Almost everyone has heard of “remixing” – taking existing cultural artifacts like songs, films, images, and texts, and combining these into new cultural artifacts. In the Wikipedia article about Lessig’s 2008 book Remix, we read:
(Youth) quote content from various sources to create something new. Thus, the remix provides a commentary on the sounds and images it utilizes the same way a critical essay provides commentary on the texts it quotes. One of Lessig’s favorite remix examples is the Bush and Blair Love Song which remixes images of President Bush and Tony Blair to make it appear as if they are lip-synching Lionel Richie’s “Endless Love”. “The message couldn’t be more powerful: an emasculated Britain,as captured in the puppy love of its leader for Bush. This remix in Lessig’s eyes is exemplary of the power this type of expression holds – to not tell but show. Using preexisting images is vital to the art form because the production of meaning draws heavily on cultural reference an image or sound brings with it.
Their meaning comes not from the content of what they say; it comes from the reference, which is expressible only if it is the original that gets used. (p.74)
If it’s true that the accumulated meanings of source materials combine to generate the meaning of a remix, then one way to change the meaning of a cultural artifact is to change its references – or to create new references within an existing artifact where none existed before. I call this process “unmixing.”
The first and easiest example of unmixing I could imagine was taking a textual document and linking individual phrases in the document to other documents on the web where those phrases appear verbatim – in effect, attributing the author’s words to another source even though the author never relied on that source when creating the document. Depending on the context and meaning of the sources you choose, the addition of simple linked references can significantly alter the meaning of the original text without changing any of the words in the text itself.
As an example, I’ve published section one of the unmixed Preface to Lessig’s Remix. Using a script, I broke the first section of the Preface into three word phrases, asked Yahoo BOSS to find pages that contained those exact three word phrases, and then rewrote this section of the Preface with each and every word attributed by link to another source elsewhere online. Strictly speaking, I don’t think you need to re-reference every single word in a document to unmix it, but since I was doing this unmix programmatically it seemed appropriate. (Hint: You’ll need to mouse over the text to make the links light up. Too much visual noise otherwise.)
Now, you may argue that these phrase attributions – while exact and correct – are rather random, and therefore don’t do much to significantly change the meaning of the text. I think the simple act of unmixing this particular text speaks volumes. But in the coming weeks and months I’ll publish additional unmixes created with more thought and care to demonstrate the power of the genre. Or perhaps you’ll beat me to it?