Tag Archives: alphabetic text

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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