Dec. 17th, 2015

dexfarkin: (me)

There's a back and forth in the Guardian about the desire in some quarters to update titles to remove now offensive terms which can create unnecessary discomfort as well the potential for similar corrections for books where the impact of the language is changed to the point that its impact is unnecessarily taken as intentional in the story. There's some interesting points made, although none that compel me from my basic point that in general, it's usually a unnecessary and mis-intentioned step.

One point I did like was the idea of terms creating controversy that leads to a distortion of the intending meaning of the work. One example used is a 1900 painting titled 'Young Negro Girl' switching to 'Young Girl with Fan'. Now, the change doesn't impact the work - each is a descriptive title as opposed to an evocative one as most art would adopt in the decades following. Most would argue that it is a small change that doesn't impact how I will approach it. The only issue is that art is highly contextual. Work that is admired from the past exists within its specific continuum and language is an important element through which we place our understanding of a piece. I think it is possible to understand why 'Young Negro Girl' would be an inappropriate title today without needing to change it for a modern sensibility.

In terms of the argument used with Huckleberry Finn, where in some additions, the word n***** is replaced with slave, the thrust is that slave carries the same kind of low level derision that n***** did at the time, while it carries in a modern reading a significantly different meaning. When 'Deadwood' came out, the original scripts for the show used period swearing in the first drafts. The problem was that what were incredibly offensive terms for the time have long lost any impact and even have become comedic or cartoonish phrases. So, they switched them for modern verbiage with similar impact, like 'motherfucker'.

The problem is, again, contextualization. If someone is only to read Huckleberry Finn and ignore the rest of the works of the late 19th century, they will get the same meaning. But if their reading expands, suddenly there is a different and more modern cast to the altered text and it becomes more difficult to associate it with other works of the period in understanding the material. Sanitized works are about altering the content to preserve a specific set of messages and lessons, but as literature criticism evolves and changes, those messages from the core text often do so as well. Modifying base texts muddle them and too often dilute what they mean to preserve.

If there is concern, it is better to use judgement and lessons about the time period and use of language prior to starting the work than to alter the text and hope the meaning remains as impactful.

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