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Opening Media in Transition: Connections between Folk and Digital Cultures

Today we're starting the MiT5 conference here at MIT, and we begin with a welcome by Comparative Media Studies director Henry Jenkins. He begins with a nod to fan culture as a space of media mash-ups, and plays a short excerpt from the Colbert Report, which issued a challenge to remix its content and provided a segment ready-made for remixing. Inded, Henry suggests that Colbert as a comedian was inherently made by YouTube, and he has shown strong interest in remix culture in other environments (he also issued a challenge to his viewers to introduce falsifying edits into Wikipedia, furthering his playful engagement with participatory culture).

At the same time, Comedy Channel owner Viacom has now removed a large number of Colbert and other clips from YouTube for copyright reasons, which may well backfire, as it threatens the emerging coexistence of commercial and fan-produced content which benefits both sides. Commercial actors are beginning to tap into the consumer-led field, while amateur producers are themselves also rising to prominence in the process. But the problem for the commercial side is: as people get involved in such work, when does the brand start to fade?

Some, like Andrew Keen in his book The Cult of the Amateur, are also questioning the implications of these developments - is the move towards participatory culture necessarily a positive one? But at the same time, the participatory turn is not necessarily a new one - there are historical precedents, and it is important to look back at these to see where we might be headed today.

Folk Cultures and Digital Cultures

From here, we move on to the first plenary panel. By way of introduction, David Thorburn questions whether conferences such as MiT5 are exercises in futurism, or in applying research on old and existing cultural practices on the emerging participtory culture. He also notes the breakdown in differences between high and low culture through participatory cultural developments; the implications of this idea are still not fully understood, and continue to reverberate through our culture and society. And further, if such old taste hierarchies have broken down, then this is also due to the fact that the text is no longer some finished, complete product, but that textual systems remain in process and never reach a definitive state; this fundamentally undermines the position of texts and authors, of course. Texts now are sites of negotiation and ongoing discussion - which brings us right back to the Homeric epic of ancient times which existed similarly only in unfinished, constantly evolving forms.

Tom Pettitt is the first speaker on the panel proper, drawing connections between Elizabethan and present-day American culture. He begins by noting that the creation and treatment of Shakespearean works has a great deal in common with current sampling and remixing culture; critics of such work, on the other hand, exist within the 'Gutenberg parenthesis' in which works are required to be original, individual, autonomous, stable, and canonical compositions. Before the emergence of this 'fixed text' model, textual performance was re-creative, collective, and collaborative; we are now returning to a similar textual engagement based on remix, sharing, and mash-up. At either time, such reworking was based in performance built upon performance: an ongoing process of reinterpretation and change; within the Gutenberg parenthesis, on the other hand, the essential unit is the original composition, and performance is merely the zero option of passive reproduction. Elizabethan theatre, then, was a pre-parenthetical mirror image of the cultural processes we experience today.

It is also important to note that not all textual systems entered the Gutenberg parenthesis at the same time. Poetry did so very early on; Elizabethan theatre followed some time later; popular culture itself again enered a great deal of time later, and has now emerged from it again. African-American culture, on the other hand, perhaps never entirely entered the parenthesis, and has continued its very strong traditions outside of it.

Up next is Lewis Hyde. He begins by noting the role of patents as a means of (initially) moving beyond trade secrets which remain locked away from the public domain, to open disclosure in return for a brief period of being able to profit from such patents exclusively. Opposed to this is the idea of intelectual property 'piracy', and Lewis notes that a good deal of early American cultural and commercial activity is based on pirating existing ideas and technologies, expressly against English law which forbade the exporting of skilled labour and useful machinery. Franklin, for example, never pursued his own patents, believing strongly that the true and the good are best discovered in the open engagement between a number of participants. in the early 17th century, such knowledge was understood in terms similar to the Roman res publicae - public things, and they were fundamental to the emergence of the American society.

Last on the panel is S. Craig Watkins, who moves us forward a little further again by talking about black cultural practices, and here especially the remixing and reappropriation and the communal ownership of content in hip hop culture. Such practices also link back into black oral traditionand folk culture, of course. Early black folk song in America was based on the remixing and reconfiguration of existing culture in the process of making these cultural influences very much its own, much as the emergence of hip hop was based to significant extent on the remixing of existing culture in pursuit of its own style. Other elements of black oral traditions in the 20th century also included the existence of hidden transcripts, the development of protest songs, strong use of humor, development of a style of its own, and the addressing of social conditions, aided also by the spatial mobility of participants; this is not unlike developments which can be observed also in other remix cultures, perhaps.

Samplers became a central technology in hip hop and rap music, of course; samples initially added accents, but indeed became crucial building blocks of this form of music. At the same time, there was an ongoing industry backlash due to its ignoring of existing intellectual property frameworks, as well as a view of hip hop as a non-original cultural form. Practitioners themselves, on the other hand, very much saw their work as a creative endeavour, and indeed felt that their work in uncovering useful samples constituted a kind of archaeological endeavour, building on and rediscovering the black culture of the past - much as was already the case in jazz and blues, for example. Technology has enabled, enriched and enlarged such developments, rather than to lock them down.

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