyword that guides the critical approach to texts that are often wildly different, which is capitalized in the table of contents as well as in this introduction.

In “A More Complete Ahab:  Into the Darkness with Moby Dick,” Ellen Bayer and Andrea Modarres describe the ways in which REVENGE informs the portrayals of Captain Ahab in filmic versions of the mid-nineteenth century American ur-literary text. The authors note how Melville’s attempts to portray Ahab are simplified even by actors as canonical as Gregory Peck, turning Ahab from a captain who clearly knows how to run a commercial whaling vessel despite his obsessions to one who comes to stand for the quintessential (if we believe stereotypes) petty tyrant/boss we all love to hate. As Bayer and Modarres note, Melville’s Ahab is far more emotional and complicated than later adaptations make him out to be, and they see this flattening of Ahab as a simplification of American cultural fascination with revenge.  In their configuration, Melville’s portrait of Ahab provides a space to meditate upon the thirst for vengeance that can feel like an essential human trait. The filmic adaptations, as the authors argue, simply allow audiences to indulge in revenge without asking them to contemplate its consequences. As a passage that Bayer and Modarres cite from Moby-Dick notes “gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned, most subtly and most chance at this type of textual redemption, and the implications of this attack speak volumes about malignantly! damned in the midst of Paradise!” (183). The filmic adaptations do not offer Ahab a chance for this kind of reflection, and a desire for revenge supplants an examination of how revenge affects our psyches .

If mainstream Hollywood cinema does indeed flatten celebrated American novels, perhaps we can turn with authors Deborah Wills and Toni Roberts to horror films for a needed palliative. In “Desiring Monsters: Femininity, Radical Incontinence, and Monstrous Appetite in Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, and Deadgirl,” the authors note the many different functions played by the female body as MONSTER in three contemporary horror films. Arguing that the female body in the horror film evokes both revulsion and desire, the authors argue that the monstrous body offers a “particularly complex metaphor” that allows viewers to posit a raft of interpretations on these texts. The films the authors choose – not mainstream Hollywood but products of the independent film movement – invoke the “social history” of the monster in ways that encourage viewers to place their own cultural lens on exposed female bodies. This look at how film offers up the female as monster, bolstered by the weight of the history of many types of fictional narratives and countered by filmic resistance to these dominant tropes, demonstrates the potential of this type of cultural analysis.

The city of Los Angeles serves as a tapestry for the reworking of class and gender lines in Michael P. Moreno and Kristen C. Brunnemer’s “Carrying the Border with You: Recalibrating Chicana/o Spaces from a Legacy of Dislocation.”  In this examination of the possibiliites offered by reimagining city BORDERS, Moreno and Brunnemer claim a transgressive power for artifacts centered intensively in the communities affected by colonization and capitalism. They argue that the creation of texts that invest themselves in the ways in which Chicana/o culture understands these forces help form “heterotopologies” (borrowing Edward Soja’s term) that offer cultural spaces through which that culture can examine its relationship with mainstream culture. According to the atuhors, these “micro-reflections” occur within narratives of subjugation, assimilation, and resistance, creating a “third space” that “recalibrates” cultural relationships within the larger metropolis.

The last three articles feature texts that are related thematically rather than through adaptation, genre, or location. In their study of COLLABORATION, Laura K. Gronewold and Marlowe Daly-Galeano begin with Madeline Albright’s oft-quoted line: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” Tracing the enduring tradition of female collaborative labor from Alcott to the relatively recent I Don’t Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson, their essay makes clear that contemporary Chick Lit may provide updated trials and nearly insurmountable challenges for its female protagonists, but one thing that remains consistent in American history  is the necessary role female collaboration plays in overcoming these difficulties. In their analysis of the texts, the scholarship, and their own female collaboration, the authors articulate the importance of this work across genre and time periods, but also leave readers with their “hope that the utter necessity of female collaboration in the face of financial desperation or sexual harassment will be a thing of the past at some point.” Their work leaves us to consider when the obstacles to a woman’s success will no longer require a team effort.

Perhaps our most dramatically different pairing comes in the form of Jennifer Heinert and Katie Kalish’s consideration LIMINALITY in the graphic novel Watchmen and John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity.” As they write, both texts depict “an American ontology that prompts flawed individuals to strive for goodness–a persistent and problematic theme of American national mythology.” The authors argue that Winthrop’s “values persist–they are the tenets of the status quo and the mythology of American culture” and their manifestation in Watchmen “demonstrates the possibilities and processes afforded by liminal spaces.” As they argue, quite persuasively, “identity itself, and our (re)constructions of it, is a narrative and dialectic process.” Considering the theme of liminality across centuries and genre, Heinert and Kalish’s collaboration embodies the process and ideological consideration that is the foundation of this project.

Lastly, the editors of this edition consider PASSING in the Harlem Renaissance novel of the same name and the zombie film Warm Bodies. Both texts feature characters who attempt to pass through borders that define categories of identity, but perhaps more interestingly, both also feature individuals whose ambivalence leads them to pass out of categories of privilege into seemingly stigmatized identities. This piece considers the redemptive power of this sort of move, as well as the way in which these systems of power can be reconceived through challenging these boundaries. It may be that while passing is obviously not a uniquely American phenomenon, it is certainly something that drives the fluidity of American identity, pushing and pulling through permeable borders, clearly indicating that individuals find value in different kinds of identities and subject positions, despite traditional structures of privilege and power.

These ambiguous, amorphous concepts of self are the drive behind this project.As we attempt to trace the theoretical connective threads between texts situated on opposite sides of the often vast divide between the popular and the academic canon, we hope to examine the moments of coexistence, dissonance, hybridity, coalescence, clashing reverberation, and new patterns and possibilities. By modelling this interdisciplinary methodology in our collaborative texts, the shifting categories and definitions these pieces consider bring to light the movement in the the borders of language and culture that serve to “recalibrate and articulate the multi-faceted struggle to express and empower simultaneously one’s self and one’s community” (Brunnemer and Moreno).  The struggle to reclaim cultural spaces from seemingly overwhelming forces of coercion and domination can be supported by the constant reimagining of the self as we seek to inhabit the spaces that lie between, striving to dissolve cultural taboos and rework the boundaries that often lie between us.


Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi Jehangir. Location of Culture. Routledge, 1993.

“No. 4 in Long Play Runs, ‘Deathtrap’ Will Close.” New York Times, 8 June 1982, Accessed 24 Feb. 2017.Published June 8, 1982. Retrieved February 20, 2017.

Cole, Teju.  Known and Strange Things: Essays.  New York: Random House, 2016.

Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. A Cinecom Entertainment Group Release, 1990.