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Blogger Book Club: 3-2-1 Context

By Matthew Guerrieri

I wanted to delve a little deeper into the whole question of what
remixing means for aesthetics and culture; Lessig doesn’t talk about
it much (I didn’t expect him to, it’s not really the point of the
book), but for me, perhaps predictably, it’s one of the more
interesting questions around the whole topic.

Part of the usual
defense of remix culture involves citing one or more salutary remixed
works, but I’m going to be contrarian and start off with a
particularly inane example: director Zack Snyder’s use of Wagner’s
“Ride of the Valkyries” as background to a Vietnam War sequence in his
film version of Watchmen. Tom Service, the classical music
critic for the Guardian, blogged
about it
last week, making the connection with Francis Ford
Coppola’s famous use of the piece in Apocalypse Now, and, I
think, rather misguidedly complimenting Watchmen for a
similarly trenchant use of the piece. Service was pretty handily
pilloried in the comments for his suspect characterization of Wagner’s
original Valkyries, but one
commenter
cut to the quick of the larger
point:

Personally, I doubt Zac Snyder has ever heard of
Wagner or The Ride of the Valkyries. It’s just that helicopter piece
from Apocalypse Now, innit?

Now, I don’t know how much
Wagner Snyder does or doesn’t know–though I’d bet he didn’t sit down
with Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft. But at the very least, it’s
fair to say that, thanks to increasingly available modes of
distribution, the number of people who have seen the “Valkyries” scene
from Apocalypse Now vastly outnumbers those people who have
actually seen the entire movie, and that group probably vastly
outnumbers those who have seen the entire movie in a movie
theater
, as Coppola originally intended. For most viewers,
Snyder’s use of “Ride of the Valkyries” is a reference to a reference,
and a fairly contextually disconnected reference at
that.

Again, this is kind of a worst-case scenario, and I’m not
trying to condemn remix culture. But I think there’s a lesson for the
way contemporary RW culture transforms the RO culture it’s using.
Coppola’s use of Wagner is a gloss, but a fairly sophisticated one. (A
while ago, I got
into it
at length.) Snyder’s use of it strikes me as a more
one-dimensional moment of semiotic recognition–comparatively less of
Wagner’s mythology is in aesthetic play. And I think that’s a
universal phenomenon: as cultural artifacts are more easily accessed,
there’s a certain amount of contextual impoverishment that comes with
it–maybe not inevitably, but that is the path of least
resistance.

Here’s another way of thinking about it. I spent
most of yesterday sitting at the piano practicing. That sort of
performance–taking music on the page and realizing it–is, in one way,
an exemplar of RW culture. But, of course, there’s a fair amount of
work that goes into it. (Which is why I have to practice.) In
technological terms, sheet music is an extremely lossy compression
format, and it takes an awful lot of contextual and algorithmic
knowledge to convert it into something aesthetically usable. Digital
video and audio, on the other hand are, by comparison, virtually
lossless, and can be converted into something aesthetically usable
with almost no knowledge of either context or the needed algorithm.
It’s almost an inverse relationship–digital culture gets rid of the
generational loss in sound and picture quality, but in a way,
introduces a generational loss in context.

I will reiterate
that I’m not trying to portray contemporary remix culture as good or
bad–like any format/medium/practice, the results can be both. (In
certain circumstances, the mass accessibility of culture can
force originality–as Paul Schrader once said about movies,
“Before video, it was a lot easier to knock things off because no one
had seen them.”) But I am suggesting that the analogy that Lessig
makes with Sousa’s RW culture–amateur singing societies and the
like–is nowhere near as solid as he would have us believe.
Post-digital RW culture is vastly different than what’s come before.
(This is, for example, why my BS meter started blinking on page 104,
when Lessig calls sampling “a modern equivalent to jazz”–without
taking anything away from sampling or jazz, that’s stretching the
category beyond the point where I find it has useful
meaning.)

The remixed cultural artifacts I find rewarding range
from the sublime (Jonathan Lapper’s superb “Frames of
Reference,”
or film critic Jim Emerson’s inspired 2007
10 Best List
) to the ridiculous (DJ Party Ben’s “Single Ladies (in
Mayberry),”
which still makes me laugh harder than an essentially
one-note joke probably should). In fact, I would say that, for me at
least, the best remixes are the aesthetic equivalent of a well-told
joke, which is not to say that they need be funny, nor should that be
read as a backhanded compliment–I have a great appreciation for
well-told jokes. But it’s indicative of the conceptual nature of
remixes–as the art form stands now, I respond more to the skill and
cleverness with which the concept is executed than to any transcendent
artistic purpose. An example: Kutiman’s much-celebrated YouTube
mash-up Thru-You“The Mother of All
Funk Chords”
is technically amazing, but independent of
its concept, is it musically on par with, say, the Famous Flames or
Parliament/Funkadelic in their prime? Not really. Given the nature of
its construction, should we hold it to that aesthetic standard? If
not, what becomes of that aesthetic standard?

Where this ties
back into Lessig’s argument, I think, is that his bias towards RW
culture–you can almost hear him gritting his teeth whenever he tries
to say something nice about RO culture–leads him to gloss over the
fact that the hybrid economy he describes, at least to my reading,
significantly disincentivizes the creation of new RO culture.
(If Strong Incentives Will Increasingly Drive Commercial Entities to
Hybrids, as the heading on p. 228 puts it, then RO culture will
increasingly only be economically rewarded in as much as it can be
remixed.) If all culture starts to take place “Within the Context of
No Context” (in W.S. Trow’s noted formulation),
that’s a significant change, both aesthetically and economically, from
the pre-digital framework that Lessig references. But that’s probably
another post.

Comments

  1. I think you’ve hit on the central conceit that troubles most of us who’ve spent time with RO culture (or “culture,” as we usually call it) when we read this book. Lessig argues that remixing is going to become both the dominant form of communicating, the “writing” I referred to in my post, and that it’s artistic expression. I think a lot of us view remixing mainly as intelligent use of tools, and intrinsically different from making music, i.e., the piano-practice you describe. Lessig might argue – and sort of does, when it comes to jazz – that your piano-playing is also nothing more than an intelligent use of tools, but I think the computer and editing software that’s available has many more uses than, say, a piano, and it’s therefore different in kind, and not just degree.

  2. 1. I agree entirely about Watchmen. And whether or not the director, Synder, is a Wagner fan, that moment was certainly far more about, if not entirely about, Apocalypse Now, and not about the material’s original context. I just took it as a wink, more than anything — a wink that wasn’t particularly deserved, because it was so easy (though, for what it’s worth, I didn’t enjoy the film — it entirely dropped the meta quality that made the book special, and everything about fascistic superheroes that the book critiqued the movie seemed to celebrate … but that’s for another book club). All of which said, the Coppola film with the most concerted effort to present opera thoroughly was also the worst of the three Godfather films — so it’s not like his knowledge necessarily worked to his advantage.
    2. Speaking of easy … Remixing — that is, working with appropriated materials — is no more or less easy than strumming a guitar. And when it’s done truly well, when it’s pushing the medium and serving to develop new techniques, it requires intense practice, training and experimentation. I recommend checking out the interviews at Red Bull Music Academy, which has done a great service interviewing tons of DJs, producers, and musicians. To hear the Bomb Squad talk about the way they worked with tape loops in the production of the early Public Enemy records is really inspiring.

  3. Marc: I certainly didn’t mean to imply that remixing is technically easy, or even conceptually easy, especially when it’s at its best (Mixmaster Mike’s work on Paul’s Boutique is always my favorite touchstone for rebuking naysayers). The difference I was getting at, particularly with amateur remix culture, might be expressed as how much ownership the remixer necessarily takes of the source material.
    Classical music has been adjusting to this for some time now—the fact that learning an instrument is no longer a standard part of public education. So I sometimes think about how that analogizes and plays out in pop and related musics; even basic scratching techniques, once a fair technical tour-de-force when working with vinyl and turntables, is now largely a matter of a mouse click. On the one hand, it opens up the technique to many more creative efforts; on the other hand, those people never acquire the physical nature of that type of music-making, much as has happened with traditional instruments. That’s a big part of the context that I think technology has made unnecessary. I’ll admit that I think that’s a bad thing—the music I love always has a very strong relationship to physical, real-world music-making—but I also know that’s very possibly the bias of my own experience. Still, I don’t think Lessig considers much the implications of that change—especially as it relates to the relationship between professional and amateur culture.

  4. By the way: in demonstrating that de-contextualization is something that technology accelerates, but didn’t create, PWS’s rant against quoting the Dies irae is not un-germane.

  5. Party Ben says:

    Fascinating discussion, and thanks for the props on my little mashup. But I really disagree — I think that “sampling” or “remixing” really is a question of degree, and that’s the crux of the whole issue: where does one–a critic, a musician, the law–draw the line? It’s somewhat amusing to me that the visual arts seem to have wrestled with, and solved, this problem long ago: context is everything, and the recontextualization of a urinal or a Campbell’s Soup can creates an entirely new work. Of course, the “perfect copy” issue does complicate things: when a work is, in its entirety, a digital file, how much different does the “copy” have to be to qualify as a recontextualization? Unfortunately, the issue of file-sharing does get all mixed up in this, and while they share some overlap, they really are different, separate questions: should everything be free on the internet, and “What is art?” To me, part of the appreciation of sample-based music comes in appreciation of finding and using the sample, just as much as it does in the skill of the producer. Witness Madcon’s “Beggin,” it’s really just a Four Seasons song but they “uncovered” it. I’m not saying that my admittedly rather silly “Single Ladies (In Mayberry)” should be considered in the same breath as Warhol, but that perhaps some mashups should, and that creating an arbitrary boundary between works of art by how much of a sample is used seems like a step backwards. On the issue of whether sample-based music somehow causes “real” music to go away, that is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. On the contrary, the evidence is that sampling creates new forms of performance: hip-hop wasn’t considered “real art” when it began in the late 70s and early 80s, but now we realize that skillful manipulation of turntables and impressive rap skills are both serious talents. Did hip-hop’s use of sampling discourage kids from picking up saxophones? Perhaps, or perhaps it was the other way around. Either way, it _encouraged_ kids to pick up microphones. Beware of equating the eternally shifting trends of music with “loss” of “real culture!”
    More than anything though, while Lessig’s division of culture into RO and RW is perhaps useful at this point in history, since RW culture is so marginalized, these categories are of course fallacies, just like the idea of “race.” We call people “black” and “white” because of our cultural history, but it’s always good to remember that all people are really just varying shades of brown.

  6. Party Ben: Thanks for stopping by!
    I’m with you on most everything, actually. The one place we diverge is whether remix culture causes other culture to go away, although I would hope that I never would be so snobbish as to make a division between “real” and “fake” culture—all culture is real, so long as it’s out there. (My snobbishness has plenty of other viable outlets.) Like you say, some mashups should be considered in the same breath as Warhol, perhaps—as with any medium, there’ll be a few great works, a few truly hideous works, and a vast swath of mediocre works. But I think there’s some validity to the RO/RW framework, even if the edges are blurry.
    And within that framework, I do think that sampling/remixing does have the potential to enervate some other artistic forms—not by virtue of the remixing itself, but by virtue of how companies and markets and governments react to it. Here’s what I mean (and this is all still a little sketchy, I’m trying my best to think through it before this book club thing is over): what little prescription Lessig offers is for a regulatory/IP framework that privileges RW culture. In the short term, that would fulfill the needed correction to our current outmoded IP model. But what about in the long term?
    I’ve been thinking about the relationship between this whole question and the branch of economics known as New Growth Theory, which deals with knowledge and innovation (you’re exactly right about the complicating factor of the “perfect copy”—in economic terms, it makes cultural artifacts kind of non-rival goods, a big concern in New Growth Theory). One of the ideas in the Theory has to do with “path dependence,” the assertion that pre-existing conditions can have as much, or more effect on economic development as the supposedly efficient free market. My instinct is that there’s a regulatory framework that promotes both RO and RW innovation, but I’m not sure what it looks like. And one of the cautionary lessons to be drawn from New Growth Theory, if I’ve made the analogy correctly, seems to be that neither is sustainable on its own. You may be right that the future (or even the present, with sufficient hindsight) holds a culture in which a division between RO and RW is meaningless, and I can imagine that as a pretty healthy cultural ecosystem indeed. But I’m not convinced that either Lessig’s or the free market’s priorities will get us there.

  7. Great post, Matthew. I love this:
    “as cultural artifacts are more easily accessed, there’s a certain amount of contextual impoverishment that comes with it… It’s almost an inverse relationship–digital culture gets rid of the generational loss in sound and picture quality, but in a way, introduces a generational loss in context.”
    Brilliant.
    Now, about this:
    “…as the art form stands now, I respond more to the skill and cleverness with which the concept is executed than to any transcendent artistic purpose. Kutiman’s much-celebrated YouTube mash-up Thru-You–”The Mother of All Funk Chords” is technically amazing, but independent of its concept, is it musically on par with, say, the Famous Flames or Parliament/Funkadelic in their prime? Not really. Given the nature of its construction, should we hold it to that aesthetic standard? If not, what becomes of that aesthetic standard?”
    Whose standard? What standard? Kutiman’s work stands on its own– as a multimedia creation in which the video is as important as the audio– just as P-Funk’s music stands on its own as… music. Okay, live on stage, as a multimedia experience as well, but for the sake of this argument we’re talking about digital media.
    I think that a lot of mash-ups, remixes, and uses of source material do offer a transcendent artistic purpose. Just as with Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup can, Reich’s “Different Trains,” Eno and Byrne’s “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,” Cornell’s boxes (thanks for mentioning him, Marc W. and Chris B.), and a gazillion other examples from long before all this digital mayhem, that which was formerly mundane is put into a completely new context, causing us to be aware of something that we had not before noticed. That’s a pretty cool thing for art to accomplish.
    Introspection, consideration, and a reexamination of stimuli are high on the list of what might define art to be important. Beethoven does it to me. Apparently, so does Kutiman. I love seeing the emotional vulnerability of the people in the [presumably] amateur offerings he knits together in “I’m New” ( http://thru-you.com/#/videos/3/ ). It made me think. It’s about much more than the music. It’s about more than the fabulous tech skills and patience it took to create the video. It’s about the human condition.

  8. I just want to throw in that Cornell was certainly cognizant of ongoing developments in the visual arts (Warhol did visit him in his home on Utopia Parkway) and popular culture. But for me, his boxes reflect an intense interior life. They are windows or maps (sometimes literally!) into the wellspring of his personal obsessions. And I don’t look at his work the same way I hear a lot of the musician names we’re dropping throughout this discussion.
    The “emotional vulnerability” that Alex refers to is something that you don’t get with your typical (and now frankly ubiquitous) “mash up.” Maybe we all know that but I thought it needed to be said.
    And are Alex and I the only one’s over 40 participating in this discussion? I actually grew up with vinyl and no Internet! Imagine!

  9. I haven’t been reading the book along with you folks; I’m cheating and getting the abridged version here. Isn’t this a form of remixing? Recontextualizing? I’m not reading the book (and I shouldn’t be reading this blog!) because I’m working on my dissertation, which makes me think: what is a dissertation, if not a remix of a bunch of other people’s ideas? Sure there’s some original thought in there, but it’s spurred on by these other things — which, of course, are also remixes of other people’s ideas. When have we not had a remixing culture?
    Molly adds: Hi Andrea! Sorry we’re keeping you from your studies, but glad you’re here. Lessig actually uses that comparison as an early point: we quote in writing, writing in the 21st century is about more than words, and so we should be able to “quote” film and audio and such with the same liberties. Or at least that’s the distillation I walked away with.

  10. “I think that a lot of mash-ups, remixes, and uses of source material do offer a transcendent artistic purpose.”
    Just to clarify, I agree with Alex, but I myself don’t experience that transcendence all that often when this technique is used. Again, I’m speaking as a composer who has used and continues to use the techniques being discussed throughout this thread.
    There is an art to creating that transcendence…and you don’t hear it every day. You DO hear a lot of rip offs. And I’m not referring necessarily to the actual “samples” when I say that…

  11. Mr. Becker, sweetie, you don’t have to be over 40 in order to have grown up with vinyl and without the internet.

  12. Just to amplify Andrea’s comment, you can also be “over 40″ (I’m 42) and have fooled around on modem-connected bulletin boards when you were still a teenager (not to mention been wowed by the tape loops of the Beatles or Steve Reich, and the studio-intensive concoctions of so many other musicians).
    To loosely paraphrase William Gibson, the future’s been here for a while; it’s just, finally, being more evenly distributed. Dealing with the ramifications of that distribution is the subject of Remix.

  13. “To loosely paraphrase William Gibson, the future’s been here for a while; it’s just, finally, being more evenly distributed.”
    You kids! I truly do not mean to sound “holier than thou” (or older and wiser than thou) but the fact is most of the planet isn’t downloading, file sharing, or “remixing” anything. They’re just trying to survive.
    Almost half the world — over three billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day.
    But I understand Lessig’s various points have ramifications for those trying to make the world a better place to live. Now us artists do this very naturally – I truly believe that. But as hard as it is, it’s important to have some perspective on who the technology itself currently serves and who is completely left behind.

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