- In the Mix: The Potential Convergence of Literature and New Media in Jonathan Lethem’s ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’
This article considers the reinscription of certain ideas of authorship in a digital age, when literary texts are produced through a medium that substantiates and elevates composite forms and procedures over distinct original versions. Digital media technologies reconfigure the way in which we apply such techniques as collage, quotation, and plagiarism, comprising as they do procedural code that is itself a mix, a mash-up, a version of a version of a version. In the contemporary moment, the predominance of a medium that effaces its own means of production (behind interfaces, ‘pages,’ or ‘sticky notes’) suggests that we may no longer fetishize the master-copy, or the originary script, and that we once again need to retheorize the term ‘author,’ asking for example how we can instantiate such a notion through a medium that abstracts the indelible and rewrites it as infinitely reproducible and malleable.1 If the majority of texts written today—be they literary, academic, or journalistic—are first produced on a computer, it is increasingly necessary to think about how the ‘author’ in that instance may be not a rigid point of origin, but instead a relay for alternative modes of production, particularly composite modes of production, assuming such positions as ‘scripter,’ ‘producer,’ or even ‘DJ.’
By embarking on this path of enquiry, this article attempts to produce a [End Page 212] theoretical framework though which we can consider how literary textual practices themselves elevate the composite forms of new media, perhaps remediating earlier composite practices such as allusion, quotation, and plagiarism. Bringing these ideas together in relation to a 2007 essay titled “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism Mosaic” by the United States author Jonathan Lethem, it will argue that Lethem’s essay can be read as a practice of textual remixing and Lethem himself as an ‘author’ who has (re)produced, rather than unequivocally authored, a particular kind of composite work, one connected to and engaged with the discursive particularities of digital media.
In various theories, surveys, and critical readings of new media objects, the predominant focus tends to be the visual: digital film, net art, digital photography, video games.2 These are formed around multiple theories of the information age, including those that position digital objects as open processes rather than closed works.3 Discussions of digital texts specifically mostly concentrate on textual forms that are explicitly new media (such as electronic literature, hypertexts, and other forms of hyperlinked narratives) or on the materiality of both print and digital text objects in light of new media theory.4 This article in contrast will highlight works in the digital era from a more opaque vantage point, considering a text that is not necessarily a digital object but that uses modes of representation associated with new media.
Due to the sheer reach of digital technology, and the omnipresence of personal computing around the world, artistic processes of the remix proliferate beyond avant-garde communities. They are a structural contingency to much of the software typically found on home computers, such as Photoshop or iPod shuffle, as well as to the sometimes uncanny new applications that arise from re-tweeting or re-posting. Remix culture is consequently an integral component of how we apply new media and, as such, an integral cultural form of the contemporary moment as well. The influential intellectual property lawyer and founder of Creative Commons, Lawrence Lessig, has quoted Greg Gillis, the Mash-up DJ ‘Girl Talk,’ on this exact proliferation: “We’re living in this remix culture. This appropriation time where any grade-school kid has a copy of Photoshop and can [End Page 213] download a picture of George Bush and manipulate his face how they want and send it to their friends. The software is going to become more and more easy to use” (qtd. in Lessig 14). Lethem’s essay “Ecstasy of Influence” conforms to the broad cultural dispensation toward the remix, for he manipulates others’ material and reframes it in an alternative form. Moreover, as I will go on to discuss, he does so...