Notes from New Sodom

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

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Sacred Domain

In my last post on cultural appropriation, I said:

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.

Ben Rosenbaum replied:

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).

It's a good point. I wasn't sure how far I wanted to go into this part of the debate because I think sacrilege is something of a separate issue here which complexifies things greatly, so I probably gave the Art and Religion relationship short shrift. But maybe I can open up this contradiction in a way that makes sense.

So, in answer to the question of whether there's a contradiction here:

Yes, and worse: one of my other examples is, in fact, even more fuzzy round the edges. In order to explain what I mean with regard to religion, I think I need to deal with that first to set the foundation. So...

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 deserve 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.

Doesn't this also set up a contradiction, by recognising exactly the sort of communal ownership I'm rejecting? Isn't this just reintroducing cultural appropriation by the back door?

Not, I think, if it's definable ownership, explicitly limited by at least informal law. Hereditable, transferable and joint ownership is not utterly anathema to Art; it's just that Art doesn't accept it as a de facto state, I think. It doesn't accept that, say, my friends and family members are entitled to -- as a "community" -- lay claim to Vellum and exclude others from using it. Or rather it does within a very limited definition of the community (with the inheritance of copyright by a recognisable estate) and with limitations of duration (70 years). And Art, as a discourse, doesn't necessarily "agree with itself", I would say, on whether the legalities and moralities are in synch.

Without getting sidelined into the conflict of legality and morality -- or to allow myself to be sidelined for as briefly as possible -- the point is that I think there is some recognition within the ethos of Art that cultural products can have a community of owners /caretakers who reserve controlling rights on them as intellectual property. Existing copyright legislation has negotiated a tenuous and often argued over compromise where we don't have works held in the private domain to the umpteenth generation, but where the estate is not completely denied their inheritance. Morally speaking, even beyond these legal restrictions, if we can recognise a distinct community of owners / caretakers at all, we'll often feel that there's a strong sense of obligations-required-for-reproduction which goes along with that recognition. So if you visit the Appalachians, say, and learn traditional bluegrass tunes from musicians there, even if those traditional compositions are themselves not legally copyrighted or even copyrightable, even if your own arrangement of them is entirely original (because I'm not talking about sampling or plagiarism here, or other such tangential issues of individual copyright), that sense of obligation will, one would hope, still kick in.

To what extent consent, recompense and/or accreditation are morally obligatory would not, I think, be hard to ascertain by asking those musicians a few simple questions. If they are to be your teacher, it's only good form to find out if they're happy in that role, if they would like something in return. Largely, even across the boundaries of factionalised culture, the default moral seems to be based on an idea of paying tribute -- an explicit gratitude to sources and influences -- and of paying dues -- proving your own skill and/or commitment. Largely, it seems to me, there's an informal open-door policy in such communities whereby you don't have to be officially permitted entry; you just have to pay sufficient tribute and dues until you're recognised as "one of us", even if only on an honorary level. Hell, in many cases just doing a good enough job with your own version may be enough to earn the respect that equals informal membership. (Which is why Eminem, for example, is not condemned-on-principle as a white American appropriating rap by all of his black peers; for the most part, it seems, he's considered to have paid his dues, paid tribute to his influences, and proven his own skill.) But I don't rule out the validity of more stringent traditions where they are established as such. If a strong master/apprentice tradition exists, for example, where you're expected to gain a master's consent to teach you, and to "recompense" them with a period of submission to their teachings, if that's what "paying your dues" entails, then disrespecting those mores is disrespecting those sources / influences / teachers by refusing to pay the expected entry fee.

You can, of course, believe that the price is too high, disproportionate to the actual creative debt, but in terms of the ethos of Art as I would characterise it both parties do have valid cases. I do think Art is inherently uncomfortable with measures over-and-above the "tribute-and-dues" default (because that conflicts with the learn-and-develop imperative to the expense of the learner), but I think it is probably equally uncomfortable with disregard for the "tribute-and-dues" obligation (because that devalues the creative process to the expense of the teacher). My case is really not to deny that cultural appropriation in this sense exists, or to say that the whole concept is illegitimate; it's more to argue two points:

1. Where cultures are defined at a level transcending these specific, recogniseable (sub)communities of owners / caretakers, there is no legitimate claim of "copyright", even at the most informal level. Assume it's 100 years after my death and any inherited copyright has long since lapsed. Being a Duncan, or being gay, or being Scottish, or being white, or male, or whatever, does not grant you any more moral rights as regards my work than it grants to anyone else on the planet.

2. Where there are specific, recogniseable (sub)communities that function as communal owners / caretakers of cultural products and aesthetic forms, unless use of those products and forms is expressly limited to members of the community, with membership restricted by criteria clearly explicated in the mores of the community, the default requirements are simply to pay tribute and to pay dues. Assume all the current members of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle name the group itself as literary executor and, although it's 100 years after all our deaths, a new generation of GSFWC members have developed a shared-world based on all our works. Unless the GSFWC has developed over that period a stringent set of traditions as to who gets to write in this shared-world, not being a member of the GSFWC does not impose any more moral requirements on you -- other than an appropriate level of tribute and dues -- than you would have as a member.

Which brings us, the long way round, to religion. Point 1 is saying that the public domain is not factionalised at that level. Point 2 is saying that we can nevertheless have non-legal but morally-recogniseable communal private domains. In many ways, I would say, religion can be understood as a special case of communal private domain(s). The special purpose of cultural products and aesthetic forms generated by art for religion invests them with such a level of importance to that community that their use is only sanctioned in specific contexts and / or by specific authorised persons. Breaching these criteria is explicitly forbidden to the extent that we have a number of terms for such misuses as moral crimes: profane; blasphemous; sacrilegious. Further, membership of the community is explicitly limited to those who meet stringent criteria of faith and devotion (though of course one can cheat by faking it with lip-service rather than sincere faith and devotion) and often defined hierarchically such that even believers are not accorded the right to use these sanctified cultural products and aesthetic forms, only a higher level of initiates or priests.

It's interesting that you pick Madonna and Mapplethorpe as examples in this context because both are quite specifically dealing with their own cultures, both reacting against the Catholicism they themselves were brought up in. As members of the culture-as-community they cannot be culturally appropriating the image of the cross. Rather the furore over their (mis)use points up exactly the distinction I'm making, where it is not a matter of a factionalised public domain but rather of a distinct sacred domain. Another example which complements this intra-cultural sacrilege, as a case of cross-cultural sacrilege, is that of the Mohammed cartoons. What makes these images interesting here is that the sacrilege lies in the creation of a cultural product, an aesthetic form -- an image of Mohammed -- which is reserved from all use whatsoever. In so far as those images do not and cannot therefore actually exist within the source culture this can hardly be seen as an act of appropriation, but it is, I think, sacrilege in exactly the same way as Madonna's or Mapplethorpe's use of the cross.

Where you would have a true case of cultural appropriation -- if Madonna used an Islamic call-to-prayer in a song, or Mapplethorpe photographed a man with "Allah" written in Arabic on his back, and a bullwhip up his arse, or an Islamic artist created a "Shit Nativity" -- the non-member status of the artist may well be far less incendiary than the sacrilege involved simply in using a cutural product or aesthetic form which is not in the public domain (factionalised or otherwise) but explicitly reserved to the sacred domain. So the furore in the culture-at-large (i.e. believers who may well have no more right-of-use over those icons than) over such misuses, I think, is less about a sense of outsiders raiding the village and more about anyone raiding the temple.

To some degree, I respect that sense of sacred domain. While I tend to defend balls-out, full-on sacrilege in anti-religious art which has something to say and the skill to say it well, I dislike much of the cheap and easy sacrilege you see in the New Age movement or pop culture, where the result is devoid of value either as religion or as art. If you're going to do sacrilege it shouldn't be for trivial self-gratification or shallow sensationalism. But whether I personally condone the transgression or condemn it (and these judgements are entirely subjective, so I can easily understand other apostates like myself condemning Madonna or Mapplethorpe on the same basis I condone them), I can at least recognise the boundaries that are being transgressed.

In contrast to the fuzzy idea of communal property rights residing in a culture-as-community, here you have a very much definable ownership with very much explicit limitations, limitations laid out in laws that are not just informal but as formal as they come without being legally sanctioned by the state. Indeed, ownership, limitations and laws are institutionalised, codified in a way that few sub-communities of owners / caretakers could ever dream of. Often they are legally sanctioned by the state. When it comes to using these sacred cultural products and aesthetic forms in a profane context then, it can be assumed that consent is denied and no amount of recompense and accreditation will be considered sufficient. I think it would be disingenuous of me to deny the crystal-clear, open-and-unswerving, moral claims of these communities and I don't think Art is any more disingenuous about this than me.

Still, you're right. My own views on the legitimacy of these claims have been pretty thoroughly explicated elsewhere (not least in the Great Religious Debate we had a few months back). I'm an unrepentantly profane, blasphemous and sacrilegious apostate-cum-heretic, and while my own roots are Protestant, I don't restrain myself to that culture if I'm of a mood to kick against the pricks (I can just hear the wry voice from the back now: "Fuck, do you even know the meaning of the word restrain?"). So how do I reconcile that with a respect for the sacred domain? How do I justify any sort of misuse of sacred cultural products and aesthetic forms, whether it be cross-cultural or intra-cultural, appropriative or not, if I accept the very idea of a sacred domain? Why would I not be indignant at something like Mapplethorpe's "Piss Christ"?

The way I see it, it's not so much whether I'm indignant or not that matters here, whether I personally respect or disrespect those moral claims. It's whether the indignance of the devout is valid in the ethos I'm ascribing to Art, whether Art itself accepts the sacrosanct status of religious symbols, whether Art respects or disrespects those claims. My own view on it is idiosyncratic, even schizoid to some extent, and is based partly, anyway, on (what I see as) Art's ethos -- which is far more interesting in its complexity than mine.

As I said in the previous post I think Art and Religion have a love/hate relationship. For me it all hinges on that shared sense of purpose in inducing "enthusiasm". In the segregating out of these cultural products and aesthetic forms -- not even as worthy of reverence in and of themselves but as objects sacred for their capacity to induce reverence -- in establishing this sacred domain, religion is acknowledging the importance of art to human life. Literature is important, we are being told. Painting is important. Sculpture and drama, music and dance -- all of these things are important. They're not just important, in fact; they can be sacred, the most important you can get, to all intents and purposes.

Art, of course, already knows this. Art wouldn't be Art if it didn't think these things were important. Art, in fact, is divided as to whether this whole "sacred" thing Religion has going isn't, perhaps, Religion recognising the supreme importance of Art itself, simply misnaming it, misunderstanding it. Art, no stranger to schizophrenia, hallucinogenics, obsessive compulsions, grandiose delusions and apophenic rapture, knows as much about inspiration as religion. And in its familiarity with the crafts of illusion and affect, it may well think it knows more. Art knows the distinction between actual truth and the sensation of certainty, and it knows how easy it is for that distinction to be lost, how tempting it is to surrender to the glory of a beautiful idea. Art is constantly crossing back-and-forth across the line between harsh critic and true believer.

As true believer, Art can see Religion's sacred domain as a legitimately protective reverence of the true, the profound. Indeed, where Art surrenders to the glory of ideas, it often enters into a deeply symbiotic relationship with Religion, with Religion as a parent or patron whose support and guidance is of immense value, Art as the prodigal and prodigy whose works are all aimed, ultimately, at winning the respect of the power that invests everything it does with meaning. Even in challenging conventions, rebelling against the norms, Art as true believer may be less in opposition to Religion and more simply the cutting edge of it. Every prophet is a prodigy, a poet who can sing the praises of their god better than anyone around. And every prophet is a prodigal, a poet whose song is so strange and new that they must sing it alone in the wilderness until the priests in the temples hear and understand the truth of it.

As harsh critic, however, Art may come to see that sacred domain as an illegitimate protective reverence of the false, the illusory. Where Art refuses to surrender to the glory of ideas, it often becomes a fierce opponent of Religion, seeing Religion as a despot or deceiver whose laws and lies are travesties of the truth, seeing its own role as that of a rebel and a rabble-rouser whose domain has been invaded and usurped by a power that justifies every heinous act of soul-destruction with a sham of sanctity. Every iconoclast is a rebel, a prophet who knows the illegitimacy of the god-king's reign and how that may one day bring it down. Every iconoclast is a rabble-rouser, a prophet handing torches to the mob and leading them to storm the temples, smash the graven images, and burn the throne-room to the ground.

The two are, of course, not mutually exclusive, I think. Art as an iconoclast for one Religion may be a prophet for another. Art as a true believer in an atheistic, nihilist, existentialist metaphysics cannot be other than a harsh critic of theistic, absolutist, essentialist systems. Art's sacrileges are often religious acts. I said before that "Dionysus knows no nations" does not mean "Dionysus knows no gods", but I do think we could say that Dionysus knows a false god when he sees one, and that he will not accept being bound by such a tyrant's lies. Phil Dick, in his visionary madness, understood the metaphor at the heart of The Bacchae, wherein Pentheus, King of Thebes and "King of Tears" (literally, sorrow), imprisons Dionysus and his followers, and is destroyed for it -- though Dick, in his visionary madness, literalised this metaphor into a Gnostic metaphysics where Thebes is our reality seen as a Black Iron Prison and Dionysus the divine redeemer who will liberate us all.

Dick was insane, but as both true believer and harsh critic of his own ideas, I think he hit upon a truth about the relationship between Art and Religion. "Beware if you imprison Dionysus," he said, if I recall correctly, "the god of small, trapped animals." I'm not sure that Art-as-Dionysus is so altruistic in his motivations that he becomes rebel and rabble-rouser whenever his people are bound by Religion-as-Pentheus, that wherever humanity have become these "small, trapped animals" shackled by religious orthodoxy Dionysus will inevitably return to what is fundamentally his domain, and bring the halls of Pentheus crashing down. Or maybe I do have that sort of idealising faith in Art, it's just that I'm also, like Dick, both true believer and harsh critic of my own ideas.

I know that Art can be bought, that he's irresponsible and selfish, a drunkard and a wastrel. Still, there's a part of me that "knows" that because Dionysus lives in the pubs and clubs where the drinking and the dancing takes place, because he of all the gods, all the discourses I'm personifying as gods, is the most devout follower of the Way of the Flesh, the most commited celebrant of feeding and fucking, because he is the god of joy and sorrow, salty as blood and tears and sweat and spunk, because he of all the gods is the most dedicated to the notion that divinity can be experienced, manifested in life, in humanity, in the sensation of enthusiasm, having the god within -- because of all this, eventually, somewhere along the line, the tyranny of any would-be Pentheus will inevitably become a binding force that acts directly on him, leaving him with no choice but to rebel. So, as mad and foolish as I know it is, I'll happily sing and swing for that shameless charlatan because he is, I'm "sure", my kinda guy.

Dionysus suffers no false gods.

I know that's a lie. I know it's self-delusion. It's that knowledge that makes me (at times) cautious about my own acceptance of acts of sacrilege and (at times) cautious about my own acceptance of the notion of sacred domain(s). Where I respect that notion, I know, it's because I'm buying into the idea that the importance of cultural products and aesthetic forms which instill enthusiasm in its most profound sense is so over-riding that such things can and should be valued, prized to an extent that can only be classed as reverence. Where it offends me, I know, it's because I'm buying into an idea that we can still have that level of reverence even if we don't found it on restriction-of-use, even if we don't seal off those cultural products and aesthetic forms within their own special territory of "holiness", their own sacred space, their own special domain, with only the privileged few allowed to use them, in the "correct" place and time, and in the "correct" way.

In trying to reconcile these two conflicting beliefs-cum-delusions, I find myself gravitating towards a synthesis in the notion of a public sacred domain, I think. I don't accept the legitimacy of hierarchised institutions, where their ownership, their limitations and their laws have, I think, resulted in systems of power in which those cultural products and aesthetic forms serve only to legitimise false dogma and unjust discipline. I do accept the idea that certain cultural products and aesthetic forms can be demeaned by being misused for vacuous self-gratification and cheap sensationalism, but I also think they may be used improperly in the service of Religion and used quite properly in the service of Art, where the former is trying to impose power and the latter is trying to invoke enthusiasm in its ancient sense. So I find myself rejecting the legitimacy of many of the appointed guardians of the sacred domain and supporting the incursions of many of the iconoclasts. Further, while I do accept the idea that use of these "sacred" artefacts and art-forms outside the "sacred domain" demeans them, I don't accept that this contextual domain can only be defined in terms of where, when and by who such items should be used, but would argue that legitimate limitations might simply rest on how such items should be used. So while an item in a private communal domain cannot be simultaneously in the public domain, the same is not true of items in the sacred domain; such items could be, I am arguing, revered as "sacred" without that status isolating them from free use.

This depends, admittedly, on a notion of the sacred domain that is at odds with pretty much every institutionalised religion on the planet. It's ironic that the most guarded of those religions themselves were clearly founded on radical reimaginings of the cultural products and aesthetic forms of previous religions, that those which seem to hold most strongly to the separation of the sacred and the public were born in acts of sacrilege. Mohammed was a pop singer who used his lyrics to rewrite the Torah as he thought it ought to be. Jesus was a performance artist whose greatest piece was called "Dead Messiah". Moses was an experimental poet, his most influential work a cut-up and fold-in of Sumer's sacred tales. Each of them rejected the boundaries of where and when and who that rendered them illegitimate users, sacrilegers in the moral orthodoxy of the culture they were revolutionising, because the how, to them, was all that mattered. Each had a new how that they thought so much more true as to make their sacrilege worthwhile. I'd refer someone like Jesse Helms to the origins of Protestantism, to the way in which Wycliffe's translation of the Bible into his native English was abhorred in terms that all but shout "sacrilege!" at us across the centuries: "The jewel of the clergy has become the toy of the laity"; "[T]he pearl of the Gospel is cast forth and trodden under the feet of swine."

I suppose what it comes down to then, for me, is that in contrast to the hypocricy and hierarchy of these religions, which often makes me grin to see some deviant Dionysus tearing pious Pentheus a new one, the very appeal of less institutionalised religions to the New Age, I think, often lies in a perception that in these traditions the sacred is more integrated into domestic life and that they are thus more democratic -- religions of and for the people. When a dreamcatcher, for instance, in the Ojibwa tradition, may be made by a parent -- not a priest but a parent, any parent -- as a charm to protect a sleeping child from nightmares, it does seem like there is little distinction being made between the sacred and the public domains. If this is a fair assessment then those folk traditions seem more worthy of respect to me. In the absence of boundaries of where and when and who, with no tyrannical power-structures to challenge or subvert, what justification can there be for Dionysian rebellion? Would that sort of sacrilege even make sense?

In the absence of such boundaries the only real sacrilege, it seems to me, can be in the how of an item's use. Since I'm talking about aesthetic forms as much as end-products, that use includes manufacturing, the use of the idea, and here is where I think the New Age fails -- because a dreamcatcher mass-produced in Indonesia and shipped to the UK, to be sold in head-shops as alternative lifestyle accessories, reduced to the level of a keychain even, is a bastardisation of the whole idea. This is what bothers me most, I think; it's more the sacrilege than the appropriation. I don't think I would be anywhere near as scornful if that dreamcatcher was not bought but rather hand-made by the person who wanted it, and if they wanted it not to hang over their own bed but to hang over the bed of their son or daughter. Manufactured and distributed as a mere trinket for mass-consumption, though, it seems a hollow mockery of such a simple, elegant idea.

I think this is, in the end, consistent. If we bear in mind that this sort of public sacred domain doesn't preclude the similarly-sacred equivalent of a (more relaxed) private communal domain, a tradition of owners / caretakers more like the bluegrass example given above, but with story in the place of song, folklore in the place of folk music, then without the wild assertion of de facto communal rights residing in a culture at large, we can even, I think, unravel some of the rationale that underlies that assertion. Because with that in mind we can critique the cultural appropriation of, for example, folklore in terms of ignorance of mores of consent, recompense and accreditation as well as in terms of sacrilege. In particular, with regard to cultures heavily focused on oral transmission, we can talk of the master / apprentice relationship and how that alters expectations of "tribute and dues". If I, as a white Scotsman, write a Coyote story is that wrong simply because I'm appropriating from a marginalised culture to a dominant one, or is it wrong because I haven't served my time learning that story from a teacher who's accepted me as student, because I haven't paid my dues, because I'm not paying proper tribute, because I'm breaking from the oral tradition, because I'm telling it in the wrong way, in the wrong time and place, for the wrong reason? If the story had been passed down in my family from a Scots-Cherokee ancestor who walked the Trail of Tears, does that make it any less wrong or does it depend far more on those other factors above than on the line-in-the-sand of a cultural boundary?

Ultimately it makes more sense, it seems to me, to break the idea of cultural appropriation apart in this way, to try to sort out the variety of transgressions which all feed into the debate so each can be evaluated individually.


Anonymous Damien said...

The idea of a dreamcatcher, specifically, being thus reduced is somewhat ironic, in that it's caught a concept, in a completely different, meaning-eeching trap.

Very well-said.

In a slightly related topic, did you receive the e-mail I sent? I'd been having some trouble getting things through to your end, and just wanted to be sure.


3:33 pm  
Anonymous Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

Wow -- I think I now what talking to me is like for some people. You offer a variety points of view, acknowledge your own contradictions, resolve them, involute and qualify and complicate and undermine those resolutions, and end up with an ultimate determination so considered, nuanced, and precise, with so much allowance for exceptions, that the only possible response short of writing a parallel novella-length essay of my own (like I did last time) is to quibble.

Or riff, I guess.

I was kind of hoping I could argue for disregarding religion as a special category, for eschewing the notion of holiness as a consideration for Art, leaving you to defend the idea of the sacred, just because that would feel like such an amusing reversal of our positions in the Great Religion Debate that it would, I am sure, delight us both aesthetically. However, I believe you have mucked that up by arguing so convincingly above for (a hypostatized) Art's double role as true believer and cynic.

Leaving me only the quibbles:

When a dreamcatcher, for instance, in the Ojibwa tradition, may be made by a parent -- not a priest but a parent, any parent -- as a charm to protect a sleeping child from nightmares, it does seem like there is little distinction being made between the sacred and the public domains. If this is a fair assessment then those folk traditions seem more worthy of respect to me. In the absence of boundaries of where and when and who, with no tyrannical power-structures to challenge or subvert, what justification can there be for Dionysian rebellion? Would that sort of sacrilege even make sense?

Here I think you veer towards a dangerous romanticism -- towards Rousseau's idea of Native American culture. I am no expert on the Ojibwa, but I find the idea that it was or is free of "tyrannical power-structures" to challenge or subvert rather suspect. TSOR by googling "ojibwa slaves" suggests you might want to ask their Fox captives about this.

Nor is a cross an artifact which is reserved for use by the priesthood; indeed, for European premodern peasantry or in villages in the Christian third world today, it is precisely the sort of thing parents make and hang up over the beds of their children to protect them.

It may be fair to say that Madonna and Mapplethorpe are Catholics, if Catholicism is construed as a cultural tradition. But since you're drawing a distinction between culture and religion (precisely the distinction I was questioning), it seems germane whether they are Catholics (dues-paying, in all senses, members of a community which might legitimately have its own communal rights and rules, albeit informal, for enforcing them) or Catholic apostates. Madonna's a neo-Kabbalist (and her "tatooing yourself with Hebrew letters gives you magic powers to disappear from 007's North Korean captivity" version of the Kabbalah is certainly relevant to a discussion of cultural appropriation :-> ), I don't know about Mapplethorpe. But from the point of view you're articulating above, it rather matters if he's seen a heretic of Catholicism, or a defector to a nearby, equally powerful organized tradition -- say, secular atheism.

I think focusing the ethics of sacrilege on the nature of the religion in question -- heirarchical religions are for fighting, egalitarian ones for respecting -- is highly suspect, not least because I doubt that it really maps to your examples. There are few religions less heirarchical, in the strict sense of "religious practices and products are reserved to the class A, denied from the class B, within the religion" than American Bible-belt Protestantism, few more heirarchical than the pre-Columbian religion of the Mayans; yet, to reiterate my initial challenge, I suspect that you would be more comfortable with appropriation (including reserving the right to use cultural products in a way that offends against the sensibilities of their original owners, which is where the relevant connection to sacriliege lies) of present-day Baptist practices than present-day Mayan ones.

And I submit that it's disingenuous to deny that the issue here is power. Were the Mayans dominant, cutting out the hearts of Baptists atop their ziggurats, you would be, I submit, more sympathetic to a "Piss Yatoch K'un" than a "Piss Christ". Were the Ojibwa the dominant power in North America, a "Piss Dreamcatcher" from a Fox-loving apostate would command your "fuck yeah!"

I guess I'm coming around to arguing that you can't really tease power out of this discussion, and put it in its separate box, as a separate phenomenon to be considered in the ethcial anatomy of artistic reproduction -- as attractive as that idea is, and as heartily as I cheered you on when you began to make the attempt.

The other point I want to make is that there is a blurring of ethics and esthetics here (as everywhere, I guess; you've argued elsewhere, well, that in your ideal, the root source of ethics is esthetic; but there's also clearly a distinction between them). We assume that the original Ojibwa parents who first created dreamcatchers would be scandalized by the idea of mass-produced, mass-marketed dreamcatchers as New Age kitsch. But it's entirely possible that that's an anachronistic reading based on our own esthetics as inhabitants of the postmodern -- our own romanticism, which in reacting against the experience of living in the age machine production has the same roots as the religious fundamentalisms.

Consider, as a thought experiment: if the Ojibwa, mind you, *actually thought dreamcatchers worked*, that the *arrangement of the components* was what was important, that bad dreams were a true danger and children's comfort and sleep important (and as a parent, let me tell you, children sleeping through the night can be an existential, not merely sentimental issue!), and you said to them "listen! we can propose to you a cultural and economic order in which you won't have to make your own dreamcatchers, because people on the other side of the world will gladly make them for you -- and for all the world's children -- in bulk!"... imagine, for the purposes of argument, that these original Ojibwa said "sweet! where do we sign up?"

Which, from my reading of how technologies have historically spread, does not seem all that unlikely...

It then comes back to power or esthetics, doesn't it? We then can only be saying:

1. Dude, but it's still fucking TACKY


2. Well it wasn't such a sweet deal in the end was it? They didn't tell you about the whole smallpox in the blankets and forced march to internment and despoilation of the forests part of that new arrangement, did they?

Which is once again saying that it's power that's at issue, right? Not any formula of justified or unjustified appropriation distinct from actual history and its winners and losers.

Kashrut is an interesting counterexample there. Nostalgic Reform Jews like me, and Romantic philosemites too, would dearly like to romanticise Kashrut. The shtetl butcher saying the prayers before slaughtering the calf in the early morning. Chagall's green airborne chickens and goats. The problem is only the inconvenient presence of the actual, contemporary, Orthodox Jews, who are delighted with having two dishwashers for meat and milk, elevators rigged to run all Shabbat without human intervention, and rabbinical inspectors who fly around Du Pont and Monsanto plants happily approving all the new artificial ingredients and enzymes as kosher (because, actually, everything artificial is automatically kosher).

Had the Ojibwa similarly, as a group, as a religion, gotten the chance to control the commodification of their culture, and firmly approved of the Indonesian dreamcatcher factory, would your objections subside? How much of the objection is in fact esthetic?

1:28 am  
Blogger Nalo said...

Hal, Ben: sometimes I want to hug you both.

"If you're going to do sacrilege it shouldn't be for trivial self-gratification or shallow sensationalism."

*giggle* yeah!

Cultural appropriation is a big, muddy, messy, complicated, thorny, touchy issue where it's difficult to nail down any hard and fast rights and wrongs. When I feel that someone has inappropriately appropriated -- man, I'm going to have to think about that little lexical construction -- an artifact of one of my cultures, I know it. I recognise the feeling. And yet someone else may do something that on the face of it is exactly the same kind of appropriation, except it doesn't feel like theft to me. And I can't always articulate the difference. And there will be people who share my cultures, but who disagree with my assessment that a particular act is or isn't cultural appropriation. I also recognise the feeling I get when I regard something as a cultural artifact from outside my cultures and for that reason, I want to be considerate about how/whether I appropriate it. But I'm quite aware that I can't articulate any clear guidelines for what gives me that feeling or what my response will be to it. And I'm aware that the person next to me may use the same Spidey-sense but get very different information from it and may choose a very different response as the considered one.

So when artists ask my thoughts on cultural appropriation, the best I've been able to come up with at this point is just what you're doing; think and talk and learn about each issue, case by case, and decide from our individual moral cores what we judge the respectful and appropriate approach to be for us in each case. (And, especially when it comes to art, "respectful" can sometimes *include* "profane.") This person may make different decisions than that person would. But do think about it and act informed by your conclusions. Don't just dismiss the issue as a non-starter. I think that's where the true abdication of responsibility lies; further than that, I think that not thinking about the how, the why, and/or the what of the art one is making is de facto bad art.

And boy, did it ever play havoc with all my sensibilities around cultural appropriation the day that an Anishnaabe man I had contracted to do some catering for my place of work gave me a dream catcher as a way of thanking me for the business.

4:19 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

And I can't always articulate the difference. And there will be people who share my cultures, but who disagree with my assessment that a particular act is or isn't cultural appropriation.

Yep. I think what I'm trying to do is not so much come up with guidelines as establish a terminology that stops those disagreements and failed articulations from log-jamming the debate.

Don't just dismiss the issue as a non-starter. I think that's where the true abdication of responsibility lies; further than that, I think that not thinking about the how, the why, and/or the what of the art one is making is de facto bad art.

Yep again. Best I can articulate is I think the issue has started and stalled and we need to check the spark plugs, because we *need* it on the road. And not thinking about the how, why and/or what? Shallow and superficial, callow and callous. Ergo *bad art*.

3:24 pm  

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