What is Remix? A research method oriented sketch

Annette Markham

Feb 3, 2013

[this post continues discussion from previous posts:] Remix as a lens for qualitative methods
Complications of social (research) contexts in the 21st Century
Remix is a term that came into usage in the late 20th century to refer to the practice and product of taking samples form audio tracks and putting them together in new and creative ways. The history of remix is most often linked to the music form of Jamaican Dub, represented well by artist King Tubby.  King Tubby–whose work influenced generations of hip hop artists engaged in dub, scratch, rap, and DJ–began deconstructing and reconstructing musical tracks in the late 60s.  We’re now very familiar with the way songs are remixed in ways that extend or reinterpret them for different audiences.

Definitions of remix continue to shift as technologies for production and dissemination of cultural materials evolve. Remix is often used to refer to the widespread practice of mashup, most evident in YouTube videos, or the phenomenon of internet memes, which are typically composed of small units of cultural information (a phrase, an image, a short audio or video clip) that get mixed in different ways, generally for comedic effect. A meme is characterized by its evolution — in effect, it doesn’t exist unless it morphs through reproduction and dissemination.

We could say Remix is everywhere, or “everything is a remix” (Ferguson, n.d.), as both a practice and outcome in all forms of cultural production. Navas (2006) notes that “cut/copy and paste, the fragmentation of material, is today part of everyday activities both at work and at home thanks to the computer,” (paragraph 13), whereby easy-to-use software applications allow people to develop sophisticated mashups. Lessig, Ferguson,  Navas, and other scholars offer extensive discussions of remix, offering many historical as well as contemporary artists and contexts to argue that it’s the content of an idea, not the originator, that matters, and that borrowing, sampling, and creatively remixing ideas is an inherent aspect of any culture. Conceptualized broadly, remix is not something we do in addition to our everyday lives, it is the way we make sense of our world, by transforming the bombardment of stimuli into a seamless experience. If we take seriously the idea that everything we take to be ‘real’ is a constant negotiation of relationships between people and things, and that culture is ‘habit writ large’, remix as a form of sensemaking embraces this framework.

For purposes of talking about qualitative inquiry and the study of digital experience, I find two aspects of remix to be critical:

First, remix relies on sampling, borrowing, and creatively re-assembling units of cultural information in order to create something that is used to move or persuade others. The key to the power of remix is that it doesn’t matter where the elements are drawn from, as long as the resulting product has resonance for the audience. Remix is about working in the liminal space to create a particular way of connecting the familiar with the unfamiliar, or the original elements and the remixed.

Second, remix always occurs as part of a larger community of remix. It is a process of creating temporary assemblages that change almost immediately after initial production.  The very power of remix relies on the participation of others as produsers or collaborative remixers. Producers of any remix understand that once their product leaves their hands and is distributed, others will potentially remix it, again and again.  The form of the remix will change over time.  It might grow in quality and cohesion over time through various iterations. Or, it might morph into something completely unrecognizable with very few elements to trace it back to the origin points (or it might wither and die from neglect).  A meme might appear to have a life of its own as it morphs and changes. But it is negotiated, interactive. It is transformed and it transforms its users and creators.

Remix is an inherent part of digital culture. As we surf, we create momentary meaning structures, mini-remixes that get remixed again and again, every time we surf similarly, with different outcomes.  Our own actions yield these remixes at one level, yet these remixes are influenced by many other factors.

Indeed, remix undergirds the infrastructures of everything we understand to be part of the Internet.  As Navas points out (2010), Google is an excellent example of a very different sort of remix, one that selectively presents us with results based on a complex (and often hidden) set of algorithms.  Amazon.com recommendations, YouTube’s ‘related content’, and Facebook feeds are likewise remixed for us, based on proprietary algorithms that function beneath the surface of activity. Remix may not be the only lens for thinking about this (e.g., I also like Tarlton Gillespie’s work on the power of algorithms), but it highlights the ways that meaning, contexts, and structures can be seen as temporary outcomes of interaction, emerging and fading, morphing into something slightly new every time we engage.

Thinking about digital culture through the lens of remix offers powerful means of resisting the focus on individuals and objects in order to get closer to the flows and connection points between various elements of the media ecology system, where meaning and assemblages and imaginaries are negotiated in relation and (inter)action.  At the meta level, thinking about qualitative research practice through the framework of remix offers a means of reconfiguring some of the practices associated with qualitative research. It allows us to embrace and grapple with complexity (rather than trying to simplify) by focusing less on methods (as templates to either apply to experiences and organize these experiences into particular categories and structures) and more on meaning as derived from a creative process of inquiry.

My application of remix as a concept embraces the essence of bricolage, as described by Kincheloe (2001, 2005). Extending the concept of bricolage, remix focuses on everyday practices of enacting method, as well as the way inquiry is—or can be—situated within a web 2.0, social media-saturated, remix culture.  Remix focuses our attention on the way temporally situated arguments are assembled and reassembled as they traverse various audiences. Each of these renderings has meaning and will be assessed by the reader/viewer/listener, but the quality and credibility of each is not predetermined by the way the data (cultural material) is collected, or the tools used to manage, sort, and categorize this data into something that can then be reorganized and edited by the remixer. Rather, quality is embedded in the extent to which the production (whether we call it argument, story, or finding) demonstrates resonance with the context, and also has resonance with the intended audience.

Rather than marginalizing the concepts of copy/cut & paste, collage, pastiche, and mashup, these practices become resonant and thus appropriate lenses for thinking about of cultural formations as well as adaptive modes of inquiry.  By letting go of the idea that our academic projects should provide answers, remix provides the researcher with a greater freedom to build creative and compelling arguments that enter larger conversations, both inside and outside the Academy.  Although not within a metaphor of remix, this sort of premise for engaging in academic scholarship has long been the project of Yvonna Lincoln & Norm Denzin (e.g., 1994, 2003), Art Bochner & Carolyn Ellis (e.g., 2003), Laurel Richardson (e.g., 1994), and many others who comprise the late 20th century interpretive movement in the United States.

This approach also tackles the difficulty of accomplishing the practices that Latour (2005) and others advocate through actor network theory. As Latour notes:

Any given interaction seems to overflow with elements which are already in the situation coming from some other time, some other place, and generated by some other agency. This powerful intuition is as old as the social sciences. As I have said earlier, action is always dislocated, articulated, delegated, translated. Thus, if any observer is faithful to the direction suggested by this overflow, she will be led away from any given interaction to some other places, other times, and other agencies that appear to have molded them into shape.  (2005, p. 166).

Remix is a way of following this overflow, being willing to flatten the social by considering all elements to be equal, without trying to identify individuals or contexts or distinguish the local from the global. The outcome of one’s activities–if considered an act of making an argument–influences one’s process, in that it matters less where one begins or ends, because patterns and possibilities always emerge. It also shifts one from matters of fact to matters of concern.

So what might a remix approach involve, from a methods point of view?  I talk about it in this post:



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