Two Challenges to the ‘Everything is a Remix’ Argument

As we try to convince ourselves, rather arrogantly, that we live in an unprecedented era of human history (and really, doesn’t every generation want to think so?), it has become popular to say that everything is a remix. This sounds like a defeatist attitude at first, like we’re just poor players on a well-trod stage, doomed to re-enact the dramas of our elders. But the idea has caught on because it serves as a rallying cry for increased democracy in the arts; as a justification for tearing down copyright restrictions; and as an easy way for fusty critics to seem cool by coming out “boldly” in favor of, say, Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album. So we’re going through a cycle where everyone wants to be the loudest person in the room shouting the old, old maxim that “art is theft.”

(For background, see here and here.)

Possibly without meaning to, David Orr offers a very tangible critique of this rather abstract notion, by covering a rare subject: the overabundance of epigraphs in contemporary poetry. It seems few of today’s poets can even begin a poem without quoting a handful of their favorite writers first. And while the epigraph has a long tradition in poetry, today’s poets may be going overboard.

“Very often,” he says of the epigraph, “the main thing is not what it says but who its author is, plus the sense of indirect backing that its presence at the edge of a text gives rise to.” The point, then, isn’t Karl Marx’s wisdom, it’s “Karl Marx.”

[O]nce a symbol of ambition, the epigraph is now more likely to be an indication of community. It tells us less about whom a poet hopes to equal and more about where he’d like to hang out.

When poets quote Stevens but not Eliot (or Frost, for that matter), the implication is they expect a potential reader to be the sort of person who considers Stevens the Acceptable Name.

The implication (if you ask me) is that a cut-and-paste approach to art doesn’t create much of anything; it mostly reinforces existing tastes and identifies social in-groups. In other words, David Shields can suck it.

So… what to say about this?

Aside from the accidental hilariousness of a young, amateur historian making a huge claim about “how the world works” based on a close reading of the Sugar Hill Gang?

We’ll say this. Everything is a remix in the same way that Tiger Woods is black. He’s actually half Asian, one quarter black, one eighth Native American, and one eight Dutch. If you’re saying that anyone with a drop of African American blood is black, then sure, Tiger Woods belongs in the category of things that are (at least partially) black. By that reasoning, “Stairway to Heaven” and Harry Potter and Will Smith’s rapping oeuvre can be considered remixes. Because they include parts that are borrowed from other things. If that’s what the maker of this little film was trying to prove, then congratulations, guy. You’ve just demonstrated something so obvious and so impossible to quantify that it’s functionally meaningless.

Black is not the only thing Tiger Woods is. You can’t separate his black parts from the rest of him. It’s the same for “everything” that is a remix: these works of art contain an element of something that came before them. Plus a bunch of other stuff. In quantities and arrangements that are unique to each work. It’s those quantities and arrangements that define the artwork—not their inclusion in some umbrella category of “things that borrow from other things.” As David Orr suggests, the borrowed elements are often the least important, artistically, since they serve mostly to establish the work’s pedigree among fans and insiders.

What about the other 3/4 of Tiger Woods?

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Filed under "Non-fiction", how fiction explains the world, theory of everything

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