Not Newness: Wherein I Don’t Say Anything Unexpected

Banks’ first moves threatened to drive me nuts. He posits, as many other eminent compositionists have, that we now live in a remix culture, and that this paradigm was launched by DJs. That scared me, as far as an assertion goes, because (as you all now know), my whole soapbox is: We have already, always lived in the RW, remix, intertextual culture, this paradigm is not new at all, perhaps only disrupted by the Enlightenment’s love of the image of the lonely artist operating in a vacuum to create works of sacred creativity. This is not new!

No doubt part of this is me taking pleasure in everyone else finally realizing, as I have in the course of accidentally becoming a genre theorist, that all writing is remixing (genre, after all, might be seen as a shared convention of what you remix from, with deviations/scratches being celebrated as innovation) and that the stodgy literary elitism of the past century (and this century still) has no legs left to stand on: it posits that remixes are inherently derivative, that genre texts are inherently inferior to the romantically-conceived, independent artiste writing a truly unique work of universalizeable and immortal literature, and this position simply cannot be sustained. Neither, really, can the laws that pretend it’s true. Just ask the RIAA.

Even if you literally show me pictures of myself writing my novel at 4am in a locked room, I will not buy the idea that there’s an un-remix-ed version of writing, or that this is new. There are novels in the room, and in my head, so no. Nope. No.


But then, within syllables, Banks saves himself (see page 2)–this is a book about locating African American cultural agency inside a paradigm that has suddenly returned to the fore after being mythologized out of modernity by a system built to construct African American as “other” (in the same way non-Enlightenment, non-European, “non-modern” groups get Othered to create the Us). The DJs hearken back to oral storytelling–the griots–meaning that this is not new, that this is just one way of looking at it that might be cool.

Digital Griots is a tool for reimagining what is going on–for scholars who have discovered the model in a new fashion, not an absolute pronunciation of the newness of the system itself. The DJ is “a figure through whom African American rhetoric can be reimagined in a new century” (2). The griot maintains the past within the present (see epigraph on 10), which of course makes the distinction really fuzzy. The way it ought to be.

That, at least, makes the academic in me happy. And it also helps to explain the really weird phenomenon that happened on Twitter–somehow, Tweetku has taken on a life of its own and has its own twitter, but we’re not sure if we made it or if we just happened to be doing the same thing while it was already there all along. Remix obfuscates historicity. The agent (the romantic author) blurs into the griot (the person speaking right now, the re-vision) (156).

My attempts, and our fixation, with locating an originator are probably possible but really counter to how the internet works structurally–the internet does not make allowances for the purity (and the myth) of the original. CNN’s silly attempts, every week, to find out about the source of viral things feels about as in-touch as their five weeks of coverage for a plane crash: they’re fixated on originators. Likewise, TV news networks talk about the hacker collective Anonymous as if it’s a thing, with leaders or consistent members. It is *not*. That’s the point. There’s no satisfying author at the end of the trail of remixes.

I did not make this image. It did not spring solely from me. I do not know who made it, and even if I did, it's an appropriation of another text.
I did not make this image. It did not spring solely from me. I do not know who made it, and even if I did, it’s an appropriation of another text.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t protect remixers work, or reward particularly effective innovation, its just that we need to acknowledge that

  1. we’ve been doing that to certain remixers, called authors, but not to others,
  2. nobody operates in a vacuum (see the most recent presidential election’s key debate), and
  3. academic culture still creates systems of value, good or bad, around arbitrary distinctions between remix and original, derivative text and magical “springs fully formed from the head of the author, like Athena from Zeus” literature.
  4. Tweetku probably went viral somehow.

    This image is a pastiche of several memes, combined with a famous internet haiku. There are too many potential layered remixes here.
    This image is a pastiche of several memes, combined with a famous internet haiku. There are too many potential layered remixes here.


4 thoughts on “Not Newness: Wherein I Don’t Say Anything Unexpected”

  1. Michael,

    I agree with you that Banks isn’t saying that the DJ invented the remix, and that he sees the DJ/griot as a tool for making sense of how remix culture works and what it means, particularly within an African American rhetoric and cultural tradition. But I am a little hesitant to embrace the idea that “[r]emix obfuscates historicity. The agent (the romantic author) blurs into the griot (the person speaking right now, the re-vision) (156).” On the one hand, you’re right, of course. The idea that we are always recycling the materials of our culture makes it extremely difficult, and probably outright useless, to try to trace some “originary” author. And when we remix texts, we don’t just change the “new” text, but the “old” one as well.

    But one of the things that really stuck with me in reading Banks was this moment, where he borrows from Alexander Weheliye’s _Phonographies_: “If, in [Ralph] Ellison, history appears in the form of a groove, then the mixing tactics of DuBois and DJs provide ways to noisily bring together competing and complementary beats without sublimating their tensions” (qtd. in Banks 29). Recognizing that cultural materials are always being recycled and reworked does not mean flattening the real differences that exist– between past and present, between discourses, between ideologies, etc. Remix in some ways requires a heightened awareness of history and maybe even historicity, requires us to know that every time we remove text from a context, we are already changing its meaning at the same time that it bears traces and inflections of all of its previous contexts.

    Anyway, thank you for this thoughtful post– you are helping me think through the complexities of using remix as “concept, material and method” in FYC!


  2. Michael,

    I liked this. I thought it was a remarkably “Banksian” approach to Banks (at least in approach, if not in style)—which may simply be one way of dodging my responsibility,as a respondent, of restating your main point.

    Because I’m actually intrigued by the idea of “remix obfuscating history.” Because, in the mid- to long-term, I think you’re right—we lose track of the originals. And, yet, in the short-term, for a remix to work as a remix, it seems to me that readers/audiences need to know the references, or otherwise the allusion, the point, gets lost. Or to put it another way, while there may be no “satisfying author at the end of the trail of remixes,” I do think there needs be at least two such authors, or else there’s no sense of a remix at all.

    All of which is to say: I suspect that when remix actually obfuscates history, it ceases to be a remix. It’s just one more familiar text in a genre.


  3. Michael,

    In response to this idea of “remix obfuscating history,” I’d have to agree with Joe, although I’d like to qualify it a bit—so I guess maybe push back as well? Remixes very often do depend on listeners/readers/whoevers getting the references, noticing the similarities, because doing so enriches how we experience a new remix. If we don’t recognize any (the?) historicity in the remix, then I’d say that that remix has not achieved the project it presumably set out to do.

    And here’s where I’d like to push back: what if we read/hear a remix BEFORE we have any knowledge of the original(s)? In this scenario, the remix hasn’t necessarily obfuscated the historicity; rather, we don’t have any historicity (read: prior knowledge or context) to begin with. Judging from my own experiences with remixes, this dynamic can be extremely enriching (although I don’t mean to say that the other direction of original-to-remix can’t be too!). Oftentimes, when I really gravitate toward a remix, I seek out the original and therefore discover a newfound appreciation for it.

    So, to slightly modify what Joe said: without any context/prior knowledge/historicity, the remix essentially becomes an “original,” which as you’ve rightly pointed out is a very tenuous concept.

  4. Kiley, and Joe, and Chris:

    Of course you’re all right–a remix can’t really be a-historical.

    Kiley: you’re right about a remixed text carrying its context, or fragments of it, along. If I had to clarify my assertion that remix obfuscates historicity, I’d emphasize that obfuscation is not the same as erasure–a remix challenges the differences between texts by integrating them, muddling them up, performing a “past” in the present so that, if you’re not paying attention or (like Chris), hearing/seeing the remix before the first text, it’s hard to experience it in the way priviliged by our culture–the historically linear way. Even if you go back to the first textual instance, it remains tinged (for you) with your first *viewing* of the remixed text and that remix’s context. So orderly history gets difficult–but it’s not wiped off the map, because if it was the text wouldn’t be a remix at all. A remix performs a present past, and gives it new context in the present. It’s very messy and wonderful, but it does undermine the idea that an original text has more claim to determine meaning than the remix does. In that sense, it obfuscates historicity.

    Remix, like genre, inherently references other texts in its past, of course. But, as Joe and I talked about during his sit-in in our Gothic class, if you don’t see (or haven’t previously read, in our case) the “oldest” (scarequotes for “hard to say for sure”) instance of something, it’s a very strange moment when you do encounter it, having survived intact all this time. You begin to see the conventions and the tree of descendents and references, but for Joe doubtlessly his first encounter with the first-instance was marked by his having seen a “remix” before the “original”. It’s a different experience of connection and reference, and the griot/oral storyteller/DJ/remixer inhabits that series of potential non-linear, weirdly-historical experiences in a way that helps us to see just how weird it is.

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