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.

15 thoughts on “Watagataparatext (EL QUÉ?!)

  1. I end up, with all these thorny questions, wondering for whom does it matter that the question get answered. So here, I end up wondering: why does it matter where or what the text is?

    Text matters for particular reasons that have to do with power. With being able to claim or assign authorship, authority w/r/t some institution, or sometimes royalties. People demand to know what the object is, what the commodity is, in order to properly assign people fixed relationships by means of these claims. ARe there other reasons for needing to identify something as text?

    So yeah, Music is a practice, not an object or a collection of objects. Maybe all cultural work might be better understood as practices than as objects. Objects (recordings, scores, texts) can suggest or reveal something about the practices, but they are not in themselves the point, are they?

  2. yes, i think you’re right, ripley: the texts are not in themselves the point, at least for lots of practitioners/participants in music culture. but, yeah, for others (including creators and others seeking to exploit their copyrights), locating congealed practice in a distinct text is a crucial exercise of power.

    it really does depend on what one thinks “the point” is: to secure a livelihood via cultural production? to seek a sustainable sphere of collective cultural practice in an age of commodification? el qué?

    also, i should say for myself, in case it’s not obvious: it really matters that “the text(s)” are always already located in the social, in shared/collective cultural practice; that (social) fact undermines received (if contested) notions of authorship/ownership, yes, but — to my mind — it does so for the sake of public good. we can disagree about this all we want, and several of the “creators” of “texts” that i deem collectively produced/framed/stewarded may well take umbrage to my attempts to theorize away their “property.” so it goes.

    for me — and this runs through my work on hip-hop, reggae/ton, and youtube-tanzmusik — the traditional balance that copyright is supposed to strike between incentive to create (who needs this in music/dance culture? srsly?) and the public’s rights to re-use is way out of whack. observing how musical culture actually works, for the most part, and observing a certain antagonism between collective cultural practice and prevailing theories of “intellectual property,” leads me to want to advocate for a notion of author/ownership — enshrined in law, scholarship, discourse, etc. — which better maps onto notions of “cultural work” as social assemblage.

  3. also du sprach!

    thx for the link. i can make my own connections — and i’m very curious by hardt’s proposal of the common as superseding the private and the public, esp since i’ve been thinking a lot about public/private recently vis-a-vis “immaterial labor” — tho i’d be curious to know why you decided to share this link on this partic post (if you had some reason to do so).

  4. ya its sort of hard to get into all this in writing i think. but i guess i can try to capture a few thoughts

    one is how well how do you say… off? neil is. i mean it becomes very clear that he is not understanding what MH is saying- about reconstituting terms like democracy, commonwealth, love etc. i mean the whole thing reminds me of something that DFW said about QandAs and someone comes at him all berating and he is all hey man lets sit down and eat supper and maybe after an hour we can begin to talk about these things synergetically. its hard not to think about Nietzsche when he talks about moutain springs- they occur at different elevations. i mean nothing is funnier than his russian rev explication….. mh is like………… ah………… yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa ( i mean that sort of orgnization is exactly what hes talking about)

    but to the point of what MH is talking about. these are really important things. he follows in the deleuze/guatts empiricism of machinic thinking- not why but how does this work. so about code – this is a very important idea. of all the things he mentions affect, image, code (which are all the same. really) code is a really compelling image (haha) of how the machine works- common producing common – source pool and product as common and the privatizing as the decrease in producitivty. i mean this is something that is everywhere in this sort of world of wandw topics.

    So obviously there are some places where these ideas cross across (ha) the things that wandw think about. rent- i mean techniques for extracting rent from codes (private, public, common) . i mean thats a biggie. i mean it really is everywhere. capitalism is really amazing in its ways of recoding/overcoding. i mean the whole project is about organization. about how code is organized.

    so i guess i wouldnt get too hung up on common in the sense of open free access. yes this is part of it. i mean essentially the point is to try to imagine a machine/ machinic proccesses that are common to common (this is like the wasp/orchid from a thousand plateaus).

    brought back to this comment section- what i was thinking when i posted it? was thinking about youtube and recoding. not OVERCODING. this is cool. and about the city as a place of production/exploitation/revolt. (this is sort of a perfect example)

    something that MH talks about when people talk about p2p etc is to also still be very aware of the ah how do you say stateist organization of these networks and the distribution of code. i think this is very important. who recodes for you?

  5. thx for the expanded thoughts, z!

    yes, i feel you on the disconnect between hardt and neil (and the audience more generally, to some extent) in that clip. i want to read the book to better understand, and i have to confess: i’ve never really read D&G, much as they seem to inform a lot of other theory i’ve run across.

    given what you say here, you will find plenty of resonance in the ‘platform politricks’ post that i’ve been working on for a couple months now and which i keep promising to finally finish — if for no other reason than to keep these connected conversations going.

    “world of wandw” — i like that. it’s like an MMOG or something. thanks for playing along!

  6. ya i mean i think that part of the disconnect w MH and neil is that MH is really speaking from a small island of spinoza/hume/marx capital/dandg/nietzche. and the terms but really much more the imagination ( i dont mean that in a positive or neg way- its sort of the source (haha) of the ‘virtual’ a word in proust that dandg talk about and sort of try to reconstitute) for what this project is. and the reality is that a lot of people (probably neil included) havnt sort of labored through the dandg books and thus they are just sort of talking by each other.

    i think you will find so much for your ‘work’ academicy in reading dandg. if you sort of handle/push them the right way they will shake you up. highly recommend reading w MH’s reading notes (has them for capital and 1kp (a thousand plateaus) on his site duke.edu/~hardt) beyond that i think you will find a lot of inspiration for the sorts of possibilities for p2p and wandw topics in the books.

    another text to recommend (i read this long into reading dandg so i dont know/dont think it will hit as hard if you’re not sort of standing on many long 1kp daze (days)) is ‘many politics’ in a gd volume called ‘dialogues’ really very moving and really sort of a distillation of a lot of ideas from 1kp.

  7. para-textuality and an assemblage model of meaning and construct have been particularly useful (tonight) for my understanding of the formation of individual relationships to urban space and cities (as totalized entities). I’ve been working for a while under/through/with the framework that pushes for the city to be examined as a piece of “new” media- through Manovich’s (language of new media) rubric of numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability and transcoding.

    Cities like LA must be understood as existing both within traditional spatial boundaries and through a set of complex representational strategies that constitute an emergent hybridized urban form (except LA got there years ago- but just now the walls of whose representing are breaking down.) For me Jerking videos are as interesting for the dancing as they are for where the dancing is happening – this is mostly the fun part for me in viral video culture is the vouyeristic peek inside peoples houses, garages, blocks.
    ANyways- im mostly just psyched to get introduced to the paratext concept- as its been really fruitful for my last 48 hours of thinking- and finally having an excuse to jump into the henry jenkins world.

    Z-s comments on coding are also dope for pushing towards a powerful understanding of what exactly digital mediation technique leaves as theirlegacy/imprint on all of this content now being created/uploaded/post-produced.

  8. Is it even meaningful to talk about text when it comes to music? I was reading through a (fairly awful) criticism of Adorno the other day and a quote from ol’ Theo indicated that he thought of the radical/whatever as being immanent to the score. But surely the score is just a set of instructions for playing music? Like as recording is just a set of instructions telling a machine how to produce music?

    Music being the actual, you know, sound waves produced in a situation involving listeners. The situation with the sound is the music, and any discussion about immanence needs to grow out of that, surely? Plus of course it’s hard to see a text in the always changing and fluctuating listening situations.

  9. Sorry to come so late, but to clarify, I wouldn’t distinguish between the text and the paratext, but between the work and the paratexts. While I sometimes get sloppy with the usage in interviews, precisely because most people confuse text and work all the time, making it awkward to recategorize in casual discussion and easy to slip, my point in the book that Henry was talking to me about is that paratexts are always a vital, inseparable part of the text. Indeed, sometimes they create the text as we know it, meaning that the work may be absent (take, for instance, someone’s relation to a movie they don’t plan to see — they don’t have the work in front of them, but they likely have a construction of the text, to which they’ve objected, hence not going to see it, but that construction comes from the paratexts).

    So I’d completely agree with you that music quite often frustrates the divisions between *work* and paratext, making it hard to see which is central, as can a variety of other non-musical examples too. But I’d imagine that much music analysis still annoyingly insists on centering the work and seeing it as the text itself, even if many listeners’ experience of it isn’t as such. So the rhetorical thrust of my book was at least intended to be against notions that we could ever successfully analyze a cultural entity through isolating the work (even if, as noted above, that confusingly and incorrectly gets called the text). The kind of examples you list above are precisely those that prove the point, and that show why I’d love to see scholars engaging more resolutely with things that for too long have been seen as “peripherals” (in music, album covers, touring, licensing deals for ads, etc.), and to recognize how very un-peripheral they are.

    (hope that doesn’t sound defensive — not intended to be at all. Just clarification on my terminology, and excitement to hear someone engaging with it. Thanks!)

  10. Hi, just going back to Zarathustra’s Michael Hardt link. Laura Underkuffler’s “The Idea of Property: it’s meaning and power”, takes the legal perspective at how property is constitutionally defined as a private right, but that the courts often allow commons-based reasoning to trump private concerns.

    “Is this individual/collective tension seen as something that is external to the concept of property, or as something that is internal to it? Put another way, is property, protected by law, something that protects individual interests against collective goals?[‘common’ conception]Or is it a kind of trojan horse, which carries the prospect of ready collective change within it?[‘operative’ conception]”

    “under the operative conception of property, the idea of property, itself, confers no rights; it simply describes, or mediates, the tensions between individual interests and collective goals, which are resolved and re-resolved as circumstances warrant. […] an inherent part of this conception of property.
    The common conception of property does not avoid these questions. It simply proclaims that these questions [how is the property right defined, spatial, temporal etc.] – once answered – cannot be considered again.”

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