In the first part of New Visions for the Book, I described how the concept of the book is being used as a strategic power tool to argue for a certain knowledge system. I tried to show how within this discourse certain essentialist notions—such as authorship, stability, and authority—still hold a lot of prestige and are hard to discard. In the subsequent parts of New Visions for the Book I therefore want to take a few expeditions outside the world of the scholarly book to look at the way other disciplines and other media have struggled with or have come to terms with the above mentioned notions. I want to start with looking at the concept of remix, engaged with mostly in music and art theory but increasingly a concept applied to describe and analyse culture at large. Here I want to focus on two thinkers who have extensively theorized remix: Eduardo Navas and Lev Manovich. After taking an in depth look at Navas work on remix first, I will explore Manovich’s thoughts on the subject in the next post, contrasting it with Navas’s ideas. Finally, I will explore what the consequences of their thoughts and their analysis of remix are for the scholarly book, the knowledge order it stands for and the concepts it reifies.
Eduardo Navas is a researcher and an artist with an interdisciplinary practice, a crossover between art, culture and media. Remix can however be seen as the overarching theme of his work. Remix Theory is the name of his blog, where he posts his own essays and articles on remix, and where he also ‘host(s), archive(s) and promote(s) projects which explore the current possibilities of Remix online and offline’. I will reflect on some of his writings as published on Remix Theory, predominantly on Regressive and Reflexive Mashups in Sampling Culture, Remix: The Bond of Repetition and Representation, and After the Blogger as Producer.
Navas analyses the concept of remix from a historical materialist perspective. According to Navas it is necessary to explore the history and development of remix to understand the dialects at play within remix. He describes how the concept of remix was derived from the model of musical remixes in the late 60s and 70s with roots in Jamaica. The musical remix then expanded through hiphop DJs via versions, turntablism, sampling and the practice of cut n’paste. According to Navas remix culture only came about with the coming of digital technologies: ‘Generally speaking, remix culture can be defined as the global activity consisting of the creative and efficient exchange of information made possible by digital technologies that is supported by the practice of cut/copy and paste.’ The concept of remix, which Navas defines as ‘the activity of taking samples from pre-existing materials to combine them into new forms according to personal taste’ has thus been extended to other areas of culture. New Media and the Internet are for example based on the concept of sampling (cut/copy & paste ).
Navas descibes how remix has as an allegorical function. This allegorical function enables it to be a critical reflection on history and society. Navas distinguishes four main types of remix, which more or less developed chronologically: the extended remixi, the selective remixii, the reflexive remixiii and the regenerative remixiv. Although not all in an equal manner, these four types of remix all rely on the allegorical function. They reference history; they rely for their authority on the sources they cite, even if they claim autonomy:
“Allegory is often deconstructed in more advanced remixes following this third form, and quickly moves to be a reflexive exercise that at times leads to a ‘remix’ in which the only thing that is recognizable from the original is the title. But, to be clear ‘no matter what’ the remix will always rely on the authority of the original song.When this activity is extended to culture at large, the remix is in the end a re-mix, that is a rearrangement of something already recognizable; it functions at a second level: a meta-level. This implies that the originality of the remix is non-existent, therefore it must acknowledge its source of validation self-reflexively. In brief, the remix when extended as a cultural practice is a second mix of something pre-existent; the material that is mixed at least for a second time must be recognized otherwise it could be misunderstood as something new, and it would become plagiarism. Without a history, the remix cannot be Remix.”1
For Navas remix is an active force which originated as a critical discourse from an outsider position. He describes remix in music in the shape of the DJ as a form of resistance. He draws upon Jacques Attali‘s concepts of repetition and representation and on Attali’s claim of how repetition (brought about by the possibility of mechanical reproduction) functioned as a force that took over representation in music and became the power tool of commercialism and the culture industry to enslave the artist. Repetition became ideology. Navas critiques Attali by showing how the DJ was able to turn repetition into an active force again. The DJ caused a rupture in the culture industry, Navas states, disrupting repetition and reintroducing representation with agency. Navas makes clear that the DJ was able to take back this critical position with the use of remix and by being able to reclaim the production tools (for instance Navas shows how this accessibility was pivotal in the development of Dub). The same development can be seen in the rise of blogging as a critical (remix) practice, and the potential of the blogger as a producer of information, independent from the vested publishing channels and institutions. Navas states: ‘Representation, then, is repeated in a perfect loop—the result is a constant remix of repetition by representation.’ However, Navas goes on to show how this form of resistance is soon again seized and incorporated by commercial parties. When this happens remixes are no longer critical but become part of consumer culture. This is where Navas claims, borrowing the term form Adorno, they become regressive.
“To be clear, then, what the DJ initially brought forward is the appropriation of repetition by representation; thereby making representation friendly to repetition. Thus, representation does not resist co-option by repetition; if anything, today it is optimized for assimilation, by being constantly reblogged (remixed). What does this signify for cultural production? How can we reflect on the contentions of such shift?”2
In this way, next to being a potential for critique, next to being reflexive, as Navas states, remix can also be regressive. It has a ‘double face’. For Navas however it is essential to keep the loop alive, to keep on taking and producing this critical position to battle the forces of repetition which give people ‘false comfort’. We need to confront this false-consciousness by taking in a critical position, to enable ‘a constant flux between representation and repetition’.
But this constant battle with the forces of repetition and commercialisation is not the only problem Navas is struggling with concerning remix as a critical discourse. Another problem has to do with (the development of) remix itself. Increasingly the allegorical (and thus critical) function of remix is marginalized. Navas makes this clear by his discussion of reflexive mashups, an example of what he calls the fourth kind of remix, the regenerative remix. In the regenerative remix, updates are made constantly, for example by the use of software that also creates a well-organised archive, as with the example given by Navas: Google News. Here allegory is no longer the main function, but functionalism and efficiency are. Regenerative remixes are (at least initially) proposed to serve as convenient and efficient forms to stay informed rather than to be entertained. This development too has its benefits:
“The principle of periodic change, of constant updates (i.e. Google news are regularly updated) found in the Regenerative Remix makes it the most recent and important form that enables Remix as discourse to move across all media, and to eventually become an aesthetic that can be referenced as a tendency. Nevertheless, even in this fourth form, allegory is at play—only it is pushed to the periphery.”3
As it is automated however, reflexive mashups increasingly seem to loose their critical power. Partially to this is the problem of the lack of ‘agency’ in reflexive mashups. Where for Navas authorship has been replaced by sampling—’Sampling allows for the death of the author’—and the critical position in remix is taking in by s/he who selects, this stance becomes increasingly problematic once remix is automated. How are we to regain this critical power in the real-time web and without the fixed position or identity of s/he who selects?
Navas touches upon an important point here where when allegory and authorship are pushed to the borders, critical reflection becomes a challenge:
“The concept of critical distance, which has been used by researchers and intellectuals to step back and analyze the world, is redefined by the Regenerative Remix. This shift is beyond anyone’s control, because the flow of information demands that individuals embed themselves within the actual space of critique, and use constant updating as a critical tool.”4
As Navas shows, the regenerative remix is focussed on creating efficiencies in the ever-present, in the constantly changing now. It however still needs its archive, or history, as a legitimation device. The ability to search the archive of the regenerative remix gives the regenerative remix both its reliability as well as its market value, Navas argues.
Navas trows out a few extra life-lines to cope with this situation. First of all, in order to get more grip on these fluctuations, he looks at postcolonial identity politics, mostly at Homi Bhabha‘s concept of liminal space ‘where identity is constantly defined, where one is neither one nor the other, where one is both and neither; where a third space to gain autonomy can begin to take place’. He uses the marxism of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri to criticise Bhabha’s position, where they state his position leads to undecidability. Although Navas concludes these positions mostly seem to clash, he also sees them both as integral and complementary aspects of the project of Critical Theory, they are ‘mutually intertwined’. For Navas is interested in how agency in the end does occur from this liminal position and from a culture that is in a constant state of flux, on ‘a feedback loop from the periphery to the center’. For Navas, even from within the liminal space, their remains the option to take in a critical position, to break through the undecidability:
“With these contradictions on trying to take control of the tools of production, what one can find in Bhabha’s proposition of searching for agency within the threshold is that, even when one has been pushed to the margins, and is not there by choice, one can actually do something productive within this space. One can actually take control of the tools available if one figures out how to do that.”5
A second life-line looks not so much at the problem of hybrid and fluid agency but at how to deal with culture that is in a constant state of renewal and real-time updates. Drawing on the example of the regenerative remix mentioned above, Navas looks at the idea of the archive to give legitimacy to fluidity retrospectively. By recording information, it becomes meta-information, information that is, as Navas states, static, it is available when needed and always in the same form. And this recorded state, this staticity of information retrospectively, is what makes theory and philosophical thinking possible, Navas claims:
“The archive, then, legitimates constant updates allegorically. The database becomes a delivery device of authority in potentia: when needed, call upon it to verify the reliability of accessed material; but until that time, all that is needed is to know that such archive exists. But there is another face of the coin: the database, which is played down in the front pages, is actually extremely crucial for search engines. Here the archive becomes the field of knowledge to be accessed; it is the archeological ground to be explored by sophisticated researchers and lay-people alike. It is a truly egalitarian space, which provides answers to all queries possible.”6
But again, the archive is easily commercialized too. The data we collect is harvested by Google and our databases are predominantly build up on social media sites. This has lead to an increasing rise of information flow control:
“At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is evident that the Regenerative Remix is defining the next economic shift. Remix culture is experiencing a moment in which greater freedom of expression is mashed up against increasingly efficient forms of analysis and control.”7
As Navas however states, with the coming of the regenerative remix, remix moves beyond basic remix principles, and a rupture develops which enables new forms of cultural production. The potential of the regenerative remix is a strong one for Navas, where it ‘mirrors while it also redefines culture itself as a discourse of constant change.’ And for Navas this movement of culture is then a movement between the centre and the periphery, between repetition and agency. Music (or culture) is always in a constant state of change to create progression. However, to thrive and evolve, culture needs to dwell on the threshold.
i A longer version of the original song containing long instrumental sections making it more mixable for the club DJ. (reference: remix defined)
ii Adding or subtracting material from the original song. (reference: reflexive and regressive)
iii Allegorizes and extends the aesthetic of sampling, where the remixed version challenges the aura of the original and claims autonomy even when it carries the name of the original; material is added or deleted, but the original tracks are largely left intact to be recognizable. (reference: reflexive and regressive)
iv A recombination of content and form that opens the space for Remix to become a specific discourse intimately linked with new media culture. The Regenerative Remix can only take place when constant change is implemented as an elemental part of communication, while also creating archives. (reference: reflexive and regressive)