The Regenerative Remix and Recombinant Identity: Exploring the Limits of Navas’ Remix Taxonomy

Posted by on Oct 20, 2014 in library | No Comments

Eduardo Navas’ “Regressive and Reflexive Mashups in Sampling Culture” (2010) historicizes, classifies and theorizes contemporary practices that he identifies as “remix culture”. One vein of scholarship has approached contemporary remix culture as a diverse, situated set of practices characterized by a multiplicity of meanings. Operating in a diverse set of fields, “remix culture” has been understood as a trajectory, rather than a specific subculture. As such, it remains difficult to identify the unique features that distinguish ‘remix culture’ from a host of other practices that surround it. In this respect, Navas’ attempt at a taxonomic classification of remix types is an important contribution to the thinking around “remix culture”, for it sets boundaries on the terrain in which remix culture operates, and the kinds of practices it describes. Importantly, by attending to musical, artistic and personal expressions of “remix culture” Navas’ account leaves out the ways in which power uses remix practices in order to reorder identity, security and personhood.

This post will interrogate Navas’ remix taxonomy by probing its limits. It will experiment with Navas’ proposed categories by bringing them it into conversation with a remix practice with markedly different stakes than the exclusively musical, cultural, or online examples he regularly draws upon: namely, biometric identity. Specifically, this paper will consider if and how Navas’ ‘regenerative remix’ category can account for Btihaj Ajana’s (2013) notion of remixed biometric identity, what she calls “recombinant identity”. By doing so, this paper seeks to trace out what Navas’ taxonomy makes room for and what it occludes. Ultimately, this paper will seek to better understand the version of remix culture that Navas is promoting.

For the purposes of this paper, I define ‘remix culture’ broadly, as a participatory culture (Jenkins, 2006), with defined norms and conventions (Hetcher, 2009), that seeks to harness the economic and creative opportunities afforded by remix strategies and technologies (Lessig, 2008). I understand Navas’ text as an attempt to flesh out the specific methods by which remix culture materially and conceptually reproduces itself.  His intervention proceeds by developing a taxonomy organized around four categories of remix: extended, selective, reflexive and regenerative. The purpose of this taxonomy is, ostensibly, to comprehensively describe the terrain of remix culture; yet, as Bowker and Star (1999) have shown, every classification scheme leaves something out. Within every taxonomy there is always something rendered residual, marginal or strange.

In the following sections of this paper I will provide an introduction to Navas’ remix taxonomy and describe in detail his ‘regenerative remix’ category. I will then provide a brief introduction to biometrics, describe Ajana’s concept of ‘recombinant identity’ and consider its relationship to the regenerative remix. This paper will conclude by reflecting on what the recombinant identity example can tell us about Navas’ taxonomy and his interpretation of remix culture.

Navas’ Taxonomy

By historicizing remix culture, Navas locates the origins of remix in the music and music sampling practices of DJs and artists working in Jamaica and the United States throughout the 1970s and 1980s. These practitioners are credited with developing the first two of Navas’ four types of remix: the extended and the selective remix. Navas defines the ‘extended remix’ as a longer version of an existing work. He defines the ‘selective remix’ as a new work produced by adding new parts to, and/or removing sections from, an original. Navas argues that these types of remix have a close relationship to one another, as each calls upon and supports the original text as an original. Although extended and selective remixes are transformative, Navas does not consider them standalone works in their own right.

As extended and selective remixes penetrated more deeply into culture, and more practitioners took up tools and strategies of cut, copy and paste, Navas suggests that a third type of remix emerged: the reflexive remix. Reflexive remixes use remix principles in more conceptual and allegorical ways. Rather than extending or adding materials, reflexive remixes transmogrify sampled elements, rendering them, somewhat paradoxically, both recognizable and new. By doing so, reflexive remixes materialize as original works in their own right. Navas goes so far as to suggest that reflexive remixes have the uncanny ability to “claim… autonomy even when [carrying] the name of the original” (p. 5). The development of the reflexive remix signals a broadening of the cultural phenomenon of remix—including its material productions and creative practices—into a full-fledged cultural discourse.

Once remix approaches emerged as cultural framework, Navas suggests that that his fourth and final category of remix—the regenerative remix— became possible. Regenerative remixes link the cultural framework of remix with the tools and experiences of networked culture and new media. Given constant exposure to dynamic and changeable online information flows, and the ubiquity of cut, copy and paste tools embedded within popular software, Navas suggests that our current cultural and technological milieu has enabled the emergence of a different, more practical and personalized experience of remix culture. Through new media technologies and methods, we are all empowered to remix materials to suit our individual needs, a process Navas suggests is exemplified in the concept of the mashup.  With the regenerative remix, Navas argues that remix tools and strategies may be used to produce creative work, but they are more likely tuned towards the production of practical tools for exploring and understanding the world–in both its physical and virtual manifestations. Navas’ taxonomy follows an historical trajectory that moves remix principles from their origins in music, to broader cultural practice, and then integrates such approaches with the tools and experiences of what has come to be known as ‘web 2.0’.

The Regenerative Remix in More Detail

In his discussions of the regenerative remix, Navas takes pains to define this category in contradistinction to the reflexive remix, particularly in reference to what he calls “the allegorical impulse” (p. 6). Navas calls reflexive remixes unique because they are distinctly allegorical.  In invoking allegory, seems Navas to suggest that the sampled materials in reflexive remixes are used symbolically, meaning they are used to invoke the broader thematic, aesthetic, political and/or philosophical life of the original work. By doing so, reflexive remixes produce new expressions that rely on the multiple historical, cultural, and other articulations of that same sampled work. Regenerative remixes, on the other hand, are described as producing new expressions ahistorically. Navas suggests that this type of remix occurs when two or more dynamic data flows are brought together in order to present new information, and to build an archive of their interactions and exchanges. Since regenerative remixes rely on information streams that cannot be anticipated, Navas argues that they “subvert pre-existing material for the sake of functionality, pushing allegory (or the historical importance of the originating source) to the periphery” (p. 21). In other words, regenerative remixes cannot invoke the historical and cultural articulations of the sampled work.  Interestingly, Navas’ decision to interpret the regenerative remix as non-allegorical leads him to conclude that such remix types result in the creation of politically neutral new media tools that serve to answer predefined questions and solve simple problems. As part of this argument, Navas claims that reflexive remixes cannot “demand critical reflection,” instead such work simply requires “practical awareness” (p. 22). This line of reasoning erases the multiple political and ethical decisions that are built into the software, information feeds and systems that regenerative remixes rely on and serves to obscure the social power of some remix technologies. Indeed, as the biometric example below will demonstrate, Navas’ decision to depoliticize the regenerative remix works to smooth over the highly textured and contested terrain where technology, politics, culture and social worlds intersect.

A Short Introduction to Biometrics Systems

The term “biometrics” is defined as the process of using automated methods to recognize an individual based on measurable biological and behavioural data (Jain, 2013). The broader project of biometrics is founded on the principle that human bodies can be accurately measured and analyzed through machine calculations. Biometric systems are built by digitizing pieces of the human body (such as fingerprints, iris scans and facial photos), entering those digitizations into a database, and associating those same digitizations with a prescribed identity. In other words, biometric systems are built by cutting, copying and pasting from the human body, and then rendering those copies, and the identities they index, as machine-readable code.  Biometric systems operate by automatically scanning bodies that interact with the system, and responsively allowing entry or access based on archived data.  In other words, biometric systems operate by bringing together multiple dynamic data flows (bodies scanned in real time and bodily samples contained in databases) in order to create information (identity, access, etc.), and build an archive of those interactions and exchanges. Biometric systems are examples of regenerative remix. These technologies accord with all of the criteria for this remix type, as set out by Navas: biometric systems are constructed by, and function through, the juxtaposition of dynamic data flows and the creation of on-demand archived data.

Recombinant Identity Explained

Ajana argues that the kind of identity produced by biometric systems is a remixed identity. Although she never uses the term ‘remix’, she describes in detail the ways in which biometric identity emerges from the selective sampling of embodied experience, data generated by the body, data generated about the body, as well as other forms of abstracted identity, including pin numbers, passwords, credit scores and browser search history, to name but a few. Ajana’s interest in the effects produced by the co-mingling of multiple sources of abstracted and numerical identity draws heavily from Gilles Deleuze (1992) concept of “dividuals”. Deleuze invents the term ‘dividual’ in order to account for a conceptualization of human experience and subjectivity that does away with the individual in order to think about every person as an data point that contributes to the development of “masses, samples, data, markets or ‘banks’” (p. 5). Current interest in so-called “big data” exemplifies the transformation of the individual into ‘dividual’ material. Ajana suggests that biometric systems are engaged in an interesting interplay between the individual and the ‘dividual’. These systems cut, copy and paste from individual bodies in order to produce large-scale categories and types, such as employee, consumer, patient, citizen and traveller (Mordini & Rebera, 2013). Those same broad categories then feed back into the system, into its archives and operational articulations, producing real-world effects on individual bodies, for example permitting or denying access. Ajana describes this process as “electronic suturing whereby identities are stitched up or designed from scratch in order to imbue those profiles with a life of their own” (p. 92). She calls the resulting identity, which moves between the individual and ‘dividual’, a “recombinant identity” (p. 92). The term “recombinant” refers to the recombining of materials to produce a new object, and emerges quite easily as another way to express the logic of the remix.

Recombinant Identity and the Regenerative Remix

The is post has already shown how biometric systems and biometric identity can fit into the category ‘regenerative remix’, what remains to consider are those aspects of the biometric project that do not fit within Navas’ schema. What is left, as always, is that which is residual. Navas has describes the databases and archives that are produced by regenerative remixes as “truly egalitarian space[s], which provide answers to all queries possible” (p. 25). What this kind of depoliticized interpretation of remix cannot account for are the ways in which some remix technologies—for example, biometric systems—have the power to shape social worlds and support societies of control. The philosophy and practice of remix does not simply live in the production of musical tracks, or the sampling of aesthetic elements in fine arts and popular culture. As evidenced by biometrics, remix practices can also encourage activities like surveillance, social soring and the construction of categories of difference. Navas’ taxonomy makes marginal the social power of the remix, in favour of constructing a naïve, deracinated and utopian version of remix culture. If Navas’ can find a way to account for a greater variety of remixed objects, and reintroduce the political aspects of remix that should be part of each of his remix categories, his taxonomy may prove more useful in the study of remix culture.

 

References

Ajana, B. (2013). Governing through biometrics : the biopolitics of identity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting things out : classification and its consequences. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the Societies of Control. October, 59, 3–7.

Hetcher, S. A. (2009). Using Social Norms to Regulate Fan Fiction and Remix Culture. University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 157(6), 1869–1935.

Jain, A. (2013, June 5). 50 years of Biometric Research: The Almost Solved, The Unsolved and The Unexplored. Keynote presented at the International Conference on Biometrics, Madrid, Spain. Retrieved from http://atvs.ii.uam.es/icb2013/files/ICB2013_Keynote1.pdf

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. NYU Press.

Lessig, L. (2008). Remix: making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. New York: Penguin Press.

Mordini, E., & Rebera, A. P. (2013). The Biometric Fetish. In Identification and registration practices in transnational perspective: people, papers and practices (pp. 98–110). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan in association with St Antony’s College. Retrieved from http://myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/login?url=http://www.palgraveconnect.com/pc/doifinder/10.1057/9781137367310

Navas, E. (2010). Regressive and Reflexive Mashups in Sampling Culture. In Mashup cultures (pp. 1–28). New York: Springer. Retrieved from http://remixtheory.net/remixImages/NavasMashups_2010.pdf

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