Aram Sinnreich

Larry Gross, Chair
Peter Monge, Joanna Demers

Configurable Culture: Mainstreaming the Remix, Remixing the Mainstream

This dissertation examines the emergence of new musical aesthetics and practices based around networked media technologies, from remix music to file sharing, and argues that these “configurable” technologies and practices compel us to reexamine our assumptions about both cultural production and social organization. The research is multi-theoretical and multi-methodological, bringing together elements of cultural studies, social network analysis, personality psychology, art history, and musicology, and drawing data primarily from personal interviews with musicians, music industry executives, and attorneys, as well as self-reported attitudes about emerging cultural practices from a survey of 1,765 American adults.

I begin by reviewing the social history of musical regulation, and the resistance that this regulation has engendered. I also propose a mechanism by which musical aesthetics influence social organization, helping to explain the universality of musical regulation and resistance across a broad range of social milieus. I argue that the dialectical tension between these opposing ethics has operated as a vital engine of aesthetic innovation. However, I argue, this process is bounded by a discursive framework that overdetermines our understanding of music’s role in society, and that both sustains and is sustained by dominant social institutions.

Next, I demonstrate that configurable technologies and practices undermine the discursive boundaries that have been in place for the past two centuries, which I term the “modern ontological framework.” I draw upon interview and survey data to explore the ways in which musicians, lawmakers, and everyday people are developing new ways to understand music and cultural production, as the definitional binaries underpinning the modern framework continue to erode into shades of gray.

Finally, I analyze these data in an effort to determine whether a new discourse based on configurability may be replacing the modern framework, and what such a discourse might entail in terms of social organization. I describe five principles: Configurable Collectivism, The Reunion of Labor, The Collision of Public and Private, The Shift from Linearity to Recursiveness, and The Emergence of DJ Consciousness. Their net effect, I argue, suggests a roadmap for the emergence of new social forms and institutions in the networked age.