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Creativity, including remix creativity, is part of a good life. It should be valued for itself, not tolerated. Creativity should be a favorite of the law even if we do not need to worry about incentives or disincentives (chilling effects). Incentive stories, because they do not explain creativity, can mislead us about the value we want to protect. Under the First Amendment, we protect religious conviction not only, and not even primarily, because we worry about the chilling effects of religious persecution. Devout believers have been willing to go to jail and even die for their causes; they’re hard to chill. We protect religious faith because it’s so important, and a core wrong of suppression is its disrespect of the believer. Likewise, respect for creativity, and for the possibility that every person has new meaning to contribute, should be at the core of our copyright policy. Instead of monetary rewards or even artistic control of how works are transmitted to others as our highest value, we should aim for policies that maximize participation — even when that changes the mix of economic winners and losers. Economic reward and control rights are likely to be part of the proper balance, but only part.
Rebecca Tushnet, Economies of Desire: Fair Use and Marketplace Assumptions
The new issue of Transformative Works and Cultures almost here, and I can’t wait to check out the content on transformative works and fan activism. It’s such an important topic, and one that’s bound to generate some energy from readers moved by direct action. However, while we wait for June 15th, I thought I’d share how valuable I’ve found the Fan/Remix Video issue, and how much I want to encourage readers to check it out. In fact, I can’t imagine a better place to start for a reader who’s new to academic writing than the editorial introduction to the issue, by Julie Levin Russo and Francesca Coppa, which, above all, showcases the pleasures of incorporating embedded video and images into academic writing. I’d recommend that any skeptical reader start by watching one of the videos that first draws her attention, and then locate what else on the page might contextualize that experience. The issue is really an art museum. At an art museum, one quickly realizes that he can’t read every description of every piece and experience them all as well, at least not within the short time he’s got to spend there. Personally, I always prefer to follow my instincts and find what moves me, even if it means I end up confused about whether the one with all the dark shadows was supposed to be about religion or not. I’m much more comfortable revealing this non-linear preference now than I would have been when I started graduate school in 2006. What changed me was teaching, and specifically, teaching in classrooms with excellent technological capabilities, which have enabled me to incorporate streaming video into almost every class I have taught. Streaming video has undoubtedly been the most helpful pedagogical aid I have found over the past five years. I started teaching in 2007, and the first thing I learned as I got to know my students was that it’s important to present information in as many different ways as possible. Everybody learns differently, and, while some do respond strongly to written texts, a lot of people do not. I had thought of my writing class as “an English class,” which, like the English classes I’d taken in college, would consist mostly of reading (literary) texts, analyzing them, and then writing papers about them. I had never really thought to question what a paper was, because it seemed to me that it was “between four and five pages,” primarily. Although my private approach to art, literature, and, of course, online fandom, was one of searching, skimming, and skipping, I’d been in school long enough to understand that my writing should disguise this fact. When I wrote about a quotation from a novel, for example, I should not reveal that I was drawn to it because it revealed the author’s secret attitude toward women, or that I had found it because I’d been looking for a new quotation for my AOL Instant Messenger profile. Instead, I was expected to claim that the quotation was clearly central to the novel, and that it would reveal itself as such to any careful reader. When I transitioned from student to teacher, I realized that I would have to find a way to explain to my students what was expected of them, in terms of reading and writing, without being hypocritical. So at first, I assigned text after text. A poem about the experience of being away from home, that’ll strike a universal chord! It did not, at least not universally. An essay about learning curves, which will inspire self-reflection on learning styles. Yes! No. The texts did inspire discussion, of course. Students are kind-hearted people who take pity on their graduate student teachers, and also, a good portion of them have the background and natural curiosity in the humanities to succeed in most contexts. But I could tell that some students simply did not feel spoken to by the material, and I knew that it was not simply a lack of interest in academic success on their part. I needed to introduce something new, and fortunately, because this was 2007, and I had a computer in my classroom, I settled on YouTube. After all, the way I bonded with my friends much of the time was by sharing a 3-5 minute video about an issue that moved us, and then discussing it, or responding with a video on a related topic. Why not try to bring that dynamic to the classroom? To be clear, I’m writing this under the assumption that the practice is much more common in composition and other kinds of classrooms now, so don’t take my rhetorical questions as though they represent actual expert advice. For that, see Table 1 in Russo and Coppa’s article, which offers a selective overview of whole university courses devoted to remix and related practices. These courses undoubtedly represent a much more sophisticated approach to teaching with digital media, as compared with my “have you guys heard about this?” approach. Even so, I maintain that there was value to my approach even when it was best described under the latter category, before I understood how important it was to keep my desire to tell people about everything interesting, contained. And that is how simple my argument in this post is. The Fan/Remix Video issue of TWC is simply inviting in a way that not every issue of an academic journal proves to be. There are much worse ways to spend an afternoon than watching every video discussed in Elisa Kreisinger’s piece, “Queer video remix and LGBTQ online communities.” I’d be amazed if anyone did this and was not moved to read the author’s notes and analysis, because these videos demand further engagement, and the article acts as an instant interlocutor. Web video, especially remix video, is as powerful for many of us as poetry is for, well, fewer of us, and this issue offers a great array of examples and reasons why. I take Andrea Horbinski’s intervention into the issue’s place within fan studies seriously, and I think that, for those of us who are committed to the central issues she raises, her post should be required reading. At the same time, I think that, for a reader wondering what academic writing might look like if it spoke about her life on the internet in the 21st Century, she might be pleasantly taken in by it. Since 2007, my goal in teaching has changed from “give them the same things I was given, because then they will follow the same path of inspiration” to “give them as much good stuff as possible, in as many different ways as possible, in hopes that something excites their intellect or desire.” Similarly, my take on this issue is, “I’d never seen that one before! People are amazing.”
“But with it–” began Will.
Iorek didn’t let him finish, but went on, “With it you can do strange things. What you don’t know is what the knife does on its own. Your intentions may be good. The knife has intentions, too.”
“How can that be?” said Will.
“The intentions of a tool are what it does. A hammer intends to strike, a vise intends to hold fast, a lever intends to lift. They are what it is made for. But sometimes a tool may have other uses that you don’t know. Sometimes in doing what you intend, you also do what the knife intends, without knowing. Can you see the sharpest edge of that knife?”
“No,” said, Will, for it was true: the edge diminished to a thinness so fine that the eye could not reach it.
“Then how can you know everything it does?”
“I can’t. But I must still use it, and do what I can to help good things come about. If I did nothing, I’d be worse than useless. I’d be guilty.”
–Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass (181)
The new issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 9, is dedicated to “Fan/Remix Video,” an awkward mashup that does much to delineate the uncomfortable position in which I found myself while reading many of the — invariably quite interesting — articles. For me this discomfort was summed up neatly in particular in Kim Middleton’s article “Remix video and the crisis of the humanities”, in which at one point she notes that
To consume, critique, discuss, produce, circulate, subvert, or comply with corporate control—each of these, and sometimes all at once, comprise remix video’s contribution to the practice of living with and through the digital. In its history of practice, remix culture interrogates the transformation of human experience through a sophisticated approach to the texts that project our cultural desires, assumptions, and expectations. Access to digital technologies—whether via LiveJournal, iMovie, or YouTube—allows fans and amateurs to express and share their analysis of, and investment in, canonical texts. In other words, if Tryon’s analysis holds true, then remix video functions as a particularly popular and powerful engagement with cognitive and cultural work that parallels the formative humanities/digital humanities agenda. (3.3)
Note that the magic word “fans” appears only in the penultimate sentence (and that this quotation is only about half of a longer paragraph). Middleton goes on to note — rightly, I think! — that “as modes of thinking about texts, remix practices quite clearly represent competencies endemic to humanities discourse, and ubiquitous in the parlance of its crisis and loss” (3.8), but I am unconvinced by her ultimate conclusion that “It may well be worth the creative effort, however, to recognize a common set of practices, skills, and values that underpin a spectrum of enthusiastic, sophisticated efforts in these two fields [remix video and the humanities] and begin to imagine activities and texts that provide shared opportunities to promote and engage potential participants in the modes of thinking that bring us pleasure and frame the ideas and processes that matter to us, as a collective investment in the creation of an amenable cultural future” (4.3).
Yes, it may well be worth the effort. I can’t agree, however, that any such effort would succeed, for the simple reason that Middleton (and, I must admit, the vast majority of the academy) can’t quite seem to acknowledge that “vernacular remix” is a product not just of critical sensibility and deep cultural knowledge but also of unbridled, passionate enthusiasm. Fans are fannish, in a way that is frequently deeply embarrassing to non-fans, and in the academy that sort of deep emotional engagement with your subject is, at least in my experience, always just a little bit suspect.
I don’t mean to imply that academics aren’t passionate about what they do, or that self-defined “fans” are the only people who make remix video (if anything, the opposite is true, on both counts). But I do think that the humanities aren’t going to survive the onslaught of neoliberal rationalization and downsizing programs without articulating their value not just in terms of cognitive benefits but also of affect, of emotion and sentiment and what the humanities make people feel about them and why that is deeply valuable, in a non-quantifiable way, too. Similarly, I find the disavowal of emotional engagement on the part of many prominent “remix video” makers, such as Elisa Kreisinger, to be disingenuous at best: in particular, Kreisinger’s sharp distinctions between “remixers” and “fans” seem, from the fannish perspective, totally baseless in that everything she says about “remixers” applies, mutatis mutandis, to fans too. The only real difference between the two groups that I can see is that fans are unabashedly enthusiastic about their subject, and that fans and fan vids are far less mainstream-acceptable.
Middleton rather bluntly declares that “remix culture will not save The Illiad” (4.3), but allow me to suggest that fandom just might–what, after all, is the ancient epic cycle that the Illiad began but a poly-cultural, polyglot, centuries-long shared world fandom? (Even the Odyssey, supposedly a landmark of ancient Greek, “Western” culture, draws on and speaks to a roughly contemporaneous Hittite epic tradition.) But for fandom and the humanities to assist each other against the onslaught of their detractors and critics, each will have to know what the other is, to understand and to acknowledge the real dimensions of the other’s affective engagement and critical sensibility, as well as the limitations and benefits of the same. Denying who we are and why we care to do what we do, as whole people, as academics and as fans, will never lead to anything productive.
I’ve been known to have dreams about fictional characters, but it’s not every day that I find myself viewing the most mainstream social event of the United States calendar and thinking, “Wait, I’ve seen this vid!” I’m talking, of course, about Madonna’s Super Bowl XLVI Halftime Show, in which her opening performance of “Vogue” was a clear take-off on the classic vid of the same title by Luminosity.
You can view a TV rip of Madonna’s entire performance (which also featured LMFAO, Cee Lo Green, Nicki Minaj, and M.I.A.) on YouTube, and Luminosity’s vid on blip.tv, which is a queer feminist critique of the movie 300, which was itself based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller. Honestly, for most of the halftime show I was mostly just staring open-mouthed at the screen; Madonna is nothing else if not a consummate performer, and she hit this one out of the park.
Watching the halftime show and Luminosity’s vid back to back, however, produces some interesting–and uncomfortable–conjunctions. Namely, both fandom and the larger pop culture which it critiques and draws upon have some similar problems.
In her notes to reposting the vid on blip.tv, Francesca Coppa notes that Luminosity “conflates the battlefield and the dance floor, subjecting the men to a female and queer gaze and setting Madonna up as this world’s reigning pagan goddess.” Very true, and at least one blogger, Obsidian Wings, picked up on the camp aspects of Madonna’s reappropriation of the “Vogue” vid’s aesthetic almost immediately: contrary to the lyrics, it does matter whether you’re a boy or a girl, as the vid makes clear. What I’m interested in, however, are the ways in which song, vid, and halftime show all make similar maneuvers, particularly around those issues of gender and of race.
The original “Vogue” song of course refers to a style of dance invented in Harlem and appropriated by Madonna for the song and its music video. The story of most pop music in the 20th century is of course the story of white musicians appropriating black performers’ styles and innovations and repackaging them for a “mainstream” (read: white) audience, and the tried-and-true strategy only continues in the 21st century, from Justin Bieber to–especially in the third song of the Super Bowl set, “Gimme All Your Luvin’”–Madonna herself, whose performance prominently deployed the more au courant star power of performers of color, including Nicki Minaj and M.I.A., in service to the blonde Queen’s latest reinvention. M.I.A. in particular earned censure–not least from Madonna herself–for giving the middle finger to the national television cameras during her verse.
Similarly, as much as it skewers the hypermasculine gender presentation of the movie 300, Luminosity’s vid doesn’t (can’t?) do much to problematize the exceedingly questionable racialization of the Persian Wars that Frank Miller’s graphic novel exults in–the good guys are the manly Spartans, and the bad guys(?) are the effeminate Persians. (To say nothing of Miller’s extraordinarily biased presentation of history, as David Brin notes in this post.) They may all get down on the dance floor, but unlike what the song says, it does make a difference if you’re black or white.
My point here is not so much that all of this is anything new (it’s not), but rather that viewing the vid and the halftime show together provides a textbook example of the ways in which fandom (and any pop culture critique based in pop culture itself), and vidding in particular, is limited by its working, in some senses, with found objects. Fandom is unquestionably a fascinating space of critique, remixing, and reinvention, but ultimately pure remixing, no matter how creative, makes it very difficult to introduce radically new elements, or to go beyond what you’re given to work with.
Of course, introducing radical new elements, as uncomfortable and difficult as it is and has been for fandom, may not be what strikes a pop cultural chord in the larger sphere at all. Madonna has shown herself constantly willing to reinvent herself over the course of her career, and the idea of infinitely revising a concept around a central core is of course intimately familiar to fans in general and to writers of fanfic especially. Furthermore, it’s no coincidence that this performance in particular was Madonna’s latest reintroduction to global pop cultural relevance, after the lackluster performance of her previous album, her divorce from Guy Ritchie, and above all the meteoric rise of Lady Gaga to the pop music firmament had somewhat dented the Queen’s crown. But her new album MDNA hits stores in the States March 26, and concert dates for her upcoming world tour are already selling out. Long live the Queen.
I love fan works. I love the way they exhibit a love for the source text, the way they engage with it actively and often times critically, and the way they create a community of readerly writers and writerly readers in turn. And yet, whenever I move beyond the very narrow confines of the subdiscipline of fan studies, I am shocked yet again how the academy remains entrenched in outmoded value systems. After having spent all my years in grad school in the early nineties assuming that the canon debates were all but decided, the repeated assertion of high brow aesthetics, the establishment of canonical texts, and the dismissal of popular works astound me. Working on fan works, I feel like I’m fighting the debates over the values of popular culture and the arbitrariness of aesthetic evaluation again and again. The latest in a long line of these is a recent chapter in the Scope book Cultural Borrowings: Appropriation, Reworking, Transformation, entitled A Taxonomy of Digital Video Remixing: Contemporary Found Footage Practice on the Internet by Eli Horwatt. It smartly connects avant garde aesthetics with contemporary digital remix practices, yet when reading I felt there to be a huge gap: where is the discussion of vidding? It can’t be that vids weren’t good enough for the author, because many of the cited pieces were technically and aesthetically less sophisticated than the vids we find within fandom. And yet as I read his taxonomy of “estrangement” and “inversion” I can’t help but fear that the reason vids are absent is because they’re too subtle rather than not subtle enough. Now, of course subtlety is already a conflicted aesthetic judgment but it tends to be one most of us have been taught through secondary school and beyond: complexity and subtlety, the ability to hide thoughts and ideas so as not to jump out at viewers/readers right away but to require “work,” tend to be valued in most contemporary Western contexts. Throughout the piece, Horwatt values aesthetic choices that increase complexity, and even as they may “replicat[e] the grammar of the source material,” he values them for their criticism of the source. And it is here that my suspicion begins as to why vidding is such a prominently excluded genre in this TAXONOMY: after all, an essay that includes Jonathan McIntosh’s Buffy/Edward remix, Brokeback Mountain parody trailers, and Downfall subtitle parodies, should have a place for Killa’s Closer, Lum and Sisabet’s Women’s Work or Obsessive24′s Climbing Up the Walls. The difficulties here are manifold, however. These vids may indeed require an understanding of not only the source text but also the community in which they are created. After all, these vids engage not only with the text but with varied receptions thereof and the conversations surrounding these receptions. On that level, they may be too subtle next to the examples presented. Neither are the examples used all that clear-cut. As much as I appreciate Jonathan’s remix, Buffy vs Edward, I have discussed with him the way he appropriates one text nearly uncritically to make fun of the other; many of the Brokeback Mountain trailers are quite blatantly homophobic (as Julie Levin Russo has convincingly demonstrated); and as a German who continues to understand the original soundtrack of the clip, the Downfall subtitles just aren’t that funny to me. All of which is to say, these cultural artifacts are themselves much more complex and the move of gathering them together as if they weren’t is problematic. And I can’t help but wonder whether it’s even more than that: one of the things that all the examples share is an almost detached ironic distance to the source texts used. They are found materials with little to no emotional resonance beyond what purpose they can serve. But then that’s an argument Henry Jenkins has repeatedly made, here, for example, that parody tends to be male- and industry-preferred whereas the more emotional engagement of fanvids is often dismissed out of hand. Fans, on the other hand, however contentious our relationship to our fannish objects may be, at heart have a strong emotional affective relationship. The three fannish vid examples I cite above all share that love even as they go beyond it and analyze, interpret, and criticize (characters, show runners, and fan audiences in turn). Vidding thus is an art form that is both too subtly critical (because always inflected with fannish passion) and too polished aesthetically (because the aesthetic dimension does matter above and beyond the critical point being made) to, perhaps, fit into a quick overview of YouTube remixes. Still, as both a vibrant subculture of critical interpretive if not outright political remix culture and an sophisticated artistic subculture with its own aesthetic value system, fan vids certainly deserve to be included in any “Taxonomy of Digital Video Remixing.” Ultimately I have no idea why Eli Horwatt chose to write a chapter on remix videos without including either vidding or AMV. Beyond missing out on one of the older contemporary remix practices, he also fails to engage in the quite complex interrelation between love and critique, aesthetic distance and affect, as well as the way fans have long been trailblazing not just remixes but the ability to interrogate and criticize and culturally resist without dismissing the text and their relationship to it or ironically distancing themselves. And indeed, there is a growing scholarship that addresses not only the critical and aesthetic but also the affective components of vidding. The academy has often been accused of unrealistic attempts of objectivity in the humanities in particular but even in the sciences. After English departments in the seventies destroyed the idea of an objectively created value system that can separate great from merely mediocre and bad literature, after anthropology departments realized in the eighties that observers cannot ever remain neutral and always bring their own biases to their field research; after queer theory and gender theory and critical race studies have brought the personal into the academic in the nineties; after affect theory has established itself as a field of study since–it amazed me that vidding may indeed have been overlooked in its merging of love and inquiry, affect and analysis, celebration and criticism.