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Baroquize this! June 25, 2007

Posted by François in baroque, cultural references, language, re-make, writing process.

Suppliers yearn for user appropriation, but not just any kind of appropriation. Designers lay out careful scripts for users to re-make the products they adopt into something that is uniquely theirs. Phone makers want customers not simply to adopt a handset, but to personalize it with distinctive covers and straps, to program its short-cut keys, to inscribe its memory with their own address-book or calendar. Take Boost mobile, abaporu’s favorite MVNO: once you have bought their phone, the Boost brochure invites you to “make it your own” with call-tones, ring-tones, and wallpapers (yet omits to mention that you can personalize it further by installing mologogo, a free alternative to Boost’s own fee-based location service.) Suppliers thus intentionally carve out blank spaces within their designs, then invite users to infiltrate these spaces with their own data and decorations.

This particular appropriation mode, in which users follow the script laid out for them by suppliers, echoes a well-trodden cultural appropriation practice: baroque infiltration. During the colonization of Latin America, the Roman Catholic church was eager for local people to make the Catholic religion their own. To nurture the process, repeating a strategy used in Europe during the counter-reformation, Rome left spaces open on its monuments and in its ceremonies. Thus, the invaders set forth opportunities for the invaded to state their presence, infiltrate their messages, suggest their cosmovisions. Such “baroque infiltration”, Rome reasoned, would allow indigenous people to appropriate European culture and religion, but to do so safely, according to Rome’s own blueprint. In The Buried Mirror, Carlos Fuentes describes the results of this appropriation practice in the creations of José Kondori, the Quechua architect who built “the magnificent churches of Potosí, undoubtedly the most brilliant illustration of the meaning of the baroque in Latin America”.

“Among the angels and the vines of the façade of San Lorenzo, an Indian princess appears, and all the symbols of the defeated Incan culture are given a new lease on life. The Indian half-moon disturbs the traditional serenity of the Corinthian vine. American jungle leaves and Mediterranean clover intertwine. The sirens of Ulysses play the Peruvian guitar. And the flora, the fauna, the music, and even the sun of the ancient Indian world are forcefully asserted. There shall be no European culture in the New World unless all of these, our native symbols, are admitted on an equal footing.”
Carlos Fuentes (1999) The Buried Mirror – Reflections on Spain and the New World, Houghton Mifflin. p.196 (*)

Of course, Rome was perhaps naïve to think the locals would remain docile and stop there. Fuentes, along with others such as José Lezama Lima, go on to describe how baroque practices can overtake the very objects they infiltrate. Natives, Africans and criollos in Latin America learned to create a baroque within the baroque, appropriating the process itself into an art of contraconquista. This is a story for another day…

For the moment, we simply want to point out the striking parallel between “baroque infiltration” and the business strategies through which technology suppliers lay out a script for users to re-make their products. There is no good verb in English to describe the resulting user practice – personalize, fill-in, infiltrate, decorate, layer… each captures a dimension of the process but not its essence. So, we need to coin a new verb:

to baroquize (v.t.) = to re-make into one’s own, following an appropriation script proposed by the provider.

While “baroquize” doesn’t yet exist in English, we feel encouraged to proceed by our readers’ comments, who point out that barroquisar, barroquizar, and baroquiser do exist in Portuguese, Spanish and French. It must have been an oversight.

(*) “Pues entre los ángeles y las viñas de la fachada de San Lorenzo, aparece una princesa incásica, con todos los símbolos de su cultura derrotada animados por una nueva promesa de vida. La media luna indígena agota la tradicional serenidad de la viña corintia, el follaje de la selva americana y el trébol mediterráneo se entrelazan. Las sirenas de Ulises tocan la guitarra peruana. Y la flora, la fauna, la música e incluso el sol del antiguo mundo indígena, se reafirman con fuerza. No habría cultura europea en el Nuevo Mundo a menos que éstos, nuestros símbolos nativos, sean admitidos en pie de igualdad.” (Carlos Fuentes, El Espejo Enterrado p. 282)



1. amy mahan - June 26, 2007

There is some overlap with this notion of baroquization and fan fiction in terms of negotiating conditions for appropriation. Popular culture creators – especially the big film studios – certainly benefit from fan culture and fan fiction, but they also attempt to control the conditions of these alternative story line productions (some are text based, some are film or video shorts). Reasons for studios concerted attention on fan fiction include maintaining creative control over the product (not sullying the image, say, of squeaky clean Hermione Granger) and of course retaining economic control of the products.

Like the “options” built in to the handsets, noted above, there are “guidelines” for appropriate fan fiction – which include acceptability around, say, background stories that fill gaps, or story lines about minor characters that the mainstream product (novel or movie) is unlikely to address. But, engaging main characters or plot lines – and publishing these online in a blog or on YouTube – is likely to generate a cease and desist letter from the studio.

Henry Jenkens in “Convergence Culture: Where old and new media collide” (2006) offers a good discussion around this.

2. François - June 26, 2007

eh… I just love the idea of José Kondori’s architecture as “catholic fan fiction”

(Henry Jenkins visited us a couple of times last year at the Annenberg Center’s DIY Media seminar.)

3. Sarah Banet-Weiser - June 26, 2007

While I think there are clearly similarities between baroque and fan fiction, I also think that there are important differences between the “baroquization” of, say, mobile phones from Boost, and writing fiction or producing videos that extend the narrative of Harry Potter and his friends in interesting ways. What interests me about Francois’ rethinking of the notion of appropriation is that it forces the simultaneous rethinking of the relationship between what might be called the “mainstream” and “independent” or “resistant” cultures.

The idea of appropriation resulting in baroque means that not only is the consumer’s relationship to the product troubled, but also that the producer’s relationship to the consumer is shifted. In other words, the “spaces” that were left by the catholics for the indigenous people to inhabit were not necessarily scripted (at least not in the way that, for instance, publishers script fan fiction in particular ways), so that the resulting “product” really does seem to have a different kind of meaning than either the catholics or the indigenous people intended. Thinking about new technologies (or popular culture, or brand culture) within the framework of the baroque allows us, I think, to suspend what seems to be a kind of paralyzing position within some current discussions. This position is one that maintains a dichotomy of corporate control and consumer acquiescence, or between, again, the mainstream and the independent.

It might allow us, in other words, to complicate the idea that there is something inherently and consistently counter-hegemonic in cultural forms that are produced by “independent” culture–and that, in turn, corporate culture always works to secure dominant ideologies. Seems like this is an important direction to think about the ever new forms of user-generated content. . .

4. PeliHeloskique - August 3, 2008

Tahnks for posting

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