BY DAVID BEARD
New media create opportunities for new mistakes in media ethics. In Minnesota, the Corey Hepola campaign for governor released an online ad, crafted from a montage of clips, that juxtaposed images of people and places within the state of Minnesota with images of a bridge in West Virginia.1 The Scott Jensen campaign released an ad celebrating Minnesota using Shutterstock images from Ukraine, Thailand, and Russia.2 Is it a violation of ethics to place video footage of a bridge in West Virginia into a campaign ad distributed via social media to users in Minnesota?
Remix theory, as developed by Eduardo Navas (of Penn State) and as applied by Lisa Horton (of the University of Minnesota, Duluth) offers us a new way to frame these questions.3 Remix theory invites us to think about the creation of such a montage as a remix (which functions, really, as a dialogue) and to assess the ethics on those terms. Second, remix theory invites us to think about the media professionals who make these montages as remixers, a new way of thinking about the self and our obligations to our communities.
What is Remix Theory?
Navas developed Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling first in reference to musical practice before exploring it in other media. Musical remix, born with the 12” single in the 1970s, began as “extended” remix. Navas recounts the story: “DJs noticed that people wanted to be dancing. Just thinking about this, I get excited, because I remember the high of playing songs as a DJ. You see the people just sweating on the floor in extended remixes where DJs would take a bridge or take a break from the song and extend it 40 bars. (That’s a long time.)” As DJs got more creative, more empowered to participate in the production of the song, remixing changed, too.
According to Navas, “once you’re able to extend a remix, you can select things. When you strip [a song] to just the drums, it’s easier to blend with the next song.” This stripping leads to the practice of “selective” remix, which works by (a) extending or transforming a work by selecting elements within it to amplify or to remove, or by (b) selecting elements not originally part of the original to add, to reconfigure the work.
Finally, as remix develops into an autonomous form of art, Navas points to “reflexive” remixes—remixes which exist as autonomous works of art, pointing to their source materials, to be sure, but transcending any definition which describes them as “a version of” the source material.
The social media toolkit of the 21st century cracks open media production, making it possible for everyone to be a remixer. We experience a steady flow of new content because of the algorithmic nature of media (persistently refreshing the content we encounter online, juxtaposing memes and news stories, TikTok videos and advertisements). Navas calls these new media experiences “regenerative” remix. Remixes are no longer fixed on a slab of wax; new media technologies persistently regenerate the remixed text.
Remix theory, then, is a media theory: it cracks open the experience of different media. It’s also a theory of creativity, of artistic practice. What we’ll tease out, in the remainder of this essay, is the way that remix theory can guide “media ethics” for writers, social media coordinators, videographers, and other media professionals.
Remix Theory Helps Us Understand Our Obligations to Each Other
A theory of media ethics should discuss our obligations to each other. Current strands in remix theory give us a rich framework for ethics because they frame remix as dialogue.
Horton (author of “From Medievalism to Memes” and of “Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: Steampunk Superhero?”) sees teaching students to think of themselves as remixers as essential to teaching them ethics. According to Horton, “If students are going to create, they have to be able to participate in the ongoing conversation. You’re never just going to take the conversation as it stands and replicate that, because that’s not just plagiaristic; it’s also deeply uninteresting.” According to Horton, student-writers, then, need to experience “that drive to make something new of it. The language of remix theory can help students to understand what that engagement looks like.” As remixers, students “wish for their interaction with source material to be transformative.”
So, real examples: A journalist, understanding their work as remix, integrating quotations into longform essays, isn’t just “framing” the quotations—they are transforming them, in the ways that a remixer “transforms” a sample by dropping it into a song.
Artists are also remixers. Horton argues that “I couldn’t nail down a language for discussing phenomena like neomedievalism and neovictorianism—until I encountered Remix Theory.” In those literary and artistic movements, painters, poets, and musicians look to the past to create something new today. Measured only against historical accuracy, William Morris’s neomedievalism or a steampunk’s neovictorianism will always come up short. But a remix doesn’t only ask for accuracy. A remixer is engaged in a dialogue with the past, not its reproduction and replication, and an ethical dialogue is measured by the respect demonstrated in and by the fruitful results produced by the dialogue.
Remix Theory Helps Us Strategize the Ethical Construction of the Self
A theory of media ethics should include a theory of the ethical self. Navas and Horton exhort us to think of ourselves as remixers.
Remixing has been part of how Navas has constructed his identity as a scholar, teacher, and creator. Navas tells a playful story: “My mom was a teacher, she was a school principal. She told me that if I was going to go into art, I had to be an architect, because she didn’t want me to starve.” Navas didn’t listen, and he went on to earn a BFA, an MFA, and he began to pursue a PhD. “By then I had played in bands. I had worked as a DJ,” and his doctoral advisor suggested that he blend his diverse areas of interest.
For Navas, remix became an object of study, but it’s also a way of thinking, of being in the world. Navas sees, in remix, an answer to the question, “Why do I have the opinion I have?” And now, he says, remix is “just so ingrained in me that it’s just part of my way of communicating as a professor.”
To think as a remixer, according to Navas, entails “being critically aware, skeptical, questioning things in a healthy way.” Given that we are influenced by the media we consume, including some media that traumatize us, Navas says, in thinking like a remixer, we can better respond to those experiences.
Navas says that, as a remixer, “you become invested in understanding your history and the history of the communities you’re part of.” Those communities are your intellectual and artistic and emotional resources, in dialogic, not extractive, relationship.
Returning to the case that opened this essay, about the campaign ads using stock images of places and people outside the district—the dialogue between the media professional and the source materials was broken, reflecting an absence of respect for the source materials and for the audience. Too, given the media controversy over the use of stock materials, the results were not productive at all.
For more information about remix theory, visit http://remixtheory.net/ or read The Routledge Handbook of Remix Studies and Digital Humanities , edited by Eduardo Navas, Owen Gallagher, and xtine burrough (which includes work by Dr. Horton).
1. See journalist Caroline Cummings’ tweet for the story: https://twitter.com/CaroRCummings/status/1498851307842686979
2. See journalist Zach Cunning’s account here: https://heartlandsignal.com/2021/12/15/gop-gubernatorial-candidates-campaign-video-celebrates-minnesota-with-stock-images-from-eastern-europe/
3. In Spring 2022, Eduardo Navas (Pennsylvania State University) and Lisa Horton (University of Minnesota Duluth) met on Zoom (with an audience of twenty faculty, students, and staff from the University of Minnesota Duluth) to talk about “remix.” Quotations within this essay are from their visit.
Image by Marcela Laskoski on Unsplash