Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Cultural Appropriation

Hmmm. I missed the Cultural Appropriation panel at Wiscon and now everybody seems to be posting about it. But, weirdly, what they seem to be posting about is the politics and politesse of outsiders writing about minority cultures, and this seems to me to be, well, a tangential concern. Don't get me wrong; writing the Other has it's own set of issues. I just can't see what it has to do with "cultural appropriation". A fictive representation of a culture is not that culture itself. Having a painting which contains an image of a "dreamcatcher" on your wall is not the same as hanging some New Age trinket of string and feathers, made by and for white middle-class hippies, over your bed. Writing a 5-page scene in a novel which portrays a voudon ritual is not the same thing as setting yourself up as a practicing "babaloa" in Bognor Regis. Representation is not appropriation. The map is not the territory.

Simply representing a culture in terms of artefacts, practices and persons doesn't mean you are laying claim to those artefacts, following those practices, mimicking those persons. It doesn't mean you're doing a big land-grab on that cultural territory, setting up a fence, and saying "This is mine now". Or even that you're shoving in, pushing people out of the way so you can sit down where you don't belong, and saying "This is mine too". Writing about black or Asian or Scottish or American culture when you're not a native of that culture -- that's no more an act of "appropriation" than it would be for any of you to write about the culture of an entirely imaginary country which just happens to be tattooed on my ass. Your epic fantasy novel, The Dragons of Duncan's Ass Tattoo, can portray My Ass Tattoo's blue-skinned denizens, their miniature zeppelins, and their sphincter-worshipping rituals either accurately or inaccurately, with or without prejudice, but you ain't going to be appropriating their culture until you start covering yourseves in woad, living in airships and pouring libations to The One True Hole.

A borrowing (or theft) of aesthetic forms -- c.f. Paul Simon's Graceland with its use of musical forms from various other cultures -- now that's cultural appropriation. Nick Cave integrating a gospel choir into "There She Goes (My Beautiful World)" can be described as cultural appropriation. The examples of cultural appropriation in music are too numerous to detail. European artists similarly cribbed from Japan, Africa, all over the world. In fictive terms, using characters and settings from folklore seems to me what we're really talking about when we talk of cultural appropriation. You decide to write a story about the trickster-figure of Coyote and, yes, if you're not First Nation then that could be called cultural appropriation. But then, any non-European writer working in the Romantic idiom of the adventure story could be accused of the same. Sorry, dude, that's our traditional story-form. Keep your hands off my dashing Byronic hero. How far do we follow this through? Do I end up screwed here completely? You want to write sonnets, you say? But you're Scottish, you know, and that means your ancestors all played fiddles and sang ballads. The sonnet isn't native to your culture, so really that's just not on. You have an idea for a tragedy, eh? But are you Greek? Sorry, then -- no can do; that would be cultural appropriation.

Yeah, OK, so I'm talking about dead cultures and borrowings dating so far back that, by now, these foreign influences are pretty much entirely spliced together into one big collage of aesthetic modes -- a collage we might loosely label Western culture. Western culture, though? As if a hemisphere owned its art. As if an area owned its art.

Dionysus knows no nations.

What I mean is that Art (yes, we're giving it a capital here; sorry) -- music, painting, literature, sculpture, dance, whatever -- Art is the black sheep of the Family Culture. This particularly brattish and boisterous sibling, unlike his brother, Religion, doesn't give a fuck about our monkey-boy traditions of tribal identity. Art is a thief and a slut, a prodigal and a prodigy. Art spreads his lurve to anyone who wants it, and any shiny object that's in his path is his for the taking, as far as he's concerned. Sure, sometimes Art may be in service to Religion. Religion may keep that wayward wastrel on a tight leash: this story is not for outsiders; only men of the tribe can do this dance to this drumbeat; only the initiates can enter the shrine and look upon the deity's face carved in stone. But such insularity is foreign to Art's nature. The story will unpack its affective meaning to anyone who understands it. The drum will call to any stranger who hears it, calling them to dance: you know you want to; feel the rhythm in your heart. Three thousand years later, when the deity's name is lost, that statue will still evoke wonder and awe in those who look upon it. Art is promiscuous like that, a rampant slattern, a rougish slut; he doesn't care what socio-political label of race, gender, religion, sexuality or nation you place on yourself. He doesn't care which tribe you've decided you belong to. He just wants to make fuckee-fuckee with you, with everyone and anyone.

Cultural appropriation? As far as Art is concerned that whole idea is buying into a spurious claim of ownership by the tribe. Art doesn't recognise the ownership rights of the artist, never mind the tribe that they're a part of. Did the ancient Greeks "own" tragedy? Did Aeschylus? Fuck that shit, says Art. You're not the boss of me.

This is not to say there's no such thing as cultural appropriation at all. But the underlying ethical question of ownership and rightful use, the territorial notion of culture(s) as bounded areas into which outsiders intrude, sneaking in like thieves to snatch a trinket and run, to carry it home to their own territory-of-culture and display it as theirs, thus bolstering their own tribe's aesthetic status -- this is the domain of Religion (or his secular siblings, those terrible twins, Class and Caste). Art is made to be seen, heard, read, danced, experienced. Limitations of access to that experience, based on who is or is not a fully-paid-up member of the culture (e.g. where a sacred story is not to be told to strangers) or based on social status within that culture (e.g. where only men can participate in a sacred dance), can themselves be considered acts of appropriation; they co-opt the aesthetic drive and its products, using Art to reinforce social, political and religious boundaries, both internal and external. The ethical question of cultural appropriation turns on to what extent we accept those limitations, to what extent we consider it wrong to breach the tribal mores. A liberal ethic of respect for alternative belief-systems comes into play here; the whole idea of "cultural appropriation" is a recognition of those tribal (and tribalist) prescriptions.

But Dionysus knows no nations.

An artist might wholly accept or wholly reject those limitations of access imposed upon their work by the tribe. Michelangelo, were he here today, might bemoan the fate of his God Giving Life To Adam, its appearance on dishtowels, fridge-magnets, what-have-you, due to the lifting of those limitations. He might consider the replication and popularisation of his work a travesty of its intent. This is a painting, after all, that's meant to be viewed in the sacred space of the Sistine Chapel, by the pious (or the rich, at least), not used by some heathen prole to dry his coffee mug. Then again, maybe Michelangelo would celebrate the democratisation, the fact that around the world his work, his work, is instantly recognisable to millions. Hell, maybe he would have been grumbling to himself as he placed the final brushstroke, bitter that only a select few, only those of the correct standing in society or the church, would actually get to see his masterpiece. Of those artists over the millenia who have worked in servitude to whatever religion, of whatever culture, creating the paintings, the stories, the music, the dances, how many of them would be horrified to see those works unmoored from their cultural context, from their sacred settings, their tribal territories? How many would be thrilled? We don't know and it doesn't matter.

Dionysus knows no nations.

The idea of cultural appropriation implies an exclusivity that is irrelevant to Art-as-hustler, making his amoral judgements of what it is right to use and where it is right to use it on purely aesthetic grounds, with little or no concern for the delicate sensibilities of those in servitude to tribal traditions, to territorial identities. Religion, Class and Caste all try to keep him in check, but these days, to be honest, it's only Daddy Law who can keep him from filching and fucking wherever and whatever he pleases, who can force him to recognise all those inconvenient boundaries of ownership and obscenity. Needless to say, as a writer, I'm quite happy with some of those boundaries. Copyright legislation is a kinda cool idea, you know, for those of us making our living at this writing malarky. And, unlike Art, I do tend to have qualms about looting and pillaging cultures which might not take kindly to my anthropological jackdaw approach to mythology. But that Art can be one smooth-tongued son-of-a-bitch, you know. And for all his wanton ways, I trust him more than I trust Religion.

Dionysis knows no nations. And I kinda like his way of thinking.

36 Comments:

Anonymous Rose Fox said...

*standing ovation*

It's really too bad this whole post is too long to put in my .sigfile. I might have to settle for bits and pieces of it.

...er, if you don't mind me borrowing your brilliance. I promise to return it in good shape.

7:27 am  
Blogger Among Amid While said...

*joins in the ovation*

This stopped a number of weasels chewing on my conscience, Hal. Thank you. And please, write that Arse-Tattoo trilogy soon!

Margo.

9:11 am  
Blogger Joe Crow said...

Not enough WORD in the world, man. I was gonna write up a Cultural Appropriation post for my LJ, but handily, now I don't have to.

10:21 am  
Anonymous Saffron1982 said...

Franz Boas, the famous 19th century american cultural anthropologist, who taught Ruth Benedict and my favourite Margaret Mead, criticised the practise of anthropology at the time of removing artifacts from a culture of the Other and placing them on display in a museum. He said you couldn't really understand the culture that way - it was out of place. You really had to be there. Of course I could write a fucking book on this - I am an anthropology student after all!

Interestingly enough, the Trobrianders from Papua New Guinea and the Kalahari !Kung or Ju/'hoansi supplement their economy nowadays by making little pieces of their cultural art for the tourists.

And please - you don't really have a tattoo on your arse! Images!!!!

2:34 pm  
Blogger Nalo said...

I think about this one a lot, too. I have had published -- for instance -- a story that riffs on Hindu mythology. I don't worry so much about cultural appropriation. I worry about whether the story feels right and whether I got the details right. (And I'm not sure that I agree with you about Graceland; unlike the people who insist that jazz music isn't a black music, Simon didn't deny where those rhythms came from, nor obscure the African artists with whom he worked.)

People need to be free to make art about whatever they wish, in whatever mode they wish. I do it; why shouldn't other people?

What worries me, though, is that whenever someone avows that, it results in a deafening chorus of privileged culture white folks yelling, "fuckn' 'A,' man! See? I *don't* have to think about this shit after all! M/i/g/h/t/, er ART makes right!" Now, you don't seem to be saying this at all. Let me be clear about that. Yet a whopping bunch of people who don't want to think of themselves as relatively privileged will cherry-pick from your comment the bits they like. They will use metonymy (representing a part as the whole thing) in order to bolster the overly prevalent type of self-justification that conveniently obscures the root issue. It's the type of defense that gets used to dismiss feminism because there are people in it who dislike men. It gets used to dismiss the literary merit of science fiction because the Star Wars movies exist. To those of us shielding themselves behind the metonymy defense I want to say; yes, some people probably think that if you're a white artist, you should only make art about white people. Yes, that's wrong-headed. Now, can we move beyond that and engage with the problem?

3:43 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I worry about whether the story feels right and whether I got the details right.

Absolutely. I see this as a separate issue though -- misrepresentation or, worse still, demonisation / idealisation. "About" is the keyword here. Fiction which is (derived) from certain features of another culture is not the same thing as fiction which is about those features. Like, you could write a Celtic-style folk song about a Delta blues singer without using blues rhythms. You could change the lyrics to "The Sound of Silence" and make it about Africa. I don't think those would be acts of appropriation. And actually, in retrospect, I think you're right about Simon's Graceland; appropriation implies a denial of roots, and the African artists on that album were by no means obscured; so that's an important adddition to the distinction.

The point about privileged culture white folks (or straight folks, I might say) taking this as an excuse -- that's part of why I think the distinction between representation and appropriation is crucial, because each has its own ethical issues. Fuzzing the boundaries between them could lead to a focus on one area and a lack of consideration in the other -- i.e. if we use the term cultural appropriation too loosely I think we run the risk of making the argument one of rights. You, as one of Them don't have the *right* to do X, because X is a cultural practice belonging to Us. I, as one of Us, don't have the *right* to do Y, because Y is a cultural practice belonging to Them. This *is* something we have to consider, I stress, but to what extent, does that right become a sort of counter-privilege? If I start lambasting some American folk singer for using Scottish song-forms, what I'm doing is, I think, espousing my privilege as a member of a minority, denying that privilege to outsiders. Do we place importance on these counter-privileges as compensations for lack of privileges in other areas.

Anyway, I think the aesthetic impulse to make good music kicks against the ethics here. We may have respect for the social and political reasons for a minority wanting to maintain this privilege as a way of maintaining its group identity, but that aesthetic impulse may well over-ride the respect: but I can do it well; it'll be great; it's such a good idea it has to be done; it would be a waste not to do it; why shouldn't I... really?

Problem is, if we end up dismissing that right/privilege, if we've decided that all these exclusions are just too limiting, and we've fuzzed the boundaries so that representation is included in the equation, then I think there's a danger of the aesthetic permission becoming a carte blanche. The dismissal of one set of issues gets applied, in a sort of reductio ad absurdum, as a blanket dismissal of all issues.

Like, the issues involved in *how* white artists write about black characters (representation) gets swallowed up into this (completely different) argument about whether white artists have the *right* to use black aesthetic forms (appropriation); the confusion of representation-is-appropriation shifts the question onto whether white artists have the *right* to write about black characters; this can be dismissed as an absurdity, and *hey presto!*, anything goes.

It seems to me like there's two problems here and that -- from both sides of the argument -- the whole question of whether non-X have a right to represent X becomes a way of not engaging with either of them.

So my point here is really to say, wait a minute, if we confuse the map with the territory and argue about whether an outsider has a right to make the map, whether the people who don't own the territory have any right to map it, then we're missing the real issues: is the territory being snatched here(appropriation)? and is the map accurate or inaccurate (representation)?

In terms of the latter, I'll reiterate, cause I agree 100%:

I worry about whether the story feels right and whether I got the details right.

In terms of the latter, I find this a tricky one. My aesthetics says, Fuck that shit. My ethics is conflicted, a respect for other people's sense of tribal identity balanced against a suspicion of group politics.

6:23 pm  
Blogger Nalo said...

:) :) Yeah, pretty much. All this, *and* you channel a mean Tom Waits? Way cool.

7:11 pm  
Blogger Lou Anders said...

We must be allowed to imagine what it is like to walk a mile in another's shoes. Empathy is the basis of all social justice. Far worse than the dangers of well-intentioned but inexpertly realized depictions of the other is indifference to who and what lies beyond the fence and across the way. The pyramid stacks this way: I am alive, an earthling, an animal, a mammal, a homo sapien, a male, a caucasian. Don't stand it on its head.

4:24 am  
Blogger KarenEMiller said...

Thank you, Hal. I think I love you. *g*

I don't think there's an aspect of Art in use today that hasn't been borrowed from somewhere else and reinterpreted by the imagination and cultural influences of the artist, in a myriad of ways.

Not to mention the fact that artistic appropriation has been going on for thousands of years, and in fact some of the most admired examples of Art were created out of some kind of appropriation and doubtless are admired by many of the same people who want to chastise modern artists for doing exactly the same thing.

All is fair in love and Art ... unless you attempt to say that the stuff you borrowed from somewhere else is in fact your own creation. That's naughty.

8:01 am  
Blogger Farah said...

I didn't go to Wiscon, and I heartily approve your post, but what isn't here, and what makes me burn with rage, is when the traditions of other cultures are used in such a way that the tone of voice is "let me interpret this for you, because you cannot do it for yourself, even if this is your culture."

I see this mostly from the liberal left. It's all bound up with the attitude I saw in the people in York and Bath (the first is the whitest city in England, the second ignores it's black population) who used to say to me "You're Jewish? I always thought it would be wonderful to be Jewish!"

10:50 am  
Anonymous Vera Nazarian said...

Bravo, Hal!!!

*worships at feet*

Ok, so I wasn't at Wiscon, and I am only getting most of this second-hand, but I am really boggled at the whole cultural appropriation "issue." What does that even mean???

We use whatever elements of human experience are at our disposal, whether direct (our own immediate culture) or indirect by osmosis (other cultures, ancient and modern), in our creative works.

Period.

So, what the hell is the problem?

Who is stealing what from whom?

As a writer or artist I appropriate everything intangible from everyone all the time. I suck and vampirize the zeitgeist and the ethnicity and the history and the social and moral and immoral and abby-normal-oral.

Just because I -- or someone -- may not get it right, may not interpret whatever is the original source "properly," does not mean I -- or someone -- should stop trying!

It just means that at present I suck in what I am attempting to do, is all. I suck as an interpreter, appropriator, cultural quide.

But it's how I learn, dammit.

And if my interpretation is fucked up initially, then here is my chance to get it right the next time.

It's kinda like, if a cook were never to try making other ethnic dishes, then there would be no Iron Chef. And that would really suck sashimi.

3:05 pm  
Blogger Lou Anders said...

ha, Vera - I love the comparison to food. I must confess a prejudice - when I go to a sushi restaurant, I want my chef to be Japanese. Though, that being said, Mark, the Hawaiian owner of Creative Sushi in Venice Beach, is pretty damn amazing and runs one of my top fav sushi bars on the planet. And Rick Bayless makes the best salsa I've ever had (www.fronterakitchens.com).

But thanks to Farah for drawing the distinction between what Hal is saying and, oh, the thinking that says David Carradine could play a better Chinese man that the world famous kungfu expert the show was written for.

4:49 pm  
Blogger Nalo said...

"So, what the hell is the problem? Who is stealing what from whom?"

Vera, that comment so infuriates me that I can't think clearly enough to marshall a response. So, for now, I'm not going to try.

7:30 am  
Anonymous Vera Nazarian said...

Lou,

Thanks, and I am with you on the food prep prejudice -- and furthermore, not just cooking. I am still upset and frustrated that I had to begin my study of Mandarin Chinese from a non-native speaker. To this day I wonder if my tones would have been better... and yet, to give the professor his due, he was GOOD. And that's why it really is nothing more than a lousy prejudice on my part -- I suck. :-)

Nalo,

Sorry to infuriate you, but my honest question remains. And my bogglement with this topic continues to grow.

If you at some point find it in yourself to discuss this, I would love to hear your side and an answer to my question. But if this upsets you, there is no need.

And in case you don't know where I am coming from, and am just some stupid bitch speaking out of my ass, well, here is a little bit about me which does touch the tip of my ethno-cultural iceberg. Though, yeah, I may still be speaking out of my ass --- it's kinda dark and echowy in here, and it gets lonely, hence the need for talk.... :-)

8:15 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Lou: Far worse than the dangers of well-intentioned but inexpertly realized depictions of the other is indifference to who and what lies beyond the fence and across the way.

Totally. That "indifference" is the key word, and I wonder if it's this that's at the root of the confusion between appropriation and (mis)representation. That well-intentioned but inexpert misrepresentation, at its worst, becomes dehumanisation -- demonisation or fetishisation -- treating what lies on the other side of the fence as mere cipher for one's own fears and desires, indifferent, unempathic towards them as another human being. With appropriation, one of the things that, I suspect, infuriates people is the sense of indifference, the lack of due respect towards the source of the cultural form. The actual members of the tribe are treated with disregard while (copies of) their creations are lauded.

(Vera: This is, I think, part of what makes your "What the hell is the problem?" question a big button-pusher. It's why I distinguish the aesthetic imperative from the ethical, why I say "Dionysus knows no nations" rather than "I know no nations". As a writer there is that part of me which says, fuck that shit, anything goes. And even on the ethical level there's a part of me which rejects the tribalist exclusions as mechanisms of monkey-tribe politics. But I also have a counter-ethic which baulks at the total disregard of these boundaries, which says, no, as much as you might want to, you can't actually be indifferent, because the tribes are made up of individuals. Admittedly I do tend to come down on the side of Dionysus because I'm innately bolshie, but I think you have to be totally aware of the choice that you're making, the "why not" as well as the "why the hell not".)

Anyway, so there's an overlap of dehumanisation -- lack of empathy, indifference, insensitivity -- which is the common powder keg under both appropriation and representation. But Nalo's point about Graceland makes an important distinction between appropriation and adoption. You can adopt a form without denying its roots. And misrepresentation may not be unempathic (demonisation / fetishisation); it could just be wrong-headed, naive, stoopid.

But... I reckon we tend to blur those distinctions. Any act of adoption may be regarded with suspicion as appropriation. Any naive misrepresentation is damned as equivalent to dehumanisation. Or vice-versa, we excuse appropriation as adoption, excuse dehumanising stereotypes as simply tropes -- a bit of a cliche, but hey it's genre, isn't it? I'm thinking of something like the Magical Negro here, as a fetishisation, an idealisation.

Is this making sense?

Farah: Yes, I know the sort of attitude you're talking about from the "I just *love* gays! They're so [fill in the blank]" response. That's a perfect example of what I mean by fetishisation; there are "positive" stereotypes as well as negative ones and projecting your desires onto an Other is just as dehumanising as projecting your fears.

Which is, incidentally, why I hate Anne Rice's vampire softcore.

But you also raise another interesting point. I wonder if what you're talking about is another form of misrepresentation: maybe infantilisation? Viewing another culture sympathetically but condescendingly? This opens up a whole 'nother can of worms, especially when you look at it in terms of interpretation -- and any representation (or almost any?) is also an act of interpretation. I immediately think of Western Enlightenment representations/interpretations of "primitive" cultures, the attitudes to blacks and First Nation peoples, those reductive views of classical mythology which make it all about fertility, nature, the sun and the moon, and so on. Because, of course, those "primitive" cultures couldn't have been using complex, multi-layered metaphors like Us.

And infantilisation goes hand in hand with political disempowerment. Which is probably why my instinct is that representation is a more important issue than appropriation, at least for an artist.

3:04 pm  
Anonymous Vera Nazarian said...

Hal,

That was beautifully said once again, and I agree with you completely on the notions of ethical responsibility and the aesthetic imperative of the artist, not to mention the perils of indifference.

What gets me confused and unable to relate to this issue as a grand mal issue in the first place is the *atittude* of anger, the level of heat in the response to its symptoims in human society. This attitude -- to me -- is no less constructive than getting excited and furious over the fact that a huge portion of us human beings is comprised of idiots, incompetents, malicious egotists, clueless barbarians, and otherwise Stupids (TM), whether well-meaning or not. And furthermore, in the course of our lives, every one of us exibits the passing or firmly-rooted traits of a Stupid (TM) in one area of life or another, and sometimes we really do learn from our mistakes -- or not. (Unfortunately, of course, the Generic Stupid (TM) property of humanity cannot be fully eradicated from the group as a whole, only from individual members of the group, and gets bandied about like a germ-riddled piece of faded paper currency. Why rail at its existence? Merely issue new crisp bills in other more attractive denominations....)

In short, the answer, solution, or constructive response to this issue (just as it is in most other situations when dealing with personal or social acts of ignorance and stupidity) is to make the sincere effort to inform the clueless when possible, and to be all combinations of "subtle, relentless and patient" while working toward eventual change.

Anger has no place when communication is the answer. Fury is a waste of positive energy. In fact, seeing fury kind of makes me furious in turn. And by golly, you people do not want to see me furious -- I start tearing styrofoam cups with my teeth.

Now, if we approach it with an open heart and a willingness to understand the Alien Other's side, then much of this can be effaced, transformed, turned to the better. And above all, stop calling it a problem when it is in fact a bump in the road that we can work over. No, not even a bump, more like a deposit of future coprolite. :-)

12:47 am  
Blogger Nalo said...

Vera, druga maya (I hope I have that right; ya v'universitete po-russkii izuchila, but it's been years), thank you for the response. I'm quite certain you're terrible in your wrath, and I tremble before it. It frightens me badly when people are angry with me. You say that anger has no place here, but perhaps you can perceive the belligerence I do in your statement of, "So, what the hell is the problem? Who is stealing what from whom?" Certainly you are only asking for communication, but yours was neither a neutral nor a pleasant tone, and it came from a perceived majority place (do note the "perceived") in a circumstance where once again a minority of people -- I am not going to define that minority, because who's in the minority is fluid, interchangeable, immiscible and differs by context -- are (is?) being beseiged for having the temerity to say that there is a problem. Yet I'm not sure I would say that your belligerence has no place here. I desperately *want* to say that, but I think I would be wrong. If there is to be true communication, people have to be able to communicate their anger along with every other emotion, and we don't always manage to communicate anger calmly.

I should not have singled out your comment, and for that I apologize. The anger and frustration you and I are both feeling individually are the symptoms of a systemic problem, not the cause of it. For my part, the best I was able to do in the moment was to tell you as respectfully as I could how I felt, then back away until I was feeling less traumatized. Part of the reason I backed away was fear. Not of you Vera the individual; not by any means. But because in a situation like this, even in science fiction community that prides itself on being broad-minded, it becomes clear just how outnumbered and vulnerable a (shifting, contextual) handful of us are when the voices that are shouting us down have the power of the broader society supporting them. That's what gets papered over so often in discussions of difference; you cannot have equal systemic oppression when you don't have equal systemic power. Do you have any idea how terrifying it is to say this in a public forum? Perhaps you do. I expect a lot of people to wilfully misunderstand it. I expect at least a few people to try to make my life miserable because of it.

The other reason I backed down was pure, despairing exhaustion. I don't know whether you get tired of being the go-to girl in the community every time someone wants a handy Russian phrase, but perhaps you know the kind of thing I mean. It feels like we have these types of discussions of systemic power over and over again, and in that moment last night, it felt as though none of it was making much of an impression, and I wanted to cease going to Wiscon, and cease working on the Carl Brandon Society Board, and cease accepting requests to speak on such topics. Which, of course, was just exhaustion talking. I took my weepy self to bed and my sweetheart hugged me before falling asleep again, and I'm feeling a bit better now.

12:32 pm  
Anonymous claire said...

nalo: you're a treasure. thank you for trying to educate wherever you go and being smart and articulate about it always. and thanks for being more diplomatic than i can even imagine.

vera: although i can't speak for nalo, i suspect that some of her frustration with your comments came from the fact that hal's post accepted the terms of debate that already exist in the cultural appropriation discussion. hal's post accepted these terms of debate and got in-depth about them. he displayed a familiarity with the debate and its terms.

your comment, on the other hand, took us back to the beginning of the debate -- actually, to before the beginning of the debate -- and said, basically, "this debate is stupid! why can't we all just get along?" you didn'taccept the terms of the debate, you challenged the debate itself, right in the middle of ... the debate.

it's like going to a boxing match and sitting next to your friend, the sports commentator, and grabbing the mic from her and yelling into it, "violence is wrong! can't we all stop fighting now?"

something is being discussed here, and it's being discussed for a reason. you don't seem to know that reason, or complex of reasons. i suggest you go and read other blog entries that outline the wiscon cultural appropriation panel and find out. here's a listing:
http://www.technorati.com/search/cultural%20appropriation%20wiscon%20panel

5:28 am  
Anonymous Malcolm said...

Thank you for your writing. I read this post once in a hurry (you were linked by Nalo) while I was trying to assimilate all of it. I'm perigee on Livejournal, which is where I do my blogging these days, and I had a big fight with people stemming from an immediate rant and then more considered words later, but it was tangential to the idea of a panel about cultural appropriation in a convention to do with speculative fiction.

To me, as a person who straddles many lines of privilege and lack thereof, and who comes from many very opinionated and colourful cultures, the line between appropriation and representation lies in respect and care.

To me (I am half Chinese, half British Isles originated, but born and assimilated in the U.S.), for instance, The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer was appropriation. I read it via the Gutenberg Project a long time ago. Very interesting stuff, but very disrespectful and quite a bit more descriptive of European fears about Chinese (the yellow peril) than representative of what being Chinese is like, even if one is an arch criminal, or one imagines oneself to be.

Put it in contrast with the three novels by Barry Hughart about Master Li and Number Ten Ox. Now this is representation, and it's mythical, but it's deeply loving, respectful and fun.

But I agree. Art doesn't care.

It's the people that do.

I feel that if an artist is going to represent my culture(s), I'd very much like him/her to do it with respect, and if s/he doesn't, s/he may hear about it from me, or from others equally concerned. That's how respect and lack thereof works. And if that artist does do representation without respect and hears about it, I expect that the smart artist will learn and grow and perhaps do it differently and more carefully in the future.

It's easy to be respectful when you're inside the culture, harder to do from outside, but still can be managed, if you're careful, I think.

4:08 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Hi, Malcolm/Perigee.

The comparison between Rohmer and Hughart sounds like a good distinction in terms of how to go wrong and how to go right, but from what I know of Rohmer and from the description of Hughart's work in that Wikipedia article, isn't it the other way around? It seems to me like Rohmer is the one representing your culture (thoroughly and reprehensibly misrepresenting it, actually -- demonising and thereby dehumanising it as the "yellow peril"), whereas Hughart, in utilising actual Chinese myths, is the one appropriating. That's the crucial distinction I think we need to make to actually address the distinct political and ethical issues involved in each.

I mean, yes, representation is about respect, due care and attention to detail. But appropriation is a whole different kettle of fish. Even if you represent the other culture with utmost respect that doesn't mean you're not potentially, in the act of utilising an aesthetic form from a foreign culture, disrespecting the sense of exclusive ownership that members of that culture might well have regarding that form.

7:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a thought: how can you distinguish between appropriation and representation? Or more importantly, *who* is in a position to make the distinction? Can anyone be a spokesperson on behalf of a culture, whether it's 'theirs' or another's? It seems to me that the issue of appropriation and representation is not just an issue for the writer, but the *reader* as well.

Phil

7:51 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I thought I'd outlined a distinction between representation and appropriation which is fairly simple, no? I take a photograph of you in your bowling shoes, that's representation. I see your bowling shoes, say "Ooooh, pretty!", buy my own pair, and wear them to the pub (but make like it was simply own stylistic genius which made me buy them), that's appropriation. I think that's an objective difference between two distinct types of aesthetic actions; it's no more a matter of subjective judgement or authority than, say, the distinction between painting and collage.

But that said, appropriation does, it seems to me, depend on a concept of (exclusive) tribal ownership, and there the whole issue of subjectivity and authority does come into play. I mean, largely the ownership issue is a total no-brainer -- the aesthetic form is quite patently rooted in this or that culture; Scottish folk music is, well, fairly obviously Scottish; Delta Blues is a black cultural form -- but the exclusivity may well be questionable. Is there any moral consensus among Scots that "this is *our* music and *only* ours"? Do Scots as a whole really give a fuck if outsiders appropriate the forms and features of our traditional culture? Do we (generally) even give a fuck about that traditional culture at all?

So who becomes the arbiter of whether or not this cultural form is open to outsiders? That seems to be the crux of your question. Who speaks for the culture and do they have the right to make that call? I suspect it very much depends on your politics and your status. Someone who sees their culture as under threat of dilution or dissolution may well see those cultural features as serving a political purpose -- reinforcing tribal bonds -- and that political purpose as deeply important. So those features, as far as they're concerned, *must* be exclusive; almost any act of adoption can be seen as breaching territorial boundaries. At the same time, if the threat of dilution or dissolution is not seen as an issue by others, they might not consider their cultural forms as exclusive at all.

Outsiders (or insiders) speaking on behalf of a culture, though... this seems like a third issue, actually, distinct from both appropriation and representation. Like, you can have a bad misrepresentation of a gay guy. I'm not sure if you can talk about gay culture as something that might be appropriated, but let's assume you could and did. Those are both distinct from, through your work, claiming to speak for the "gay community". Which would be annoying and arrogant enough if the writer were gay, never mind straight.

Hmm. The term "representation" actually fits this in its other sense -- as in "no taxation without representation" -- but I don't want to muddy the water, so I'd like to find another term. What's a good word for this other type of "representation"?

11:32 pm  
Anonymous Malcolm said...

Well heck, Hal, now I'm all turned around!

Here I was thinking that appropriation is bad (disrespectful, mean, fictional, made up, not true in seeming or in fact, etc.) and representation is good (more faithful to the truth of the whole context, respectful, complete as it should be, etc.).

Am I just all akimbo and all switched around? I do not have time to re-re-read your post again right now, but I promise I will.

I think one of the problems I'm having is that I don't see the term "appropriation" nor the term "representation" as inherently bad, but am thinking about this mostly in terms of respect, which is more obvious to me. Good intent and proper respect to me are key, and not the finer distinctions between appropriation and representation, because I think you can respectful while doing either appropriation or representation. I think.

12:25 am  
Anonymous Vera Nazarian said...

Nalo,

Sorry for coming to reply here belatedly, and I really appreciate your kind explanation.

You are absolutely right, the tone of my statement was far too hostile, and my sincere apologies. (And your Russian is pretty good too, and thank you for using it! :-) Maya padruga or padruga maya is correct when referring to "my female friend" in third person, but when you address one, regardless of that actual person's gender, oddly enough it remains masculine "moi droog" or drug moi. And this is something they don't seem to teach in conversation classes.)

Anyway, I do see your point of communicating anger along with other things if there is to be communication, and I think that's kind of what happened in both our cases initially. I believe what go me riled up with this whole topic was seeing it in the first place -- suddenly cultural appropriation was being discussed everywhere online post-Wiscon, and everyone was getting angry over the nuances, when the irony is that everyone who attends Wiscon by default is already "the choir" -- no need to preach to them -- and yet, this topic became an incendiary catalyst to make people who are already respectful of other cultures, genders and personal differences, go to arms over the gradations and nuances of detail they all accepted already.

I am very sorry for your desparing exhaustion and certainly did not intend to add to it; and yes, I've been there, still am there, and I think my personal solution a long time ago was to accept that people can only know the Other by trying to appropriate it somehow, and letting them do it in their own, however faulty, way.

"My people" are plentiful, and whom I consider my people also is all-encompassing. For years I have seen how various subgroups of my people have been taken wrong -- Russians being completely misrepresented, misunderstood, Armenians being denied the acnowledgement of their Holocaust at the hands of the Turks during WWI, Lebanese completely misunderstood and underestimated, Greeks, Americans, Earthlings, Human Beings, all are my people, et cetera, ad infinitum. Even the term "Caucasian" has been appropriated from an ethnic region to a racial designation. Hell yes I am Caucasian and proud of it, whereas most people who call themselves Caucasian are far from it -- can you say appropriation? Does it bother me? Not any more, I laugh. My family is from the Caucasus; my people make the world's best cognac and raise sheep (my grandpa was actually a town doctor, but he got paid in chickens, not sheep)! And we welcome guests and strangers witn open arms.

Here is an old photo (left to right) of my grandpa, uncle, grandma, dad, and great grandma in the mountains in Caucasus, a frigging long time ago, circa 1930's. :-)


Clare,

I agree with you that Nalo is a treasure, and the fact that I was going back to the beginning past the accepted terms of the debate is true -- darn right I was, it's the tone and nunaces, not the debate itself that was getting to me. People having conniptions in blogs that I read over things they fundamentally agreed on in the first place -- now that's what's frustrating to see!

But your metaphor of a violent boxing match is a bit off here. It's more of a choir of lovely different voices raised to sing a high song of preaching to itself, that suddenly broke out of harmony and started to fall apart for no reason at all -- maybe a kind of misstep a person takes when they suddenly realize that to walk upright on two feet requires nearly impossible balance and yet their body makes the balancing act automatically. There is already the default understanding of the need for cultural respect among all of those partaking in this discussion; that's the given part. But it's the tonality, the muisicality that is causing the alto to drop out and the sopranos to screech in a wrong key. My own fault here is to come in and suddenly sing in female tenor, and add to the melodic turmoil. My bad.

Your comment that I don't seem to know the reason for this discussion assumes certain things about me. :-)

One last thing on this whole issue --- and Hal, huge apologies from me, for stirring up unrest in yor personal blog -- but this is what I think in a nutshell: cultural respect comes from understanding, which in turn comes from immersion, which comes from appropriation -- regardless of original motivation for such. It's here to stay, and we need to deal with it, and educate from our own end, the best we can.

Consume something and you become it.

And on that final note, everyone, you are all welcome to what I have, to any and all of my cultures -- appropriate it to your heart's content, however you can, because it's the only way you (and I) will learn the Other.

5:19 am  
Anonymous Vera Nazarian said...

And Claire, very sorry for typoing your name. :-)

5:23 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Al

Responding to your last post, the point I was getting at is not the distinction between appropriation and representation (yes, you were clear, I wasn't suggesting you weren't), but the thornier issue of how anyone decides what is being appropriated or represented. There are a few issues tied up here. There's the basic one of how you define a 'culture'. Are 'Delta Blues' or 'Scottish folk music' clearly distinctive cultures? I'm not so sure that it's quite so self-evident as all that. As soon as you start defining the cultural boundaries around Delta Blues and Scottish folk music, there are judgement calls being made that relate to the authority of those doing the boundary-setting - an issue to which you rightly refer. Anything to do with cultural definition is going to involve fuzzy boundaries, but that's an important issue when you get into the ethics of representation vs. appropriation.

Take the example of Scottish folk music. If someone writes a story that characterises Scottish folk singers as tuneless, musically-Luddite amateurs, who has the 'right' to be outraged: anyone claiming to be a folk singer? Anyone who's been raised in a tradition of Scottish folk-singing? Those who have studied Scottish folk-singing and regard themselves as experts in the form? The definition of what constitutes culture and who is part of that culture seems to me essential to notions of appropriation and representation. Can culture in this case be defined by a) a 'consensus' view of what that culture is (we all know what Scottish folk music is) b) a self-defining view of the culture (the only ones who can talk legitimately about Scottish folk music is those who identify with that tradition) or c) the experts (I've studied Scottish folk music for years, and dammit, I've got the right to talk about it).

These are pretty emotive subjects. I'm not saying that you *can't* define culture, but that the ethical dilemmas facing appropriation and representation are not those facing the artist alone, but anyone who is reacting to what the artist has done. If I object to what Paul Simon has done in Graceland, should I not be asking myself whether the same issues of musical appropriation or representation apply to myself as well?

Phil

12:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Hal,

My writing's not as eloquent as yours is, but I'll take a stab at it anyway.

If art is just art and is meant to be taken and recreated, why do we have things like copyright (which does essentially put up a big fence saying "this is mine now")? For example, take Disney (which is probably the quintessential hypocritical appropriator) It takes stories, and recreates them like other appropriators do. But then it tells other people that it can't do the same thing to Disney's works.

What makes Disney or Michael Jackson's estate, for example, have more ways to defend their own appropriation than the early black Rock and Roll artists, whom Elvis was able to take from partly because the majority white population didn't like "black" songs. (and don't tell me works eventually go to the public domain. If Disney had their way they'd be able to keep the copyright on their works until the end of time. Their appeals to the U.S. government seem to be working.)

Art may be art, but nowadays it's also about the money and the power.

I haven't addressed a lot of other things yet, like Hollywood "dumping" practices, how culture links to societal images and people, etc. That'll probably take a huge load of time, I think...

J.

8:45 pm  
Anonymous Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

Hm! Interesting.

Hal, you think queer culture cannot be appropriated? Have you seen my karaoke version of "I Will Survive"? Next Wiscon. :-)

(But I'm kidding, of course. Possibly queer culture [as distinct from gay culture, and I was in San Francisco during the "Year of the Queer" pride march where this was being fought out between the old guard and young turks!] is immune to appropriation because it's inclusive by nature; to act queer is to be queer, right in that moment anyway. So you can't appropriate queer culture, you can only participate in it? At worst by becoming unintentional camp? :-> )

So, thanks for making the crucial distinction between representation and appropriation. As far as representation goes, it sounds like we all agree? To summarize: "Go read Nisi and Cynthia's book. Go write about everyone. Try not to fetishize/infantilize/demonize. When you fuck up, listen, apologize, and keep trying. Whatever you do, don't get scared and write only what you know." Is that the sense of the meeting?

About cultural appropriation as distinct from representation, it seems to me that what's being slightly glossed over -- and which is a source of some of the fury and some of the "what? what?" -- is the issue not just of ownership in a metaphysical sense of taboos ("only the men of the tribe may do this dance"), but in a literal sense of it's-all-about-the-Benjamins.

I want to ditto Nalo on Graceland. When I saw that tour in the 80s, it was actually billed as "Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo". It launched LBM internationally. (On the album, Paul Simon sings his way, Ladysmith sing in theirs, and its the *fusion* of the two styles which is interesting. There are tracks on the album where Paul Simon doesn't even appear.) And it's fairly obvious that Ladysmith Black Mambazo got a piece of the take -- and benefitted immeasurably.

I wouldn't even call Graceland appropriation -- it's a cross-cultural collaboration. Like a lot of what Peter Gabriel and David Byrne have done to work with and popularize various artists around the world, it's actually a great model of how you ethically interact with the artistic traditions of other cultures.

Contrast this with a little band I (otherwise) really like named Single Gun Theory. What's often distinctive about their songs is the integration of samples, beautiful snatches of song from other cultures. But in the liner notes, these are credited as (if memory serves) like "Bengali woman in market, 1986". I'm thinking Bengali woman in market got at most a tip of a few rupees -- unlike Ladysmith Black Mambazo, she is unlikely to be touring Hamburg any time soon.

Now, partly this gets into the whole sampling thing (a snatch of market woman's song is arguably fair use). And Bengali woman in market may also have been, personally, fine with the deal of a few rupees, even if she knew that SGT is planning to fly back to London and make enough money to buy her village even if the album flops. Maybe she has no particular issues of cultural taboo -- maybe she feels like the song is the common property of everyone, and once it's sung, it's out there for everyone, including the Europeans visiting with their tapedeck. Maybe she doesn't particularly want to tour Hamburg.

But I, as listener to the finished song, have no way of knowing, one way or the other. And frankly, even if she was fine with it, it still grates. Because if she was fine with it, it's hard to imagine she was fine with it in-the-best-of-all-possible-worlds. She might have thought a few rupees were a good deal given the real way power is distributed in the world. Maybe she even thought it a good deal in principle (which is to say, maybe even if she had a high-priced entertainment lawyer working for her pro bono, she would have instructed the lawyer to put that performance in the public domain). But the power assymmetry makes the transaction deeply suspicious.

And beyond the financial, there's the galling issue of attribution -- they didn't even find out her *name*.

That's a pretty clear cut case, since the issues are clear even under existing, Western copyright law. The more muddy issues of appropriation are where the artist goes and works in the "aesthetic form" of another culture. Thank god, you can't copyright an "aesthetic form". And I certainly agree that Art, as essentialized hedonistic wild thing, doesn't care one way or the other. But here too, the issue that is not addressed in Hal's discussion above is one of power assymetry. Outsiders deciding to work in and profit from an aesthetic form originated by the white American middle classes -- say, pulp science fiction -- seems a different proposition from outsiders deciding to work in and profit from a traditional aesthetic form of the Hopi -- or even the Delta Blues.

And there's a real danger here, because I don't really want to suggest that every Amazonian tribe and loose inner city subculture should strictly define its borders, incorporate, trademark all its aesthetic forms and pursue infringers vigorously in court. That seems like a recipe for making all of human culture as bland and static as American Top 40 pop songs. (Though I do think Amazonian tribes should incorporate and patent their ethnopharmacology before Roche and Novartis do!)

Perhaps the best recipe for ethical appropriation of *forms* -- as opposed to *works* and *performances* -- beyond asking Dionysius's question of "can I pull it off?" -- is to simply acknowledge, to yourself and others, where your debts lie. (I'm tempted to say Eminem does a good job of this, for instance, in the song "White America", about his ambivalence at being embraced by suburbia, where he points out that he sells at least double the number of albums that he would if he were black -- and constantly reiterates of his debt to Dr. Dre and black hip-hop).

We all have artistic debts, from the explicit (where we are actually producing derivative works, in the strict sense) to the implicit (because all works are derivative works, in the broad sense). In a world of power asymmetry, it's critical to acknowledge them.

Acknowledging those debts, though, is a beginning, not an ending, of responsibility. Once you know whom you owe, the question becomes "what would they have me do?" I think it's a question which can often be reasonably asked of a cultural tradition, even if one one level that seems nonsensical. And then you have to see, out of what "they" would have you do, what subset you can in good conscience sign up to. (That is, if you are appropriating the tradition of "Gone With The Wind", you are probably not going to want to work for the reestablishment of the antebellum South).

For instance, take the cultural tradition mentioned above -- science fiction as it emerged from the American pulps. The ground rules are pretty well established, and always have been. First off, anyone can and should play. Secondly, you discharge your debt by paying forward: mentoring those coming up, honoring fannish devotion, participating in the life of the community. I think most people who take SF seriously do, in practice, understand this debt and that this is the currency in which it is paid.

There are other traditions, of course, that would have you stay the hell away from their holy forms.

How strong a claim the "what would they have me do" has on your attention has something to do what real living individuals there are behind the fuzzy notion of the group, who could actually be benefitted and harmed by your attention or inattention, and what the power assymmetry is; the ruling elite of the ancient Assyrian empire has a lot less such claim than a contemporary marginalized subculture.

12:42 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Phil: I wrote a huge post intended to address your point and then lost it when Blogger went blooey on me. I'm going to post in more detail, anyway, but the gist of my response was this: I think there's an actual, historical process of geographic, ethnic and / or linguistic isolation and consolidation of communities and that this is what we are recognising when we refer to that isolation-and-consolidation as a culture. That isolation is not absoute so you're going to get confusion, but its sufficient enough that, as long as we're just using them as taxonomic labels, really, I don't think its hard to point to the cultural traditions (there may be many) within which a work can be situated. So in terms of "Scottish Folk", the "Scottish" is a descriptive label for context rather than a prescriptive definition of privileges.

Neither public consensus, nor self-identification, nor authoritative declaration are, to my mind, legitimate deciders of whether a work is essentially "Scottish"... no more than any one of the three can make a legitimate ruling on whether the Isle of Man is part of mainland Britain or Eire. It's in the Irish Sea... fact. This is a judgement of location, not a decision on ownership. That said, when it comes to the notion of group ownership, then public consensus, self-identification and authoritative declaration each play a part in the political act of laying claim to cultural products as "heritage". But, as I say, I'll post about this in more detail.

J., Ben: You're both right that the importance of the power relationships between cultures is totally missing from this post. But I'd prefer to nail the dictionary meaning of appropriation into position in the debate rather than confuse subjugation and appropriation. These are more closely related, through the shared process of exploitation, I'd say, than appropriation and representation, but they're still distinct. I've seen, in this discussion, people argue that, in fact, appropriation is not appropriation at all where it involves, say, a white American cribbing from white Scottish traditions. The power differential, they argue, is a crucial factor in what we call "cultural appropration".

To me this is another failure to distinguish the terms of the debate; and this is the one that leads to most pointless hostility. The term "appropriation" has a crystal-clear meaning which asserts nothing about the power differential between villain and victim. Confusing the act as a general type of act with particular instances of the act in specific economic and political situations, and confusing it further with the specific purposes and outcomes of that subset of acts of appropriation actually, I think, masks the realities of subjugation within a veritable morass of contradictory ideas. At worst I'd say it actually trivialises subjugation by presenting it in the guise of something which could be considered a misdemeanour rather than a crime.

Put it this way: assault is a particular type of act which, like appropriation, has a villain and a victim. Not all assault is motivated by homophobia. If I insist that the term "assault" is only really valid in relation to gaybashing, I risk both alienating others who have been victims of non-homophobic assaults and characterising a heinous hate crime as if it was on a comparable level to a bar-fight. The term "assault" offers few in-roads into an understanding of the political purposes and outcomes of gaybashing; it may even simply offer distractions. It's the homophobia that we should be looking at, and the how and the why of the way that bigotry manifests as assaults. Likewise, with appropriation, if it's the mechanisms of subjugation that are really what matter then we would be better, I think, to identify it as subjugation.

Pehaps this is all pedantic of me, but we're using these terms in a debate about cultural systems so I think we need to use them as systematically as possible, as precisely as possible. Where we're talking about a particular type of appropriative act I think we would be better served finding a more specific descriptor for what's going on. It makes for a better model. "Incorporation" might be a better term, I think, for the process whereby appropriation is a mechanism by which empowered cultures engulf, subsume, take on or take over the aesthetic forms of minorities -- versus "assimilation", where the process is reversed, with minority cultures adopting the aesthetic forms of the dominant culture?

4:45 pm  
Anonymous Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

Hmm, we are veering toward term overload, particularly when you consider that between any given two cultures, A and B, engaged in mutual appropriation, there is not necessarily a clear relation of dominance -- or perhaps, better, there may be multiple such relationships (Jews and Cossacks? Arabs and Persians? Black women and gay white men?)

I'm fine with "appropriation" as a neutral term which makes no judgements on the issue of who's on top; indeed, I intended to use it as such. I was just going on beyond the definitional questions -- what's appropriation, what's representation -- which, really, I think your original post handled admirably -- to talk practically about how to be responsible about appropriation.

Any appropriation involves a debt, regardless of the power dynamic. Octavia Butler, appropriating the tradition of Heinlein and Asimov, incurred a debt, despite occupying a relatively disenfranchised social position (both in SF and in the broader world) -- a debt which she paid willingly and profoundly.

Assimilation seems to be something more specific than simply a minority trying its hand at the aesthetic forms of the majority; Octavia's fiction is not assimilationist. Incorporation seems to be more general (jazz incorporates European symphonic elements, for instance). I don't think we need the taxonomic proliferation.

And while I wholeheartedly agree that to conflate subjugation and appropriation is counterproductive and perilous -- and that in issues like the Single Gun Theory example subjugation is really the primary issue -- I see a parallel danger, too, in arguing that the only issues of ethical responsibility have to do with subjugation as such. Because then it's perhaps too easy to say "oh, I don't have any responsibility to folk musicians if I appropriate in folk music -- *I* don't subjugate folk musicians!"

I think all appropriation incurs some obligation. It may only be the obligation of acknowledgement of source (consider SF tantrums when a mainstreamer claims to have made up SF traditions themselves de novo). It may only be the obligation of not claiming to be more of a member of a group than you are (consider punk fury and disdain at "poseurs"). It may not have to do with subjugation or power dynamics; then again it may.

Subjugation and appropriation are distinct phenomena; when you are in the midst of an act of appropriation, though, it's a good time to think about subjugation. (Just as, if you are in the midst of slugging someone, you might want to ask yourself if it's a hate crime or a friendly scuffle).


(Oh no, here we go with the threaded analogies again...)

8:05 pm  
Blogger Kat said...

Wow. Too... much... learning... head... hurts....

Thank you, though. This is one of the best discussions of the issue I've ever seen, and it's making me think, which is always good.

A surprising amount of this parallels the recent discussions I've seen on where inspiration ends and plagiarism begins, and the defining line seems to be equally difficult to place in both cases. Where do we stop borrowing from another person/culture and start stealing? Where is it no longer "healthy literary sneakthievery," as LeGuin put it, but an insult to our source?

Many of the warning signs have been discussed already. It's bad when you don't acknowledge your sources (don't they cover this in high school any more?). It's bad when you treat your source condescendingly. It's bad when you simply plug your source into the text without thinking.

This last is one of the most common mistakes, the one that can be made most innocently, and possibly the one that can do the most damage to a piece of writing. It doesn't matter if you're appropriating Tolkien's elves or Native American traditions: when they are plonked down in your own work without examination, they are at best going to look rather silly and out of place, and at worst participate in a sort of literary plastering-over. And this is bad. With Tolkien, it's led to people like China Mieville calling him "the worst thing to ever happen to fantasy" less because of the work itself than the hordes of thoughtless imitators; with Native Americans, it is the far more serious crime of a living, breathing people being caricatured into vicious barbarians or noble savages. Literature is a powerful medium, powerful enough that an oft-repeated and unexamined caricature can spill into reality, can so taint it that people can no longer clearly see the original for the obscuring shadow cast on it.

In literary terms this means merely that a lot of people can't read Tolkien as he ought to be read; but in cultural terms it means people being encouraged, endoctrinated, to see whole swathes of other people as two-dimensional. There is very little difference, in these terms, between putting the group in question on a pedestal or stripping them naked and painting them blue. The writer is still denying them the right to be seen as three-dimensional, whole in themselves, human.

On the more practical side, the writer is also seriously pissing off any members of the caricatured group who happen to be reading.

I have more to say about this, but I'm late for work. Eek!

2:12 pm  
Blogger Matt Ruff said...

Benjamin Rosenbaum wrote: Contrast this with a little band I (otherwise) really like named Single Gun Theory. What's often distinctive about their songs is the integration of samples, beautiful snatches of song from other cultures. But in the liner notes, these are credited as (if memory serves) like "Bengali woman in market, 1986". I'm thinking Bengali woman in market got at most a tip of a few rupees -- unlike Ladysmith Black Mambazo, she is unlikely to be touring Hamburg any time soon.

Now, partly this gets into the whole sampling thing (a snatch of market woman's song is arguably fair use). And Bengali woman in market may also have been, personally, fine with the deal of a few rupees, even if she knew that SGT is planning to fly back to London and make enough money to buy her village even if the album flops. Maybe she has no particular issues of cultural taboo -- maybe she feels like the song is the common property of everyone, and once it's sung, it's out there for everyone, including the Europeans visiting with their tapedeck. Maybe she doesn't particularly want to tour Hamburg.

But I, as listener to the finished song, have no way of knowing, one way or the other. And frankly, even if she was fine with it, it still grates. Because if she was fine with it, it's hard to imagine she was fine with it in-the-best-of-all-possible-worlds.


You're right that we don't know what transpired between SGT and the Bengali woman. But we do know that, at the very least, they dealt with her in person, as a real human being.

You, on the other hand -- no doubt with the best of intentions -- are treating her as a double abstraction. You're imagining what she's like, on the basis of no real evidence; and you are asserting that, if she is a certain way, your own vision of what she should be like takes precedence over the reality of who she is.

I don't think you should be throwing stones at SGT.

4:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the map not being the territory, as you said.

"Simply representing a culture in terms of artefacts, practices and persons doesn't mean you are laying claim to those artefacts, following those practices, mimicking those persons."

But when you write about a culture not your own, you are engaging in the act of making meanings--the author exerts authority over his/her subject. This in itself is always an act of laying claim. Differentiating between writing about a voudon ritual and actually practicing it is beside the point. Both are "texts," forms of communication and cultural production.

So while I appreciate your argument against the territoriality of culture, I think your point about non-Europeans writing the adventure story is flawed. Appropriation is performed by the dominant culture--i.e. European/Western tradition. I would argue that in our increasingly globalized world, the Western tradition is the dominant power, economically and culturally. Marginal cultures don't engage in appropriation--they are assimilated.

"Art is promiscuous like that, a rampant slattern, a rougish slut; he doesn't care what socio-political label of race, gender, religion, sexuality or nation you place on yourself. He doesn't care which tribe you've decided you belong to. He just wants to make fuckee-fuckee with you, with everyone and anyone."

You're assuming that "Art" is some sort of isolated form, outside of discourse and history. But art, as with all communication, relies on symbols and not everyone responds to the same symbols the same way. So while you might feel that Primitivists were tapping into the mystical nature of man by displaying African masks, someone else might argue that such art reinforced the myth that African societies were all inherently "primal" and irrational.

4:44 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Hi, Anonymous. I think you're kind of going over ground that's already been argued in the comments, but it's worth clarifying my position, and in doing so... well, my response got a bit long for a comment, so you'll find it at the front page of the blog.

Essentially:

Representation lays claim to an image. Exerting authority over that image does not affect the subject directly (that would be sympathetic magic), though it can and does validate other direct exertions of authority. It is important to isolate different mechanisms of a system of prejudice.

It is entirely possible to distinguish between one act and another which is relates to it in terms of cause-and-effect. This is both possible and advisable in terms of appropriation and representation.

The specialised meanings applied to appropriation and assimiliation in this discourse renders their definitions fuzzy and inconsistent. Worse, it masks an assertion of compensatory privilege which harms the debate.

My intent is to represent Art as a discourse in its own right. Rather than representing it as beyond "discourse and history", I'm positing it as a part of it, in ethical conflict with other discourses (like Religion, Politics, Society).

But for the detailed answer, you'll have to go here:

http://notesfromthegeekshow.blogspot.com/2006/09/more-on-cultural-appropriation.html#comments

3:33 pm  
Blogger Today's Malady said...

The whole cultural appropriation PCism issue has gone WAY TOO FAR.

Every culture has borrowed from, traded with, conquered, been conquered by every other culture, back to the beginning of time. Even Tibet (isolated for a thousand years) still gets a lot of its religious imagery from India.

We COULD go back to wearing only the clothes our ancestors wore, but many of us would be arrested for indecent exposure.

I've faced this issue in several odd ways in my own life.

I am a Caucasian with somewhat "nappy" hair. Before the whole PCism issue became as rabid as it is now, I often wore styles popular with African-Americans, and regularly had my hair styled by African-American hairstylists, with good reason: NOBODY ELSE KNEW WHAT TO DO WITH MY HAIR.

Now I am forced to wear my hair short because the only other way I can wear it is to either straighten it and thus damage it, or wear braids, dreads, etc. I don't do this, because of the PCism issue: if I wear a hairstyle that African Americans commonly wear because of similar hair issues, I end up having to explain to PC liberals that I am not a white person trying to look black. Scuse me?? A black person styled my hair!

Personally, I think that assuming someone is "appropriating" or is being racist JUST BECAUSE THEY ARE WHITE is racist in itself.

When neo-Nazis sit next to me on the bus because I'm the only white person with a free seat next to me, they're being racist in assuming that I want to sit next to a neo-Nazi just because I am white (this has happened).

12:41 am  
Anonymous Rebecca Ore said...

If we talk about culture as a commodity that collective corporate units of people own, then the dominant culture has won everywhere.

I remember a professor in NC getting upset because a "traditional" Catawba potter subscribed to modern pottery design magazines and got her ideas from them.

And further, consider the invention of Appalachia, US, as a culture when it's always been part of the Middle Atlantic and as ethnically mixed as any other part of the Middle Atlantic states, just a bit poorer and in prettier landscape.

8:34 pm  

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