New Visions for the Book II: Remix

Part 2 – Lev Manovich

Lev Manovich is a professor of Visual Arts, at the University of California, San Diego, specialized in new media, software and digital culture. Manovich directs the The Software Studies Initiative where he practices cultural analytics. Similar to Navas, he has theorized and applied the concept of remix frequently in his papers and books. However, although at some points overlapping, Manovich position on remix differs in specific ways from Navas’s where his focus seems to lie more on the functional possibilities of remix than on the dialectical power structures that have surrounded and triggered remix. In his article ‘remixability’ (2005) Manovich explores Dybwad’s concept of collaborative remixability, which is build upon the aspects of shareability and recombinable information and media. Manovich mostly focusses on the way both the production and the consumption (and analysis) of culture has changed with the coming of new media. Through the development of software, remix has become a common condition for our digital culture. Symptomatic to remix culture is the introduction of the time-aspect. As Manovich states there are no longer senders and receivers of information in the classical sense, they are only temporary ‘reception points’ in information’s path through remix. The concept of modularity is also important in Manovich’s writing on remix, where he sketches an utopian future in which culture would function as Lego-blocks:

Will the separation between libraries of samples and “authentic” cultural works blur in the future? Will the future cultural forms be deliberately made from discrete samples designed to be copied and incorporated into other projects? It is interesting to imagine a cultural ecology where all kinds of cultural objects regardless of the medium or material are made from Lego-like building blocks. The blocks come with complete information necessary to easily copy and paste them in a new object – either by a human or machine. A block knows how to couple with other blocks – and it even can modify itself to enable such coupling. The block can also tell the designer and the user about its cultural history – the sequence of historical borrowings which led to the present form. And if original Lego (or a typical twentieth century housing project) contains only a few kinds of blocks that make all objects one can design with Lego rather similar in appearance, computers can keep track of unlimited number of different blocks. At least, they can already keep track of all the possible samples we can pick from all cultural objects available today.”1

With this quite instrumental vision of culture, Manovich seems to disregard the tension that is created in ‘remix as discourse’ which Navas so eagerly defends. Furthermore on the one hand Manovich claims to let go of the idea of culture as finalized objects (using the metaphor of information running like a stream of water down a mountain, branching out in an immense variety of interconnected streams) but at the same time he does stress the importance of modular blocks of data culture, thereby in a way holding on to the same essentialist notions he tries to deconstruct, only on another scale. He does not find a way out of this object-like thinking although he suggests to do so: ‘In this scenario, any well-defined part of any finished cultural object can automatically become a building block for new objects in the same medium’ This triggers the question: Is an object finished when it at the same time constitutes a building block for another object? Manovich plays with more of these paradoxes in his thinking, for instance where he makes a plea for standardisation of culture via modularity whilst at the same time leaving space for diversity: In other words, if pre-computer modularity leads to repetition and reduction, post-computer modularity can produce unlimited diversity.

Modular ecology

Many of Manovich ideas devised from his ‘look from the future’ as he calls it, can be seen as honourable convictions focussed on ‘helping bits move around more easily‘. This ecology in which remix and modularity are reality is a method for Manovich to devise a new way with which we can perform cultural analysis. Nonetheless, although standardisation as a strategy and a means to make culture more free and shareable is a goal worth pursuing, by not targeting the context surrounding cultural production and consumption, Manovich neglects the political and economic conditions that for a large part confine and determine the possibility of sharing. In this respect his approach seems a bit naïve. The problem of copyright for instance hardly gets touched upon in his writings on remix. He seems to ignore the fact that the Internet and digital media are no free playing grounds but are for a large part defined by proprietary cultural entities and interests.

Manovich sees a lot of potential for the Internet (as Navas does) where it, as he states, has put the production tools in the hands of the prosumers: ‘ Culture has always been about remixability – but now this remixability is available to all participants of Internet culture.’ But is it actually that easy? Is there more freedom to culture in the digital realm? Although we might now have more control with respect to the production tools, as Navas has made clear we are still immersed in platforms that control our data flows and feed off the data we produce. At what price does the possibility of remixability really come about and in what way and from which perspective should we look at it as a liberating force? Manovich does however not completely ignore problems of power-relations and copyright. In ‘What comes after remix‘ he remarks:

Yet we are left with an interesting paradox: while in the realm of commercial music remixing is officially accepted, in other cultural areas it is seen as violating the copyright and therefore as stealing. So while filmmakers, visual artists, photographers, architects and Web designers routinely remix already existing works, this is not openly admitted, and no proper terms equivalent to remixing in music exist to describe these practices.”2

But although he does mention these issues he does not seem to draw the consequences of these circumstances for the possibility of his larger theory. Manovich does not fundamentally debate remix in a critical contextual manner, although he does define it in his book Software Takes Command as being ‘the cultural logic of global capitalism’. This lack of a critical approach mainly has to do with the fact that Manovich wants to look beyond the present situation and power structures to a possible utopian remix future. As he states, he is more interested in showing how software has enhanced the possibility of blending in culture more easy: “To use the terms of Roland Barthes, we can say that if modernist collage always involved a “clash” of elements, electronic and software collage also allows for “blend.”

Deep remixability

Manovich tries to explore how with the coming of software a shift in the nature of what constitutes a cultural “object” has taken place, where cultural content often no longer has finite boundaries: it is no longer received by the user but it is traversed and/or in constructed and managed. In this way for Manovich culture is a product that still gets constructed both by the maker as well as the consumer. However, the real revolution lies not in the possession of the production tools but in the possibility to exchange information between media, what he in Software Takes Command calls the concept of ‘deep remixability’. As Manovich argues in ‘Remix and Remixability’, culture is actively being modularised by users to make it more adaptive.

On the other hand, what seems to be happening is that the “users” themselves have been gradually “modularising” culture. In other words, modularity has been coming into modern culture from the outside, so to speak, rather than being built-in, as in industrial production.”3

And this is where Manovich gets more to the point. For him culture is not modular, it is (increasingly) made modular—however, he still does not address the tension here where standardization and modularization could also be seen as an attempt at commodification and commercialisation of culture, as much as it can be seen as an active act of prosumer resistance (as Navas has already shown: remix has a double face)—and what Manovich is interested in his in how this modularity is increasingly being extended to media themselves. Manovich introduces the term deep remixability to show how remix of various media has become possible (a common software-based environment) next to a remix of the methodology of these media:

Software production environment allows designers to remix not only the content of different media, but also their fundamental techniques, working methods, and ways of representation and expression”4

The future Manovich sees for human culture with the increase of pre-fabricated modularity is a future of softwarization: media will become remediated in the ultimate remediation machine: the computer. According to Manovich this will lead to a new aesthetics and ultimately to a new species. This for him is the power of technology and remix culture, the power to actively change and shape culture. As Manovich states, we need smaller re-combinable parts for this:

Remix culture demands not selfcontained aesthetic objects or self-contained records of reality but smaller units – parts that can be easily changed and combined with other parts in endless combinations5

Where Manovich calls remix the basic logic of cultural production, culture is transformed from objects to data in his vision, the difference being mainly scale and modularity. In ‘Generation Flash‘, Manovich argues for a modernist viewpoint (though keeping the skepticism of post-modernism) by declaring a preference for as he calls it a ‘belief in science and rationality, emphasis on efficiency and basic forms, idealism and heroic spirit of modernism’. Manovich vision on remix is a vision of how he wants culture to become, to be shaped, to be prosumed and analysed. The question is however whether by focussing on data mining and visualizations and on thinking culture as data we are not running the risk of fixating on studying meaningless vessels. Although Manovich defends his approach as one of complementarity, of expansion, the question remains, do we want to understand culture or do we want to analyse utopia?


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4 comments on “New Visions for the Book II: Remix

  1. Lev Manovich
    November 8, 2010

    Thank you for the nice discussion! In agreement with many of your points.One note: the article you discussed was written in the Fall 2005 , i.e. right at the moment of the explosion of social media – Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia, video blogging, etc. – so it was a reflection on the new possibilities of remixability which these platforms were making possible. My later article “The practice of Everyday (Media) Life” (2008) takes a more critical perspective, asking if user-generated content is an imitation of culture industry rather than a new form of self(media) expression.

  2. jannekeadema1979
    November 8, 2010

    Thanks for your comment, I will definitely explore “The practice of Everyday (Media) Life” and will see if I can update the post a bit, incorporating your more critical perspective. The third part of this post (coming soon) will focus more on the consequences of remix and remix theory for (e)books in the humanities.

  3. Pingback: New Visions for the Book II: Remix « OPEN REFLECTIONS

  4. Pingback: Remix Theory » Archivio » Analysis of Remix Theory for New Visions of the Book by Janneke Adema

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