In his introduction to Contemporary Drift, Theodore Martin argues that “the contemporary is not just a historical period but also a conceptual problem.” It remains a really difficult issue to define what is meant by “contemporary literature.” Martin urges us to focus on the “historical drag of genre” (2) to better capture both past and present in single “contemporary” genre texts. For Martin, “the contemporary does not so much delimit history as drift across it,” much like genre texts play with traditional convention and subversion (ibid.). The contemporary therefore becomes knowable if we us the contemporary as a critical concept (5). Genre texts, when examined this way, don’t just have a historical or cultural context, they argue for one (6).
Notes & Quotes
- One of the questions Martin poses as a result of using the contemporary as a critical concept to investigate genre fiction is “Why are these genres still around?” (8). I think this is a really important question to ask for any genre, but especially pertinent for my studies in the gothic and in horror. There is a current onslaught of horror films (apparently, we’re living in the golden age of horror!) and a slew of neo-victorian films and television series, all of which tend to make heavy use of the gothic mode. Why has the gothic/horror genre, which first emerged in 1764 with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, but gained strength at the same time as the Industrial Revolution, continue to the present day?
- What about horror films: although they began in the late 19th century at the advent of cinema, the so-called modern period of horror films, in which settings moved from the outlandish and the old to the contemporary and domestic and characters shifted from inhuman monsters (Dracula and the Mummy) to monsters that appear human (Norman Bates, Micheal Myers) began in 1960 with Hitchcock’s Psycho and continues to our present day. Why is that? I might also do well to investigate sub-genres. Of prime importance is the slasher genre, which experienced a boon from the late 1970’s into the late 80’s (it returns again for a brief period in the 90’s with post-modern takes like Wes Craven’s Scream). The slasher is also, like horror in general, experiencing a current return to the spotlight, with films like Halloween (2018), The Strangers (2008), Happy Death Day (2017), Maniac (2012), and You’re Next (2011), to name a few.
Considering the fact that Reagan’s presidency occurred at the same time as the original slasher golden era and Trump’s rise and presidency coincides with our current slasher period, I wonder if this has anything to do with the anxieties America faces as we fall deeper into neoliberal control. Martin attributes the new meaning of survival that the neoliberal era cultivates to the current popularity of post-apocalyptic films. I wonder if this focus on survival (and suffering) has anything to do with the rise and prevalence of the slasher?
- Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism may also help me to use genre as a tool for discussing the contemporary moment. She uses genre by tracking its “waning…whose conventions of relating fantasy to ordinary life and whose depictions of the good life now appear to mark archaic expectations about having and building a life… Cinema and other recording forms not only archive what is being lost but track what happens in the time that we inhabit before new forms make it possible to relocate within conventions the fantasy of sovereign life unfolding from actions” (7). In particular, Berlant is interested in “the genre of crisis” which she views as a new and unfolding genre that turns “an ongoing condition into an intensified situation in which extensive threats to survival are said to dominate the reproduction of life” (ibid.). According to Berlant, we can not only see changes to how people construct the “good life” through an examination of genre, but we can also get a sense of how people reproduce life today. I might look at older slasher films and wonder what feels archaic about this? What does this say about how to create a life? Looking at a more recent slasher film, I must ask what makes this new? What is unfolding here? How do people reproduce and produce life? I think the genre of crisis is definitely a concept or category that can be used as I examine the “contemporary” horror film. Of course, in any horror film, no matter the decade in which it was produced, there are crises and threats to life. However, do more recent films represent an ongoing and continued threat to survival? I think so… considering Get Out (2017), the main character Chris experiences constant threats to his ability to live the ‘good life’ because of his race even before the traditionally horror elements enter the film. In Unfriended (2014),we see teenage characters desperately try to survive in the reputation economy of social media before the ghost appears. That being said, I think I could probably also find horror films from the 60’s and 70’s that also have this feature. For example, in Psycho (1960), Marian Crane is fighting for the ‘good life’ by stealing money from a client in order to get married. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the hitchhiker explains to the teenagers that are just passing through his locale in Texas that his family have lost all of their jobs to automation. Although he and his family turn out to be the villains of the film, in this moment, we see that he and his family are constantly existing in crisis, causing them to fight (kill and slaughter outsiders) in order to get a taste of “the good life.” Something to think about more…
A bit of a side-note… but I also wonder what is up with our marketing of slasher monsters. I feel like this is very specific to the slasher genre, possibly because the monster/killer because the “star” of the series as he (rarely “she”) is (typically) the only character to return in each new installment (Laurie Strode in Halloween and Tree Gelbman in Happy Death Day are two final girls who appear in multiple installments of their series, breaking this tradition). However, it seemed like this sort of marketing was limited to the 80’s with over-the-top characters like Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorheese, Chucky, and the Leprechaun posing in fun, sometimes sexual advertisements that feature them as the hero of the film. Suddenly, with the recent reboot of Halloween (2018), fans enjoyed a photo-spread in Entertainment Weekly Micheal Myers laying in the leaves with Jamie Lee Curtis and staring at her fondly (maybe I’m projecting here, since he’s wearing a mask, but… the body language looks loving).
Contemporary Drift (2017) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.