Nov 29 2011

Remixology

Judy Lillibridge



You're a rare writer if you don't occasionally suspect yourself of plagiarism, of unconsciously stealing phrases from your favorite author or appropriating plot points from books you've read as a child. Or maybe, you're haunted by a sneaking suspicion that everything is something you've read before. But maybe that's not a bad thing. The books below not only acknowledge the artistic impulse to use borrowed material, they embrace it as the cultural phenomenon it's become. The digital revolution means that an audience can, for the first time, respond rapidly, actively, and en masse to whatever content they choose to work with. One need only type the word "parody" into YouTube to see how far people have run with that freedom. From DJs to fanfiction, these authors examine appropriation, remixing, plagiarism, and the idea of what constitutes art.

remixthebook by Mark Amerika

A theorist and artist, Amerika takes "source material everywhere" as his mantra, and in remixthebook he weaves together works by everyone from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Stephen Colbert into a quasi-poetic theory of "remixology." He argues that our technology-laden consumer culture allows for innovation but kills creativity, forcing artists to approach self-expression in a new way. Rather than creativity, he emphasizes the search for novelty; art that re-presents source material simply to create a sense of newness. Because Amerika considers life an "on-the-fly remix of who we are," it doesn't matter whether that source material is emotion, a walk by a lake, or another artist's work. Regardless of where you find inspiration, or from whom you steal your source material, Amerika is unequivocal: "Somehow you have to find a way to make art."

Making Is Connecting by David Gauntlett

Following Amerika's call, Gauntlett insists that artists must connect "materials, ideas, or both"—remixing them, as it were—to produce something meaningful. A great deal of this book is an argument in favor of crafts (as in, the other half of "arts and"), but Gauntlett also devotes several chapters to how philosophies of craft can be applied to web culture. Gauntlett emphasizes social connection as an aspect of creativity—arguably the motivating force behind most of the remixed content being shared online—and more importantly, he provides an encompassing and intuitive definition of creativity. Gauntlett furthers Amerika's notion that a work need only be novel in its own context, and, more significantly, evoke "a feeling of joy." After all, it's this joy, rather than a Platonic ideal of originality, that drives people to, for example, create their own hours-long retellings of Star Wars films, and it's this joy that underpins Gauntlett's utopic vision of a remixed society.

Karaoke Culture by Dubravka Ugresic

Ugresic riffs on the idea of inserting one's voice where another has come before, and claims that statistically, most contemporary art and literature is made by amateurs. Unlike Gauntlett, Ugresic views amateur art through a cynic's lens: since participants have less "artistic pretension" and care more about simply making their voices heard, karaoke—her metaphor for all such derivations—degenerates into "narcissism, exhibitionism, and the neurotic need for the individual to inscribe him or herself on the indifferent surface of the world." At the same time, though, she holds that the work of amateur artists is neither plagiarism nor imitation, because those terms no longer make sense. Writers who cannot adapt to internet media culture, Ugresic contends, "are about to go extinct." The essay closes bemoaning the loss of authenticity: While Amerika claims one's entire life is a remix, Ugresic worries that when everything is an anonymous rehash of something else, genuine creativity will be lost.

Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age by Kenneth Goldsmith

Stemming from a class he teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, Goldsmith's book-length essay coins the term "uncreative writing" and offers examples to explain it, from a site that collects Facebook updates and replaces users' names with those of famous dead writers ("Arthur Rimbaud is so sleepy!") to sites that alter images by changing .jpgs to text files and inserting Shakespearean sonnets. Working off the idea that "context is the new content," some of these enterprises are even less transformative: one blogger reproduced the entire text of Kerouac's On The Road by retyping it word-for-word and posting it one page at a time. These experiments do not meet the usual standards of art—except perhaps Andy Warhol's, whose biography gets more than a few pages—but Goldsmith defends their worth in our post-modern world. At one point, he relays his intense reaction to a writer reciting and reframing a court brief—the supposedly objective "statement of facts" of a child molestation case—as literature. The recitation at first horrified him, but then forced him to abandon disgust for analysis. This was itself a stunning revelation; evidence to Goldsmith that the performer was right in stating, "there's no such thing as an innocent bystander."

Judy Lillibridge studies Writing for Publication and Media at Pratt Institute, where she is currently working on her second novel.

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