Anonymity and the Privilege of Uncreative Writing

Photo Credit: © Cameron Wittig, Walker Art Center
Kenneth Goldsmith, © Cameron Wittig (Walker Art Center)

On on August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Seven months later, on March 13, 2015, American poet Kenneth Goldsmith sparked an internet controversy when he performed a remixed version of Michael Brown’s autopsy report at the ‘Interrupt 3’ event at Brown University. Recordings of the reading were never released (at Goldsmith’s request), but details and quotations were spread in textual form.

Responses to the reading were varied. Most questioned whether Goldsmith, a white man, had the right to appropriate Brown’s autopsy report – and by extension, his body and his memory – in this way. The answer, in most cases, was ‘no’.

In a post on his Facebook page that has since been deleted, Goldsmith initially defended his appropriation and performance by arguing that he was simply artistically reproducing a text that already existed (as all writing does):

I altered the text for poetic effect; I translated into plain English many obscure medical terms that would have stopped the flow of the text; I narrativized it in ways that made the text less didactic and more literary […] That said, I didn’t add or alter a single word or sentiment that did not preexist in the original text, for to do so would be go against my nearly three decades’ practice of conceptual writing, one that states that a writer need not write any new texts but rather reframe those that already exist in the world to greater effect than any subjective interpretation could lend.

Of course, Goldsmith contradicts himself a bit here. He both claims responsibility for the text and doesn’t. What is more important in a work of art, the content or the context? In an interview at the 2015 Poetry International (PI) festival in Rotterdam, Goldsmith reiterated his opinion that context is, in fact, everything:

You can watch the full interview (plus a poetry performance) below, and can find more video of this and other festivals over on PI’s YouTube channel:

Goldsmith’s presence at the PI festival was also considered controversial by some, especially in light of other ongoing diversity issues. The Amsterdam-based literary journal Versal issued an open letter to PI in response to their invitation of Goldsmith (and other white, male poets), calling for the organisation to ‘redistribute [their] public funds to the full array of poets engaged in our art, in line with the Dutch Cultural Policy Act’s stated intention for cultural diversity’.

In the above discussion, which included fellow poet and then-PI editor Mia You, four panelists discussed the delicate politics of diversity and representation in contemporary poetry and conceptual art. You referred obliquely to the Versal letter at the beginning of the discussion, which involved several other questions about diversity in contemporary poetry more generally: 

Crucially, in the discussion Goldsmith also recanted his previous defences of the autopsy report performance. He explained that while the words he appropriated were capable of being powerful and potent art, the form and context into which he put those words was a mistake:

In a move that still echoes the attitude of many mashup artists and critics, however, Goldsmith did also suggest that remix is fundamentally liberating and boundary-breaking, partly because it can give its authors a new kind of anonymity. As examples he cited music sampling and re-sharing over the internet, usually unsigned, and later the revolutionary hacking group Anonymous. Anonymity is seen as increasingly central to many social and economic processes in the age of the internet.

Mia You responded with the following question:

In other words, don’t some people deserve the right to be celebrated as authors, or artists, or creative geniuses in their own right, because they were never really accepted in these roles by mainstream culture in the first place? Does the rest of the world have to be done with these modes of identity because white men are?

This was certainly one of the issues in the case of Michael Brown, whose identity came to be defined in the public eye through the work of white men: the police officer who shot him, and the poet who appropriated his autopsy report as a piece of conceptual art. The public never really knew him in his own right, through a persona that he himself constructed.

It’s been nearly two years since Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, and just over a year since Goldsmith performed his reading at Brown University.

I started this post last June, but I’ve been sitting on it for a year now. Primarily because it’s a subject I’m still digesting, but also because discussions of cultural appropriation seem to have remained a very relevant and unresolved part of our current media landscape. What do you think? Is remix inherently oppressive in the hands of the cultural majority? Does it create a new kind of anonymity, or a new kind of celebrity authorship? If so, how might we change the discourse?

Everything is a Remix

La Gioconda by Marco Pece
La Gioconda by Marco Pece

This week I’d like to share a short, four-part documentary on remix culture that I recently watched (for free) over on the ‘Everything is a Remix’ website. Not only is it brief, well-researched, entertaining, and well-edited, it also offers an excellent introduction to my own research, which focuses specifically on how studying remix culture changes the way we look at the things (art, history, and identity) it appropriates. Each video is about nine minutes long, with five minutes of documentary, two minutes of bonus material, and a two-minute message from the creator, Kirby Ferguson.

The first episode, which premiered back in September 2010, introduces the concept of a remix, using the traditional examples from the music industry – specifically hip-hop, as well as William Burroughs and Led Zeppelin.

Part 1: The Song Remains the Same

The second episode addresses the movie industry’s obsession with sequels, remakes, and franchises. It also uses the examples of Star Wars and Kill Bill to show how even (or perhaps especially) the most iconic cinema is heavily indebted to previous work.

Part 2: Remix Inc.

Episode three of ‘Everything is a Remix’ talks about the various elements of creativity (‘copy, transform, combine’), including the ‘myth’ of genius and original creation. It argues that ‘we can’t introduce anything new until we’re fluent in the language of our domain’. To make this point it utilises examples from American industry, featuring the iconic figures of Thomas Edison (the lightbulb), Henry Ford (the commercial automobile), and Steve Jobs (Apple computers).

Part 3: The Elements of Creativity

Who owns ideas? The fourth and final episode of ‘Everything is a Remix’ went up in February 2012, and mainly focuses on this question. It also addresses some of the challenges currently facing remix culture: namely sample trolls, patent trolls, and international trade agreements. Ultimately, it argues (powerfully if rather dramatically) that the evolution of our culture – and of our species – demands the ability to copy, transform, and combine, right down to the genetic level.

Part 4: System Failure

In addition to this four-part documentary, on the website you can find some additional case studies, shorts, and special presentations, as well as the first episode of ‘This is Not a Conspiracy Theory’, Ferguson’s newest serial documentary project.

My only real gripe about ‘Everything is a Remix’ is that it’s really just too short, even for an introduction. I would have liked to see Ferguson’s arguments unpacked and defended in more case studies, and also using examples from outside the Western world. Naturally, my wish for something a bit longer and weightier could also just be a sign that I’m getting old. Either way, this series is an engaging and very constructive way to spend 20-40 minutes of your day, and I highly recommend it.

Roland Barthes and Spaces of Attunement

Conference header REVISED

Whereas this week I’m busy with preparations for two conference presentations at guest universities, at the end of March I was a passive observer at two separate sets of conferences, both at my very own Cardiff University. My department hosted the ‘Roland Barthes at 100’ conference, the School of Planning and Geography across the way held a ‘Spaces of Attunement’ symposium, and both ran over the same two days at the very end of March.

I was originally only registered for ‘Spaces of Attunement’, but because Neil Badmington, the organisor of ‘Roland Barthes at 100’, is my secondary thesis supervisor, I ended up spending some time there helping out. I even chaired my first panel, on Barthes and visual culture, where I got to hear two very different papers. Stella Baraklianou (from the University of Huddersfield) gave a presentation on the punctum in digital art and photography, citing work by Idris Khan and Eva Stenram. Freelance scholar Jayne Sheridan talked about the border between commercialism and art, using the Chanel N°5 commercial directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, ‘Train de Nuit’:

Though I heard many fine presentations during the two-day conference, the one that stuck out for me the most was Michael Wood’s opening keynote ‘French Lessons’, which I mentioned in last week’s post. Wood talked about many things, but primarily he was concerned with how even when we read Barthes well, when we read him outside of the French we misread him. Our reading may not be wrong, but we are missing something. For Wood one of the intervening factors in this misreading is the fact that in French, beauty is often more important than exactitude. Practically, this often means that French philosophers have a weakness for aphorism – they cannot resist the witty maxim. As I summarised last week, maxims are caricatures of language, and can’t be academically defended. The truth in a maxim is either too trivial to be ‘really’ true, or is not wholly true.

Wood used an example from Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980), summarised in this old post by Michael Sacasas:

Barthes was taken by the way that a photograph suggests both the “that-has-been” and the “this-will-die” aspects of a photographic subject. His most famous discussion of this dual gesture involved a photograph of his mother, which does not appear in the book. But a shot of [failed assassin Lewis] Powell is used to illustrate a very similar point. It is captioned, ‘He is dead, and he is going to die …’ The photograph simultaneously witnesses to three related realities. Powell was; he is no more; and, in the moment captured by this photograph, he is on his way to death.

The idea that an object in a photograph is either dead or is going to die may be true, though exceptions could no doubt be found. If it is true, how much inherent meaning does it have? All living things die – this is not something that needs explanation. Rather than genuinely attempting revolution, the maxim is merely the platform upon which we can build the arguments and ideas we want to.

lewis_payne
‘He is dead, and he is going to die …’

For Wood, though, this is the entire point of the maxim: it can be used for anything. Citing Adorno’s Minima Moralia (1951), in which he posits that the problem with philosophers is that they want to be right, Wood suggested that being right (or exact) is not so important in literature – at least not in the sense that many people try to impose upon it. Instead, literature expresses a love of arguments without wanting to win.

With that in mind, I trekked across campus to the lovely and imposing Glamorgan building for a fabulous lunch and a change of topic. The order of the day was a posthuman exploration of ‘attunement to the world in all its particularity, strangeness, enchantment and horror’. Suitably prepared for this experience by Wood’s defense of arguments without victories and questions without answers, I sat in on an animal studies panel that included Joanna Latimer on the idea of ‘being/living alongside’ as opposed to ‘being/living with’ nonhumans, Lesley Green on environmental humanities, apartheid, and the baboon problem at Table Mountain National Park, and Karolina Rucinska on transgenic animals and Enviropig. This was followed by a fascinating keynote by Mara Miele, cataloguing the EmoFarm project, an experiment on emotional response in sheep.

I wish my building was this imposing.
I wish my building was this imposing.

Before we closed off the day with a reception, we split into small groups for some discussion, which started off awkwardly but ultimately yielded some interesting ideas and connections. If I can find the time to post about any of these things at greater length, I will definitely do so. Each presentation gave me a lot to think about. For the moment, though, I should probably get back to my other deadlines. Until next week!

 

The Good, the Bad, and the Book Trailers

http://t-ry.deviantart.com/art/Reading-the-monster-395926279Happy World Book Day (a few days late, and also only in the UK and Ireland)! This week’s post will be a short one, because I’ve got a big deadline on Friday that I should be focusing on, but I’ll try to start you off on an interesting trajectory. Naturally, the part of Book Day most people probably noticed were the pictures of book-themed costumes that popped up on social media, but the official website also shared this list of YA book trailers, citing them as ‘a brilliant way to bring books to life for audiences of all ages – and often encourage young readers to pick up a book they might not usually choose’.

I have to be honest and say that I don’t often watch book trailers, although I know there are actually a lot of good ones out there (particularly for young adult titles). Most times I don’t see the appeal of having a book visualised in that way, given that I tend to be attracted by very print-centric writing styles rather than big cinematic stories. The exception may be when I see something like this video for novel-as-mashup Jane Slayre, which advertises the book while also giving us a look at the way an author expresses themselves:


A few days ago I sent off for a copy of Seth Grahame-Smith’s new book, The Last American Vampire, which is being advertised as the sequel to Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. I would have ended up reading this sooner or later, given the subject matter, but what ultimately got me interested in having it RIGHT NOW was this book trailer:

Is this not one of the most gloriously ludicrous things you have ever seen?

Some books definitely lend themselves to trailers better than others. Perhaps the reason I enjoy watching trailers for monster mashups is that I’m half expecting each of them to be snatched up by Hollywood. It makes me curious to see how the story will play out on-screen. Maybe it’s the fact that trailer mashups have become a real art, or that I like to see book mashups tackle multimedia crossovers as well as a genre ones. Or maybe it’s just that my treasured Sunday afternoon on YouTube is the perfect stage for the silliness that is this Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters trailer:

Sadly Pride and Prejudice and Zombies had no book trailer (than I can find), but the video for prequel Dawn of the Dreadfuls more than makes up for that oversight:

What about you, internet? Any book trailers to recommend, or violent objections to the book trailer industry in general?

 

Here Be Dragons: Why It’s Good to Identify With the Monster

Happy New Year! Hopefully 2015 will bring as many changes, challenges, stories, and monsters as 2014.

Sadly there is one thing that won’t be returning in the new year. After nine seasons on television, The Colbert Report, starring the satirical right-wing persona Stephen Colbert, ended on December 18, 2014. Multiple articles have talked about the political mark Colbert has left on television and on the USA, but today I’m interested in something a little less “real-world”.  In addition to his interest in politics, Stephen Colbert is a huge nerd.

During the penultimate week of the show Colbert had a special guest star: Smaug from The Hobbit. Smaug came to promote the third and final Hobbit film, The Battle of the Five Armies, which hit cinemas in December. You can watch the interview on Colbert’s website, or here via YouTube:

Not only do I find this interview hilarious, particularly with its references Sherlock actors Benedict Cumberbatch (who also voices Smaug in the film adaptations of The Hobbit) and Martin Freeman (who plays Bilbo Baggins), and its caricature of Smaug as a Republican one-percenter – I’m also hoping it represents a continuing trend of glorifying the monster. Over the last few decades there’s been a marked increase in the number of stories told by the bad guy. Culture blog i09.com even had a recent post asking people to list their favourite re-tellings of stories from the villain’s perspective. There are any number of reasons why we find monsters and antiheroes fascinating, and recent pop culture has seen the development of enticingly multi-layered villains, but to be honest, I’m interested in stories that play with monsters in this way for another reason.

When we get right down to it, sympathising with the monsters gives us great practice in humanising people we might otherwise hate. By thinking at length about the reasons that people have for doing strange or terrible things, and imagining what those reasons might be creates empathy. Every single one of us, knowingly or unwittingly, has a group of people that we demonise. Sometimes the hatred that we feel towards these people is earned, but more often our vilification of them is linked to processes of which we are largely unaware. We dehumanise them so we don’t have to feel bad about hating or harming them, and so we can feel better about ourselves. While there are also negative sides to such empathy, in the best of cases, sympathising with the bad guy trains us to think before we assume. Who can ever think the same way about evil henchmen again once they’ve watched the scene below, from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)?

What would the world be like if we imagined a similar story for every person we hated or considered to be monstrous?

Happy Birthday Jane Austen!

Today marks the very first Jane Austen Day – which would also bepride-and-prejudice-and-zombies the author’s 239th birthday were she still alive. While a lot of websites have been celebrating by listing 30 tips from Jane Austen for a successful life (“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid”) or the top 8 modern film adaptations of her work, I’d like to go with just a couple of adaptations hopefully off the beaten path of your normal Austen experience, based on her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice. Here, in no particular order, are some Austen suggestions:

1. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Graham-Smith (pictured above). This mashup of zombie horror and classic literature is surprisingly faithful to the original. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters also comes highly recommended. And who knows, you may find new and unexpected depths to your favourite Austen text – or, if you’re coming at it as a horror fan, you might discover just how hilarious Austen and her writing was.

71v6DClqyKL2. Jane Austen paper dolls, which also come in a specifically Pride and Prejudice variety. Now you can reenact classic Austen stories – and make up your own – in the safe (and private) context of your own home.

3. Anything by Pemberley Digital, but specifically their Lizzie Bennet Diaries YouTube series. This excellent adaptation of Austen’s novel brings Pride and Prejudice into the digital age, and with its bite-sized format it’s a great thing to turn to in your spare time (or in the train to work, which is where I watched most of it). You can watch the pilot episode below:

I’d love to read your Jane Austen suggestions. If you know of a strange adaptation or homage to Austen’s work, post it in the comments!

Tiny Hamsters

Today I saw this newly-viral video of a tiny hamster eating a tiny burrito on Gizmodo:

As with all videos of animals who think they’re people, I was sold. The video wasn’t what interested me the most, though. In the comments section, the following exchange took place between the post author and a random commentator:

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 06.53.52

I laughed (inside, not out loud) as I read that, but then I started wondering whether that could ever happen, and if so, what it would take to actually get everyone who saw that thing to abandon the internet forever. Would it be something great, or something from a Brave New World-esque dystopia?

For a second, I could virtually taste the relief I would feel to know that “It’s all done now”. I only wish a thousand dancing hamsters could make it happen.