From Soviet montage to the Memorex mix tape, leftist Western thinkers have proudly declared their membership to a "sample culture." Remix theory, the latest version, keeps the candle burning bright. Like its predecessors, it attempts to found an aesthetic regime on the claim that the explicit selection of texts – sampling in music, collage in art, montage in film, citation in literature – is political and disruptive (by virtue of breaking-up and recombining old, "reified" things), but unlike its forebears remix (or mashup) theory takes its inspiration from a digitized, musical (rather than pictorial, avant-garde) provenance.
As a formal technique first and foremost, "sampling" insists on discovering an intrinsic subversive effect in the re-contextualizing of other texts. In fact, this kind of operation increasingly defines "subversion" itself -- which now means, simply, an ironic or against-the-grain "re-presentation" of something else.
But what, exactly, of sampling -- as an operation or technique -- is so disruptive (and therefore political)? (Or, for that matter, according to what criteria are disruptive effects political effects by default?) These questions appear all the more urgently in that, historically speaking, the mix (or collage or montage) has been known to surreptitiously alternate allegiance, so to speak -- between the oppressive logic of the commodity, on the one hand, and a liberating, subversive ironism, on the other ...
And yet, in spite of our culture's having found the "fragment" a tired register for understanding the commodity or the artwork, new publications like Remix Theory and Vague Terrain Journal continue to promote this philosophy (in a novel way, admittedly), while a more general Surrealist inheritance maintains steady influence in academic circles, primarily through a Frankfurt School/Benjaminian tradition. Thus, in the following commentary, I will review Eduardo Navas' "Regressive and Reflexive Mashups in Sampling Culture," a heavily-circulated semi-theoretical text that seems to unfold at the nexus of the major academic and popular strains of (what could be called) 'montage politics'.
'Sample Recognition' in Remix Theory
According to Navas, there are three kinds of remixes: extended, selective, and reflexive. Each is anchored in the "original" work (off which it's based): the extended remix is a "longer version of the original song," the selective remix "consists of adding or subtracting material from the original song," while the reflexive remix 'maximizes and combines' both strategies. Whereas the extended or selective remix is a "reinterpretation of a pre-existing song, meaning that the 'aura' of the original will be dominant in the remixed version," the reflexive remix
"allegorizes and extends the aesthetic of sampling, where the remixed version challenges the aura of the original and claims autonomy even when it carries the name of the original. In Reflexive Remixes material is added or deleted, but the original tracks are largely left intact in order to be recognizable. An example of this is Mad Professor's famous dub/trip hop album No Protection, a remix of Massive Attack's Protection. In this case both albums, the original and the remixed versions, are considered works on their own, yet the remixed version is completely dependent on Massive’s original production for validation. The fact that both albums were released at the same time in 1994 further complicates Mad Professor’s allegory. It is worth noting that Mad Professor’s production is part of the tradition of Jamaica’s dub, where the term 'version' was often used to refer to 'remixes' which due to their extensive manipulation in the studio pushed for autonomy."
Navas' unorthodox appropriation of Benjaminian concepts (aura, allegory, fragment) deserves pause here. For, while Benjamin refers to the aura -- which he defines as the importance of "presence" to the traditional work of art, i.e. its actual, singular location (in a museum, for instance) -- as precisely what is lost in the arts of 'technological reproducibility' (e.g. cinema, photography, radio, etc.), Navas suggests that the aura is increasingly dominant with each remix of the original fragment. Or rather by tearing a fragment out of an original work, and sampling it, the aura increases, "always maintaining the 'essence' of the song intact." The reflexive remix, by contrast, challenges the "aura" by, in a sense, growing a second work off of the first and achieving relative autonomy 'alongside' the original.
As such, the reflexive remix -- and its more sophisticated subspecies, the megamix -- functions as the revolutionary turn in the mashup taxonomy, which ambitiously spans, as I further discuss below, all the arts, architecture, software, advertising -- in short, all of culture. The reflexive remix is thus the privileged moment where the fragment, or sample, breaks away from the tradition to which it is otherwise attached and assumes contrary, politicized meaning. "The foundation of musical mashups can be found in a special kind of Reflexive Remix known as the megamix, which is composed of intricate music and sound samples." The intricacy -- which is at least partly an effect of the quantity of samples -- produces a new text that is not simply a homage to, or affirmation of, other, prior tracks.
Now if it's the quantity and complexity of samples that overcomes the aura of origins, then one would think that the megamix -- and allegory itself -- depends on a certain loss of recognition of the samples' origins. (The megamix would thus fast approach a non-mixed, run-of-the-mill work, ripe with allusions but not explicitly composed from samples of the alluded.) Here, indeed, is where Navas' methodology breaks down. For, if subversion depends on the subject's recognition of the samples' sources, then "intricacy" will necessarily or inevitably threaten this communication. Likewise (or conversely), if the logic of the commodity requires the subject to recognize mashup homages to other commodities, then how will this recognition be distinguished from its opposite, subversion?
On this difficult matter Navas expresses a clear ambivalence over the status of "recognition." At one point, he claims that advanced reflexive remixes prevent recognition of the samples, with the exception of the title, while at another point he claims the exact opposite, namely that the megamix (which is a form of the reflexive remix) is founded on an extended, complex recognition of fragments.
- "Allegory is often deconstructed in more advanced remixes following this third form, and quickly moves to be a reflexive exercise that at times leads to a 'remix' in which the only thing that is recognizable from the original is the title."
- "The creative power of all these megamixes and mashups lies in the fact that even when they extend, select from, or reflect upon many recordings, much like the Extended, Selective and Reflexive Remixes, their authority is allegorical – their effectiveness depends on the recognition of pre-existing recordings."
- "A megamix is built upon the same principle of the medley but instead of having a single band playing the compositions, the DJ producer relies strictly on sampling brief sections of songs (often just a few bars enough for the song to be recognized) that are sequenced to create what is in essence an extended collage: an electronic medley consisting of samples from pre-existing sources. Unlike the Extended or the Selective Remixes, the megamix does not allegorize one particular song but many. Its purpose is to present a musical collage riding on a uniting groove to create a type of pastiche that allows the listener to recall a whole time period and not necessarily one single artist or composition."
How important is the moment of recognition to sampling? Further, would the "uniting groove" necessarily have to have a real-world thematic correlation -- e.g. a time period -- or could it conceivably sample, combine, produce along altogether different lines? Needless to say, I don't think it would take us very long to find that neither the audience member's recognition of the sample sources, nor the song's fealty to a pregiven theme, are required for a work to be -- intentionally or unintentionally -- a "mashup". Which leads us to the question: why take the sample -- a literal replication from a song -- as the aesthetic unit proper? Why take a fragment -- or, rather, the intentional, perhaps manual citation of another work -- as the most fundamental and effective unit of an artwork, especially when, technically speaking, in these cases the sample itself is not really even recognized by the audience member?
Let us, then, for a moment appreciate the mashup taxonomy's accidental but inevitable production of this paradox: In taking the "sample" as the basic unit of meaning, "recognition" is paramount. Without it, the sample is only a sample in principle and not in practice: on the one hand, if the work's reception is not as dependent on the sample as the artist's is, then the sample devolves into an arbitrary stricture on creativity, but on the other hand, if the ideal remix work is simply a play or string of source recognitions then it can no longer be meaningfully distinguished from certain commodity forms -- e.g. the promotional medley -- and so would slide into the lowly genre of homage, virtuosity, and clever manipulation. (The megamix would here categorically approach the dangerous, border territory of the "novelty.") Thus, to avoid this pitfall, the remix must be complex -- a task that almost becomes a matter of quantity of sources -- but not so complex as to lose audience recognition; although, again, the moment of recognition still depends on affirming rather than subverting the source, a possibility that likewise can only grow with the intricacy of sampling, an intricacy that at some point threatens to simply make use of sources for reasons that cannot be contained so easily.
The easiest way to rid ourselves of this paradox, while at the same time avoiding a tedious game of dialectics, is to simply dispose of (or at least severely limit) the concept "sample." This move is perhaps already suggested by the taxonomy itself, which finds, within the category of the megamix, an exception to the aura and a hesitant departure from the importance of recognition. To be sure, if the manipulation of a sample is extreme enough, does it really matter if it was literally extracted? Navas' vocabulary of manipulation -- extend, add, subtract -- will at some point have to become superfluous. Simple, if tedious, hypotheticals are easy to produce. For example, what if two artists, both working off the same original, produce an identical text, only the first artist begins with a copied sample, manipulating it beyond recognition, while the second artist works from ear or bar or by some other means: what purpose would be served by deeming one a "sample" and the other an "allusion"?
In fact, the closer we look at contemporary aesthetic usages of the "fragment," the more its deployment seems designed to overtake the "allusion" as a critical referent. Where the latter remains a fairly open concept for describing intertextuality -- it is as happily undefined as "trope" or "symbol" -- the latter introduces a definite "unit" as the basis of textual relations. Functionalist and literalist in impulse, the fragment or sample in this sense insists on a finitude and exactitude that can all too easily become the crudest of critical instruments. Like the so-called "indexical image" in film studies, the sample attempts to ground the text in a relative faithfulness between documents, which, in this case, amounts to an arbitrary fetishizing of digital reproduction.
The first crudity of this dogma is perhaps measured by the disappearance of questions and textual forms it necessitates. For instance: what happened to the musical "cover"? --In not referencing or critiquing other texts "directly" (so to speak), with literal "samples" (although we have already determined that the qualification "literal" is problematic), are the songs that 'merely' engage in rich allusion, genre play, or "covering" all the less intertextual? Why is copying a text suddenly the only way to reference or engage with a text? This is, perhaps, an historical rather than analytic question, so, to answer it, we will have to take a short detour through the 'totalizing character' of Navas' concept "mashup".
"Mashups are everywhere": "Sample Culture" as Zeitgeist
The first effect of a functionalist typology of "sampling" is to draw into proximity cultural practices that otherwise have little in common, or at least don't intuitively bear the relations attributed to them by the taxonomy. Nothing could justify the comparison of music sampling and software mashups, or for that matter 2.0 mashups and RSS aggregators, other than a deeper, perhaps metaphysical concept of the fragment (which even finds a place for "cut/copy & paste"). But objections like these are accommodated in advance by the taxonomy form itself, which explicitly strives to establish a proper name and apply it to all of culture, across distant and highly specialized practices.
"Tall buildings in major cities are often covered with advertisements selling products from bubble gum to cell phone services, or promoting the latest blockbuster film. The building turns into a giant billboard: advertising is mashed up with architecture. A more specific example; cigarette companies in Santiago de Chile have been pushed to include on their cigarette packs images and statements of people who have cancer due to smoking: two cultural codes that in the past were separated on purpose are mashed up as a political compromise to try to keep people from smoking, while accommodating their desires. The Hulk and Spiderman have been smashed up to become the Spider-Hulk. In this case, the hybrid character has the shape of the Hulk with Spiderman’s costume on top. It is neither but both – simultaneously. Mashups are everywhere. They have moved beyond music to other areas of culture. Such move is dependent on running signifiers relying on the spectacular repetition of media. And repetition had meddled with computer culture since the middle of the twentieth century."
A wild totalization. One would think there is a Platonic Form "Mashup", a great combinatory power governing anything that can be forced to admit of at least one discernible accoutrement. But what holds these diverse examples together, as species of the same general operation, remains largely unclear.
It is thus important to attend to the distinctions between the examples Navas offers as self-evident: for example, the cigarettes and the hybrid. One invokes an image of grafting -- e.g. two otherwise discrete forms suddenly attached to each other (the billboard and the building, the warning label and the cigarette pack) -- while the other suggests a conflation of features within the same indivisible entity (Spider-Hulk). The former speaks well to the concept of mashup that Navas has so far described; but the latter, upon closer inspection, clearly undermines the functionalist, literalist impulse behind the fragment, the sample, and the "uniting groove".
Let me explain: the megamix, which corresponds to the 'inappropriate' combination of billboard and building – "two cultural codes that in the past were separated on purpose are mashed up as a political compromise" -- does not itself correspond to the hybrid, in that the latter is more an "admixture" -- a single entity -- than a collage or montage of discrete "samples". The hybrid, in this sense, would correspond to a work of art – a song, say – that does not take as its project the manipulation of units, samples, or extractions of other works.
Or does it? Let us, for a moment, seriously entertain this idea. Does every work ultimately only sample, with or without the intention? Can one not help but be a megamixer? There is, of course, a long aesthetic history to this position -- from the Stoics to the Scholastics (who perceived a 'combinatory' mental operation at the heart of imagination) to the British Empiricists, like Hume, who claimed there was no such thing as creation proper, only a creative combining of other things (through a variety of 'syntactic' rules), to the early Modernists, who obviously took great interest in the fragment (Joyce, Benjamin, Picasso), and, finally, to Deleuze, who recovered something of this project with his concept of the "assemblage". --Hume's well-known example of the dragon perhaps best expresses this position. In his view, the fictional entity 'dragon' was not so much an 'invention' as it was an imaginative composition of different 'real' animal anatomies. Though clearly informed by a hard Epicurean epistemology that bases knowledge in "experience," Hume's argument nonetheless radically transformed or extended this notion, from the intellect to cultural forms themselves, and in this respect bears relevance to the art object that Navas seems to have in mind.
But is a hybrid a megamix? Is the distinction (if there is one) important?
What is at stake is nothing less than the possibility of a critical unit, a discrete 'cultural atom' of meaning. In this vein, there are at least two problems with the concept of "sample". First, with respect to the hybrid, determining what actually qualifies as a sample quickly becomes problematic. What were once allegedly fragments are here characteristically conflated in a single feature; they are not 'attached' to each other -- the model Navas' architecture example is most available to -- any more than they are sustained as distinct within their new, singular appearance. Second, what is to prevent the discovery, within a fragment, of still further fragments? Spider-Hulk is a succinct example of this problem, for isn't the Hulk himself a hybrid of, say, Frankenstein and King Kong, morose Romantic monster and frightful oversized beast? The exactitude of the fragment quickly gives way to the ambiguity of the allusion.
In this sense, then, the concept of fragment attempts to put a stop -- an arbitrary stop -- to a potentially infinite regress (of features within features), the tracing of which would no doubt quickly require the abandoning of the unit itself, which automatically implies contour, edge, finitude, and a posterior combination (while somehow maintaining that contour through each subsequent remixing).
In this way, the fragment or sample becomes a structural instrument for discerning, but in fact drawing, all sorts of analogous relations. For Navas, the mashup indeed appears as a kind of contagious operation "moving" from one domain to another: "Mashups are everywhere. They have moved beyond music to other areas of culture." Passing over the avant-garde movements that Benjamin often had in mind, Navas takes as his origin the early 1980s, no doubt to raise the remix genre to a spiritual locus for the age, and from there conceives of a kind of 'nework cascade' across the rest of culture. He includes the "desktop" as an early infection, although "This conceptual model has been extended to web application mashups." Little wonder, then, that the management of historically disconnected phenomena becomes difficult without some serious revisions of definitions already in play.
"Mashups as a conceptual model, however, take on a different role in software. For example, the purpose of a typical Web 2.0 mashup is not to allegorize particular applications, but rather, by selectively sampling in dynamic fashion, to subvert applications to perform something they could not do otherwise by themselves. Such mashups are developed with an interest to extend the functionality of software for specific purposes. [...] What these examples show is that web application mashups function differently from music mashups. Music mashups are developed for entertainment; they are supposed to be consumed for pleasure, while web application mashups, like Pipes by Yahoo!, actually are validated if they have a practical purpose. This means that the concept and cultural role of mashups change drastically when they move from the music realm to a more open media space such as the Web. We must now examine this crucial difference. [...] As previously defined, the Reflexive Remix demands that the viewer or user question everything that is presented, but this questioning stays in the aesthetic realm. The notion of reflexivity in a mashup implies that the user must be aware as to why such mashup is being accessed. This reflexivity in action in web applications moves beyond basic sampling to find its most efficiency with constant updating . So a Reflexive Mashup does not necessarily demand critical reflection, but rather practical awareness."
If the mashup functions completely differently between music and web 2.0 applications, then why compare them at all? If the purpose of the latter isn't to allegorize the fragment, then how is it still a mashup? The use of the word "subvert" seems more than a little forced, as if Navas is struggling to maintain a revolutionary vocabulary that is already stretched thin. And yet, what we perceive as the problems, gaps, incongruities bound to bubble up from a broken method, for Navas becomes impetus to further explore -- "We must now examine this crucial difference". This kind of structural or structuring method produces problems and questions by default; it inaugurates a whole domain of thought simply by virtue of working within a technical, unitary register. Sample theory is in this sense closely affiliated with network theory, on account of its easy transformation of anything into nodes, units, loci, an operation that then invariably necessitates the question of what connects these points together other than the question itself.
The Consumer-Subject of "Sample Culture"
Having discussed the importance of "source recognition" to Navas' concept of the sample, and having discussed the totalizing character of the fragment/sample/mashup methodology, we have to wonder where the subject fits into this expansive world view. For, on the one hand, the subject seems tightly defined -- existing only to the extent that intertextual messages are recognized -- but on the other hand seems universal and mindless, insofar as nearly everything is a mashup (copy & paste, desktop, web apps, music, architecture, product packaging). But, in either case, the subject is deeply associated with a capitalist, consumerist function -- which, for Navas, becomes at certain points explicit.
"Let’s take the music mashups considered so far. Their power lies in their spectacular aura; meaning that they are not validated by a particular function that they are supposed to deliver, but rather by the desires and wants that are brought out of the consumer who loves to be reminded of two or more songs for his/her enjoyment in leisure. Music has this power because it is marketed as a form of mass escapism. According to political economist Jacques Attali, the average person consumes music in order to wind down and find delight in the few spare moments of the everyday."
In this view, the mashup is a particular kind of nostalgiac event: that is, as a marketing program -- the listener is in fact referred to as a "consumer" -- the mashup recycles previous commodities and re-circulates them to emminently happy effect. Why this simple, formal operation should prove so effective or fundamental is left unexplained, but, either way, the commodity's 'fascination with itself' is taken as not only 'in itself' disproportionately affective over the consumer -- is this what, for Navas, makes the consumer a consumer and not, say, a subject? -- but as also, and this point is expressed in the same move, programmatically satisfactory for the consumer's "desires and wants". Which is to say, when the commodity constitutes itself explicitly as a commodity, as composed of prior commodities -- this whole model depends on the subject's so-called nostalgiac "recognition" of the samples -- then the subject's desires achieve an exceptional, almost mystical fulfillment. Now, while Navas is certainly not saying that this is the only art and the only desire, it is nonetheless clear that this model is the dominant form of the age, extending itself across nearly every domain -- architecture, computers, objects.
In any event, one would think that Navas is referring exclusively to "regressive remixes," and not "reflexive remixes," for while both depend on the recognition of the samples, only the former affirms the aura. But, again, we return to the double face of the concept "reflexive." On the one hand, you will recall, it distinguishes musical from application mashups (referring to the latter), but on the other hand it appears as the third kind of remix within the Regressive category. It is thus both inside and outside the Regressive.
"The third remix is reflexive; it allegorizes and extends the aesthetic of sampling, where the remixed version challenges the aura of the original and claims autonomy even when it carries the name of the original. In Reflexive Remixes material is added or deleted, but the original tracks are largely left intact in order to be recognizable. An example of this is Mad Professor’s famous dub/trip hop album No Protection, a remix of Massive Attack’s Protection. In this case both albums, the original and the remixed versions, are considered works on their own, yet the remixed version is completely dependent on Massive’s original production for validation."
What is remarkable about the reflexive remix is that it both replicates a former work and creates a new one. It is not only a sample. Which is to say, though it materially works on and off a fragment from a former work, the fragment's status as fragment is compromised, or rendered incidental by, the radically new use or interpretation to which it is lent. This kink in Navas' taxonomy likewise reveals the problematic notion of the aura at work in the piece; for, if the material fragment is just as present in the reflexive remix as in the extended remix, how could the aura be less (or, for that matter, more) dominant? Wouldn't we then have to conclude that the aura is not in fact associated with a literal, material fragment in any instance? Either way, the escape from the aura in the reflexive remix is entirely ellided by Navas' later need to associate the "recognition" of the sample with a deep, structuring commodity/consumer model. Now, rather suddenly, the "power" of the musical mashup lies -- without exception -- in the "spectacular aura" of the sample.
In theoretical terms, Navas is trying to circle back to a Frankfurt School-oriented concept of the culture industry, the commodity, "mass escapism," entertainment as distraction, perhaps to underpin or legitimize so unwieldy and ambitious a taxonomy. The subject -- or rather the consumer -- is accordingly quickly disposed of: "their elation will help them cope with whatever stress they may have had throughout the day". (Is it only a coincidence that Navas here refers to neo-liberal economist Jacques Attali?) The earlier references to allegory, with its hints of a revolutionary subjectivity, are here completely dispelled (as a parable, of sorts, warning against mixing Benjamin's aesthetics with Adorno's politics). Perhaps we would be better off returning to the "allusion," as a critical concept, and restricting our notion of politics to explicit content (instead of 'syntactic operations').