by Mark Amerika
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2011
336 pp. Trade, $60.00; paper, $19.95
ISBN 978-0-8166-7614-9; ISBN 978-0-8166-7615-6.
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
The least one can say of remixthebook is that is an unconventional publication, at least, according to current academic standards (after all, it is published with a very prestigious academic press). From a formal point of view, the volume resembles any other, but contentwise it is astonishing, if not explosive. At the same time, Mark Amerika is doing exactly what we are all doing and experiencing today: copying, transferring, reusing, mixing, remixing, mashing-up in a culture whose key words have become detournement, collage/montage, readymade, quotation. The avant-garde's fascination with the remix, in literary as well as in visual culture, has now become totally mainstream: We write like Lautréamont (the first to claim that "plagiarism is necessary"), we paint and sculpt after Duchamp (whose fountain is now the icon of the 20th Century), and no one who writes can ignore Burroughs's cut-up technique (or one of its multiple variants). Mark Amerika has been, and still is, one of the pioneering authors of this remix culture in the digital age, which Lev Manovich has taught us to understand as an expansion of the Soviet montage principles.
Himself a recombination of many biographical and professional stances (teacher, critic, professor, theoretician, creative writer, performing v-jay), Mark Amerika has gathered in this book a certain number of "shows" that also exist as live performances and web creations (see his personal site: http://markamerika.com/). One can read them as a blending of autobiography, manifesto, (critical) theory, and creative output––in short, as a new variation on the well-known genre of the ars poetica. It would be unfair, though, to straightjacket Amerika's highly inventive and innovative adlibbing on/of remix culture into this worn-out terminology, as it is also unfair to limit the present review to the mere book form of this work, which also exists in digital form, more precisely in digitally remixed form. On http://www.remixthebook.com/the-remixes, the author has invited some 25 international artists, poets, and theorists to sample from remixthebook, manipulating the source material according to their own insights and preferences. In comparison with the life performances or the digital reappropriation of the work, the printed volume may seem anachronistic, and this gut reaction of the reader familiar with Mark Amerika's ground-breaking work is confirmed by the reading of the book itself.
Most striking in this regard is the extraordinarily classic use of the book-format itself. remixthebook never questions the conventional print layout and leaves the host-medium of the book as it is. When entering the work, the reader expects a much more experimental experience than what is finally being proposed. Despite the innovative content of Mark Amerika's approach, the text as well as the volume are perfectly traditional objects: The whole book can be read from A to Z (the linearity of the text is never put into danger or into question) and although its physical appearance is not that of the average academic essay, its form is easy to recognize and to identify: it is that of the epic, narrative poem in good old free verse, and the basic rules of both free verse and ars poetica are fully respected from the very first till the very last line of the book (there is one idea per line, with from time to time an enjambment to spice up rhythm and style). The ideas of the book are new, but its poetic form is classic (readers of remixthebook unfamiliar with contemporary poetry might have the deceptive impression that there's no reason to be "afraid" of it). And to a certain extent, the novelty is less on the side of the ideas and the theories themselves (logically, most of them are quoted, sampled, remixed, and therefore not always very surprising) than on the side of their very reuse (which the book can only imitate in a rather pale fashion). One really needs to go to the website in order to seize the possibilities of the mash up.
A most intriguing aspect of the remixing process that is hardly discussed or thematized by Mark Amerika is the fidelity issue. Most of the times, the samples are directly inserted into the text, but from time to time, the author states explicitly the source of his material (name, title, etc.), as if he was suggesting that there exists a difference between "free" sampling (paraphrase?) and "faithful" sampling (quotation, with references). If it occurs that sampling involves also changing the remixed original, and if it proves that such changes do matter, it would have been fascinating to learn more about the author's ideas on this issue. As it is now, one can only infer that the differences between ways of remixing (and the exactitude of quoting is just one example of this phenomenon) are less important than the very process of remixing itself, which I think is debatable. Any technique can be used in any possible way, and remixing should not be an exception to this rule. In that regard, the case for mash-up culture made in remixthebook misses part of the complexity of its own subject.