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Remix (part 1)

May 11, 2009

There’s a lot in Lawrence Lessig’s Remix, and I’ll cover it as I go – admittedly, he may answer my questions by the end of the book, but I want to write down my reactions and objections as they happen.

The whole “Remix” controversy has come about recently because of the revolution in the artistic “means of production” – when copyright was initiated, artists had to be protected from publishers who controlled the printing presses/binders/bookstores; today, Zero-Cost Reproduction (and I’m going to coin my own acronym here) allows creatives to control their own means of production, so nobody can “take” an author’s profits as their own; but since ZCR means pirates can reproduce and disseminate your work just as easily as you can, appropriating most of your potential market, your profit approaches zero as quickly as the costs do.  [I would love to find something out there that deals with the “Torrent Economy” – in which the work actually has more economic value to the pirate, in its value as barter in that economy (i.e. the more you upload the more you can download), than it can have to the creator except as his own barter chip in that same economy.]

In his first chapter, Lessig makes a big statement that doesn’t hold up:

The twentieth century was the first time in the history of human culture when popular culture had become professionalized, and when the people were taught to defer to the professional.

I’m not sure he makes the case for this; “private culture” until the advent of the gramophone consisted of people singing in churches (and bars), both of which have gone on pretty strongly since then (be it the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or karaoke), and the decline of families singing and playing at home (i.e., the way every girl in Jane Austen was supposed to be able to sing and knock about competently on a keyboard) could be as easily traced to changing values and times – the education of girls moving beyond the need for domestic airs and graces, the end of Father’s gentlemanly 10-to-2 Banker’s Hours job, Mom going into the work force in WWII, etc. No doubt the phonograph helped “displace” (Lessig’s term) homemade music in households where music was something to be heard more than made, removing the effort from the enjoyment, but I doubt many people decided to stop playing if they enjoyed it just because a scratchy gramophone could reproduce the notes, and Lessig’s only evidence that they did is the plaintive testimony of John Philip Sousa before Congress in 1906.

As for “popular culture [becoming] professionalized” and “deferring to the professional,” there have been professional musicians for millennia, and professional composers for centuries, and the professional orchestra or opera company was not an invention of the last century.

And in the last half of the century, amateurism actually thrived: musical education in the schools was omnipresent (who here didn’t have a recorder in elementary school, raise your hand), at least until financial cutbacks put it first on the chopping block, and no home where the parents were driven to get their children into “good schools” was complete without some form of musical “accomplishment” for the resume. Not to mention the millions of American teenage boys who picked up guitars in emulation of Elvis and all who followed him, whether in the hope of becoming famous or just picking up chicks. The culture was “read only,” admittedly, in that you were not free to record and disseminate your brilliant rendition of “Smoke on the Water,” and, if you included that riff in your own song, you would be sued for any proceeds you obtained (see what happened to Verve over “Bittersweet Symphony”). But I don’t buy the idea that the means of artistic production were somehow removed from users’ hands for a century, and only now “returned” to them via the technology that allows ZCR.

Lessig says that

In the world Sousa feared, fewer and fewer would have the access to instruments, or the capacity, to create or add to the culture around them; more and more would simply consume what had been created elsewhere. Culture would become the product of an elite, even if this elite, this cultural monarchy, was still beloved by the people.

In fact, the opposite happened – culture has become less and less an elitist pastime over time, more so in the 20th century than ever before. Look at the composers and writers and painters of the past – tell me how many novelists were “gentlepeople of leisure” and how many were “of the people.” Only Dickens and Trollope and a few others were able to make a living at it and rise up out of squalor; the common people were too damn busy working 70 hour weeks in dark Satanic mills to do much more than sing drunkenly in the pub on a Saturday night. The culture of the time was more likely to produce a Henry James, writing about the lives of the privileged from a financially comfortable viewpoint, than a James Jones, writing about the ordinary soldier from the viewpoint of the trenches, because only the elite, born into leisure, had time and energy to create. The 40 hour work week has created more great artists than any other human innovation, simply because it’s given us commoners the time and energy to do something more with our lives than just work. So I just don’t buy that “the dominance of the radically different culture (and the culture of regulating culture) of the last forty years” has been oppressing creativity on a steadily upward curve.

The cultural history of the Twentieth Century may include the increasing march of regulation and litigation, but Lessig’s analogy using RO (Read Only) versus RW (Read Write) culture doesn’t take into consideration all the original works of art produced in this time (“Write Once,” the part that precedes “Read Only” on that disc). Innovation in the arts wasn’t smothered because of copyright – the assumption was that an artist would create something fresh and new, that the challenge involved in doing so was part of making your bones as a member of the creative class.

And remixing is hardly a new, twenty-first century art form: Andy Warhol was a “first responder” to mass commercial culture (and one of the first to get in trouble for “remixing” copyrighted material with his Campbell’s Soup cans); Banksy “appropriates” public spaces and remixes images without authorization (oddly, neither artist is mentioned in Lessig’s book) and graffiti art itself, chockablock with appropriations, is nothing new. Of course, there’s a difference between the Warhol-style appropriation and the ZCR method, in that Warhol literally had to paint what he saw, the can, as Monet might have painted his lilies; the remixer of today has much of the labor involved removed via the magic of cut and paste. You might even make the case that cut and paste is to art what steroids are to baseball – yes, they make for fantastic new productions with ease, be they dance floor hits or home run records; no, there’s nothing immoral about increasing your productivity by using the assistance at hand, but there is still the idea that some things should be hard – that the “purity” of the result of the effort of unassisted human accomplishment is a wonder to behold.

The remix culture isn’t limited to music, nor is it new, and its creations in this same time period which Lessig claims has been so oppressive have actually been wondrous – we see it in the plethora of novels that take characters from old classics and re-imagine them, whether in the high literary tone of Ahab’s Wife or the impishness of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or in the fantastic stagings of Shakespeare plays in Fascist garb, or in David Hockney’s sets for Wagner and other operas, which would have no doubt met with violent objections from at least one composer . Admittedly, this trend doesn’t get the press that a Gnarls Barkley or Girl Talk gets, partly because there’s not litigation involved as the sources are public domain (and partly because so few people read anymore). Only when you satirize, say, Gone with the Wind, do you get in trouble, and satire and its “fair use” case law are a separate legal realm from remix, at least till now. But there’s no doubt creative remixers, admittedly working within the parameters of copyright, have had a golden age in this period.

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