Mashups: Art vs Scholarship?

Earlier this month, NMC hosed a session on mashups in Second Life. One of the presentations was Brian Lamb’s Confessions of a Mashup Artist, and I listened to the audio presentation. I had a pretty strong reaction, and recorded some audio as I drove to work, but it sounded awful. So this is a summary, or perhaps the beginning of a longer tirade…I mean, argument.

Lamb’s presentation was in itself a mashup, containing sound clips from a number of sources. It was a brilliant and provocative compilation. The basic idea of a mashup is that you take samples of existing content (audio, video, text), and put them together into something new.

I disagreed with a lot of what Lamb’s presentation implied through his collection of clips. A major point of mashup advocates is that our culture has changed so drastically in recent years that we are returning to a pre-literate culture. Thus the rules of pre-literate culture apply rather than those of literate culture (this argument is often made in response to accusations of violating copyright).

The examples that were used to advocate combining media from multiple sources included Shakespeare, who used many sources to put together something new, an exciting story, something that would hold the interest of the audience. And that is, in many ways, what artists do. One of the speakers in the mashup referred to everyone saying “cite your sources! cite your sources!” and he doesn’t care about that because he’s creating, and he just doesn’t think that way. I think that’s completely legitimate, for artistic expression. The cobbling together of sources to create new art has a long tradition, going back even further than cubism or dada.

But in the area of scholarship I have trouble. Some of the speakers were talking about plagiarism as an old-fashioned idea, something that’s no longer relevant. In the realm of the dialectic, as opposed to the realm of art (and I realize there is overlap), it is absolutely essential to cite your sources. If you don’t, no critical analysis can take place. You can’t argue against a concept unless you can determine, if not the origin of that idea, at least the origin of the tradition of that concept. To be able to assess ideas and how they develop, we must follow the pattern philosophically and historically. I find it ironic that in this very post, right here, I can’t even say whom I’m arguing against — I have to refer to “a clip in Brian Lamb’s presentation” or “one of the clips”. Lamb did note in his blog that much of the material came from DJ Food (which has a good track listing) and Marshall McLuhan, but even with the track list for the former I couldn’t tell which clip came from where because it was all — well — mashed up.

I am sensitive to this because I am a historian. All great ideas build on the ideas of others. In a sense, every historical and philosophical treatise ever written is a mashup. Historians analyze sources to understand the truth about the past, and how it affects the present. When doing so, we consider the bias of our sources, and how experience (our own and the author’s) inform what is said, written or created. To consider any source in a historical vacuum is to deny all the elements of reality that played upon the source, and thus our own reality.

Certainly our culture has evolved historically. But the pre-literate culture argument is misguided. What we’re really talking about is a post-literate era, following an era of print literacy. If we were truly pre-literate, people would have fantastic memories. Oral cultures have astonishing records held in the minds of their people. Mashups without citations would make more sense in an oral culture, because we would all know what all the clips were, and who was connected to each. But we don’t have that kind of oral literacy.

Perhaps in a print-literate culture with a limited number of printed sources (as in ancient Greece, or even the 17th and 18th centuries), citing sources was less necessary, because most potential readers would be aware of the previous arguments. There were a lot of ideas, but a small group of people were following them. As information production expanded, and print literacy increased in the 16th century, it became more necessary to provide references.

But that’s not us. We have more printed sources, and online text, than we know what to do with. More images and videos and sounds than ever before are amazingly accessible. I understand the temptation to choose and mix ones own recipe. But without some form of citation, the sources in a mashup become granular to the point of being useless for anything except providing an “experience”. That which exists for experience is art, which can be critically assessed but not intellectually examined. The mashup itself may be making a case that should be argued, but it becomes impossible to analyze the sources of the mashup, and thus argue the “evidence”.

So I would like to promote something else. Call it the “Cited Mashup” or the “Scholastic Mashup” (after those medieval scholars who cited every passage). Exhibit your mashup with a list of sources (like DJ Food) in the order they were used, a version of footnoting. Then the mashup may be useful for scholarship. Until then it’s delightful, or thought-provoking, or annoying, or insightful artistic expression. At that point, we can talk about its role in education.

1 comment to Mashups: Art vs Scholarship?

  • I love this postliterate culture idea, and I could not agree with you more about the art / scholarship distinction (precarious though it may be) you make here and its implications for citation.

    As a comp teacher, however, I am very interested in a frank discussion about the deep cultural causes of the confusion our students have about citation. Branding students who are honestly confused about what and how to cite cheaters seems to be an obdurate refusal to admit the powerful forces at work blurring what used to be much clearer distinctions. For me, this means that those of us who teach research must work harder than ever to clarify how and why we cite and how to use paraphrase, quotation, and citation to ground your thinking in a larger and already documented intellectual conversation…

    Thanks for getting me thinking.