Roy Christopher started making beats and mixes when “pause tapes” were the shit. He has written about music, technology, and culture for over twenty years for everything from regional newspapers and homegrown ‘zines to books and national glossy magazines. He was recently assistant editor of Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky’s edited collection on Hip-hop and sampling, Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Culture and Music (MIT Press, 2008). His first book was an anthology of interviews entitled Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes (Well-Red Bear, 2007). Erik Davis called thebook “a crisp and substantial remix of the major memes of the last decade or so.” Christopher is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Communication Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, as well as working on a book called The Medium Picture (Zer0 Books) about how technological mediation has changed and continues to change our relationships with each other, our information, time, space, and ourselves.
What follows is a remix of some of the material from his other book-in-progress, Hip-hop Theory: The Blueprint to 21st Century Culture.
Use Your Allusion: Culture in the Age of Digital Remix
In his 1999 book Culture Jam, Adbusters Magazine founder Kalle Lasn describes a scene in which two people are embarking on a road trip and speak to each other along the way using only quotations from movies. Based on this idea and the rampant branding and advertising covering any surface upon which an eye may light, he argues that our culture has inducted us into a cult. “By consensus, cult members speak a kind of corporate Esperanto: words and ideas sucked up from TV and advertising” (p. 53). Indeed, we quote television shows, allude to fictional characters and situations, and repeat slogans in everyday conversations. Lasn (1999) argues, “We have been recruited into roles and behavior patterns we did not consciously choose” (p. 53).
Lasn writes about this scenario as if it is a nightmare, but to many of us, this sounds not only familiar but also fun. Allusions invoke a game of sorts. They create a situation that one gets or one doesn’t. To get it is to be in on the gag. Our media is so saturated with allusions that we scarcely think about them as such. Samples, quotations, paraphrasings, remixes, mash-ups, rip-offs—these are the products of our culture; all made from pieces of the past.
Fruit of the Loop
The classic essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin (1936) still provides a stable touchstone for what culture is and means in the twenty-first century. Benjamin argued that technological reproduction of cultural artifacts removed their aura. That is, he thought the fetishization of the original work of art would be lost as its image became infinitely repeatable via technological means. Scannell (2003) interprets Benjamin as seeing, “the technologies of mass cultural production as having an intrinsic emancipatory potential. By transforming the scale of cultural production and distribution to the millions and shattering the aura of culture as something for ‘the happy few’” (p. 81). The turn of the nineteenth century saw the mass reproduction of cultural artifacts, specifically musical recordings (Lessig, 2008). “For the first time in human history…” he writes, “ordinary citizens could access a wide range of music on demand” (p. 23). At the turn of the next century, the turntable and computer were widespread enough that the average citizen could make their own compositions out of other compositions (Lessig, 2001; 2008; Sinnreich, 2010; Vaidhyanathan, 2001). The ability appropriate pieces of texts and create new cultural artifacts represents the mass democratization of the means of cultural creation.
So, to ignore technology’s role in culture, culture creation, and cultural appropriation is to miss a large piece of the cultural picture. William Gibson (2001) states that, “all cultural change is essentially technology-driven” (p. 117), and Chambers (1994) describes the view of some critics of technologically enabled mass culture as, “an ideological façade masking the cynical logic of capital” (p. 96). Rem Koolhaas (Koolhaas & Mau, 1995) goes so far as to claim that,
Culture is a decaying myth, an ideology superimposed on technology. To the intensive consumption of technological tokens we may now add the highly consumable commodity: aestheticism or words describing art and aesthetics. Technicality decked with aestheticism and lacking any specific artistic mediation or culture is one of the more obvious justifications for the term technological society (p. 210).
Technology curates culture. From cave paintings, stone tablets, and printing presses to televisions, computers, and iPhones, technology enables some cultural acts while restricting others (McLuhan, 1964). It is the “middle layer in any communication” (Shirky, 2010, p. 26) and is thereby embedded inextricably in the center of our culture.
Perhaps the two – culture and technology – are better thought of in terms of what Wittgenstein (1973) called “family resemblances”: “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail” (p. 32). As much as it does to facilitate and limit culture and communication, technology also carries symbolic meanings itself (Tenner, 2003). For example, cars mean as much to us as cultural symbols (e.g., as indicators of status or wealth) as they do as means of transportation. The same can be said of haircuts, clothes, entertainment choices, and houses and the neighborhoods that encompass them, as well as the many products used to clean and maintain them (Debord, 1993; i.e., last week’s guest Tweeter). Our cultural artifacts and the allusions they exact are the words in the language we speak, so to speak. The symbolic meaning of our contrivances is one of the ways in which culture and technology overlap.
Viewed through the lens of allusion, culture and technology overlap in their development and spread as well. Technology not only curates culture, but it is itself allusive in nature. Our clothes allude to our skin, electronic media alludes to our nervous system (McLuhan, 1964). The automobile (née “horseless carriage”) alludes to its predecessor the wagon, and its wheels allude to our feet (McLuhan, 1964). The paper that carries these words on the screen and the computer desktop on which this paper rests are digital allusions to the actual desktop on which the physical objects that make up the computer sits as well as this paper, were one to print it out. The very structure of the graphical user interface is an allusion to physical objects: desktop, documents, files, trashcan, etc. (Johnson, 1997; Stephenson, 1999). The internet-enabled personal computer now emulates numerous previous technologies: typewriter, postal service, filing cabinet, telephone, radio, television, etc. Remediating all prior media technology (Bolter & Grusin, 1999; Johnson, 1997; Manovich, 2001), it’s the ultimate allusion machine.
Benjamin (1936) argued that mechanical reproduction makes the reproduced work of art more autonomous and able to influence contexts unavailable to the original, and Fiske (1989) described popular texts as “to be used, consumed, and discarded, for they function only as agents in the social circulation of meaning and pleasure” (p. 123). Like the media technology that carries them, popular texts are commodities. Even if we don’t go as far as Koolhaas, and even if we assume Urban’s simplistic definition of culture, technology is still integral to its existence, transmission, and evolution.
Meaning to the Side
Meaning is intrinsic to culture. That is, our cultural practices are our meaning-making processes. Culture is what allows us to make sense of our world (du Gay, Hall, Janes, Mackay, & Negus, 1997). In this meaning-making practice, culture acts as a language. Language in this sense refers to
any system of representation – photography, painting, speech, writing, imaging through technology, drawing – which allow use to use signs and symbols to represent or re-present whatever exists in the world in terms of a meaningful concept, image or idea (du Gay, et al, 1997, p. 13).
The oft-quoted line from Bobby Quine in William Gibson’s 1982 short story “Burning Chrome,” “The street finds its own use for things” illustrates how we appropriate cultural artifacts. When commodities become what Marx called “social hieroglyphs” (quoted in Hebdige, 1979), and their meanings muted, manipulated, or mangled by cultural contexts, then culture begins to behave as a language. The use of allusions highlights what Chambers (1986) expressed as “connection and difference” (p. 193).
For example, picture me wearing a Run-DMC T-shirt. Now, if I were to do so (as I sometimes do), my intention would be to pay tribute to one of the original iconic groups of true-school Hip-hop, alluding to the roots of a now global cultural phenomenon. As it turns out, most people think of Run-DMC as a relic of the culture of the 1980s, a piece of the detritus of a long-passed era. One of my old roommates thought my wearing said shirt was “hilarious.”
If I were to wear such a T-shirt to a Hip-hop outing, say a Wu-Tang Clan show, the people in attendance would “get” it. They would know I was paying homage to one of the pioneers of modern Hip-hop culture. If one of the dedicated fans there had brought along a non-fan or a new one (or perhaps a younger one), the reference might be misplaced or lost on them. The allusions in cultural artifacts as such are contextually modal. That is, they mean different things in different contexts. The contextual mode of any artifact or rule can be interpreted from within or without its intended mode. The same that can be said for a Run-DMC t-shirt can be said for a movie reference, a conversational allusion, or a word used as such. They are all intertextual. That is, we read them across texts, just as we do other figures of speech. Bhabha (1994) wrote:
The complementarity of language as communication must be understood as emerging from the constant state of contestation and flux caused by the differential systems of social and cultural signification. This process of complementarity as the agnostic supplement is the seed of the ‘intranslatable’ – the foreign element in the midst of the performance of cultural translation (p. 325).
To the extreme ends of the intertextuality of modern culture, McKenzie Wark (2002) went so far as to say that there no longer is a text, only context.
As first posited by Julia Kristeva (1980), intertextuality was originally concerned with the influences of prior texts within a text under analysis (Allen, 2000; Linde, 2009; Orr, 2003). It has since come to apply to the interplay of texts and the inability of any one text to definitely stand on its own without the influence of other texts (Allen, 2000; Fiske, 1989; Linde, 2009; Orr, 2003). Genette (1997a) defines intertextuality as “ a relationship of copresence between two texts or among several texts” (p. 1), and Fiske (1987) calls it “the understanding of a media text by bringing to bear understandings of other media texts” (p. 108). To understand culture today as an amalgam of texts from the past is to see it as inherently intertextual. In artistic practices such as those in Hip-hop culture (e.g., sampling pre-recorded sounds, interpolating lyrics of previous songs, etc.), the last major movement in modern music, allusion to previous forms – within or without Hip-hop – is the norm rather than the new (Omoniyi, 2009). It is expected.
Each new literary work alluded to prior works or pieces thereof, though they are not all allusions, the nature of their use is allusive. The same can be said of scholarly work, wherein we reference, quote, paraphrase, cite, and allude to previous literature: The expressions are not all allusions pre se, but the practices associated with them are allusive. Although allusions are not formally called such in his own work, Ong (1971) wrote that we cannot understand literary structures without a knowledge of past ones. As Leppihalme (1997) put it, a reader or listener
who recognizes a creative allusion achieves a deeper understanding of a passage or text, which means that he or she is somehow participating in the creation of the text and may consequently be rewarded by a sense of achievement and self-congratulation (p. 32).
In general, allusion has been defined as reference to another literary work, to another piece of art, to a historical event, to contemporary figures, or the like (Preminger, 1965). Also, a reference, explicit or indirect, to a person, place, or event or to another literary work or passage (Abrams, 1984), or a figure of speech that compares aspects or qualities of counterparts in history, mythology, scripture, literature, popular or contemporary culture (Lass, Kiremidjian, & Goldstein, 1987). Authors (1997) distinguishes media allusions in particular, calling them, “adaptations of or reference to a scripted line from the popular media” (p. 1), and referring to them as “cultural handshakes.” The limited empirical research in the area of allusion has focused on users’ reasons for and use of media allusions (Gorham & Gilligan, 2006) and reader responses to the translation of unfamiliar allusions (Lippehalme, 1997). Allusions that go unnoticed and untranslated are ineffective and do not function as allusions.
Allusions create “a new entity greater than any of its constituent parts” (Kellett, 1933, p. 13-14). Contrasting allusion with general intertextuality, Orr (2003) writes that the use of allusion is “about the dynamic reconcentration of cultural meaningfulness,” adding, “[a]s non-identical twins, they filter and infiltrate more complex cultural patterns to recirculate ideas” (p. 139). Writing about European novels, Meyer (1968) stated that the “charm” of an allusive quotation lies “in a unique tension between assimilation and dissimilation: it links itself closely to its new environment, but at the same time detaches itself from it, thus permitting another world to radiate into the self-contained world” of the piece (p. 6). Allusive utterances quite often literally mean what they mean but also convey an added layer of meaning via their nonliteral references (Glucksberg, 1991).
Pasco (1994) distinguishes allusion as one of three categories of intertextuality (i.e., imitation, opposition, and allusion). He wrote,
In imitation, the author fits his [sic] text into a tradition and willingly attempts to use its means – whether styles, forms, lexicon, or devices – and its values to echo previous success. In opposition – whether irony or satire or even negative commentary and comparison – the signified images resist integration and emphasize disparateness. In allusion, different texts – both the one in hand and those that are external – are integrated metaphorically into something new (p. 5).
In contrast, Pasco (1994) notes that plagiarism is nonmetaphorical in form: It does not indicate another source, and to do so is to fail as plagiarism. Allusion must indicate another source, and its indication must be recognized for it to enrich the story. Pasco (1994) states flatly, “Allusion that is not recognized does not function” (p. 18).
Allusion use always creates a third entity outside of the texts (i.e., the text in which it manifests and the text to which it alludes). Pasco continues, “In an ideal environment, the two texts… bond to make a new creation, different from either of the component texts, quite different from what the text would have been without the external material, and, in addition, distinct from what exists outside the work at hand” (p. 6). Allusion is metatextual in that it creates a third text above and beyond its referent texts (Gennette, 1997; Pasco, 1994). The use of allusion is traditionally thought of as adding a layer of richness to a piece of art or literature; the same can be said for media of all kinds.
For example, here are two lines from Talib Kweli’s verse from the group Black Star’s 1998 song “Respiration”:
Killers Born Naturally like Mickey and Mallory
Not knowing the ways’ll get you capped like an NBA salary
The first line references the title of Oliver Stone’s 1994 film Natural Born Killers, as well as the names of its main characters, and the second line alludes to both getting shot (“capped”) and the National Basketball Association’s salary limits that were in debate at the time of the song’s release. Kweli is commenting on the rough behavior that is a product of the streets of New York City, and how the way of life learned there can lead to early death. In doing so, Kweli chose references his audience is likely to catch (e.g., a popular motion picture, contemporary slang, and a major current issue in professional sports). This example illustrates how disparate allusions and their source material can be, how their juxtaposition makes meaning, and how the community surrounding the artifact is active in that meaning. The allusions also need not be intentional (Lee, 1971). As for the listeners, Leppihalme (1997) writes, “A reader who recognizes a creative allusion achieves a deeper understanding of a passage or text, which means that he or she is somehow participating in the creation of the text and may consequently be rewarded by a sense of achievement and self-congratulation” (p. 32). Allusions to texts from our pasts seep into our conversations, creations, clothing styles, and other communication.
One need not intend to allude to a text in order for an allusion to exist (Fiske, 1989). Indeed, allusion often comes from inattention rather than intention (Lee, 1971). That is not to say that allusions are “selfish” and replicate for their own sakes, as some describe memes behaving (Blackmore, 1999; Distin, 2005), but to say as Steinberg (1978) put it, “there is as much unpredictable originality in quoting, imitating, transposing, and echoing, as there is in inventing” (p. 25). Indeed, pieces of the past make up nearly everything we say, think, do, and make. Allusions make up the media-saturated language we all now speak.
Culture as meaning-making requires participation. In addition to the communication processes of encoding and decoding (Hall, 1980), we now participate in recoding culture. Using allusions in our conversation, writing, and other practices engages us in culture creation as well as consumption (Jenkins, 1992; 2006). The sampling and remixing practices of Hip-hop exemplify this idea more explicitly than any other activity. Chambers (1986) wrote, “In readily accessed electronic archives, in the magnetic memory banks of records, films, tapes and videos, different cultures can be revisited, re-vived, re-cycled, re-presented” (p. 193). Current culture is a mix of media and speech, alluded to, appropriated from, and mixed with archival artifacts and acts. As Lidchi (1997) puts it,
If, unlike historical events, artefacts [sic] can survive relatively intact as authentic primary material from the past, this does not mean that they have kept their primary or ‘original’ meaning intact, since the specifics of these can rarely be recaptured or replayed (p. 163).
The youth of today have unparalleled access to the past via the Internet as well as cable and satellite television, yet so often lack the historical context for the artifacts they unearth. Their culture is a language of reference and remix. The sacred status of artifacts is not a part of their cultural vocabulary. Everything recorded, on the air, or online is fodder for future reconfiguration. Genette (1997b) himself alludes, “So far critics have only interpreted literature; it is now a question of transforming it” (p. xxii). The next generation isn’t passing the torch, they’re torching the past.
On the Shoulders of Clients
We use numerous allusions to pop culture texts in everyday discourse, what Roth-Gordon (2009) calls “conversational sampling” (p. 66). Allusions, even as direct samples or quotations, create new meanings (Schloss, 2004). Each form is a variation of the one that came before (Vaidhyanathan, 2001). Lidchi (1997) wrote, “Viewing objects as palimpsests of meaning allows one to incorporate a rich and complex social history into the contemporary analysis of the object” (p. 167). It is through use that we come to know them (du Gay, et al, 1997; Golinski, 1998; Heidegger, 1996; Rouse, 1987). Technology is not likely to slow its expanse into every aspect of our lives and culture, and with it, the reconfiguration of cultural artifacts is also not likely to stem. Allusions – in the many forms discussed above and many more yet to come – are going to become a larger and larger part of our cultural vocabulary. Seeing them as such is the first step in understanding where we are headed.
Rasmussen (2000) wrote, “there is no ‘correct’ way to categorise [sic] the increasing diversity of communication modes inscribed by the media technologies. Categories depend on the nature of the cultural phenomena one wants to investigate” (p. 99). Quotation, appropriation, reference, and remix comprise twenty first century culture. From our technology and media to our clothes and conversations, ours is now a culture of allusion. Seeing culture as allusion and remix helps restore the freedom of choice that Lasn (1999) seems so concerned about us losing. As Schwartz (1996) so poetically put it: “Whatever artists do, they are held in the loose but loving embrace of artists past” (p. 309). Would that it were so.
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