Lecture: "The Medium Is the Mix": Writing and Remix Culture

One of the epigraphs to this week’s schedule is a quote from Paul Miller’s “Sound Unbound” interview, in which he identifies what he calls “new kinds of literacy,” what we might simply refer to as remix or remix culture, a sensibility encapsulated in Apple’s Feb. 2001 ad slogan “Rip. Mix. Burn.”:1

Image of Apple 2001 "Rip. Mix. Burn." ad to sell their then new iMac with CD-RW drives and iTunes.“Take a Wikipedia page entry, you know, copy it and paste it into a William S. Burrows novel and take that remix and put in The New Yorker and you’ve got new fiction or something, you know? The pun for me is that we’re looking at new kinds of literacy: digital media, cut and paste imagination, non-linear thinking, you know, kind of the whole twentieth century, McLuhan The Medium is the Massage kind of thing. It’s just come home to roost.” [Listen to the full interview.]

Apple’s ad campaign was not without controversy. The very idea that you should be able to take CDs which you had bought, pull songs off those CDs, and then make your own CD or put that music on an iPod2 was regarded by media companies as nothing less a violation of copyright or even outright theft. In 2002, Michael Eisner, the then President and CEO of the Walt Disney Co., testified before the US Congress that Apple’s “Rip. Mix. Burn.” campaign was fostering piracy, and that, in fact, computer companies like Apple considered piracy to be their next “killer app.”

While it was, and is, entirely legal to make digital copies of music that you own for your own purposes, no new consumer-level (re)production technology has ever been without it’s challenges, from the first sound recordings of music performances to the office photocopy machine to audio and VHS recorders to the CD and DVD drives in our computers. In McLuhanesque terms, we find in all of these examples the new electronic and digital technologies of the Electronic Age clashing with the old ideologies of print culture, that is, with copyright.

But getting back to the idea of writing, if we return to the Paul Miller quote above, he begins by suggesting we take a Wikipedia entry and copying and pasting it into a William S. Burroughs novel to create “new fiction.” Miller is invoking Burroughs here specifically because Burroughs used the “cut-up method” in creating his some of own fiction.3 Essentially the cut-up method involves cutting up one or more texts, rearranging the cut-up material, and then splicing it together to create a new text. While Burroughs popularized the technique, he was introduced to the idea by painter and writer Brion Gysin, who stumbled upon it when using a stack of newspapers to protect his table as he cut up some other paper with a razor blade. Gysin realized that the scraps of newspaper cuttings made interesting juxtapositions of text and image. Gysin himself was reinventing something like the Dadaist word collage poems of Tristan Tzara.

Collage – visual, sound, and word – was itself popularized in the 20th Century by the surrealists, which is important to note because the surrealists, the Dadaists, and the Fluxus Movement4 – were all connected through association, shared techniques, and overlapping affiliations.5 All three movements included visual, sound, and verbal artists, and many, such as Gysin, performed in more than one medium. Like Fluxus, the surrealists and the Dadaists were reacting to the new electronic media environment. They were, to again invoke McLuhan’s invocation of Montaigne, finding ways for art to “live with the living,” that is, to create art that fit within the new media environment. While Paul Miller asks us to think of writing as a form of DJ-ing and DJ-ing as a form of writing in the passage we read from his book Rhythm Science,6 we’ve already encountered this idea of writing as a form of sampling, of layering influences, and of mixing ideas together into a new text that has its own coherent flow and expression.

We’ve already encountered these ideas in Landow’s discussion of annotation in print – what are footnote and endnote citations for, after all, but to indicate when we’ve sampled and mixed other people’s ideas and words to create a written mashup of writing that we call our own? We’ve already encountered these ideas in Paul Miller’s “Dead Simple: Marshall McLuhan and the Art of the Record” in which he discusses of The Medium Is the Massage LP as a sonic “DJ mix” of the book, a “a collection of some of Mcluhan’s spoken texts [often word-for-word passages found in the book itself] recorded, collaged, cut-up, spliced, diced, ripped, mixed, and burned.”  We’ve already encountered these ideas in McGann’s discussion in “The Rationale for HyperText” about the challenges of trying to represent in a print-based scholarly edition the ballad tradition from which Robert Burns borrows when he created his own poems.7 We’ve already encountered these ideas in McLuhan’s discussions of the creation of the author. Scribal culture, even when an author’s name was connected to a particular text, borrowed, reworked, and refashioned earlier texts. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are full of such reworkings, and so too Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. Finally, we’ve already encountered these ideas in The Medium Is the Massage itself. While the text in the book comes from McLuhan, as we’ve already discussed, much of it was pulled from prior writings or from talks he’d given. And then there’s Quentin Fiore’s work of graphic design in which he mixed the various samples of McLuhan’s writing (or lexia, if we want to bring in Barthes and hypertext) and mixed those with quotes from other writers and with images to create the collide-oscopic mashup that is The Medium Is the Massage.

Clearly, these ideas of sampling, mixing, and mashup-ing writing and other texts raises issues of copyright, intellectual property, and plagiarism. Most certainly, they do. Jonathan Lethem addresses this directly in his essay, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” one of the optional texts for this week. Lethem’s subtitles his essay, which is about the subject of artistic influence, appropriation, reuse, and copyright, “a plagiarism” because it is almost entirely a work of patchwriting. That is, he went and gathered a number of passages, strung them together, and added a bit of text of his own, and then engaged in some minor editing work to make it all flow.8 While Harpers required him to source all his borrowings at the end of the article – something he didn’t want to do – he didn’t ask anyone for permission. I know one of the people he “borrowed” from, a rhetoric and composition scholar, and she was delighted at seeing what he had done, but she was never asked if it would be okay. Lethem’s method raises a number of legal and ethical questions. And unless specifically granted permission to do so – such as in one of Kenneth Goldsmith’s uncreative writing classes he teaches at the University of Pennsylvania – Lethem’s patchwriting technique would violate every college and university academic honesty policy I’ve ever seen. But then again, so would William Burrows and Brion Gysin cut-up texts, and for that matter, so would Chaucer’s “The Prioress’ Tale.” Copyright isn’t about artistry or the creation of art. It’s about money. I mean nothing negative in saying that. It’s just a simple statement of fact. 

Copyright, however, which, as I’ve stated before and as McLuhan has pointed out, was a product of print culture, and it has radically changed our notion of creativity. In addition to the mentions of oral and manuscript traditions above, let’s take a quick look at one of English literature’s most famous figures: Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a remix artist. In fact, Shakespeare’s fame pretty much rests upon his ability to remix other work. Let us consider, for instance, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Shakespeare didn’t make up the story. It has its origins in Greek myth and legend. However, we know that it is a direct reworking of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, John Lydgate’s The Book of Troy, and William Caxton’s translation of Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye. Moreover, Chaucer’s version of Troilus and Criseyde is itself a reworking of Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato, which is itself based upon Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Roman de Troie. We also know that two of Shakespeare’s contemporary playwrights had also written and staged two other versions of the Troilus and Cressida story: Thomas Haywood’s Iron Age, which includes the story, and Henry Chettle’s Troilus and Cressida. Shakespeare’s reworking of the Troilus and Cressida story isn’t unusual. All of Shakespeare’s plays but The Tempest have similar histories. However, while we might say that Shakespeare was a remix artist, he wasn’t a plagiarist because plagiarism did not exist before the invention of copyright. In fact, simply making a story up was not what one did. Literary scholars are pretty certain that Geoffrey of Monmouth made up much of the elements of the Arthurian story we find in his Historia Regum Britanniae even though Geoffrey regularly insisted he was writing from a source, and he insisted he was writing from a source because to simply make something up was suspect. Copyright changed all that.

While we, unlike Shakespeare, Chaucer, Lydgate, Boccaccio, and Geoffrey of Monmouth, have to contend with copyright, and plagiarism, and academic dishonesty, it is also worth considering that the contemporary practices of sampling, remixing, and mashups harken back to earlier traditions of surrealist, Dadaist, and Fluxus art and back to even earlier traditions of composition found in oral tradition, in medieval manuscript culture, and the theater of Shakespeare’s time. As so many of these artists and writers above have demonstrated, good art – visual, sound, performance, and verbal – and good writing can be produced by sampling, remixing, and mashing up other people’s art and writing.

To wrap up this lecture, I’d like to return us to the idea of endnotes and footnotes mentioned above. I want to suggest that we think of academic writing, the writing in which conduct research and sample other texts through summary, paraphrase, and quotation, is a form of DJ-ing just as Paul Miller suggests. When we work with other people’s ideas, when we cite sources and quote passages, we are sampling ideas and words not our own, remixing them with our own ideas and words, and producing something like a mashup that, ideally, stands on its own as coherent whole. In other words, written forms of scholarship, whether it is a professor writing a book or a student writing a paper for class, is always an act of remix. While digital media fosters and encourages the “cut and paste imagination” and “non-linear thinking” as Paul Miller suggests, these have always been the practices of the artist and the scholar.

So, how does it change our thinking to consider academic writing to be a form of remix, and to see remix as the newest form of an old, old practice?

 

  1. The “Rip. Mix. Burn.” ad campaign was created to promote Apple’s then new line of iMacs that came with CD-RW drives (CD drives that could record to as well as read from CDs) and iTunes. 13 years later, it can be hard to remember that this idea of being able to create your own CDs or mp3 player playlists wasn’t something the average person could do – we’d lost the general ability to make our own mixes as we phased out audio cassettes.
  2. Apple didn’t release the first iPod until Oct. 2001, half a year after it released the iMacs and the ad campaign.
  3. We’ll be looking at the cut-up method later this semester.
  4. Think back to Week Three and the lecture on pages 94-96 and 119 of The Medium Is the Massage. Charlotte Moorman, Nam June Paik, and John Cage were all members of the Fluxus Movement.
  5. While we consider some artists to be a surrealist or a Dadaist or a Fluxus artist, many artists actually worked within one or more of these traditions.
  6. “Writing Is DJing/DJ-ing Is Writing.” Rhythm Science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004. 56-60.
  7. Oral tradition exists outside the concept of copyright and intellectual property. Oral poets tell and retell traditional stories they’ve learned and, occasionally, add their own new stories, or refashion old stories in such ways that new stories and poems enter into the tradition.
  8. In an interview, which I included among our optional texts for this week, Lethem offers an example of his patchwriting by reading a paragraph of seven sentences that was composed by stitching together the writing of Roland Barthes, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and, finally, Jonathan Lethem himself. Here’s the passage, in which I’ve indicated which sentences were written by whom: “<Start Roland Barthes> Any text is woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony. The citations that go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read; they are quotations without inverted commas. <Start Mark Twain> The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. <Start Ralph Waldo Emerson> Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. Lethem himself> Neurological study has lately shown that memory, imagination, and consciousness itself is stitched, quilted, pastiched. If we cut-and-paste our selves, might we not forgive it of our artworks?”

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