A belief in the value of on-going change, a position compatible with Darwin’s evolutionary theory of natural selection. As a method of criticism, transformalism explores the ways artistic and narrative conventions change in response to the cultural and historical context.
Self and Cinema
: A Transformalist Perspective
MK & BH Introduction, “A Transformalist Perspective”
pp. 1-8 “Transformalism is a method of criticism that explores the ways in which artistic and cultural conventions are transformed in the context of individual works, creating a unique combination of the new and the familiar. Rooted in formalism and phenomenology, it attempts to integrate three sets of polarities: 1) the tension between centripetal meanings that are created within the individual work and centrifugal meanings deriving from and influencing other works and the outside world; 2) the tension between the subjective experience of the artist and audience and the objective existence of the artifact and society that produced it; 3) the relationship between the individual text and the structural systems and codes of meanings it expresses. All three bi-polarities center on the relations between the one and the many, the individual and the community, the self and the other.
Playing with Power (1991)
p. 135 “Evoking the comic prototype of Proteus (the Greek sea god who fluidly changes shape), the Turtles’ powers of accommodation are even more formidable than their powers of assimilation. Their status as amphibians, teenagers, mutants, and American ninjas with Italian names and California surfer jargon quadruples their capacity as transformers, making them the ultimate sliding signifiers.”
Contextualizing Video Game Violence: From Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1 ro Mortal Kombat 2 (1996)
p. 33, “Violence (like humor) functions as a source of empowerment in American media—particularly for those spectators who feel powerless like kids, which helps explain the phenomenal box office success of the Home Alone movies. More specifically, this empowerment is linked to transformability (our third concept)—not being locked into a fixed identity but being able to function like a violent transformer toy or shape-shifter, which helps explain the tremendous success not only of the Ninja turtles but also their successors, Fox’s Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.
Kids’ Media Culture
MK essay: “Ranging with Power on the Fox Kids Network: Or, Where on Earth Is Children’s Educational Television?”
p. 192, “Morphing is a high-tech mode of creative transformation. In contrast to impersonation, it has more to do with empowerment than with appearance, and the effects are usually longer lasting. In contrast to mutation, which is central to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men, this mode of shape-shifting is based on technological rupture rather than part of a “natural” evolutionary process. Whereas mutation looks backward to Darwin’s nineteenth-century transformative trope of evolution and to earlier twentieth-century print media like comic books (from which both Ninja turtles and X-Men derive), morphing looks forward to new technologies. It is active rather than passive: you do it to something or yourself as opposed to having it done to you. This distinction is linked to the shift in spectator position, from passive viewer (associated with movies and traditional television) to active player (demanded of the video games and other interactive media that most of these series emulate).
p. 192-3, “Additionally, morphing works on the register of narrative, as a plot device that transforms a group of ordinary American multicultural high school students into color-coded unisex martial arts superheroes fighting against alien sci-fi villains from another plane of reality. Both sides are capable of constant transformation: while the villainous Rita Repulsa has been replaced by Lord Zed, the original five Rangers have expanded to six, now joined by Tommy, the Green Ranger, a moral transformer of ambiguous ethnicity who was originally sent by the villainous Rita Repulsa to spy on the others but who has since undergone a moral conversion.
p. 195, “In the other Fox series, morphing is not necessarily restricted to characters and spectators. For example, in the episode of Carmen Sandiego discussed here, it is also presented as a form of visual punning and mode of creative identification that is essential to writers and other artists, yet it is still linked with an empowering upward mobility—in this case, from poverty to fame.”
Meta-Morphing: Visual Transformation and the Culture of Quick Change
MK essay, “From Mutation to Morphing: Cultural Transformations from Greek Myth to Children’s Media Culture”
p. 60 “I will trace how these images of cultural transformation have been mythologized in those two controversial bands of shape-shifting superheroes, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who rose to global cult status in the mid-1980s, and the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, who displaced the Turtles in the 1990s. Both of these cults built on the earlier success of the toy genre known as “Transformers,” a species of action figure that enables young owners, with minor deft twists, to convert a formidable creature (robot, monster, or superhero) into a high-powered vehicle or weapon, and vice versa.”
p. 63, “Thus far I have been talking mainly about marketing and saying very little about the mythic appeal of the Turtles and Power Rangers or the relationship of that appeal to the transformative tropes of mutation and morphing. Although the popularity of both sets of superheroes is now in decline, they have entered the popular imagination of global culture as an optimistic myth of comic transformation not just for kids but for cultural theorists talking about the reproduction of postmodernist subjectivity. For example, if you turn to the home page of cyberspace theorist Sherry Turkle, you can download a video that shows the Zordon-like bald head of Michel Foucault morphing into a Power Ranger, implying as Edward Rothstein puts it, that “the morphing of the philosopher into a pop figure may support Foucault’s argument that identity is elastic.” This argument is consistent with one I made in Playing with Power, which read the myth of the Mutant Turtles as a global force that contributes to the mass reproduction of postmodernist subjectivity.
p. 63-64, Metamorphosis is a trope that is central to creation myths from many cultures, where it frequently serves as an image of creation or destruction, reward or punishment, growth or decay, or the passage from life to death. It is also a defining formalist feature of dreams and their characteristic tropes of condensation and displacement, where the mere temporal or spatial proximity of two juxtaposed images can, when narrativized, be read as transformative change—a cognitive process that is fundamental to flip books, surrealist jolts, trick films, animation, the basic illusion of cinema, and the visual perception of movement.
p. 64, In contrast to the Turtles and the Power Rangers, who star in a string of serial adventure narratives that celebrate their ingenuity and ability to survive, singular classical shape-shifters such as Proteus, Tiresias, and Morpheus played only supporting roles. Certainly none of them was an action hero wielding a sword like Achilles or outwitting his enemies like Odysseus. In fact, they didn’t benefit directly from their own supernatural powers.
p. 68, Gregor’s metamorphosis helps prefigure the legions of self-willed insectival transformations that infest Willliam Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959), changes that are shorn of masochism and guilt but are even more grotesque than Kafka’s with their comic obscenities and sadistic excesses. The exuberant outpourings of a junkie’s subjectivity, this dystopic “word horde” presents a satiric vision of American corruption, “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” What is exposed is “a basic formula of evil” virus: The Algebra of Need, “which drives not only drug addiction and erotic desire but also the capitalist lust for money and power.” In this fluid world of constant metamorphosis, where naked creatures called Mugwumps “secrete an addicting fluid from their erect penises which prolongs life by slowing metabolilsm” and ”the Dream Police disintegrate in globs of rotten ectoplasm,” dependent drug addicts play parodic tragic heroes, always longing for a high-protean quick-change to evade interrogators and to disavow their commitment to a substance that requires a daily sacrifice of all other values. It is a world where everything liquefies into a protoplasmic ooze that proves more malleable than Power Goo. Where all bones, flesh, and bodies, all rooms, cities, nations, and languages, all sentences, paragraphs, stories, dreams and genres morph promiscuously into each other, dissolving into dystopic software for a nonelecronic cyberspace.