The shock of the old

At Slate, Simon Reynolds offers a challenging, critical assessment of the remix cult, or, as he dubs it, the “recreativity movement.” Here’s a taste:

Still, let’s entertain for a moment the notion that the recreativity believers are right: that innovation is an obsolete and unhelpful notion and that the curatorial, informationalized model of art is where things are at. A few years ago William Gibson opined, via Twitter, that “less creative people believe in ‘originality’ and ‘innovation,’ two basically misleading but culturally very powerful concepts.” Forget for the moment that Gibson would appear to be rather an original writer, an innovator in his field. What’s relevant here is that he is characterizing as false consciousness the mindset that powered everything from 20th-century modernism to the most dynamic eras of popular music. […] Even today, evidence would suggest that artists, writers, and musicians who labor under the misconception that it’s possible to come up with something new under the sun are much more likely to try for that and thus stand a better chance of reaching it. Perhaps it would be better if we continued to be “misled”! Whereas the ideology of recreativity, as it spreads, not only legitimizes lazy, parasitic work, it actively encourages it by making it seem cool, “timely,” somehow more advanced than that quaint middlebrow belief in the shock of the new.

As much as it is propaganda in favor of underachievement, recreativity is also, I suspect, a form of solace: reassuring balm for the anxiety of overinfluence, the creeping fear that one might not have anything of one’s own to offer. The achievements of a great composer or a great band (such as Led Zeppelin, a target of Everything Is A Remix’s Kirby Ferguson) seem less imposing if you can point to their debts and derivations. Part of the appeal of standing on the shoulders of giants is that it makes the giants seem smaller.

Reynolds is on target here, and elsewhere. My only grouse is that he’s a little too quick to lump people into the remix camp, in a way that blurs some important distinctions. In surveying “proponents of recreativity,” he includes, for instance, David Shields, whose book Reality Hunger incorporated, sneakily, the words of many earlier writers. In its celebration of allusiveness, Reality Hunger was, it strikes me, a critique of the dismembering impulse that characterizes the remix cult: the desire to see an original work as only a patchwork of “sources.” In its most childish form, this desire manifests itself in a gleeful rush — all too common today — to see allusion as plagiarism; the critical faculty is overrun by the logic of the search engine. (If in listening to Led Zeppelin you’re only able to hear Robert Johnson, there’s not something wrong with Led Zeppelin; there’s something wrong with you.) Much to Shields’s dismay, his publisher required him to make his allusions explicit by including a list of sources at the end of the book, essentially kow-towing to the tiresome sensibilities of the remixologists.

And, though I’m wary of parsing tweets, the William Gibson remark that Reynolds mentions seems more subtle than Reynolds gives it credit for. Gibson is criticizing the worship of the “now factor” that characterizes the self-consciously avant garde, of which the remix brigade is just the latest front. (As Reynolds suggests, a good bit of the appeal of remix rhetoric lies, paradoxically, in the way it makes its users feel “original” and “creative” and oh so “now.”) Far from dismissing the creativity of the modernists, steeped as it was in historical consciousness, Gibson was, I think, applauding it. The modernists were nothing if not allusionists, for whom the shock of the new could only be expressed by someone with a deep understanding of the shock of the old. Eliot’s technique in The Waste Land was not dissimilar to Shields’s in Reality Hunger.

When Pound told artists to “Make it new,” he wasn’t diminishing the importance of what came before, or its usefulness to the contemporary enterprise of creation, but he was emphasizing its insufficiency. For the real artist, the cultural past is, like nature, raw material, which is remade, not merely remixed, by the pressure of individual talent. The problem with “the curatorial, informationalized model of art” is that it wants to reduce inspiration to derivation, allusion to citation, originality to recombination, art to data processing — and, yes, to make giants seem smaller. It’s a problem that has more to do with a misperception of talent than with a retrospective gaze.

3 thoughts on “The shock of the old

  1. Kelly Roberts

    I think Reynolds is perfectly justified in lumping Shields into the remix camp. The danger of writing cute manifestos calling for literary dismemberment—“the anti-novel, built from scraps”— is that readers will actually take you at your word.

    Reality Hunger is just postmodernism continuing to be exhausted. Recreativity is exactly the same thing.

  2. Nick Post author

    I confess I tuned out the “death of the novel” stuff when I read the book, which no doubt heightened my enjoyment of it.

  3. bolano

    isn’t recreativity really just a form of shopping? Isnt this ‘curatorial’ instinct really just a kind of complusivie consumerism?
    I could go on about the commodification of everything but that is a given…

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