We Owe Each Other Dialogue: Regarding Cultural Appropriation

Written by: Alexander Maré This article is a response to, and thematic extension of, a previous article “The Fallacy of Cultural Appropriation” by Jonathan Geach published by Rational Standard on Friday 27 May 2016. I shall take my cue here from Mr Geach’s article (with which...

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Written by: Alexander Maré

This article is a response to, and thematic extension of, a previous article The Fallacy of Cultural Appropriation by Jonathan Geach published by Rational Standard on Friday 27 May 2016.

I shall take my cue here from Mr Geach’s article (with which I am in agreement) and offer a simple, further analysis of the notion of cultural appropriation.

In discussing culture, it is not my aim to explain systems of property, desert, and ownership here (What counts as property? Who gets to own what? What does it mean to own something? Who gets to decide?), although readers should be aware that these issues have been exhaustively explored by moral and legal philosophers; classically by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Instead, my aim here is simply to point out that these concepts are far less clear than is often assumed in talk of “cultural appropriation”, and that once we clear up these misconceptions the argument dissolves.

Rational philosophical analysis of this kind, as formalised perhaps most famously by Descartes, proceeds by deconstructing a given argument into its smaller constituent parts. Once this has been achieved, each atomic part is further reduced to its necessary and sufficient minimum. These parts are then scrutinised epistemically, empirically, and ethically. Furthermore, any and all implicitly assumed premises are exposed and analysed in like fashion. This is always a tedious task, and often a thankless one; but it is necessary. Call it the Socratic Oath of the philosopher. Thankfully, in this particular discussion we can limit ourselves to two words: cultural appropriation.

Let us begin with “cultural”. Anger at cultural appropriation only makes sense if there is, in fact, something that is being stolen, oppressed, diluted, or appropriated; that is to say we can only talk about cultural appropriation once we have a clear idea what culture is, as mentioned by Mr Geach. So what exactly is the thing supposedly being appropriated?

Assuredly we can all agree that there are cultures, just as we all agree that there are things which are morally right and wrong. But when it comes to specifics, things inevitably fall apart. But let us attempt a definition: when people speak of “culture”, they most likely have a type of historical and material heritage in mind: building style, apparel, and rituals of a specific area across a specific time. Trivially this makes sense, but it has conceptual problems. Let us assume that by “specific area” we mean, say, the present shape of France, and by “specific time” we mean the past two hundred years. The problem is obvious: does this mean anything older than two hundred years is not French? If we attempt to remedy the situation and stretch the timeframe to, say, 500 CE then the same problem still apples. Even worse, the definition has now overextended its reach as France circa 500 CE is not France in any sense we would understand today.

costumesAttempting to define culture temporally just doesn’t work. The same applies to spatial considerations: anyone who has been to the south of France knows well that the Occitan culture (well, within French “borders”) is a distinct phenomenon and foils any umbrella attempt to declare everything French north of the Spanish border. But perhaps these issues can be overcome if we simply define “cultural” as “that which was produced in such-and-such an area during such-and-such a time”. Assuredly we would consider the Parthenon a clear-cut symbol of Classical Greek culture, without hesitation. Unfortunately that’s precisely all it is: a symbol, a product of the culture, not the culture “itself” – taking the Parthenon Friezes is plain theft and not “cultural” appropriation. The problem here is generated by the misguided assumption that there is something like a stable “ontology” of culture; that a culture is somehow more than its various manifestations.

Abstracting “culture” from the prejudice of its supposedly material manifestations is thus a useful means of pointing out the issue with claiming that there is a “thing” that can be appropriated. This leads us directly to a more pressing concern. Those who construct the notion of cultural appropriation for the sake of opposing it are always concerned with material appropriation: architectural styles, dress, music, and the splendour of rituals are all objects or actions that can be mimicked or downright stolen. But cultures are also systems of immaterial knowledge – ideas, languages, and systems of meaning – and no-one would really argue against limiting useful knowledge to certain groups, even opponents of cultural appropriation. No-one would seriously limit modern medicine to, say, the West, and certainly no Buddhist would ever limit the meaningful contemplation of his koans to the East. Yet when people oppose cultural exchange, this is precisely what they are doing. In short, they are contradicting themselves. They are not only arguing against the exchange of goods, but also implicitly against the exchange of knowledge and systems of meaning.

Culture is perhaps foremost a symbolic affair; it is neither useful nor possible to impose limits on a symbol, precisely because it exists in excess of physical limitation. For this reason it likely also escapes notions of material ownership, which we will deal with briefly when we consider the notion of “appropriation” later. For now, the insight is that culture is not a clearly definable “thing” that can be appropriated. Culture exists as an abstract idea; not as a rigid Platonic Form, but rather as a rhizome – a vulnerable, developing organism. It grows in unexpected ways and we all benefit from the interaction between systems of knowledge.

I am not an expert in Continental Philosophy or Critical Social Theory; there are no doubt more cohesive accounts to be found there regarding the positive content and role of culture, but it seems to me that: 1) culture is not a collection of material objects; 2) as an immaterial identity, it is both impossible and impractical to limit it in any simple sense.

So “culture” is not easy to define, but that is not the end of the story. Let us assume temporarily, purely for argument’s sake, that we can define culture and settle on definition X. It would only make sense to defend Culture X from appropriation if X is different from Y. We can only defend French culture from English appropriation if the two are, in fact, different in the first place. Is this true?

In Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche demonstrated with his meta-analysis of history, action, and knowledge, that culture and morality do not follow a single, traceable path from one source to the present day. Rather, culture has the look of a contingent, messy, bastardised tree with many branches and shared roots, instead of a clean linear line. There are cuttings, graftings, missing branches, and dead branches. What stands as “the” tree is not clear at all. And the entire tree was at some point in its history grown from a cutting or hybrid seedling of some other plant, which had a similar origin. There is no single irreducible source, and certainly no single “pure” source, at the root of any given culture’s heritage. In other words, cultures borrow so heavily from one another that it does not make sense to separate them on any material, spatial, or temporal basis. The supposed difference between cultures is historically arbitrary and naturally baseless. The only real effect such borders have had is political unrest, and that must surely stand as one of the great embarrassments of human reason.

Thus far, we have seen that the first conceptual half of “cultural appropriation” is baseless. There are no “pure” cultures which need to be defended against appropriation, and even if there were, we would then still have to explain exactly why it is a good thing to defend cultural insularity. Why only one? At any rate, you can’t steal or possess one if that “one” doesn’t exist in any simple sense in the first place.

Let’s move on to the second half of the problem, “appropriation”. We have seen there isn’t really anything to appropriate to begin with. But even if there were, “cultural appropriation” would still be a misnomer. Whether or not there is something to appropriate, “cultural appropriation” runs on the assumption that a person, or group of people, can own a culture. But this (unquestioned) assumption is also false. Now we have already spoken about the theft of something owned, from the perspective of the thing itself. Perhaps it would be more useful to talk about the agents instead: who can or can’t own culture? Presumably when we say a particular people own a culture, we mean that there is something distinct about those people: the French “own” the French culture because, well, they live in France. Afrikaners, who are more scattered geographically, participate in Boer culture because they have a particular skin colour and genealogy. Claims to a specific geographic locale, bloodline, and (typically) skin colour are most often the basis for a person’s position in a particular culture and their supposed ownership thereof; this is usually the justification for any group of people and any culture. Once again this seems obvious, but it has serious issues.

Rigid physical designation of this kind rapidly leads to absurdities. Someone of colour X who has lived in the same family and geographical locale as people of colour Y, say as an adopted child, should be part of culture Y, yet most people would be hard-pressed to call an adopted transgender Asian child in a rural South African township “black”. Why is this? And more importantly, does it make sense? Of course not. There is no reason why any physical marker should guarantee entrance to a particular ownership for precisely the same reasons we covered above when we spoke about the impossibility of defining a culture by some arbitrary land-based border. Attempts of this kind either lead to trivial tautologies, overextended definitions, or infinitely regressive scenarios.

If we define some culture A as a culture of “whites” then it follows that we must define “white”, which will probably lead to a geographic/genealogical appeal, which in turn will fail because such physical markers are spatio-temporally inconsistent and completely non-linear. It’s turtles all the way down. In short, the usual reasons given for cultural ownership are physically grounded, and consequently they just don’t work. So much for owning a culture. Even more interesting (albeit flawed) is the notion that one can lose a culture, or that cultural value is somehow diminished if another partakes of it. This has the ring of those anti same-sex marriage diatribes: “Allowing two men to marry will diminish and devalue heterosexual marriage” and related vitriol. I hardly think that allowing the Japanese to structure part of their new year’s celebrations around Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (as they do) diminishes the perfection of Beethoven. But of course, it’s not all quite so simple. The point here is simply that an appeal to essentialist, physical markers as the basis of an identity (from geographic locale, to race, sex, gender, orientation, and ability) is bound to fail. Not only does it suffer from conceptual issues, but it is bound to be empirically false and morally inappropriate.

Talk of cultural appropriation betrays a deep fear in most people, but it also misses the bigger picture. What we should be worried about is not appropriation – mimesis is a natural part of life and a beautifully subversive tool. What we should be worried about is cultural extinction, and the fastest route to extinction is the kind of anti-intellectualist isolationism advocated by people afraid of cultural appropriation. Paradoxically, cultural appropriation does precisely the opposite of what its detractors claim: it is at the intersection of cultures that new forms emerge. Appropriation is not the death of culture; it is the (re)birth. The immensely influential work of Judith Butler has shown us that culture, (like sex, gender, race, ability, and religion), is a performance, and performance relies on interaction, dialogue, improvisation, and change.

We have worked our way through a very simple critical analysis of “cultural appropriation” above. We saw that the idea only works if 1) there is something definite to steal in the first place, and 2) that thing can be rightfully owned. Our conclusion was that both assumptions are false. “Cultural appropriation” is thus a concept without content.

Society, as with good science, can only progress by critiquing its own traditions. The end of conversation is the end of both respect and progress. I am not a Hegelian, but there is nonetheless something trivially true about the dialectical nature of human knowledge: conjecture and refutation are needed for our fallible current knowledge to move continuously towards newer, better explanations of reality. Challenge and exchange in an open setting are vital for this to occur. As for knowledge, so for culture; so too for science, race, sex, and nationality. Besides, as long as we guard against blind and naïve realism, there really is something charming and hopeful – perhaps vulnerably beautiful – in the notion that we are becoming more humanely rational and moving towards more accurate representations of ourselves as persons. It almost makes complete sense to see a progression of sorts (as Steven Pinker potentially does) in the historical removal of first nationality, then race, then sex, then orientation, from the minimum definition of “human”. In the pattern of such progress, cultural egoism and relativism have no place.

Human history is not a monologue. Rather, to borrow the phrase from Norman Melchert and others, it is a Great Conversation. The notion of well-defined cultures which group neatly into disparate categories or (heaven forbid) binaries is not only empirically false as we have seen, but also ethically harmful (should it be enforced). The same goes for race, sex, gender, and nationality. What we really need is a truly universal notion of global citizenship; a notion of common humanity that transcends contingencies and attempts to find a necessary and sufficient neutral ground. There is no space to examine what has been said about such a possibility here, nor is it within the topic of this article. Nonetheless I think it is precisely the sort of open, dignified solution – a solution that moves away from essentialist claims about sameness and difference, and instead towards human fallibility and change – that a young and diverse democracy such as South Africa needs.

Author: Alexander Maré is currently a master’s student in philosophy/phenomenology at the University of Stellenbosch. He is also employed by the Philosophy Department as an assistant and occasional tutor. His interests include: Classics (Hellenistic sculpture), Corporeal Phenomenology, Analytic Philosophy, Feminist Theory, Modernist Architecture, and tinkering with Formal Logic as a means of producing a new, simplified concepto-linguistic system. The views expressed in his writings are his own, and not of his employing University.

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