It was 2001 and it was the first year of university. My friend Pete and I were wandering through Edinburgh (where we studied) and he was telling me about his first lecture. Pete and I had been at school together; we were in the same class for A-level English Literature and also Maths, but we only sat together in English. We had had a lot of good chats in our English class and all sorts of enlightening debates about literature and stuff. It was good. At Edinburgh Pete was doing English but I was doing Physics. I had originally applied to do English but withdrawn and reconsidered during my gap year (we both did gap years, so we were in sync), and ended up plumping for Physics on the basis of Not Much, Really; probably mostly a fear that I would never really understand it if I didn’t study it properly whereas I could always read books and stuff. So here we were. I had been to maybe a couple of Physics lectures already and been startled by the fact that it turns out Physics is basically an applied Maths degree. You don’t get to sit around dreaming about the universe very much, it’s more a case of learning lots of hard maths and occasionally understanding its connection to something in the real world.
Pete was explaining that he had been learning about the fundamental intertextuality of all literary sources. It’s a long time ago and I don’t know if I understood properly even then, but what I think he was saying was that you can’t read any work of literature in isolation; even if the author didn’t intend it, they were influenced by all the texts they had ever read, and they in turn influenced many future authors. Consciously or otherwise, any piece of literature will contain references to, echoes and shadows of many others. Even the language itself has been built, rebuilt and reimagined by a long succession of writers and thinkers, so you can’t even say anything without drawing on the work of poets, playwrights, novelists and other purveyors of words. I think I would have enjoyed doing an English degree, but you know: there’s no point having regrets and Physics has its uses.
Anyway, my point was that it’s not just literature that’s fundamentally intertextual, but pretty much our whole culture. This is the theme of Everything is a Remix, which I posted about a couple months ago. There’s a new clip available from that project, looking specifically at the Bruce Lee references in Kill Bill:
But I didn’t come here to talk about remixes, I came to talk about mashups. Come to think of it, I had a conversation with Pete one time about mashups. I had a notion that you could do literary mashups, like take alternate lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and, I dunno, Paradise Lost, and make a new poem. He didn’t agree, and I guess he was right: with music you can just put one sound right on top of another and when someone hears it they can pick them both up; writing is much too linear. You’re either saying one thing or another, not both simultaneously.
So, music mashups, the original inspiration for this post. I’ve seen two awesome visualisations recently and you should watch them both. Here’s Girl Talk’s All Day (the whole album!) with every single sample illustrated, popping in and out in real time. And here’s a mashup called Definitive Daft Punk, visualised in the same way but also with a sort of circular graphical equalizer in the middle which is just amazing. This one has quickly acquired a special place in my heart; I still listen to Alive 2007 quite often on the way home from work.
With all this remixing and mashing up that’s going on, it’s like intertextuality has become not just an inevitable consequence of making art, but its central plank, like the whole point of it. To illustrate this and finally finish this interminable post, here is the ultimate supercut: the supercut of supercuts. This was a really cool project by Andy Baio (he of waxy) and another guy: he writes all about it here.