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In his latest book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, David Shields is a plagiarist. He knits together 618 texts, his own and others', everyone from Montaigne to an ad written by some copywriter. These bits form the substance of his 26 chapters, lettered A to Z. He had intended to do so without attribution, but that made his publisher nervous. So he bowed to their legal department, endnoted them all, and encourages the reader to take sharp scissors to those last few pages in the book.
Back in the 80's, musicians did something similar, but they called it "sampling." More recently, audio technicians have taken it a step further with "mashups." This is where they take two songs (or more) with similar (or identical) chord progressions and combine them into a single song. The result is a duet with Beyonce and Kurt Cobain on the same stage ("Smells like Teen Booty"). It's a disorientation.
This mashup isn't limited to music and literature though. Hipsters have taken all that and created a lifestyle around it, applying it to clothing, décor, activities, and more. A Hipster would show up on a fixed-wheel bike to a 20's throwback speakeasy wearing vintage 80s striped stockings, and a 40's-era fedora. It's like wearing a collage. One of the best examples I've seen of this disorientation is the film "Rachel Getting Married." In it, the groom sings a Neil Diamond song for his vows.
The modus operandi of mashup culture is reappropriating old culture, not creating, but recreating. All these old iconic cultural artifacts are retrieved and placed in a new context. This is art. Shields writes/quotes "Collage . . . was the most important innovation in the art of the twentieth century." (§44)
This may seem shallow to many. Using artifacts of popular culture in order to create meaning seems superficial, even worthless. Shields (or someone) sees it otherwise: "Every triviality is imbued with significance." (§344) A reviewer of Reality Hunger seems to agree that recontextualizing cultural products like this "makes the meaning more—not less—potent for its resilience."
I don't describe mashup culture with complete disdain though. I recognize its reality in my own life. In the past few months, I've attended a rodeo complete with buckle and cowboy hat, a German Christmas market, eaten at a Costa Rican restaurant, and seen a play based on a G. K. Chesterton novel. I drive a Japanese car, listen to Kanye West and Hector Berlioz, and attend theology conferences. These are all parts of my world—indeed, even my identity. The alert reader, certainly, will have recalled the name of this blog.
The reader will perhaps sense some personal resonance with the culture I've been describing or at least find such a culture intriguing or enlightening, even sensible on some level. There is good reason for this I think.
In part, I think mashup culture can be explained by the advent of electronic media. Indeed, electronic culture is a mashup itself. Thus, because electronic culture has so broadly and deeply involved people in the modern West, its nature as a mashup itself has made its users in its own image. "We become what we behold" (McLuhan). "We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us" (McLuhan). Mashup culture is the product of the electronic environment that we've created. (As Peter Fallon said, "A shovel changes my relationship to the ground. If I have a shovel, I'm much more likely to dig holes.")
I don't expect the mashup trend to remain relegated to the arena of pop culture. In fact, it's already translated into other areas of life, including ethics. In that context, mashup culture is referred to by another term, "pluralism." It is a worldview that many Christians object to. They strenuously argue against this disorientation, but religious and ethical pluralism is the symptom, alongside mashup culture, of deeper shifts in the way we think about the world.
These symptoms are less philosophical and more structural, more systemic. They are symptoms of how we think about the world, or more nearly, the means by which we learn and think about the world. It's not a matter of what we think about, although that's relevant, as much as it is a matter of how we collect what we think about, and the media through which we discuss it. It is, overall, the environment we've created in which to talk about the world we know.
This environment, I believe, is broadly shaped by the technologies we use to know our world. In the early 20th century, the U.S. referred to itself as "the melting pot." This is just another synonym for "mashup." Multiple technologies enabled melting pot culture to emerge: steamships, steel and concrete architecture, telegraphy. They helped people travel to America, live in close proximity, and hear news from outside cultures.
Today, the Internet has simply pushed cultural mashups to critical mass. Presently that is electronic media. But electronic media itself is a mashup. The medium has shaped us, the message. We are the message. We are the mashup.