This review of Mark Amerika’s book remixthebook, was published in Art Monthly issue 353, February 2012
Part way through Disney’s virtual reality, action-adventure film Tron Legacy, the character Flynn, played by Jeff Bridges, describes the digital DNA of ‘isomorphic algorithms’ as ‘biodigital jazz, man!’ Behind this combination of two seemingly incompatible sensibilities – the writing of computer code and the free improvisatory air of post-bop jazz – is Hollywood’s techno-babbled attempt to pitch computer programers as romantic, New Age digital beatniks. Oddly enough, the parody isn’t that far from reality. Many of the ideas in Silicon Valley were driven by the hippy-esque Californian Ideology, and hackers like Julian Assange grew up in counter culture environments that fuelled their socialist beliefs and a commitment to hacktivism’s ‘information must be free’ motto. In American novelist, lecturer, VJ (video jockey), artist and media theorist Mark Amerika’s new book, the similarities are even closer. Self-described as an experimental hack into ‘traditional media discourse’, the author borrows heavily from the stream-of-consciousness tradition of the proto-hippy beat generation to create text that flows with the improvisatory abandon of free jazz.
For Amerika, remixthebook is an attempt to sidestep the current impasse of French theory and continental philosophy in order to create a performative text that speaks directly to the needs of digitally fluent artists and theorists today. The mechanism through which this is delivered is via Amerika’s sustained programme of extended metaphor, recasting artists, writers and creatives as ‘remixologists’. What this means in real terms is that a lot of standard words and phrases are substituted for musical jargon, usually reserved for DJs and producers. Carrying on from where Nicholas Bourriaud’s 2001 book Postproduction left off, artists not only ‘sample’ material from other sources, they also ‘remix’ or ‘mashup’ cultural content in order to channel it as ‘postproduction mediums’ – of the spiritualist variety – who draw inspiration from the field of ‘open source lifestyle practice’, which roughly translates as the domain of everyday life. Amerika, in the performative role of a writer as remixologist, refers to the quotes and citations he uses from writers like Allen Ginsberg and Ronald Sukenick as samples, and the reconstitution of these samples into book chapters as remixes. To apply this logic to artists, Robert Rauschenberg’s combines could be seen as paradigmatic examples of remixological art, and Ryan Trecartin’s trashy, consumerist net-nightmare films as highly evolved. Things are further convoluted in remixthebook by an almost complete lack of punctuation, the stanzaic and occasionally concrete layout of text, and Amerika’s penchant for wild lexical agglomerations like ‘chaosmosis’ and ‘destinarrativity’. The overall effect is akin to reading a sprawling epic poem written for cyberpunks. But it is fun.
What saves remixthebook from becoming an entirely overindulgent mess of techno-buzzwords in pseudo-jazzy free prose is the author’s sense of self-deprecatory awareness. In the book’s more conventionally written introduction, Amerika states that it is his intention to ‘mash up the jargon of academic writing’ by setting the book somewhere between an ‘improvised keynote address’ and ‘a stand-up comedy routine’ – explored further in the chapter featuring comedian and art collector Steve Martin. It is clear that here and elsewhere the author intends to position his tongue at least partially in his cheek, and so a relaxed approach to the text is encouraged.
The book begins, concretely enough, with Amerika ‘drinking 100 percent organic Kona coffee’ in his Hawaiian studio. Then, across eight chapters, Amerika explores four informal themes: an introduction to the ideas and nomenclature of the remixological field; an introduction to the methodologies available to the remixologist; an exploration of the liberatory condition of remixological consciousness; and politics. A number of key figures orbit each of these themes, the most important of which are Ginsberg, Sukenick, William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Vito Acconci and Guy Debord. Undoubtedly Amerika’s remixological programme could be construed as a Situationist détournement of pontifical academic writing, but beyond this is a commitment to chance and the power of nothingness. At times the book veers towards a secularised digital mysticism; preaching transcendentalism through negation. Like any work influenced by the beats, Zen Buddhism and a contemplative selflessness awaits so, in the sections where remixological methods are introduced – which as you can imagine fall into categories of collage, appropriation, piracy, juxtaposition and plagiarism – the would-be remixologist is invited ‘to become creativity itself’. The entry point comes through denouncing medium-specificity. In this way artists will be able to embrace the condition that Amerika calls ‘flux persona’, which seems to be a state of hyper-receptivity to multi-media source material.
The merit of this text, as a model that may be used in writing about new media, lies in the moments it truly becomes an experimental work of pseudo-academic irrationality, the most sustained period of which thrillingly comes three-quarters of the way in. Here the reader, completely at ease with the unwieldy prose, rides shotgun as Amerika blasts off into abstraction. But, while it is fun to lose yourself in the book’s matrices of neologisms, the problem lies in the fact that renaming old tendencies means it never actually covers new theoretical ground – appropriation is still appropriation, even if you call it sampling. The result: remixthebook is an entertaining and challenging read, but it is not quite the paradigm-shifting, post-theory, multimedia book we have all been waiting for.