Watagataparatext (EL QUÉ?!)

In my recent post on “Watagatapitusberry” I wondered aloud, in so many words, where “the text” in question might reside, given that most people have been exposed to an intermediary “fan”/peer-produced text (a video) more popular than the original “text” (a recording), tho perhaps soon eclipsed by a new “official” video with potentially greater reach (I’m sayin: Pitbull is second only to Miley Cyrus for most viewed music video, all time on YouTube). That said/wondered, I was happy to stumble across Henry Jenkins’s recent interview with Jonathan Gray in which they discuss the notion of the “paratext.” As Gray explains:

I draw the word from a book of that title by Gerard Genette, a French literary theorist. He was interested in all those things that surround a book that aren’t quite the “thing” (or “the text”) itself. Things like the cover, prefaces, typeface, and afterwords, but also reviews. His subtitle to that book – “Thresholds of Interpretation” – is the intriguing part, since it suggests that meaning might be constructed and might begin at these textual outposts, not just at the site of “the thing itself.” And that in turn offers a pretty radical proposition, namely that the item that we’re studying, whether it be a film, television show, book, or whatever, becomes meaningful and is interpreted in many sites, some arguably even more important than the site of thing itself. The purpose of the book, quite simply, then, was to examine those sites.

I prefer the word paratext precisely because it has a pretty academic background, and from within textual studies at that, and thus isn’t encumbered by a lot of the connotations that surround many of the other words that we usually use. Your readers may be more familiar with “hype,” “synergy,” “promos,” “peripherals,” “extratextuals,” and so forth. But hype and synergy frame paratexts too definitively as wholly industrial entities. Certainly, paratexts are absolutely integral in terms of marketing, and in terms of grabbing an audience to watch the thing in the first place. But we’ve often stalled in our discussion of them by not moving beyond the banal observation that hype creates profits. What I wanted to look at is how they create meaning, how our idea of what a television show “is” and how we relate to it is often prefigured by its opening credit sequence, its posters, its ads, reviews, etc. Meanwhile, “peripherals” belittles their importance, since they’re not at all peripheral, at least in potential. “Promos” is fairly innocuous, and yet I’m interested not just in how the things that surround a film or show create an image of it before we get there, but also in how reviews, DVD bonus materials, fan creations, and other after-the-fact paratexts might change our understanding later on, so that too seemed inadequate. And though I like “extratextuals” (the title of my blog!), “extra” means “outside of,” whereas “para” suggests a more complicated relationship to the film or show, outside of, alongside, and intrinsically part of all at the same time. Hence my fondness for that word in particular.

Interesting stuff, though I’m not sure — thinking through several musical examples I’ve had on my mind lately — that the notion of the paratext can be so easily ported over to the messy, p2p musical culture we witness on the web. Rather, it seems a better fit when we’re talking about mass media broadcast models (TV shows, films, books), where it is relatively easy to posit a central text and peripheral (if also crucial) ones.

Let’s take “Watagatapitusberry” yet again as our object of analysis: what’s the text and what’s the paratext? Can we really say so clearly that the pseudo-“Official Video” made by a group of NYC teens is simply a paratext when it’s the version that most people have engaged as “Watagatapitusberry”? When we behold that so many other “Watagata” videos — including, notably, the slick new production ft. Pitbull and Lil Jon — seem to take their cues from those dudes dancing in their kitchen, their high school, their backyard and bathroom, who will make the argument that it is nevertheless a paratext? Does the concept of paratext prove useful in this instance, or does it in fact — for all the useful intellectual/cultural work it might do around TV or Hollywood — prevent us from apprehending something even more radical about the ways that texts are co-produced and circulate, with value added, in today’s media ecologies.

(Perhaps it goes without saying, since this is common for any popular song these days, that “Watagata” has also been remixed widely, e.g. by Toy Selectah, Allen Cruz, A.C.T., and no doubt many more. These are perhaps more easily subsumed under the notion of the paratext — so long as they don’t end up more important to people’s interpretation and engagement with “Watagatapitusberry” than “the text” itself, whatever that is.)

We could add to “Watagata” the example of “You’re a Jerk” (as my previous post also suggested), a song which, as the New Boyz have recounted, jumped from MySpace to YouTube and inspired dozens of people to dance along in their own videos (many of which are now muted/missing), all of which positioned the New Boyz to sign a deal for major production/promo/distro, which produced, eventually, an “official” text of its own (which includes a glossy video but should maybe also entail the audio-ID fingerprint which Warner Bros adds to its takedown-DB). Indeed, as far as Warner is concerned, the audio-ID fingerprint may as well be the text (which they can monetize), and everything else just a paratext — some more parasitical/piratical than others.

Of course, the template for “You’re a Jerk” is “Crank Dat,” which perhaps best illustrates the problem with trying to apply a theory of para/texts to music culture in the age of YouTube. Really, re: “Crank Dat,” which is the text and which are the paratexts? Is the text itself the song that Soulja Boy recorded (relying heavily on Fruity presets)? Or is it the easily-mastered set of dance steps so crucial to its spread? Is it the initial video that made the rounds featuring SB’s friends doing the dance in their living room? Is it the white-out-on-my-sunglasses tutorial-in-a-pool that SB put out there to help people learn to do the dance (and spread the song)? Or is it the official video / release? What about the dozens, if not hundreds, of other versions of people dancing to or mashing up the song? What about the dozens of “Crank Dat” spinoffs? I realize that as I go down this list, things can get more and more para/meta, but the first few questions, to my mind, show how hard it is to locate “Crank Dat” in any singular instantiation.

Or, take, “Super Freak” & “U Can’t Touch This” (which I discussed a ways back) — whose text has merged with whose? Which is now primary and which is para? It’s not simply a matter of which came first. And who can ever say when it’s all been settled? Don’t count a good paratext out. Ever.

Against this backdrop, I find more persuasive the idea that a musical text is less defined by a textual object per se and more by a set of relations, ever reconstituting themselves. Along these lines, I’m eager to hear more from Georgina Born, presenting at a symposium in which I’ll take part at Princeton next month. Born seems to be arguing — in proposing what she calls the “provisional work” — that the notion of the “assemblage” might better describe how musical culture works, at least in certain realms of creativity and collaboration. From her abstract

it is possible to discern an alternative ontology of music to that historically enshrined in intellectual property law … the ‘provisional work’ … To grasp the alternative ontology requires us in turn to engage analytically with music in the expanded sense of the assemblage: that is, as a constellation of mediations – sonic, but also social, material and technological, discursive, corporeal and temporal – that together constitute what ‘music’ and musical experience are held to be.

If this is like the Death of the Author all over again, maybe it’ll go down easier this time?

We can reify all we want. In the end, it’s all music as social life. And that’s irreducible.