Rip, Mix, Burn: Cannibalize

Despite my grandiose aspirations, I only managed to see two of the Guelph Festival of Moving Media films this past weekend:  Burma VJ, which I will discuss further when I introduce the documentary film course that I will be teaching in January, and Rip: A Remix Manifesto, which I will take up now.

Rip explores the music of mash-up artist Girl Talk as a way of introducing questions about intellectual property.  It is  not intended to add much new to the subject, focusing instead on raising awareness among those who have not yet been exposed to it, so those who are already familiar with the issues will find it a little simplistic.  Its tone is openly rhetorical, as you might expect from a manifesto, most often preferring the engaging generalization to the subtle argument, but it is usually able to convey the essential ideas nevertheless.

A good example of its approach can be found with its section on the history of copyright law.  It gives a brief explanation of the first copyright law formed in England and an equally brief explanation of the most recent copyright law, but it is content to pass over the details of these acts and to ignore the many legislative and legal interventions that contributed to the transition from one to the other.  The audience is clearly shown that copyright has been vastly extended over the past few hundred years, but it is not given the details of how this extension occurred.  So, while newcomers to the question of intellectual property may very well find this idea provocative, there is little that would enable them to develop an informed opinion or to locate themselves with respect to the current legal questions and legislative initiatives before the courts and legislatures.  The film is a good introduction in many ways, to be sure, but it is always only an introduction.

Even as an introductory tool, however, the film has its short comings.  For example, it does not distinguish very well between the acts of ripping. mixing, and burning, each of which poses very different legal and artistic questions, even at a very basic level.  It is one thing for me to make a copy of someone else’s work, another thing for me to alter that work for my own ends, and another thing again for me to produce and distribute this work for other people, but all of these things are lumped together in the film, and this sometime results in some poor reasoning and some false conclusions.

The film also focuses too heavily on intellectual property in music and film, touching only very briefly on the more serious aspects of intellectual property, like the patenting of living material, the length of patents on potentially life-saving drugs and other medical technologies, and the copyrighting of material that materially pertains to the ability of people to make a living or exercise freedom of speech.  These oversights are perhaps to be expected in a film that is using a musician as a case study, but they have tendency to reduce the intellectual property debate to the question of artistic and cultural freedom when much more material things are also at stake.

Despite these problems, the film is generally successful in raising the central ideas of the intellectual property debate, and it does include one section that I found quite profound.  The section is set in Brazil, where the government has decided that it will not respect United States copyright law but will allow and even foster the creative reuse of cultural artifacts.  In this context, the film quotes the  Cannibal Manifesto by the Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade, and suggests that cannibalism might be a useful metaphor for understanding the creative process, where the artists of the present cannibalize the artists of the past in order to take the strength of the past into themselves.

This idea is attractive to me.  Though I have encountered it before with respect to how writers make use of one another’s writing, I have never made the fairly obvious move of extending it to the creative process generally, and I had never understood how political an image it actually is.  After all, this discourse of cannibalism is being used by a Brazilian to oppose a European culture that has been imposed on him, and doing so by making use of that European culture’s long history of regarding his native culture in terms of savagery and cannibalism.  The film itself mostly passes over these political implications, but there are some interesting correlations between the kinds of cultural impositions made by the European colonizers on the native inhabitants of Brazil and those being made by today’s big media cultural colonizers on most of the world, and if the figure of the cannibal consumes the body of the enemy in order to take the enemy’s strength, all the while playing through and against the enemy’s stereotype of the savage, there is a very real sense, I think, in which today’s open culture movement might want to regard itself as cannibalistic.

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