IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN:
The Rusty Toque | Issue 4 | In the Public Domain | February 15, 2013
THIS IS YOUR GRANDFATHER'S MASHUP
A couple of years back one of the big things on YouTube was the “Downfall” meme: Bruno Ganz as Hitler in said movie, throwing a shit-fit at a bunch of top Nazis in the bunker, re-subtitled so that the Fuhrer seems to be incensed over what Kanye West did to Taylor Swift, or being unable to find Waldo, or the “Downfall” trend itself.
It’s standard YouTube fare, along with song mashups, genre-flipped trailers, Auto-Tuned news, literalized videos, supercut tropes, pop tunes modulated from minor to major, etc.
Via the kind of reversed-telescope thinking to which humans are prone, we tend to assume these gestures are peculiar to our time, a product of the editing tools at our disposal and rapid-circulation Internet communication. Appropriation art like this is also our best defense against the excesses of copyright (the assumed right to pirate is our worst): We live saturated in media and it’s as necessary for us to represent and contextualize their sounds and images as it was for the Romantics to name specific birds and flowers. It’s life support for the uncommodified imagination and the sense of a cultural commons—that is, of the public domain.
Anyone with a little sense of art history knows the same idea runs back at least to Duchamp and forward through pop art, the situationists’ detournments, 1980s video art and sampling, Negativland’s media collages and so forth. But the best artifact I’ve seen that can spin the telescope back around the right way and show that our great-grandparents were just as capable of this sensibility (which, let’s admit, Duchamp’s urinal only proves by analogy) is Shichlegruber Doing the Lambeth Walk, made in 1941 by Charles A. Ridley, of the British Ministry of Information, out of recut footage from Triumph of the Will. It was disseminated under several different titles by various distributors, an effective technique for propaganda, but also perhaps a way to dodge intellectual-property legalities.
“The Lambeth Walk” was a dance craze based on a tune from a popular 1937 musical called Me and My Girl, a story of upper-crust-versus-Cockney class conflict and My Fair Lady-esque transformation—if you’ll allow me to stretch the point, a tale of remixing identity. When the fad reached Berlin, a Nazi Party member reportedly denounced it as “Jewish mischief and animalistic hopping,” in keeping with the Party’s general stance on jazz and swing as race-(re)mixing “degenerate art.” And so Ridley had his inspiration.
It’s fantastic how satisfying this kind of mockery can be. It far predates any such thing as film editing or sound recording. We could talk about historical pornographic parodies of sentimental novels or classical literature, or folk songs and Victorian street ballads (sold as broadsides) that put bawdy or politically satirical lyrics to well-known tunes.
A more straightforward way to think of it is just how violent and sputtering red-faced you get when a sibling or (in more regrettable cases) not-at-that-moment-so-romantic partner starts parroting everything you say back at you in a high-pitched sing-song voice—which seems to me like the ur-example of the subversive remix. Doesn’t it make you wish that you could copyright your every utterance and send your little brother to jail if he ever dared repeat it back at you in an inflection you don’t like? (If only our parents would just tell the Walt Disney company to grow up and stop letting the other kids get it so upset, instead of trying to placate it with ice cream and another extension of its lease on Mickey Mouse.)
So it is immensely silly for us to flatter ourselves that YouTube memes are anything more novel than our ancient ways of making fun, only much faster. The human mind is an editing machine, virtuosic at pattern matching, that therefore compulsively spawns culture whenever it encounters another mind and/or its droppings.
In this way culture is made out of culture, on top of culture on top of culture, combinatory by its basic character because, to borrow a little gravitas from that great line of Wittgenstein’s, “The world is everything that is the case.” Or as Wallace Stevens said, “In the sum of the parts there are only the parts.”
Which thought, for the ego, is innately belittling to our fantasias of grandeur, of giving birth to something utterly unheralded and individual, and apt to raise a lot of defensive shit-fitting. Legend has it that when he saw (or maybe just heard about?) the Lambeth Walk movie, the Nazi propaganda specialist Joseph Goebbels screamed and threw a chair across the room. Was it out of ideological offense or professional envy? Either way, that’s a YouTube video I’d really relish seeing.
CARL WILSON is the author of Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, a book about class, shame, aesthetics and Celine Dion. A new, expanded edition is in the works. He is a member of the culture blog Backtotheworld.net. He lives in Toronto.