How to Cite

Delamoir, J., & West, P. (2007). Editorial. M/C Journal, 10(2). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2618
Vol. 10 No. 2 (2007): 'adapt'
Published 2007-05-01

As Earth heats up and water vapourises, “Adapt” is a word that is frequently invoked right now, in a world seething with change and challenge. Its Oxford English Dictionary definitions—“to fit, to make suitable; to alter so as to fit for a new use”—give little hint of the strangely divergent moral values associated with its use. There is, of course, the word’s unavoidable Darwinian connotations which, in spite of creationist controversy, communicate a cluster of positive values linked with progress. By contrast, the literary use of adapt is frequently linked with negative moral values. Even in our current “hyper-adaptive environment” (Rizzo)—in which a novel can become a theme park ride can become a film can become a computer game can become a novelisation—an adaptation is seen as a debasement of an original, inauthentic, inferior, parasitic (Hutcheon, 2-3).

A starting point from which to explore the word’s “positive”—that is, evolutionary—use is the recently released Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change, which argues the necessity of adapting in order to survive. Indeed, an entire section is titled “Policy responses for adaptation,” outlining—among other things—“an economic framework for adaptation”; “barriers and constraints to adaptation”; and “how developing countries can adapt to climate change” (403). Although evolution is not directly mentioned, it is evoked through the review’s analysis of a dire situation which compels humans to change in response to their changing environment. Yet the mere existence of the review, and its enumeration of problems and solutions, suggests that human adaptive abilities are up to the task, drawing on positive traits such as resilience, flexibility, agility, innovation, creativity, progressiveness, appropriateness, and so on.

These values, and their connection to the evolutionary use of “adapt”, infuse 21st-century life. “Adapt,” “evolution”, and that cluster of values are entwined so closely that recalling effort is required to remind oneself that “adapt” existed before evolutionary theory. And whether or not one accepts the premise of evolution—or even understands it beyond the level of reductive popular science—it provides an irresistible metaphor that underlies areas as diverse as education, business, organisational culture, politics, and law.

For example, Judith Robinson’s article “Education as the Foundation of the New Economy” quotes Canada’s former deputy prime minister John Manley: “The future holds nothing but change. … Charles Darwin said, ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.’” Robinson adds: “Education is how we equip our people with the ability to adapt to change.”

Further examples show “adapt” as a positive metaphor for government. A study into towns in rural Queensland discovered that while some towns “have reinvented themselves and are thriving,” others “that are not innovative or adaptable” are in decline (Plowman, Ashkanasy, Gardner and Letts, 8). The Queensland Government’s Smart State Strategy also refers to the desirability of adapting: “The pace of change in the world is now so rapid—and sometimes so unpredictable—that our best prospects for maintaining our lead lie in our agility, flexibility and adaptability.” The Australian Government Department of Education, Science and Training, in setting national research priorities, identifies “An Environmentally Sustainable Australia” and in that context specifically mentions the need to adapt: “there needs to be an increased understanding of the contributions of human behaviour to environmental and climate change, and on [sic] appropriate adaptive responses and strategies.”

In the corporate world, the Darwinian allusion is explicit in book titles such as Geoffrey Moore’s 2005 Dealing with Darwin: How Great Companies Innovate at Every Phase of their Evolution: “Moore’s theme is innovation, which he sees as being necessary to the survival of business as a plant or animal adapting to changes in habitat” (Johnson). Within organisations, the metaphor is also useful, for instance in D. Keith Denton’s article, “What Darwin Can Teach Us about Success:” “In order to understand how to create and manage adaptability, we need to look first at how nature uses it. … Species that fail to adapt have only one option left.” That option is extinction, which is the fate of “over 99% of all species that have ever existed.”

However, any understanding of “adapt” as wholly positive and forward-moving is too simplistic. It ignores, for example, aspects of adaptation that are dangerous to people (such as the way the avian influenza virus or simian AIDS can adapt so that humans can become their hosts). Bacteria rapidly adapt to antibiotics; insects rapidly adapt to pesticides. Furthermore, an organism that is exquisitely adapted to a specific niche becomes vulnerable with even a small disturbance in its environment.

The high attrition rate of species is breathtakingly “wasteful” and points to the limitations of the evolutionary metaphor. Although corporations and education have embraced the image, it is unthinkable that any corporation or educational system would countenance either evolution’s tiny adaptive adjustments over a long period of time, or the high “failure” rate. Furthermore, evolution can only be considered “progress” if there is an ultimate goal towards which evolution is progressing: the anthropocentric viewpoint that holds that “the logical and inevitable endpoint of the evolutionary process is the human individual,” as Rizzo puts it.

This suggests that the “positive” values connected with this notion of “adapt” are a form of self-congratulation among those who consider themselves the “survivors”. A hierarchy of evolution-thought places “agile,” “flexible” “adaptors” at the top, while at the bottom of the hierarchy are “stagnant,” “atrophied” “non-adaptors”. The “positive” values then form the basis for exclusionary prejudices directed at those human and non-human beings seen as being “lower” on the evolutionary scale. Here we have arrived at Social Darwinism, the Great-Chain-of-Being perspective, Manifest Destiny—all of which still justify many kinds of unjust treatment of humans, animals, and ecosystems.

Literary or artistic meanings of “adapt”—although similarly based on hierarchical thinking (Shiloh)—are, as mentioned earlier, frequently laden with negative moral values. Directly contrasting with the evolutionary adaptation we have just discussed, value in literary adaptation is attached to “being first” rather than to the success of successors. Invidious dichotomies that actually reverse the moral polarity of Darwinian adaptation come into play: “authentic” versus “fake”, “original” versus “copy”, “strong” versus “weak”, “superior” versus “inferior”.

But, as the authors collected in this issue demonstrate, the assignment of a moral value to evolutionary “adapt”, and another to literary “adapt”, is too simplistic. The film Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)—discussed in three articles in this issue—deals with both these uses of the word, and provides the impetus to these authors’ explorations of possible connections and contrasts between them. Evidence of the pervasiveness of the concept is seen in the work of other writers, who explore the same issues in a range of cultural phenomena, such as graffiti, music sampling, a range of activities in and around the film industry, and several forms of identity formation. A common theme is the utter inadequacy of a single moral value being assigned to “adapt”. For example, McMerrin quotes Ghandi in her paper: “Adaptability is not imitation. It means power of resistance and assimilation.” Shiloh argues: “If all texts quote or embed fragments of earlier texts, the notion of an authoritative literary source, which the cinematic version should faithfully reproduce, is no longer valid.” Furnica, citing Rudolf Arnheim, points out that an adaptation “increases our understanding of the adapted work.”

All of which suggests that the application of “adapt” to circumstances of culture and nature suggests an “infinite onion” both of adaptations and of the “core samples of difference” that are the inevitable corollary of this issue’s theme. To drill down into the products of culture, to peel back the “facts” of nature, is only ever to encounter additional and increasingly minute variations of the activity of “adapt”. One never hits the bottom of difference and adaptation.

Still, why would you want to, when the stakes of “adapt” might be little different from the stakes of life itself? At least, this is the insight that the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze—in all its rhizomatic variations—seems constantly to be leading us towards: “Life” (capitalised) is a continual germination that feeds on a thousand tiny adaptations of open-ended desire and of a ceaselessly productive mode of difference.

Besides everything else that they do, all of the articles in this issue participate—in one way or another—in this notion of “adapt” as a constant impetus towards new configurations of culture and of nature. They are the proof (if such proof were to be requested or required) that the “infinite onion” of adaptation and difference, while certainly a mise en abyme, is much more a positive “placing into infinity” than a negative “placing into the abyss.” Adaptation is nothing to be feared; stasis alone spells death.

What this suggests, furthermore, is that a contemporary ethics of difference and alterity might not go far wrong if it were to adopt “adapt” as its signature experience. To be ever more sensitive to the subtle nuances, to the evanescences on the cusp of nothingness … of adaptation … is perhaps to place oneself at the leading edge of cultural activity, where the boundaries of self and other have, arguably, never been more fraught.

Again, all of the contributors to this issue dive—“Alice-like”—down their own particular rabbit holes, in order to bring back to the surface something previously unthought or unrecognised. However, two recent trends in the sciences and humanities—or rather at the complex intersection of these disciplines—might serve as useful, generalised frameworks for the work on “adapt” that this issue pursues.

The first of these is the upwelling of interest (contra Darwinism) in the theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). For Lamarck, adaptation takes a deviation from the Darwinian view of Natural Selection. Lamarckism holds, in distinction from Darwin, that the characteristics acquired by individuals in the course of their (culturally produced) lifetimes can be transmitted down the generations. If your bandy-legged great-grandfather learnt to bend it like Beckham, for example, then Manchester United would do well to sign you up in the cradle.

Lamarck’s ideas are an encouragement to gather up, for cultural purposes, ever more refined understandings of “adapt”. What this pro-Lamarckian movement also implies is a new “crossing-over point” of the natural/biological with the cultural/acquired.

The second trend to be highlighted here, however, does more than merely imply such a refreshed configuration of nature and culture. Elizabeth Grosz’s recent work directly calls the bluff of the traditional Darwinian (not to mention Freudian) understanding of “biology as destiny”. In outline form, we propose that she does this by running together notions of biological difference (the male/female split) with the “ungrounded” difference of Deleuzean thinking and its derivatives. Adaptation thus shakes free, on Grosz’s reading, from the (Darwinian and Freudian) vestiges of biological determinism and becomes, rather, a productive mode of (cultural) difference.

Grosz makes the further move of transporting such a “shaken and stirred” version of biological difference into the domains of artistic “excess”, on the basis that “excessive” display (as in the courting rituals of the male peacock) is fundamentally crucial to those Darwinian axioms centred on the survival of the species.

By a long route, therefore, we are returned, through Grosz, to the interest in art and adaptation that has, for better or for worse, tended to dominate studies of “adapt”, and which this issue also touches upon. But Grosz returns us to art very differently, which points the way, perhaps, to as yet barely recognised new directions in the field of adaptation studies. We ask, then, where to from here?

Responding to this question, we—the editors of this issue—are keen to build upon the groundswell of interest in 21st-century adaptation studies with an international conference, entitled “Adaptation & Application”, to be held on the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia in early 2009. The “Application” part of this title reflects, among other things, the fact that our conference will be, perhaps uniquely, itself an example of “adapt”, to the extent that it will have two parallel but also interlocking strands: adaptation; application. Forward-thinking architects Arakawa and Gins have expressed an interest in being part of this event. (We also observe, in passing, that “application”, or “apply”, may be an excellent theme for a future issue of M/C Journal…) Those interested in knowing more about the “Adaptation and Application” conference may contact either of us on the email addresses given in our biographical notes.

There are several groups and individuals that deserve public acknowledgement here. Of course, we thank the authors of these fourteen articles for their stimulating and reflective contributions to the various debates around “adapt”. We would also like to acknowledge the hugely supportive efforts of our hard-pressed referees. Equally, our gratitude goes out to those respondents to our call for papers whose submissions could not be fitted into this already overflowing issue. What they sent us kept the standard high, and many of the articles rejected for publication on this occasion will, we feel sure, soon find a wider audience in another venue (the excellent advice provided by our referees has an influence, in this way, beyond the life of this issue).

We also wish to offer a very special note of thanks to Linda Hutcheon, who took time out from her exceptionally busy schedule to contribute the feature article for this issue. Her recent monograph A Theory of Adaptation is essential reading for all serious scholars of “adapt”, as is her contribution here. We are honoured to have Professor Hutcheon’s input into our project.

Special thanks are also due to Gold-Coast based visual artist Judy Anderson for her “adaptation of adaptation” into a visual motif for our cover image. This inspiring piece is entitled “Between Two” (2005; digital image on cotton paper). Accessing experiences perhaps not accessible through words alone, Anderson’s image nevertheless “speaks adaptation”, as her Artist’s Statement suggests:

The surface for me is a sensual encounter; an event, shifting form. As an eroticised site, it evokes memories of touch. … Body, object, place are woven together with memory; forgetting and remembering. The tactility and materiality of touching the surface is offered back to the viewer.

These images are transitions themselves. As places of slippage and adaptation, they embody intervals on many levels; between the material and the immaterial, the familiar and the strange. Their source remains obscure so that they might represent spaces in-between—overlooked places that open up unexpectedly.

If we have learned just one thing from the experience of editing the M/C Journal ‘adapt’ issue, it is that our theme richly rewards the sort of intellectual and creative activity demonstrated by our contributors. Much has been done here; much remains to be done. Some of this work will take place, no doubt, at the “Adaptation and Application” conference, and we hope to see many of you on the Gold Coast in 2009. But for now, it’s over to you, to engage with what you might encounter here, and to work new “adaptations” upon it.

Author Biographies

Jeannette Delamoir


Patrick West