Whitney Anne Trettien is a PhD candidate in English at Duke University, writing a dissertation on the cut-and-paste biblical Harmonies made by the women of Little Gidding during the 1630s. She holds a master’s in Comparative Media Studies from MIT, where she wrote a born-digital thesis that excavates a deep history of text-generative literature via a combinatory mechanism in which the reader cuts/pastes/remixes her way through the work. More recently, Whitney has published and produced works that cross the creative/critical | writer/reader divide, including a palimpsestic exploration of narrative multiplicities in Dracula, a tree stump made of books that answers questions through SMS and an animated sentence from Mallarmé’s essay “Restricted Action.” When not slicing and dicing her way through media history, Whitney plays in Baobab, an electro-freak-folk band based out of Durham, NC.

Remixing History

“A constant soule must obey God, and whatsoever the law of the great Univers commandeth, let him suffer without cunctation or delay. For either she [the soul] shall be translated into a better life, to remaine with more brightnes and tranquillitie amongst divine things, or certainly she shall remix herselfe with her nature, and returne into her wholle, nevermore to suffer any incommoditie or paine.” 

This – from Thomas Lodge’s translation of Seneca’s Epistle LXXI, “On the Supreme Good,” published in 1614 – is the first known use of the verb ‘remix’ in English. An undeniably digital-ish term, it looks odd stuffed between ‘shall’ and an archaic silent ‘e.’ No doubt Lodge didn’t mean it the way we mean it (in what way do we mean it?); in fact, far from signaling a kind of vernacular avant-garde practice (is that how we mean it?), here the word ‘remix’ is an Anglicization of remiscebitur, invented to evoke the scholarly elitism of Latinate constructions. Had recording technology not developed to allow the “remixing” of tracks, Lodge’s inkhorn term would likely have suffered the same fate as its neighbor ‘cunctation.’

Although I risk being accused of Lodge-levels of pedantry, beginning my week here with this etymology, it expresses the conundrum I often face when historicizing new media practices. Anachronism lurks in how we read, write about and experience aging artifacts, such that it’s nearly impossible to read a term like remix unmediated by contemporary meanings. Yet aligning the coordinates of history is attempting to do precisely that: to unsee the present in the past as a way of understanding how the past became the present. It’s difficult to sort through the layers of mediation between us and history without falsely imagining we’ve rendered them transparent.

This sorting becomes especially tricky when you study the history of mediation itself. At present, my most absorbing research project examines what might be called “remix” practices of the seventeenth century – that is, cutting and pasting together printed texts and images to form new narratives. When I tell people I study “cut-and-paste” books, they tend to think of the dadaist experiments of Tristan Tzara, the cut-ups of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, or CTRL-X/CTRL-V actions on their keyboard – all methods of textual manipulation that, to varying degrees, destroy the coherence of language. “Cut the word lines,” Burroughs wrote, “and you will hear their voices.”

Yet remix practitioners of the early modern period often chopped apart printed texts and images not only to slice up but splice together new (and newly coherent) narratives. At the Anglican commune of Little Gidding, for instance, women cut apart and pasted together different polyglot editions of the four gospels to “harmonize” the story of Christ’s life. A little less than two centuries later, Thomas Jefferson did the same thing to his Bible, remixing disparate books from the New Testament into a single narrative that reflected his own religious beliefs. Both of these examples show readers using scissors and glue as a way of personalizing their relationship to mass-produced texts (an interest they share with Burroughs and Gysin); but it is difficult, and possibly undesirable, to draw a lineage from early modern Biblical harmonies to Tristan Tzara or digital culture. Confronting these problems of methodology, I keep returning to the question: what would a remixed history of remix look like?

Practicing the methods we research not only helps us to excavate material histories otherwise lost to scholarship but, I would argue, helps bridge the apparent gap between paste-together harmony and cut-up discordance. To trace a history is to find narrative coherence in disparate chunks of highly-mediated information; to remix history is to “cut the word lines,” to slice into the pre-fab logic of institutional archives and databases. The latter takes an activist stance toward the former, and the former provides the creative fodder for the latter; yet – importantly – both harmony and disharmony work together to structure how we relate to and interact with the past.

Seneca knew this. In the very letter quoted above – the one in which Lodge coins the verb ‘remix’ – Seneca laments the difficulty of ever giving accurate advice, since “counsailes are fitted to affaires” (i.e. counsel should conform to circumstances) but our affairs are constantly changing. To be most accurate, then, advice “must be bred swiftly” and adapted flexibly to each present situation. While we tend to visualize life as a distant arc, Seneca imagined it as a constant flickering presence whose particulars are constantly being remade – remixed? – relative to the universal principle of the good. I’m not sure what “the good” is, but I appreciate Seneca’s approach, and look forward to sharing a bit of remixed history this week.