Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"Da Great Gatsby": Terrible, Kinda Racist College Project, or Interesting Look at Remix Culture?

Posted By on Tue, Dec 18, 2012 at 2:28 PM

It turns out that there's a course at Brown University, entitled "Open Source Culture," that studies "the line between sampling and stealing," examining the idea of open source works and how today's Internet-centric culture has taken the idea of using "found footage," expanded upon it, and transformed it (for example: Danger Mouse's "Grey Album," a mash-up of Jay-Z's "Black Album" and the Beatles' self-titled "White Album").

Da Great Gatsby cover.
  • wiki.brown.edu
  • "Da Great Gatsby" cover.

As a final project, student Katherine Lee created "Da Great Gatsby," a reinterpretation (remix?) of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," as run through Gizoogle, a search engine/translator that spits out Snoop Dogg-ified versions of whatever is put into it. As Lee put it, she had been using the translator "to read NPR," which sounds fantastic, truly.

Her reasoning, according to the page cataloging the project?

Recently, I've had instances/conversations related to the general public's understanding of the worth of a digital art object. It seems it's much easier to assume value with a physical piece (assume, not necessarily assign). I eventually meandered over into thinking about how much reading people do online, none of which seems to count as academic in the eyes of parents. Does the gravitas lie in the physical copies then (historical validation of classics notwithstanding)?

Comparing the first sentence of the original novel ("In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since,") to the Gizoogle'd version ("In mah lil'er n' mo' vulnerable muthafuckin years mah daddy gave mah crazy ass some lyrics dat I’ve been turnin over up in mah mind eva since,") we can come to one conclusion: this translator is ridiculous. It's a loving tribute to rap culture, in particular the "-izzle"-based vernacular of Snoop Dogg, according to Gizoogle's "About" page—but at the same time, it's makes one feel vaguely uncomfortable, even a bit racist.

That look at race might actually be part of the reason Lee chose it, actually:

Books I considered include Uncle Tom's Cabin, Beloved, Native Speaker before I eventually settled on The Great Gatsby. My list reflected my ongoing interest in the culture of "black cool" and its offshoots (fascinatingly horrific or no) online. I think choice of book would change the reading of this project significantly - I went socioeconomic focus (with some race too) because I hadn't read The Great Gatsby in a while and thought it would make for a fun revisit.

The question is, is the book racist? Reddit's /r/books message board is having a rather hot debate about it, with around 400 not-entirely-awful comments about it in the last 12 hours.

Personally, I wouldn't say so. It's a look at a novel through a lens that is meant (even in a tongue-in-cheek, goofily-designed fashion) to pay tribute to a subculture based around one celebrity's unique speech mannerisms. But I don't know for sure—I just know that I might fling it through Gizoogle myself some weekend to give it a read.

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