With all the talk about remix and “remix culture” (Lessig, 2008), it is useful to remind ourselves that remixing is not just a byproduct of the digital age. The networked computer may make copying, remixing, and viral distribution technically easier, but the basic process is fundamental to all language use, and always has been. When we use language, we remix … taking others words and phrases, imitating them, making them our own, adapting them to new circumstances.
Mixing, mashing, merging — these are fundamental writing processes that have analogs in classical Greek and Roman rhetoric. OK, it wasn’t called remix back then, it was called imitatio, and it was an integral component of rhetorical invention and rhetoric pedagogy, particularly as developed by Roman rhetoricians. Rote copying itself was seen as integral to invention — that is, a strategy for creating content. Through much of the history of Western rhetoric education the practices of memoria, imitatio, and compilatio were integral not only to the canon of rhetorical invention but also to the education of the speaker/writer overall. This was especially true in the Roman era. Cicero (in the first century BCE) and Quintilian (in the first century CE) understood that imitatio was important to preserving cultural values. And this was true well into the era of medieval rhetoric. The writers of the Christian patristic era “borrowed” others’ work heavily — and that was a sign of respect for the authority of those existing texts. By our contemporary academic standards, St. Bernard of Chartres and St. Jerome were certainly plagiarists.
Imitatio meant “deliberate modeling of an existing artifact or text.” The effort was aimed at “using preexisting texts to teach students how to create their own original texts” (Murphy, 1974, p. 54). There were various types of imitatio. One was variatio, or paraphrase. The young Erasmus was “the all-time champion of variatio,” as he came up with 147 variations for the phrase “your letter pleased me very much” (Lanham, 2001, pp. 106–107). Another imitation tactic was compilatio, or collecting fragments from various sources and putting them together into a new whole — aka remixing.
If you were a student in the Roman system, you were expected to copy and memorize the wisdom of the past in the form of maxims and fables. You were supposed to imitate good models. You were supposed to collect sayings and pieces of texts and put them together in new configurations. To put it another way, remix was integral to invention. This process served a generative purpose in helping you produce a particular speech or text at a particular moment, but it also was intended to help your intellectual development as a citizen needing to speak wisely and effectively within your culture. These practices promoted respect for intellectual ancestry and wisdom and respect for one’s culture.
However, two warnings are important here: You weren’t supposed to take credit for others’ ideas and words. Back then, as now, that was seen as a form of lying and misrepresentation — not so much a crime of stealing the words as of misrepresenting one’s authority. It is also important to point out that imitatio was seldom merely rote copying, and especially not at the upper levels of education. As articulated in Quintilian’s pedagogy, imitatio is more than merely transcription. Students certainly did copying but they were also expected to add transformative value through other rhetorical strategies such as delivering the text into a new context (new audience, new occasion), collecting the text with other texts to make a new compilation, taking a new stance, parodying the existing text, etc.
Lanham, Carol Dana. (2001). Writing instruction from late antiquity to the twelfth century. In James J. Murphy (Ed.), A short history of writing instruction: From ancient Greece to modern America (pp. 79–121). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum/Hermagoras Press.
Lessig, Lawrence. (2008). Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. New York: Penguin Press.
Murphy, James J. (1974). Rhetoric in the middle ages: A history of rhetorical theory from St. Augustine to the Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press.