The False “Text” vs. “Media” Dichotomy: Academic Culture as Remix Culture

In this week’s round of responses, others have (rightly) called attention to the false dichotomy Lessig sets up between RO and RW culture. But as I was reading Remix, another opposition struck me as particularly bizarre: the binary Lessig attempts to construct between text and digital media. He boldly claims that

Text is today’s Latin. It is through text that we elites communicate (look at you, reading this book). For the masses, however, most information is gathered through other forms of media: TV, film, music, and music video. These forms of “writing” are the vernacular of today. (Lessig 67)

Wait—really? Even if we narrow Lessig’s definition of “text” to “alphabetic text,” which I believe is what he means, I have a difficult time believing that “the masses” are “gathering information” about the world exclusively through these non-alphabetic media. There’s a crucial distinction to be made here: the non-Latin-speaking ‘commoners’ of the European Middle Ages did not have the literacy necessary to make use of Latin as a medium of communication; the ‘masses’ who consume other kinds of media today are generally  literate in alphabetic texts. Yes, people are watching “New Girl” on TV and streaming movies on Netflix and watching/listening to Britney Spears on iTunes/YouTube/whatever. But they are also reading alphabetic text, even if they are doing so in different ways, in different environments, and surrounded by other media. To find evidence of this, we need only look at Facebook and Twitter, the two most widely used social media programs on the web: these are absolutely alphabetic text-saturated and -reading dependent environments.

No alphabetic text or reading going on here at all, no siree!
No alphabetic text or reading going on here at all, no siree!

The statistics Lessig cites in the same paragraph to claim “falling numbers for text” (67) make it especially apparent that he is falsely distinguishing print alphabetic reading practices from digital alphabetic reading practices. These statistics pit the act of “reading” against “playing games or using a computer for leisure” (67). But is it really not possible that we might read alphabetic texts (both in extended and fragmented forms) while we use our computers for leisure?

What I find particularly problematic about this false dichotomy between “text” and “other media” is that it allows Lessig to then claim that digital media remixes are somehow more convoluted, entangled, or even more creative than textual remixes. Lessig asserts that the ‘quotes’ used in digital remixes “happen at different layers. Unlike text, where the quotes follow in a single line—such as here, where the sentence explains, ‘and then a quote gets added’—remixed media may quote sounds over images, or video over text, or text over sounds. The quotes thus get mixed together. The mix produces the new creative work—the ‘remix’” (69).

As an academic(-in-training), I found myself more than a little irked at Lessig’s oversimplification here of the way that texts and ideas are circulated and remixed through alphabetic writing. In academic writing, we don’t just cite quotations—we cite ideas. Sometimes those ideas get represented through direct quotation, but often they do not: sometimes we paraphrase, sometimes we borrow someone else’s approach and apply it to a new text, and sometimes we do a little thing we like to call academic synthesis wherein we effectively “layer” others’ ideas to produce something new. To borrow some terms and ideas from Joe’s Rewriting, in each of these instances of putting others’ texts in service of our own writing projects, we are effectively rewriting them to say something new—an act I think we can justly call “creative work” and “remix.” Viewed through such a lens, textual remixes seem to me to be at least as complicated and difficult to disentangle as those composed using  digital media.

I highlight all of this in order to suggest that as much as academic culture may have to learn from digital culture (and I think it’s quite a lot!), there may be something digital culture can learn from academia as well. I suspect that the academy values intellectual property as much as the commercial sector, if not more—and yet, it has managed a system of attribution and citation wherein the use of others’ texts and ideas is not just free, but encouraged and expected as a means of contributing to a diverse body of texts and ways of knowing. Citation is more than an obligatory head-nod; it represents coveted influence within the culture. People want their work to be cited, to be rewritten, to be remixed. I am not arguing that academic culture is some utopian ideal, and I recognize that there are issues of compensation bound up in this discussion—issues we’ll no doubt attend to in next week’s discussion of Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence. But I still think there are values inherent to the remix culture of academia that are worth preserving, and worth trying to cultivate in the digital world.

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5 thoughts on “The False “Text” vs. “Media” Dichotomy: Academic Culture as Remix Culture”

  1. Kiley,

    Thinking about how alphabetical text-based remixes compare to those done using “other media” landed me on a particular text that I originally wanted to cover in my own blog post before I got swept away by the Leave-Britney-Alone Train. That text is “Invisible Monsters Remix” by Chuck Palahniuk (author of “Fight Club,” among many other novels), which is essentially exactly what the title forecasts: a “remix” of his 1999 novel “Invisible Monsters,” intended to be read as a “choose your own adventure” type text that would presumably mirror how fashion magazines are intended to be read piecemeal rather than cover-to-cover. (Here is a brief blurb about it from his official website: http://bit.ly/1dcamXC)

    Because I admittedly idolize the original novel to an unhealthy extreme, it took me almost two full years to even buy the “remixed” version, feeling like any changes to the original would just cheapen it. After finally reading the new version, I’m comfortable saying it was largely unnecessary, although there are a few highlights, chief among them how certain “chapters” were written backwards, thereby forcing you to read them while standing in front of a mirror, awkwardly trying to situate the novel within eye range while still (if you’re vain like I am) being able to watch yourself reading.

    What initially struck me as cumbersome actually allowed me to see the novel’s project in a different (pun intended?) light: why should I NOT be able to watch myself read a novel that is so rooted in the destructive forces of vanity and the realization that we’re inherently so nihilistic that we just want to watch ourselves watching ourselves ad nauseam.

    So it seems as though I’ve gotten swept away by another train, but my basic point is that I wanted to AGREE with you that alphabetical texts can be just as “layered” and creative as those created with/on “other media.”

    Phew, what a mouthful/handul – my apologies!

  2. Kiley,

    Two quick responses to your trenchant, if somewhat annoyed, criticisms of Lessig:

    1. I really like the term layering as a description of what academics and intellectuals do. We create palimpsests, writings on writings, in which, at their best, a whole set of texts can be seen at once.

    2. I wonder if it would be useful to revive Walter Ong’s old (1982) idea of secondary orality—which he used to describe a culture soaked in images and sounds (he was thinking mostly of film,TV, and recorded music) but at the same time dependent on and constantly incorporating writing.

    My two cents, almost literally,

    Joe

  3. Kiley,

    Though I posit less that Lessig makes a false dichotomy and more that he identifies a new reality and a purportedly-old myth, Lessig did rub me the wrong way with that text comment–most of digital media, for better or worse, is caught up in The West’s text-first cultural paradigm. It seems to be one of those things that came with us even though, maybe, it didn’t have to. But the internet is based on texts of code anyway, and is more or less still all hyperTEXT, so yeah. I’m 100% with you in the Lessig-ought-not-to-have-said-that Club. It’s not the Next Latin–you can’t base an entire culture on a communications protocol and then have it go the way of a single, painfully inefficient ancient language (see the slightly uncouth Eddie Izzard, ). If anything we might just get more efficient with text.

    In some ways, this is what happens in (good) academic texts–for all our big words, it can be very very efficient, and we attribute and quote and cite freely as needed, without having to slide a five across the table to Joe every time we say “coming to terms” or “forwarding”. This culture on the internet (as Lessig never notes) might have something to do with the internet’s humble origins as an academic communications tool. It has perhaps *already* learned from us, in a way, which is why the commercial sector is having such a hard time dealing with it.

    Your post is giving me all sorts of new ideas!
    (Also thanks for the link! So many layers here.)

  4. One thing that also really annoyed me about this section was his story of his English major friend. Apparently, this guy was a good writer because all of his papers were just strings of quotes stuck together? In my margins I wrote: “That English major is a collector of quotes not a forwarder of ideas.” This kind of writing is not engaging, it’s just brings others’ ideas together in one place. As others have reflected here, the beauty of academic scholarship is that we nod to ideas, nestle in ideological battles, and, you know, converse with each other through our writing.

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