OPEN REFLECTIONS

New Visions for the Book II: Remix

Part 3: Remix re-examined

See here for part 1 and here for part 2

Navas’s and Manovich’s thinking on remix seem to complement each other nicely. Where Navas analyses remix as discourse from a historical context, taking into account power-relations and the wider societal context shaping and triggering the rise of remix, Manovich takes a deep leap into the future, trying to think a world in which remix and the free flow of information through meta-media have become ubiquitous. He explores what this will mean for the way we produce, consume and analyse culture. Navas shows how remix has been an active force for change in the past, Manovich wants to explore how remix can still be an active stance to shape culture in the future. Both of them introduce the problem of fluidity and time and what this means for our (print-based) object-oriented society based on repetition of well-defined objects created by specific authors. Navas looks at the archive as a means to capture and stabilize cultural fluidity whilst at the same time creating reliability. Manovich looks at the way we can work with modularized recombinable data-sets to structure and control information flows. Both of them struggle with the dilemma of object-like thinking within a fluid environment. For both of them remix is or has become the defining characteristic of our digital culture.

Open Books

The dilemma’s Navas and Manovich touch-upon in their writing on culture at large can be directly related to our thinking surrounding the book and/or the future of our knowledge and communication system within academia. As Deleuze and Guattari argue in A Thousand Plateaus, a book is an assemblage, a multiplicity, it only exists in its connections. The paradox lies in the fact that a book can at the same time be seen as an organism as well as a body without organs, with neither a subject nor an object, as pure becoming:

A book is an assemblage of this kind, and as such is unattributable. It is a multiplicity—but we don’t know yet what the multiple entails when it is no longer attributed, that is, after it has been elevated to the status of a substantive.”1

This very well captures the dilemma between a more closed off and object-oriented thinking of the book and a more fluid, open thinking of the book as a network of relations, making contact on and through the outside. The metaphor of remix and the influence of remix culture and theory on the way we look at the book is thus an interesting one. What happens with the order of the book as we embrace this more open thinking of the book as becoming, without a stable core, no fixed author and a yet unknown system of authority? The question is whether it is still useful in the digital age to think of the book—and our knowledge system based upon it—as a stable object and whether it is possible (and necessary!) to look at the book more as an object of possibilities, a fluid moment of potentiality and becoming. And this is where remix theory comes in handy, trying to think exactly what it means when objects increasingly become bodies without organs and only exist in their connections to each other.

The importance of Navas analysis of remix for the book and the knowledge system we have created around it, lies in the way he tries to cope with the problems of stability and authorship. Navas discusses three partway solutions that are, as I feel, of direct interest for scholarly communication and its battle with these notions in the digital age. First of all he explores the archive as a way of both stabilizing flow and creating a form of authority out of flux and continual updating. Next to that he proposes the role of s/he who selects (or curates or moderates) as an alternative for the author. In a way one can argue that this model of agency is already quite akin to scholarly communication, where selection of resources and referring to other sources, next to collection building, is part of the research and writing process of most scholars. Finally Navas tries to explore an alternative means of critique based on a fluctuating identity and culture that tries to resist commercialization by staying on the liminal threshold; one based on seizing the production tools, and on seizing control over repetition by means of representation. And Manovich argues for a similar potential, the potential of culture (and in this respect knowledge) creators to modularise data and make it adaptable within multiple media and various platforms, mirroring scientific developments with standardized meta-data and the semantic web. These are all interesting steps beyond thinking ‘the book’ status-quo, challenging scientific thinking to embrace process, sharing, and letting go of idealized ideas of authorship that can stand in the way of true creativity. Navas does an interesting job in starting to deconstruct them, to show how they increasingly become problematic in todays remix culture brought about by the possibilities of digital media.

But in many ways Navas (as well as Manovich) runs up against what seem to be the borders of this more process-oriented thinking. His alternative options are equally still very much connected to stability: the archive is needed to objectify culture; selection is another form of agency and does not (fundamentally) do away with authorship; and an alternative form of critique is still a critique focused on agency and on a (stabilized) object, on a structure of control. The question of keeping an archive also becomes increasingly problematic when objects become dispersed amongst various platforms. How do we keep track of an object or of data once it goes viral? And what about the role of the selector when selections can be made redundant, choices can be altered and undone by mass-collaborative, multi-user remixes and mash-ups? In what way are the solutions Navas and Manovich offer only temporary solutions to cope with a world that is and always has been in flux and is now increasingly unstoppable in all its fluid manifestations? In what way might it be necessary to let go of this object-like thinking and to start theorizing a perception of culture, science and critique that lets go of these fixed frames of thought and immerses the real of eternal becoming? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to perceive culture as a fluidity from which we abstract objects for the sake of analysis and clarity, instead of seeing culture as being build up out of separate building blocks and recombinable data-modules? Isn’t it time to start thinking a knowledge and communication system based on continual updates and change, without a stable core, both as its object and subject? And is this even possible? In what way does the concept of the open book present us with a paradox in this respect?

Performative inflections

Remix Theory and many remix theorists (like for example Navas, Manovich, Lawrence Lessig, Paul Miller a.k.a DJ Spooky, Mark Amerika) have one more important aspect in common. Many of them experiment with different kinds of remix-practices themselves. In many ways their work poses a challenge to the often perceived dichotomy between theory and practice. Navas remixes his older writings, updates them and uses various media (amongst others film) to bring his message across. By using a blog as his main outlet he connects to other thinkers and consumers. On his blog he also acts as a curator or selector, bringing together other texts on remix. Furthermore he practices an interdisciplinary practice mixing his theoretical writing with his curatorial and art practices concerning remix. In Navas words:

Remix Theory is designed to move towards a remix of itself, by recombining much of the material that is archived to put to test the possibilities of Remix. This will become transparent as the database grows, and specific projects are developed. The site is designed to host, archive and promote projects which explore the current possibilities of Remix online and offline; it is prepared to become a repository of collaborations with different people and institutions.”2

Manovich approach to his work in many ways mirrors software production. He brings out various versions of his work, unedited, and in many ways “unfinished”, waiting for feedback from the community after/from which they can subsequently be updated. His books can also clearly be seen as a remix of his various articles. Furthermore his scientific method can be seen as one in which media and methods from the hard sciences get mixed up and applied to ‘traditional’ humanities subjects within his cultural analytics framework.

Remixing knowledge

What is so interesting about remix for academic knowledge production, consumption and dissemination? I see remix as an exciting way to initiate a ‘thinking beyond the book’. Digital texts and books contain the potential to transform our knowledge system or the way we think and relate to knowledge. This ‘thinking beyond the book’ is not something that only became possible with the rise of the digital. It has always been part of the way we have envisaged and constructed our knowledge system.  There are however some ‘knowledge practices’ we have adopted and grown accustomed to, such as authorship, stability and authority. Digital and online media offer the potential to increasingly critique these notions where thinking a knowledge system beyond these notions increasingly seems to become a practical reality. Remix is a liminal concept in this way; it stands on the border of these customary ways of thinking. It shakes them up. It poses a potential crisis.

Remix Theory can be seen as a new way to critically think the potentiality of the book, as a way to think beyond the book, as a strategy to explore its multiple potentialities, to challenge established notions like stability, identity and materiality that are all bound up with (printed) books and at the same time with our current conception and practice of knowledge.

Remix is a cultural and a political phenomenon, it can be seen as a resistance against essentialisms. It can be used as means to critique the essentialist doctrines at work within the Humanities. Remix Theory can be a framework to question issues of authorship, stability, authority and originality within these disciplines and within science at large, just as much as it has been a framework to question these in for example music, art and poetry. Finally, the way it mixes theory and practical methodology, and the way it mixes media can be seen as both a commentary on and an inspiration for the (digital) humanities. And although, as I have argued before, it does not fundamentally challenge or alter these concepts, it is a (necessary) step in the right direction, towards a more fluid conception of the humanities.

 

1 See: Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

2 See: http://remixtheory.net/?page_id=2

 

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