Monday, August 20, 2012


The topic of remix has come up here on occasion, and it's one I cover in my Introduction to New Media class at Fordham University.  So it seems only right that I include this Ted Talk video that recently came to my attention, entitled Kirby Ferguson: Embracing the Remix. Here's what the blurb over on YouTube says:

Nothing is original, says Kirby Ferguson, creator of Everything is a Remix. From Bob Dylan to Steve Jobs, he says our most celebrated creators both borrow, steal and transform.

And of course, I hasten to add that there is nothing original about the idea that there is nothing original.  As Walter Ong explains in Orality and Literacy, this realization is relatively recent in literary circles, where it is associated with the concept of intertextuality, that no text is a closed system, but that all texts draw on previous writings through quotation, allusion, or simple influence. 

Moreover, what is generally unacknowledged is the fact that the language itself is borrowed, not the invention of the author.  In this sense, all writing is remixAnd all speech as well.

Through most of the modern era, originality was idealized to the point of worship. And as general semantics scholar Wendell Johnson notes, idealization is the first step of the IFD Disease, a result of treating high level abstractions as if they were concrete phenomena, and failing to adequately define our terms, establish procedures, and set measurable goals.  As the IFD disease progresses, idealization leads to frustration, and ends with demoralization. And in some instances, the elusiveness of originality was seen as reason enough for suicide, at least among poetic types in the Romantic era.

And let's not forget the first lines of the Book of Ecclesiastes (the original Hebrew name of the scroll being Kohelet, which means preacher), attributed to King Solomon.  Here's the poetic rendering from the good old King James Version:

1  The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2  Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
3  What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?
4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
5  The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
6  The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
7  All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full: unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
8  All things are full of labor; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
9  The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
10  Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

So life is a remix, whether you believe in the Bible, or in those twisty strands of DNA.  Well, anyway, where was I. Oh yes, the video, right, here it is (and special thanks to Maria Popova and Brain Pickings for bringing this to my attention):

As you might have guessed from the fact that I am including the video here, I am generally sympathetic to Kirby's view.  Of course, there was the case of George Harrison being found guilty of plagiarism, however unintended it may have been.  Here's a YouTube video that does a great job of demonstrating how Harrison's 1970 hit song "My Sweet Lord" really did plagiarize "He's So Fine," a song written by Ronald Mack and recorded by The Chiffons in 1962:

And that's the problem, after all. We don't want to do away with intellectual property rights altogether, or at least I don't think we do.  In fact, as a product of the typographic media environment, they are very much undermined by the electronic media, and especially by the fact that digital copying can be done so easily, and without loss of quality. While the extension of copyright to protect corporate interests is absolutely unwarranted, those interests, and those of all intellectual property holders, individual and conglomerate, are threatened as never before by the new technologies, and there is no easy solution. 

I am far from alone in saying that for many years Lawrence Lessig has been a voice of reason in all this, and his fabulous Ted Talk is included in my previous post, Say Amen to Digital Sampling, along with a very interesting YouTube video that relates to it.  And for something a bit more offbeat, another post from a while back on the topic is McLuhan Redux/Remix.

And yeah, I know, this post wasn't very original at all, was it?  Maybe we need a new word, like maybe...


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