McCarthyite Mashup

It happens every summer. Newsmakers go on vacation, real news gets slow, and novelty stories rush in to fill the vacuum. One summer it's child abductions; the next it's shark attacks. The theme of the 2010 summer news slump seemed to be the triumph of postmodernism, as seen in the detachment of the "signifier" -- words, images, symbols -- from the "signified" -- i.e. any objective, verifiable, mutually acknowledged "reality." And as we roll into fall, this condition looks more and more like the new normal.

First there was Shirley Sherrod, the African-American USDA official who, in July, was mugged by an out-of-context, cut-and-paste video clip. The Obama administration fired Sherrod immediately when the clip surfaced showing her "admission" of bias against a white family farmer. We all know the rest. If the White House wise guys had taken half a day to breathe, they'd have learned that the offending clip was only the "sin" part of a "sin and redemption" testimony. Everyone looked stupid, except Sherrod, who was, of course, right from the start, and had her revenge when she refused to be rehired by a penitent Obama administration.

However, despite the great knitting of commentators' brows and wringing of pundit hands, the Sherrod story wasn't mainly about race. At the core, it was about the slippery relationship between reality and perception in the digital age. Digital tools allow anyone with a decent computer to slice, dice, and recombine information (text, sound, or image) making unrelated items appear to be part of a seamless whole of the creator's imagining. This radical recontextualization was thrilling when it first emerged in the world of the arts. The possibilities seemed endless back in 2004 when Danger Mouse concocted The Grey Album, an epic mashup combining the vocals from Jay-Z's The Black Album with unauthorized music tracks from The Beatles' White Album.

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Sojourners Magazine November 2010
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