Remix before Remix

Before the age of mechanical reproduction – especially photography, sound recording, and video recording – it was difficult or impossible to use exactly someone else’s creation in your art. You could copy their painting or sculpture or tune, but you couldn’t literally lift their creation and drop it into your own. Literature – which did rely on mechanical reproduction for the most part (the printing press) –   was an exception, where it would be possible to quote/plagiarize verbatim a previous artist’s words.

While Folk Culture was often collaborative and could involve a fair bit of sharing of creative work between different indivuals – high culture in the period before 1900 frowned on the direct use of other people’s material in your own creation. The accepted methods by which you might re-use or place your own stamp on the creation of someone else were limited forms of quotation, copying, or modification, including  emulation, allusion, adaptation, edition, translation, parody, transcription, and variations on a theme.

Emulation involved imitating the style or approach of a precursor (an artist who came before you). When Virgil wanted to write the great epic of the the Romans, he emulated Homer, who had written the great epics of the Greek people. He borrowed ideas, motifs, and some stylistic effects from Homer. When John Milton, in the period around the English Restoration, wanted to outdo both Virgil and Homer by making Paradise Lost the epic of the whole human race, he copied aspects of the approach and style of Virgil, writing in blank verse, for example. On the whole, he did not actually quote or rework the words of Virgil, but the emulation was recognizable, and sometimes meaningful.

Allusion is about mentioning the creative work of the precursor. At times you would actually quote from the creative work, but this was intended as a shorthand way of invoking some of the context (and cultural force) of the previous work. Allusion was often not explicitly indicated, but was an effect which the knowledgeable reader, listener, or spectactor would recognize. A modern example of allusion would be the Tupac chorus “Something wicked this way come,” which is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and was also used as the title of a novel by Ray Bradbury (and an album by The Herbalizer).

Adaptation is moving material from its original genre into a new one, for example turning an epic poem into a play, or – as we still do today – basing a film on a novel, a comic book, a stage show, etc. In some cases, not just plots and characters but also words and motifs will be appropriated for the new genre.

Edition can sometimes be a form of appropriation. In the guise of establishing an accurate text, the editor can impose his or her own interpretation on texts that have come down to us in various manuscripts or early editions. For instance, the English poet Alexander Pope edited Shakespeare’s plays in the 1700s and made numerous “corrections” to the wording from the (often corrupt or mystifying) earliest editions, assuming mistakes had been made by copyists or printers and that he understood what Shakespeare must actually have written. Many of these were considered acceptable – or indeed superior to what the early editions had – and some have fallen into such common use that they are still in modern editions of Shakespeare today.

Translation is another way in which one creative artist can appropriate the work of another. Every translation is an interpretation, and occasionally the translations have become better known or more influential, as with the so-called “King James Version” of the Christian bible.

Romantic originality

The late 1700s and early 1800s saw the emergence in Western Culture of what came to be called Romanticism. This movement was marked – among other things – by a desire to reject the past and encourage a revolutionary spirit in all things. The French and American revolutions can be seen as taking part in this, and in the arts there was a break with the rules of classicism and an embrace of the passions and self-expression over knowledge of the past and its rules. The early and influential Romantic Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously said “I may not be better than other men, but at least I am different.” To be oneself and to be unique became central goals and values.

With this came a desire among artists to be new and different, and to break the rules of the past. In England, for instance, the Romantic poets rebelled against the comparatively light and contrived poetry of the 1700s and moved toward more emotional and less formal verse. Despite breaking with the past, they did consider some of the poets from before their time to be great writers, especially Shakespeare and Milton. These became their inspirations, but their concern with being original made it problematic to imitate these precursors – especially such giants as those two. The more “cutting edge” artists felt compelled to try to avoid the influence of their precursors and certainly it would have been considered weak to steal or borrow from their work, or even to emulate them too closely.

In the 1970s literary critic Harold Bloom developed an interesting theory of how the Romantic poets dealt with their indebtedness to past creators. Attempting to deny the influence these earlier poets actually exerted upon them, they ended up writing many of their poems as perverse, neurotic reactions to the great poems of the past. Because they didn’t want to be conscious themselves of the pressure past greatness actually exerted upon them, they repressed their awareness of it. Yet their poetry actually reveals to the careful reader the traces of their subconscious imitations and echoes of past masters.

Bloom proposed an understanding of how these poets operated that was based on Freud’s Oedipus Complex. For Freud, the young boy wants to possess his mother, and as he starts to grow up, his father re-asserts his own control of the mother, leaving the boy feeling neglected. Consequently, the boy unconsciously wants to kill his father and take his place. Thus his father is both his rival and his model. He wants to be his father and supplant his father.

Bloom argued that this was very similar to the relationship the Romantics had with their “strong precursors” – though they couldn’t consciously admit it, they wanted to destroy and replace the great poets of the past, and they did so in part by imitating them, in highly disguised ways of which they themselves were not conscious, in hopes of supplanting these great poets in the eyes of the reading audience (corresponding to the mother in Freud’s theory).

The idea of Anxiety of Influence is that the more one is concerned with being original, the stronger will be the subconscious pressure of the influence of the great artists of the past. Only ignorance itself of the past can relieve this anxiety (which is what we have today). If one knows there have been artists in the past whose greatness is hard to come up to, one will find it hard not to imitate them in some way, though this is an unconscious and perverse form of imitation, which makes the imitation hard to recognize.

If there is anything to Bloom’s theory, we could expect today to see Jay-Z unconsciously imitating Tupac or Chuck D or Ray Charles, but in a kind of twisted and hard to recognize way. I haven’t studied this myself. On the whole, the anxiety of influence has become less intense in the postmodern period, in part because budding artists often haven’t even experienced or appreciated the artists of the past enough to feel stressed by the challenge of living up to their greatness.

The title of Jonathan Lethem’s essay “The Ecstasy of Influence” is a take-off on Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence concept. The idea is that if we give up on being original and challenging the genius of the past, we can have a marvellous time remixing the creativity of those who came before us.