Folk Cultures and Digital Cultures

author: Thomas Pettitt, Institute of Literature, Media and Cultural Studies, University of Southern Denmark
author: Lewis Hyde, Kenyon College
author: S. Craig Watkins, Department of Media Studies, University of Texas at Austin
published: March 20, 2014,   recorded: April 2007,   views: 1795
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This panel demonstrates provocatively how literary criticism and cultural history have come to accommodate and embrace contemporary media. Says David Thorburn, the session’s moderator, “The founding texts of Western civilization belong to a textual category or engage in textual behavior that make it resemble something much closer to an ongoing, unfinished TV series...” Indeed, says Thorburn, “In his own day, Shakespeare was the equivalent of what TV is in our society, or what the movies had been in the studio era.” A new idea of the text is emerging, one that undergoes constant revision, in diverse media, and which never achieves a finished state. Consequently, notions of authorship, and ownership, are under siege.

Thomas Pettitt offers the Gutenberg parenthesis, brackets around historical periods of artistic achievement. Before the parenthesis lie such glories as Elizabethan theatre and traveling players, where “the distinction between author and performer is problematic.” The text is neither fixed, nor authoritative, says Pettitt. Within the center of his parenthesis sit “original compositions, to passive reproductions.” As the digital age proceeds, Pettit observes culture “paradoxically advancing into the past,” our own a mirror age of Elizabethan times, with rock, rap, reggae and other vernacular traditions that emphasize performance coming to the fore.

In Lewis Hyde’s telling, Benjamin Franklin operated as “the first intellectual property pirate in this country,” perhaps a hero to the open access movement. Franklin was instrumental in spiriting out of England printing technology that was in the 18th century subject to laws forbidding the export of skilled labor and machinery. “Franklin is essentially supporting free movement of labor and ideas,” says Hyde, opposing tyrannical law and “underwriting the liberty of ideas and citizens.” Behind his actions lay the belief that the “true and good were best discovered collectively,” and that sacrifice of individual interest was essential in a republic concerned with the progress of knowledge and “public virtue in politics.”

A dialogue with the past and communal ownership of art (the latter vilified by corporate interests), serve as the foundations of African American cultural practice, says Craig Watkins. He traces the origins of rap music to slave songs and narratives, and black preachers and protest politics. This “oral culture created a space in which people could engage in dialog with each other that allowed them to survive horrific conditions.” The idea of sampling in music is consistent with African-America oral tradition and participatory culture, says Watkins. It’s central to art creation, building new kinds of musical experiences and “paying homage to the past -- an act of respect, inserting the past into present.”

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