Remix happens: 4th of July Edition

It is probably not the 4th of July any more where you are, but here in Honolulu we are still celebrating — and in some cases, protesting — America’s birthdays here in our islands. Since Adam has recently been posting about whether or not remix happens, I thought this was the perfect day to remind us of how malleable culture is, and how central to our American identity remixing culture is. Songs — particularly hymn tunes — are classic examples of pre-digital remixing, as people took lyrics and tunes and reused them in a variety of ways: the song ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ is, as some may know, actually about Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, the Nazi national anthem was originally a hymn which was originally (iirc) a choral piece by Handel. Large portions of Messiah are Handel remixing his earlier pieces in order to meet an unexpected royal deadline for an oratorio. And then there is, of course, our national anthem, which is actually a drinking song. Don’t believe me? Try out the first verse — I’m sure you know the tune:

To ANACREON in Heav’n, where he sat in full Glee,
A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition,
That He their Inspirer and Patron wou’d be;
When this Answer arriv’d from the JOLLY OLD GRECIAN
“Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,
“No longer be mute,
“I’ll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,
“And, besides, I’ll instruct you like me, to intwine
“The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS’s Vine.

As any musician can tell you, the sprightly waltz-like tempo of the drinking song (as well as lines where you can grow across the phrase breaks) make it much better than the plodding, pathos-filled renditions our anthem is regularly subjected to.

As an old-fashioned analog — indeed, instrumentless — musician, I’m skeptical of claims that digital technology enable remix. What could be simpler than simply raising your voice in song? In fact, what I find so terrifying about our current copyright regimes is that they take place in the middle of a sociotechnical system where it is possible to criminalize all unmonetized semiosis. The national anthem helps remind us of the time when copyright and our country started more or less simultaneously: the Statute of Anne and the declaration of Independence were written within a lifetime of each other.

Call it remix, diffusion, rentextualization, or what will you — America’s strength is it’s ability to aid and abet variety. I’m not sure how the semiotically complex act of white guys dressed up as Native Americans dumping a South Asian beverage ingredient into the ocean got turned into a rallying call for ethnoreligious populist homogeneity, but I’m pretty sure it involves ignoring most of the cross-cultural connections which made the event possible. Indeed, as Ralph Linton reminded up over a half century ago, there is nothing more thoroughly remixed than being “100% American”:

Our solid American citizen awakens in a bed built on a pattern which originated in the Near East but which was modified in Northern Europe before it was transmitted to America. He throws back his covers made of cotton (domesticated in India), linen (domesticated in the Near East) or silk (discovered in China). All of these materials have been spun and woven by processes invented in the Near East. He puts on his slippers (adapted from moccasins invented by Indians in the Eastern woodlands) and goes to his bathroom, whose fixtures are a mixture of European and American inventions, both of recent date. He takes off his pajamas (a garment invented in India) and washes with soap (invented by the ancient Gauls).

He puts on garments whose form was derived originally from the skin clothing of the nomads of the Asiatic steppes. His shoes are made from skins tanned by a process invented in ancient Egypt and cut into a pattern derived from classical civilizations of the Mediterranean. He ties a strip of brightly colored cloth around his neck, which is a survival from the shoulder shawls worn by 17th-century Croatians. Before going out to breakfast, he glances through his window (made of glass invented in Egypt). If it is raining, he puts on overshoes (made of rubber discovered by the Central American Indians) and takes an umbrella (invented in southeastern Asia). On his head, he puts a hat made of felt (a material invented in the Asiatic steppes).

On his way to breakfast, he stops to buy a paper, paying for it with coins (an ancient Lydian invention). At the restaurant, a whole new series of borrowed elements confronts him. His plate is made from a type of pottery invented in China. His knife is of steel (an alloy first made in southern India). His fork is a medieval Italian invention, and his spoon is a derivative of a Roman original. He begins his breakfast with an orange (originally from the eastern Mediterranean), a cantaloupe (from Persia), or perhaps a piece of African watermelon. With this, he has coffee (from an Abyssinian plant) with cream and sugar. (Both the domestication of cows and the idea of milking them originated in the Near East, while sugar was first made in India.) After his fruit and first coffee, he goes on to waffles (cakes made by a Scandinavian technique from wheat domesticated first in Asia Minor). Over these he pours maple syrup (invented by Indians of the eastern woodlands). As a side dish, he may have an egg (from a species of bird first domesticated in Indo-China) or thin strips of bacon (flesh of an animal domesticated in Eastern Asia which has been salted and smoked by a process developed in Northern Europe).

When our friend has finished eating, he settles back to smoke (an American Indian habit). Tobacco was domesticated in Brazil. Indians from Virginia smoked it in a pipe, while the cigarette was derived from Mexico. The cigar was transmitted to us from the Antilles by way of Spain. While smoking, he reads the news of the day (printed in characters invented by ancient Semites on material invented in China by a process invented in Germany). As he absorbs the accounts of foreign troubles, he will (if he is a good conservative citizen) thank a Hebrew deity in an Indo-European language that he is “100% American.”

Happy Fourth of July!

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

7 thoughts on “Remix happens: 4th of July Edition

  1. Irrelevant to the gist of your interesting post, but I think the star spangled banner is a beautiful piece of melody (this coming from a musician and song-writer). The tempo is fine. But it *is* inexcusably butchered by most performances, particularly those which do not respect the phrasing of the composition. It is a simple tune, and should be simply played or sung.

  2. In fact, what I find so terrifying about our current copyright regimes is that they take place in the middle of a sociotechnical system where it is possible to criminalize all unmonetized semiosis.

    In the context of the U.S. legal system quite the opposite took place with the Citizens United decision when political contributions were given the status of the form of semiosis protected by the First Amendment. Feel any less terrified now?

  3. Hypothesis: Remix culture is real but not new. It is, in fact, the normal mode of cultural production for the great majority of human history. Its apparent novelty at this historical moment is due to a current preoccupation with intellectual property, an assertion of proprietorship, analogous to the enclosure acts that destroyed the commons in the realm of real estate in 18th century Britain. Academics have a particularly large stake in this historical anomaly, dependent as they are on proprietary claims of authorship to build careers—a canker on the intellectual commons that has become increasingly virulent since the eruption of the Newton-Leibniz controversy over who invented the calculus earlier in the same century (Wikipedia says 1711).

  4. Nobody has mined this vein of playful cultural production as well as James Boon.

    1999 Verging on Extra-Vagance: Anthropology, History, Religion, Literature, Arts . . . Showbiz, Princeton University Press.

  5. BTW– I know remix happens just not in the bulk to warrant the reams of scholasticism and days of conferences it receives. What my recent post claimed was a reflection that it wasn’t the quantity but the subjective quality of being remixed that, in one little way, reveals the impact of the practice.

  6. @Adam

    As in our other discussion, re ‘contradiction,’ I find ‘bulk’ too crude. It isn’t wrong, in a crude sense. What it should be, however, is an invitation to think more carefully and analyze more deeply. What we know, thanks to the publications, conferences, etc., you mention is that there is now a palpable sense that remix has become a bid deal. Why should that be? I can think of two hypotheses. First, on the technology side, there is no question about it. From Gutenberg’s printing press to the Internet and our latest digital toys, new media have radically increased the range of material available to the individual bricoleur, the number of individuals with access to all that new material, and the ease of its playful recombination. All of these multipliers contribute to what is likely a valid sense that the speed and volume of remix are growing exponentially. Second, in terms of impact on social institutions, this exponential growth is a radical challenge to all sorts of institutions whose existence depends on the intellectual property regime on which governments (state secrets), corporations (insider information, patents and copyrights), religions (damned hard to keep the kids from reading the other scriptures now), and, yes, academics (citations) depend for their viability in their current form.

    What I find fascinating is the reaction (in the cultural and political as well as other senses) to this rapidly evolving situation. While thousands and millions of people embrace the new possibilities, thousands and millions, perhaps billions, more seek to isolate themselves in simulacra of smaller, more manageable worlds, and, if Eli Pariser (The Filter Bubble:What The Internet is Hiding From You) is right; the technologies are evolving in a way that makes that easier to do. The result may be a deepening of a new type of digital divide. Where the original digital divide is primarily a matter of access to the Net, the new one is a social divide between those of us we might call the cosmopolitan remixers and those who will never see more of this brave new world than their filtering algorithms show them.

    Lots of stuff that’s good to think here.

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