The cake is a lie but this remix isn’t

I have been, in some ways, pretty darn active on the internet for about 17 years. I also consider myself to be a geek and a nerd (and yes, those are different things). Geek and fan culture have heartily embraced remixes and I’ve been seeing them for years without thinking too much about it. Mashups, machinema, anime music videos, memes, gifs, they were all just part of my cultural reference, whether or not I was familiar with the original.

I must admit, I have only ever played a little bit of Portal. For those who aren’t familiar with the puzzle game, the concept is that you are Chell, a test subject in Aperture Labs. Something has gone wrong, however, and you must navigate through the puzzle tests you are given (by GLaDOS) to survive and eventually escape the tests to defeat GLaDOS. Throughout there are mentions of cake, both that cake will be your reward as stated by GLaDOS and that the cake is a lie as hints from the last surviving scientist who is missing.

Here is a great example of a machinema/music video about Portal. Note the references to the cake. There are actual monitors in the game that show ingredients that are a bit questionable and the end credits are done to a song about the cake.

“The cake is a lie” is as famous as “all your base are belong to us” in various circles. As a reference, it has made its way into all sorts of other contexts such as a mod for Minecraft and a reference in Grand Theft Auto 5. The meaning of the phrase, however, has also come to stand for ideas that a promised reward is false, that an end goal is not real or is hiding some other actual outcome (often something more sinister).

Okay, well, so what? Why on earth does this matter?

Remixing has always been part of culture although not always in blatant ways. Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear discuss some of the history of remix in their article Remix: The Art and Craft of Endless Hybridization. I see it even more broadly in the ways cultures have taken and remixed aspects of other cultures through interaction (the use of henna in various cultures, Greek gods being remixed into Roman gods and later used by Renaissance creative types, the way religions are remixed in new contexts to blend culture with the religion). Today, however, remixing is becoming a conscious commentary on culture.

In fact, remixing is becoming a literacy, both in terms of using it to “write” and also in terms of knowing how to do it. The NCTE 21st Century Standards, IFTF Future Work Skills 2020, and the ISTE Standards all include elements of this, from the importance of design to the need for ability to create using media. The most important aspect to me is that remix is, as I said, a conscious commentary on culture. To remix, you need to understand the origins and importance of all the pieces you are putting together. You also need to know your audience and ensure that what you create will resonate with them. And you need to know the current culture to create something that comments on that too.

Mashup with Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Star Trek
Mashup with Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Star Trek. Source

Let’s take this image. What do you need to know to really understand this as a remix? Well, first of all you have to know who the image is of (Sir Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation). Then you have to know that “use the force” is a reference to Star Wars. Then you must know that “Harry” refers to Harry Potter. The attribution of the comment, “Gandalf,” is a reference to the wizard in Lord of the Rings. That is the basic level.

The second level is that all of these origins have all crossed boundaries between media and each has spawned massive fandoms.

Then it becomes apparent that each aspect refers to a wise, older character in each situation: Captain Jean Luc Picard, Obi Wan Kenobi, Dumbledore, and Gandalf. Each character attempts to pass wisdom on to others, to varying success.

Even more, there is often viewed to be a rivalry between fans of Star Wars and Star Trek. Also, one needs to know the habit of fans to be highly frustrated by misquotes that mistake a fandom for another one or mistake the origin of a quote or character.

All these different elements come together to make this image funny. To make the image, one would need to know most of this on a conscious level to construct it. To appreciate it, one needs to know at least some of this but the more you know, the more amusing it is and it really requires the knowledge of the tendency for fans to become annoyed by this to recognize it is an intentional joke on such behaviour.

By sharing this image, I can have an entire conversation about all these things. Just like referencing “the cake is a lie” actually ties to Portal as well as the concept of a goal or reward being false or not as promised, in some way a trick. Remixing has become shorthand, to some extent. Gifs and memes are used this way all the time, thrown in as a visual reaction or commentary rather than writing out what you mean. These things all become a way of talking, according to Larry Lessig.


flickr photo shared by Little Cat Photography under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

In a digital age, the medium really is the message. The fact that I typed this out instead of using gifs, memes, and videos says something about me and my expected audience, but also becomes more limiting and cumbersome than using remixing. I am explaining but in needing to explain, I have lost some of the impact. Being literate in remixing means being literate about culture. In these cases, mostly pop culture, but thinking about Portal, maybe not. Portal is also a commentary on scientific testing, on artificial intelligence, on our culture of reward that may cover truths we don’t want to face (can everyone really achieve the American Dream? is a promotion really a reward in all cases? are our goals of success and fame and money worth the cost or are they really much more empty or even false or not enough?). Do you ever really get your cake? And there is a hint at the proverb of getting to have your cake and eat it too. Could there also be references to the quote commonly misattributed to Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake“? This is the kind of shorthand a remix can present. To be literate in remixes involves being literate in significantly more. It involves making connections, a skill I remember learning and have found that many students struggle with. There is this tendency to categorize knowledge as belonging to specific areas rather than pulling it together. Would remixing help with that?

Also, the concept of creating. This is a huge literacy and one that fits with Bloom’s revised taxonomy. How often do students get to create rather than remixing in more formulaic or basic ways?

So what do you think? Is remixing something ou would have students do? Would you use remixing as a teaching tool?

2 thoughts on “The cake is a lie but this remix isn’t”

  1. I found your discussion of remixes very enlightening. Originally when I read the article on remixes, I did not fully appreciate the critically thinking and understanding of pop culture that goes into creating a remix. I was trying to wrap my head around how a remix would be viewed as a form of literary expression. Your analysis and examples made me appreciate the knowledge and thought process that actually goes into the creation of a meme. I think you also raise an interesting point about what is lost by having to explain word for word what it means. Similar to a poem. Sometimes the feeling or impression of a poem is lost through the endless analysis of it. I actually think there is value to the use of remixes. As you mentioned, it really does require a higher level of thinking to be able to put together these ideas from elsewhere to create a product with meaning.

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