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Five Minutes with David Gunkel

David Gunkel talks about his book Of Remixology, a new theory of moral and aesthetic value for the age of remix in our latest five minutes with the author.

In Of Remixology, you discuss how one of the arguments against remixing is the belief that art, language, and creative endeavors exist in a cultural vacuum; removed from the idea that creative endeavors depend upon and borrow from others. While you address the opposing viewpoint in your book, what are some of the cultural dangers of this stance?

Two things. First, the concept of creation out of nothing—creatio ex nihilo—is a fantasy. You call it a "belief," and it is, in fact, an article of faith. Because only the divine creator of our best mythologies has ever been capable of coming close to achieving it. For the rest of us, creativity and artistry remains a much more messy business. So the expectation imposed by this fantastic ideal is simply not in touch with the facts on the ground. Second, the effort to assert, defend, and protect this belief—an effort that often produces rather questionable intellectual property rules and regulations—actually endangers and undermines what it seeks to preserve and protect. By venerating a fantastic and inaccessible standard, this way of thinking actually forecloses the very sort of artistic innovation it seeks to cultivate and promote. It is, in short, its own worst enemy. 

One of your arguments is that phrase remixology does not refer to some thing or practice, but an examination on the significance and importance of the language used to describe the ideas and culture of remixing. Can you expand on the idea of the significance of the language used?

As I see it, both sides of the remix debate—what has been called the copyright and the copyleft—mobilize and rely on the same basic philosophical concepts and ideas to formulate their different positions. The two sides are, therefore, basically agreeing against each other. As long as the debate continues along this path, little or nothing will change. By focusing on remixology or the way we think and talk about remix, I am getting behind the debate, questioning this common set of shared assumptions and ideas, and formulating a way to think beyond and outside what has become something of an irresolvable stalemate. Of Remixology, in other words, pulls the conceptual rug out from under the feet of both the critics and the advocates in order to finally get some traction with remix.

During the section, “Postmix,” you propose new theories to accommodate the cultural viewpoint and value from the art of remixing while challenging the ethical issues raised from the act. How does changing the language used to discuss remixing help change the ways we begin to talk about the art of remixing?

Words often operate like the frame of a camera. They identify something by letting it be seen for what it is. To channel Heidegger for a moment, language has the effect of plucking something from out the undifferentiated mess that initially confronts us, allowing it to be seen and identified as such. But like the frame of a camera, this effort always and inevitably leaves something out—other possibilities that are situated just outside the edge of the frame. Consequently, when we make a change in language, we alter what can and cannot be seen. A good example from Of Remixology is the effort to challenge the authority of the “author” by way of the term “dj.” The word “author” (a rather recent concept that develops along with the modern notion of the individual) has an incredible amount of conceptual baggage associated with it. When we emphasize the term “dj,” we begin to open up and release new possibilities for thinking about art, artistry, and creativity that exceed the grasp and authority of the original author.

You mention, “For fans and advocates, however, remixing constitutes a new and potentially revolutionary development in all aspects of culture.” During the development of this book, did you actively work with any remix artists to develop your argument?

Definitely. I cannot name all of them here, but let me just give you a sampling (pun intended). In the audiovisual realm, this project is indebted to the incredibly brilliant mashup work of Mark Vidler (aka Go Home Productions and Addictive TV), the historical insight and knowledge generously provided by Adrian Roberts (aka DJ Adrian) of Club Bootie, and the practical, hands-on demos given to me by Scott Potter (aka Hell Yeah Party Time). In other areas, the book draws on and has been informed by the collage architecture of Ben Nicholson, who I have worked with since graduate school, and Mark Amerika, who is precisely that kind of multimedia-network-remix-dj-artist that is theorized in Of Remixology.

Do you believe that without a change in how we culturally approach remixing, people will be dissuaded from the act in the future?

It is already happening. Recent efforts on the part of powerful industry groups like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the courts, and national governments have made sampling, even one note of one song, a criminal liability. We now possess the technology necessary to liberate new forms of creativity but our legal systems have cracked down on it by trying to impose geriatric laws that were initially designed for the printing press.

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Books, news, and ideas from MIT Press

The MIT PressLog is the official blog of MIT Press. Founded in 2005, the Log chronicles news about MIT Press authors and books. The MIT PressLog also serves as forum for our authors to discuss issues related to their books and scholarship. Views expressed by guest contributors to the blog do not necessarily represent those of MIT Press.