On Fertile Ruins and Remixability
June 10, 2021
Last week I attended Frederico Campagna’s wonderful online talk for Ignota Books, a presentation of his new book Prophetic Culture. I’ve not read it yet, but there were some thought-provoking morsels in the talk which dovetailed with some other things I’ve had on my mind lately. This was a little unexpected, since Campagna’s avenues of approach are somewhat removed from my own interests, but this has only deepened my sense that this particular issue hones in on something worth thinking about.
This is the problem of what I tend to think of as remixability, or the capacity of a signifier to be transferred between sign systems. Though it must be said that Campagna doesn’t talk about sign systems—he talks about worlds. Prophetic Cultures is framed by this question: what happens when worlds disintegrate and die, as ours will do one day and is perhaps doing already? For Campagna this is a matter of some stakes: just as we are now forced to consider the ecological legacy we will leave behind, so he suggests we would do well to consider our cultural legacy in the same spirit. This is the question of how to leave “fertile ruins,” cultural artefacts that would provide future generations with the materials to build new worlds, just as past cultures did for us.
Now, hopefully I’m not doing too much violence by mapping all this onto vaguely semiotic vocabulary, but it seems to me that what Campagna has in mind by “world” is more or less captured by the notion of a sign system, so long as the latter is conveyed broadly enough. As mentioned I’ve not read the book, and I wouldn’t want to attribute to Campagna views that are not his, but for the sake of unspooling some threads I’m just going to run with this mapping for a bit, leaving the question of how well it translates Prophetic Cultures until I’ve had a chance to delve into it (at which point I shall return to this place and atone for my sins). Framed this way, the question of how to leave fertile ruins is roughly equivalent to the question of how to produce remixable signifiers.
Campagna frames this question diachronically, as a matter of the legacy we might leave to the future. But I think it can also be considered synchronically, in terms of a political capacity to forge solidarity in the present. For example, it was often noted at the time that one of the successes of Occupy Wall Street was its ability to craft symbols (like its slogan of “the 99%”) able to catalyse political will around a common cause, precisely because they were “free-floating”—symbols that spoke to many different aspects of lived experience for many different kinds of people, like empty vessels into which multiple meanings and desires could be poured. In addition to the question of legacies, then, it seems that the general problem of how to bind collective will horizontally and across difference (i.e. without the kind of vertical, homogenising authority of a Hobbesian Leviathan) has deep links to the question of how to create symbols that speak across worlds.
1. Parody, Pastiche, Remix
So, what makes for a high degree of remixability? I want to approach this by considering the difference between remix and something that is similar to it in certain respects, but crucially different in others: pastiche. Remember the art banana?
The piece was a kind of mawkish, self-reflexive comment on the way sign transmission and value aggregation work these days. The whole thing was basically an exercise in engineering virality: it is easily photographed and reproduced as a digital image, requires no interpretation, requires no time to digest, blah blah blah, and, most importantly, very deliberately has no deeper significance than this how-dare-someone-tape-a-banana-to-a-wall-and-call-it-art-ness, guaranteeing the rapid proliferation of both a kind of minimal outrage and its minimal commentary. Point is this thing has no exogenous context whatsoever, which makes it irrelevant whether anyone actually likes it or not since all it is in essence is a game that’s really easy to play.
The background cultural milieu this artwork depends on is one governed by a logic of pastiche, not of remix. This logic is exemplified by the kind of content aggregation you get on social media, where the same content is explosively reposted with minor reframing (irony, earnest, outrage, etc) by different avatars, each assimilating it as a value point in their own public feed. There is no transfer of content between sign systems, but rather a repetition-with-variation of the same content within the same sign system. The joy of pastiche lies ultimately in the process of repetition itself, a kind of sheer combinatoric formalism whose ideal object is accordingly one devoid of any actual content, like a banana on a wall.
Frederic Jameson memorably described pastiche as bland parody. Blending these two thoughts, we could perhaps offer some tentative definitions for a taxonomy of parody, pastiche, and remix.
Parody is when a signifier is repeated within a sign system in a manner that reverses its function. (A politician adopts a certain gesture to make them look confident and collected; a comedian mimics the gesture so as to make it look fawning and ridiculous.)
Pastiche is when a signifier is repeated within a sign system in a manner that preserves its function. (A photo of a banana taped to a wall is circulated on social media. Some framings are ironic and/or critical, some are earnest, but ultimately the function of all reposting is clout accumulation in some unified currency.)
Remix is when a signifier is transferred across sign systems. There is no question of an equivalence of function, since different sign systems define different function spaces.
2. Function and Signification
While these definitions capture something of the difference between pastiche and remix, they also have some problems. First there is this issue of variation in relation to pastiche. In the case of parody it is assumed that when a signifier is assigned new significations, it will also change its function. (So repeating a gesture in a manner which reassigns the significance competent to the new significance wooden will also modify its function from *inspire* to *ridicule*). But pastiche is only possible when the opposite is true—when a signifier can vary its significations (earnest, ironic, etc) without affecting its function.
The difference between parody and pastiche, then, seems to not just be a simple distinction in the act or intention of repeating a signifier, but also depends on global properties of the sign system in which the repetition occurs. Parody depends on the principle that a change of signification implies a change of function; pastiche depends on the principle that signification over-determines function, so that multiple different significations can correspond to the same function. These principles hold or fail to hold only relative to some particular sign system.
Conversely, in the case of the remix there’s a question of under-determination. We could imagine some kind of cultural material—a few recorded words, or something—being picked up by an alienation civilisation in the far future, once all other remnants of ourselves are long gone. It might be the case that there is nothing to be made of them, simply in virtue of the fact that there is not enough context to suggest even the most minimal line of interpretation. Perhaps these others would appropriate these words for themselves, incorporating them into their own culture somehow (just as we have the Indecipherable Alien Artefact in sci-fi shows). But these surely cannot count as fertile ruins, simply because they are not even ruins: in the absence of any context whatsoever they are just alien matter. Similarly, in the synchronic case of a free-floating signifier that unifies a heterogeneous collective, while this depends on a certain under-determination of its significations there also must be at least some sense of shared meaning, otherwise its role as a binding agent could never get off the ground in the first place.
So the idea is that a remix is not just about stripping signifiers of all their previous significations to transfer them to a new system, but that the new system will always have some kind of access to the significations of a signifier in its original milieu, and may map or parasitise them in some partial way. Nevertheless, it does seem important that those old significations contain gaps. If Greek mythology is an example of what is meant by fertile ruins, then this fertility seems to consist primarily in a kind of ambiguity that pervades its symbols. We know enough about these characters to say some things about them, but not enough to ever fully pin them down. This world has a kind of open texture to us, then—it is in this sense that these mythological symbols are infinitely suggestive yet always remixable, always available for insertion in new narratives and to be reinterpreted in their roles in the old ones.
With this we seem to have sketched an answer to the original question: what gives a signifier a high degree of remixability is its under-determination (while still being partially determined—we could say its semi-determination) by the sign system it inhabits.
3. In Defence of Non-Contradiction
So if we know what constitutes remixability, then why all this stuff about pastiche? Pastiche is possible only when significations over-determine function: the thing can be posted with irony or with earnest, but in both cases its function is to *accumulate likes*. Remix is possible only when significations under-determine function: Zeus might always be fickle, but this doesn’t mean he can’t play the role of the *villain* in one scenario and the *hero* in another. What seems significant to me is that even though over-determination and under-determination are easily run together, they are in fact opposing qualities when looked at from the perspective of remixability. My claim is that fertile ruins can be created only by sign systems that under-determine sign functions (aka open-textured worlds), and that sign systems which over-determine sign functions will actively inhibit this process.
What got me thinking about this is a few comments Campagna made in his talk, which gestured in the direction of what I assume to be his own take on the fertility of ruins. These concerned lies, betrayals, and the law of non-contradiction. Generally speaking, the recommendation was that we would do well to adopt an irreverent attitude towards truth, facts, and hard logic. At the level of cultural production we should not be too concerned about falsehood, at level of the cultural contract (which defines the parameters of our world) we should drop the law of non-contradiction, and at the level of the individual we should have no qualms about betraying the significations society has assigned to us, for example those of our gender.
The thought I have is that there are two possible ways of understanding “betrayal” in this context—one which corresponds to under-determination, and one which corresponds to over-determination, and which I believe are at odds with one another. (And just to reiterate: Campagna’s comments were just comments—I have no idea at this point what his actual developed view is. This is not intended as a critique, but as a record of some thoughts that have bounced off from those comments.)
Returning to the gender example, one way I could betray my assigned male gender is by simply failing to conform to the expectations associated with this signification. To do this is to petition for my right to under-determination, to refuse to be defined (i.e. to allow my expected behaviours to be pinned down as a matter of social contract) by my assigned signifiers. But I could also betray my assigned gender by adopting a contradictory signification and its expectations: female. To do this is to petition for the right to be over-determined, to be free to adopt whatever signifiers I deem fit, even if they change and even if they contradict social expectations.
This distinction I’m making may seem pedantic, but actually I think the difference between being free not to define oneself and being free to define oneself however one likes is a deep one, and represents one of the as-yet mass-culturally unarticulated major sticking points in contemporary politics. To gratefully receive one’s right to over-determination is to acknowledge a responsibility to be determined, full stop—but this is to implicitly sign away one’s claim to under-determination.
Nowhere is this dynamic more apparent than in the mainstreaming of queer liberation, which began as a simple demand to not have to be defined by sexuality or gender. “Queer” is not supposed to mark a sexual identity, but the absence of a sexual identity. But the social contract we actually seem to be converging on now is something more like: you are free to define your sexuality and gender however you deem fit, as long as it is defined in some way. It can change, you can invent a new one, whatever—consistency with either society or yourself is no barrier—but at any given moment it must be determined in one way or another. You can have whatever pronouns seem appropriate to you, but you’d better fucking put them in your bio.
Anyway, the point I’m making here is that the kind of betrayal licensed by a rejection of the law of non-contradiction is perhaps not the kind that would lend itself to the creation of fertile ruins. An impossible object is an object with contradictory properties: an over-determined object. But an over-determined object is not open-textured; in a way it is the exact opposite, in that there is nothing left to say about it. What I have in mind here is something which in classical logic is called the “principle of explosion,” the idea that anything can be proved from a contradiction. If even a single inconsistency is admitted into a system then everything becomes true—this effectively renders the system incapable of registering any kind of incompatibility or strong difference, which is to say it loses its ability to communicate anything at all.
While “sign systems” in the informal sense (the sense of “worlds”) are not formal logics, there is a suggestive affinity between the principle of explosion and the logic of repetition distinctive of pastiche: when significations are over-determined it becomes impossible to change the act (in the sense of the speech-act or sign function) by changing its signification—at this point the only thing left to do is to permute through all significations, repeating the same function again and again across all possible framings. A sign system which admits such over-determination (i.e. does not prohibit contradictory significations) is given over to pastiche, a kind of metastatic replication. Ultimately, this all stems from a weakening of the system’s capacity to register and communicate differences.
In other words over-determination proliferates, and this will ultimately trample all over any claim to under-determination. The metastasis of pastiche actively undermines the possibility of metamorphosis as remix. This is a roundabout way of saying that if remixable signifiers are what we’re after, then perhaps non-contradiction is good actually. The prohibition of over-determination is a condition of under-determination. Returning to Greek mythology, does the fertility of this world really derive from the presence of inconsistencies within it? I do not think so. I think it derives from the sense that it is governed by deep internal logical consistency, but that this is an esoteric logic, one which can never be fully revealed or brought to the surface, always indexing some exogenous context which we have no access to. It is this tension between consistency and under-determination that invites interpretation and reinterpretation, that makes this mythos seductive. And what is this seductive quality if not the mark of a fertile ruin?
In summary, the point to be stressed here is that despite being easy to run together, there is a significant difference between the over-determination of meaning (which is linked to inconsistency, and is prohibited by the law of non-contradiction) and the under-determination of meaning (linked to what is sometimes called “undecidability,” and the law of the excluded middle). If fertile ruins are a matter of under-determination, then to get rid of the law of non-contradiction is at best a red herring and at worst a means of actively preventing it. This can be taken further: if we consider what it is about the present cultural milieu that makes its symbols so flat and disposable, so unfit for repurposing in new worlds, I think we will find that this is exactly the capture mechanism. In many ways, the law of non-contradiction was thrown out long ago. But this is no blessing—in exercising one’s right to be contradictory, one throws away one’s right to be undecidable. It is surely an improvement to be over-defined than to be merely defined, to be free to be this as well as that or anything else one chooses. But this gift comes with a subtle catch: by accepting it one tacitly acknowledges the obligation to be some way at all. If our demand is to not have to be defined at all, then perhaps this is a gift we should refuse.