Category Archives: Digital Humanities

Tweeting the Lesson: Social Media Curation and the Cultivation of the Imagination

This is a presentation I gave in a lightning session in Madison, WI at 28th Annual Teaching and Learning Conference in August 2012. Since a lightning session could only be 10 minutes long, I gave myself the constraint of making my points in 10 slides only. Each slide lasted for exactly one minute (yet another constraint, coming out of my interest in the Oulipo and my earlier practices around Pecha Kucha presentations). I also wanted the visuals in each slide to carry the point as much as my spoken text, so I did spend a good deal of time thinking about how to design the visual portion of this talk. In the end, I focused on how many different ways I could use the twitter logo (that little blue bird) to make the underlying points that the goal in using Twitter in higher education was to help students “cultivate their imagination.”

I am glad I waited to post this talk, because my experience using social media in my MOOC, Investigating Film Noir, which I taught from March-April 2013 has helped me confirm my basic thesis here. Using Twitter, Storify, and Pinterest in my MOOC, I do believe I started to reach some of the goals that I articulate in this talk. My MOOC cultivates outside subject matter experts, and involved the synthesis and application of learning outcomes. In my MOOC, students would twit-pic some of the images from the films we were studying and other students would re-tweet or comment on those images. We would ask questions on Twitter, opening up answers to our questions to experts beyond those enrolled in the course. And many of the tweets exchanged among students engaged in a metacognitive awareness of what it means to analyze film.

Here are the ten slides. Each slide is followed by my spoken commentary: Image Since I only have 10 minutes in a lightning session, so I will focus on a single, main learning outcome for those of you interested in building social media in your course designs. Throughout this talk, I will return again and again to “cultivating the imagination” of our students. That phrase intentionally recalls the work of John Seely Brown and Doug Thomas in their wonderful book, A New Culture of Learning. 

To achieve this “cultivation of the imagination” we will need innovation at 3 levels:

  • we will need trained and innovative instructors
  • we will need new and innovative assignments
  • we will need to encourage students to want to be innovative

I see “cultivation of the imagination” as the major learning outcome for higher education. Regardless of your favorite learning theory, whether you are a constructivist, a clicktivist, a connectivist, or subscriber to any other learning theories, creating imaginative and self-efficacious thinkers rates highly all of them. If we cultivate our student’s imaginations, we will have the lifelong learners we desire.

Social media is one area to explore along that path. Image Social media tools intrigue me, because they have the capacity to be tools to encourage and support lifelong learning, and they foreground their very informality. Twitter was not designed with a college accreditation standards or assessment techniques in mind. It is a commercial tool that can be used for learning from others through the open and global Web, but it takes some design and purposefulness to make that happen. Currently, when we bring social media into the classroom, we tend to kill what makes it such a great learning tool to begin with. We tend (in my experience as an instructional designer) to enclose it within the confines of the formal course objectives and that frequently short-circuits its engagement with larger online networks. In these instances, students start to wonder why they are using Twitter in the first place. Seldom if ever will a course hashtag trend worldwide.

An Integrated learning approach tries to have it both ways--to balance and transfer the formal and the informal learning. The course “walls” of a socially mediated learning experience need to be more porous than solid. I see Twitter (to just pick one social media tool out of the many) as a way to support student-centered learning. But I want students on Twitter in all its informal messiness. That way, Twitter can bring in expert voices in your classroom. Twitter can be medium for your students share their passions and curiosity with a large number of followers and thereby build new connections and new relationships through the classroom and beyond the classroom. Image And that brings me to curation.

Twitter is frequently seen as a curatorial site. But I would make a critical distinction between three modes of curation. 

Twitter is built with informal curation tools. It is a way for any user of Twitter to receive and assess the constant flow of tweets. We can favorite a tweet and keep it for future reference. We can retweet to show our interest in another person’s tweet. But informal curation is mostly about receiving new messages, and giving them an initial assessment.

A step up on the curatorial ladder is a more formal personal curation. Using tools such as Storify, paper.li, or scoop.it, social media stories can be assembled and recalled later when one wants to review or better still, apply that information.

But finally, curation can be crowd-sourced and shared. It can be the basis of a networked curation. Students can produce new knowledge from an archive of aggregated tweets. They can add new information to others tweets by providing new contexts, new explanations, new insights using a host of social media aggregators. This is the key goal for my talk today. How do we design our projects and use our learning outcomes to encourage these practices? When students engage in networked curation, they will get closer to the goal of cultivating the imagination.

Slide04

But as long as social media is locked within the confines of an online course, we will likely experience something closer to #TwitterFail. Students will feel that the exercise of social media is basically hollow. It becomes just another task to complete versus a new kind of digital and informational literacy. To reach that higher learning outcome, we need more learning experiments involving social media curation and cultivation. We are at an early phase of social media integration into the online curriculum. What we don’t know is much greater than what we do know at this point.

How curation will continue to develop in the future is an open question in my mind, but now is the time for experimentation. And if the experiments are focused on generating more powerful learning outcomes through social media, we will find ourselves on the right track, even if some of those experiments fizzle.

Slide05 That brings me back to Twitter in its specific form. I see Twitter as having multiple layers and where those layers reside is telling to me.

The top portion of an expanded tweet is the message and the person who sent the message – what we will call the “content.” There are some basic curatorial tools that require little effort on the part of the person who reads the message – one can retweet the message or favorite it. I will return to “reply” function in a moment.

The next layer down is the crowd sourcing information. You can find out if others have found this tweet interesting. How many times has it been retweeted? Favorited? Who did this? And should I follow some of these people since they might share some of my interests?

Twitter also gives you a “timestamp” that will be useful when you start to aggregate multiple tweets.

But the bottom layer of a tweet is its cultivation layer. Retweeting and favoriting are good, but replying builds new connections and adds to the original knowledge object. It is in replying that the message is extended, and the learner can express new information. But this is the bottom layer of a tweet. Slide06

Compare this to a tool like Storify. Storify is one aggregator among many on the open Web, but it will stand in for other ways of cultivating social media knowledge.

In Storify, the connection and cultivation layer is the top layer. To engage in Spotify is to be both a curator and a cultivator.

As I will argue throughout this talk, you need both. You need to sort through the massive information network and make choices (curation) and have a means for adding new information and new syntheses in a structured way (cultivation). Or as I prefer to state it: we achieve cultivation through curation. We see critical thinking at both the level of the assemblage and its new context, and like cultivation in agriculture, bring forth an entirely new ecology of knowledge.  I particularly like Spotify because it foregrounds its role as a knowledge cultivator through its trope of “stories.” To tell a story is an act that brings together many different learning outcomes. Image Which brings us back to cultivating the imagination. How does this approach to social media apply to online course design?

I would argue that “cultivation through curation” touches on almost all the key learning outcomes we might seek in our course designs. Spotify can support the evaluation of information, as student learners evaluate their aggregated tweets. Spotify can support the synthesis of knowledge, and we can assess how well students bring together tweets to show their engagement with disciplinary knowledge. Spotify can aid in comprehension as students have to sort through and make sense of information that can be crowd-sourced and supplemented by subject matter experts from beyond the course. Image  And this brings us back to the concept of “networked curation.” If one tweets to connect, then one of the major connections we are making through social media is a connection to participatory learning.

Social media rewards active participation in ways that make it valuable for online learners and online learning communities. One thing that I do like is how Twitter, or even tools like Storify and Pinterest, are only “parts of the story.” These social mediated communication streams and tools only come to life when learners engage with them, and complete the story. Storify allows students to not only aggregrate their tweets, but comment on the “new story” that emerges from the act of aggregration. As tweets are built into stories, and as students share and reflect on those new stories, new possiblities for curation and the cultivation of the imagination emerge. Slide09

And these are four of the major takeaways when we focus on social media curation. As is always important in instructional design, you need to consider what social media adds to your discipline. This is going to be different for an Art History course, or a Sociology course, or a Business course. But in each case, the art of communication and the science of connection and curation can come together to transform student learning and engagement. Part of what is fun about social media curation is how visible the learning is. You can follow alongside your students as they create these new knowledge connections and these new archives. Slide10

Which brings me to my final point. If we take the cultivation metaphor to its logical end, we start to recognize that far too frequently in our efforts to connect our students to disciplinary knowledge, we inadvertently bracket off the wealth of networks, the flow of information, collaborative energies, and networked data. We tend, even when we intend the opposite, to encourage our students to construct their information as personal, as if they are building old-fashioned knowledge cabinets. They might be able to collect our “disciplinary specimens” and arrange them in their own self-contained cabinets of curiosity that harken back to the early days of the Enlightenment and the desire for encyclopedic knowledge. But I want to leave this talk by offering another vision, one not of information contained and walled-off, but of information set free and shared. In this final maneuver then, social media curation of disciplinary knowledge might lead towards opening up new fields of knowledge, new areas of engagement and collaboration. Information can be powerful when it is shared. Let’s see what kinds of information fields might open up in the social media age.

Revealing Generation Text: A Video Documentary on Cell Phones in High School

“Mobile phones are a way of life for Generation Text.”
–Craig Watkins, The Young and the Digital

As anyone who reads my blog knows, I am a big supporter of digital and multimedia literacies in higher education. Since my postdoctoral work at the Institute of Multimedia Literacy back in the early ’00s, I have been researching and writing about uses of new media and new technologies in the classroom. In each of my academic appointments at Saint Mary’s College and IUPUI, I also have experimented with multimedia literacies in my own pedagogy, frequently putting into practice and evaluating best practices around new technologies and their potential to improve student learning outcomes. And my own courses typically revolve around project-based learning. I prefer (whenever possible) to have my students create multimedia projects as a major learning component. Probably no surprise again, but I’m a big fan of higher order processes in learning (following Bloom’s famous taxonomy) and find project-based learning to yield marvelous moments of synthesis and evaluation.

However, my focus to date has been exclusively on new technologies and their applications in higher education. But that changed earlier this year when I got the opportunity to collaborate with my younger brother on an Oppenheimer Family Foundation grant. My brother, Bob Edwards, is a teacher at Phoenix Military Academy, a high school in the Chicago Public School district. Bob has been similarly interested in the role of new technologies in the classroom. I was thrilled to hear that he had won a Teacher Incentive Grant from the Oppenheimer Family Foundation. This grant is designed to support project-based learning in the Chicago Public Schools. My brother’s winning proposal was:

 Revealing Generation Text:
Students will research cell phone usage, investigating how texting is affecting teenagers. They will create a documentary film disclosing their findings.

My brother asked me to be a part of his project, since he knew of my areas of interest and because he was planning on making a documentary film involving teams of his students from his senior-year Creative Writing class. Together we carved out a plan to have his students work in small teams with dedicated assignments. Each team would interview students, teachers, and administrators to hear their thoughts and observations about Generation Text and student texting. Moreover, we decided each team would additionally focus on a different issue related to Generation Text and the cell phone polices of Chicago Public Schools:

  1. What is and what should be the cell phone policy in Chicago Public Schools?
  2. What are the pros and cons of cell phone confiscation by teachers and administrators?
  3. How can cell phones be used as learning tools?
  4. What would a world without cell phones look like?

Using the money from the grant, we were able to purchase four Cisco Flip cams HD. A quick aside about Flipcams: I am aware that Cisco has ceased support for this project in April 2011, but it was a great tool for us, especially for its ease of use, the quality of its picture, and in my opinion, the quality of its small internal microphone. The Flip cams worked easily and flawlessly for our documentary and it’s a shame that this product is no longer going to be on the market.

The students spent several weeks arranging for their interviews and shooting their videos. We got lots of great footage from each team, and then set about assembling the final cut.

You can see the final results for yourself here by watching the video, which we just completed, and was just screened for the Oppenheimer Family Foundation and a group of first year students at Phoenix Military Academy.

I want to say a few more words about the documentary and what I learned. Overall, we wanted to have the student voices take center stage and present a balance portrait of the everyday realities of cell phone uses and abuses in Chicago Public Schools. As someone who has worked exclusively in higher education, I can say the video was very illuminating to me. I consider myself up to date on the literature around cell phones in higher education, so I was surprised to learn about some of the very real problems created by cell phone uses in K-12 education.

While I expected to hear about the cell phone as a tool of “distraction” (and this was a major theme echoed by all participants in the video), the cell phone is also a tool for bullying in K-12. I wasn’t aware of this as I began working on the documentary. As the Pew Internet and American Life Project noted last year,

Over a quarter (26%) of teen cell phone users reported having been harassed by someone else through their cell phone. Girls are significantly more likely to experience this (30%) than boys (22%). This trend is more common for those teens whose parents are under 40 and low in educational attainment.

Responses in the focus groups were split with regard to how serious of a problem this is. Some teens clearly believe this is major problem with serious social and psychological consequences, while others feel that it is “not really a big deal.”

Bullying and student fights came up as a big issue in our documentary. One reason for the “zero tolerance” ban in Chicago Public Schools is to stop the problem of bullying by cell phone. Therefore, educators who are trying to experiment with educational uses for cell phones have to be aware of the negative uses of this technology among K-12 students.

On the positive flipside, it was great to see the eagerness with which students embrace the new capabilities of cell phones, especially smart phones. However, there is something of a “cell phone arms race” among high school students with students wanting not just a cell phone, but the “right” cell phone. Clearly there is a digital divide between high school students who have cell phones and those who have smart phones. This divide, especially in terms of social capital among one’s peers, appears to be a much greater gap than the one between students who have laptops and students who have no laptops. The role of texting and mobile communication in student’s everyday lives is primary in this regard. Students see their cell phone as an extension of their identity and life style (many students commented on how confiscation of their phone was literally “the end of their world;” hyperbolic, perhaps, but the sentiment is genuine).

In one segment, a group of students that ran “speed tests” between a laptop and a mobile phone (running Android 2.0). These students were able to demonstrate that they could get faster results from Google through their mobile phone connection than the laptop running on the school’s wireless network. What intrigues me about this is that the students are aware of these speed differences. You get a sense that the mobile generation is deeply savvy about connection speeds – a useful thing to be aware of—especially if your “life” is being conducted through a mobile device.

Most of the other major insights we found are in the final video itself, but I was glad to hear that the students themselves are aware of how the cell phone can be a distraction. There is no doubt that many students are surreptitiously texting each other all day long, and as long as the policy is “zero tolerance,” students will continue to do their best to keep their texting out of sight. But even against the backdrop of “texting as distraction,” many students are keenly interested in exploring how cell phones can be used as educational tools. A good sampling of those possible uses can be found in the Speak Up 2010 Survey, which surveyed high school students on what they would like to use cell phones for during the school day:

  • Check grades
  • Conduct research
  • Take notes in class
  • Collaborate with friends
  • Use the calendar
  • Send an email
  • Access online textbooks
  • Check out school activities
  • Create and share videos

That list is a good starting point for conversation and reminds me of how I use my iPhone professionally. I anticipate that the most common counter-argument among K-12 teachers would be computer labs and laptops can fulfill these functions, but not without some caveats. Certain smart phones are great video tools and are much easier than checking out a video camera from the AV closet. Moreover, in many school districts, students are much more likely to have cell phones rather than laptops (due to the difference in expense, even with having to pay a monthly wireless plan), and we have to be cognizant of this “digital divide” as well. Finally, if we don’t bring cell phones in our classrooms, we run the risk of having students miss opportunities to use a mobile device as a component of a formal learning exercise rather than as a personal texting or game playing tool. As we state in the documentary (quoting Liz Kolb), educators can take a lead role in teaching students how to use cell phones more ethically, a key lesson for preparing them for 21st century learning and professional occupations.

Of course, as the video taught me, we have to tread carefully around the topic of cell phones in high schools. They have many positive uses, but also great potential downsides. My sense  is that what may happen going forward are some small modifications to the current “zero tolerance” policies in many high schools and exploring ways of using cell phones in a limited capacity as educational tools.

Personally I think it is worth the effort to experiment with cell phones due to their popularity and their ability to bring students into the classroom. Revealing Generation Text ends with a student who recalls that the cell phone is a communication tool and wouldn’t it be great if cell phones led towards more communication between students and teachers? That’s a vision I would love to see come to fruition some day.

All in all, I am very thankful my brother invited me to be a part of his grant and documentary video project. Thanks also to the Oppenheimer Family Foundation, the musician Moby who gave us permission to use his song “Flying Foxes,” and all the teachers, administrators, and students who participated in our project. I learned a lot about cell phones in K-12 education.

I would love to hear feedback on this video and the thoughts of other educators who have been or might be considering using cell phones in their classrooms or schools.

Remix and Potential Criticism: CSA 2011 Talk

Here is the version of this paper I presented today at the Cultural Studies Association Conference 2011 at Columbia College Chicago. I am planning on revising this for publication. This version of the paper was crafted to fit into a 15 minute time slot so I try to hit the high points of my argument in just under 2000 words. As always, comments are most welcome, but I am most interested in where my argument is unclear or where it could benefit from expansion or concision. Thanks!

Epigram:

Potential reading has the charm of making manifest the duplicity of texts, be they oulipian or not.”

–Harry Mathews

In the July 2005 issue of Wired Magazine, the sci-fi novelist William Gibson offered his take on remix culture in the essay, “God’s Little Toys: Confessions of a Cut and Paste Artist.” In that piece, Gibson directly linked digital remix culture back to the 1950s and the Beat Generation, especially William Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s technique of “cut ups.” In so doing, Gibson was conferring aesthetic cachet on a new set of disreputable practices by finding an older set of disreputable practices that have become respectable and tame over time. Besides glancing backwards for historical antecedents, Gibson also looked ahead: “We live at a peculiar juncture, one in which the record (an object) and the recombinant (a process) still, however briefly, coexist. But there seems little doubt as to the direction things are going.” (2005) For Gibson, the recombinant is marked by “appropriation” and “borrowings,” and its key unit is the “sample.” As he explains: “Everything I wrote, I believed instinctively, was to some extent collage. Meaning, ultimately, seemed a matter of adjacent data.” (2005) These notions—the “cut and paste” artist, the dominance of collage, and appropriation as creative act—exert a powerful hold on the critical and popular imagination and comprise a conventional litany on the pros and cons of remixing.  However appropriative collage is not the only method for deriving meaning from adjacent data.

In this paper, I argue recombinatorial remix explores the “potentiality” that exists inside all texts. Rather than focusing on “appropriation,” “borrowing” or even “artistic pilferings” (all of which have a history of practice as long as art itself), I will examine how formal, restrictive, and mathematical approaches to recombinatorial play are transformative and creative in an Oulipian sense. Texts remixed under constraint are experimental and playful in different ways from “cut and paste” works.  Traditional uses of “sampling” or “borrowing” or “pilfering” overemphasize the creative role played by randomness and chance by focusing too much attention on the aleatory dimension as the key remix aesthetic. The abundant references to Dadaism and Surrealism, e.g., in remix culture attest to a framing of the remix as an heir to “automatic writing” and “exquisite corpses.” If we generate a remix through aleatory mechanisms, the resulting “information” will be dependent upon chance operations.

I argue that such approaches ignore the rich legacy of creative works that have focused on potential of another kind. In this other approach, “potential” is generated from formal, mathematic logics, rules of mean and variation, and restrictive and constrained artistic modes. One group in particular, the Oulipo, has been at the forefront of this conscious investigation into potentiality.

The Oulipo is an acronym for Ouvroir du Litterature Potentielle, roughly translated into English as “Workshop of Potential Literature.” The Oulipo is a group of French writers and mathematicians whose creative work and research focuses on “all writing that [is] subjected to severely restricted methods.” (Mathews 205) Some of the better-known members of the group include the writers Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino.

The Oulipo focuses on “creations that create” more than “created creations.” These “creations that create” are characterized by the use of formal, artificial, even mathematical constraints that are determined before the act of writing begins. The Oulipo believes that constraints help writers “escape that which is called inspiration.” (Lowenthal, xii) Lowenthal continues that Raymond Queneau, one of the founding members of the Oulipo, thought that “the typical act of inspiration draws from limited resources. Rather than restricting the possibilities of creation, [Queneau] argued, the use of artificial structure–mathematical and otherwise–opens the way to a vaster range of potential creation.” (xii) This idea of “potential” creation was specifically defined against Surrealism and very different in its operations from the technique of “automatic writing” or the random combinations of Burroughs’s cut-up texts.

Oulipian works reveal what they mean by “severely restricted procedures.” Georges Perec wrote A Void, a lipogrammatic novel, where he did not use the letter “e.” Italo Calvino wrote If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, a book made up of ten first chapters of imaginary novels. But Raymond Queneau might have written the most famous work of potential literature, his poem A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. It is a 14-line sonnet with a twist: there are ten alternate lines for each line in the poem. [the previous link brings you to a digital version of this poem] Even though there are only 140 total lines of poetry, the potential of the poem is spectacular. It has been determined that it would take more than a lifetime to read every possible version of the poem. Therefore, most of the meaning of the poem lies in a “potential” state, waiting to be remixed.

It is worth noting that most remix artists would probably not identify themselves with the Oulipo or their legacy. But DJs and remix artists frequently have more in common with Georges Perec’s conscious use of constraints than William Burroughs’s chance-driven chains of meaning. For example, let’s look at DJ Freelance Hellraiser’s 2002 musical mashup, “A Stroke of Genie-us.” This song popularized the ‘A versus B’ mashup. In this song, Freelance Hellraiser took the musical track from Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” and recombined it with the Strokes’ vocals from “Hard to Explain.” The resulting mashup is not a random compilation of the two songs, but a seamless integration of the two competing musical styles into a new mix. To accomplish this new work, Freelance Hellraiser restricted himself to the limited resources of the “A” text and the “B” text.  This is much more in keeping with lipogrammatic constraint than the random rearrangement of the “cut-up.” In fact, the pop-worthiness of “A Stroke of Genie-us” would not have been accomplished if Freelance Hellraiser randomly compiled snippets of the music and the lyrics together. The success of the mashup is in its conscious and organic embrace of its constraint.

DJ Dangermouse extended the A vs. B mashup on a grand scale when he created The Grey Album. Like “A Stroke of Genie-us” Dangermouse’s choice of title self-reflexively puns about the constraint. Dangermouse remixed Jay-Z’s acapella version of The Black Album with musical samples from The Beatles’ White Album—creating that collision of opposites, The Grey Album. The ‘A vs. B’ mashup follows the logic of what the Oulipo call “The Prisoner’s Dilemma,” a lipogrammatic constraint that forces writers to compose a story using a limited set of alphabetic characters. Moreover, the “A vs. B” mashup is—in an Oulipian sense—a “creation that creates” and can be used just like the sonnet form is by both professional and amateur poets. “A Stroke of Genie-Us” and The Grey Album spawned numerous remixes, mostly from amateur remixers. The Grey Album inspired remixes using the music of Weezer, Pavement, Prince, Metallica, Radiohead, and the Wu-Tang Clan.

So far I have focused on how ‘formal constraint’ is another way to approach the ‘potential’ of remix culture. But there is another dimension at play here: the role of the reader (or the listener or the viewer or the interactant). The use of constraints to generate potential texts leads towards “potential criticism.” A fuller demonstration of “potential criticism” can be found in my forthcoming book The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism, which I co-wrote with Shannon Clute. The book will be published this Fall by the University Press of New England.

Oulipian Harry Mathews states at the beginning of his essay “Mathews’ Algorithm:” “Potential reading has the charm of making manifest the duplicity of texts, be they oulipian or not.” (Oulipo 1973, 105) Mathews continues: “the resultants derived from these texts can be used to two different ends: either the ‘analysis’ of the texts put in play, or the creation of a new work” (1973, 105). As we have seen, with DJs Freelance Hellraiser and Dangermouse, the resultants of remixed texts are ‘the creation of a new work.’ What might not be as readily apparent is how these resultants operate as an ‘analysis of the texts put in play.’ Here it is important look more closely at how producing texts under constraint is both a creative and an auto-exegetical act, which explains why Mathews begins an essay about his recombinatorial algorithm with a discussion of “potential reading,” and claims it makes manifest the duplicity of texts produced through constraint.

Shannon Clute and I have identified three crucial elements to constrained textual productions: (1) intertextual allusions to other texts; (2) self-reflexive punning (often marked by quirky humor); and (3) formal mathematical logics that allow the text to explore and ultimately map its own typology. Taken together, these elements literally enact potential reading and reveal the duplicity of texts.  In my previous work on mashups and remix culture, Chuck Tryon and I began to develop the idea of critical digital intertextuality. Here, I extend my investigation into intertextuality by seeing it alongside self-reflexive punning and formal restrictive logics that together form ” a geometry of auto-exegesis.” In other words, texts written or produced under formal constraint can literally “read themselves.”

These three crucial elements are a particularly rich vein of creative work for scholars of remixes to explore. As Georges Perec notes in his Afterword to A Void, citational art, i.e. texts under constraint that contain intertextual allusions, honor and mimic traditions of punning and plagiary with longstanding roots in French Literature, going as far back as the 15th century and the work of Rabelais. Moving our frame of reference from 20th century artistic innovations, Perec identifies key characteristics of recombinatorial play within the humorous pun-filled plagiarism of stories like Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel and Sterne’s Tristam Shandy.

Examples of video mashups can illustrate this point. Consider mashups like “Vote Different” using Hillary Clinton’s video embedded in an Apple Macintosh Commercial, “Endless Love” featuring a musical duet between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, or “Shining,” a remixed trailer for Kubrick’s The Shining as a romantic comedy. While all three remixes are quite different, they each form a geometry of auto-exegesis via intertextual allusion, self-reflexive punning, and the use of formal constraints. Moreover, they confirm Mathews’s main point that potential readings through remix have the ‘charm of making manifest the duplicity of texts, be they oulipian or not.’ These three remixes are quite duplicitous: they subvert the meanings of their original source texts, and do so using quirky humor and self reflexive punning driven by restrictive procedures. Moreover, self-reflexive punning and humor are not supplementary to the remix, but an outcome of what Perec calls ‘citational art.’ Quirky humor and self-reflexive punning are how texts remixed with other texts pleasure themselves under constraint.

In conclusion, we can identify remixes that engage even more thoroughly in artificial Oulipian constraints, as in Lenka Clayton’s remix video, “Qaeda Quality Question Quickly Quickly Quiet.” In a remix such as this, the power of potential criticism demonstrates a potential political dimension as well. Using a constraint quite popular among Oulipians—the alphabetic list—Clayton reorders every word of Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address in alphabetic order. The resulting twenty minute video is a new recitation of the State of the Union, literally word for word.  Through the use of alphabetic constraint, Clayton’s video enacts a potential reading of the State of the Union. Unmoored from their original semantic positions, the individual words are rattled off as a list that reveals the latent, even hidden, meanings of Bush’s speech. Clayton’s work demonstrates that potential criticism can move beyond playful combinations of pop culture and investigate and reveal the latent meanings and duplicity contained in the texts that constitute our civic and political lives. Clayton’s video calls to mind what Jacques Roubaud has said about Raymond Queneau’s “A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems:” Its constraint is rather elementary, but its potentiality is spectacular.” (2004, 100-101; trans. Jean-Jacques Poucel)

Works Cited:

Gibson, William. “God’s Little Toys,” Wired Magazine 13.07 (July 2005) http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.07/gibson.html

Lowenthal, Marc. Raymond Queneau: Stories and Remarks. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

Mathews, H. Oulipo Compendium. Trans. and eds. by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, London: Atlas Press, 2005.

Oulipo. Oulipo: La littérature potentielle. Saint-Amand: Editions Gallimard, 1973. Trans. Shannon Clute.

Perec, Georges. La disparition. Paris: Editions Denoël, 1969.

––––––. A Void. Trans. Gilbert Adair. Boston: Verba Mundi, 1994.

Roubaud, Jacques. “Perecquian OULIPO” Trans. Jean-Jacques Poucel. Yale Studies, 105, Pereckonings: Reading Georges Perec (2004): p. 99-109.

As We May Publish, Part Two: A Reader’s Reflection on Two Publishing Experiments

“Free their books and their minds will follow.”

–Masthead slogan for The Concord Free Press

1. The Experimental Reader

In yesterday’s post (“As We May Publish”) I discussed what authors might consider taking away from AAUP’s report on “Sustaining Scholarly Publishing.” My reflections were oriented around why authors should care about the changes currently underway at university presses. I also mentioned that my interest in this topic was being driven—to some extent—from my own authorship perspective: my experiments in open access publishing, my interest in alternative scholarly publishing, and my forthcoming university press book that has digital and database logics at the core of its critical methodology.

As a companion set of ideas to that post, I  look today at two publishing experiments that came to my attention as a reader of a particular genre of fiction. With a background in English Literature and as a scholar of film noir, I read noir fiction and hard-boiled literature. That genre—coming out of the pulp magazines, the dime novel, and the comic book—has always been at the forefront of publishing shifts. Noir authors and noir publishers have tended to adapt to new business models while retaining (and even extending) their core thematic interests and stories. Through my interest in that genre, two experiments came to my attention that I don’t think are yet widely known in digital humanities circles. I bring them up as case studies that have piqued my interest as a reader who likes to explore publishing experiments—and these examples come out of the “wild” category of the publishing ecosystem—and they help me think about the reader’s role during this moment of experimentation.

My first example will be Concord Free Press, which gives away its books for free–literally. But that is only part of the story: Concord Free Press has a particular institutional mission that asks readers to make voluntary donations to the charity of their choice in exchange for a free book. The Concord Free Press calls its mission “generosity-based publishing.” My second example is Level 26, a new media publishing venture started by CSI: creator Anthony Zuiker. His Level 26 venture involves book publishing, web community and video productions, organized around what Zuiker calls the “digi-novel.”

Though my two publishing examples are very different, both share a desire to “free their books” and encourage their readers to “give back” in highly structured ways via the open Web. I am not using the word “free” as in “free beer” (one of my favorite lines from Lawrence Lessig in his book Free Culture) but “free” as in “free speech,” “free culture,” and “freeing” as in “liberating” or “having independence.” To me, these projects are interesting to consider in light of the ongoing conversations around the sustainability of scholarly publishing. These examples strike me as publication models that are taking advantage of digital affordances. They are asking new questions about the role of presses, the nature of the “book,” and the participation of readers in online activities.

2. Scott Phillip’s Rut and the Generous Reader

“If you took the tender portrait of a town in decline in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, mixed it with Kurt Vonnegut at his most satirical and biting, then sprinkled in a few grams of meth and a generous shot of piss from a syphilitic hobo into the resulting solution, you’d have a drink that could almost put you on your ass as fast as Rut sure-as-shit will.”

Review of Rut by Spinetingler Magazine

Scott Phillip’s most recent book Rut was published by Concord Free Press. Scott Phillips is best known for his novel The Ice Harvest, which was also turned into a neo-noir film starring John Cusack. Instead of going with a traditional publisher, his latest work is being distributed for free by Concord. What this means is that it does not cost anything to obtain a copy of the book. It is actually free (as in costing no money). However, there is a reason for this. Concord Free Press asks all readers who take possession of the “free” novel to make a voluntary donation to the charity of their choice. The book-as-giveaway is used an incentive to increase charitable donations. And so far, the experiment is paying off. Concord Free Press has raised over $200,000 dollars in donations via the books has it published.

Now, it is important to note that its books, including Rut, are not published as e-books or released as PDFs—they are only available as traditional paperback novels. In fact, in one of my favorite parts of this experiment, the back page of each novel has ten blank lines where each reader of the book is supposed to sign their name and then pass the book along to another reader. This decidedly analog approach to forming a network of readers is a great way to encourage an ever-expanding readership. The physical book operates metaphorically a little bit like a digital bit; it is not meant to sit on one’s shelf, but is always intended to be in transit to another reader. It’s a virtuous model of sharing: the reading circle as lending library.

How do online communities come into play here? Concord Free Press hosts a website and asks all of the people who donate due to one of their books to log onto their site (www.concordfreepress.com) and note where they gave and how much. What one notes when visiting Concord’s website is how many donations are significantly more than the reader would pay at a bookstore for a 230 page novel like Rut. It is not uncommon to see donations of $25.00 and higher, suggesting that one act of generosity (giving away a book by an established author) results potentially in a greater act of generosity (a donation in excess of the typical consumer purchase of a paperback).

ForeWord Magazine says that Concord Free Press “re-conceptualizes the very goals of publishing, a grand experiment in subversive altruism.” It is this aspect of the experiment that I want to consider most closely. While Concord’s “subversive altruistic” model will not necessarily work for all publishers and all authors (note that Concord Free Press is publishing the work of already established authors), it is worth considering how models of “generosity” can induce and support participation via the open Web. [As an aside, is this type of generosity akin to the free labors that go into supporting a publication model like Wikipedia?]

At this point, the publication model of the Concord Free Press raises more questions than answers for me. Still I want to explore the implications of this kind of experiment on scholarly publishing. What would the scholarly version of this experiment look like on the open Web? How could scholars benefit from giving away books for free and asking for audience participation in return? Would a model of “book sharing and lending” (which is also at the heart of Concord’s experiment) work for a scholarly book? Is the logical extension of Concord’s paradigm to publish their novels in digitally native formats and remove the need for actual physical book publications? How might scholars locate funding to write books that encourage “subversive altruism?”

3. Anthony Zuiker’s Level 26 and the Active Reader

“Not a hint of this appeared in the mainstream press. This material was relegated to a bunch of serial-killer-fan web sites, the most active being Level26.com.”

–Self-conscious, metatextual reference from the novel, Level 26: Dark Prophecy (p. 117)

CSI: creator Anthony Zuiker is exploring the “digi-novel” in a series of crime stories focused around a criminal profiler, a “Special Circs” agent named Steve Dark. Two novels in the series have already been published, Dark Origins and Dark Prophecy. Each novel is supported by (even architected around) digital components and an online community. There is a website, Level26.com, where fans can meet up. There are videos that function as “cut scenes” interspersed throughout each novel. There are the Level 26 apps that bring the novel and its digital components into one application. A quick disclaimer: I don’t think Level26 is everyone’s cup of tea. The story itself can be quite gruesome (a bit beyond where even the CSI: TV series will go) and will mostly appeal to hardcore fans of Zuiker’s TV shows or mainstream readers of the serial killer/mystery genre.

Zuiker’s vision for the “digi-novel” seems to be a digital convergence between the storyworlds of television, web, and book. But up to this point, it still feels more like a group of parts than a converging, transmediated storyworld.  For example, there are “cyber-bridges” that extend the story beyond the written word. You can go to YouTube to see examples of his cyber-bridges. Cyber-bridges are video segments that occur approximately every 20 pages in the book, or even re-organize into its own one hour movie. To support the viewing of cyber-bridges, Zuiker hosts a free online community, Level26.com. To encourage readers to buy the book, the cyber-bridges must be unlocked using a printed code found in the book. (Of course, from an archival standpoint, one wonders what happens when and if the website goes offline in a few years for the book’s future readers.) I tend to find that the cyber-bridges interrupt my reading rather than plunging me deeper in the story. Cyber-bridges operate too often like cut-scenes in a video game, but without the feeling that one has “leveled.” And there can be a jarring effect when the characters in your reader’s “eye” are fleshed out in the video segments. I make note of these issues to highlight that Level 26 is still in an experimental stage. Zuiker himself has written on the problems he has faced in making all the pieces of the Level 26 franchise work.

Of particular interest to me is the community forming at Level26.com (which has had a community as large as 100,000 members). This is a community that is built for fans, aided by fans, but was not originally founded by fans. In fact, “official fan sites” can frequently be problematic, especially if readers sense that the community is little more than a marketing gimmick for a movie, TV show, or book. One way Level 26 is addressing this concern is to encourage fan participation on topics beyond the Level 26 novels, and making the site a destination for fans of serial killer fiction in general. How successful that maneuver will be has yet to be determined, but there are dedicated community members already operating around the subjects of serial killers, crime detection, and CSI: fandom. There is no doubt that Zuiker has learned a thing or two about building “franchises” from his CSI: success, and that this project benefits from his position in the media industries. In addition, Level26.com hosts fan contests, has a section for reader suggestions for future novels, and has active commentary sections related to the books.

Level 26 also takes advantage of handheld, touchscreen devices and in the process encourages active readers to click, touch, and play with the text and its digital components as the story unfolds on the screen. Using iPhone and iPad apps, Zuiker can eliminate the printed book’s hybrid status–straddling the analog-digital worlds–and produce a single, unified digital work. As Zuiker writes in February 2011: “”Years ago, when I started working on Level 26: Dark Origins, there wasn’t a device available to showcase my vision for what the Digi-novel could be. Now, with the release of the iPad, it’s time to unleash the Ultimate Digi-novel!” While the interactivity of Dark Prophecy as an app is still fairly rudimentary (and maybe not quite living up to the hype of being the “ultimate digi-novel”) nonetheless one can begin to see the promise of digi-novels as a mode of digital storytelling. Issues that have plagued early experiments in digital storytelling are still present in the app version of this novel. Beyond the interruptions of the cyber-bridges, pulling up electronic dossiers on characters or collecting evidence in the flow of a particular chapter can feel like tangents from the main storytelling rather than valuable hyperlinks. But even with these critiques, I fully appreciate how Zuiker is experimenting with digital storytelling and taking creative risks.

What might Level 26 suggest for the future of scholarly publication? First, the use of cyber-bridges would not be interruptive in a scholarly argument the way it is in a fictional narrative. I can see the potential of having cyber-bridges in a film or media studies book that could embed videos right alongside the written argument. Second, I think Level 26 points towards existing scholarly work that are moving more towards a “tablet-based reading” protocol or towards the expanded role of “video” in our reading practices. Here I sense deep affinities to a project like Alex Juhasz’s recent MIT Press “book,” Learning from YouTube.” For me, certain disciplines seem primed to continue these trends and experiments in scholarly publication, especially scholars in film, television, and new media.

I would love to hear about other examples around experiments in publishing, along the lines of Concord Free Press and the Level 26 franchise.

As We May Publish: My Reflections on AAUP’s Sustaining Scholarly Publishing Report

This blog post is a response to questions posed to me via Twitter by Shana Kimball, Head of Publishing Services, Outreach and Strategic Development at MPublishing, University of Michigan Library (http://lib.umich.edu/spo) She asked me in a tweet: “Curious about what you think authors should take notice of in the AAUP report? How should it change their publishing habits?” My immediate reaction was: great questions. But I realized quickly that my response was not likely to fit into a tweeted reply.

Some background: Since last week, I’ve been commenting on a new report from an AAUP Task Force on Economic Models for Scholarly Publishing. The members of the task force, representing several well-known university presses, have written a report entitled “Sustaining Scholarly Publishing: New Business Models for University Presses.”[1] The focus of the report is on university presses as a “keynote species” in the scholarly ecosystem, and the report’s conclusions speak to the need for collaboration and experimentation at and among university presses. So, there is a lot to digest in the report for the presses themselves and for their future, but why should any of these issues matter to authors, scholars, non-publishing faculty members, or even University administrators?

First, while most authors probably know (or at least sense) that university presses are in a transitional period and facing severe challenges, the report provides background and case studies about what is actually happening behind the scenes at the presses and discusses some of the new publishing models and strategies that are already being tried. The report seeks to address the challenges of a changing landscape for university presses from “new technologies to new economic conditions to changing relations with stakeholders.” While some might suggest that university presses—like many other businesses or academic enterprises—will just need to adapt to new economic and publishing realities, the report notes that the long-term sustainability of scholarly communication is not solely a question for university presses to answer, but in fact, requires a larger conversation between all shareholders in scholarly publishing, including authors, researchers, universities, funding agencies, and librarians.

And the stakes in the evolution of scholarly communication remain high for faculty members since university press publication remains one of the primary ways we establish our reputations as scholars. The importance of publishing with a University Press is a major criterion in many promotion and tenure decisions and is still a major conduit by which we review, edit, share, and archive our research and our scholarship among our peers and within our various disciplines. Therefore, I would argue it behooves us as an academic community to be very concerned about what is happening at university presses. To use the report’s “ecosystem” metaphor, authors are an important species in that system as well.

Moreover, change in scholarly publishing is already being driven by faculty—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly—especially in the context of our everyday campus-based requests and needs. The scholarly ecosystem is deeply interconnected. For example, changes in how we access other people’s research (the demand side of the equation) is being felt by university presses (the supply side). If the demand rises for PDF files, then presses need to consider not only how to meet that need now but be able to have in place economic models that will allow them to meet that need in the long run.[2] In this regard, I would cite what Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, wrote earlier this year in Library Journal: “Times have changed. The migration to electronic formats untethered to physical libraries has already happened—so far as readers are concerned. How often these days does one encounter even the hoariest of scholars insisting that print journals in the library are preferable to electronic access at their desk? But the publishing system (and much of the prestige bound up in it) remains tied to archaic production processes, largely because librarians and their budgets have managed to throw together make-shift bridges to close the gaps between scholars and the resources they need. We’re good at making things work for our faculty, for now, and we do it quietly, making compromises behind the scenes. We’re not so good at meeting the needs of future scholars. They aren’t able to raise a stink, so we ignore them.” Faculty members are not neutral or disinterested parties in this conversation—we already impact the system.

Digital publishing realities are here today. This is no longer quite the horizon issue it was ten years ago. Many of us are already exploring and adopting open access (OA) models and utilizing open publishing formats and platforms. Therefore, I would argue that it is valuable to have the perspective of how open access (among other shifts) are impacting the university press system.

One reaction I had in reading the AAUP report and its growing body of comments is that a “healthy scholarly ecosystem” may very well look different, depending upon whether you are a librarian, an editor at a university press, an author, a grant administrator, a member of a scholarly society, etc. We may find broad agreement on what qualities we would all ideally want in a “healthy scholarly ecosystem.” But in the comments I’ve read so far, I detect thornier issues when the conversation switches to different university press missions, press priorities, scholarly agendas, and economic realities (among other things). I believe the report’s strength is in starting these conversations now and trying to bring all the shareholders to the table for the discussion.

But this set of concerns leads to Shana’s second question: “How should the AAUP report change publishing habits?” I have two responses to this question.

First, I think, for many of us, our publishing habits have already been changing. We look to university presses today for support of new experiments and new forms of scholarship. Here, I am definitely influenced by my own experiences in scholarly publication. I have been involved in alt-scholarly publishing since 2005 when I began using podcasting as an open access platform for my scholarship on film noir. That project has generated a forthcoming book, The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism (November 2011, University Press of New England). The Maltese Touch of Evil engages in experiments around publication and reception, including considerations about how we might take advantage of digital logics to extend our critical methodology. Finally, I am also working this year to launch a new open access journal dedicated to multimedia work in film and media studies that utilizes open peer review. As I have experimented with new forms of publishing, I have found organizations like MediaCommons to be sites for collaboration, encouragement and support, and the AAUP report becomes another link in that chain. The report and its use of CommentPress is part of that community-building effort.

Community building around newer models of scholarly publishing should remain a priority in my estimation, since it is unlikely that a “one size fits all” publishing approach will emerge in the future. As the AAUP report acknowledges:

“The one evident conclusion that emerges from the various reports on the current state of scholarly publishing, as well as in the research undertaken for this report, is that no single new business model will replace the traditional print-based model. Rather, a mix of revenue sources will be required to sustain scholarly publishing in the future, and that mix is likely to vary for different kinds of publications.”[3]

Second, for authors who haven’t changed their publishing habits yet or are not particularly interested in doing so, I hope the report and its surrounding discussion encourages curiosity and consideration about what is happening in academic publishing in the digital age. I hope authors throughout academia want to learn more about the benefits of open access publishing, experiment with digital publishing projects, or talk with their editors about how to release their books in new digital formats. And even beyond a publishing issue, I hope reports such as this one help educate senior faculty about the changes that are greeting the newest members of our profession: graduate students and junior professors. We no longer can afford to have overly conservative promotion and tenure committees that are not giving adequate consideration and scholarly weight to new forms of publication. As university presses meet the challenges of a transformed publishing landscape, the projects that are likely to emerge will be like paper-based books in content only. As we ask our presses and our libraries to meet the challenges of digitally enabled scholarship, let’s advocate for faculty governance that will review and reward this scholarly activity appropriately.

Finally, I hope the report opens a few eyes about the new realities at university presses. Some of these changes are likely to be quite transformational, and will be a major part of our evolving scholarly ecosystem for years to come. If you haven’t considered it before, maybe now is the right time to start asking how your next book or journal article might benefit from open access as the primary mode of publication, or how might the content of your research benefit from being published in a digital format.

I would also love to hear responses and reactions from other authors and scholars on what the AAUP report might mean for their publishing habits and needs.


[1] The full report is being published at MediaCommons.org using the CommentPress software. You can read more about CommentPress and its functionality here, but the key feature of CommentPress allows readers to leave comments at the paragraph level and engage in a targeted and threaded discussion of the report’s findings and conclusions.

[2] In support of this contention, I think the report’s section on “Open Access as a Primary Model of Publication” is particularly illuminating with its case studies of publishers associated with the National Academies and RAND corporation.

The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second part of this article. Please read Part 1 in the previous blog entry.

The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup (Part 2 of 2)

4. Downhill Battle and Grey Tuesday

“A time is marked not so much by ideas that are argued about as by ideas that are taken for granted. The character of an era hangs upon what needs no defense.”

–Lawrence Lessig

I do not want to suggest that remix practices are a priori liberatory in a political sense. Neither remix culture nor social computing are guarantees that progressive values will be advanced, that the Internet will be the locus of a renewed democracy and engaged citizenry, or that if we keep making remixes we will solve longstanding, intransigent problems associated with copyright law, globalization, or neoliberalism. But I do wish to note that remix and activism have and will continue to cross, and that there have been politically informed activities to protect remixed works valued by certain kinds of media producers and consumers. And without such activism in the early days of the mashup, we would be telling a very different story in this paper.

In this historical-political vein, it is worth noting that things could have turned out very differently for The Grey Album. Right after its release, its very existence was threatened by EMI. According to EMI, DJ Danger Mouse did not have rights to use the Beatles music. It was a classic David vs. Goliath battle. EMI lawyers sent cease and desist orders letters to outlets that were distributing the album. In practice, this meant that EMI wanted all record stores to destroy physical copies of the album, and for all websites that contained the digital files to immediately remove them from their servers. This approach is the most consistently used weapon in the copyright war as fought by corporate media companies. They choose to go after the “nodes and networks” instead of the creators, and usually instead of the end-user. They choose to choke off the source for further piracy and dissemination by making service providers accountable for whether their end-users are obeying existing US copyright law. As EMI embarked upon this approach, The Grey Album was about to become a famous “lost project” in remix circles. EMI’s desire was to criminalize downloads of the Grey Album that would make Danger Mouse’s effort a “digital media pariah” which few website owners, let alone music lovers, would want to risk putting on their servers or placing in their digital music libraries. EMI wanted the stigma of litigious retribution attached to The Grey Album. But the same energy that EMI was willing to expend because one of its most cherished copyrights was at stake (the Beatles music catalog) is the same energy harnessed by music and copyright activists on the web. How DJ and activist culture intertwined is an important part of The Grey Album story.

A historic online protest known as Grey Tuesday was the result. Grey Tuesday was organized by Downhill Battle, a music activism project begun in August 2003. As stated on their website: “Downhill Battle is a non-profit organization working to break the major label monopoly of the record industry and put control back in the hands of musicians and fans…[and to] counter the distortions of the RIAA and the major record labels.”[1] While there are echoes of utopian battle in the group’s description, most of its efforts work to productively inform music buyers about the business nature and legal maneuvers of the music industry. For the protest around The Grey Album, Downhill Battle wanted to stress the need for new laws governing sampling and loops, otherwise remix culture would be severely curtailed if this form of creativity had no ability to fairly use existing bits of music.

Grey Tuesday was a very successful day of protest that resulted in over one million downloads of tracks from The Grey Album. In ways that social computing portend, Downhill Battle successfully organized a massive protest using social networks and the architecture of the web as a key part of its strategy. Therefore, Downhill Battle sent out a call for sites that would be willing to host the files for the Grey Album on Tuesday, February 24, 2004. Hundreds and hundreds of sites participated in the protest[2], and the publicized generated around Grey Tuesday, helped to account for the number of downloads that took place. Grey Tuesday can be understood as a tipping point in what had been up until that moment a fairly small online movement.

A legal assessment of Grey Tuesday done by the Electronic Frontier Foundation demonstrates that EMI might not even had had a case regarding “cease and desist” orders of The Grey Album. nasIt is important to note the critical difference here with Napster, Grokster and other cases involving the peer-to-peer sharing of digital music. Ultimately, Grey Tuesday was not about illegal downloads, digital rights management, or CD piracy. The sites were not hosting the copyrighted files of the original Beatles’ white album nor Jay-Z’s black album, but a remix album called The Grey Album.

Even when copyrighted material is involved, the law does make a distinction regarding what constitutes “infringement.” In a court of law, EMI would have had to prove that The Grey Album infringed on the rights of Lennon-McCartney compositions. Legal statues are clear that for a violation to occur, “a substantial portion” of the original work has to be involved. It is unclear whether a court would have taken Danger Mouse’s snippets of Beatles music as “substantial” infringements. But even if a court of law deemed Danger Mouse’s samples were “substantial,” the protesters could still advance another legal claim: that their hosting of the files constituted “fair use.”

As Lawrence Lessig points out in his book Free Culture, fair use is a very nebulous concept, and the lack of clarify around fair use is one of the motivations behind the flexible copyrights of the Creative Commons movement. But within existing legal definitions of fair use, the protesters who participated in Grey Tuesday could claim:

1. It was a non-commercial effort

2. The Grey Album is not a substitute for the original albums

3. The Grey Album is transformative of the White Album

4. Grey Tuesday is a commentary on copyright law

Logo for E.F.F.

These arguments, advanced by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are fairly persuasive and remind us that remix culture operates somewhere between the “free culture” of the public domain and the permission culture of copyright law. And the fair use argument picks up another ally when you consider that Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Fella record label did not follow in EMI’s footsteps. One key difference is probably Jay-Z’s roots in hip-hop culture; sampling has been a major element of his artistic output, just like other hip-hop artists. For example, the only way to understand Jay-Z releasing an a cappela version of his vocal tracks is in the spirit of encourage remixes, just like DJ Danger Mouse’s. And in ways that benefited Jay-Z, the popularity of the Grey Album lead to his Linkin Park mashup reaching number one on the US singles chart.

Furthermore, the real concern here–the issue that spurred on Downhill Battle–seems over how creativity will be allowed to develop in DIY culture on digital networks. Lawrence Lessig, among others, have persuasively argued that copyright laws have to be reconsidered in the age of social computing. Otherwise, culture itself might be compromised. Lessig’s line of reasoning, for example, argues that the US Constitution always intended to allow for cultural works to build off one another. While artist rights need to be protected, the trend toward microcontent challenges traditional notions of the copyrighted work, and how does copyright law operate in a world of Flickr and YouTube? Ultimately, Creative Commons and public domain archives like the Prelinger Archives are important in this regard, but beyond the scope of this paper to address in any detail.

Finally, now that some time has elapsed since the release of The Grey Album, it is clear to see that there was no harm to the Beatles music sales or their musical legacy. In fact, I think Paul McCartney’s response is instructive here. He has publicly admitted that he has listened to The Grey Album, and it encouraged him to collaborate with DJ Freelance Hellraiser, and the two produced an album called “Twin Freaks,” that mashes up the music of Wings and McCartney’s solo career.[3] And remix music is played before many of his concerts. It was his willingness to open his oeuvre to remix artists that can properly contextualize his Grammy appearance.

The work of Downhill Battle and Grey Tuesday helped open up the debates around copyright activism, and clarified how remix culture and musical samples needed new rules governing their use. While Grey Tuesday has not stopped the music industries pursuit of copyright violators, it did mark a visible turning point in the movement. I would argue that certain remix experiments, such as one pursued by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails who has released many of his songs in Garageband and Acid formats, is a growing part of a movement by commercial artists that recognizes a key difference between peer-to-peer file sharing of complete songs, and the microcontent behind the remix aesthetic.

5. Ramon and Pedro’s The Grey Video

“Warning: The following was done as an experimental project”

–Opening words of The Grey Video


If the preceding argument surmised that The Grey Album is lucky to remain in existence, then The Grey Video is an object that never needed to exist at all. The very existence of The Grey Video intrigues me because it is not just another audio mash-up of Jay-Z’s vocal tracks. The idea of a mash-up of the music of the Beatles and Jay-Z is something that might have been confined to the sonic realm. But Danger Mouse’s tracks jump from the musical register to a high-end video project. How would any video designers be able to translate to a visual medium? What indexical footage would be able to capture a moving image mash-up of the Beatles and Jay-Z? This is part of the growth of remix culture. The video is a creative demonstration of the stimulative effects of DJ Danger Mouse’s remix activity; remixes beget remixers.

The creative design team of Ramon and Pedro made The Grey Video as a “bootleg homage” to Danger Mouse’s Grey Album. Ramon and Pedro are excellent examples of the pro-amateur and how the DJ metaphor is influencing the arts beyond the music world. The Grey Video is a dynamic and technically demanding work of the highest artistry. In what sense then, is it amateur? Here the notion of “experimental” project is provocative. Both DJ Danger Mouse and Ramon and Pedro assert that these are “experimental projects.” But what does that mean? Such statements can act as legal defenses against charges of copyright violations, and I am sure that is one potential motivation. But I would argue that such language highlights the works “amateur status” and singles out the important role that can be played by amateurs outside of the commercial sphere.

The Grey Video is a very sophisticated video. It is not typical of video mashups. It is not just the taking of an audio track from one source and marrying it to the video track of another object, like “This Place Sucks,” which mashes the dialogue of Office Space with the cartoon of SuperFriends. Nor is it a parody, in the spirit of the Brokeback Mountain spoofs that proliferate on the Web, such as the one involving recontextualized scenes from Back to the Future. And this is not the work of unskilled creative workers. Finally, in many ways, it is not just a mash-up of the song “Encore” from The Grey Album. While it seems like the video is going to restrict itself to playfully placing Jay-Z concert footage within the confines of the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night, a major change occurs about halfway through the video. Beyond simply combining two pre-existing video tracks into a new melding, Ramon and Pedro use motion graphics and green-screen technologies to extend their video remix. They in essence create footage they don’t otherwise have. They use motion graphics to place words behind the Beatles performance–the words are the lyrics to “Encore.” They create a “hip hop” version of the Beatles and this is part of its most dynamic vernacular. We witness as Ringo Starr becomes “the Brooklyn Boy”—this linkage is achieved through word and image relations—and then Ringo starts scratching on the song. We watch as John Lennon breakdances. And surprisingly, we watch as Paul McCartney and George Harrison both leave the stage for two female back-up singers. Intriguingly, for all the visual excitement of The Grey Video, it actually has the wrong reference for the Beatles. Danger Mouse samples from the Beatles later musical period, and A Hard Day’s Night still shows the Fab Four in their early days with their matching suits and their Beatles boots.

It is unclear how Ramon and Pedro could be possibly compensated for The Grey Video. This is a work that had to take a tremendous amount of time and resources. There is no commercial venue where the footage was released, and if the video did by some method make money, the copyright holder of a Hard Day’s Night would probably sue immediately. Why do it then in the first place? First, Ramon and Pedro are highly regarded motion graphics artists who have several notable commercial projects on their resume.[4] Second, Ramon and Pedro definitely are expressing in a visually kinetic sense, an analogue kinship to DJ Danger Mouse. Like Danger Mouse, Ramon and Pedro is a pseudonym. Like Danger Mouse, this visual design duo is a rising star in the mainstream culture industries. And like Danger Mouse, they are probably better known for their work than for their “names.” In fact, if you watch the Grey Video, you will realize that it is an “unsigned” work. There is no obvious name attached as author of this project, but this is not unusual in remix culture. Even searching the Internet, it is not easy to locate the “authors” behind the Grey Video. Once however it is known that it is the work of Ramon and Pedro, the final shot of The Grey Video (R+P) makes much more sense.

The existence of The Grey Video strikes me as a kind of proof for theories of postmodern authorship; Grey Video = remix = QED. DJ Spooky ruminates that his “work asks about how the networks of creativity that we have inherited from the “bricks and mortar” world of the 20th century have imploded, evolved and accelerated the ‘im-material’ networks of the frequencies, fiber optic networks, and mathematically drive world of the 21st century. That’s the real ‘dematerialization’ of the art object’–it becomes patterns meshed, working between the spaces of pre-scripted behavior.”[5] In this regard, DJ Spooky recalls a description of the “postmodern artist” as articulated by Francois Lyotard, who stated that:

“The postmodern artist or writer is in the situation of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he performs are not in principle governed by already established rules, and they cannot be subjected to a determined judgment by applying known categories. It is these rules and these categories which the text or the work seeks. The artist and the writer work therefore without rules, in order to establish the rules of what will have been done. Hence the work and the text have the quality of an event; they arrive too late for their authors, or–what amounts to the same–their realization begins always too early. The postmodern needs to be understood through the paradox of the post anterior tense.” [6] (Italics in original)

Lyotard’s deployment of the term “post anterior” is decisive here. Coming from Lacanian psychoanalysis, Lacan’s work on the future anterior suggests that “What is realized in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no more, nor even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming.”[7] It is in this sense, that the role of the DJ is instructive. The DJ, that designer of beats and rhythms, is driven by performance, is in “the process of becoming.” The DJ aesthetic does not necessarily know where it is going to end, and it is very event driven.

Ramon and Pedro demonstrate how the DJ can now challenge the film director as authorial force. They reveal the potential stories embedded in the previously sealed archives of our Hollywood memories, display the range of new tools of visual creativity, and open up the “already mixed” to new interpretations. The Grey Video is a template for the rise of the video mashups: a post anterior re-performance of a cinematic icon through a rap dialectic, conditioned by the reverberating logics of digital video recorders, channel surfing, music videos and the viral mentality of YouTube.

6. Today and Yesterday

Through tracing these moments in the tale of The Grey Album, I have suggested that remix is a style of cultural production that can influence the emerging directions of social computing, and that remix activities participate in a “greying” of the Internet itself. But I am not advocating a naïve belief in something like remixism or remixology. And while there might be some wisdom in tapping into the underlying ethos of the remix, there is no inherent virtue that resides inside the act of remixing itself. Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics reminds us of that: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”[8] As remixes circulate and amplify around the world there are no guarantees that such acts will be a progressive, trangressive, and generative. Remix, after all, might just stay in the register of “play” and fail to bring about any meaningful social and political change.

However, in closing, I would like to draw attention to a similar historical moment when an artistic movement contributed to meaningful social change. I feel that there are important parallels between the Situationist International (SI) and remix culture.[9] SI and its major innovator, Guy Debord, came out of a critique of the society of the spectacle, and some of its major aesthetic maneuvers, such as detournement, derive and psychogeography, are part of the legacy behind remix culture. And as SI burst into political consciousness in May 1968, one can imagine how remix culture might have similar impacts, if Grey Tuesday is more of the movement’s seedbed rather than its major political flowering. And while this type of stance might be more associated with the ideas of DJ Spooky–an avowedly political DJ–, more than DJ Danger Mouse, the act of DJing has its “virtuous” aspects.

Remix is filled with potential. Remix can resist totalizing narratives and open up texts to new meanings. It can be deeply multicultural. The Grey Album was more than just underground entertainment; it lead to new moments of activism and creative expression. Remix is an activity that can celebrate our diversity, explore our differences, and renew our histories. In these uncertain times, there are more reasons than ever to embrace remix culture and give mix a chance.


[2] There is no easy way to confirm how many sites participated, but it was at least in the hundreds.

[5] See DJ Spooky Interview with Carlo Simula for his book
MILLESUONI. OMAGGIO A DELEUZE E GUATTARI
(Cronopio Edizioni) http://www.djspooky.com/articles/deleuze_and_guattari.php

[6] Bennington, Geoffrey. Lyotard: Writing the Event. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988. p. 104

[7] See Time and the Fragmented Subject in Minority Report by Martin Hall in Rhizomes 8, spring 2004. Though it is beyond the scope of this paper, I see Minority Report as a key remix allegory, especially in its innovative gestural interface. In many productive ways, and as I have argued in several of my course lectures, Tom Anderton (Tom Cruise) in Minority Report–though obstensibly a law enforcement officer– is coded as “a DJ” and a remix artist. His remix abilities are the basis of his skill in reading the clues given by the Pre-Cogs. The “Larval Subjects” blog has a great analysis of Hall’s argument if you would like to pursue this line of argumentation further: http://larval-subjects.blogspot.com/2006/11/future-anterior.html

[8] See Plato’s Nichomachean Ethics.

[9] See my previous blog entry on Guy Debord’s Memoires for more on the Situationist International.

The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup (Part 1 of 2)

I give Terry Gross and Jay-Z credit for the timing of this blog entry.

On November 16, 2010, Jay-Z appeared NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross. Jay-Z was on a media blitz surrounding his new book that was released that day, Decoded–part autobiography, part analysis and discussion of his most provocative songs. As I was listening my ears perked up when Terry Gross asked him what he thought about The Grey Album, an unauthorized remix-mashup of his Black Album done in 2002 by DJ Danger Mouse. For fans familiar with previous comments on The Grey Album, Jay-Z’s response to Terry Gross was not surprising:

“I think it was a really strong album. I champion any form of creativity. And that was a genius idea to do, and it sparked so many others like it. It’s really good. … I was honored someone took the time to mash those records up with Beatles records. I was honored to be on quote-unquote the same song with The Beatles.”

DJ Danger Mouse’s “genius idea” is something I’ve been thinking about since I first learned about The Grey Album back on Grey Tuesday (Feb. 24, 2004). This is a paper in which I address The Grey Album as a critical moment in the cultural reception and popularity of the mashup in the digital age. As Jay-Z notes, “it sparked so many others like it.” In fact since 2004, the influence and the legacies of the Grey Album have come into sharper relief. What started out as an underground project is now fully mainstream. And as Jay-Z’s comments reminded me, The Grey Album is still a very relevant topic, one that continues to be brought up in discussions of culture, digital and otherwise. Moreover, there is a tendency in writing about digital culture–as a kind of history of the present–to focus on the latest phenomenon, the newest tech wrinkle, this day’s RSS feed. Today’s blog entry desires to fight against that tendency and I am curious to explore if time has given me any new perspectives on The Grey Album.

Today’s blog entry traces its roots back to 2006. This is a slightly revised version of a paper I presented twice in 2006, but never published. As always, I welcome feedback on these ideas. In revising this paper I realize that it bears many of the marks and quirks of digital culture circa 2006. It’s amazing how fast things have been changing lately. The earliest version of this paper was written prior to rise of Facebook, and while Youtube was still a fairly new phenomenon. But I am leaving in many of my original thoughts and potentially dated references in this time period since it is a kind of snapshot: a moment of early adoption of a nascent cultural practice.

Due to its length, I will publish it in two separate blog entries, but it is intended as one paper.

The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup


“Now can I get an encore? Do you want more?”

–Jay-Z, from the song “Encore”

1. Yesterday and Today

At the 2006 Grammys, rap artist Jay-Z and the nu-metal band Linkin Park won an award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for their hit single, “Numb/Encore,” which took Linkin Park’s musical riffs from their song “Numb” and combined it with Jay-Z’s lyrics for his song “Encore.” In essence, the collaboration amounted to something that DJs have been doing for a long time; namely, it was a mash-up, a musical remix genre that operates according to recombinatory logic. The mash-up takes the vocal tracks from one song and combines it with the instrumental tracks of a different song. As Jay-Z and the multiple members of Linkin Park crowded around the podium to accept their 2006 Grammy award, the first persons mentioned in the “thank you” speeches were not record companies, family members, friends, fellow musicians or even agents; rather Chester Benington of Linkin Park thanked the lawyers who made this mash-up possible. Welcome to the world of remixes and mashups, where this type of collaboration, even when pursued by the original copyright holders themselves, runs into a gamut of legal obstacles, and successfully navigating the labyrinth of the copyright industries is as important an artistic challenge as creating new music from the loops and samples of pre-existing lyrics, beats and rhythms.

However, that was all prologue to the moment when things got really strange at the 2006 Grammys. After winning the award, Jay-Z and Chester Benington gave a live performance of “Numb/Encore,” and towards the end of the song they where joined live on stage by Sir Paul McCartney who started to sing the classic Beatles song “Yesterday.” While it might have been just the usual superstar pairing of famous artists, which frequently occurs at these types of award shows, this appearance was different. There was clearly an intention behind the performance, even if that ostensible purpose was not being publicly declared in the moment.

Jay-Z, Sir Paul McCartney, Chester Benington (Grammys 2006)

Why did Paul McCartney perform with a rapper and a nu-metal band, and what in any case did “Numb/Encore” have to do with a classic Beatle tune? This live performance provoked strong reactions. It led more than one online fan to exclaim that it “might be a sign of the apocalypse,” and Tom Breihan of The Village Voice deemed it a “truly inexplicable cultural moment.” But even in less dramatic terms, “Yesterday”‘s appearance within the musical context of “Numb/Encore” probably left many members of the viewing audience simply scratching their heads. While it may have resembled something like a pop music Rorschach test, it really was a litmus test.

For anyone familiar with 2004’s Internet-based smash-hit The Grey Album, Paul McCartney singing alongside Jay-Z and Benington was an acknowledgement of a maturing and powerful cultural logic. But one’s reaction to the performance was contingent on one’s relation to remix culture. Record company executives had to be upset by the performance, which on some level, validated copyright violators and a post-Napster peer-to-peer music sharing mentality that many of them find anathema. It reminded many consumers who legally purchased Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s song that it came out of “free” or “folk” remix gestures, and moreover this was not the first time that Jay-Z’s lyrics were associated with the music of the Beatles. For the performers themselves, musical legacies were at stake: Paul McCartney continued to assert the importance of his Beatles’ work in the age of hip-hop, and Jay-Z publicly demonstrated his role as a risk-taking rapper and pop music mogul. However if one was completely unfamiliar with remix culture, it was likely that the performance sounded like a cacophonous confusion of rap, metal and pop–a failed supergroup moment that was much less than the sum of its parts.

And while it would be hard to quantify how many members of the audience knew about its connection to remix culture, for those who had listened to The Grey Album–especially millenials or net-gens brought up on mp3 downloads, hip-hop and iPods–the irony of the song’s title “Yesterday” would not have been completely lost on them, even though they were not even born when Beatlemania burst forth on American television screens on the Ed Sullivan Show. What ultimately brought Jay-Z, Linkin Park, and Paul McCartney together that night in March 2006 was something fiercely contemporary–an experiment just two years earlier by Brian Burton, better known as a British DJ who goes by the psuedonym of Danger Mouse.

2. DJ Danger Mouse and The Grey Album

“It was my intent to create an art project.”

–Brian Burton aka DJ Danger Mouse

Danger Mouse

DJ Danger Mouse got his name from his favorite cartoon, a 1980s British animated mouse of the same name, and Danger Mouse’s relationship to animated characters occurs throughout his creative output. In addition to a cartoon character supplying his DJ persona, Danger Mouse has worked with alt-rapper MF Doom on the 2004 release “The Mouse and The Mask,” which contains guest appearances from Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim cartoon characters like Brak from Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Also, in 2005, he worked as a producer with the Gorillaz on their album, Demon Days, and the Gorillaz are an “animated band” that does not really exist. When asked to describe his style in 2004, Danger Mouse called it “bastard pop” along the lines of his commercial successes like his early work with Jemini on the album Ghetto Pop Life. For his hit, “Crazy,” he collaborated with singer Cell-Lo Green as part of Gnarls Barkley. “Crazy” in April 2006 set a record in the UK for being the first single ever to reach the top of the British pop charts on the strength of Internet downloads alone.

Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) on set of TRL in 2008

For DJ Danger Mouse, it seems as if his contention that the “art is more important than the artist” is ringing true. His work spans multiple and ever-changing personas, including his recent involvement in Broken Bells, his collaboration with Shins lead vocalist and guitarist James Mercer.[1] While he has worked successfully for several years now in commercial music circles, a large measure of his acclaim comes from projects like “Crazy” and The Grey Album that begin their lives as Internet phenomena.

In early 2004, DJ Danger Mouse created The Grey Album, a mash-up of tracks from Jay-Z’s The Black Album with musical samples from the Beatles’ White Album. It was a high concept project. The blending of the high modernism of the Beatles’ White Album with the postmodernism of Jay-Z’s a cappela vocals from The Black Album has a wonderful dialectical ring to it, and in practice, the melding of these two musical artifacts–which might have seemed very incompatible–is a successful and groundbreaking effort. For example, in the song, “99 Problems” Jay-Z’s hard-core raps are matched by the sonic debris of the raging guitar riffs from Helter Skelter. For Jay-Z’s “Encore,” Danger Mouse sampled the vocal hook “Oh Yeah” and the guitar lead from the song “Glass Onion” with the infectious pop instrumentality of George Harrison’s “Savory Truffle.” In many ways, the samples turned the original Beatles songs inside out. Danger Mouse’s skillful mashups and the overall concept captivated fans of remix culture. Many of the tracks were considered “better” than the originally released version on The Black Album.

Originally, DJ Danger Mouse had planned on making only a few copies of his remix experiment (according to published reports, he planned on a limited run of 3,000 copies), so he did not bother at all with attempting to get rights clearances to the Beatles’ tunes he was sampling. And prior to digital music on the Internet, Danger Mouse’s remix would most likely have been released as a 12″ specialty vinyl EP, restricted to being played in a few dance clubs, sold in a few record stores in the import remix bins, and never moved beyond the bounds of its sub-cultural and/or underground origins and circulation. However, The Grey Album received widespread notoriety when EMI (one of the copyright owners of the Beatles’ musical catalog) sued DJ Danger Mouse for copyright infringement. This action had the opposite effect than EMI intended. As Mike D. of the Beastie Boys has said, “What can be cooler than being sued by the Beatles?”[2] Downhill Battle, a music activism group, took up Danger Mouse’s cause, and the resulting event was Grey Tuesday, where Downhill Battle lined up websites to host the digital files of The Grey Album to distribute the tracks as widely as possible on the Internet. On the protest’s biggest day–Tuesday, February 24, 2004–the tracks of The Grey Album had at least one million downloads, making it the number one album in the United States that day, outperforming such commercial artists like Norah Jones and Kanye West.

Subsequently, spurred on by DJ Danger Mouse’s “success,” other mainstream artists were remixed with Jay-Z’s a cappela tracks, resulting in similar projects with the music of Weezer, Pavement, Prince, and Metallica. One video project also emerged from this moment, Ramon and Pedro’s The Grey Video, which was a video mash-up of film clips from the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night with concert footage of Jay-Z, and some original green screen effects and additional motion graphics. However, the project probably had its most interesting outcome when Jay-Z himself decided to release remixes of tracks from the Black Album. Lining up the nu metal band Linkin Park, Jay-Z embarked upon a project under the auspices of  “MTV’s Ultimate Mash-Ups.” Released in November 2004, the mash-up track “Numb/Encore” garnered a Grammy nomination, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The many lives of the Grey Album and its influence on remix culture in an age of social media is the focus of this paper. I believe that the “grey” in the title of Danger Mouse’s project is a useful metaphor for understanding changes now underway on computer-mediated networks. There has been a “greying” of the Internet in two senses.

First, embodied by the logic of a mashup, a “grey” Internet is emerging as people, laws, codes, corporations, governments and technology remix the very foundations of the Internet, and blur the boundaries between utopian and dystopian possibilities for the medium. Emergent online realities are neither the “white” cyberspace frontier fantasy of the pre-Dotcom era nor the “black” Big Brother corporate enclosure model. The Internet is more “grey” than ever, especially in its privileging of individual agency in the network architecture (participatory culture), in the tensions between social networking and privacy concerns, and in encouraging remix aesthetics in a legal and corporate system diametrically opposed to it.

Secondly, the Internet is “greying” as it ages. In this sense, it is a “living web,” a network of sites that learned from the youthful indiscretions, a network that grew up in the aftermath of the Dotcom era. This “greying” Internet is being bombarded by problems generated  by growth and necessity: questions of net neutrality, battles among Internet giants such as Google and Amazon, the rise of the mobile web, and the enclosures created by social networks such as Facebook. It is not surprising to me that Tim Berners-Lee has just come out to defend the youthful vision of his Web in a Scientific American article. 1989 seems so long ago in digital time. Intriguing, in the sense of “greying” that I am advancing here, Berners-Lee states in his article:

“Yet people seem to think the Web is some sort of piece of nature, and if it starts to wither, well, that’s just one of those unfortunate things we can’t help. Not so. We create the Web, by designing computer protocols and software; this process is completely under our control. We choose what properties we want it to have and not have. It is by no means finished (and it’s certainly not dead).” (Scientific American, Nov. 22, 2010)

The Grey Album is an intriguing cultural experiment to follow: it moved from relative obscurity to mainstream visibility, from a DJ-based subculture to mainstream commercial television, from a singular remix to a plurality of remixes, from an audio-only project into a host of creative enterprises. The Grey Album is not a monolithic story of alternative media production. Following traces of the project through the cores and peripheries of folk and commercial cultures, The Grey Album resembles not so much an object as a “net of nets,” a blurred and blurring cultural meme, moving rhizomatically through the “meshworks” of an increasingly distributed Internet platform.

3. DJs, Remix Culture and Social Media

“We need to think of music as information, not simply as rhythms, but as codes for aesthetic transformation between blurred categories that have slowly become more and more obsolete. For me, the DJ metaphor is about thinking around the concept of collage and its place in the everyday world of information, computational modeling, and conceptual art.”

–DJ Spooky

This paper is predicated on two premises. First, remix culture has become a dominant mode of cultural production, a nexus of activities through which we can better understand what is happening in today’s global, computer-mediated networks. Second, the Internet, as a site of cultural production, is in a period of change, most commonly referred to today as Web 2.0, but also known as social computing. Social computing finds its greatest examples in new forms of online collaboration and media sharing such as blogging, podcasting, wikis, photo-sharing services like Flickr, video sharing services as Youtube, online communities like Facebook and Second Life, and online merchants such as Amazon.com, Netflix and iTunes.

As a mode of production, remix activities continue to grow in popularity. I like Bernard Schutze’s observation that “in remixing, one acts upon existing cultural materials pilfered from the vast landfills of the already mixed and mediated landscape.”[3] Remix artists foreground social interaction and cultural communication, and remixes blur boundaries and privilege polysemy. But this is far from a new phenomenon. It has a long history. Contemporary remix culture connects to many aesthetic movements in the 20th century, especially certain privileged moments of modernist art. It comes out of an artistic continuum that contains a wide array of visual and audio precursors: Sergei Eisenstein’s montage, Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, Andre Breton’s surrealist games, William Burrough’s cut-ups, Joseph Cornell’s assemblages, Roy Lichtenstein’s and Andy Warhol’s pop art, Joseph Beuys’ performance art, James Tenney’s avant-garde music, Grand Master Flash’s scratching, and John Oswald’s plunderphonics, to just begin to scratch the surface. But it has been in the realm of digital media, that remix culture has truly flourished and moved from a mostly high art aesthetic into a practice of everyday life.

PCs and Macs now come equipped, right out of the box, with basic creativity programs that allow even the least artistic computer users to engage in some forms of remix. There are many available online tools that encourage remix practices. Plugging into remix culture has never been easier. End-users on millions of computers can be nonchalant about the “aura” of the artist, and decenter the “author function” to the very margins of the mode of production. Users of Adobe Photoshop can create image-collages that required sophisticated knowledge of photographic emulsion just a generation before. Apple Computer’s and its suite of iLife programs, including Garageband, iPhoto and iMovie, encourage remix aesthetics in their very programming and pre-set templates such as iMovie’s new trailer remix tool. Garageband comes pre-loaded with thousands of musical samples, and users are encouraged to make their own “original” compositions out of these pre-recorded musical bits. Articles in Wired Magazine actively promote this as an “age of remix,” where this is a dominant mode of cultural production. Never before have amateur media producers had such professional tools at their disposal as they do in the current moment. We are witnessing the rise of the “pro-amateur class” in media production.

The pro-amateur is not only a key authorial presence in remix culture, but in digital media culture and on digital networks generally. In many ways, the pro-amateur is also important in educational circles, where digital creativity is increasingly finding its way into the curriculum and is considered an important skill for productive labor in the 21st century. According to scientist John Seely Brown,

“Most of what we learn we learn with and from each other [involves] doing things, things that matter to us. For example, the capability of today’s more participatory web starts to enable us to form communities of interest and to build and share things together. The remix movements are an obvious example…what I see unfolding is an organic culture of learning for us all…. from sports fanatics to geeks to authors, artists and amateur astronomers. Let’s just call it the rise of the pro-amateur class–serious explorations and creations we do for the love of doing it. Remember the term amateur comes from the Latin ‘amatour’ meaning for love. This more learner-centric, socially based learning, will enable us to keep up with the pace of change and enable us to feel comfortable with having multiple careers as both we and the world unfold at a challenging pace.” [4]

In this sense, many DJs are pro-amateurs, as we will see in the case of DJ Danger Mouse. But bloggers, podcasters, and alternative news services like Indymedia.org, the Daily Kos, or Moveon.org are other great examples of the pro-amateur. It is not amateur as in the words most negative senses–“inferior,” “unprofessional” or “naïve”–but amateur as operating outside of the imperatives of industrial culture. Avant–garde filmmaker Maya Deren, among others, has persuasively shown that the amateur might in fact have certain advantages over paid professionals in the culture industries. In most cases, there are no or limited commercial imperatives behind blogging or podcasting or alternative news services. We are witnessing an explosion of amateur producers who are creating what Yochai Benkler would deem a “wealth of networks” that is revolutionizing the way we locate information, obtain our news, and participate in shared cultural activity. This has spawned a large diversity of creative productions that challenges existing notions of mass media and traditional communication apparatuses.

But these changes are not happening in a cultural or technological vacuum. We are in the era of social media. In 2006, this new term has had its “coming out” party in major periodicals like Newsweek, which calls social computing the “new wisdom of the web” or “the living web.”[5] Tim O’Reilly, of O’Reilly Media, is one of the major thinkers behind a new conception of “design patterns and business models” for software development involving online networks.[6] It is useful to remind ourselves of the initial expectations surrounding social media. Before the term had widespread currency, O’Reilly said that:

“Web 2.0 is the network as platform, spanning all connected devices; Web 2.0 applications are those that make the most of the intrinsic advantages of that platform: delivering software as a continually-updated service that gets better the more people use it, consuming and remixing data from multiple sources, including individual users, while providing their own data and services in a form that allows remixing by others, creating network effects through an “architecture of participation,” and going beyond the page metaphor of Web 1.0 to deliver rich user experiences.” [7] (emphasis added)

As this quote ably demonstrates, remixing was always already seen as a central activity in Web 2.0 culture. Lev Manovich, building on the work of Richard MacManus and Joshua Porter, argues that remixing will be abetted by another change: the web is going to be dominated by microcontent. MacManus and Porter see it this way: “Enter Web 2.0, a vision of the Web in which information is broken up into “microcontent” units that can be distributed over dozens of domains. The Web of documents has morphed into a Web of data. Now we’re looking to a new set of tools to aggregrate and remix microcontent in new and useful ways.[8] Importantly, as Manovich suggests, “…it is much 
easier to ‘aggregate and remix microcontent’ if it is not locked by a 
design. Strait ASCII file, a JPEG, a map, a sound or video file can move
around the Web and enter into user-defined remixes such as a set of RSS 
feeds; cultural objects where the parts are locked together (such as Flash 
interface) can’t. In short, in the era of Web 2.0 and social media, ‘information wants to be
 ASCII.”[9] In this sense, when Jay-Z released an a capella version of The Black Album, he turned his vocals into microcontent. His rap lyrics have been remixed frequently because his vocal tracks are not trapped within the sonic packaging of The Black Album. By transforming his vocals into microcontent he gave voice to hundreds of remix artists, and in doing so, also amplified the reach of his voice–a lesson that is difficult for some contemporary record companies to understand. Microcontent brings up the issue of niche, narrow, splinter or sub-cultural communities, and one could argue that by definition, microcontent supports the potential for a greater diversity of content than witnessed in Web 1.0 culture.

But the idea of ever-greater amounts of diverse microcontent might portend more problems than solutions in arenas of cultural production. If the audience continues to splinter into very small units, what will happen over the long term to the “mass audience?” In this sense, I am not arguing that microcontent alone will usher in a new period of “free culture” on the Internet. Given the history of co-optation of folk cultures by mass media industries, corporate media conglomerates benefit from a splintered folk culture and can take advantage of a network of pro-sumers that diffuses their collective bargaining power across a global network. Trends, like Apple’s Garageband and iMovie, shows that certain segments in the culture industries welcome microcontent which they repackage as “free” content, while users still have to pay for software, access, storage space and network bandwidth.

Here the notion of the “long tail” is useful. Chris Anderson first used the term in a 2004 Wired Magazine article, and in a subsequent book.[10] In an analysis of blogging, Anderson argues that only a handful of blogs have large readerships, while most blogs have very few readers. Even so, the total readership of the blogosphere is distributed across all of the blogs and that the aggregrate audience for the less-read blogs is larger than the audience size for popular blogs. Frequently, this insight is understood in terms of business models: it is used to explain the success of Amazon.com or Netflix, where their very structure of revenue-generation benefits from the distributed nature of this effect. When competing with “brick and mortar” stores, such as Borders or Barnes and Noble, Amazon can afford to stock books that have almost no large readership because there is no “limit” to how many books Amazon can afford to stock in its online “store.” Alternatively, Netflix claims that “unpopular” films create more revenue than all of the popular new releases.

But what does this have to do with DJs, remix culture, digital entertainment and social media? It matters because the long tail model suggests that cultural productions do not have to appeal to the largest potential audiences. This is in distinction to the traditional world of mass broadcasting, i.e. the way that a film has to recoup its hundreds of millions of dollars of investments in its opening weekend, or the way that TV shows have to have large audiences to generate sizable advertising revenues. In the aggregate of the “long tail,” niche tastes can be catered to, and folk, avant-garde or non-commercial productions can succeed with rather small audience sizes. In this regard, remix culture can be successful even when it is narrowcast or splintercast on the Internet.

As narrowcasting takes hold, what will be the dominant model of cultural production? Can alternative or non-commercial productions in this sense really compete with corporate media culture? As the work of Henry Jenkins suggests, we are more involved than ever before in remix activities, but is this really posing a threat to the interests of media corporation? It is far too easy to envision the corporate re-appropriation of much of the collaborative work behind remix culture. While the medium might be the message, we are still willing to pay for messages in certain media, such as the fees attached to text messaging on cell phones. Furthermore, while many musical remix projects do not require much capital, other media forms, such as Hollywood films and major label music releases, are dependent upon expensive and time-consuming production processes including access to large teams of personnel, high-end equipment, professional guilds and talented performers.

Remix culture is symbiotic with popular culture. The best known mash-ups require recognizable and popular entertainment sources to succeed. Part of the genius behind the Grey Album is that the Beatles music is culturally ubiquitous. It would have been a very different project, if DJ Danger Mouse mashed up Jay-Z to the music of John Cage. That would have also drawn a lawsuit–John Cage’s estate is notoriously litigious–but such a project would not have become a cause celebre. The popularity of the referent in a mash-up matters. And if there is vanguardism in remix culture, it does not strike me as avant-garde in the traditional sense. It is not so much about “shocking the bourgeoisie” as media-savvy work aimed directly at youth culture, a culture that has always explored the worlds of bricolage, fantasy, and sub-culture.

UP NEXT:
The Greying of the Internet, Part 2: Grey Tuesday, Copyright Activism, and The Grey Video


Footnotes:

[1] See for example the Wikipedia entry on The Grey Album for Brian Burton’s take on the artistic freedom of remix culture

[2] Quote from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul’s_Boutique

[3] Schutze, Bernard. “Samples from the Heap: Notes on Recycling the Detritus of a Remixed Culture.” inHorizon Zero: Issue 8. Remix: Generate, Regenerate, Transform.  http://www.horizonzero.ca/textsite/remix.php?is=8&file=5&tlang=0