When Paramount announced that Scarlett Johansson had been cast as Major Kusanagi in the live action adaptation of Ghost In The Shell, it launched another outbreak of accusations about ‘whitewashing’ – the appointment of white actors and actresses into roles with a clearly established ethnicity. Comic book writer Jon Tsuei advanced a strong criticism of the casting, not on the grounds of racial politics, but claiming that Ghost In The Shell is “inherently a Japanese story, not a universal one.” What are we to make of this claim, and of the circumstances that led to it?
This incident is an example of a clash of narrative communities, a phenomena that – with a notable exception I’ll save until later – is peculiar to the last hundred years. The reason we are facing these conflicts today can be traced to a serious gap between the aesthetic and ethical values that sustain contemporary media production. On the one hand, the giant global corporations that produce our most popular entertainments are propelled by an ethical and economic commitment to sustain their franchises by ensuring the money they make will exceed the cost of production. This is the burden of custodianship. On the other side is the question of authenticity in adapting or extending story materials, the demand that all materials be faithfully related. Tsuei’s objections to Johannson’s casting is a good example of an authenticity argument.
The problem of custodianship is often dismissed as pure profit motive, yet no-one is going to stump up millions of dollars to make (say) a blockbuster movie without the hope it can take even more money at the box office, or through other channels of monetisation. To be opposed to custodianship is to attempt to opt out of popular culture altogether – something Marxists certainly have reason to do, but that most people do not. The continued production of content is something most seem to view as beneficial, except where to do so would undermine the authenticity of what was made. Conversely, those pushing against the production of further content can appeal to the diminishment of the core materials, which is another argument from authenticity.
The question of authenticity relates directly to the kind of ‘game’ being played with the fictional world in question. We are not accustomed to thinking of films or books as being ‘played’, but whether this term is taken literally or figuratively, the point remains that there are multiple ways a work can be experienced. As I argue in “What are we playing with? Role-taking, role-play, and story-play with Tolkien’s legendarium”, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movies are ‘played’ differently by someone who takes them as an adaptation of the book of that name than by someone who takes them as a prequel to Jackson’s movies of The Lord of the Rings. The problem of authenticity is always tied to a context.
Now there may be a temptation here to dismiss the issue of authenticity entirely as ‘subjective’, and a corresponding mistake of thinking that custodianship must be objective since the money, after all, can be counted. But successful custodianship must meet minimum requirements of authenticity lest the franchise be ‘milked dry’, and thus depends upon the very subjective elements that the economic factors are contrasted against. The desire to dismiss the subjective elements of a problem stems entirely from the mistaken assumption that they are infinitely variable, and thus cannot be meaningfully engaged with. However, once it is recognised that the experience of fiction entails different games, we are no longer dealing with the irreducible infinite. We are simply dealing with a manifold of practices, that is a set of different ‘games’.
Just as Bruno Latour has demonstrated that a grounded sociology is about tracing relations, a grounded study of fictional interplay is about identifying the network associated with the practices of the ‘game’ being played. This network includes all the works that form the megatext of the fictional world. This term ‘megatext’ is Charles Segal’s idea for understanding Greek mythology as inter-related, and I have extended this in my philosophy to contemporary media franchises like The X-Men, Star Trek, and Tolkien’s legendarium. The network also includes both the causal ‘players’ of the megatext (“I saw that movie”) and the hobbyists (“I’ve read every issue”), and all the people and companies entailed in creating the original media. The situation is further complicated by the interdependences: the X-Men megatext links to the Marvel comics megatext, and to the broader science fiction megatext, and more besides! The task of tracing such a network may seem insurmountable, but it is nothing of the kind – it is simply (as Latour notes for sociology) that you must trace things carefully, one step at a time.
While short cuts in network-tracing are risky, a subset of the manifold of ‘games to be played’ can be constructed to provisionally interrogate any megatext. In Implicit Game Aesthetics I took the conflicts between aesthetic values (evidenced by the arguments that are stated) as distinguishing between different ways of playing (indeed, of playing anything). I do not think it a coincidence that Latour uses the same method to trace his ‘modes of existence’. The provisional manifold for every megatext is thus the different ‘games’ revealed by the arguments between ‘players’. Some games are disagreements about the values of authenticity, but some are clashes between custodianship and specific values for authenticity.
In the case of Jon Tsue vs. Paramount, this is precisely the case: taking an authenticity position based around cultural embedding as his aesthetic context, Tsue argues that any attempt to disembed Ghost In The Shell from Japanese culture is a breach of authenticity. The unstated counter-argument from Paramount would presumably be that custodianship dictates a lead actress with box office draw. Without Johansson, therefore, there would be no movie. (This argument was indeed traced, on Paramount's behalf, by the Hollywood Reporter.) Supporters of authenticity could argue in such a case that it would be better not to make the film at all than to compromise the faithful relationship of the new work to the rest of the relevant megatext. Here, in brutal simplicity, is the crisis in authentic ﬁction brought about by the practical dominance of corporations in the ownership of all contemporary megatexts.
Next week: Canonicity
Special thanks to Chris Billows, Rob Briggs, John Brindle, Geek Boy (AKA Al Swettenham), Scott Gibbens, Auriea Harvey, Alex Hempel, It's John, Matti Karhulahti, Metal Blackbird, Cuchlann, J.P.J. Garvin, Jeroen Stout, Jacek Wesołowski, and Jose Zagal for contributing to the discussions on Twitter that helped shape this short serial.