Monday, 18 June 2007

They do things differently there

Image from Wikipedia

It is often the case that many of the seemingly new features emerging in the digital world actually have their roots in literary techniques and movements of the last century. A case in point is the ‘mash-up.’ In her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf created a new novelistic structure in which her prose blurred the distinction between dream and reality and more importantly between the past and present. James Joyce had pioneered a similar narrative structure with Ulysses a few years earlier. As extreme as these narrative experiments seemed to the rest of the literary world, this is of course exactly how human beings actually function. “I tend to live in the past” Herb Caen once said “because most of my life is there.” We simultaneously flow from the conscious to the unconscious, from the fantastic to the real, and from memory to the present moment. Woolf’s prose was noted for its ability to flow seamlessly from one to the other, over-laying the past with the present – the very basis of the modern-day mash-up.

There is an over-whelming sense of loss and sadness that permeates Mrs. Dalloway. An irreparable gulf seems to erupt between the idealistic potential once held in the past moment and the banal, deadening reality of the present moment – interestingly a similar disconnect found in many of the mash-ups that now appear on Youtube. One of the most popular sub-genres of mash-up culture is a kind of childhood brand bashing – we mash figures and brands from the memories of our childhood with the darker grittiness of those we now meet in the present-day moment;
Thomas the Tank Engine meets 50 cent and Grand Theft Auto invades Lego City. Behind the humour there is in many of these mash-ups a similar disconnect to the one that Woolf attempted to capture – the unnerving gulf between an idealistic past when our lives were full of promise and innocence, and the present where a darker, harsher reality now pervades.

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