When I was 13, in 1961, I surreptitiously purchased an anthology of Beat writing – sensing, correctly, that my mother wouldn’t approve.
Immediately, and to my very great excitement, I discovered Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and one William S. Burroughs – author of something called Naked Lunch, excerpted there in all its coruscating brilliance.
Burroughs was then as radical a literary man as the world had to offer, and in my opinion, he still holds the title. Nothing, in all my experience of literature since, has ever been quite as remarkable for me, and nothing has ever had as strong an effect on my sense of the sheer possibilities of writing.
Later, attempting to understand this impact, I discovered that Burroughs had incorporated snippets of other writers’ texts into his work, an action I knew my teachers would have called plagiarism. Some of these borrowings had been lifted from American science fiction of the ’40s and ’50s, adding a secondary shock of recognition for me.
By then I knew that this “cut-up method,” as Burroughs called it, was central to whatever it was he thought he was doing, and that he quite literally believed it to be akin to magic. When he wrote about his process, the hairs on my neck stood up, so palpable was the excitement. Experiments with audiotape inspired him in a similar vein: “God’s little toy,” his friend Brion Gysin called their reel-to-reel machine.
Sampling. Burroughs was interrogating the universe with scissors and a paste pot, and the least imitative of authors was no plagiarist at all.
Some 20 years later, when our paths finally crossed, I asked Burroughs whether he was writing on a computer yet. “What would I want a computer for?” he asked, with evident distaste. “I have a typewriter.”
But I already knew that word processing was another of God’s little toys, and that the scissors and paste pot were always there for me, on the desktop of my Apple IIc. Burroughs’ methods, which had also worked for Picasso, Duchamp, and Godard, were built into the technology through which I now composed my own narratives. Everything I wrote, I believed instinctively, was to some extent collage. Meaning, ultimately, seemed a matter of adjacent data.
Thereafter, exploring possibilities of (so-called) cyberspace, I littered my narratives with references to one sort or another of collage: the AI in Count Zero that emulates Joseph Cornell, the assemblage environment constructed on the Bay Bridge in Virtual Light.
Meanwhile, in the early ’70s in Jamaica, King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry, great visionaries, were deconstructing recorded music. Using astonishingly primitive predigital hardware, they created what they called versions. The recombinant nature of their means of production quickly spread to DJs in New York and London.
Our culture no longer bothers to use words like appropriation or borrowing to describe those very activities. 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.
Today, an endless, recombinant, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of creative product (another antique term?). To say that this poses a threat to the record industry is simply comic. The record industry, though it may not know it yet, has gone the way of the record. Instead, the recombinant (the bootleg, the remix, the mash-up) has become the characteristic pivot at the turn of our two centuries.
We live at a peculiar juncture, one in which the record (an object) and the recombinant (a process) still, however briefly, coexist. But there seems little doubt as to the direction things are going. The recombinant is manifest in forms as diverse as Alan Moore’s graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, machinima generated with game engines (Quake, Doom, Halo), the whole metastasized library of Dean Scream remixes, genre-warping fan fiction from the universes of Star Trek or Buffy or (more satisfying by far) both at once, the JarJar-less Phantom Edit (sound of an audience voting with its fingers), brand-hybrid athletic shoes, gleefully transgressive logo jumping, and products like Kubrick figures, those Japanese collectibles that slyly masquerade as soulless corporate units yet are rescued from anonymity by the application of a thoughtfully aggressive “custom” paint job.
We seldom legislate new technologies into being. They emerge, and we plunge with them into whatever vortices of change they generate. We legislate after the fact, in a perpetual game of catch-up, as best we can, while our new technologies redefine us – as surely and perhaps as terribly as we’ve been redefined by broadcast television.
“Who owns the words?” asked a disembodied but very persistent voice throughout much of Burroughs’ work. Who does own them now? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do. All of us.
Though not all of us know it – yet.
William Gibson’s latest novel is Pattern Recognition.
Copyright – Wired
Editor’s note: Gibson is a fantastic novelist, and Pattern Recognition is his masterpiece about information and identity. Highly recommended. hf