Thursday, July 03, 2008

Cryptoxin, one of my favorite cultural analysts, linked to this post about Oliver Laric’s green-screened “remix” of Mariah Carey’s video for Touch My Body, in which everything except Carey has been edited out, apparently inviting other people to add a background in—much like Stephen Colbert’s green-screen challenges. Is this transformation by subtraction, like Garfield Minus Garfield? FourFour speculates that the video might be a comment on egocentrism or phoniness—I take it that the argument would be something like: Carey is supposedly inviting someone to touch her body, but it’s really all about viewing her, and the green-screen reveals the fundamental emptiness and lack of human relation in her proposition. Rhizome’s Marisa Olson has further analysis:

[Carey] sings, "If there's a camera up in here then it's gonna leave with me when I do. If there's a camera up in here then I best not catch this flick on YouTube." Naturally, this is exactly what Laric is hoping will happen--and no doubt Carey herself. ... The key point made by removing the superfluous imagery from the video's 5,000 frames is that, with her "come hither" gestures and the invitation "touch my body," Carey's certainly asking for it.

The comments take up the sexual-assault implications of “asking for it.” While I agree that Olson’s take has troubling politics—it invokes the trope that a woman who chooses to be sexually active with one man is therefore public property for anyone else—that’s nothing new in transformative fair use.

But what’s the “it” Carey is asking for? Here we have to deal with the distinction between image and body—no matter what strange or degrading things people do with the green-screen footage, they won’t be making Carey herself do anything. I must disagree with the Rhizome commenter that celebrities can control their public presentation and reception in the ways that they, and all other human beings, are entitled to control their physical bodies.

Here’s a portion of Olson’s response to the initial criticism:

I do think that Carey's lyrics (and video) invite sexual fantasy, but my article doesn't say that she is asking to be violated, it says that she's asking to be remixed. Of course, the slippage between the two that you identify is what's so interesting.

In an interview with Laric, he told me that he noticed that the video takes-on an increased sexual tone when all but Carey is masked out. He was interested in how this first-person invitation to "touch my body" could be construed as an invitation to remix the visage of her body (and/or the voice emitted from it), particularly given (a) the implicit link to digital culture embodied by both the lyrics and video, and (b) the fact that the remix is now such an important part of the media ecology of pop culture.

…. Discussions of why a remix is or isn't violent are interesting, as they get to questions of the status of the digital reproduction. Are we remixing a person or "just" her image, and what's the difference ... ? Carey's image was already manipulated before it came to us. In the interview with Laric, he pointed to a segment in the original video in which the shape of a cup becomes distorted as a result of distorting the footage to make the singer standing behind the cup appear slimmer. So this is already not her. If you listen closely, I believe there is also a question as to whether all of the voiced parts of the song are her, so the audio issue adds another layer to the phenomenological question of the brute force of the remix.

The original commenter responded that, while remix might be legitimate, it was especially problematic to blame Carey for the remix, as if she were doing something that was a special invitation here. This is something I find very interesting in certain discussions of transformative fair use, such as the rationale the Court of Appeals gave in the Wind Done Gone case, where transformation comes from bringing out something that “really was” present in the original all along. The commenter suggested that the remix, rather than challenging the construction and exploitation of celebrity, merely participated in it—a charge that can often be laid against unauthorized transformations. This is part of why it’s so dangerous for courts to assess literary and artistic merit. Reasonable people can readily disagree about the critical direction of a reworking, and about the line between exploitation and criticism.

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