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  • The dj as Critic, “constructing a sort of argument”
  • Mark A. McCutcheon (bio)

Rhythm is critical; it ties together critical moments.

Deleuze and Guattari
A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

In a contemporary mediascape now characterized more by a surplus of cultural production than by its scarcity (Ritzer and Jurgenson 14), the critical capacities and functions of intertextual appropriation and repurposing volubly declare that reports of the death of criticism are greatly exaggerated, although such practices of quotation and recontextualization are not widely enough recognized as forms of criticism and commentary. Around the turn of the 2010s, two cultural phenomena enjoyed a resurgence in their perennial popularity: dj performance and dance music (Reynolds, “ ‘How rave music’ ”) and the discourse of “the death of criticism.” The renewal of the former took shape around the emergence of new and rejuvenated dance music forms (for example, dubstep, the “progressive” and “electro” house of producers like David Guetta and Deadmau5) and around the tightly networked underground dance scene’s re-framing of “raves,” “Ecstasy,” and “techno” as, respectively, “festivals,” “Molly,” and “edm” (electronic dance music). The renewal of the latter took shape as a [End Page 93] spate of essays, editorials, and books appeared, arguing one of two theses: either that criticism is dead or that criticism is more vital than ever. Oddly, both arguments point for their evidence to the read-write web: where professional critics are endangered, or where taste-making distinctions and recommendations are automated, or where “everyone is a critic” (Kaiser; see also Bayard and Miller). Where you place the emphasis here depends on which side you take, but critics arguing that criticism is in crisis could more capaciously consider the forms that criticism can take.

In roughly the same time, the digitization of music production, distribution, and playback has precipitated an analogous (initially, in fact, an analogue) crisis of calling and purpose for the disc jockey, or dj, the death of which profession (or art, or hobby) was being reported not long after its inception; reports of that death have been given new lease on life, amidst the popularization both of pocket-sized dj applications and of edm. In 2011, the ifc sketch comedy show Portlandia lampooned these trends with a sketch that imagines the popularization of amateur djing as a zombie epidemic that engulfs the city of Portland. The tacit premises of the Portlandia sketch’s humour are not just a wry remixing of music trend with horror story and the notion that said trend—everybody wanting to be a dj—represents artistic aspiration—everybody wants to be in a band, everybody wants to be a rock star. Today, djs are popularly figured as artists, authors, virtuosi, and even shamans. But given the abundance of content made available for creative appropriation by contemporary information and communication technologies (icts)—and given the intensification of corporate campaigns to control, contain, and confiscate such abundance—it is time to recognize more fully the dj’s role as a critic and to theorize the cultural functions of dj work (which is play: the work of improvisational, inventive, and innovative playback) as criticism at the present time. In what follows, I argue that the dj deserves fuller understanding as a critic by positioning this understanding amidst the literature on dj culture, theorizing it according to poststructuralist and postmodernist contexts, surveying some historical precedents for appropriation as commentary, sampling a mix set by dj Z-Trip, and considering the dj’s work as critic in the broader contexts of digital culture and the restrictive, globalized regime of intellectual property (ip) regulation. [End Page 94]

dj Culture and clearance culture

To theorize the capacities of appropriative cultural practices like djing for criticism and commentary is a two-step attempt. First, it is to describe dj practice that privileges and articulates its critical work (over and in some cases in counterpoint to other constructions of dj practice, for example, as authorship or shamanism). Then, using this description illustratively, it is to argue for a more robust and “dynamic” culture of fair dealing (Coombe et al. 5): that is, for rebalancing today’s ip regime, which has so long and so asymmetrically...


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