“Something Fresh Out of Something Stale”

Or, Mashing Up MoLit Redux: Redux

This past September, in response to Ken’s post about mashing up Mormon literature and the purposes behind the repurposing of language and literature, in general, Ardis asked a question that turned my wheels a-spinnin’. Asked she, “[W]hat’s the point of being deliberately, unrelentingly unoriginal” by taking others’ work, repurposing it, and sending it out into the world? “Why is suppressing the urge toward originality,” as she assumes mash-up arists do, “more conducive to self-expression than the effort to, you know, actually be self-expressive?”

Seuss-style, I respond to Ardis’ question with three things (I was going to add my comment to the post itself, but my response grew beyond comment-length; hence, this):

Thing One: I don’t think it’s productive to argue that all mash-ups or remixes suppress the urge toward originality and self-expression. I’m thinking here of seven instances—four specific and three more general, though even as I think I stir up more instances—in which artists/creators have, to various degrees, remixed different aspects of culture or other preexisting materials in order to create something new:

a. God, who didn’t create anything ex nihilo, but who remixed extant materials in order to build universes, galaxies, worlds, us. And who’s going to call God unoriginal?

b. Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (among other works) in which he’s “borrowed” compositional elements, plot lines, bits of dialogue, costumes, etc., from a range of films to “piece” together his own story. Here’s a video that details some of these “borrowings.” (Caution: contains some graphic scenes).

Everything Is A Remix: KILL BILL from robgwilson.com on Vimeo.

c. Greg Michael Gillis (aka Girl Talk), a musician who specializes in mashups and digital sampling. Here’s a video that illustrates his creative process, wherein he “borrows” a small bit of music (in this case a second or so of an Elvis Costello song) and manipulates it in various ways in order to construct a new, shall we call it, original song:

Girl Talk Creates a Mashup from OpenSourceCinema on YouTube.

Girl Talk has a huge following and is the subject of a really interesting documentary called RiP: A Remix Manifesto. For anyone interested, the film’s available in parts on YouTube and in full on Hulu. It’s a really interesting exploration of the issues surrounding mashups, including copyright laws and creativity. I especially like its opening line: “Today we’re going to create a mashup, a fun and adventurous way to create something fresh out of something stale.”

d. Mister Tim, who in his live-looping act not only mashes himself up against himself, but who also “covers” and mashes up songs from other arists as well in order to entertain audiences. I’ve embedded an example below. Mister Tim has appeared on AMV before, courtesy of mash-up lover Laura.

Mister Tim Live-Looping SWEET DREAMS (medley): 2009 Las Vegas A Cappella Summit from MisterTimVids on YouTube.

e. Found poems, which “take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. The literary equivalent of a collage, found poetry is often made from newspaper articles, street signs, graffiti, speeches, letters, or even other poems.” This poetic form became prominent in the twentieth-century, in the shadow of Pop Art (think Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp) (ref).

In 1995, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard published a collection of found poems called Mornings Like This. In the Author’s Note, she suggests, as I have here, that found poems are “the literary equivalents of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans and Duchamp’s bicycle,” then she offers up something about what a poet does when s/he remixes existing texts into poetry: “By entering a found text as a poem, the poet doubles its context. The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles,” between it’s non-remixed function and it’s remixed function, wherein “[t]he poet adds,” she continues, “or at any rate increases, the element of delight. This is an urban, youthful, ironic, cruising kind of poetry. It serves up whole texts [to readers], or uninterrupted fragments of texts,” in the form and language of poetry (ix). So found poetry is ironic poetry, poetry conceived of and meant to critique, even overturn, the ironies of an ironic age. Dillard’s conclusion to her Note is telling in this regard, “This [book] is [the result of] editing at its extreme: writing without composing. Half the poems seek to serve poetry’s oldest and most sincere aims”—to create an aesthetic experience of human life and to give readers pleasure in language being perhaps two of them—“with one of its newest and most ironic methods, to dig deep with a shallow tool. The other half” of the poems, she says, “are just jokes” (x).

One of Dillard’s poems, “The Sign of Your Father,” seems apropos to our current context: discussing the artistic uses, reuses, and recycling of religious texts; the religious uses of art and culture. Here’s the poem (the epigraph cites its original context):

(From Mornings Like This, p. 8-9.)

In her Author’s Note, Dillard comments briefly on one function of this remixed text (the religious nature and implications of which she seems especially critical):

The New Testament Apocrypha is a loose collection of written legends and, chiefly, torn and damaged fragments. Scholar-editors print such texts carefully to show—using ellipses and question marks—where fragments break off and which translations are guesses. An edition of the New Testament Apocrypha yields a poem [“The Sign of Your Father”] about the baffling quality of Christ’s utterances and the absurdly fragmentary nature of spiritual knowledge. Like many of these poems, it looks surprisingly sober on the page. (x)

f. The oral-formulaic composition of epic poetry, wherein (the theory goes) poets like Homer and contemporary Serbo-Croatian poets drew/draw from a stockpile of formulas (including phrases and symbols) as aids to help them compose (“mash-up”) poems “on-the-fly,” in the act of performance. This theory was first posited and explored in depth by Albert Lord in his book Singer of Tales (from which I’ve only read a page or two). It continues to be explored and developed by oral performance scholars, including John Miles Foley, who offers an excellent introduction to the topic in his book How To Read an Oral Poem.

g. Language itself, which thrives because humans continually mash-up “stale” letters and words in different combinations in order to create “fresh” and mind-expanding combinations.

Which leads me, somewhat indirectly, to

Thing Two: Everything is a remix. Languages, cultures, literatures (including scripture, as Ken suggests), music, films. Nothing can be created ex nihilo. No act of self-expression ever arises independently of other expressive acts and materials. The link in my first statement leads to an excellent series of videos produced and distributed by filmmaker Kirby Ferguson and titled, of course, “Everything is a Remix.” These videos explore the idea of mash-ups and remix culture in ways that question a) our general take on creativity as making something wholly original and b) a lot of the premises of copyright laws, which leads me, again, to

Thing Three: In light of the explosion of creativity, knowledge-sharing, and user-generated content made possible in the digital age, I wonder how we might reconsider our deep-seated and fundamental reliance on copyright and intellectual property laws as means to control access to and distribution of information. I’m not saying everything needs to be distributed free-of-charge or that creators should surrender all rights to their creations. Lawrence Lessig, a lawyer, professor, political activist, and authority on issues of copyright, speaks convincingly to the idea that many of our laws may just be choking creativity. Many others (including Lessig and, to make the connection to some aspect of Mormon culture, BYU professor of Instructional Psychology and Technology David Wiley) are building a Creative Commons and working to instill open values and to implement the open sharing of knowledge in culture and education, among other things.

With our current, perhaps overly-strict conception of intellectual property and the policing strategies that accompany this strictness—especially in academia, though academia’s concerns over plagiarism often make their way —the knee jerk reaction many people have to issues of plagiarism might just create more problems than it pretends to solve. I think, for instance, of one of my wife’s former professors who wanted her students to cite every claim they make in their papers—every claim. She wanted to know where all of their ideas originated. Not only does this approach to writing and scholarship create a very prohibitive reading experience—who wants to read something with a citation, or often, multiple citations, after every sentence?—it’s unrealistic, especially since (per Thing Two) every idea is derivative and who keeps track of the source behind every idea they’ve ever had? Wiley shares a similar experience in this video on open education and the future (at about the 11 minute mark). Again, I’m not arguing that we allow students, scholars, writers, artists, etc., to draw wholesale from others’ work without giving credit where credit should be given. But I am suggesting that it’s probably time to think about and approach our discussions regarding plagiarism differently, including by exploring the places where the assumptions of a wholly print culture stand in opposition to the radical openness made possible by the digital age. This openness mirrors in some fundamental ways the openness of primarily oral cultures (as suggested in 1f) where language and its public performance are viewed as aggregative and communal because they build quite explicitly and openly upon what’s come before. And, shocker: performers in these cultures don’t cite their predecessors’ work.

As regards the mashing of Mormon literature, I think Gideon Burton has done something interesting and important with his Open Source Sonnets project, which he’s published under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. What that means is simply that others are free to copy, adapt, distribute, transmit, and make commercial use of Gideon’s work, as long as they give proper attribution. Many of his sonnets are imitations (of Shakespeare, Milton, traditional carols, hymns, etc.) and several remix elements of scripture, generally, and Mormon culture, specifically. These include, to name only several, “Shakespeares of Our Own”, “Seeking the Good”, “Thy Mind, Oh Man”, “We Will Cross the River” (which was further remixed by Kathy Cowley), “The Shining One”, “Kingdoms Many”, “The Lord’s Prayer”, “His Yoke is Easy”, and “Unto the Least”. I think the openness with which Gideon has offered these poems and the remix-methods by which he composed them and with which others have responded creates a precedent that other Mormon writers might follow, in one way or another. It further presents an interesting test case of what Ken points to in terms of the possibilities of Mormon literary mash-ups and Mormon remix culture in general. But I’m not prepared to fully explore that case today. However, it’s in the works.

So let’s ruminate away for a minute on the creative possibilities of repurposed culture. And if you have additional examples of mashed-up artistry, share away…

6 thoughts on ““Something Fresh Out of Something Stale””

  1. One point: sometimes mash-ups and remixes aren’t creating something fresh out of something stale — they are creating something new out of something fresh (using both the standard and slang definitions of that adjective).

  2. Agreed, Wm. I probably should have given that a bit more play here, but it didn’t quite come out as much as it could have.

  3. What do you mean exactly by “retelling,” Mojo? Like just retelling a story in your own words? Or adapting a story? Or…?

  4. Retelling even the same story is in line with being remembered. Broken up as re-member-ed almost as you put the parts together again. It is rebuilt in new and different ways. A story is contingent on the how and where with who and what to also be considered for the outcome.

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