How to Avoid Becoming an Unintentional Plagiarist

Screenshot 2017-02-15 22.22.04As a teacher, I deal with plagiarism all the time—usually in the sense of advising students how to avoid it in their academic essays. As an academic blogger, though, and a web editor before that, I’ve often had to deal with another form of plagiarism: the visual kind. Where most of us are clear on what constitutes textual plagiarism, some of us are less up-to-date on what visual plagiarism might entail. Which images are you allowed to use where, and when are you allowed to appropriate, manipulate, and replicate them without permission from the creator?

With kind permission from Follio.com, in this post you can find a few excerpts from their infographic on image manipulation and international copyright standards. Click here for the complete version.

Screenshot 2017-02-15 22.18.12“To find yourself in the spotlight for plagiarism would be concerning and could even be expensive, even worse when you have fallen foul of copyright laws without even knowing it. Most people have a basic level of understanding relating to copyright law but things have become a lot more complicated since we all started downloading text and images from the internet.

‘How to avoid copyright infringement’ helps to fill in the blanks and might even help you to avoid becoming an unintentional plagiarist.”

 

Again, you can find the full infographic here.

On the Cutting Room Floor (Part Two)

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‘Untitled V’ © Jason Hopkins

The following post is part of an early, discarded draft of the introduction to my PhD thesis on monster mashups. Having just completed a second, and (hopefully) infinitely more readable version, I thought it would be fitting to celebrate by looking back to where I started. Since it will no longer become part of any published work, I’m sharing it here on my blog for posterity. There is of course a reason this was cut—so take it with a grain of salt! It unfolds over two parts; you can find part one here

As the monster undergoes changes in our society’s narratives, so too does our society’s way of telling and distributing those stories. When I suggested in part one of this post that the form and distribution of neo-historical monster mashups contributed to their posthuman nature as cultural objects, I was suggesting that, in twenty-first-century culture, globalisation and transmediation contribute to the fragmentation of meaning. Both the figure of the author and that of the subject are becoming decentred by our processes of cultural production and consumption. Much like an academic essay, popular culture is inherently relational, ‘always defined, implicitly or explicitly, in contrast to other conceptual categories’.[1] Drawing on Storey’s first of six theories of popular culture, Peeren advocates the following definition:

Popular culture comprises those cultural artefacts that are seen and talked about by large audiences, whose members do not always fit neatly into a social class or any other category of social differentiation. One of the most important aspects of this definition of popular culture is that it reaches across the entire social spectrum, even if not everyone interprets its products in the same manner. […] In the end popular culture, as I regard it, is the site where the struggle between dominant culture and the cultures of marginalized social groups is most openly and indeed most democratically played out.[2]

This approach to popular culture, which emphasises its plural interpretations and relational nature, is compatible with a posthumanist framework. Like posthumanism, popular culture decentres the subject, using the language of dominant culture to ‘work through’ its influence and become something other.

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Katja Novitskova, “Approximation V Chameleon” (2013). Photo: Achim Hatzius

The first contributor to the posthumanity of popular culture is globalisation. As Herbrechter argues, globalisation ‘is inherently posthumanist because at the very moment something like “humanity” seems geographically and representationally realizable, the “referent” of this humanity disappears and dissolves into its constituent and its others’.[3] In other words, we understand the term ‘humanity’ as a concept, but whenever we try to conceptualise an example of this humanity we are forced to acknowledge that this example falls short of the concept. Our referent is always elsewhere. Over the past century the structure of the world’s population has shifted from a series of isolated local communities to a series of localised global communities. Though lack of education and access to technology still limits participation in the global community, these limits are far less pervasive than they were even ten years ago. In the capitalist world, which is also increasingly global, consumers are becoming steadily more involved with the products they consume, sometimes even dictating or appropriating their production. This complicates our understanding of the process of interpretation as taking place between an ‘author’ figure and a ‘reader’ figure.

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Likewise, transmediation and crossmediation complicate readings of texts and their audiences by splitting the same narrative across multiple media platforms. Crossmediation does this by simply transplanting a story from one medium to another – for example with both a novelisation and video game version of an upcoming film. Transmediation expands one story across multiple media, with as little overlap as possible. The Assassin’s Creed novels, for example, tell stories that are completely new, but are supplemental to the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise. In this case, as with many examples of transmediation, these stories reference each other, and fans are encouraged to purchase both to obtain a ‘complete’ understanding of the narrative. Both of these processes of remediation reflect the current state of the consumer market, where audiences demand both more and more content from their favourite products, as well as more niche products. If this material is not available from the product’s producer, fans will often create it themselves.[4] This is especially true outside of the Western world, where storytelling methods are developing independently of the fixed commercial structures of the west.

The general expansion of a cultural product’s distribution and the change in its distribution method are both related to the recent and ongoing shift in our modes of cultural consumption. In the twenty-first century, the consumer is increasingly a producer/consumer (or prosumer)[5] in a participatory culture that rejects the idea of passive spectatorship. As we have seen, one result of this shift is the remix or mashup. As author William Gibson describes:

Today’s audience isn’t listening at all – it’s participating. Indeed, audience is as antique a term as record, the one archaically passive, the other archaically physical. The record, not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital […] the recombinant (the bootleg, the remix, the mash-up) has become the characteristic pivot at the turn of our two centuries.

Even when audiences do not actively participate in an object’s creation, they often respond to that object in an active and social – though also highly personal – way, for example on social media or through fan fiction.

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For Henry Jenkins, rather than ‘talking about media producers and consumers as occupying separate roles, we might now see them as participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands’.[7] This blurring of the border between producer and consumer is made possible by recent technological advances like the internet, and has wide-reaching implications for authorial supremacy, and for existing power structures in media production. As Bruce Sterling asserts in his digital remix ‘Death of the Author 2.0’:

The user-producer is a concept that speak [sic] to the digital experience and the freedoms that this digital culture allow [sic] for ordinary people to become artist and producer. This model fundamentally challenges the traditional assumptions of author, it moves away from the idea of the romantic notion of authorship, which saw authorship and cultural production as an isolated activity of a genius sitting and creating something out of nothing.[8]

Sterling’s title clearly references Roland Barthes’ comments in Image, Music, Text on the ‘death’ of the author. Like the humanist subject, the author ‘is a modern figure, a product of our society in so far as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the “human person”’. Referring here to the same cultural process that brought us humanism, Barthes argues that authorial intention is ultimately useless as a hermeneutical tool, serving only to grant the figure of ‘the author’ (or ‘the artist’) an unrealistically pivotal role.

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Cover image from Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’

As with so many of the ‘deaths’ ushered in by poststructuralism, the death of the author has never quite been realised in either academia or popular culture. Even in popular music, where the success of the ‘vocal artist’ is more and more a team effort,[10] the figure and power of the author lives on.  Remix (along with other forms of participatory culture) fulfils Barthes’ description of the author in a way other texts still struggle to do: as ‘a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture […] the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them’.[11] Though Barthes would not have been familiar with remix culture at the time of this description, it strongly evokes the remix ideology.

For Barthes, efforts to ‘decipher’ texts in an authorless world become meaningless.[12] Without authorial intention, there can be no inherent meaning. As Gunkel asserts in response, this means that ‘the objective of the reader, listener, or viewer is not to unearth and decode some secret meaning situated outside of and just below the surface of the text, but to engage with the material of the text itself, to disentangle and trace out its various threads, and to evaluate the resulting combinations, contradictions, and resonances’.[13] This new objective, which resonates with the aim of the critical analysis approach to texts, is increasingly popular in contemporary criticism, and vital to any analysis of remix culture.

Into this world monsters emerge, perfectly suited to play to the needs of the posthuman era’s prosumer. They symbolise the other, but also the self and the self-as-other. Their identity is mutable. Monsters are heavy with the weight of history, and rich with historical meaning. Their use in everything from folk tales to breakfast cereal marketing makes them endlessly versatile. They have come signify nothing, and thus are capable of signifying everything. They are the ideal posthuman vehicle, always elsewhere.

[1] John Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, 5th edn (London: Pearson Longman, 2001), p. 1.

[2] Esther Peeren, Intersubjectivities and Popular Culture: Bakhtin and Beyond (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), pp. 21, 23.

[3] Stefan Herbrechter, Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 142.

[4] Consider the example of Susan Byles’ performance on Britain’s Got Talent in Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (New York: NYU Press, 2013), pp. 9–16. The network failed to spread the video widely themselves, but fans did so on their own terms, clipping parts of the broadcast and sharing them on YouTube and other social media. This represented unintended and unplanned publicity for the network. See also Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2012).

[5] See Jenkins, Ford and Green, Spreadable Media.

[6] William Gibson, ‘God’s Little Toys: Confessions of a Cut & Paste Artist’, WIRED Magazine, 2005, para. 11–12 <http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/13.07/gibson.html> [accessed 14 January 2015].

[7] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), p. 3.

[8] Bruce Sterling, ‘Death of the Author 2.0’, WIRED Magazine, 2007, para. 1 <http://www.wired.com/2007/09/death-of-the-au/> [accessed 27 January 2015].

[9] Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, trans. by Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), pp. 142–143.

[10] David J. Gunkel, ‘What Does It Matter Who Is Speaking? Authorship, Authority, and the Mashup’, Popular Music and Society, 35 (2012), 71–91 (p. 20).

[11] Barthes, Image, Music, Text, p. 146.

[12] Barthes, Image, Music, Text, p. 147.

[13] Gunkel, ‘What Does It Matter Who Is Speaking?’, p. 86.

Anonymity and the Privilege of Uncreative Writing

Photo Credit: © Cameron Wittig, Walker Art Center
Kenneth Goldsmith, © Cameron Wittig (Walker Art Center)

On on August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Seven months later, on March 13, 2015, American poet Kenneth Goldsmith sparked an internet controversy when he performed a remixed version of Michael Brown’s autopsy report at the ‘Interrupt 3’ event at Brown University. Recordings of the reading were never released (at Goldsmith’s request), but details and quotations were spread in textual form.

Responses to the reading were varied. Most questioned whether Goldsmith, a white man, had the right to appropriate Brown’s autopsy report – and by extension, his body and his memory – in this way. The answer, in most cases, was ‘no’.

In a post on his Facebook page that has since been deleted, Goldsmith initially defended his appropriation and performance by arguing that he was simply artistically reproducing a text that already existed (as all writing does):

I altered the text for poetic effect; I translated into plain English many obscure medical terms that would have stopped the flow of the text; I narrativized it in ways that made the text less didactic and more literary […] That said, I didn’t add or alter a single word or sentiment that did not preexist in the original text, for to do so would be go against my nearly three decades’ practice of conceptual writing, one that states that a writer need not write any new texts but rather reframe those that already exist in the world to greater effect than any subjective interpretation could lend.

Of course, Goldsmith contradicts himself a bit here. He both claims responsibility for the text and doesn’t. What is more important in a work of art, the content or the context? In an interview at the 2015 Poetry International (PI) festival in Rotterdam, Goldsmith reiterated his opinion that context is, in fact, everything:

You can watch the full interview (plus a poetry performance) below, and can find more video of this and other festivals over on PI’s YouTube channel:

Goldsmith’s presence at the PI festival was also considered controversial by some, especially in light of other ongoing diversity issues. The Amsterdam-based literary journal Versal issued an open letter to PI in response to their invitation of Goldsmith (and other white, male poets), calling for the organisation to ‘redistribute [their] public funds to the full array of poets engaged in our art, in line with the Dutch Cultural Policy Act’s stated intention for cultural diversity’.

In the above discussion, which included fellow poet and then-PI editor Mia You, four panelists discussed the delicate politics of diversity and representation in contemporary poetry and conceptual art. You referred obliquely to the Versal letter at the beginning of the discussion, which involved several other questions about diversity in contemporary poetry more generally: 

Crucially, in the discussion Goldsmith also recanted his previous defences of the autopsy report performance. He explained that while the words he appropriated were capable of being powerful and potent art, the form and context into which he put those words was a mistake:

In a move that still echoes the attitude of many mashup artists and critics, however, Goldsmith did also suggest that remix is fundamentally liberating and boundary-breaking, partly because it can give its authors a new kind of anonymity. As examples he cited music sampling and re-sharing over the internet, usually unsigned, and later the revolutionary hacking group Anonymous. Anonymity is seen as increasingly central to many social and economic processes in the age of the internet.

Mia You responded with the following question:

In other words, don’t some people deserve the right to be celebrated as authors, or artists, or creative geniuses in their own right, because they were never really accepted in these roles by mainstream culture in the first place? Does the rest of the world have to be done with these modes of identity because white men are?

This was certainly one of the issues in the case of Michael Brown, whose identity came to be defined in the public eye through the work of white men: the police officer who shot him, and the poet who appropriated his autopsy report as a piece of conceptual art. The public never really knew him in his own right, through a persona that he himself constructed.

It’s been nearly two years since Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, and just over a year since Goldsmith performed his reading at Brown University.

I started this post last June, but I’ve been sitting on it for a year now. Primarily because it’s a subject I’m still digesting, but also because discussions of cultural appropriation seem to have remained a very relevant and unresolved part of our current media landscape. What do you think? Is remix inherently oppressive in the hands of the cultural majority? Does it create a new kind of anonymity, or a new kind of celebrity authorship? If so, how might we change the discourse?

Monster Mashups and the Language of Fandom

fandom-life-printsCalling all fans, acafans, and anti-fans!

I’m currently wrapping up a draft of my thesis that looks at the way intertextuality functions in the monster mashup. I argue that it revives the past in a very specific (and monstrous) way, while at the same time having wider implications for studies in historical fiction, adaptation, and remix culture more broadly. More on that later.

At this exact moment, I’m looking for your help in researching my next chapter. This chapter will examine the way remix culture, with special focus on the monster mashup, deconstructs the relationship between fan, superfan, and antifan. What, exactly, is the distinction, and how do both individual fans and corporations capitalise on these categories? Any relevant sources or information you have on any of these topics would be much appreciated. You can send them to me here in a comment, on Facebook or Twitter, or by e-mailing me at DeBruinMJ@cardiff.ac.uk.

The premise is this. Contemporary culture, we are told, is obsessed with the remake and the reboot. There is nothing new or original to be found. Remix takes this idea and runs with it, creating new objects explicitly out of old ones, and blurring the borders between the original and the derivative. The recent popularity of this creative trend has interesting implications for fandom and fan studies, which has long been concerned with the things fans create (products, communities, artworks) around the intellectual property of others. Beyond questions of legality, what distinguishes fanart from homage, or a fan from a superfan (professional fan), in this context?

Take these t-shirt prints, and the above poster print. Qwertee.com capitalises on specific types of fandom, and targets specific kinds of fans. In addition, the company assumes a positive, even fan-like stance (right down to in-jokes in the copy) in order to sell these t-shirts.

Using examples from the world of monster mashup (suggestions welcome!), in my next chapter I hope to explore how the language of fandom is employed in discussions of artistic appropriation in twenty-first-century popular culture. Monster mashups – in which fantastical monsters run amok in historical texts and contexts – range from actual fan productions to big-budget projects cashing in on fan aesthetics and interests. These texts often construct themselves as the figurative monsters of the creative world, and are marketed as revolutionary responses to copyright law and big industry, or even as anti-fan productions.

In the case of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for example, a marketing campaign that started off from an anti-fan perspective (‘making the classics less boring’) was quickly transformed into one that sold Seth Grahame-Smith and Quirk Books as ‘true’ fans (‘the book underscores what we all originally loved about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice’). I’m hoping to argue that in the monster mashup, and in remix culture more broadly, the line between fan, superfan, and anti-fan is a fine one.

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Quirk Books delivers some major burn to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice — and its fans.

Thanks in advance for your help and suggestions!

Star Wars, Remix, and the Death of Originality (Part Two)

ghvfgaua5xsmsckl1nclWhat follows is part two of a spoiler-free discussion of The Force Awakens (the new Star Wars movie), and its cultural context in science fiction, fandom, and nostalgia culture. You can find part one right here.

Last week I started my breakdown of The Force Awakens with the disclaimer that I am a long-time Star Wars fan. I looked at arguments that this most recent film is unoriginal, that it is powered by nostalgia rather than innovation, and I supplied a few counterarguments to these claims. Do we always have to see nostalgia as bad, and originality (assuming originality even exists) as good?

In his latest book, Remaking History (2016), Jerome de Groot talks about the role of historical fictions in the cultural imaginary. ‘It is necessary’, he argues, ‘to look on novels, or films, or plays, or games, or TV series, not as poor versions of history, nor within a binary wherein they are the margins of a centrifugal culture, nor as parasites on “proper” historical knowledge and practice, but as establishing historical modes of awareness, engagement, narrarivization, and comprehension’ (p. 6). For me Star Wars, with all its nostalgia, and its fetishisation of various historical aesthetics, very much fits into this discussion about how we represent and engage with the past – and by analogy, how we build the future. Speaking specifically about Westerns, De Groot suggests that they ‘are not myths at all, but complex historiographical entities enabling the unpicking of foundational stories and histories’ (p. 61). Star Wars may not be a full-blown Space Western, but it too contains these inherent possibilities. The real question is, who is actually allowed to do the unpicking of our stories and histories? Who is the ‘we’ in this scenario?

This brings me to another question that The Force Awakens has raised.

Is The Force Awakens essentially fan fiction?

A short answer to this question is yes. Another, even shorter answer is no. Both answers are correct.

Like many of us, J.J. Abrams is a long-time fan of Star Wars. It’s shaped him as a creator, it’s been referenced in his previous work, and (ironically) influenced his work on Star Trek. The chance to actually make an official Star Wars movie must have seemed like a dream come true, and Abrams’ love of the series comes through in every frame, and every piece of referential symbolism and imagery. The fact remains, though, that Abrams is an industry professional as well as a fan. His devotion to other stories and worlds is generally read as a point of inspiration and homage, rather than an insular fantasy.

J.J. Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy on the bridge of the Millennium Falcon.
J.J. Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy on the bridge of the Millennium Falcon.

Not even Abrams can escape the scorn levelled at fan culture in general, though. The Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard applauds Disney for its choice of Abrams, a ‘highly expert, professional superfan’, to helm The Force Awakens. She points out that returning the reigns to franchise creator George Lucas would only have resulted in more fan disappointment. Problematically, though, she goes on to characterise fans as parasites, bullies, and spoiled children:

The Disney deal looks set, then, to go down as the moment when ownership of cultural properties officially passed from creators to consumers. Those people raised on video games and talkboards are no longer prepared to tolerate the concept that fictional worlds exist only within the imagination of one person. In fact, they are indignant at being denied the keys. Like cross toddlers dodging bedtime, they will have their stories.

This is simply an unfair and inaccurate depiction of fan communities, in a long history of unfair and inaccurate depictions. Recent media coverage of ‘Cumberbitches’, for example, has inevitably fixated on the intensity of fan devotion to actor Benedict Cumberbatch, characterising his followers as infantile, obsessed, and irrational. As Henry Jenkins and others have pointed out, female fans are especially at a disadvantage in terms of how they are represented in popular (or academic) media.

It’s true that fan communities – like all communities – have their issues. Hale Goetz has an especially enjoyable reading of The Force Awakens (with minor spoilers) that reads villain Kylo Ren as a manifestation of one of fandom’s more prominent problems. In her reading Ren is a gatekeeper, of the type that is very concerned ‘about the presence of fake nerds mucking up their beloved franchises’.

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Image © Eduardo Valdivieso

But it’s important to remember that Star Wars fans can be found in all genders, cultures, and walks of life (though who they root for may differ). Star Wars fans want more Star Wars, yes, but most also want good Star Wars, and are perfectly capable of fulfilling their own need to engage with the narrative gaps and opportunities the franchise creates. It didn’t take long at all for truly fantastic fan art based on The Force Awakens to begin rolling in, and excellent fan-made films, short stories, and communities have been making the rounds since before there was an internet.

These fan projects all display profound originality and creativity – they just happen to be inspired by a universe created by someone else. When we get down to it, isn’t that what all storytelling is, in one way or another?

Is The Force Awakens culturally lazy, or even dangerous?

Like any major franchise, particularly in the adventure genre, The Force Awakens has its downfalls – though for the moment it has escaped some of the homogenising tendencies of blockbuster cinema. It does definitely still represent that specific brand of cultural imperialism that Hollywood is known for, but politically it sides with the left-wing branch of populism rather than its right-wing counterpart. It’s not particularly deep in the film school kind of way that some fans seem to expect, but neither is it as unimaginative and derivative as some critics would have you think.

As I argued last week, The Force Awakens simply takes both the visual pastiche that characterised the original Star Wars and the subsequent culture of pastiche that has since sprung up around the franchise, and combines them into one big, tongue-in-cheek mashup.

Although its portrayal of the fight between good and evil is unpleasantly conservative, The Force Awakens is part of a greater story arc, and the series has the potential to nuance this portrayal in later films. Many equal (and greater) films suffer from the same, lazy good/evil binary, and occasionally this can even serve an important purpose. Consider the recent Mad Max: Fury Road, Django Unchained, or even Nolan’s Batman films, each of which seem to care relatively little about their villains’ personal motivations for being evil (‘being bad is just so much fun!’), and yet still manage to tell important and compelling stories, with equally important and compelling political agendas. Fury Road has been heralded as a feminist masterpiece (though not everyone agrees), and for Jerome de Groot Django Unchained presents ‘an aesthetic of the past that does not ignore the horrors of the past and that, through excess, might achieve a better communication of the grimness of events than can be achieved by a discourse – costume drama – that is somehow now a compromised mode’ (Remaking History, p. 179).

Django Unchained: part revenge fantasy, part historical revision.
Django Unchained: part revenge fantasy, part historical revision.

Even if subverting this conservative good/evil binary is not at the top of Disney’s current agenda, The Force Awakens and its sequels have the potential to shift other Hollywood trends in a positive direction. The film’s balance of gender representation easily blows past all the earlier Star Wars movies, and its racial diversification is almost as solid – though naturally the fact that almost all the main characters speak Western variants of English is one of those problems science fiction and fantasy have been running into for ages. The film even leaves space for multiple sexual identities, and one of the franchise’s new official novels features an openly gay character. These are representations we’ve only ever really had in Star Wars fan fiction, never in the franchise itself. While it could (and should) be argued that this is also part of the Disney’s new marketing strategy, I just can’t see it as a bad thing.

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A Hispanic man, a black man, and a white woman in The Force Awakens’ three starring roles. Seems like a good start to me.

The nostalgic, historical aesthetic of Star Wars (‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’) only serves to increase the impact of such representation. If this is what the past looks like, what’s so bad about building the future on it?

If anything, my reservations about The Force Awakens are still largely personal. At the risk of mixing traditionally rival fan cultures, I’m reminded of that episode of Star Trek: TNG where Captain Picard lives a whole lifetime in the span of 25 minutes. He comes back to the Enterprise, and suddenly all the people he knew and loved, and all the experiences he had, are nothing more than a memory. It feels strange to live in a world where the 50-odd years of EU history following the original trilogy have suddenly ceased to be, and where my favourite Star Wars characters don’t (yet) exist.

Tenet Ka and Mara Jade. Apparently I have a thing for kickass redheads.
Tenel Ka and Mara Jade. Apparently I have a thing for kickass Jedi redheads.

I reserve the right to change my opinion about The Force Awakens. So please, leave a comment disagreeing with me. I am very interested in discussing this with you. As I think about The Force Awakens more – as I watch the Blu-Ray release in April, the original trilogy spin-off Rogue One (2016), and the next official sequelEpisode VIII (2017) – I may well come to feel very differently about it all. But for the moment I’m quite content, both as a fan and as a critic. And that’s an achievement that should be applauded no matter how ‘produced’, nostalgic, fan-driven or unoriginal it may be.

Star Wars, Remix, and the Death of Originality (Part One)

Star_Wars_Episode_VII_The_Force_AwakensWhat follows is part one of a spoiler-free discussion of The Force Awakens (the new Star Wars movie), and its cultural context in science fiction, fandom, and nostalgia culture. You can find part two here.

I, like millions of other people, went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens over the winter holidays. Twice. The first time I enjoyed it. The second time I enjoyed it even more, despite lingering reservations.

So…is it a good movie or not? Despite the film’s 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, debate among critics has taken some interesting turns.

I should preface my own discussion of this film by clarifying that I am a long-time Star Wars fan. The first Star Wars film I saw was in 1998 (or late ’97?), when I watched the special edition re-release of The Empire Strikes Back on VHS. I was mesmerised. I devoured the other two films in the series and hungrily went looking for more. When I exhausted my own search I made up new Star Wars stories with my Barbies (because girls don’t have action figures). I found friends who also loved Star Wars, and who introduced me to the Expanded Universe of books, video games, and other licensed stories. Once I had immersed myself in those, I started writing my own fan fiction, and helping to edit the fiction others had posted on message boards.

The disappointingly written prequel trilogy dimmed my enthusiasm for the films, but I remained interested in the universe. Through writing about Star Wars I discovered I really liked writing in general, as well as picking stories apart. I joined other fiction message boards, and started writing about other things. I studied literature and popular culture, and discovered on re-watching the films with my partner that I still appreciated Star Wars, albeit in a very different way.

As I sat in the cinema at midnight on December 16th, then, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was excited by what I had seen in the trailers and heard through the rumour mill. Additionally, almost anything would top my experience of the prequels – though seeing The Phantom Menace for the first time in 1999 was undeniably powerful, for all its flaws. On the other hand I was aware that, if I did enjoy the film, that enjoyment would likely be the result of a carefully calculated effort on behalf of J.J. Abrams and the Disney corporation, who have designed and balanced The Force Awakens to maximise popular appeal, and minimise the chances offending any of its target groups.

And this is essentially what The Force Awakens does. It is a safe movie. It takes very few narrative risks (though it does take a few), and the story, though entertaining, is largely predictable – especially for a Star Wars fan. It is also an exceptionally well-marketed film, in a climate where marketing wasn’t even strictly necessary.

The Force Awakens is capable of entertaining (or at least, entertaining me) despite these things because it is an excellent remix, and this is where the critical conversation gets very interesting. In the interest of getting right down to brass tacks, I’d like to unpack a few common criticisms of the film, and situate my own reflections of Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens among them. This is not meant to be an apologist analysis of the film, but many of the current critiques of the film have been problematic in their own right.

Is The Force Awakens unoriginal?

One of the most common accusations levelled at The Force Awakens is that it is simply an unoriginal rehashing of the first Star Wars film, A New Hope (1977).

Visually as well as narratively (image via Kotaku)
Visually as well as narratively (image via Kotaku)

While I can certainly see the validity of these claims, I also feel that they overestimate how original previous films in the franchise are. For me (and for many others), Star Wars has always been about remix: using the same plots, character archetypes, and settings to re-tell our oldest stories [EDIT: check out Mike Kilmo’s starwarsringtheory.com for a great analysis of the Star Wars franchise as a revival of an ancient literary form called ‘ring composition’]. Writing for Kotaku about the way the marketing campaign for The Force Awakens ‘weaponises’ nostalgia, Dan Golding points out the following:

Partly, what made the original Star Wars so great was George Lucas’ voracious borrowing of visual style. Other directors were doing it at the time, too—Martin Scorsese, for example, peppered films like Taxi Driver with allusions to French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism—but with Lucas, it wasn’t about being clever, or making a point. He just loved style, and took it from where he found it.

Remix is central to twenty-first-century art and culture. Just because Lucas primarily drew his visuals from other films (rather than other Star Wars films) does not, in my opinion, make him a more original auteur. To argue that ‘George Lucas dramatized complex adult ideas for kids. J.J. Abrams has made a children’s film for adults’ primarily because it imitates, as Stephen Dalton over at Hollywood Reporter does, is to assign more high-cultural value to Star Wars than it deserves. Nostalgia for the old Star Wars films (which is at play in many of these reviews) is precisely what Disney and J.J. Abrams are playing with and remixing.

The original Star Wars did its own share of copying (image via Kotaku).
The original Star Wars did its own share of copying (image via Kotaku).

On top of that, the very idea that a film needs to ‘say something’ or present a clear overarching moral or metaphor is a very ‘literary’ approach to cinema. Surely by virtue of existing all films ‘say something’? Perhaps with its character-heavy narrative, remixed plot, and intensely nostalgic visuals, The Force Awakens simply isn’t saying what some people want it to say.

This brings us to our next question.

Is The Force Awakens nostalgic?

Well…yes. It’s certainly not an ironic film – at least, not in that cynical, postmodern way that we’re all so used to. Again, however, this is an accusation that’s been levelled at pretty much all of the Star Wars films at one point or another.

If I had to place The Force Awakens in a critical movement, I might opt for metamodernism or New Sincerity. Just as Luke Turner writes of the metamodern, The Force Awakens seems to exhibit and invite ‘a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism, a moderate fanaticism, oscillating between sincerity and irony, deconstruction and construction, apathy and affect, attempting to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp.’

Ah, the infamous 'Han shot first' campaign. Also, I own this shirt.
Ah, the infamous ‘Han shot first’ campaign, epitome of our nostalgia for the ‘original’ versions of Star Wars. Also, I own this shirt, despite having only seen these ‘original’ versions much later.

‘The metamodern generation’, writes Turner, ‘understands that we can be both ironic and sincere in the same moment; that one does not necessarily diminish the other’. Of course, this could be claimed of virtually all art, but it still feels like an apt description of our times.

When practicing sincere irony, nostalgia is a powerful tool, and The Force Awakens relies heavily on the aesthetics of the past. As Golding points out, it does so in a way that may actually be a bit more conscientious about the historical associations of those aesthetics than the original Star Wars films were. Golding continues by describing the function of nostalgia in the franchise:

There’s this old story about how when the first Star Wars came out, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg saw the words “A Long Time Ago, In A Galaxy Far, Far Away…” and turned to his cinema-going companion and said: “Oh thank god, I don’t have to worry about it.”

That’s actually not too far away from what The Force Awakens is doing right now. It’s telling us we don’t have to worry about it anymore. The Jedi, the Dark Side, they’re real. It’s true—all of it.

The past (and our nostalgia for it) represents a safe space, where we need not be afraid or challenged.

StarWarsNostalgia_battleFEAT
Image © Craig Davison

Moving from this assumption, Dennis Danvers argues the following:

Screen science fiction has largely become a nostalgic genre, typically dealing in antique, even reactionary futures, like the intergalactic civilization of Star Trek, as real as the old west of Gunsmoke. Star Wars is simply Parzival with space ships. Lukas understood that the future plays out and opted for long ago and far away from the get go. Some screen worlds are built purely of style, often lifted from Gibson’s early work, like The Matrix, which boldly muddles an sf premise dating back to the late sixties without pausing to explain why there are so many bullets in virtual reality other than they look so cool in slo-mo.

The nostalgia of the Star Wars franchise (and of Hollywood by association) has been linked to the increased nostalgia of science fiction more generally, and even accused of contributing to the death of the genre.

This is simply not true. As Annalee Newitz astutely argues in her self-labelled rant:

[T]here are a few major obvious problems with blaming Star Wars for cheapening the genre. First, you have to argue a counter-factual that’s impossible to prove: you have to believe that the New Wave would have gone on forever, books would have stayed weird and personal and experimental into the Reagan era. And that some other project wouldn’t have jumpstarted our interest in big-budget VFX spectaculars […] Meanwhile, if we’re being honest, there were perhaps one or two really notable “brainy” science fiction films per year before 1977. And after 1977? There were perhaps one or two really notable “brainy” science fiction films per year — it’s just that they were just surrounded by a lot more big-budget splodefests.

Though Newitz defends Star Wars as a work of science fiction, she doesn’t really deny that nostalgia has ‘cheapened’ the genre more generally. In a much more negative vein, Noah Berlatsky argues that popular science fiction has stopped caring about the future altogether:

Tomorrow isn’t a potential where things might be better, or even different; it’s just a place to rearrange the robots on a Titanic that never sinks. Progress has conquered the present so thoroughly it doesn’t even need to push forward anymore. In pop sci-fi, we’re all always already picking up the shiny new old lightsaber; there is no other future, and no other dream.

I find this view of Hollywood nostalgia problematic. Surely there’s a more productive way to approach what The Force Awakens is doing with its nostalgic return to the narratives and visual styles of other Hollywood productions, and its extensive self-reference. It does, after all, need to appeal to a hugely diverse and increasingly multicultural audience. It can afford to be a little weird (and it is, in places), but global audiences are too used to genre conventions to allow much experimentation in the way of form or narrative. In targeting the highbrow audience, Star Wars would cut out the far larger popular audience.

It feels increasingly difficult to say anything ‘new’ without acknowledging the extent to which it is still (always already) built on the old. To a certain extent, nostalgia is all we have. Art generally only becomes truly great or influential in retrospect. I would argue that The Force Awakens is also aware of this fact, but it knows how to lay all the groundwork for retrospective greatness. It both creates nostalgia, and creates the possibility of future nostalgia.

daniel-craig-stormtrooper-star-wars-force-awakens

Finally, as well as being wrong, the argument that science fiction rarely explores new ideas fails to take into account the extent to which ‘new’ ideas, worlds, and frontiers are frequently built on old ideologies and assumptions. Perhaps the most we can ask of Star Wars is that it slip a few new tricks and quirks into its classic formula, and use its marketing power to push the rest of Hollywood in a positive direction along with it.

But I’ll talk a bit about that more next week, where I get into two more criticisms of The Force Awakens. These relate primarily to its fan communities and lack of cultural subversion.

Everything is a Remix

La Gioconda by Marco Pece
La Gioconda by Marco Pece

This week I’d like to share a short, four-part documentary on remix culture that I recently watched (for free) over on the ‘Everything is a Remix’ website. Not only is it brief, well-researched, entertaining, and well-edited, it also offers an excellent introduction to my own research, which focuses specifically on how studying remix culture changes the way we look at the things (art, history, and identity) it appropriates. Each video is about nine minutes long, with five minutes of documentary, two minutes of bonus material, and a two-minute message from the creator, Kirby Ferguson.

The first episode, which premiered back in September 2010, introduces the concept of a remix, using the traditional examples from the music industry – specifically hip-hop, as well as William Burroughs and Led Zeppelin.

Part 1: The Song Remains the Same

The second episode addresses the movie industry’s obsession with sequels, remakes, and franchises. It also uses the examples of Star Wars and Kill Bill to show how even (or perhaps especially) the most iconic cinema is heavily indebted to previous work.

Part 2: Remix Inc.

Episode three of ‘Everything is a Remix’ talks about the various elements of creativity (‘copy, transform, combine’), including the ‘myth’ of genius and original creation. It argues that ‘we can’t introduce anything new until we’re fluent in the language of our domain’. To make this point it utilises examples from American industry, featuring the iconic figures of Thomas Edison (the lightbulb), Henry Ford (the commercial automobile), and Steve Jobs (Apple computers).

Part 3: The Elements of Creativity

Who owns ideas? The fourth and final episode of ‘Everything is a Remix’ went up in February 2012, and mainly focuses on this question. It also addresses some of the challenges currently facing remix culture: namely sample trolls, patent trolls, and international trade agreements. Ultimately, it argues (powerfully if rather dramatically) that the evolution of our culture – and of our species – demands the ability to copy, transform, and combine, right down to the genetic level.

Part 4: System Failure

In addition to this four-part documentary, on the website you can find some additional case studies, shorts, and special presentations, as well as the first episode of ‘This is Not a Conspiracy Theory’, Ferguson’s newest serial documentary project.

My only real gripe about ‘Everything is a Remix’ is that it’s really just too short, even for an introduction. I would have liked to see Ferguson’s arguments unpacked and defended in more case studies, and also using examples from outside the Western world. Naturally, my wish for something a bit longer and weightier could also just be a sign that I’m getting old. Either way, this series is an engaging and very constructive way to spend 20-40 minutes of your day, and I highly recommend it.