Love and Theft

August 7, 2012 § 16 Comments

“Good artists borrow but great artists steal.”

– frequently attributed to Pablo Picasso 

Lately, I have found myself thinking more about the contentious issue of “cultural appropriation,” or the lifting of elements from another culture and applying it within the user’s own cultural milieu.  I have seen this issue discussed several times over the past few months, mostly on Twitter but also on a few blogs.   As someone who was studying to be a cultural historian before dropping out of the Ph.D. program after completing MA requirements, I take both a professional and personal interest in the discussions that have unfolded.

Many critics (I shall use as an example here the Requires Only That You Hate blog, since I follow her on Twitter and read her reviews, although there are certainly many other articulate voices with opinions similar to hers) take a somewhat absolutist approach toward the issue of majority cultures “lifting” elements from minority and/or subjugated cultures.  For them, it is a very slippery slope whenever these elements are “borrowed” and turned away from original connotations.  Take for instance the highlighted segment in the middle of RH’s review of Ken Grimwood’s Replay:

Sylla guided him inside her, and he grew hard automatically. Her wet inner flesh was like something ancient, something protohuman; receptive yang to his vital yin, together the creators of these endlessly regenerating cycles, these—

Jeff opened his eyes and the girl’s face changed shape again. It had become Gretchen’s face. He was fucking Gretchen, fucking his daughter: she to whom he had given life, yet who had never been.

For her, this passage is offensive, not just because it is a trite and rather sophomoric attempt at writing an emotional sex scene, but because these characters have lifted disparate elements (Navajo, Mayan, East Indian, etc.) and the whole does not correlate to traditional forms of Buddhism or beliefs in re-incarnation.  Yet in reading that passage, I found myself realizing that I had a different initial reaction (I read Grimwood’s book years ago; I noticed that I had downplayed certain elements that RH highlights and conversely focused more on elements that she did not cover here).  Removing the ridiculous sexual context (might as well have been reading a Paulo Coelho novel for the amount of cheese that was dripping from that passage), the yin/yang dualism represented something else to me.  When I thought of the colloquial ways that this dualism is used (to accentuate opposites that are also complements, mostly), I realized that for many (and especially in the United States, since that is my native country), the term had been stripped of its religious/philosophical context to become something that was in part metaphorical truism, part half-considered expression that is uttered without any further consideration as to what it actually denotes.

Yes, this certainly could be (and is, for many) offensive for those who use this term (and others) in its original context, but the real issue is far trickier than just shallow people utilizing something that they barely grasp.  For example, consider how Americans are portrayed in media and mass marketing.  For those whose main exposure to American elements comes from global commodities such as television, radio, advertising, cinema, etc., there are certain homogenized elements:  the attires of business people, celebrities, musicians, gang members; the hairstyles of the same groups; the speech patterns of a New Yorker (leaving aside the various accents/dialects within that huge metropolitan area) compared to a Southerner (again, leaving aside the considerable variety of dialects within a region that is larger than almost any European country) and so forth.  Whenever I hear a “Southern” accent in a film, I find myself wondering if the movie makers believe that the entirety of the region speaks in a fashion that largely fell out of use two generations ago.  The realities of American lives tend to be distorted when transmitted overseas.

It is easy to see where there’s this image of “Americans” as being this, this, and this.  Much of it is true, of course.  It is all too easy to overlook, for example, the ways in which our cultures have borrowed/stolen/appropriated from other cultures.  From the “Southern” cooking (in reality, a fusion of West African, southeastern Amerindian, and Scots-Irish culinary approaches) to the adoption of pizza and hamburgers as commonplace meals to rain ponchos to hairstyles (frohawks, dreads, cornrows, spikes, etc.) to piercings and tattoos, there is a bit of everything under the sun that has been taken and altered.  Even the very language of this essay, English, is a selective choosing and altering of Germanic, Latin, and Norman-French languages, peppered later with borrowings from Spanish, Arabic, Amerindian languages, and so forth.  From the occasional “ciao” when saying bye or “hola” when greeting another, many Americans use bits and pieces of other languages in speaking.  Perhaps I do not come across as such in this medium, what with writing in a more formal voice, but in speaking, I sometimes use speech patterns associated with other, less culturally prestigious groups.

Perhaps that’s something to consider, how so entwined these borrowings are.  While yes, it certainly can be construed as insulting to take Rastafarian concepts and make it into just a “hey man, the Jamaicans smoke a lot of dope,” and yes, too often people just take, take, and take without realizing just what they are taking/borrowing/appropriating, it is damn near impossible to imagine any “pure” cultures that have not taken elements from other cultures and made it into their own.  Jeans wearers abound on this planet, not all due to an unilateral top-down move from American –> other cultures, but due to a variety of factors such as a need for that je ne sais quoi expression or that dope term that can make a duppe into a dupe or argot into something else.  Yes, sometimes we take without understanding just what we take, but without all this love and theft, most every culture, from the most prestigious/hegemonic to the less exalted/subjugated, would be poorer.  So perhaps a more useful debate would be the ways in which cultural borrowings can be “done right” or with respect rather than just throwing the baby out with the bath water and deriding any and all adaptations of other culture’s terms/objects/values?  That, I think, might lead to some interesting internal as well as external conversations when it comes to cultural matters.  But it should also be noted that those who do decry such appropriations, especially when they are done in such an ill-considered fashion, do have voices that need to be considered.  Just how all of this should meld together will have to be figured out, in whatever means of communication/language we devise.

§ 16 Responses to Love and Theft

  • Heloise says:

    lol, it's "je ne sais quoi", not "qua" – talk about taking without understanding… :PSeriously though – great post, and I absolutely agree that this is a very important subject that needs a thorough discussion.Personally, I do not see this kind of appropration as a problem at all – the way I see it, "cultural appropriation" doesn't even properly exist because it always is a two-way street, the appropriating culture always gets appropriated in turn, by having a bit of a foreign culture injected into it that will leave its trace, no matter how tiny and misunderstood it might be. In fact one might even argue that misunderstanding is a driving force of creativity, that it prevents the erection of dogma, the One Truth and other phallocentric stuff.In that vein, the real problem would be the concept of the "proper" itself, of some purity that has to be maintained to keep things as they properly should be, squeaky clean and uncontaminated by any foreign matter – that kind of attitude invariably leads to exclusion and oppression, no matter how much of a minority your culture may be.

  • Larry Nolen says:

    D'oh! I spelled phonetically :(I half-joke sometimes that as a product of "miscegenation" (Cherokee/Chickasaw in addition to European ethnic groups) that it would hard for me to support any "pure" culture since my family/region is a product of all sorts of admixtures…even when we are loath to admit that.Interesting point on misunderstanding (or perhaps recreating a new understanding?) driving creativity. I'll have to think on that some more, perhaps work it into a future post😀

  • Anonymous says:

    Have you read the blog Native Appropriations? The author writes extensively about this topic. I particularly enjoy her deconstruction of hipster racism. http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/2010/04/but-why-cant-i-wear-hipster-headdress.htmlI disagreed with your sympathetic approach to appropriators. Actually, I wasn't sure what you were getting at until the end. It just felt like you were making excuses upon excuses for appropriations. Citing things that many anti-cultural appropriation activists constantly hear from white people that have just stumbled onto the issue and then throwing a bone to activists by saying "don't forget, sometimes their voices matter!""Things are bound to mix!""Cultures wouldn't be as diverse as they are without appropriation!"Appropriations can be done right. Many of us celebrate when they are done right. That isn't an issue that needs to be discussed because when activists critic the cultural appropriation in media, the criticism should already show you how it could have been done by pointing out the flaws. What most of us disagree with is when things are appropriated by white people. There's a long history of colonialism, imperialism, and ethnic genocide (as you know) that too many white people don't consider when they affirm that "cultures are inevitably going to mix." Of course cultures are going to mix! We know that! The issue is when they mix and lose their original meaning, lose their roots, and soon thereafter becoming an object used to describe a whole ethnic group despite it's original designation to one certain group. Asian cultures especially borrow, steal, and mix traditions with each other. The asian countries also have a long history of invasion and imperialism. Look at Vietnam and China (I'm Vietnamese so this was the first thing that came to my head). Vietnam constantly loses it's original cultural traditions because of constant outside influences. From China to the French, and yet they've made those influences distinct to the country.That's the key word. Influence.Cultures can influence each other constantly. Nothing will stop that.But when things are outright stolen? Yeah, that's an issue. That's the appropriation many decry against.And here's a nearly relevant spoken word: http://youtu.be/l9Avq8QPUO8

  • Larry Nolen says:

    While I appreciate your comments and disagreement, I think part of the issue is that I come from a mixed culture/society. For me, should I decry my fathers for what they did to my mothers? Do I denounce whites for creating country music (okay, in many cases I do, but that's because of copycats and not the form itself) that borrowed from blues, which in turn borrowed from West African and (to a lesser extent) Scots-Irish ballads?That's what I'm puzzling over. I cannot see it as an either-or proposition. I just can't. I'm not "pure" anything (certainly not pure white) and so much of what envelops culture comes from admixtures, both forced (which I do deplore) and non-forced. Yet even those which are the products of violent seizure/appropriation sometimes bear some good for some despite what generated it.That's why I hesitate to take an absolutist stance. Because sometimes, even when moving from, for example English to another language, things are changed to suit that recipient society (Spanglish, for instance, which is neither fully Anglo nor fully Latino but something that occupies certain gaps between the two). Cultural diffusion ain't a pretty thing, sometimes, but sometimes something beautiful is produced.

  • Next Friday says:

    What's infuriating is the pretense that cultural appropriation is a two-way street. With the amount of dominance of the Western cultures over the rest of the world it's simply dishonest. Cultural elements from the West are so abundant that they come over, they stay intact and mostly retain their meanings as they get absorbed. Not as much the other way around. A shiny item gets pulled out, stripped, redefined, and then put on sale. The result?And I'm really amazed how many times I was referred to the dictionary to look up "creative process", "fiction", etc. For the borrowers getting the context right is optional.

  • Larry Nolen says:

    Cultural diffusion is bilateral, yes. Not arguing against the stance that too often, things "lifted" are stripped of original context and that this is insulting to members of the source culture, nor do I disagree with the basic notion that what is occurring in most cases of "appropriation" is perhaps better labeled as cultural hegemony.What I am noting is that it becomes tricky to delineate all of this as clear-cut; too often, it is not and that is perhaps as much a sign of asymmetrical diffusion as anything else.But good point regarding the poor arguments many have made on this. After all, there is something to be said about how "Engrish" is viewed, among a great many other topics.

  • NF says:

    A couple of years ago there was a panel on "translation" at DragonCon. Obviously, I was lured in. What it turned out to be was watching the collection of Engrish signs pulled from the internet. Ha ha. I couldn't get out fast enough.

  • Larry Nolen says:

    I'll admit that I find some humor in Engrish.com, just as I do when I learn of the times that I've fucked up in trying to write/speak in another language (like the time I confused schwül/schwer in German or said "gescheißen" in ESOL class to a student), but I certainly wouldn't present it as something substantial to be discussed as a panel discussion :O

  • Foxessa says:

    You have, of course, read Eric Lotts's Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1995) — and of course there was Bob Dylan, employing the same words for his album (2001).

  • Larry Nolen says:

    Only snippets from Lotts, but I did just place an order for a used copy from Amazon. And yes, I'm a big Dylan fan and the title is in reference to both his 2001 album and to Lotts. The tensions between loving and thieving cultural "borrowings" interests me for several reasons, so I think I'll read it when it arrives in a few days and blog about my reactions to it. Curious to see at which points, if any, the book intersects the elite/popular culture divide that E.P. Thompson discussed in Customs in Common.

  • Foxessa says:

    Then there is the particularly Caribbean and Brasilian concepts of syncretization and creolization (which we also see in practice and expounded in New Orleans). Which is — well, a positive and inevitable consequence of cultural and spiritual practices, at least according to Caribbean and Brasilian intellectuals and artists.Or, as expressed, impatiently, by a sociologist trained and from the Caribbean at an EMP conference 2 – 3 years back, when young college intellectuals were expounding about cultural appropriation: "Haven't these people ever heard of creolization???????"You cannot keep musicians, dancers and so on from not utilizing what they hear from each other, no matter where it comes from.Unless, of course, they are the gate keepers of some sort of European art music or something.SF/F people so often are tone deaf and as rhythmically challenged as they are socially challenged so they really screw up, grabbing, or as they used to so proudly say, "I'm totally stealing that for my next book," responding to my experiences in these other worlds — clearly understanding nothing and thinking OOOOOOH, o so cool and exotic and I get to be first! While I sweated, got insect bitten, didn't eat, etc., while learning from the practicioners who were instructing me because I was willing to do what it took.Argh, I thought. And I quit writing about these things that matter so much to me and those generous in instruction because I couldn't stand it.

  • Larry Nolen says:

    Good points. Syncretic faiths interest me greatly, as it's cool to see just how divergent most faith systems prove to be once there are a lot of practitioners, semi-practitioners, quasi-practitioners, etc. And in regards to languages, I was very excited recently when I found a Haitian grammar, as one of my biggest regrets when I moved back to TN from south FL in 2003 is that I didn't learn as much Haitian as I did Cuban and Puerto Rican Spanish. I think these fascinate me not because I want to rip them off and pretend they are mine but rather that there is something very cool to learn about a different approach to life. I just only hope that I don't come across as knowing more than I do, because it's difficult to profess simultaneously ignorance and a desire to understand and perhaps appreciate what is different from what is the cultural "norm" for me.That being said, I have little doubt that there will be some Reggaeton being played on my playlist as I walk tonight, in addition to some country blues, rock, and maybe something close to jazz. It'd be a dull world without cross-cultural sharings and attempts to understand.

  • Foxessa says:

    Um, it's called Kreyòl (or Creole), not Haitian … lots of kiKongo elements … my spouse speaks it, and he's just returned from Angola and a kiKongo enclave — fortunately he also speaks Angola's official, administrative language fluently (and Spanish — with total Cuban flava), Portuguese. There he was studying the written (and very old) ideograms of the Kongolese talking drum tradition, among other things. He will be putting up four radio programs from this experience.

  • Larry Nolen says:

    I was lazy last night and used one of the English terms; an old school translator friend of mine would be disappointed. kiKongo? I knew of some Fon influences, but not of kiKongo. I know too little about African language families outside of Swahili being a lingua franca in East Africa. Very cool your spouse speaks those languages, particularly Cuban Spanish, which I think, along with Colombian dialects, sounds the best out of the Spanish dialects I've heard over the years😀

  • Foxessa says:

    We're pretty deep into Colombia — he's always invited to be part of the Baranquilla Jazz festival etc. He's not sure he can make it this time around though — we have so many deadlines of all kinds!

  • Larry Nolen says:

    That certainly sounds like an awesome festival to attend…at any time :DReceived my copy of Love and Theft yesterday afternoon. May make several posts on it if I have the time, depending on what I react to as I read it.

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