Luke completed his PhD in Media Studies, entitled Narrative Epic and New Media: The Totalizing Spaces of Postmodernity in The Wire, Batman, and The Legend of Zelda, in the summer of 2015. Here is the abstract, with an excerpt of the Introduction.
The full thesis is available here. All text copyright Luke Arnott 2015.
The full thesis is available here. All text copyright Luke Arnott 2015.
Narrative Epic and New Media investigates why epic narratives have a renewed significance in contemporary culture, showing that new media epics model the postmodern world in the same way that ancient epics once modelled theirs. It demonstrates how the epic genre recurs across different cultures and subcultures, even as each instantiation of the epic remains unique to its particular society.
The dissertation draws upon genre theory from critical discourse analysis and from observations made by various critics about the epic’s status as a literary “super-genre,” which encompasses as many other kinds of narrative as it can. It extends genre theory to explain how works of epic scope emerge from new media as well. The dissertation develops a framework for defining epics that balances textual analysis with attention to the social processes of narrative representation, production, and reception. This model outlines the formal continuities of the epic’s field of cultural production while accounting for historical change and differing cultural contexts.
The following texts are analysed in depth: the HBO drama The Wire (2002–2008); works adapted from Batman comics, specifically the Dark Knight film trilogy (2005–2012) and the Batman: Arkham video game series (2009–2015); and Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda video game series (1986-2013). Related books, films, comics, and video games furnish supporting evidence, while the reception of these works is gauged in journalism and scholarship, as well as in popular sources (blog postings, fan fictions, etc.).
After showing how The Wire, Batman, and Zelda relate to their cultural contexts as epics, Narrative Epic and New Media addresses the implications for epic theory in light of current cultural production. In particular, The Wire, Batman, and Zelda all demonstrate the new understanding of space and cognitive mapping that critics have seen as essential to theories of postmodernity, especially those that examine how the features of fictional narratives model lived experience in society. The dissertation ends with an argument in favour of a more “flexible” formalism, which can better account for the disembedding of generic forms.
Keywords: Epic, Genre theory, Postmodernism, The Wire, Batman, The Dark Knight, The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo, Comic Books, Video games, David Simon, Christopher Nolan, Shigeru Miyamoto
This dissertation is an attempt to account for the continual presence of the epic as a narrative genre that – its origins in the oral poetry of antiquity notwithstanding – persists into the present “postmodern” era, and that does so in a variety of new media. I will argue in what follows that these postmodern epics must be understood through a revision of traditional genre theory, one which is better able to take into account the greater variations in subject matter, form, and medium that are now increasingly abundant. This theory must explain two seemingly opposing phenomena: first, that there has been a continuous popular and scholarly fascination with the epic, underpinned by a tacit understanding that certain films, comic books, and video games, among other media texts, are contemporary epics of some kind; and, second, that there are nevertheless clear and fundamental distinctions to be drawn between these texts, as well as the social and artistic contexts within which they are produced, and the literary works that have long been considered epics in the traditional sense.
Regarding the first point, I maintain throughout this work that all epics have in common a desire among their creators and audiences to represent a totality, to encapsulate the social world of a particular culture within an over-arching narrative. As for the second point, I go on to argue that the epic is in fact a kind of super-genre that has been disembedded repeatedly from its original social context, and re-embedded or situated in new ones. These processes are always situated historically, and must be contextualized as such, but they do not necessarily follow a predictable or teleological path or development.
Defining genres is necessarily a structuralist endeavour. Yet unfashionable as it may be, classification remains vital because it is, at its core, a definition of terms and concepts, and without such definitions, critique becomes impossible – indeed, arguing over terms and conducting criticism have been inextricable at least since Plato and Socrates. Moreover, genres constantly evolve as the expectations of cultural producers and audiences change over time, and generic schema must necessarily play catch-up. My examination of epic genre theory therefore tries to better explain not only why the epic seems to persist, but also why it comes in new forms and media; at the same time, my discussion of theory is hopefully framed to anticipate future directions that large-scale, totalizing narratives might take.
To give one example: the narrowest definitions of the epic have presented it as a primarily martial, and implicitly masculine, narrative genre. Many contemporary epics contain strong vestiges of this tradition, and those discussed in the chapters that follow – The Wire, the Dark Knight trilogy, The Legend of Zelda – are no exception. Urban policing, comic-book vigilantism, and sword-and-sorcery questing are all paramilitary activities, conducted by predominantly male protagonists (and, it should also be noted, presented by predominantly male writers, directors, and so forth). But when we consider epic as a genre that has been reembedded in contemporary media, we can see that women’s roles within the narrative have subtly progressed with the times even as they also reflect the real-life limits of that progress. Within The Wire, for instance, the characters are disproportionately male, but the women who do appear are dedicated police officers, crusading lawyers, or homicidal street toughs with equal credibility. Meanwhile, new popular works of epic scope, such as the Hunger Games trilogy, challenge some of the assumptions of older generic conceptions about female agency within the epic even as they continue to trade in violence. An updated framework of genre theory would recognize the moderate gains represented in such works, while also accounting for works of epic scale, in whatever medium, that go further away from traditional definitions, such as Linda Medley’s Castle Waiting comic book series. And I should add that a solid theoretical foundation for genre is just as important for rejecting the frivolous use of generic terms.
A robust re-examination of genre theory not only can help contextualize new representative content, but it can also help us grapple with new narrative media. The case studies, and their paratexts, described in the chapters that follow come in many different digital and analogue media, from novels to video games. They are treated herein as equally capable of generating epics, when considered on their own terms. However, how media are viewed culturally is another matter, and, as I will argue, the extent to which a particular medium is valorized within a culture or subculture can vary a great deal – usually in relation to how long the medium has existed. Of the works considered here, theatrical feature films clearly have the longest cultural pedigree, so it should come as no surprise that the movie version of a particular narrative is felt to be more “epic.” However, as other media, such as television shows and video games, get greater and greater narrative ambitions, they can challenge older media’s predominance as the preferred vehicle for certain kinds of stories, whether those are epic or otherwise. Genre theory that accounts for this re-embedding within newer and newer media forms can help track this process. It can also show us how newer media incorporate older media for added legitimacy, such as the increasing inclusion of feature film-quality production values, budgets, and personnel on TV and in video games. For these reasons this dissertation focuses specifically on the epic’s most recent re-embedding within the complex, technologically-implicated multimedia narratives of postmodernity; these contemporary epics are valuable objects of study not only because of their current popularity, but also because they can most starkly test a theory that seeks to be as equally applicable to ancient poetry as it is to digital video.
I want to stress at the outset that this work is neither an attempt to praise, nor to condemn, any particular version of the rather nebulous concept of “postmodernism”; rather, I follow David Harvey and Fredric Jameson’s diagnoses of postmodernism as a “condition” or “cultural logic.” As such, postmodernism can be treated as set of structural and representational tendencies that reflect and reinforce contemporary socio-economic conditions: these include, for instance, an elision of the differences between formerly discrete cultures, the rise of increasingly hybrid identities and subjectivities, the spread of cultural materials throughout a globalized world, and the disintegration of a shared sense of historical time. This is not to say that these features have appeared in cultural productions in the last few decades exclusively, but instead that now they tend to be more prominent. (After all, even The Mikado meets many criteria of certain definitions of a postmodern text.) Critics such as Harvey and Jameson make a compelling case about how such postmodern features, found in popular media, can be correlated to the evolution of transnational capital – yet one need not be a Marxist to agree about the trends, as, for instance, Harold Innis’ laments about the West’s dangerous bias in favour of space over time have long demonstrated. Postmodernism is therefore important not only because it describes, however imprecisely, the features of the current cultural moment, but it is also vital to deal with if one is to argue, as I shall throughout what follows, that the epic is in fact thriving within a postmodern culture.
Moreover, I believe that Jameson’s discussion of cognitive mapping is particularly productive in this context. The concept of the “cognitive map” was first developed by psychologist Edward Tolman in the 1940s, and it was picked up by other disciplines in the following decades. It appears to have come into vogue in the 1980s, not only in Jameson’s work, but also, for example, in Robert Jackall’s classic study Moral Mazes, in which cognitive mapping is used to describe how corporate managers keep track of their shifting social and hierarchical relationships. Thus the cognitive map seemed to fulfil a function that conventional representation appeared less and less capable of doing as the postmodern era entered into full swing. For Jameson, cognitive mapping is the key to any possible “political art” in postmodernism, because such mapping can, at least in principle, begin to make sense of the enormous complexity of contemporary culture and social organization. The Wire, the Dark Knight trilogy, and The Legend of Zelda each contribute – in similar ways, even if their particular perspectives are unique – to our mental maps of life in the early twenty-first century.
Therefore, the success with which the epic has now been re-embedded in film, television, comics, and video games reflects the genre’s ability – in this instance by cognitively mapping mimetic as well as abstract representations of space – to grapple with many of the concerns and problems of the contemporary world. These include the exponential growth and fragmentation of cultures and subcultures; fundamental shifts in the size and scale of the world as it is experienced subjectively; and the various political, economic, social, and technological issues that have come to the forefront in our era of transnational capital. The ways in which certain “postmodern” epics, considered in the pages that follow, demonstrate the processes by which the epic genre can adapt to these changed circumstances, while also sharing features with the ancient or medieval epic, shows how earlier critics of the epic were mistaken to consider it an outmoded or reactionary genre. The culmination of this critique is an argument for what I will call “flexible formalism”: this is an analytical stance that examines the epic genre across its historical variations by focusing not exclusively on content, but rather on the persistent, analogous relationships between the inner parts and the outer world of works which aspire to epic status. Of course, any critic of the epic must recognize that epic criticism of this sort tends to mirror the totalizing project of its subject; it is not just criticism of epic, but criticism that is itself epic, and in this way it constitutes another dis- and re-embedding of the genre, in this case from narrative fiction to critical discourse.
The first chapter of the dissertation begins with an overview of epic criticism, briefly touching on some of the analytical trends ranging from antiquity to the modern era. It examines the theoretical contributions of, among others, Aristotle, Mikhail Bakhtin, Georg Lukács, Erich Auerbach, Northrop Frye, Franco Moretti, and Gregory Nagy. Building on certain commonalities between these approaches, and supplemented by elements of Norman Fairclough’s critical discourse analysis, I suggest a theory of epic that examines narrative epics at four levels of symbolic content, which I call the epos, the mythos, the ethos, and the cosmos. The epos corresponds to the media text itself, the mythos to its precursors and paratexts, the ethos to the representative range of its imaginary, and the cosmos to the social totality it ultimately tries to encompass.
The next three chapters deploy this theoretical apparatus, each focusing on a particular case study. Chapter two examines the HBO television series The Wire, created by David Simon and Ed Burns, which was originally broadcast in five seasons between 2002 and 2008. It demonstrates why The Wire has been felt to be such a critical success, making it an epos in a qualitative sense. Next, the chapter lays out the televisual and journalistic texts that enrich The Wire’s mythos. It examines the conditions that allow the show’s “realistic” characters to nevertheless operate within a convincingly heroic ethos. Finally, it examines how The Wire is used by popular and academic audiences alike to make sense of their social world, particularly the changes being wrought to urban spaces at the turn of the millennium.
Chapter three takes as its object the Dark Knight trilogy of feature films directed by Christopher Nolan: Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). It considers the films as a unified epos not only on such superficial criteria of running time and box-office success, but also in its technological sophistication and the acclaim garnered by Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. The chapter details how the films draw upon and synthesize the vast mythos of previous Batman comic books and adaptations in other media, before showing how the Dark Knight trilogy fits into an ethos that overlaps with, but does not completely subsume, other versions of Batman. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the Dark Knight’s complicated relationship with real-life political strife and terrorism, before examining how it too models postmodern urban spaces, in this case via Gotham City, a fictionalized version of New York and other American cities.
Chapter four deals with the Legend of Zelda video game series, whose instalments have been released regularly on a variety of Nintendo consoles beginning in 1986. It argues that the series has, by a number of criteria, been considered at the forefront of video game narrative and gameplay: the original NES game and its landmark sequels can therefore each be considered an epos in its own right. The chapter outlines the various eclectic sources of the series’ mythos, with some attention to how Nintendo curates the Zelda canon. Next, it explores the representational limits of the Zelda games, showing how their ethos intersects with issues of gender and race in gaming. The chapter concludes by examining the extent of Zelda fandom and how that fandom interprets the games in the context of the larger world; it furthermore argues that, despite its feudal window-dressing, the Zelda series is far more instructive insofar as it cognitively maps and measures postmodern space and time.
Chapter five begins with a summary of how the theory of epic, as outlined in chapter one, applies to each case study, and how all three case studies demonstrate certain continuities as postmodern epics. The chapter goes on to argue that the deployment of this theoretical construct may be considered an instance of “flexible formalism,” a critical stance that, while remaining attentive to the “close reading” of text, images, and sound in multimedia epics, nevertheless looks beyond content when examining structural affinities. The flexible formalist must pay attention to the analogous relations between sets of parts, rather than simply matching parts themselves. Finally, the chapter, and the dissertation, concludes by admitting the practical limitations of epic criticism within the current burgeoning contemporary mediascape; it notes the irony that flexible formalism must also possess the self-reflexivity to recognize and account for the totalizing ambition of critique itself.
 Such as the claim – to pick one particularly spurious instance – that the mediocre James Bond film Octopussy (1983) is nevertheless a “woman-centred epic” (Santas 124).