Notes from New Sodom

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

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

More on Cultural Appropriation

A while back I had a post on cultural appropriation that raised a few hackles and raised a few cheers from readers on both sides of the "Big Thing" fence who, in many cases, thought I was dismissing the issues out of hand. I was, of course, just being my usual self, letting my inner bewilderbeast run full steam at an idea and smash it to pieces, and then sending in the clean up squad to sift through the wreckage for salvageable ideas. There's some great comments that draw out the important points obscured by my rhetoric.

Anyway, so somebody must've come across it through a link, cause they ended up posting a "Hmmm, I don't agree" comment which deserves an answer. Since the answer I came up with -- as is not entirely unusual here -- ended up longer than the initial post, I thought I'd fire it up on the front page as a separate entry.

So, breaking up Anonymous's entry and taking it in steps...

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 .


Sorry, this is precisely the confusion between representation and appropriation that, I think, only harms the case against misrepresentation and muddies the debate around cultural appropriation. If Author X writes a novel with a representation of a gay character that functions as a cheap stereotype, expresses their bigotry, reinforces existing bigotry in readers, and fosters new bigotry in subsequent generations, this is despicable. And, yes, it is a political act which indirectly affects my personal autonomy by validating actions motivated by bigotry. That is to say, the bigotry it engenders leads to very real and very pernicious limitations on my freedoms. But Author X is only laying claim to the validity of their representation (i.e. the "truth" of it and their right to express that "truth"). The authority they are exerting is over the image of the subject in the culture-at-large, not the subject. Drawing a Hitler moustache and spectacles on a picture of me does not limit my ability to go around without a Hitler moustache and spectacles. It is only when that representation validates/engenders bigotry and that bigotry is acted upon (when I become unable to walk down a street without some dickwad shouting, hey where's yer specs and tache, Hitler-boy!, or when some anti-Duncan pressure group decides I'm a Nazi sympathiser because of this misrepresentation and gets the government to enact legislation curtailing my civil liberties) that I myself have become subject(ed) to authority in any practical, meaningful sense of the term. This is exactly what I mean about the map not being the territory.

Understand, this is not to downplay the political importance of that control-validated-by-bigotry-engendered-by-misrepresentation, not by any means. Control of a minority's image is a critical component in its systematic disempowerment and persecution by the privileged. My point is that failing to properly differentiate the components of the system makes it harder to work against that system.

In very real practical terms the failure to differentiate between representation and appropriation makes it harder to communicate, for example, justified outrage at stereotyping. If Author X is not aware that their representation of gays is a bigoted stereotype, it's worth pointing it out to them, and detailing how and why this is wrong. There's a chance they have enough nous to see their error and try to change. It's extremely counter-productive though, I think, to use the entitlement argument from the cultural appropriation debate, by which I mean the "who the fuck are you to write about gays, breeder boy?" challenge. This only leads to a wrongful focus on whether Author X has the "right" to write about gay characters when they themself are not gay. It distracts from what is actually important -- the image as reification of prejudice. Without a solid and detailed justification this notion only comes off as absurd and extreme, thereby trivialising the argument and (further) marginalising the victim or well-meaning defender who uses it. To put it bluntly, if I go around telling X, Y, Z and every other straight author who ever wrote a gay character that "you don't have the right", it only makes me look like an uptight prick and reinforces negative conservative stereotypes of "PC police".

This is where, I think, it is absolutely crucial to maintain a differentiation between representation and appropriation. The idea that a non-member of a culture does not have the right to co-opt another culture's aesthetic forms is a sensible argument. Even if you disagree with it, I think, the entitlement issue is perfectly logical in this context. It's not at all hard to understand why an Aboriginal Australian would be offended by a white artist winning the Turner Prize with their version of sand-paintings. Or why an African or First Nation tribe would object to their sacred artefacts being displayed in European museums. But the transference of this concept of cultural property onto representations of that culture is such a wild leap that it will and does strike, I would say, the majority of people as ridiculous. What's worse is that whenever I've seen this idea brought into play, if it does not immediately lead to a breakdown in communication (as the bigot throws up their hands and walks away, their worst prejudices about "loony leftists" confirmed), it seems to be inevitably bolstered with the most woolly-minded 60s theorisificationalism you can get (which leads to the same eventual result vis-a-vis the bigot). The controlling power of the gaze. The world as "text". And so on.

Now, if I were to see this idea justified in sensible, non-academic terms, without recourse to over-abstracted, pseudo-scientific, fuzzy-minded, pomo fustian, I might treat it with less scorn. But I just don't see a scrap of logic in an argument that, for example, straights have less "right" to represent gays because the image is, propietorially speaking, not theirs to control. This is not because I disagree with the proposition that one can treat an image as property, rather it is because I think that proposition is voiced in the terms of obscurantist neo-deconstructionalisationism in order to mask its basic and simple but illogical premise, that because we are dealing with images of a type of person grouped as members of a marginalised culture or community, as a subaltern minority, ownership of the image must be considered as residing in that minority. Which is to say that gays (or blacks, or women, etc.) have communal ownership rights over representations of gays (or blacks, or women, etc.).

This is merely to exchange the "authority" of the dominant culture for the "authority" of the marginal culture, to abrogate control/ownership of the image to.a subset of society rather than society-at-large.

Even were I to accept, for the sake of argument, that representations can and should be treated as property, I do not recognise the legitimacy of that communal ownership.

If I and every other gay have some vague sort of communal ownership rights to representations of gays, who says I should accept a gay writer's exertion of authority any more than I should accept a straight writer's? Who says they have any more right to it? If I have a straight writer mate who writes a book with a gay character in it, a gay character who is based on me, sympathetic and non-stereotypical, what gives any other gay the right to challenge this book not on the nature of the representation but on the basis that my mate has infringed on their propietorial control? Did I grant them this privilege? No. Did I sign over the rights to my image on a consent form before I sucked my first cock? No. Do I submit my image to the authority of a writer on the basis of their sexuality? No.

This is the real "laying claim" here. This assertion of communal ownership of a minority's image -- with the concomitant assertion that non-members of that minority are non-proprietors and therefore not entitled to exert control over that image through acts of representation -- is a blatant construction of privilege by an act of exclusion. As a compensation for privileges lost and rights denied to the marginalised it's understandable, but personally I find the neurosis of it pitiable and the impudence of it deeply offensive. And as a political strategy for fighting prejudice I consider it not only illegitimate but profoundly harmful to the cause. It alienates the very people we should be engaging with. It suborns the individual member of the minority to the minority-as-a-whole which denies diversity within the group and furthers the de-individualisation of those members, their typification as not me or you, he or she, but us or them, as not this person or that but as a homogenous group -- Gays, Blacks, Women, etc.. It reinforces the barriers between the marginalised and the privileged and therefore serves the interests of the latter far more than the former.

And last but not least, it makes us look crazy.

Seriously. Every time that argument comes up -- whether it's a minority member asserting their privilege and the non-member's lack of such, or a non-member accepting the argument enough to fret over whether they "have the right" to represent this or that minority, or critiquing another non-member for breaching this privilege -- it's not just another brick in the wall between Us and Them, whichever marginalised minority or privileged majority that Us and Them might be; it's a pure white diamond of a nonsense, a gem of illogic which the bigots and the blinkered can't fail to spot, bright and sparkly as it is, amongst the drearier stuff of the debate. And they can then jump on it and hold it up as a prime example of how all those fags and feminazis and blacks, all those radicals and activists and liberals, are all full of patently whacky ideas and bound into an irrationalist groupthink.

And all of this, I think, comes from the failure to differentiate representation and appropriation, from a confusion of the map and the territory, of the image of a culture and the culture itself, of the image of the subaltern and the cultural artefacts of a community of subalterns. Losing that key distinction is absolutely necessary before you can start to blather any of this tosh about who is and who isn't entitled to represent who. Maintaining that distinction not only prevents us from making complete tits of ourselves (and making our allies look stupid by association), it also allows us to articulate the actual mechanisms of prejudice that are relevant here (the image as demonisation, infantilisation, fetishisation; these as validation for political subordination), to articulate the problem in a vocabulary that's apt rather than obscure it in fustian. So I think that distinction is very much not beside the point.

The last sentence does make an interesting point, however, if a tad fuzzily postmodern for my liking. As ypou might have gathered already, I'm not entirely convinced that the "every act of communication / cultural product is a text" argument doesn't overload the word "text" to a breaking point where its meaning loses the specificity that makes language useful. I'm extremely wary of using a nice simple word like "text" in a way that requires a certain level of abstract and academic assumptions, theories and extrapolations to justify. But I do think in the particular instance of an appropriated voudon ritual, there's a case to be made that this act, presumably with an audience / congregation, as a performance can be considered as a representation as well as an appropriation, that we need to be aware of how an act can function as both.

But in dealing with such cases I think it still serves us well to distinguish appropriation and representation. The issue of laying claim to another culture's religion when you, as an outsider, have no right to do so and members of that other culture consider your act self-serving, shallow and illegitimate is one thing. The issue of how you, in carrying out this act of appropriation, are also representing that religion -- and by extension the culture and the people who generated it -- potentially misrepresenting it in the most profoundly insulting way and thereby reinforcing prejudice is another.

By segregating these out, I would argue, we are better able to see how they fit together. In the case of voudon, you have misrepresentations that demonise the practitioners of this "black magic". Feeding off these misrepresentations you have others which fetishise the same practitioners, which idealise the "dark and primitive" worldview because to do so seems transgressive or liberating. So you get the self-proclaimed Satanists of suburbia who latch on to these rituals, buy books on voudon and Santeria, and end up appropriating ideas and rituals from these cultures, co-opting them into their own travesties of rituals. Where they manage to get other such suburban Satanists swept up in their delight in all that is Other, their (re)presentation of those ideas and rituals perpetuates the demonisation and fetishisation, spreads the prejudice further. In both like-minded friends and estranged relatives they foster a misrepresentation of the culture they claim to respect. Some of them may start covens or cults, write books, join forums. Either way, with their own fetishisations they propagate the next generation of suburban Satanists who will carry on the appropriation. It's a vicious circle of the most classic sort.

The point is, by distinguishing representation and appropriation we can identify how they relate to each other, as a system, a feedback loop. More importantly we can identify specific weak points where one might, for example, challenge some self-deluded friend or family member who has bought into this sort of crap. We can challenge them at the level of representation (Do you really know anything about voudon? What have you read? Who was it written by? Do you really think it's accurate?) and at the level of appropriation (Who made you a babaloa? Have you been initiated? Is this idea or ritual yours to use? Are you respecting the culture by stealing from it? Have you asked yourself if you have the right? How do you think a babaloa would feel about your bastardisation?). We could even try explaining how the whole thing works as a system, with representation and appropriation feeding off each other, fostering a pernicious state of prejudice that they may want to reconsider their part in. The more clearly we are able to differentiate the components of that system, the bettter able we are to explicate its iniquities.

Blurring it all into one amorphous phenomenon labelled cultural appropriation is tangibly, I think, less beneficial, especially in the case of appropriation born of fetishisation, where the individual's idealised view of the culture is likely to go hand-in-hand with a naive assumption that, in their "respect" for the culture they don't mean harm and so will not cause harm. Slapping them down for a fuzzily defined cultural appropriation may just be shrugged off as an over-reaction or an inapplicable term. The human mind has an awesome capacity for self-delusion. We don't need to make its job any easier by giving it inchoate arguments that will be read as rhetorical bluster and straw men.

Another pertinent example of appropriation and representation feeding off each other but remaining quite noticeably distinct is in the Minstrel shows, where black music was appropriated and put to the service of the infantilisation of its source culture. Would the appropriation have been as pernicious if it hadn't gone hand-in-hand with the representation, if the white singers who performed it hadn't been black-faced, mugging through their roles as the simple Sambo? Arguably, yes, the appropriation itself would still be pretty outrageous; we'd simply be missing an additional -- and possibly more important -- outrage of misrepresentation. If the music was not appropriated, that misrepresentation would still be a problem, and it would still be the same problem.

In the debates on cultural appropriation you often see the argument that a large part of the problem is with the appropriator not crediting their source or when their product usurps that of a creator from a marginalised culture. I'm sure there have been (and probably still are) apologists who'd point to the black faces of the Minstrels and say that the roots of the music were clearly being acknowledged, or who'd point to a few notable Minstrels who were themselves black and argue that their product wasn't usurped, that this "wasn't appropriation". Needless to say, I think those are specious and pretty abhorrent; I only bring them up as the sort of apologist guff that's not just easy to blow apart on its own basis but actually highlights some of the specific iniquities of the two outrages at play here, appropriation and representation. On the one hand those black faces weren't matched by real credits and royalties, and I doubt very much that those black Minstrels were earning the same as their white counterparts; that speaks directly to all those issues of appropriation. On the other hand it's interesting (in a horrifying way) that those black Minstrels had to wear black-face and play the role just like the whites; and that speaks directly to the issue of representation.

That's two outrages -- three actually, if you distinguish between the appropriation of the music, the discrimination against the black performers, and the misrepresentation of black culture onstage. I wouldn't deny that these were constituent elements of a system of prejudice. I do however think its advantageous to treat them as distinct problems, because different problems may have different solutions. To take the whole system apart may require a claw-hammer to prise out the nails, a spanner to loosen the bolts, and a screwdriver to unscrew the screws. If we do not treat appropriation, discrimination and representation as distinct, I fear our approach is deeply impractical. Talking academically about the "connectors" which are all part of one big system is of little pragmatic value.

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.

If we are to understand appropriation as taking possession of something without a legitimate right to it, there is no intrinsic power differential to this act. That is not part of the conventionual meaning of the word. There is an intrinsic power differential in assimilation, if we accept this as one (small) thing being absorbed into another (larger) thing, but note: there is no intrinsic active/passive differential to this act. Again that is not part of the conventional meaning of the word.

Words have different conventional meanings in different contexts, I hear you say. Within the discourse at hand, these words have those additional denotations. Let me get to that.

An act of appropriation is still an act of appropriation, regardless of who carries it out. Whether it is rendered just or unjust by the politics of the situation, by the power differential between the culture of the appropriator and the culture appropriated from, this does not change the act or the illegitimacy of it. Assimilation is not an act but a process involving two partipants, with no specification as to which is active. It is therefore not simply an inversion of appropriation with the subaltern being the one carrying out the appropriation. The dominant culture can equally well be seen as agent here, acting on the subaltern, requiring or persuading them to adapt, with the subaltern in a passive (even actively oppositional) role. Compare the treatment of immigrants to the US and the UK and you can see a distinct difference between two dominant cultures,one which actively seeks to assimilate new citizens and one which is much less active.

So what is the problem with applying those words with the additional sense, with the power differential on the one hand, and the notion of active agency on the other?

Not admitting of this bipartate aspect to the process of assimilation, seems blithely ignorant of the dominant culture as active player and the political and ethical fallout. It closes off questions about the ethics of, for example, governmental assimilationism as evident in political policies such as "citizenship classes", by excluding this from the process of assimilation. This is undesireable, to mymind, but this is what we do if we reduce assimilation to a simplistic inversion of appropriation, the same act only carried out by the marginal rather than the dominant. Ascribing an intrinsic power differential to acts of appropriation, meanwhile, only obscures the specific act -- the "taking possession" -- and its questionable ethical nature -- its "illegitimacy" -- behind wider isues of political inequity which are arguably more important but more nebulous. That is to say, we're no longer tackling a discrete, rigidly-defined act; we're tackling only one type of that act. In doing so, the focus shifts from the illegitimacy of that act as an act to the inequity of the system in which that act is a mechanism of subordination. At worst we risk conflating the illegitimacy of the act with the inequity of the system to the extent that we can no longer distinguish the two.

To give an analogy, in Northern Ireland you have a dominant Protestant culture and a marginalised Catholic culture, a state of political inequity which has had centuries to become systematised. Factions within both of these communities have spent decades engaged in sectarian violence, and understanding the reason for the violence requires understanding the system. But the power differential between the two cultures does not change the underlying nature of these acts as acts-of-sectarian-violence and it does not change their illegitimacy as illegal and immoral activity. Whether carried out by the UVF or the IRA, a car-bombing is still a car-bombing and a knee-capping is still a knee-capping, contrary to law and contrary to mores. To limit our definition of sectarian violence to acts carried out by members of the dominant culture, and focus on the way those particular acts of sectarian violence feed from and into the system of political inequity, to see them as a means to an end, only serves to obscure the deeper issue of the sectarian violence as an end in its own right. Understanding the reason for the sectarian violence requires, I think, a recognition of common factors on both sides, recognition of the criminal activities that have sustained both organisations, the role of drug trafficking and theft, testosterone and hatred. Redefining sectarian violence on the basis of the power differential, such that it only applies to the acts of members of one culture, is perilously open to abuse. This is how you end up with one man's terrorist being another man's freedom fighter, one man's death squad being another man's civilian militia, with the terminology merely mimicking the speaker's own prejudices.

This is, I think, the risk we run if we insist that cultural appropriation is only carried out by dominant cultures on marginal ones. A precise, objective and useful term which describes a specific act, applied selectively and subjectively loses its meaning and becomes simply a rhetorical marker of one's own political views.

I understand that the importance of that political inequity makes it necessary to focus on the effect of the power differential in acts of appropriation and on the options for action on the part of the marginal parties in processes of assimilation, but investing these terms with specialised political meanings so as to predefine the value-judgement of the situation in the vocabulary itself is unhelpful where it creates blind spots with regard to appropriation and assimilation as acts and processes in their own right. Worse still, it is counterproductive because the terms cannot be divorced from their core meaning. The specialised socio-political meaning does not replace the basic denotation. Indeed, it co-opts that meaning to rhetorical ends.

Assimilation is a value-neutral term; it can be seen as either an active or passive process (to assimilate or to be assimilated), and the legitimacy of this process is a matter of individual judgement, with advocates and opponents in both dominant and marginal cultures able to meaningfully argue that "assimilation is good" or that "assimilation is bad". For that reason it is an artificial and prejudicial dichotomy to contrast assimilation with appropriation, which is a value-negative term, gaining this negativity from its specific meaning, from the idea of taking possession without a legitimate right. This frames the debate in terms that implicitly prejudge acts according to context, short-circuiting any critique of motives and effects for the convenience of an easy answer. The dominant culture appropriates, which is, by definition, bad. The marginal culture assimilates, which is not, by definition, bad. Thus the dichotomy becomes a rhetorical device, the specialised socio-political meaning becoming a carrier for the implicit value-judgement in the basic denotation.

Again this strikes me as an attempt to assert a compensatory privilege. Fundamentally we are defining these terms such that members of a dominant culture are denied the right to adopt the aesthetic forms of a marginal culture (because this can only be condemned as appropriation, never considered as assimilation) while members of a marginal culture are privileged with the right to adopt the aesthetic forms of a dominant culture (because this can only be considered as assimilation, never condemned as appropriation).

And again I think this is harmful to the very agenda of those of us who consider political inequity a very real problem. It manifests a double standard in which one culture is not entitled to co-opt the product of another but not granted the same exclusive communal ownership rights with respect to its own products. That the acts of co-opting cultural products often have different motives and radically different effects due to the power differential is irrelevant (which is not say that it's unimportant, only that it does not validate this double standard). The double standard is applied at the base level of entitlement, of ownership, in the value-negative term appropriation and the illegitimacy it signifies. There is nothing that makes the right of a dominant culture to ownership of its artefacts any less legitimate than the corresponding right of a marginalised culture. There is nothing that makes the right of a marginalised culture to ownership of its artefacts any more legitimate than the corresponding right of a dominant culture. At this base level, to apply the term cultural appropriation in one instance and not the other is an assertion of privilege, a reification of inequity.

That inequity is trivial to the point of ridicule in comparison to the political inequity that engenders it as compensatory privilege, but it is a significant obstacle if one is trying to persuade a member of the dominant culture that their attitude to a marginalised culture is a problem. The moment that double standard surfaces, the moment that privilege is invoked, the argument is lost and you -- or I -- have failed. You -- or I -- have, in the very terms in which we frame the debate, excluded that person, disenfranchised them. It is a negligable disenfranchisement but you can all but guarantee that the implicit characterisation of the dominant culture as appropriating will be taken personally by someone who identifies themself as a member of that culture, and that the effect will be an alienating sense of demonisation. This sense should be familiar to anyone who is a member of a marginalised culture.

They should also be familiar with the use of euphemistic formality to mask demonisation. Appropriation, taking possession of something which you do not have a legitimate right to, is to all intents and purposes theft. To characterise someone's culture as thieving on the basis of a peculiar combination of ethnicity, gender, sexuality which marks them out as privileged is not helpful. To say that you or I can do X, and that's OK, but because of that combination of markers if they do X then that makes them a thief is only going to instill animosity and suspicion. And make no mistake, this is the undercurrent expressed by a selective application of the term appropriation.

Why should we not apply that double standard? Doesn't all that political inequity validate an assertion of compensatory privilege, as a preventative measure against present and future political inequity?

I would argue that any assertion of privilege is a tacit assertion of privilege as a state, all and any privilige, including that of the dominant culture. It is, on principle, wrong. It also, however, pragmatically wrong because of the direct effect it has.

With luck that animosity and suspicion in response to the double standard will only be directed at the individual asserting this compensatory privilege. Repetition of that assertion from numerous individuals will, however, lead to that animosity and suspicion being directed at those individuals as a type. This, I would suggest, is not a desireable outcome. As a liberal commie pinko fag, I have no wish to see those potential liberal commie pinkos who happen to not be fags turn into reactionary nazi flagwaving bigots because one too many liberal commie pinkos validated the opinion of their mate, brother, father, uncle or favourite talking toad, who's spent the last few years frothing on about how "all these queers and niggers and feminazis want more rights than the rest of us". Listen to the bigots and you'll find that this is a central refrain, the idea that the marginalised are attempting to institute privileges as "rights" and deny these same "rights" to the poor old white straight male.

Insisting that cultural appropriation is only a valid term when applied to the actions of a dominant culture is as bogus, to my mind, as insisting that marriage is only a valid term when applied to the wedding of a heterosexual couple. If we recognise illegitimacy or legitimacy in one instance, we need to recognise it in the other. A refusal to recognise specific, clearly-defined actions as equivalent, explicated in the refusal to refer to them by the same term, to say indeed that the term cannot be applied in certain instances because, by definition, the term only applies to these people and not those people, smacks of a political twisting of language in order to assert a privilege or deny a right. So we simultaneously validate their system of privilege, the rhetoric / logic which outlaws gay marriage, and validate also their prejudicial view of us as factionalist idealogues bent on priviliging ourselves at their expense.

This selective application of the term appropriation assumes moreover that the only power differential an act of appropriation can take place in is [dominant : marginalised]. What if the cultural artefact of a marginalised culture is co-opted by a member of another marginalised culture? If a Jewish woman hangs a dreamcatcher above her bed, and a First Nation woman puts a minorah in her window in December, are these acts of appropriation, assimilation or both? What if the cultural artefact is appropriated from a dominant culture by a member of another dominant culture? The idea that the modern, post-colonial White European culture of "the West" is dominant while the modern, post-colonial Asian culture of "the East" is economically and culturally marginalised strikes me as a bit patronising and paternalistic. If a Chinese student plays garage rock, to what extent are we demeaning the vast heritage and influence of Chinese culture by not labelling this an act of cultural appropriation, by insisting that his status as a member of a "marginalised culture" renders this assimilation?

Thinking of cultural appropriation in these narrow terms seems to me to be a peculiarly Anglo-American trait with a perspective limited to the historical blip of Anglo-American dominance, of British and American imperialism. In the coming century I think this Western/European notion of our cultural dominance will come to look increasingly outdated. At a push I would agree that globalisation having been driven by capitalism has favoured the English language and the European/American cultural product, and that Western culture is still hanging on to its dominance pretty tightly. But I think a wider perspective looking back at history and forward to the future casts this dominance as a transient phenomenon. To that extent I think it's worthwhile to re-examine our assumptions about cultural appropriation, to challenge the implicit notion that only one power differential is of concern.

Doing so, I think, shifts much of the focus in the argument back to more crucial issues vis-a-vis discrimination and representation, and also allows us to address the underlying question of the illegitimacy of cultural appropriation in a more objective manner. It countermands any specious defences of appropriation when applied to marginal culture that pivot on the double standard, allowing us to point to the precise effects of misrepresentation and discrimination that are resultant from the appropriation, and allows us to challenge the appropriation on a level of legtimacy that is not hamstrung by an implicit privileging. It does not in any way prevent us from continuing to deconstruct the mechanisms of the system in which appropriation, discrimination and representation collaborate to enforce privilege and prejudice. Indeed, it allows for greater clarity, a more analytic approach in which those elements and their relationships to each other are better elucidated.

It also, in my opinion, opens up the issue of appropriation in a way that allows us to examine the conflicting ethics which construct the sense of illegitimacy at its heart.

"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.

I would probably agree with the argument that the Primitivists displaying African masks reinforced such stereotypes about African societies. I don't think that contradicts the problem I see, as explicated above, with regards to fetishisation. Again, note that in a terminology which distinguishes appropriation from representation we are, I would argue, better able to point to the specific nature of the problem -- that this Primitivist art, it can be argued, generates a fetishised image of African societies, reinforces prejudice and contrbutes to the harm it causes. We are also framing the debate in which the artist can argue against the relevant charge. The Primitivist might argue that the masks do not represent irrationality, that the aesthetic appeal of them lies in the ordered, stylised, abstracted quality, which is in fact quite Modern. They might point to similar aesthetics in Futurism, Cubism and other such Western/European art movements, say that their intent is to present African art and by extension African societies as equally cultured, equally sophisticated, equally valid -- to in essence reshape Western/European notions of art so as to break down prejudice. They might argue that a reading of this art as "primal and irrational" indicates that prejudice being brought to the work on a part of the viewer, a failure to grasp the representation offered. I don't think this argument holds water, I would stress. The very name "Primitivist" indicates that this art is a product of and contributor to the demonisation and fetishisation of African societies as "primitive", with all that this entails. In thrashing out the practicalities of multiple contradictory meanings, how they are constructed, how they can be deconstructed, their effects upon the culture at large, however, this debate offers progress. It may lead to a reconstruction of the artists belief-system, a dismantling of their assumptions, and an active participation in the struggle against prejudice.

This is because these aesthetic and ethical arguments grounded in specifics of meaning are comprehensible and compelling. To not misrepresent, to not deceive one's self or others, to find and express truths which are not generally expressed -- all of these are profound imperatives within the ethos of art. There will be those artists who reject them but few, I think, would not recognise them as part of the discourse. The problem, when the debate is fixated upon a vague notion of the illegitimacy of cultural appropriation in and of itself is that this ethical proposition is often in direct conflict with other ethical propositions within the discourse of art. This is to say that Art has an ethical imperative to adopt and integrate new aesthetic forms in order to complexify itself and increase its communicative capacity. This is in direct conflict with the exclusion legitimised by the idea of cultural appropriation.

My contention is not that Art is outside of discourse and history, disregarding the concept of cultural appropriation entirely because it treats this conflicting imperative as a sort of Get Out Of Jail Free card it can play over and over again. And I'm certainly not saying that Art has no responsibility whatsoever to examine the multiplicity of its own potential readings for ethical and political ramifications, to check that its representations are not heinous misrepresentations. I'd say it sometimes forgets that responsibility, and that the Primitivists could well be seen as a case in point, but I wouldn't celebrate those failures and I wouldn't say it has no sense of that responsibility at all. What I'm saying is that this responsibility, this imperative, is distinct from the proscription at the heart of the notion of cultural appropiation.

Art does not recognise the legitimacy of communal ownership of cultural products. This is not to say that artists don't recognise that legitimacy or, at the very least, understand it as a restriction placed on them as members of society. Rather I'm treating Art as a personified entity in order to, in some respects, characterise it as a discourse, one which interacts with the other discourses from which society and history are constructed, one which has its own ethos in contrast to the ethics and mores embedded in other discourses like Religion or Politics. In the individual artist the ethics of Politics may over-rule the ethics of Art, such that, for example, a fetishistic representation which is aesthetically desireable -- beautiful, striking, resonant -- would be evaluated before, during and/or after the process of production and rejected as politically unethical. So the would-be Primitivist might, on their own or in response to argument, re-evaluate the political import of their intended work and revise their practices accordingly. By the same token, but by a different thought process entirely, the ethics of Religion might over-rule the ethics of Art to prevent an artist from breaching the boundary of exclusion with an act of appropriation. So the would-be copyist of Aboriginal Australian sand-paintings might, on their own or in response to argument, re-evaluate the basic legitimacy of their use of this aesthetic form.

The most incendiary examples of cultural appropriation highlight the extent to which Religion, more than Politics, provides the ethos which insists that communal ownership of cultural products denies outsiders the right to utilise those products. In these examples it is the sacred nature of the product, the limitation of its use to within specific rituals and/or amongst initiated participants, bona fide members of the tribe, that renders the act of appropriation a breaking of taboo. The act of appropriation desanctifies the cultural product. Its usage becomes profane, a deeply transgressive act.

I, as an artist, recognise this. Art, as a discourse, is in direct opposition to it. Art having created those cultural products in the first place, in the service of Religion, is perhaps less prone to the mystification which sanctifies them. Individual artists may be utterly devout in their acceptance of that sanctity but this is not an absence of the imperative to adopt and adapt new forms. That imperative being, at root, an imperative to learn, to learn from others, from experience, from the world around, can never be absent or you simply do not have an artist at all. That imperative is necessary to the acquisition of artistic capabilities.

I would, however, point to another aspect of the ethos of Art, an imperative to enthuse. I choose this word "enthuse" carefully, because in its derivation from the Greek enthusiasm means, literally, "having the god within". Art, in so far as it aims for an affect of enthusiasm, is deeply sympathetic to the state of rapture which is integral to Religion. No matter how deeply it is secular and transgressive, abstract and intellectual, its ethical imperative towards affecting the viewer requires a recognition that such affective responses are valuable. Since Religion also aims for such affective responses, Art's opposition to the boundaries of sanctity is complexified by a recognition of mutual aims. There are two ways this might play out -- with Art entering into opposition with Religion, or with Art entering into collaboration with Religion. Art and Religion have had a schizoid love/hate relationship for a long time now, alternately (or simultaneously) playing pet and patron, rebel and tyrant. It seems to me that much of this is to do the territory they share, the cultural function they often compete to perform for us.

In the post which kicked this off, I used a recurring refrain: "Dionysus knows no nations". This is not at all the same thing as "Dionysus knows no gods". Art may not accept the territorial/tribal privilege wherein cultural products are to be considered communal property, not open to use by non-members. But it may well accept the cultic privilege wherein sacred artefacts are to be considered cultic property, not open to use outside their correct context, or by an ineligible participant.

But the more important thing here is not the turbulent relationship between Art and Religion but that this brings us right to the core of the issue. In the distinction between the religious ethos where sacred objects are limited in terms of legitimacy of use, cultural appropriation pivots on an ethos where all cultural products of a culture are limited in terms of legitimacy of use. In this transition from cultic to cultural artefacts, from limitation on the basis of initiation to limitation on the basis of de facto membership, we can mark exactly the point, I think, where Art ceases to accept an ethical imperative it considers anathema to its own aims, which it considers -- in direct conflict as it is with one of Art's own core values -- unethical.

This ethos seems to be constructed out of a union of Religion and Politics. It is a translation of a religious ethos into a wider political sphere, a fusion of the discourses of broader religion and politics into the broader domain of Society. It would be incorrect to call this domain Culture, I would suggest, for the very reason that this conflict of ethics between Society and Art is, in large part, a conflict of definitions of culture itself. To Society, focused on socio-political and religious institutions and alliances, culture is inherently factionalised. It is always a matter of this culture, that culture, dominant cultures, marginal cultures, subcultures. To Art, focused on aesthetic practices and products, culture is inherently unified by the shared nature of the media. It is always a matter of domains rather than communities, not this culture or that, but rather this domain or that one -- music, painting, sculpture, literature, dance, and so on.

It might be argued that this dichotomy is a relatively late development of Western/European culture, that Art in this sense does not exist until it separates itself out from Religion and Craft, becoming a distinct discourse with its own ethos only in the context of post-renaissance capitalism where it becomes valuable in and of itself. As a young and localised ethic born with a silver spoon in its mouth, perhaps its concept of culture is not to be taken seriously. One might argue the case for a counter-ethos where the imperative is focused on transmission rather than development, where the drive to expand the communicative capacities of art is replaced by a drive to faithfully replicate the traditional form of the cultural product exactly as taught. I'm by no means assuming a homogeniety within Art, that it cannot itself be broken down into different, often contradictory, sets of ethics and aesthetics. But I'd say that the diffusion of techniques and aesthetic forms which is self-evident in the archaelogical record indicates that we have to view (a young, localised) Art as inheriting this ethos from Craft or see (an old, widespread) Art as a discourse within Craft in which this ethos is articulated from the Neolithic on. Either way, I think it is fair to point to this particular ethos as a deep structure within the interwoven threads of conflicting ideology, one that is made more evident by the individuation of Art from Religion and Craft rather than coming into existence at that time.

One might, in fact, argue that it is the discourse of Society that has developed this ethos as a relatively recent and localised innovation, that it is historically absent from Religion -- which has been accepting of cultural appropriations from the Sumerian Flood myth up to the Celtic deities and beyond -- absent from Politics -- which has been accepting of cultural appropriations from the Law Code of Hammurabi up to the Declaration of Arbroath and beyond -- and absent from Craft, Trade, Industry, Imperialism and pretty much every other discourse which has contributed to the construction of the present-day, Western/European discourse of Society.

The idea that a culture has exclusive communal property rights over its cultural products, that a member of another culture has no legitimate right to use these products, is a negotiated surrender of Society's imperialist ethos of tribal pillage, tribute, trade and territorial warfare. Society in its tribalism has historically worked on the ethos that "our" society is perfectly entitled to take possession of anything that "their" society had, but that this entitlement is not reciproal. The truce in which this negation of entitlement is made general between all societies, in which this imperialist claim is rejected as always-illegitimate, comes out of an attempt to instill an ethos which was not previously present.

Accepting the discourse of Society on its own terms this seems entirely reasonable. It offers up perfectly valid grounds for arguing that a society has a right to maintain its control, its isolation, as this is a means towards maintaining its distinct identity. As markers of difference, cultural products are the tokens by which a society defines itself as apart from other societies, as a tribe. In an increasingly globalised world where geographical and linguistic isolation are already eroded and eroding further, cultural isolation may become the only mechanism (or at least the primary mechanism) for maintaining a society's tribal-level identity. One logical follow-through of this, I think, is that to argue against cultural appropriation on this basis, requires a complementary opposition to assimilation since adopting the cultural identifiers of a dominant society, whether actively or passively, can only lead to a weakening of the cultural isolation of the marginalised society. It may indeed even lead to a hard-line isolationist position in which even cultural exchange is opposed.

Accepting the discourse of Art on its own terms, however, this tribal-level identity may well be seen as of vastly lesser importance than either individual autonomy or Culture as a set of domains rather than communities. Taking individual autonomy as a priority brings us back to the questions raised in reference to representations as property. If an individual rejects the authority of their culture-as-community, rejects its ethos of cultural isolation, how legitimate is it for that culture-as-community to assert its control on their behalf? Are we tacitly abrogating individual autonomy to a (perhaps unjust, hierarchised, and stratified by privilege) society by accepting the legitimacy of the claim implicit in the idea of cultural appropriation? Taking Culture as a priority raises other questions. Does this cultural isolation serve the interests of the domains? Is it good for music, painting, sculpture, literature, dance, drama, etc.? Or does it limit the communicative capacity of art forms bound to their own factional source culture? Does it, in essence, place unwanted and unwarranted limitations on creativity?

Art, I think, has its own answers to these questions, and those answers voice a deep-seated opposition to cultural isolation. Dionysus knows no nations.

This is, it is important to stress, an ethical stance. Whether one thinks it's right or wrong, whether one agrees or disagrees, the crucial point is that the deep conflict here is not between an automatically legitimate opposition to appropriation and a callous disregard, an excuse for exploitation, but on the question of how important tribal identity is in and of itself. Being an artist and a member of society I consider it pretty damn crucial to be cognizant of both sets of ethics, but I'd have to say my sympathies lie with the individualist/internationalist ethos of Art rather than the tribal ethos of Society. At the same time they're not incompatible. Where we're talking about cultic artefacts, where the right to exclusivity is founded, I would argue, on a legitimate religious concern, I think this has to be respected. So the appropriation of voudon rituals, sand-paintings and such-like is unethical. Works which have definable ownership within a community with an informal but clearly accepted equivalent of copyright (i.e. an explicit moral injuction against reproduction without permission), like any intellectual property deserved to be treated in accordance with that informal law. So to simply replicate a form -- a song, a story, whatever -- without consent, remuneration and/or accreditation as required is unethical. And, of course, the acquisition of actual physical objects throughout history, by means of theft or swindling, or on the basis of an understanding that the acquirer then reneged on -- which includes a lot of museum contents around the world, I would imagine -- is without a doubt, unethical. It is only when the specificity of these types of appropriation is surrendered in favour of a de facto blanket ban, an assertion that the right to use applies to the most abstract aesthetic forms and is granted only to members of the community -- it is only then that I find myself questioning the validity of this position.

In essence, what I'm saying is that the public domain is not and should not be factionalised by tribal identity. We do need to recognise and respect that the public domain is not defined perfectly by law, that cultural mores may also explicitly exclude works from the public domain in a way that is not covered by law. But I don't think an artificial and automatic splintering of the public domain along cultural boundaries is beneficial to anyone.

Thing is, in the argument between Art and Society over how important tribal identity is in and of itself, I think there also emerges a more practical and pressing question as to how important tribal identity is as a means to an end, as a mechanism in the construction and/or combating of systems of prejudice. My opinion here is that tribal identity is more important in the construction of prejudice than it is helpful in combating it. I think the ethos of cultural isolation is not just limiting of individual autonomy and harmful to culture as a set of domains, but in effect a deeply divisive force of factionalism which lays the foundations of prejudice and privilege. So, leaving aside the type of breaches of private domain outlined above -- the acts of sacrilege, plagiarism, looting and swindling -- I see appropriation in its vague sense as not intrinsically pernicous but rather as insidious (and deeply so, I stress) only if-and-when it becomes a component of the system of prejudice, most notably when it functions with misrepresentation in, for example, a fetishistic feedback loop.

To me, that's cultural appropriation made meaningful, made specific, in a way that can be pointed to and tackled, rather than argued in circles with shifting definitions and implicit privileges. I look at the cultural appropriation debate where it's not nailed down by that type of stubborn scrutiny and it seems full of sound and fury, signifying everything and anything. Appropriation and representation are the same thing. Assimilation is just the flip side of appropriation. So it's all just one big fuzzy notion of a bad system, a bad system that we can communicate little of meaning about other than that it's bad.

As discourses go, I think the cultural appropriation debate needs a kick up the arse.

10 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good gravy, Hal, that's a fookin' novel.

And as usual, you've said everything I was thinking, except yanno, coherently.

--ebear

3:42 pm  
Blogger zornhau said...

Interesting.

As a Once-Was-A-Historian, I'd add that ideas of cultural purity are absurd anyway. Most cultures are wildly syncretic, in part through military and economic necessity, but mostly because they're composed of individuals.

And, it's where you get down to individuals that your argument strikes the strongest chord with me. Who are we to tell the Thai teenager to put away his electric guitar (manufactured down the road in Hongkong anyway)?

But, by what yardstick do we measure the value of a culture, anyway? We've spent a painful 500 years bashing away at the oppression our own homophobic, patriachal, authoritarian, superstitious culture.

Why should we respect bizarre beliefs and oppressive, outmoded social traditions?

4:43 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Al: I haven't dived into this one yet, but I sat drinking a cup of coffee at the bookstore tonight, reading your essay on Death and Ressurection in Realms of Fantasy. Crazy cool!!!!

jeff ford

1:53 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Hey Jeff. Cheers! Just read yer story on the journal, btw (http://14theditch.livejournal.com/64545.html, for anyone who hasn't read it). I may well do a blathering rant on stories like that and "Botchtown" as sorta... "blue-collar Bradbury with bells". :)

Hi Zornhau: The tricky thing about that last question is, to be fair, that it can be used as justification for an active-assimilationist stance on the part of the dominant culture -- the classic "they ought to make an effort to fit in" argument, for which you can often read "we are entitled to require them to fit in". As an example you have the French attitude to religious garments / symbols worn in school. I've hardly touched on the assimilation debate from that angle, and could easily spend another 8000 words trying to think it through. Why should "they" respect "sensible" beliefs and "liberal, progressive" social traditions? Are we buying into the factionalism by even thinking in those terms? Should the real question be stripped of the indefinite article, maybe, so as to not be measuring factions of culture against each other? i.e.:

By what yardstick do we measure the value of culture, anyway?

I think there's some questions here that I haven't yet found the right phrasing for.

2:32 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Oh, yes. Bear: 8000 words. It's only a novellete. :)

2:33 pm  
Anonymous Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

I was saying "Amen" to most of this. But this bothers me:

Where we're talking about cultic artefacts, where the right to exclusivity is founded, I would argue, on a legitimate religious concern, I think this has to be respected. So the appropriation of voudon rituals, sand-paintings and such-like is unethical.

In trying to distinguish between the cultic and the merely tribal or social, it seems like you're engaging in the kind of blurring you oppose above.

I'm thinking of Russian Orthodox anger at the Madonna show where she ends up on the cross, or Jesse Helm's at Mapplethorpe's "Piss Christ". Can you muster the same indignation at these as at dreamcatchers and sand paintings?

I'm reckoning you can't? Yet as *representations*, let's assume that the dreamcatchers and sand paintings are faithful, careful, loving reproductions, or artistically legitimate extensions, non-fetishizing, non-demonizing and non-infantilizing.
So it's clearly not the representation that bothers us, right?

But doesn't this run counter to the argument you make above, that appropriation must be considered as an act legitimate or illegitimate in itself? If the argument "it's okay for non-Europeans to appropriate the novel, because they're disenfranchised, but it's not okay for white Americans to appropriate hip-hop, because they're dominant" is illegitimate because there are no such "communal rights" to be arbitrated, what's the difference between a sand painting and a cross?

Your argument that there are no communal rights to image owned by a group of subalterns (or anybody) is coherent. But I don't really follow the distinction you're making between religious and "merely cultural" artifacts.
(Maybe because I'm from a tradition that's a bit conflicted about whether it's a religion or a culture).

4:40 pm  
Anonymous Matt Doyle said...

Goodness Hal...brevity is not one of your virtues, is it? Anyhoo...I find myself agreeing with some of your argument, but then I tend to think of art in terms of history and society, which seems to run against what you're trying to say, if I understood it correctly.

I'm an Anglo-Italic Australian and I recently recieved an award for a short story i wrote which perhaps "appropriated" Aboriginal culutre...essentially, I had an Aboriginal character who led a non-Aboriginal character into the "Dreamtime."

The Dreamtime, as I imagined it, was very different to traditional Aboriginal accounts of it, but then even within the tradition, the accounts vary.

I live in an area of Australia where many of my friends, neighbours and colleagues are Aboriginals and I have a fairly good grasp of their culture (much better that you're average Australian, if I may say so) and I think I am more than qualified to "appropriate" even though I don't like that term...one of my Aboriginal friends loved the story and saw no problem with it...this was a blessing for me, since I was very anxious about it not being appropriate.

But, because I am a fantasist, and the story in question was a fantasy, anything goes, doesn't it? Isn't that what this genre is about? I've never liked labelling fantasy a genre actually, because by the very act of doing so, we limit it with all the connotations that go with the term genre, but that is getting a bit off the point.

My point, if I have one, is that, done with enough knowledge and understanding (without ignorance) appropriation AND representation are tools that the writer can use to great effect.

Besides, don't all writers appropriate anyway?...we appropriate language to our own ends and use (and sometimes abuse) it much more frequently than we do other cultures.

3:59 am  
Blogger zornhau said...

There isn't an objective yardstick, or a place to stand to measure other cultures. There's just a meme pitfight in which we must fight our corner, which is no more priviledged than any other.

Why, e.g., show any respect for a homophobic culture?

12:11 am  
Anonymous Matt said...

^^Indeed...why show respect for ANY culture? What's so great about cultures? Are cultures so fragile and pathetic that they can't defend themselves? I'd say no...cultures are pretty tough bastards, and they last a helluva long time, usually change, but retain their vitality.

7:15 am  
Blogger zornhau said...

Exactly! It's not a zero sum game.

If I borrow bits of your quaint culture, I'm not taking things away from you.

If my fiction angers your gods, let them put up or shut up.

11:53 am  

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