Sunday, January 10, 2010

The commonplace mashup

I've learned to take it on faith that the latest revolutionarily new forms and genres don't arise fully formed out of nothing, but have direct roots in older forms. Often these roots can be traced back quite a ways. Case in point: The net and the web are supposed to have created entirely new modes of expression based on taking bits and pieces from here and there and putting them together into a never-before-seen whole. For example, as I quoted Bruce Tognazzini in a previous post:
[W]e are also seeing the emergence of a new and powerful form of expression, as works grow, change, and divide, with each new artist adding to these living collages of color, form, and action.
This was written in 1994. At that point, sampling in music was well established. It's not clear whether Tog would have had sampling in mind as an example of such new forms, but if not it would certainly be a predecessor to whatever starting points Tog did have in mind. For example, the web mashup, which is clearly the sort of thing Tog had in mind, is so named by direct analogy with the musical mashup, which in turn is essentially sampling on steroids.

Sampling, in the sense of directly lifting parts of one recording into another, goes back to the 1960s, at least, with the Beatles and Frank Zappa among others. Lifting the music from one piece into another is much, much older. Working backward, start with jazz and folk music and along the way note that several classical composers were happy to incorporate folk tunes into their works, whether the critics approved or not.

Robert Darnton's The Case for Books gives another example: the commonplace book. People have been keeping journals and log books forever and these, along with the newspaper column, are clearly antecedents of modern web logs such as this one. I was surprised, though, to learn what a webby flavor the particular genre of the commonplace had. As Darnton explains it:
Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus [1466 or 1469 - 1536] instructed them how to do it; and if they did not have access to his popular De Copia, they consulted printed models or the local schoolmaster. The practice spread everywhere in early modern England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton and John Locke.
Darnton goes on to assert that people read in a much webbier way then (which leads me to think, rather, that both modes he describes have been around forever):
It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end [...], early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book too book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts.
This is not necessarily a private exercise. Some commonplace books even saw publication and were doubtless then further dissected by new readers.

There is a commonly accepted narrative that before the web, information was produced and consumed in a strictly linear fashion and distributed strictly top-down from authoritative publishers to captive readers. The web, so the narrative goes, broke that all wide open.

The actual history of books paints a significantly different picture. Active reading and reconstruction has a long history. Commonplace books probably date to the 1100s and remained in vogue into the Victorian 1800s. The Talmud, with its commentaries and its commentaries on commentaries, is another notable example. Nor has publishing itself ever been exclusively confined to official sources. Unofficial publication has been illegal at various times, but the very act of suppression implies a market. This market has seldom gone unserved.

This is not to say that the web has had no effect. It has clearly tilted the tables towards self-publication and sampling, mashups or what have you. However, the web-oriented mindset behind these activities is not new. Neither are complaints about it. From Darnton again, himself quoting Bernard Rosenthal's translation of a letter by Niccol├│ Perotti written in 1471:
My dear Francesco, I have lately kept praising the age in which we live, because of the great, indeed divine gift of the new kind of writing which was recently brought to us from Germany. [...] I was led to hope that within a short time we should have such a large quantity of books that there wouldn't be a single work which could not be procured because of lack of means or scarcity . . . Yet — oh false and all too human thoughts — I see that things turned out quite differently from what I had hoped. Because now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or better still erased from all books. And even when they write something worthwhile they twist it and corrupt it to the point where it would be much better to do without such books, rather than having a thousand copies spreading falsehoods over the whole world.
Or as Tog said it, over 500 years later:
Writers will no longer need to curry the favor of a publisher to be heard, and readers will be faced with a bewildering array of unrefereed, often inaccurate (to put it mildly), works.
Disruptive technology, indeed.

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