Zeno Vernyik (Liberec)
Réka M. Cristian (2012): Cultural Vistas and Sites of Identity: Essays on Literature, Film and American Studies. Szeged: Americana eBooks.
The volume, Cultural Vistas and Sites of Identity: Essays on Literature, Film and American Studies, is quite unique in the context of Hungarian academic publications, and to a large extent rare even in that of the whole of Central or Eastern Europe. This is not so much so in terms of its content or structure, but in its format: it is an e-book. And while e-books are getting more and more widespread in the West (enough to think of the constantly rising sales of Amazon Kindles and other readers or the widening market share of this format), they are as yet very rare in this part of the world, only more so with academic publications.
What is more, a closer look reveals that even taking into consideration the thriving ebook markets elsewhere, the type of book one deals with is by far not so usual even there. To start with, it is not the republishing of a printed volume, but an electronic-only publication. In addition, it is a text with free and open access, and more than that: it is distributed under a Creative Commons License that allows not only the freedom of access, but also of sharing and redistribution. This, of course, also means that it can reach a much wider and much more varied audience than if it was available as a restricted-access, non-redistributable e-text published by one of the big, established academic publishing houses. And finally, the very fact that one deals with a small, relatively independent and non-profit publisher (the word "relatively" is warranted by it being embedded in the hierarchy of the University of Szeged) guarantees a significantly more flexible and wider portfolio, since the question of the profitability or marketability of individual volumes does not even emerge.
It likewise leads to the ability to publish in fast and efficient manner due to the much lower amount of people involved both in decision making, and in the creation of the final form of the text itself. Although Shelley Fisher-Fishkin talks about electronic databases and archives, some of her words could just as well apply to other electronic publications:
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In other words, the very specificity of the volume's format brings numerous and significant advantages.
The publishing house in question, Americana eBooks, emerged in 2011, as an offspring of the electronic journal Americana: E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary, itself founded relatively recently, in 2005. Since its establishment, it has published five books, mostly in Hungarian, yet has always focused on American culture. Despite its short history, Americana eBooks has already been mentioned by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, in the article quoted above, as an example of an attempt "that subjects collaborative electronic projects to the same kind of rigorous peer review that articles receive" (Fisher Fishkin 2011: 25), an impressing achievement from an emerging publisher.
If one was asked to come up with a theory for the reason behind putting out so many titles in Hungarian, she would probably mention a possible interest in bringing American topics and issues closer to the academic and general reading public in Hungary, yet the reviewed volume itself may also offer an explanation itself. As Réka M. Cristian states:
And while the above sentence is not originally formulated to explain the publishing policies of Americana eBooks, the fact that it comes from a part of the volume tackling the strategies and methods of American Studies may nevertheless warrant such an understanding once one takes into account two factors. First that the explicit focus of the publisher is American culture, and second that the author of the quotation (and the book) is one of the co-founders and main editors of both the journal and the publishing house (the other one, in both cases, is Zoltán Dragon).
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The fact that one is dealing with a very new and extremely small publisher, unfortunately, however, usually also has its disadvantages. While, indeed, much is gained in speed, flexibility and freshness, often the final touches are either not done, or not done with the attention they would deserve. Unfortunately, the present volume is no exception. There are cases where opening or closing quotation marks are missing, or there are double quotation marks within double quotation marks, there are misspelled words, missing or superfluous articles, problems with concordance (primarily in longer sentences), and the like. Likewise, in terms of citations, the volume is not completely consistent. While it is using in-text citations throughout, and seems mostly to follow the MLA Style, in some essays, multiple sources by the same author are cited using their publication date (a feature of the Chicago/APA/Harvard Styles), while in others by using a shortened title (MLA). A very similar uncertainty occurs while referring to texts without page numbers. Yet no wonder: the book lists no proofreader whatsoever, and these kinds of mistakes are close to impossible to find in one's own text.
Having tackled the format, the publishing house and issues of language and proofreading, it is time to take a look at the contents. Even if the volume was not subtitled Essays on Literature, Film and American Studies, and if the author herself did not admit that "[e]arlier versions of the essays that comprise this volume appeared in [other] places" (Cristian 2012: 7), it would still be obvious at first glance that one faces a volume of collected essays. The reason is simple: they have very little to do with each other, except for the fact that the author is the same. In other words, it is not a thematic collection, bringing together texts dealing with the same issue, but rather a retrospective volume, providing an overview of the academic interests of their writer over a given period of time, in this case between 2004 and 2011. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with this. In fact, there is a living tradition of such books, enough to think of anthologies and readers focusing on the oeuvre of famous scholars, to mention but one example.
Yet, from the perspective of the reader, a volume devoted to a particular, more narrowly and precisely defined topic or area would have been more welcome, and less puzzling. The reason is easy to understand: in such a case, she would immediately know what to expect from the volume, and whether it is relevant for her purposes or not.
Moving to the individual parts of the volume, the most baffling is, unfortunately, the introduction. Having read it, one gets a feeling of lack and unfulfilled expectations. To be more precise, one would suppose that this part of any book would let the reader know what she finds in the rest, what topics and issues it deals with, or in other words, what she may look forward to.
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No such thing happens here, however. There is no presentation of the aims and the focus of the volume, or at the very least, not beyond the following very vague formulation:
Likewise, there is no description of the volume's organization, no explanation of its raison d'être, much less an overview of the individual essays. In other words, from the perspective of the volume, this introduction is no introduction.
Yet, the very same essay gains a completely new light, and a radically different evaluation once one decides to ignore the label "Introduction" and focuses only on its title: "The Road Now Taken: Cultural Vistas in American Studies." In other words, if the reader takes it for what it really is, a historical overview of the various approaches to American Studies, as well as a statement about "the state of the art" of the field, and an attempt to predict its future paths, then it becomes a clear, meaningful and exceptionally vivid text for its otherwise purely theoretical focus. In connecting the very beginnings and roots of American Studies with its latest practices, the essay shows a thorough understanding of its changes and issues, and an intimate familiarity with its challenges and potentials. In other words, the critical remarks above are not so much about this essay, but rather about the unfortunate decision of labeling it as the "Introduction" in the table of contents, since if this is an introduction to anything, then to American Studies, and not to the volume in question.
Instead of summarizing the essay's main points, I rather call attention to two important remarks that the author makes in connection with American Studies. One of them, in harmony with, but anterior to, Shelley Fisher Fishkin's (2011) already cited text is that the author situates American Studies "on a road under construction 'less traveled by' that envisages the synchronization of our present and future work in which the human and the technical aspects are creatively combined within digital humanities" (Cristian 2012: 18). That is to say, she identifies a necessity for American Studies to face the new media challenge both in its methodology and in its focus. The other, related one, is the call for "more collaborative modes of teaching and research" that lead to an "interactive inclusion," in order to avoid lonesome researchers being involved "in specific research topics and areas" (Cristian 2012: 15).
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In other words, she emphasizes that although American Studies has always been inclusive in the sense that it has been "encouraging cross-cultural analysis and challenging the dominant paradigms of the field," as well as by creating space for "marginal discourses" and "non-canonized cultural paradigms" (Cristian 2012: 42), at the same time, it has rather encouraged fragmentation and isolation by its very multiplicity; a situation that could and should be changed by the inclusion of the already mentioned collaborative modes of teaching and research, and adopting a "hacker ethos" (Suiter 2010: n.p.).
The remaining essays are all strong and vivid analyses in their own rights, focusing on as diverse topics as the issue of the cinematic auteur, inter-medial dialog, problems of adapting paintings and novels to film, multiple or dubious authorship, to mention but a few. What may bring these texts together, and provide a certain commonality is that one way or another, they all revolve around the issue of identity. Yet, one should not think of a very close connection at that, since the word "identity" is taken in a very loose and flexible sense, sometimes referring to issues of ethnicity, at other times to psychoanalytical problems of personality, and at yet other times to the already mentioned problematic area of a particular film's auteur(s) or lack of them. In all cases, however, one could see an ever-present theme sometimes explicitly emphasized, at other times rather just informing the readings: they are always readings of borderlands or contested spaces, whether one is talking of gender, ethnicity, subjectivity or authenticity.
In this vein, the volume is also pushing the borders of the very discipline of American Studies as far as they go. These days, focusing on minority writers (either sexual or ethnic) is, of course, no longer anything exceptional, nor on works providing a mixture of various languages. Yet, two of the book's essays broaden the field of American Studies even further: in the first case, American Studies no longer stands for US Studies, but rather for the study of America in its original, broader sense, while in the other one, it could be more properly called Planetary Studies as it focuses on an issue and a film that are neither of them American, but much wider and more complex. Granted, in both cases, the essays are dealing with films produced by the film industry of the United States, and in one of the two cases by an American director, yet these facts could at best be considered alibis or excuses if one was looking for them, and not central or defining features. The essay, entitled "Negotiating Identity in Julie Taymor's Frida" focuses on the adaptation of the life and paintings of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo to film.
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In contrast, "Transnational Negotiations in Alejandro González Iñarritu's Babel" is devoted to a film shot in "international co-production," directed by a Mexican director, focusing on a story that takes place in "some specific parts of the world" (Cristian 2012: 108), namely in Morocco, the USA, Mexico and Japan. This is an analysis where American Studies blurs into Comparative Literature qua Planetary Studies, as advocated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak:
The essay identifies and analyzes the film's focus "on the vulnerability of both foreigners as tourists and natives as locals in a global climate of susceptibility" (Cristian 2011) and its "topography of miscommunications in a collage of identity mosaics that depict both the difficulty and the necessity of interaction" (Rafferty 2006: n.p.), and thus goes beyond "[c]olonialism, decolonization, and postcoloniality," since those "involved special kinds of traffic with people deemed 'other'" (Spivak 2003: 77). Instead of that, what one sees in the essay is an analysis of "the defamiliarization of familiar space" (Spivak 2003: 77) in a world when who is "at home" is just as much "abroad" as the "foreigner". It is easy to see that this analysis is no longer about "America" either in the broader or the narrower sense, but on the general human condition in a multicultural 21st century.
There is no need to go through the contents and main claims of all texts here, since the volume, as well as its table of contents, is freely available to everyone. Film studies scholars will most certainly find the chapters "The Roman Springs of Mrs. Stone. Auteurship in José Quintero's and Robert Allan Ackerman's Adaptations of Tennessee Williams's Novel," and "Who's Afraid of Adapting Albee? Synergic Auteurship in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" of interest, in addition to those already mentioned. Likewise, experts on American drama will find "Identities at Thresholds in How I Learned to Drive and The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?" to be pertinent to the latest discussions on the art of the individual authors (Paula Vogel and Edward Albee), as well as to the question of identity in contemporary American theater.
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What makes the volume particularly worthy of interest, however, is that its texts are written in a language that is accessible not only to experts, but also students of literature and culture, even at the undergraduate level. This allows for their possible introduction to the university classroom, all the more so, since unlike many other such materials, these are free to use, and available to everyone. Because of its concise but thorough overview of the history and main challenges of American Studies, I can most certainly imagine the volume's introductory essay, "The Road Now Taken: Cultural Vistas in American Studies" as required reading in some introductory course to the field.
All in all, even with its somewhat haphazard selection and the minor issues of editing springing from the volume being issued by a recently founded publishing house, Réka M. Cristian's Cultural Vistas and Sites of Identity: Essays on Literature, Film and American Studies is a solid academic text containing interesting insights and topical research. As the first English book, and third publication, of an emerging outlet of American Studies research, it is very promising, and one cannot help but hope that similarly high quality titles will keep appearing after such a strong beginning. From the perspective of the international reading community, one would also welcome if the ratio of English publications got higher than it is now, with only one out of the five available titles at the time of writing this review.
Capucho, Maria Filomena. (2011): "Cooperating and Innovating Redinter, Working Together for the Implementation of Intercomprehension Methodologies." In Proceedings of the June 16-17, 2011 Firenze International Conference "The Future of Education." Accessed: March 2, 2012. [http://www.pixel-online.net/edu_future/common/download/Paper_pdf/ITL31-Capucho.pdf].
Cristian, Réka M. (2012): Cultural Vistas and Sites of Identity: Essays on Literature, Film and American Studies. Szeged: Americana eBooks. [available at: http://ebooks.americanaejournal.hu/books/cultural-vistas-and-sites-of-identity/]
Fisher Fishkin, Shelley. (2011): "'Deep Maps': A Brief for Digital Palimpsest Mapping Projects (DPMPs, or 'Deep Maps')" Journal of Transnational American Studies (3) 2: 131.
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Rafferty, Terrence. (2006): "Now Playing: Auteur vs. Auteur." New York Times, October 22. Accessed: March 3, 2012. [http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9401E3D71E30F931A15753C1A9609C8B63].
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. (2003): Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press.
Suiter, Tad. (2010): "Why 'Hacking'?." In Cohen, Dan and Tom Scheinfeldt. (Ed.) Hacking the Academy. The Edited Volume.Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, digitalculturebooks. n.p. Accessed: March 2, 2012. [http://www.digitalculture.org/hacking-the-academy/introductions/#introductions-suiter].