For the past year or two I have been a part of many conversations among well-read and intelligent students, activists, and academics around questions of cultural appropriation. While I think that many critics and theorists have answered questions about cultural appropriation thoroughly and well (though undoubtedly some of them made other mistakes), it seems that many of us continue to forget these simple lessons as easily as we first learned them. Some even cite the insights of theorists (I’m especially thinking of anti/post-colonial theorists like Césaire, Said, and Spivak) as they decry practices like yoga in the United States or feminists in Egypt photographing their naked bodies as a form of protest! I think that such denouncements sometimes reflect the ways neo-liberal cultural trends have crept into the communities that decry them, and debates about cultural appropriation are one area where this seems incredibly strong.
A few quick examples might be helpful…
- When Tucson schools cut a class in Mexican-American Studies, Arizona’s newly elected attorney general Tom Horne described the course as “propagandizing and brainwashing.” Similarly, student and teacher activists who attempted to defend the program in terms of needing to allow Mexican-Americans access to their culture (see the debate hosted by Democarcy Now!). The question that did not seem to occur to individuals on either side of the issue was whether we might not all – especially those who live in a part of the country significantly impacted by Chicana/o histories – benefit from reading texts like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Chicano!: The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement,critical race theory, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
- Some have denounced yoga done by white U.S. citizens flatly as cultural appropriation. The thought here seems to be that, because yoga was formed in India, it should stay Indian or – in another variant of the same kind of argument – if it must come to the U.S., then it should pass to ‘the west’ completely unchanged in some kind of pure form (whatever that might be). While I think there are legitimate questions about capitalizing on yoga and forgetting aspects of its core to the point where it is no longer yoga, I wonder how some so supposedly committed to ideals about human agency wish to deny others spiritual practices that they feel are beneficial. (To get a flavor for the debate check out, “The Yoga Debate: An Existentially Challenged Desi Chimes in.”
- While I tend to veer away from debates about Muslim women because I think many of the arguments are tired, some of these debates represent the reification of privatization of cultures that I’m attempting to discuss. The conservative and automatic dismissal of women living in majority Muslim countries as automatically and always oppressed is as rigid as the denouncement of Egyptian feminist Alia el-Mahdi’s circulation of nude self-portraits as too western. (There is an excellent piece about el-Mahdi’s protests up now on Jadiliyya.)
In all of these examples, there is a forgetting that culture is something constantly in flux and on the move (see Spivak in An Aesthetic Eduction in the Era of Globalization, Ch. 5). The cause might be a neo-liberal instinct to privatize and solidify cultures into monolithic communities. Edward Said’s question, posed in Orientalism, “Can one divide human reality […] into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, and survive the consequences humanely?” might still be relevant. (As I said above, these lessons were as easy to learn as they seem to be to forget.)
Michael Mohammed Knight, in his recent VICE article, “How Not to Sound Like an Asshole When Talking about Islam,” does a nice job of discussing cultural cross-fertilization in a similar vein as Aimé Césaire does in Discourse on Colonialism. Knight writes,
“Despite the ‘clash of civilizations’ hype that makes this kind of thinking possible, we still live on the same planet and Muslims do not exist in isolation from the rest of humanity. Muslims have always been influenced by non-Muslims and have also influenced non-Muslims. Muslim thinkers are deeply embedded in the intellectual history of Europe, and vice versa. In the first centuries of Islam, Baghdad became the center of perhaps the greatest translation movement in history, in which Muslim thinkers studied the scientific and philosophical heritages of cultures throughout the known world. In turn, Arabic would become the dominant language of scholarship. There is no such thing as a distinct ‘Islamic science’ or ‘Christian philosophy’ that could be said to have developed without traces of outside influence. Just as a millennia of human migrations and conquests have made any talk of a ‘pure race’ complete and utter porkshit, the notion of a ‘pure culture,’ free from mixture with other cultures, is also fantasy. Likewise, this means that religions are all mixed up, and have always been mixed up. It makes no sense to imagine that religions ‘mature’ in isolation and at standard rates, like human bodies, leaving Islam to always be six centuries behind Christianity at any given point in history.”
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I once met someone in a bar who had a tattoo on his neck in a language I’m by no means fluent in, but which I know well enough to try to read and speak a little. Puzzled by the meaning of the tattoo, I asked him what it meant. It turned out that the tattoo wasn’t in another language at all, but merely used another alphabet system to spell out a phrase in English! Obviously, the tattoo’s wearer had fetishized and commodified another language system he didn’t know to give himself what he thought was a fashionable and “exotic” kind of appeal.
A similar example, that also strikes me in some ways as very different, involves a friend who got a tattoo in another language that he speaks and reads well after having spent more than a year immersed in that language. The tattoo is an ancient, calligraphic rendering of a language character that would be unrecognizable to most native speakers of the language. This tattoo is special to its wearer because of the connection to the country he got it in as well as the experience of deep language learning, cultural interchange, and personal transformation that it’s connected with.
I cite these two examples to try to delineate a difference between commodification/fetishizing for presumed fashionable appeal and symbolically marking an experience of deep, cross-cultural appropriation. Gayatri Spivak has recently argued that it is the task of the humanities to train students to perform across languages and cultures – not in shallow cooption, but in deep appropriation (my words). This competency in the comparative helps to build the democratic intuition, if my reading is correct (see, again, An Aesthetic Eduction in the Era of Globalization).
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Yoga and feminism, Shakespeare and Freire do not belong – much like language itself – to any cultural group in particular, though it seems there have been attempts – by conservatives, liberals, and radicals alike – to privatize them. What we might need to remember is the difference between commodification/fetishizing, on the one hand, and deep learning/taking texts seriously, on the other. When you learn a text deeply, then it becomes your own. In the end, it might be the difference between deep learning, coercive fetsishizing, and capitalist copyrighting that we’d do well to think through more carefully. These lessons frequently seem as easy to learn as they are to forget.
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I offer these thoughts as some notes. I realize that there’s a lot more work here that needs to be done, and I’m grateful, as always, to be engaged in conversation with you if you have thoughts. I’m especially interested in the ways neo-liberalist cultural trends are working on people – even, and perhaps especially – in academic and activist communities.
I am grateful to Agnieszka Karoluk and Kevin Doherty as two people who have engaged me in thinking about some of the issues mentioned in the notes above. Though they may or may not agree with things I said, they’ve both been valuable conversation partners on these and other issues.
Image Credit (for title): The Djenne Mosque/Masjid in Mali is a massive structure constructed from mud and chaff. (Photo from: http://thetouristattractions.blogspot.com/2012/08/visit-djenne-mosque-in-djene-mali.html)
Image Credit (for header): Michael Wolf, Night # 7, Skyscraper: Art and Architecture Against Gravity, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago