On Appropriate Cultural Appropriation

The issue of cultural appropriation, as it has been contextualized in our society as of late, is not lacking in concern for those who are considered other. However, the question remains as to whether or not we can engage with and respect the other without clumsily utilizing ever piece of masochistic rhetoric in our grasp.

The problem is often posed in this manner: it is wrong, in and of itself, when someone from one culture represents, practices features of or identifies with the common signifiers of another culture. These grievances which comprise the problem contain a set of inbuilt implications they do not explicitly address. On the one hand, the other is valued in its very otherness. Nevertheless, this otherness is framed by what it is not. Once the other is fenced out, the rhetoric surrounding cultural appropriation throws a few safe identifiers over them and says, ‘We, the active agents, will allow you the very distinction by which we have always identified you,' as an apology. The active agent, in this equation, is white America, but only because it insists on being such.

It is presupposed that America can propitiate the sins of its forefathers in a way that transcends economic questions. The unspoken question of accountability regarding historical violence echoes the book of Numbers, 14:18, in which God will by no means clear, ‘the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.' Mimetic guilt is the core of this set of ethics.

Even setting aside this theological mechanism, a series of questions remain. Are there degrees to cultural appropriation or must we simply rule all of it out? Sentiment is the only mediation, which dictates the ever totalizing values which constantly change and intensify with the demands of the status-quo ever few years, the primary mechanism of which relies on making oneself appear to be a bigger victim than the last victim. Gradation is denied ipso facto by the rhetoric in question, as it at once denies all parties of responsibility whilst forging a convenient standard of ethical unilaterality. This makes it easy to deem anyone an enemy who ascends or descends the scale of gradation. Political correctness is that denial of gradation. Value is inherently reliant on gradation and gradation is reliant on many sets of interdependent relationships within matter. Since value is inherently reliant on gradation, gradation of matter must be denied so that the value of all matter might be marked according to a standard which proposes to dilate the perimeters by which we can determine quality, thus enclosing all differentiations within a single, unilateral value which can only be defined by what it would least like itself to resemble: namely, a reaction. As rhetoric is reactive affirmation, it is passive. As it is passive, it works in the favor of mechanisms of social control. Neutralization becomes the only recognizable mediator, reducing everything to a point which can only announce itself in the face of what it identifies as opposition.

We know by observing history that cultures are not static. They are constantly in flux, as are language and genetics. There is no position which can lay claim to privilege merely by its presupposed proximity to primordiality, as there is no primordial culture. This is the mistake that both contemporary liberal left wing society and the racialist right wing make: the one radically denies that race exists while the latter stratifies race to the other radical extreme, when in fact, that which constitutes race is dependent on factors whose number is greater than that which can be preserved by maintaining a few signifiers. It would appear that the issue of cultural appropriation is, ironically, the left's attempt to use a racialist view against itself. However, it fails to the equal measure that racialist rhetoric fails.

If we were able to set up the circumstances by which we could bring about static cultures,-as both anti-cultural-appropriationists and the racialists would have it, if not explicitly, then by implication-it would resemble the end of history, but only at a first glance. This short-sighted utopian formula poses eugenics as an inevitable conclusion, though it would in this case be complicit with the halting of organic cultural change, the perpetuation of agencies born from contingency and the stratification of effects which provide an ideal representation of the culture in question. At its most extreme conclusion, this configuration is doomed from the bottom up to corrode the cultures in question through a deactivation by way of what amounts to an anachronistic repetition of the very values they tried to maintain. The formula responsible for a culture can only be sustained by its contingent variables for so long before contingent variables ascend and descend the scale of gradation through heterogeneous agencies, thus loosening its fixed position. Appropriation is precisely the mechanism by which cultures come to be what they are. Change is the common denominator of all evolutionary theory, which is inherently unfriendly to the preservation of signifiers. Nevertheless, these wishes to preserve culture at the expense of making any concession for natural flux, reflect the thoughts of those whose heads are buried in sand concerning the future. One day, the culture will no longer look the same as it once did, no matter what you do to preserve it, and further still, it will be no more. Political correctness and racial nationalism are products of a similar error.

Identity itself cannot be appropriated but only mimicked and this mimicry then becomes part of the mimic's identity, for better or worse, always pointing toward what it mimics and thus objectifying itself. Cultural appropriation is, at worst, a joke and at best, life itself.

My suspicion is that the neutralizing project of the rhetoric of cultural appropriation is meant, not to dissolve the problem, but to raise the meter by which the highest offense can be measured to its most extreme point. A white actor performing in blackface gets put in the same category as a child dressed as a Native American for a school Thanksgiving party. Unwilling to admit the inherent fallaciousness of arguing for cultural appropriation's unilaterality, those who more stubbornly pose this problem will go on to tell white people that they can't listen to rap music, that black people can't listen to country western music or that Chinese children can't put on blindfolds and hit piñatas. White women can't get extensions. Hispanic women can't dye their hair blond. To think that these prohibitions could abrogate violence! My grandparent's generation and those falling close behind suffered the atrocities of war in the face of totalitarian regimes, marched for civil rights and fought the establishment. My generation has become terrific at telling people what to do and what not to say, along with developing ever new and radical means of self-policing their words and thoughts.

The neutralization which takes place within the anti-cultural appropriation issue wishes to radically enunciate the objectifying potential in even the most mundane representations of the other, in the hopes that if this objectification is resisted, the other will be less likely to slide back into a subordinate role in society (as if it is entire peoples and not individuals who hold positions of subordination). There is nothing wrong with this resistance in itself, but it is merely a reaction to the untenable propitiative project of the contemporary liberal formula: that the other can cancel its otherness by appropriating the culture of the active agent-namely, by becoming more like white America. The reversal, which allows no one cultural appropriation of any kind, puts America into the role of active agent yet again. As if white America could make up for its faults through such paltry moves as allowing the other, quite simply, to do what it already does (or rather, what it is presumed to do which most resembles itself).

Leaving aside all of the inherent contradictions, let us assume that the propitiation of white America's violence is possible, that our masochistic rhetoric is actually good for something. To personalize it, I'm a white male, but my family did not own slaves, nor did they murder Native Americans or Hispanics or force any to relocate. As a matter of fact, my ancestors were more than likely considered other at some point in time by the white American property owners. Nevertheless, I am counted among this group by the approximation of my skin color. I don't wish to paint myself as a victim, but to show precisely how this victimary form of identity politics works: I have been appropriated against my concern into the very group which implies the superiority of its own active agency and which keeps the other in the position of passive subject. Even my active agency is implied by passive means. A further victimization simultaneously robs me of the ability to argue as a victim while covering up this victimization. I have to prove my victimization, only on a discursive level, in order to join the league of those who feel that in order to win, one must be the biggest loser of the previous game. I would have to play their game in order to lose before I can win.

I'm aware that I run the risk of presenting a case which over-determines the passive role of the other within the spectrum of its white American interpretation, but I have all the examples that white American rhetoric has provided me in its many permutations, and its common denominator is masochism, but a masochism which also demands masochism of others (sadism?). The contemporary narrative operates this way: white America wants to stop getting blamed but can achieve this only by signifying itself as a non-other of no culture. It sacrifices identity to absolve its sins and remain an active agent. Since it recognizes itself through this series of negations, allowing itself to affirm only the other, it denies the american-ness of the other as a positive feature of its identity, and allows itself the distinction of being American as a negative feature of non-identity. The American agent becomes the unseen mechanism behind identity, godlike, unreachable and distant. I believe that this denial of the other's american-ness, along with the denial of white America's identity, is the real reciprocal objectification which must be resisted, not cultural appropriation.

This doesn't solve any of our problems, but rather, I feel that recognizing it might cause us to ask new questions which will steer us in the right direction-that is, in establishing harmony and diffusing cultural and racial tensions.

I'm aware that this concern for cultural appropriation, as a problem, is an attempt to diffuse tensions as well, however, it is my claim that this rhetoric and its corrosive implications must be surpassed by recognizing its illegitimacy if we are to achieve a sense of harmony that transcends the ideology of specific movements and political parties.

Where then do we find commonality? Is it in our common interests? In our common suffering? It can only be both to the extent that both commonly suffer or are commonly interested. There is always a point of divergence. Even in our desire for harmony, eventually we must face the idea that differentiation is a fact of life, no matter how much democracy would like to lord the culture of the majority over the minority. The highest number of commonalities do not necessarily equal harmony as recent cultural tensions have shown us-the failure of the quantity of commonalities over the quality of differentiations.

Commonalities are only one limited vehicle for maintaining social harmony. What is needed is a radical acknowledgement of communal desire. What does a community need in order to be itself and how is this to be achieved? Does it need a hand or does it simply need other cultures to stay out of its way so that it might find empowerment from within or fail miserably without the convenience of another party to blame? There are, inevitably, a number of configurations to consider and none of them are straightforward, however, this is the trajectory of a non-victim-based, unforced egalitarianism.

I'll go ahead and inaugurate an issue into the conversation which I feel is far more pertinent than cultural appropriation and which I already touched upon briefly; that is, the demand that the passive subject be subsumed into the culture of the active agent. It matters little which party, in actuality, acts as agent and which acts as subject. It is the demand, no matter how unconscious, which the individual has every right to resist. Unfortunately, the resistance and the demand with it often breed their own violence. Segregation from the top of culture down has long been one of the untenable, plastic cultural mechanisms to deal with the problem. What we need is not control from the top down, but the option of succession from the bottom up, starting with the individual. However, succession, where it is not a legal option, has packed into it a whole set of its own reactions of violent reciprocity, the likes of which remain to be seen.

The Burning Block Issue 1