Introduction to an Every Day Living in Contemporary Gothic

Introduction to an Every Day Living in Contemporary Gothic
© Photograph by Martynas Nasicomy

The Gothic has never been more alive than it is today. Like a contagion, of late, it has travelled across cultural and media landscapes to permeate even the most banal aspects of everyday living. While the Gothic has undoubtedly regained its popularity, it is also granted acknowledgement in “higher” culture.

From haute couture to haute cuisine, the Gothic aesthetic is widely recognised, and it would appear that it might be more appropriate these days to talk less about the popularity of the Gothic than the cultural milieu of the Gothic.

The contemporary cultural environment that surrounds the Gothic reveals much about the nature of the Gothic itself and the legacies of a long history of representing the darker side of the human condition. As such, in seeking to learn more about the nature of contemporary Gothic, both in its living and literary formulations, we must examine the histories, practices, and legacies that have extended outward from a long literary tradition to permeate almost all facets of contemporary culture.

The Gothic as it has found embodiment in various cultural trends and behaviours, from fashion to the emergence of subcultures, has undoubtedly been given an abundance of critical attention across the field of Gothic studies.

However, the broader idea of “Gothic”, which we put forward here, as a term encompassing cultural manifestations, lived practices, and the interaction of the Gothic with the narratives of the past, has yet to find a coherent definition. As such, we offer the term “living Gothic” as a means to envisioning the many ways in which the Gothic functions as a living culture in its own right, through its intersections with every day, and with the communication and expression of shared experience.

This volume has been compiled as a work that aims to regenerate interest in the Gothic in abroad, but equally, conventional, sense of the term. We explore the Gothic in relation to our engagements with the living past, within the experiential contexts of lived practice, and the legacies that it leaves to the living narratives of folklore and tradition.

Importantly, by using the term “living”, we recall a collective agglomerate of practices, both tangible and intangible, which construct the experience of every day in its social, cultural, and imaginary incarnations. In this sense, “living” takes on multiple and multi-faceted connotations that on the one hand moves the Gothic beyond the cultural parameters to which it has been previously ascribed, therein granting the aesthetics and narrative frameworks of the Gothic a new social relevance. On the other, it resonates with those characteristic “gothic” feelings of finality and immortality, bygone experience and future fantasy.

Furthermore, in denoting the manner in which we perceive the Gothic as a living entity, “living Gothic” also points to the Gothic’s obsessions with death and the mutability of the past. In seeking to offer this definition, we take a unique stance in granting agency to the Gothic, paying close attention to its influence not just on cultural production but the very experience of culture. With critical foundations in the disciplines of architecture, folklore, and cultural studies, they demonstrate how the Gothic has dynamically filtered both reality and our Western cultural imagination since the eighteenth-century.

The prevalence of the Gothic in popular culture in recent years has led to many new and interesting directions in the academic study of the mode. Significantly, these new directions flow, for the most part, in what appears to be a narrowing stream of analysis dealing with theoretical approaches to contemporary popular Gothic and the future of Gothic forms. This is apparent in contemporary Gothic studies in which contemporary cultural fascination with technological advancement, mediatisation, and “the new”, brought about with the beginning of this new century seems to diverge from the study of past formulations of the Gothic.

Forward-thinking conceptualisations of the Gothic, which consider advancing technology and bio-science, new social media trends, and the Gothic in the twenty-first century are very much in vogue, as was clear from the theme of the most recent International Gothic Association Conference, which convened 5–8 August 2013, under the theme of ‘Gothic Technologies/Gothic Techniques’.

While this focus on the future of the Gothic is essential, the relationship of the Gothic to history and tradition is perhaps more critical to our discussions here. Responding to the gravitation of critical discourse on the Gothic towards new media and technology — the future of the Gothic, as it were — we combine our research in an effort to form collective insight into the relationship between the Gothic and the past, not only in the traditional sense of the past as history, but also in relation to the lived and living practices and legacies of the mode.

An increase in interdisciplinarity in current literary and cultural criticism has allowed for the renegotiation of traditional perspectives on the Gothic. The last 30 years has seen a forceful direction of critical analysis on the Gothic in all its forms, and this has opened up a wide range of critical approaches that, according to Jerold Hogle and Andrew Smith, has “collectively made the Gothic come alive (like Frankenstein’s creature) as an important, multi-layered, and profoundly symbolic scheme for dealing with Western culture’s most fundamental fears and concerns” (2009, 1).

Hogle and Smith have underscored the importance of the “cross-generic dynamism in the Gothic that has made it so transformable to suit changing times” (ibid). Acknowledging this, the chapters in this volume consciously consider the ways in which the Gothic can be theorised and tested objectively. Collectively they work to offer overlapping reflections on this dynamism to conclude that the Gothic, slippery concept that it is, can act in an agent in its own right in shaping and moulding modern culture and experience.

Our main contention in proposing this collection is that in terms of literary and cultural criticism, we cannot truly engage with the future of the Gothic until we have fully dealt with its histories and its legacies. While it is, of course, extremely valuable to consider the potential of the Gothic in expressing new cultural formations that emerge in the contemporary and potential contexts of technoculture, neo-liberalism, financial crisis, global terror, changing global demographics, digitisation, and developments in bio- and cognitive sciences, it is arguable that we cannot fully grapple with the relevance of the Gothic to these issues until we consider it as part of lived experience.

Far more than being a genre in literature and film, or a mode of art practice, the Gothic is frequently a perspective on the world that shapes our sense of experience and identity. In response to the manner in which contemporary and popular culture has, in recent years, come to be saturated by the Gothic, the language and imagery of the Gothic are now ubiquitous.

Certain events and realities have become “Gothicised”. From basic experiences of the uncanny, to political terrors, to national festivals and traditions, the Gothic can be seen to form a unique part of personal and cultural expression. Responding to this in this volume, we seek to trace the delicate line that delineates the Gothic as it pertains to every day realities, outside of formal literary structures, asking how we might move towards a more comprehensive definition of the Gothic today.

In this collection, we examine and discuss the manner in which it operates as a frame and a filter, not only for fictional worlds, but for the world of the reader. Acknowledging the literary foundations of the Gothic as the core of its relevance to the popular imagination, we move outward to examine those aspects of the Gothic that have seeped into texts that are distinctively non-literary. As such, we view the Gothic much like David Punter and Glennis Byron as a “textual body”, often times “a staggering, limping, lurching form akin to the monsters it frequently describes” (Punter and Byron 2007, xix).

In this way, the Gothic signifies and represents culture in forms of its own, but it can also be recognised for its function as a linguistic paradigm through which we can interpret experience and culture.

Our approach to the Gothic as a living thing, and as an agent of culture, may seem slightly unconventional in academic terms. However, it responds to similar approaches in cultural and even scientific analysis of the form, which have granted a comparable subjectivity to the Gothic.

Since its earliest beginnings as a coherent literary form, the Gothic has been reproved as a mode of expression that warrants direct responsibility for cultural change. The general fear of the Gothic as “a bad influence” on the morality of young readers in the early-nineteenth-century is still mirrored in contemporary debates about the negative impact of horror film and video games on younger audiences today.

These discussions have inspired communications research into the cognitive, affective (or emotional), and behavioural effects of the Gothic and horror cinema on its audiences (see Rosenbaum 1979).

Such studies arguably position the Gothic as a subject in its own right and as an agent of influence. While conclusions about the negative and corruptive influences of the Gothic are not relevant to our research here in this forum, the methodology driving these studies is essential given that what they do is effectively reverse the direction of influence so that rather than look at the impact of cultural change on the Gothic, they consider the impact of the Gothic on culture.