Remix might sound like a modern term that we attribute to the Hiphop of Grandmaster Flash and the DJ spinning and scratching of the 80s, and Mashup even more so because of its associations with modern technology, but we all know that imitation and mimicry is not a new concept in the arts. In my line of work, the literary text has been mixed and mashed for centuries. Shakespeare took his histories and probably the semi-historical King Lear and Macbeth from Holinshed’s Chronicles, Hamlet was apparently remixed from an earlier play which was itself based on a story by Saxo Grammaticus 400 years earlier, his story for Romeo and Juliet was a remix of a poem by Arthur Brooke written in 1562; and you can’t really blame West Side Story and the little less classy Gnomeo and Juliet for playing with that remix culture.
My mum would always answer my cries of “she’s copying me” with the old adage “imitation is the highest form of flattery”. By nature we imitate, pick up on catchy ideas and, whether consciously or unconsciously, allow them to influence our own expression. Pastiche and parody have long been legitimate literary styles remixing and mashing up texts to celebrate or mock respectively.
As I thought about this I realised that I consume so much remix-mashup culture such as the following:
- My most recent trip to London took me to Victoria Apollo to see Wicked which does a clever job of filling the backstory of the Wizard of Oz but adds to it by questioning the basic dichotomy of Good and Evil. I really enjoyed the clever way it tied the plots together and clearly it has been an international success.
- Over Christmas I watched Death at Pemberley: Jane Austen meets Agatha Christie in a Pride and Prejudice whodunnit, which in my view lacked much of the irony and wit of Austen but maintained British love of the murder mystery. Whatever, it had great costumes and oozed period drama which always goes down well will bellies full of mince pies.
- and one of my old favourites the Meme that created this Hitler/IB parody in a series of Downfall parodies:
Thank goodness Oliver Hirschbiegel is able to laugh at his own work in this context and Corynne McSherry, an attorney specializing in intellectual property issues, managed to prevent Constantin Films removing them from Youtube.
Which brings me to question how this might be used in my lessons. The answer in a form of fan fiction – yes that’s right fan fiction that bought us classics such as: Mr Darcy, the Werewolf (Austen meets Twilight) and the Fifty Shades trilogy based on the Twilight series (yes I did read the first one – purely for research you understand!). But, if you can remove yourself for a minute from the weirdly geeky and frightening mummy porn, we can look at what fan fiction actually does.
Some of the main reasons for fans writing these fictional responses to texts are to elaborate on narrative gaps, explore characters in modern contexts or bring together characters from a variety of texts together often with unexpected results; in other words get involved in them. To me it is playful, creative and shows engagement with texts above and beyond the passive consumer. Some authors such as JK Rowling understand the need for fans to do this and actually delight in it creating Pottermore as an interactive home for such creativity and Stephanie Meyers has links on her site to her own fan fiction. However, other authors think less of the practice:
I don’t want “other people interpreting” our characters… This may sound rude and elitist, but… we built our universes, and our characters; they are our intellectual property; and they are not toys lying about some virtual sandbox for other kids to pick up and modify at their whim. Steve and I do not sanction fanfic written in our universes; any such work that exists, exists without our permission, and certainly without our support.
I feel that Sharon Lee, co-author of the Liaden Universe Books, is missing the point that only part of the meaning of the text comes from the author and, as many IB students will be able to tell you, it is the reader that creates meaning. The virtual sandbox to which she refers is what many games companies have been encouraging for years and making money out of it.
In my reading about Remix culture I notice the repetition of certain phrases, many of which focus on the fluidity, convergence and blurred boundaries of texts that is essential in mashups, but also those that refer to the participation of producers and the interaction with texts. It is this post-post-modernism that is being also referred to as transliteracy. In food and cultural practices this is often called fusion; I like the idea that what we are doing is fictional fusion.
This is a great solution for an english teachers biggest unsolved dilemma – how do we measure students wider reading. Sure we can test them on class texts and we can ask them to keep a book log or journal of what else they read but reading logs are notoriously fake-able and to an avid reader a waste of precious reading minutes. My idea is to radicalise reading and motivate literary discussion. Book blogging is not a new idea but the students in my Y7 class have recently started a book blog. My remix idea would include fan fiction style tasks which demand some interaction and involvement with the lives of characters. One such idea might be:
Which two characters from two books (or films or games or popular culture) should meet up and why? What would be the outcome? You can write the outcome as an explanation, a script, a comic strip or actually record (audio or visually) your ideas.
Possible ideas could include:
Simon Cowell meets Lord Voldemort on Britain’s got Talent
Skellig meets the angel Gabriel on a cloud
Mary Berry meets Mary Poppins at the Great British Bake off
Gangster Granny meets the Artful Dodger in a criminal rehab session
Boris Johnson meets Mayor Undersee in a council meeting
As we all know from the karaoke experience, having a go at something does not mean the the next Streisand or Shakespeare or Spielberg is born, but allowing students the opportunity to create is everything. The best students will be able to remix and mash up some of the ideas in the most contemporary modes, others will at least get to consider the wider world of the character, as we used to call it – differentiation by outcome. As Darrell Johnson, a Chicago teacher, so rightly states in Spotlight on
“It’s what you do with it …That’s what becomes genius.”