In a cultural context of rapid change, the pressure is on to transform bodies, material possessions, and the environment, simply to keep up. Self-improvement, home renovation, behaviour modification, makeovers, extreme or otherwise are sold as essential components of a responsible, fully functioning, and appropriately aspirational member of society. Transformation may involve the pursuit of something quite new, or take the form of a nostalgic restitution of an earlier state. It may be the result of an intense, life-changing experience. Whatever form it takes, to transform is to be driven by a desire for something better. Transformation is a kind of alchemy or metamorphosis, but there is no secrecy here, or intimations of magic. Rather, the change is quite public, a cause for celebration, and the process itself laid bare as a source of fascination.
For the gods in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, transformation was doled out to mortals as punishment for greed, narcissism, and other such flaws and misdeeds. In pantomime, the transformation, or disclosing scene, had the lead actors transform into the players for the comic harlequinade while in full view of the audience. The concept of Renaissance self-fashioning, as discussed by Stephen Greenblatt (Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, 1980), details how selected sixteenth-century “gentlemen” decisively transformed their subjectivity in an early process of identity formation. Today, like the robots (“Transformers”) in the film of the same name (Dir. Michael Bay, 2007), proponents of popular culture have many means by which to transform themselves, and the world.
This issue of M/C Journal presents a selection of critical essays that investigate the impetus to transform, its current and historical manifestations in a reflexive process of self-fashioning and manufacturing, and various links to a cultural will to modify or control “the natural.” The invited essay from Jane Goodall offers a framing discussion of historical and current manifestations, or transformations, of Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen. The essay raises questions of identity, and focuses on transformation as potentially disruptive of the order of nature, social hierarchies, and the laws of destiny. In her interrogation of the interaction of the Red Queen and the mirror, Goodall illustrates the tradition of self-fashioning, and the role of myth and fantasy in charting its history. Her essay introduces the concerns of the shorter articles that comprise this issue.