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Remix: The Ethics of Modular Complexity in Sustainability, By Eduardo Navas


“The Ethics of Modular Complexity in Sustainability” was published in the CSPA Quarterly, Spring 2010 Issue.  My text is available online according to a Creative Commons License adopted by the CSPA Journal. The content may be copied, distributed, and displayed as long as proper credit is given to the CSPA and the individual author(s), and as long as these contents are used by others for noncommercial purposes only.  Any derivative works that result from these contents must also be shared alike.

The journal is the print publication for The Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, a non-profit that supports artists and organizations in the process of becoming ecologically and economically sustainable while maintaining artistic excellence.

Editor statement for Spring 2010 issue:

In this issue, we’re working against the stereotypes of the form, and attempting to broaden its term. As always, we’re exploring our chosen theme across disciplines and were delighted to include sculpture, visual art, theater, public art, and media art in the following pages. Instead of asking for work based on waste materials, we asked for work built from objects that already exist.


Abstract: “Remix: The Ethics of Modular Complexity in Sustainability” evaluates sustainability in networked culture.  It considers how the flow of information in terms of immaterial production and its relation to knowledge play a role in a fourth economic layer supported by the growing ubiquity of globalization.  It revisits and expands, yet again, on my interest in Jacques Attali’s concepts of noise and music to propose a critical position fully embedded in pervasive connectivity.

IMPORTANT NOTE: This text was written as a testing ground for my growing interest in the concepts of volume and module, as explored in vodule.com.  Consequently, this text uses the term modular complexity, but does not define it.  I consider this text as part of my process to develop a precise definition of modular complexity in social and cultural terms.  The interests that inform this text are also relevant to my current research on Remix and Cultural Analytics.  Future writings will make clear the interrelation of all these ongoing projects.

This online version contains minor edits made in order to clarify the argument.


At the beginning of the twenty-first century, sustainability can be read with a double meaning: to be self-supportive while socially conscious. This is because specialized fields (and individuals who work in these fields) need to be aware of their interconnectivity if they are to subsist in global culture. Sustainability is relevant in the arts and media according to the interrelation of material and intellectual production, given that such relation supports specialized fields. Sustainability, when linked to social consciousness, modifies how the recycling of material becomes relevant in culture at large. One could promote a philosophy of sustainability, which embodies critical awareness of the politics of intellectual and material property with real consequences in daily life. This is relevant in all areas of culture, even when one may produce strictly in the realm of aesthetics, and other specialized spaces that appear distanced from politics and economy.

The double signification of sustainability also shares principles of recycling with Remix as a form of discourse.  This is because Remix expands across culture from music to ecology: from immaterial pleasure to material responsibility.  The act of remixing has become common due to the rise of information exchange dependent on cut/copy and paste, which is an act of sampling data in all forms.  It enables individuals to apply the attitude of recombining in the realms of aesthetics and material reality, albeit with different results.  To be able to critically understand how such attitude functions in the symbolic and the material is the very challenge of sustainability.

Sustainability and Specialization

To be specific, the arts’ relationship to the symbolic and the material is misrepresented in the mainstream as apolitical. During the nineteenth century the fine arts, including music, developed autonomous institutions.[1]  Their separation from other areas of culture was accomplished with the implementation of specialized languages that enabled experts to keep control of their respective fields. This is the case of music as an institution.    Musicologist Susan McClary elaborates on how such isolation enforces the silencing of those who experience music as part of their reality, but are not allowed by the experts to feel proper in expressing their opinion as specialists would: “[…] non-trained listeners are prevented from talking about social and expressive dimensions of music (for they lack the vocabulary to refer to its parts) and so are musicians (for they have been taught, in learning the proper vocabulary, that music is strictly a structure.)  Silence in the midst of sound.”[2]

McClary’s observation is part of an afterword that she wrote for the book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, by Jacques Attali.  According to McClary, Attali exposes the silence that institutions impose on non-specialists by controlling how specialized fields, such as music as a proper art form, are represented in culture at large. Specialized fields with no direct dialogue with other cultural areas experience indifference and run the danger of being misrepresented when their activities find their way into media at large.  This isolation makes the arts incidental in cultural politics, in part because the material produced in specialized fields appears not only esoteric, but also “intellectual” or too specialized and unconcerned with real life issues.  The issue here is that while production in the arts does have repercussion in culture at large, how this takes place is not always clear in the mainstream. The result is that production in fields such as the arts is not taken with the same seriousness as fields in the sciences that have found effective forms to present in understandable manner their research through the media, which immediately legitimates their practice for further funding by the public and private sector.[3]

Sustainability and Repetition

As I have discussed previously (in other texts),[4]  Attali’s theory of repetition and representation can help us understand how culture is increasingly bound by technology that relies on the recycling of material in all forms possible.  This technology also enabled institutions of the arts and sciences to develop autonomy based on specialized languages. More importantly, Attali provides a framework in which one can begin to understand how the symbolic is linked to the material. For Attali this is best manifested in the relation between repetition and representation.  He argues that representation as a variable of cultural exchange became redefined by repetition when mechanical recording was introduced with the phonograph and similar early devices.  Attali’s emphasis is on music because he believes that it is in music (the domestication of noise) where we can find the folly of humans, the roots of how knowledge becomes shaped in all forms of media bound by repetition:

It is thus necessary to imagine radically new theoretical forms, in order to speak to new realities.  Music, the organization of noise, is one such form.  It reflects the manufacture of society; it constitutes the audible waveband of the vibrations and signs that make up society.  An instrument of understanding, it prompts us to decipher a sound form of knowledge.[5]

Attali’s methodology is dialectical.  He foresees various stages in how sound plays an elemental role in the development of culture. He considers representation, as it developed in music during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, to have supported modernity in its early stages.  According to him, this took place when representation was overshadowed by repetition.  Representation for Attali is an act of communication that already exposes the future silencing of the individual (the one that enables the expert to demand that non-experts not opine, for they do not know the proper language).  According to him, when a musician performs, the audience must be willing to listen in order to let the musician exert her unique interpretation of a piece of music.  This activity is culturally specific, meaning that it must take place in a space where people come together deliberately to have an experience.[6]

The necessity to attend a specific event in order to experience a musical performance changed once the performer’s interpretation became recorded with mechanical devices.  The result was that the musician’s unique performance was reproduced and could be played, repeatedly, in different contexts that may not be relevant to the original circumstances in which the performance took place.  Once musical recordings began to be played on the radio, live musical performances began to be compared to the recorded material.  The recording, then, becomes the paradigm, the primary form of reference, even though it is not an original but a record of an event that took place in real time at one point.  This is a rupture in culture when the world is defined by means of repetitive presentations of material constantly out of context—so to speak, re-contextualized, and yes, even remixed for instances where repetition is the only means of having an experience.  In the early days of the radio, when the concept of the “music star” developed, fans were eager to see live performances of the songs played on the airwaves.

Repetition entered a new level when some performers opted to combine pre-recorded material with live music.  This is the rise of the DJ: the meta-musician, the celebrated post-modern sound collage artist. Once repetition becomes the default form of representation, recordings can be manipulated to create unique live experiences; in turn the live performance is recorded and recycled as a remixed production that can be bought as CDs or MP3 files.  Repetition effectively recycles every moment of representation, especially when such moments are already dependent on repetition.  Raves, for example, glorify the live manipulation of remixed recordings by DJ’s like Sasha, Paul Oakenfeld, and Timo Maas among many others. Their performances are then sold as recordings themselves.  The names I mention, which are rave stars from the mid-nineties to the mid two thousands may sound dated, since DJ’s come and go, but the power of representation through the repetition of recordings is stable; it is a system of well-orchestrated recycling around which an entire industry is in place.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the ideology of repetition that is linked to music recording devices is extended to other areas of culture.  The concept of repetition originally found in the domestication of noise has become an efficient means for mass media and the global market to thrive.  Like domesticated sound, recorded material of all types, not just music, is distributed throughout the world repeatedly as data-packets, streamed live for the online user to experience in every possible situation, from the comfort of the home, to an airplane ride from one continent to another. Anyone can text a message, call a person across town or the continent, view a world cup game on a giant screen, iPhone or laptop because it is data that is exchanged via a global network. Information is distributed through repetitive algorithms that support a symbolic system that permeates every conceivable space reached by communication.

Once repetition becomes embedded in all aspects of culture, one is no longer bound to contextual understanding but rather modular reinterpretation of the same material according to the multiple contexts the recording attains through repetition.  This is why the job of the social critic, more often than not, is to re-contextualize, to demystify and reassure that cultural exchange does not take place with misunderstandings or misrepresentations.  In this regard, Remix, is a tool of the spectacle as well as of criticism.  It can both present something as new to the uncritical audience, but also make available traces for anyone who is interested in understanding how things are constructed from recycled, recombined, and repurposed material.

The domestication of noise, when extended beyond music to culture, becomes a tool of massive control.  Within this paradigm, aesthetics as a cultural binder is indifferent to immediate needs of the world.  It is understood as part of a process of ongoing assimilation byway of decontextualized repetition of all material that is deemed of value under a discourse that demands the separation of cultural elements, not only for the sake of efficiency of the system itself, but for the purpose of supporting simultaneously otherwise obvious conflicts that would come forth if fields did not claim an autonomous place in culture at large.  This is the contention at play within sustainability at the beginning of the twenty-first century: to be autonomous while also interrelated with other areas of production.  The challenge, then, is how to promote socially conscious exchange within such an interconnected framework that is defined by specialized fields that strive for autonomy.

Sustainability and Modular Complexity

Richard Barbrook observes that the Internet is a space where contradictory interests can function together.[7]  Corporations such as IBM appropriate principles of unpaid collaboration from the open source movement to turn them into forms of outsourcing,[8]  while online users often swap commercial products for free. Barbrook refers to this exchange as a mixed economy, which is possible because of the modular infrastructure that defines the Internet as a decentralized network.  This modular complexity enables private and public interests to share paradigms of production, and often utilize the same tools to recycle and remix. In brief, the Internet allows cultural exchange with private and public interests to take place with certain autonomy because each activity functions as a module.

Modular complexity is the most recent manifestation of repetition as defined by Attali, who explains that once repetition takes effect, people no longer exert power. This implies that a system that no one controls is in place.  The system of Capital to which he explicitly refers in his analysis has found its most efficient and pervasive form on the Internet. No single person controls the Internet.  It is. Period.[9]

While critics could argue that the recycling of cultural value has been at play since humans developed the means to communicate with symbols and language, the difference with technology of mass production, such as the photo image, and more recently the digital image, is that recyclability becomes part of a reality that in turn opens the door for new cultural production that can be concretely measured in terms of its re-appropriation and constant reintroduction as a commodity. This measurement of the growth of mechanical production finds its most advanced expression in datasets that are constantly analyzed for diverse purposes. Everything can be archived: from tweets to the card swipe at the local super-market for the private sector to figure out the best way to expand their products.  Governments since 9/11 can use the same technology for surveillance and national security.[10]

Remix and Sustainability

Within immaterial production (music and other arts dependent on forms of communication) recycling of existing material becomes an aesthetic with real repercussions.  As stated in the introduction, Remix expands across culture from music to ecology: from immaterial pleasure to material responsibility.  It is a binder that informs the awareness of the interrelation of one’s beliefs and actions in culture.

Once an idea or content becomes calculable, measurable as an actual immaterial product, intellectual property becomes a pivotal issue: who owns the material and how should such material be re-used if it is to be recycled?  The result is that we live in a time when information is privileged, immaterial pleasure has become the prime commodity, as the global economy has assimilated a fourth layer of global production, which agriculture, industrial production, and the service industry support.[11]   Information plays a prime role in defining the other layers of production.  As the emerging market it dictates how the others are represented.   This shift places a certain stress on the sustainability of intellectual production, since ideas, its prime real estate, become more precious than ever before.  Immaterial production is at the forefront of a global market that thrives on the low-cost of information production and outsourcing of repetitive labor in computing and networked services such as telemarketing, and social media to different areas around the world.[12]

I will provide two examples from mainstream culture to demonstrate how information once it becomes embedded in networks shapes culture.  When Britney Spears had her breakdown in 2007, she produced revenue for the entertainment industry.  She provided content that circulated on all forms of media, including blogs, gossip columns in print and online magazines, as well as television.[13]  Spears no longer needs to produce music, as it is her very presence that produces income for the celebrity industry.  This is now the expected norm for anyone who becomes a celebrity. However, the circulation of information, while a commodity proper, ultimately supports pre-existing markets, like the record industry.  Since Michael Jackson’s death on June 25, 2009, his estate has enjoyed revenue of over $756 million dollars.[14]   The total is a combination of CD sales; the movie “This Is It” in theatres, DVD and Blue-ray; a new Sony deal that funnels money to the estate for years of future releases and projects, and selections of his publishing. All this is possible because of the efficiency of networked distribution. Jackson was in debt at the time of his death, but this is no longer the case.  He has become a pure system of revenue.  Like repetition, Jackson just is. Period.

Communication, then, is both commodity and culture. Information is an immaterial industry of its own, in which the copy thrives, originals are obsolete, and the producer of ideas has a pronounced position of power. Modular complexity is the platform on which the networked producer is most effective.

This brief survey of the relation of repetition and information demonstrates that the current struggle in terms of intellectual property—of symbolic production—is a direct concern of control of knowledge, which is itself a precious commodity. Michel Foucault notes that during the nineteenth century the bourgeoisie became invested in a new form of power that shifted the means of production from the earth and its products to the body and its labor.  He argues that people no longer were controlled through levies, but through surveillance, through immaterial means that were ideological more than physical.  Foucault calls this new form disciplinary power.[15]   Because the bourgeoisie was intimate with this type of power, they were able to decide when and how knowledge would be deployed within the other classes.  This means that the current divide of those who know and those who do not, upon which specializations themselves were defined with the aim to attain autonomy, became a means for the development of a new form of immaterial commodity: knowledge.

In networked culture, it is knowledge that is guarded and distributed by means of repetition.  What is released and celebrated as pop culture, more often than not, is safe for the system to be stable.  What is not safe is challenged, and, when possible, silenced through the very means of repetition.  To this effect, the constant struggle of the music industry to stop free music downloads is a constant concern.  They are still unable to fully control how music is exchanged for free; nevertheless, the industry strives to use repetition in every conceivable way to stop the flow of music swapping.  As history shows, then, the Internet during its early stages was full of leaks that allowed people to share information that normally would not be so easily available.  This is changing as Web 2.0 is in large part a technology developed for increased control.

Sustainability, for those who are in a position to contemplate an autonomous practice finds itself at a turning point, when the interrelation of symbolic and material production is dependent on modular complexity, because elements can be linked as separate parts defined with specialized tasks designed to contribute to a larger infrastructure.  By examining the modular aspect of the network, one can have a better sense of how things are consumed and produced.  Paradoxically this type of critical engagement is made possible because of a proper distance that is practiced on the same networks that enable the individuals who enjoy this privileged position to disengage according to their comfort.

Bonus Beats: The Sustainable B-side

The concern with how the use of existing material plays a role in the sustainability of culture can now be revisited with more precision.  The act of remixing can be useful in moving towards a sustainable practice that is sensitive to specialized needs, within a modular landscape, which encourages the crossing over to other disciplines.  This is crucial because sustainability in cultural production is dependent on a modular network, which by default thrives best when information is shared as much as possible.

Remix can enable people to become engaged not as experts but as practitioners who gain knowledge through critical engagement rather than critical distance. Engaged critics must produce beyond intellectual reflection of that which they critique. The cultural critic involved in networked culture must be a multi-tasker: she must be able to reflect while embedded in the very system of critique.  She must be a module, ready to analyze as events develop, not wait for history to turn events into archives.

Convergence is taking place at all levels of production, as will continue to be the case because of the efficiency of networked culture based on modular complexity.  If being self-supportive while socially conscious were to become de facto in culture for institutions and individuals, many conflicts that currently are at play within the framework of modular complexity would be resolved; because creativity, freedom of speech, and intellectual property would be redefined as basic elements of open communication and cultural exchange.


[1] Peter Kivy, Philosophies of Arts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[2] Susan McClary, “Afterword: The Politics of Silence and Sound,” Jacques Attali Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 150.

[3]Jean-François Lyotard provides a concise account of how and why specialized languages are critical to the legitimation of specialized institutions. See Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis, Minnesota: 1984).

[4] Eduardo Navas, “The Bond of Repetition and Representation,” Remix Theory, http://remixtheory.net/?p=361, accessed June 22, 2010.

[5]Attali, Noise, 4.

[6] Ibid, 46 – 51.

[7] Richard Barbrook, “The High Tech Economy,” First Monday, peer reviewed journal, 1998 and 2005, http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/631/552.

[8] Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (New York, Portfolio, 2008), 44-45.

[9] Attali, 88.

[10] Articles on data-mining are exhaustive. I have personally developed a project titled Traceblog that evaluates this subject, see http://traceblog. My project appropriates the Firefox Plug-in TrackMeNot, developed by Daniel C. Howe, Helen Nissenbaum, see their website: http://cs.nyu.edu/trackmenot/

[11] Jose Luis Brea, “El trabajo inmaterial,” Cultura Ram (Barcelona: Gedisa editorial, 2007), 40.

[12] Thomas L. Freedman, The World is Flat (Picador, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux: New York, 2007).

[13] Veronica Schmidt, “Cashing in on the Britney Spears breakdown,” The Times UK, January 7, 2008, http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/music/article3146864.ece, accessed on June 21, 2010.

[14] Jim Farber, “Michael Jackson’s estate generates estimated $756 million since King of Pop’s death one year ago” New York Daily News, June 21, 2010, http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/music/2010/06/21/2010-06-21_michael_jacksons_estate_generates_estimated_783_million_since_king_of_pops_death.html, accessed June 21, 2010.

[15] Michel Foucault, “Two Lectures,” Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (New York, Pantheon Books, 1980), 100-108.

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