The rhetoric of remix

Virginia Kuhn

University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, United States

[0.1] Abstract—The affordances of digital technologies increase the available semiotic resources through which one may speak. In this context, video remix becomes a rich avenue for communication and expression in ways that have heretofore been the province of big media. Yet recent attempts to categorize remix are limiting, mainly as a result of their reliance on the visual arts and cinema theory as the gauge by which remix is measured. A more valuable view of remix is as a digital argument that works across the registers of sound, text, and image to make claims and provides evidence to support those claims. After exploring the roots of contemporary notions of orality, literacy, narrative and rhetoric, I turn to examples of marginalized, disparate artifacts that are already in danger of neglect in the burgeoning history of remix. In examining these pieces in terms of remix theory to date, a more expansive view is warranted. An approach based on digital argument is capable of accounting for the rhetorical strategies of the formal elements of remixes while still attending to the specificity of the discourse communities from which they arise. This effort intervenes in current conversations and sparks enhancement of its concepts to shape the mediascape.

[0.2] Keywords—Digital argument; Fan vid; Fair use

Kuhn, Virginia. 2012. "The Rhetoric of Remix." In "Fan/Remix Video," edited by Francesca Coppa and Julie Levin Russo, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 9.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Although the practice of recontextualizing found footage—previously recorded sound and image—long predates YouTube's 2005 birth, the sheer volume of video available online today is staggering. Hosting sites such as YouTube, Vimeo, Revver, Viddler, and not only serve as vehicles for dissemination, but also offer unprecedented access to the raw materials for remixing. Paired with widespread editing tools, video remix has become an important form of communication and expression heretofore confined to the printed word alone, and as the semiotic field grows increasingly complex, so does the need for critical attention. Although recent attempts to define and categorize video remix are elucidating in some respects, ultimately, they prove limiting, and this is due in part to their nearly exclusive reliance on cinematic, rather than rhetorical, theory. These methods give rise to genres based on cinema, a medium that until recently remained a broadcast vehicle, a one-to-many endeavor, rather than a dialogic one.

[1.2] The invention of the camera made cinema possible, but the evolution of recording technologies fostered the widespread ability to speak with images. Similarly, the invention of the alphabet made written texts possible, while innovations in writing technologies led to the widespread ability to write with words. And although it is commonplace to name the Gutenberg press as a touchstone in print literacy, that invention permitted creation of texts for mass consumption. The pencil is a far more important technology for the advancement of large-scale print literacy because it allowed individuals to construct writing (see Baron 1999).

[1.3] I explore the limitations of current formulations of remix, particularly those based in the visual arts, and argue for a rhetorical approach that can help illuminate the various registers of sound, image, and words, as well as the interplay of all three, which are available to the digital remixer. An important aspect of this rhetorical inquiry is that it does not cling to the dominance of narrative that infuses literature studies, which, like most cinematic theory, asserts the primacy of an originary text and valorizes the single author. Further, I suggest that a rhetorical approach can ameliorate some of the problems associated with applying generic conventions that separate fact from fiction and literature from argument. Examining other large-scale shifts in communication and expression, I expose the roots of these dichotomies and argue for a breakdown of the boundaries between them to foster the transformative potential of this emergent discursive space. Therefore, rather than framing a totalizing or definitive theory of remix, I propose a method for examining it as a digital argument, suggesting a fuller sense of the word argument than is commonly used. Rather than seeing argument as merely polemical in nature (e.g. two people arguing), I use the term to indicate a claim for which evidence is provided, that also retains a dialogic or conversational nature. This usage bears some resemblance to conceptions of academic writing, which is often seen as an argument that contributes to a larger conversation, but it also draws from a broader notion of pathos, logos, and ethos than that which has been reified in the age of print literacy.

[1.4] The literacy of print culture is shifting, and following Walter Ong (1982), many scholars suggest that we are in a time of secondary orality because the affordances of the digital carry some of the immediacy and sonic features of the oral, as well as some of the abstraction and permanence of the written. The line between speech and writing blurs in this environment, as does the boundary between discourse and argument. In other words, conversation, which is typically ephemeral, is stabilized in digital space and embodied in its attendant artifacts. However, insofar as verbal language is not the only available semiotic resource, I affiliate my stance with that of John Berger, whose seminal 1972 BBC television series and later book, Ways of Seeing, insists that the advent of recording technologies, like color photography, transformed the art of the past into a language of images (note 1). "What matters now," Berger contends, "is who uses that language for what purpose" (1972, 5).

[1.5] I define remix as a digital utterance expressed across the registers of the verbal, the aural, and the visual. The affordances of the digital create a broader range of available semiotic resources through which one may speak; thus, remix is a form of digital argument that is crucial to the functioning of a vital public sphere. Competent control of the available semiotic resources is key to digital fluency (aka media literacy), and although this control begins in discursive analysis of remix, it requires a concomitant practice to be fully actualized. Therefore, the focus of critical attention to remix is best served by analyzing the registers it uses and by using a flexible theory that does not reify it by linking it to conventional genres.

[1.6] Remix scholarship to date invokes the visual arts and some poststructuralist theory, but it is largely rooted in cinema studies and establishes categories based on that approach. Scholars point to remix's roots in the Soviet montage approach associated with Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, and Lev Kuleshov, as well as the avant-garde collage work of French artists and filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard (see Wees 1993, Arthur 1999, Horwatt 2010, Navas n.d.). Both montage and collage are important rhetorical strategies, but these analyses center almost exclusively on visuals to the exclusion of sound and the interplay between the two; they also consign remix to the realm of art rather than to the domain of speech, and in so doing, privilege certain artifacts while devaluing others. This view also reinforces the professional/amateur binary and elides consideration of community, for although art engages in an implicit conversation with other art, culture, or both, speech absolutely depends on a shared lexicon and the intent to communicate.

[1.7] In his 2011 book, Technologies of History: Visual Media and the Eccentricity of the Past, Steve Anderson notes the ways that the discussion of image appropriation, particularly that which enlists the buzzwords of postmodernism, remains bogged down by speculations about appropriation's consequences for authorship, originality, and authenticity at the expense of analyzing the rhetorical strategy of found footage use, which would be "more productively viewed as a speech act in its own right" (72). Citing William Wees's dismissal of "postmodern appropriation" as using random images, Anderson argues that even those artifacts that seem unsophisticated are actually worthy of critical attention because "one cannot select an image to be reused without creating a historiographical argument" (70). If remix deploys an existing lexicon of images, then it also relies on a verbal lexicon, and its relative criticality ought to be gauged according to its participation in a discourse community. However, to the extent that remix uses any vocabulary, it clearly also holds the potential to transform the discourse, particularly with the addition of textual effects, sound effects, and layering that digital technologies allow. However, this transformative potential is stymied in many ways if we create taxonomies that are based on existing genres.

[1.8] For instance, in Recycled Images, one of the few books focused on found footage, William Wees (1993) provides categories that seem promising because they offer a way of grouping different types of found footage use (table 1). Yet these categories are also limited because they fail to account for work that deploys more than one strategy—the avant-garde documentary films of Trinh Minh-ha, for instance, or fan song vids. Moreover, the relationship of documentary to reality (as its signification) implies that certain filmic practices are not mediated. Yet film stock choices, color-timing processes, and the acts of framing shots and editing footage are all ideologically imbued endeavors (note 2).

Table 1. Chart of types of found footage use.*

Methodology Signification Exemplary Genre Aesthetic Bias
Compilation Reality Documentary film Realism
Collage Image Avant-garde film Modernism
Appropriation Simulacrum Music video Postmodernism

*Based on Wees (1993).

[1.9] Certainly, the scope and nature of video remix is worth documenting for many reasons: to contextualize practices of contemporary culture, to chronicle artifacts that tend toward the ephemeral and are thus in danger of being forgotten, and to foster critical awareness of the potential for semiotic manipulation in a highly mediated world. However, such taxonomies also carry risks: they have the potential to exclude individuals, groups, and practices from history, and they threaten reification of a form that implicitly questions generic conventions and grand narratives. In doing so, they also foreclose possibilities, particularly when seen through the lens of preexisting genres and conventions, which carry their own cultural baggage. Finally, these taxonomies often perpetuate the unequal power structures that exist in contemporary culture.

[1.10] A case in point: I was introduced to fan studies by way of its explicitly activist efforts—those that intervene in issues surrounding fair use and copyright to ensure freedom of speech and a thriving public sphere. Thus, although I am not widely conversant in the discourse of fan studies, engaging with its practices has been important in crystalizing my thinking and forcing me to confront certain assumptions about the nature of digital texts. I find the fannish approach attractive because it comes from a place of making. To make, one must pull texts apart, treating them as distinct registers but also as contributing metonymically to the whole. At the same time, however, I see no way of adequately accounting for fannish texts through the lens of current remix theory.

2. Remix as discourse

[2.1] What does it mean to read video remix as a speech act, and how does this view provide a more nuanced account of digital artifacts of all stripes while still respecting the discrete communities from which these texts arise? What is to be gained by viewing remix as discursive, as an argument that is assembled by units of meaning that, when stitched together, become a larger statement? Moreover, whose interests might be served by this endeavor? At a basic level, viewing remix as a digital speech act would rid of us terms like appropriation and recycling, which suggest the primacy of an original author or text. This view resists the hierarchies that champion big media and make fannish efforts a second-class mode of discourse, the realm of the amateurish and the trivial. Indeed, language cannot be language unless it is both understood and used among its members. This approach can also open up a space for considering artifacts that defy easy categorization and, as such, are left out of the burgeoning canon. There are, however, some obstacles that prevent us from seeing remix as discourse, and I believe that they are encoded in the values and assumptions of a print-literate culture. Investigating the origins of print-based literacy and the roots of current conceptions of discourse can expose these obstructions.

[2.2] The concept of secondary orality advanced in Walter Ong's (1982) work is premised on his chronicling of the progression of oral culture to literate culture and, finally, to current secondary or residual orality that combines characteristics of each. In looking at Ong's list of features that characterize orality, we can see many overlaps with remix: "additive rather than subordinative; aggregative rather than analytic; redundant or 'copious'; conservative or traditionalist; close to the human lifeworld; agonistically toned; empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced; homeostatic; situational rather than abstract" (37–49). However, Ong's work has far more to offer to digital scholarship. In particular, his analysis of Homer and Plato can help reveal the roots of current epistemological boundaries between genres considered to be factual and those seen as fictive.

[2.3] The collectively authored and formulaic nature of Homeric epic poetry is old news; it is key to Janet Murray's (1997) notion of cyberdrama, for instance. However, the link between Homer and current conceptions of collaboratively authored narrative (or digital storytelling, as it is increasingly being referred to) is more tenuous than has been acknowledged. Milman Parry's research on Homeric extant texts in the 1930s dashed the prevailing view of Homer as a genius who single-handedly constructed masterpieces such as the Illiad and the Odyssey, although his work was not expanded on until about 30 years later, when Albert Lord extended Parry's research on Homer to consider its implications for performance and literature, and Eric Havelock, Ong's frequent collaborator, used it to explore speech and literacy. The difference in approach leads to differing conclusions about the boundaries between literature and rhetoric. Parry's careful analysis of the Odyssey and the Iliad revealed them to be highly formulaic, and as Ong explains, "The meaning of the Greek term 'rhapsodize,' rhapsoidein, 'to stitch song together,' became ominous: Homer stitched together prefabricated parts. Instead of a creator, you had an assembly-line worker" (1982, 22). Immediately we can see that the current connotation of rhapsody is far more romantic and poetic than its original meaning; indeed, this view of rhapsody evokes sewing and its analogy to film editing as well as to remix (as clips are stitched together), none of which have traditionally been seen as particularly creative endeavors. From a discursive view, however, these prefabricated parts are necessary when one must transmit knowledge orally; it must be repeated to be remembered and passed on to others, so formulaic thought was "essential for wisdom and effective administration" (Ong 1982, 24). In this light, Homeric epic was not the province of entertainment but of governance. These prefabricated parts also change slightly with each retelling over the centuries, and so the Iliad and the Odyssey, when analyzed, are shown to be a patchwork of "early and late Aeolic and Ionic peculiarities" (23) whose forms were reified during the centuries after the invention of the Greek alphabet as they were written down. It would be misguided to see Homeric poetry as consonant with the current conception of literature, which is framed as distinct from rhetoric. In Homeric times, these distinctions did not exist. It would be equally misguided to view this collective authorship as the sort of crowd-sourced democratic practice many of us hope to attain in digital space; the changes to the Odyssey and the Iliad took place over centuries, as is evidenced by their blend of alphabetic conventions, and these blended wordings were not accomplished by people using language, as idioms are, but by the few who had the means to write: poets and scribes working for the ruling classes. In this sense, it was a broadcast medium: it could not be interrogated, only consumed.

[2.4] Similarly, Plato is widely known for having banished the poets from his ideal Republic as well as for having condemned writing. Scholars cite passages from Plato's Republic in the former case, and the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter in the latter. For instance, in Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray (1997) posits Plato's attack on Homer as merely one instantiation of the perennial fear of "every powerful new representational technology," noting that "we hear versions of the same terror in the biblical injunction against worshipping graven images; in the Homeric depiction of the alluring Sirens' songs, drawing sailors to their death; and in Plato's banishing of the poet from his republic" (18). Citing Parry and Lord, she goes on to argue: "A stirring narrative in any medium can be experienced as a virtual reality because our brains are programmed to tune into stories with an intensity that can obliterate the world around us. This siren power of narrative is what made Plato distrust the poets as a threat to the Republic" (98). For Murray, then, Plato was simply terrified by narrative and its immersive quality. This allows her to champion cyberdrama as merely an extension of older forms of literature and a universal human need for stories. However, even as current readings of ancient texts are destined to be somewhat anachronistic, certain facts are difficult to dispute. One such fact is that far from being a new form of representation, the oral structure of the Homeric epic was a centuries-old form by the time of Plato. As Ong's work reveals, it was actually the tropes of orality that, after the invention of the alphabet, no longer functioned as noetic (that is, being of the thought world, or of intelligence); instead, they called attention to themselves as mediated and dogmatic. Indeed, once these epics were written down, they essentially became obsolete. Their forms and attendant iconography, so useful for oral delivery, seem rudimentary and jingoistic when the repetition no longer served.

[2.5] In this light, Plato's derision of Homer was actually a denunciation of the outdated and counterproductive structures of knowledge transmission characterized by oral epics because their mythos blocked, rather than encouraged, the acquisition of real knowledge. The grievance was not intrinsically about narrative but rather an indictment of an inferior and ineffective example of the exteriorization of knowledge in a form that is static. Indeed, for Plato, wisdom came via a dialogic process, not from simply absorbing a text whose veracity could not be subjected to interrogation. This view is strengthened by looking at Plato's notorious attack on writing, which needs qualification, particularly because it was done in writing—and, some would argue, often poetically at that.

[2.6] Plato's 30-plus dialogues did not faithfully represent an actual conversation but were instead used as epistemological and pedagogical guides, using the voice of Plato's teacher, Socrates. The Phaedrus, one of most prominent of the Socratic dialogues, is presented as the script of a conversation between Socrates and his frequent interlocutor, Phaedrus, while walking through the countryside on the outskirts of Athens. It is clearly dramatized, with characters named, although there is no narrator to intrude on or mediate the conversation. Phaedrus has just attended a speech on the nature of love, which sparks a conversation about knowledge, learning, and wisdom. When the talk turns to writing, Socrates notes, "I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting: for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question, they preserve a solemn silence" (Jowatt 2006, 278-12). As we see from this passage, the complaint is less about writing per se and more about the incomplete nature of the representation, compounded by the inability to speak back to a text, to be an interlocutor. One must simply accept what the text says without the veracity achieved by understanding the process by which it came to be, and without the ability to gauge the credibility of the author. For Plato, this process was most important because real wisdom was deeper than its exteriorization in speech, writing, or images. In other words, the shortcomings of any form of representation can be mitigated by the ability to question, interact, and evaluate utterances. If these texts could be conversational, there is little reason to conclude that Plato would not also view them as pedagogical. Indeed, Plato himself wrote a great deal, and perhaps the naming of interlocutors in his dialogues was an early form of citation. Further, the analogy to painting is interesting, not least because visual texts have remained nondialogic until recently. Today, however, the remixer becomes an interlocutor in the digital conversation, one who can question the formal boundaries of a print-literate culture and one whose efforts often expose the process of creation.

3. Digital argument

[3.1] My point is not to valorize Socratic dialogues, for they are both formulaic (often relying on syllogism) and arise out of an uneven, class-based society. Rather, given the extent to which Platonic and Aristotelian concepts infuse current Western culture, their examination proves vital for understanding how that process occurred and how the concepts varied in their translation over time. Plato's student Aristotle taxonomized argument; the traces of that effort are with us today, particularly in academic discourse, with its thesis-driven prose. However, modern conceptions of argument tend to elide Aristotelian notions of the pathos (emotion) and ethos (credibility) that join logos (logic) to form an argument.

[3.2] Nearly all academic writing marshals the rational but ignores the affective. Sophistic rhetoric, by contrast, has enjoyed a resurgence in rhetorical theory, particularly since the culture wars of the late 20th century, and this work challenges the logocentrism of academic argument, complicating notions of objectivity and valorizing pathos and ethos (Vitanza 1994; Jarrett 1998). Even as current notions of argument may seem limiting, and even as the hierarchical structures that characterize most forms of written argument do not translate perfectly to the layered texts of remix, in my view, digital argument remains the best way to characterize this work. My use of the term digital argument is partly strategic; argument is key to academic efforts, and as such, the term holds resonance for the scholarly community. Remix can be a scholarly pursuit: it cites, synthesizes, and juxtaposes its sources. Argument also contains connotations of the dialogic quality of communication that is not anchored to either speech or writing, and so digital argument can extend its features to writing with sound and image in addition to words. It is the embodiment of a speech act. Further, although in common parlance the word argument connotes something like polemics, there are many forms of argument; the term is not limiting, and it can help break down the boundaries between fact and fiction. A poem can be an argument, as can a narrative, each deploying different rhetorical strategies. Moreover, viewing remix as digital argument can intervene in issues of copyright and fair use, particularly if we posit its use of source material as citation—a form of evidence necessary to make one's point.

[3.3] However, the use of words to investigate the extratextual registers of remix is inadequate, so we ought to tread carefully and lightly. To escape some of the pitfalls of mapping current notions of argument onto digital space, a form of the Toulmin method for analyzing practical argument is a productive apparatus for reading remix, one expansive enough for explanatory purposes but open enough to permit further nuance. Stephen Toulmin (1958) created this model because he thought that absolutist or theoretical models of argument were difficult to actually apply. Toulmin's model includes several elements: claim, grounds, warrant, backing, rebuttal, and qualifiers. I offer a modified version of the model and suggest that a remix can be seen as including a claim or multiple claims, supported by evidence. This is not strictly a formal method, because knowledge of a specific discourse community serves to assess the efficacy of the evidence. The ethos of the remix can be evaluated in those terms. Reading remix as digital argument has the potential to call formal boundaries into question, interrogating current generic conventions and notions about what is factual and what is fictive, recognizing that all such work is mediated. Indeed, the term media evokes quasilegal terms like mediation, the purpose of which is to bring two sides together. The mediascape overflows with both claims and evidence that may be deployed in ways that have not often been brought together.

[3.4] In attempting to actuate this theory of remix as digital argument, I explore three artifacts that defy analysis using current media studies–based remix theory. Although they seem disparate, they are all uniformly compelling discursive pieces worth considering. My hope is that this analysis might make room for voices too often silenced, even as it expands the digital vocabulary from which remix might draw, which may, in turn, help to level the discursive playing field. I see this is as an initial foray that could be built upon with more sophistication and nuance as the conversation proceeds.

[3.5] Francesca Coppa (2008) documented the history of fan culture with regard to the specific televisual texts of Star Trek and Quantum Leap, arguing that older fan endeavors gave rise to current vidding practices and aesthetics. Vidding, she explains, "is a form of grassroots filmmaking in which clips from television shows and movies are set to music" such that the images are read through the interpretive lens of the song (¶1.1). Coppa recounts a misreading of a song vid by entertainment reporter Jake Coyle, in which Star Trek images centering on the character of Spock are remixed to the soundtrack of Nine Inch Nails's song "Closer." Grouping this piece with a "best of" list of fan-made music videos, Coyle discusses the genre as revisualized music video—one in which images are used to illustrate the music—failing to appreciate this piece as an act of media criticism rather than music criticism (¶1.3). Coppa's analysis reveals the conflicted nature of the character of Spock, a role that began as female in the pilot, as well as the ways in which the "Closer" vid represents an older strategy deployed by scientifically savvy female fans to reconcile fragmented depictions of women in the show. Spock, she contends, "is a kind of visual marker, a scar indicating a series of conflicts meaningful to the scientifically minded, technologically oriented women likely to become vidders, especially in the early years of vidding" (¶2.15).

Video 1. "Closer," fan vid by T. Jonsey and Killa (2003).

[3.6] Reading "Closer" as a digital argument, one can say that the soundtrack also functions as evidence toward the visual claim that Coppa's analysis reveals. This Nine Inch Nails song is a perfect lens through which these vidders read Spock, whose character, Coppa demonstrates, ultimately embodies the conflict between opposing gendered depictions of the desiring body and the rational mind. In other words, the song provides strong support to the claim made by the images. The lyrics are sexually explicit, but they also speak to conflicted identity. Trent Reznor sings, "I want to fuck you like an animal," but also "I want to feel you from the inside," suggesting if not role reversal, then certainly affinity. This sentiment is furthered with the lines, "Help me; you make me perfect, / Help me become somebody else" and "My whole existence is flawed." The complication of male subjectivity (and the compilation of gender characteristics generally thought to be at odds with standard gendered meanings) becomes the backdrop for the Star Trek images that depict a similarly conflicted Spock, who is shown both fighting and desiring Captain Kirk. It is also noteworthy that Reznor is both a political and digital activist, rendering the vidders' association all the more compelling.

[3.7] Reading the rhetorical strategies of "Closer" as issuing from both its visual and aural registers does not violate Coppa's analysis, nor does it defile the piece's status as song vid; rather, it can provide further context without resorting to the simple lumping of the piece into the category of music video, as Coyle did. Indeed, as Coppa showed, and as Henry Jenkins earlier noted, "Fan artists insist that their works bear little or no direct relationship to MTV's commercial music videos" (Jenkins 1992, 232). We thus might more productively compare "Closer" to a 1965 remix by Santiago Alvarez, the Cuban found footage filmmaker who supported Castro's regime. Alvarez's "Now!" culls news footage of US race riots cut together in time to music and orchestrated to the eponymous song by Lena Horne, the remarkable performer who was a vociferous civil rights activist and who was blacklisted by Hollywood because of it. The song "Now!" is itself a remix. Horne sings it to the tune of the Hebrew folk song "Hava Nagila," but she changes the lyrics to stage a scathing commentary on US race relations; the lyrics suggest the founding fathers would disavow their legacy. Because this song was banned in the United States, Alvarez strengthens his indictment of the government whose constant critique of oppressive regimes is accompanied by the suppression of the voices and bodies of its own citizens for the crime of being black.

Video 2. "Now!" by Santiago Alvarez (1965).

[3.8] "Now!" opens with stills of Martin Luther King Jr. in a meeting with Lyndon Johnson. These dissolve into footage taken from the point of view of policemen in riot gear as they rush the streets to break up a protest. After several more clips from their point of view, and as the song moves into the line "We want action now," we see what sort of action is occurring: stills show police brutalizing black protestors who are always pictured as unmoving bodies, either lying injured on the ground or simply immobilizing themselves in the mode of peaceful protest. One does not fight or resist, but merely fails to act and goes limp. Interspersed in this footage are stills of the Ku Klux Klan, a Nazi gathering, and Abraham Lincoln's statue. The images of victimization eventually give way to views of the protesters' strength as their joined hands and determined faces are highlighted. The 5-minute piece ends with the word "NOW" being typed by gunshots, the bullets piercing holes to construct the dotted letters. Although this piece may seem heavy-handed in today's sophisticated media climate, its subject is more important than ever. The power differentials of society are hugely disparate, and access to and control of the field of representation is a crucial mechanism for any type of liberatory potential.

[3.9] Like "Closer," "Now!" uses both the song and the visuals as evidence to support the claim about the hypocrisy of the US political system in general and President Lyndon B. Johnson in particular. This film joins the ranks of Alvarez's other such efforts; indeed, Alvarez frequently featured Johnson, whose administration Alvarez implicates in the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy. Alvarez's remixes were not constrained by filmic conventions of length: consider the 18-minute LBJ (1968), the 38-minute Hanoi, Tuesday 13th (1968), or the 25-minute 79 Springs (1969). Moreover, he considered himself a news pamphleteer, and not a filmmaker (Malcolm 1999). Alvarez's discourse community includes Octavio Getino and Fernando E. Solanas, founding members of Third Cinema (aka Third World Cinema), a group whose found footage filmmaking was motivated by both economic and ideological concerns. They remixed footage to decry colonialism in Latin America and to resist dominant Hollywood genres. They also published tracts about their work, adding nuance to their practice; these include "Towards a Third Cinema" (1969) by Getino and Solanas, and "The Aesthetics of Hunger" (1969) by Glauber Rocha.

[3.10] "Now!" and "Closer" share formal properties: they are similar in terms of length and technique, and they both use images culled from a larger archive. Likewise, they are both grassroots efforts, and they offer resistance to dominant narratives. The two pieces are further linked by their inability to fit definitively into any of the categories erected by current remix theory. Eli Horwatt (2010) argues that there are two dominant modes of digital remixing: political remixes and trailer remixes. Digital remix deserves its own taxonomy, he continues, but because taxonomies risk oversimplification, he has purposefully extended the two approaches to found footage use that Paul Arthur (1999) identified: surrealist estrangement, which Horwatt links to trailer remixes, and Soviet reediting, which he links to political remixes. Although the strategies Horwatt names are valuable, the limitations of this taxonomy are apparent when looking at vidding, which seems to fall into neither category. Further, the discussion of political remix is weakened by its reliance on the discourse of art, which leads Horwatt to make assertions such as this one: "As works of art, political remixes can be critiqued for their parroting of hegemonic visual discourses in mainstream media, rather than adopting less authoritarian modes of speaking back to the media" (7). This statement begs several questions: Should political discourse be gauged by the standards of art? What are those standards, aside from being "less authoritarian" than mainstream media? Is this a question of aesthetics? Might differing rhetorical situations call for differing levels of "parroting"? Finally, what does it mean to parrot a discourse when working in a preexisting vocabulary of images? These are politically charged and value laden questions worth asking, but they are difficult to frame when art is the only referent.

[3.11] However, Horwatt's discussion of particular strategies of remix is valuable. After noting that Soviet reeditors are distinguished by the fact that their "transformations occur clandestinely," he considers other work in this vein, asserting that "these works of détournement are marked by the artist's desire to camouflage their transformations, almost as if to insinuate them back into the mediascape as authentic and original works" (2010, 7). This description sounds very much like fannish efforts, because vidders work with original texts but create new possibilities. Indeed, "Closer" might be seen as using the strategy of identity correction that Horwatt assigns to political remixes (quoting Jonathan McIntosh;, but to get there, we have to stretch and blend his two categories. Moreover, the affective level remains a source of concern for many scholars, and fannish work, given its presumed admiration for its source text, can be easily misconstrued as being apolitical and/or pandering at first glance. Indeed, Horwatt cites Hal Foster's castigation of appropriation art that reveals a "festishism of the spectacle," before adding that that such work can fall prey to "an unwitting passion for the materials appropriated" (2). But anyone who has ever edited video clips would likely attest to the fact that one must have passion for the footage; editing demands extensive playing and replaying of clips. Whether this passion issues from a fannish impulse or is one born of righteous indignation (or both) matters little. To argue, one must take a stand, not be disinterested. Further, the very notion that a remix intent on being overtly political should somehow lack passion seems untenable. Perhaps the issue is one of critical distance; emotions are traditionally seen as opposed to logic and reason, and thus having passion seems to interrupt intentionality and criticality (which may be why Horwatt calls it "unwitting"). However, this is also a holdover from a print-literate world in which the myth of objectivity reigns. It is all logos, with no pathos or ethos.

[3.12] Where would "Closer" fit into a taxonomy that consists of either political remix or trailer remix? Certainly the more grassroots form is the trailer remix, for which Horwatt creates the subcategories of trailer mashup and trailer recut, noting that they are "easily the most popular form of digital remixing" (2010, 8). Although I have my doubts about this claim, his notion that trailer remixes not only comment on individual films, but also parody the whole media marketing machine is an important one, though it seems mired in the view that cinema is superior to television's serial texts. His larger discussion gestures toward a more expansive view of the trailer remix: If we imagine a trailer as analogous to an abstract or a summary of a film or a television series, we can see how "Closer," with its scenes pulled from the larger archive of the Star Trek original series, might function this way. In the final analysis, however, although Horwatt makes many incisive and valuable points, especially about rhetorical strategies deployed by remixers, the overall value of a taxonomy based exclusively on cinema is limited.

4. Digital argument plus voice-over

[4.1] Insofar as I want to draw comparisons between conventions of written argument and filmic ones, it remains difficult to use words to investigate sound and image, occupying as they do differing registers of meaning making. There are multiple and overlapping claims made by the various components of remix that are difficult to discuss in text. This obstacle is compounded by a lack of available tools that make it particularly cumbersome because digital platforms tend to be media friendly or text friendly, but seldom both (note 3). That said, there is also cultural baggage to these comparisons, particularly in academic circles: the registers of image and sound are seen as the exclusive province of the expressive and the creative, while words are viewed as the optimum vehicle for critical engagement. This is the main source of struggle in current discussions of remix, and it is certainly one that I find myself continually working through, attempting to escape my own inability to understand the relative complexity of these extralinguistic registers and to articulate them in words.

[4.2] Rick Altman argued that sound has been neglected in film theory, maintaining that "the complexity of the cinema experience derives from [its] ability to serve as the intersection of a variety of discourses," and that even as these discourses share the same space, they "commonly hide one another," and it is therefore only through repeated viewings that a film will reveal bits of each individual discourse (1992, 10). Although these repeated viewings are now accomplished with unprecedented ease, sound continues to be elided in many discussions of remix (note 4). However, sound, already crucial to cinema and television, increases its importance in remix because it often provides the glue that holds disparate clips together. Both "Closer" and "Now!" demonstrate this well; the songs provide a type of coherence to the images. Indeed, it seems no accident that one of the pioneers of film editing spent several years as a sound editor. Dede Allen, who was the first editor to receive a single editing credit on a Hollywood production, broke new ground with the practice of extending the soundtrack from one scene into the image track of the next (Block 2010), a practice that has since become widespread. Whether by musical score or by voice-over, the extended track knits the narrative action together. An extension of this practice characterizes my next example of remix.

[4.3] In Queer Carrie, Elisa Kreisinger exploits the voice-over narration of the show, Sex and the City (1998–2004). By pairing it with segments from disparate episodes, she creates a counternarrative in which the four lead characters, finding heteronormative expectations for their lives untenable, come out of the closet. Working exclusively with evidence from the series, with no additional sound or images added, Kreisinger manages a nearly seamless story—one that is, in her words, queer positive. To completely transform a narrative this way lies at the very heart of remix as a resistant and subversive practice, one that intervenes in the Hollywood machine and complicates the very form of big media construction.

Video 3. "Sex and the Remix (Queering Sex and the City) Season 1," by Elisa Kreisinger (2009).

[4.4] My initial reaction to this piece was one of ambivalence, however. I saw it as more queer negative than queer positive because it is only after these women have failed relationships with men that they choose women. Carrie and crew are not choosing to be with women because they love women, but because they do not love men. This fact only reinforces dominant structures of gender inequity: women are inferior, and heterosexuality prevails. I felt conflicted about this reaction, so I discussed it with Kreisinger. She suggested that I look more closely at the first clip of the Queer Carrie sequence, during which Carrie finds validation for her work from another woman. Indeed, after a repeated viewing, I came to appreciate and admire the way that Queer Carrie transforms a meeting with a romantic rival into an event that sparks an affair with another woman—one who is equally accomplished, who respects her work, and who notices her appearance. What more could one want in a partner? The feat is even more impressive because in the original scene, Carrie arranges the meeting under false pretenses. She feigns a book project to meet with an editor who is the ex-wife of Mr. Big, Carrie's aptly nicknamed boyfriend, so she can assess her competition. She is driven by a sense of inadequacy because Big has resisted commitment for years, a fact that Carrie has attributed to his not being the marrying kind, only to find out that he was indeed married before. In the source material, the type of dysfunctional competitiveness bred by contemporary US culture that encourages women to battle each other for that big prize—the man—is writ large.

[4.5] This is precisely Kreisinger's point. As she notes in the introduction to the project, "The original show appropriated the language of radical feminist politics only to retell old patriarchal fairy tales," and it is exactly this facet of the show that Queer Carrie subverts. Moreover, as the introduction continues, "while it may have taken 6 years to complain about men, by minute 2 of the remix they've done something about it" ( Rather than simply complain, Queer Carrie's characters take responsibility for their own sexuality, as well as their lives, just as Kreisinger takes control of the protagonist's sound and images, "bending them to her will" (Coppa 2008, ¶2.19). I have never been a fan of Sex and the City, but I am certainly a fan of Queer Carrie.

[4.6] My initial reaction—and it really was a reaction, rather than a sustained analysis based on textual evidence—was flawed because it failed to attend to the formal elements of the remix. My reading relied on the indexical relationship of the remix to life, rather than seeing Queer Carrie as making a statement within the confines of originary show, Sex and the City. Key to this latter reading is a view of the registers of sound and image, and the dominance of the former over the latter. The claim is made in the oral register, and the images provide supporting evidence as they illustrate the voice-over. As with "Closer" and "Now!," this reading would be difficult to enact using available remix taxonomies, although when considered as digital argument, the claim and evidence are far more apparent.

[4.7] One last effort at taxonomy holds more promise. Eduardo Navas (n.d.) defines remix culture as the "global activity consisting of the creative and efficient exchange of information made possible by digital technologies that is supported by the practice of cut/copy and paste." He identifies three types of remix: extended, selective, and reflexive. Although copy and paste are not the only activities used by remixers who layer sound and images and who play with volume and opacity, this approach is attractive in its emphasis on human activity (for example, rhetorical strategy), rather than on the tools themselves or on established genres.

[4.8] Navas associates these three types largely with those found in sampled music, although he also links them to the practices of avant-garde (visual) artists. Although he does not distinguish between video remix and sonic remix, and even as his definition is a bit thin (the equivalent would be to refer to essays as those texts constructed by use of keystrokes), his discussion of the reflexive remix is interesting. He applies the concept of the reflexive remix to networked sites formed by communities such as Wikipedia and YouTube, and he extends them to suggest a mixing of the modular components of Web 2.0 technologies. Although that portion is not yet fully realized in his work, the reflexive remix could prove a productive avenue for thinking about all three of the examples discussed here because it can account for the social commentary contained in each. Navas explains that the reflexive remix uses the aesthetic of 1970s music sampling "where the remixed version challenges the aura of the original and claims autonomy even when it carries the original's name." Reading "Closer," "Now!," and Queer Carrie as reflexive remixes, we might say that Spock, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Carrie are rewritten and bestowed with identities that challenge their original essences, even as they claim its name. Ultimately, however, such reflexivity is foundational to all remix, so the better question becomes: How is this particular remix reflexive, and what is to be learned from its rhetorical strategies? These are questions that remix as digital argument can produce.

[4.9] Examining the formal aspects of Queer Carrie, for instance, becomes a valuable lesson in media literacy. Understanding the way its structure exploits the show's narration is a skill that seems sorely needed in today's highly mediated world. It is the same structure so often used in news coverage and in documentary film. These "real" shows have adopted the high production values, engineered drama, and story arcs of entertainment, even as series like Sex and the City include the journalistic trope of the voice-over (unsurprisingly, in the show, Carrie is a newspaper columnist). This pairing of voice-over with found footage is a common practice in both broadcast news and documentary film, where stock footage is used to illustrate the narration. With the recent rise of big box office documentary, there has been a concomitant public debate and alarm about the form and its potential to propagate false information. Reading remix as digital argument reveals the constructed nature of all such forms, whether fictive or factual, and trains one to read all mediated texts critically and skeptically. Citing the intense furor over films such as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 (2004), Amber Day (2011) argues, "While most media consumers have some understanding that all media messages are constructed, it would seem they many people are not convinced of their neighbor's ability to understand this" (103). Although we all think we are savvy about media and its impacts, it takes sustained effort to understand its complexities. Being forced to confront the rhetorical choices of media production in a structural way is one of the best ways of fostering necessary critical engagement.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] There are many benefits to viewing remix as digital argument. First, the net effect of remix theory to date is the reinforcement of the amateur/professional binary, which on the one hand distinguishes fannish remix from political remix video, and on the other hand sees it as a purely artistic endeavor. This trivializes the amateur and valorizes the professional while it emphasizes individuals over discourse communities. Second, although I do not mean to suggest that there is a single correct reading of any text, a rhetorically valid reading becomes valuable on many levels and contributes to media literacy. If we read remix as digital argument, we could more productively link fan vids to other resistant practices that question the grand narratives of our time—the reified genres that dictate our ways of knowing. By reading them as arguments with claims and evidence, we are better equipped to gauge the veracity of the information presented by all media, particularly that which purports to gives us information, such as broadcast news and documentary film.

[5.2] Today's mediascape both reflects and reinforces our socioeconomically uneven world; by reading remix as a digital speech act rather than consigning it to a preexisting genre, we can help prevent digital discursive space from fostering the type of binaries that inhere in current generic conventions. Language is power. Progressive writing scholars have long argued that in a world characterized by social, cultural, and political disparity, one where language and dialects help keep class distinctions in place, there is no politically neutral use of Standard Written English, just as there is no way to select an image for remixing without implicating oneself in an ideological apparatus. But alphabetic writing practices were formed gradually, unlike the practices and norms adopted by those making digital arguments. With remix, we have a chance to change semiotic privilege by shaping the emerging discursive field to one that more readily reflects an equitable pluralistic culture.

[5.3] As Gunther Kress (1999) argues, in times of sweeping technological change, critique is not a prime academic activity; critique is still necessary, but scholars must do more than simply act as critics. They must actively engage in shaping and transforming culture. When one rips, edits, and renders video, one is transformed into a speaker of that discourse who can intervene and contest its truth claims. The practice of remix can be transformative, yet the theory and history of remix is still the stuff of written texts. Thus, careful attention to the way we name and theorize it is crucial, for these acts also shape the digital discursive field and dictate whose stories get told and who is authorized to speak. Therefore, before we reify a genre such as remix, where the discursive terrain has not yet hardened, it is useful to dissolve the formal boundaries between fact and fiction and read remix as a digital argument, the components of which exist in the same discursive space and occupy the same field of representation.

[5.4] One of the most interesting aspects of remix is its tendency to subvert the dominant discursive field and its reified genres: Hollywood film, broadcast television, documentary, journalism, ethnography. Remix lays bare the constructed nature of the original and often calls attention to its own construction. This holds true for genres that endeavor to represent reality as well as those that make no such claims. The boundaries between fact and fiction, problematic since Homer and Plato's time, break down yet further in digital media. Our readings of them must do so as well.

6. Notes

1. Berger's Ways of Seeing (1972) is a distillation of the Frankfurt School and Walter Benjamin's work in particular. It is also a remix, as Berger adds in footage from Man with a Movie Camera over which a voice reads Dziga Vertov's manifesto, that Berger notes was written several years earlier. In a transmedia move before its time, Ways of Seeing was then released as a book, but it was not printed in traditional fashion. There are five essays in total, and of the five, two comprise visuals only. The textual chapters that wrap these two visual essays use both word and image. The main font is boldface, with emphasized words and phrases in nonbold type, thus visually signaling the argument contained within. In addition, based on a critique of the BBC series by an art historian, Berger (1972) adds the critic's rebuttal in the book before refuting it, a move that presages blogs and their opportunities for commentary.

2. A good example of this ideology is revealed by Trinh Minh-ha when she explains that films shot in Africa are typically color timed on the blue side of the chart, a convention that is appropriate for light-skinned people but that makes African people's skin color a "dull charcoal black" (1992, 120).

3. Emerging platforms like Popcorn JS ( mitigate this tendency to some extent, as one can see the various source materials pop up inside frames as they are deployed in the main narrative. I find this popping fairly obtrusive, though, and prefer applications such as Scalar (, which allows all assets to be placed in the same frame as the main text.

4. Horwatt (2010) briefly explores the practice of overdubbing, but only to discuss the importing of one soundtrack onto another video track, with little discussion of the nuance made possible by sophisticated sound mixing and editing.

7. Works cited

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Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

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