Friday, September 16, 2016

a few thoughts on Lionel Shriver's speech on cultural appropriation and the problem of privileged people talking about privilege

So for those who sometimes keep track of what writers say about writing, and of things like debates about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of cultural appropriation, there was this speech, from which I'll only quote an excerpt:
The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University who for the record is white, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

What strikes me about that definition is that “without permission” bit. However are we fiction writers to seek “permission” to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong? Do we set up a stand on the corner and approach passers-by with a clipboard, getting signatures that grant limited rights to employ an Indonesian character in Chapter Twelve, the way political volunteers get a candidate on the ballot?

Shriver's counterpoint didn't seem like much of a counterpoint because, even as a kind of stick-in-the-mud Presbyterian Calvinist sort who's moderately conservative about both politics and religion, this rebuttal from Shriver seems to depend on a bad faith understanding of why people would be upset about whatever they define cultural appropriation as being.  I'll get to that in a bit but if the core of Shriver's rebuttal is to say that writers can do what they want to do because nobody should have to give writers permission that's not much of a defense.  It's the kind of defense that presupposes the liberty of the writer to write whatever he/she/it insists upon writing.  While some writers would (and did) say this smacks of privilege the problem here isn't that this is a privilege a writer "shouldn't" have by dint of being a writer, it's that it's the kind of decision-making power every writer has but that isn't the real point you want to make if you want to make a defense of writers creating characters of races or religious beliefs or sexualities you don't personally possess.

Of course, a few people took issue with Shriver's talk and ...

Among the invited opponents: Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a writer who’d walked out during Shriver’s talk. “The stench of privilege hung heavy in the air, and I was reminded of my ‘place’ in the world,” she wrote in The Guardian. Abdel-Magied rightly accuses Shriver of insensitivity, but also sets a restrictive, overly political vision for what literature should be
Cultural appropriation is both a real phenomenon—responsible for rock-n-roll and the Washington Redskins alike—and a ripe target for criticism and mockery, since the concept renders nearly every garment or foodstuff fraught.
The author of the New Republic piece pointed out the obvious but necessary observation that cultural appropriation is basically how all art happens and how culinary innovations can occur; we might benefit from proposing that not all cultural appropriation is done in the same way for the same reason.  It might be worth revisiting an example I've used a few times at this blog of how Bubber Miley quoted from a Chopin piano sonata at the end of an early Ellington recording.  Miley didn't get permission from Chopin because Chopin was dead.  Cultural appropriation in which an American musician who isn't white cribs from a dead Polish composer who composed nationalist piano music a century early has never been what the people who talk about the badness of cultural appropriation seem to be concerned about. 

The stench of privilege could be heavy in the air anywhere where writers can afford to go to writers' conferences to hear any writer hold forth on the sacred nature of the art form.  I don't have much of a history going to conferences for writers and I'm not opposed them--that said, having never been a vocational artist I think the delusion many vocational artists and writers seem to work from is imagining that there can be any but two modes of relationship the vocational artist has to formal and informal power:  you're either a servant of the ruling class or a participant in the ruling class, whatever or whoever the ruling class may be.  Those are the only two possibilities and any liminal space between them presupposes the binary. 

The only "possible" way to be outside of this binary is to be an amateur who never becomes a vocational artist or writer.  Alas, we seem to live in a moment in which writers who have the privilege of writing about privilege held by others don't seem to think of privilege as being something they, too, possess. There may be tens of thousands of people who can afford to go to liberal arts colleges and get degrees in the humanities who have been able to convince themselves they are the proletariat when they aren't.  For college graduates, even people with just undergraduate degrees, to think of themselves as working class is absurd.  People who graduated from high school, or didn't graduate from high school, and are out in the work force could be proletariat if they're not making huge sums of money, but the vocational writer is in a cultural sense a part of the priesthood of culture-builders.

That is, in a sense, the substance of a potential critique of Shriver's whole approach.  The people who have the privilege of writing stuff that gets monetized absolutely have a privilege and if it's one they take for granted or presume upon then they can come along and declare as Shriver does that a writer shouldn't need to ask anyone's permission what kinds of characters to put into a book.  Sure.  To propose otherwise is to propose a kind of censorship. 

The most basic problem with this definition of cultural appropriation ...

In the United States, cultural appropriation almost always involves members of the dominant culture (or those who identify with it) “borrowing” from the cultures of minority groups.

Is that it assumes its own definition.  What's more, the problem is that, as Conor Friedersdorf was writing not so long ago, if a culture of victimhood:

... Ferris Bueller is a stand-in for every kid who has performed victimhood to avoid school or homework. I don’t mean to suggest there are no real victims. Quite the contrary. The argument is that huge percentages of the population will, if given the opportunity, exaggerate their victimhood in order to get the gains that come with it. Many people will even fall for their own act to a degree. None of us are immune. I’m often tempted to view myself as an aggrieved party in some dispute.
This aspect of the culture isn’t a race thing, it’s a human nature thing. You can’t set up a system where status accrues to victims and then let people determine their own victim status. [emphasis added] Insofar as this is true of black and brown people on college campuses, it’s only because they’re no different from white people on college campuses, who participate just as much in victim culture, and many people off campus. Every human is vulnerable to the perverse incentives of “victimhood culture.” [emphasis added] 

And this is apparently how people who have a lot of power and influence can still see themselves as victims. Even if we decided there was noting at all to contest in the definition of what "cultural appropriation" even is, there's no certainty that the people who are considered the dominant culture won't see themselves as, somehow, the victims or the minority besieged by the masses of every other culture that isn't precisely them.  The proverbial one percent will feel lonely and at risk from the ninety-nine percent by dint of being a numeric minority.  It's always been in the nature of empires to assimilate all those cultural elements the masters of said empire decided to not destroy. 

But let's get back to the "cultural appropriation almost always" because beyond the abstract difficult of defining cultural appropriation in largely pejorative terms up front, there's a historical matter. 

Let's just return to "Black and Tan Fantasy", one of Duke Ellington's early works.

Check out 3:00 moving forward, and then compare it to ... Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2, movement 3

So if cultural appropriation almost always involves members of the dominant culture (or those who identify with it) "borrowing" from the cultures of minority groups what are we expected to make of one of Duke Ellington's trumpet-players borrowing a riff from Chopin for the end of "Black and Tan Fantasy?"

How about when the composer George Walker composed a set of variations on "O Bury Me Beneath the Willow" as the second movement for his first piano sonata?

If you want to hear a version of this old bluegrass song ... you could do worse than the Carter family, probably.

Start listening at 7:30ish for a pretty abstract take on the folk song with some fine variations

At this point it's probably not even "necessary" to mention John Coltrane's quartet playing "My Favorite Things"

In each of these cases they cannot, based on the definition of cultural appropriation quoted above, even qualify as cultural appropriation.  The problem with this polemical definition of cultural appropriation is the double standard built into it.  George Walker, as an African American composer, can take a lovely old bluegrass/cowboy song chorus and fashion some great variations on it and that's not cultural appropriation?  It's not like there were never black cowboys, even if we stereotypically equate cowboys with white males.  Would it count as "cultural appropriation" that a man trained as a classical pianist and composer appropriated a folk song without getting permission?  Well, if you insist but those kinds of appropriations have been happening for as long as humans have been around. 

So it's not without cause Phoebe Maltz Bovy wrote, "Cultural appropriation is both a real phenomenon—responsible for rock-n-roll and the Washington Redskins alike—and a ripe target for criticism and mockery, since the concept renders nearly every garment or foodstuff fraught."  An ideologically implemented set of objections to cultural appropriation runs aground on the long tradition of white and black musicians in the United States and across the world borrowing from musical cultures and sharing musical ideas and ideals.  The point is easier to make in music because it happens to be easier to demonstrate here at this blog.

But for fiction there's another reason to be skeptical about the kind of agitation that insists that novels not traffic in stereotypes for want of gaining some kind of permission to do so.  Fiction is fiction.   It's not as though we're talking about journalism which, at least in theory, is obliged to present the facts that can be discovered and also the truth that may be discovered (which, it must be said is not necessarily ever or always exactly the same thing).  The field of anthropology can set for itself a commitment to reliable or aspires-to-be-reliable ethnographies of people in times and places but fiction is fiction. 

While it might be nice if some authors displayed some more social responsibility in whether they traffic in stereotypes when they decide to invent characters the case for why they should in the sense that they are obligated to is wanting; it can seem as though Socialist Realism retains vitality as an idea not on the basis of depicting a realistic triumph of the working class but through a spiritual rebirth in the form of some writers embracing the idea that people only have the moral license and legitimate opportunity to write about their own group.  And that's great if we're talking about journalism!  Yes, by all means people who want to tell the story of what they and their group have been through should have a First Amendment protected right to share their stories.

There is a different way to object to Abdel-Magied than the way Rod Dreher approached it this week:

It's possible to suggest that Shriver presented a speech that comes off like the entitlement of a smug lecturing writer and that Abdel-Magied makes a comparably terrible case made in equally bad faith, a case that depends on a double standard that is not, as yet, entirely justifiably explained.  It may be too much to propose that cultural appropriations back and forth that are done in ways that are respectful to the people and traditions involved is something we should all be able to agree is something to strive for.  Figuring out how Gentiles and Jews who identified themselves as believers in Christ could peacefully and lovingly co-exist in spite of their substantial cultural differences was not just a little sidebar concern if we go back and read the New Testament. 

I don't actually blame Abdel-Magied for walking out of the speech.  I read the transcript of Shriver's speech and feel bad for anyone who paid money to hear writers talk about writers being able to do whatever they want because ... writers!  It's just that anyone who can attend a writer's conference is already in a position of privilege compared to the people who aren't vocationally writers, certainly compared to anyone who actually can't even read.  Compared to everyone the world over who can't, couldn't or never will be able to read Abdel-Magied writes from a position of spectacular and unacknowledged privilege.

The problem is that the world will never be a utopia and never be equal.  Well, there is the hope that one day truth and justice shall reign across the entire planet and, as a Christian, I can tell you that's an apocalyptic utopian hope of the sort that Christians, at least, confess is only possible when Jesus Christ comes to reign as God and king of the cosmos and when every tear is wiped away and, you get the basic idea.  For people who are actually religious we understand that that level of justice Abdel-Magied alludes to is only possible when a god who created the entire universe/multiverse decides to bring that utopia about.  Until then, injustice and inequality will always reign, most frequently these days through those who would insist to us they can bring it about, unfortunately.

So, somewhat contra Rod Dreher, I wasn't convinced by Abdel-Magied but Shriver's speech was boilerplate sanctimony from the writers-talking-about-writers. 


Noah Millman had a response and it was pointedly different from Dreher's, though both obviously blog at The American Conservative:
Nonetheless, I have a question for Ms. Shriver. I agree that the whole point of writing fiction is trying on new hats, new masks.

But what if the mask you want to wear is... Batman's?

Millman swerves into Lone Ranger territory ...

The point is that while Tonto is intellectual property, Comanche-ness is not. It's a matter of courtesy (as well as good defensive marketing) to consult with the Comanche nation before representing one of their number on screen. Consulting Universal on representing Tonto is a matter of law. And so anybody who feels a kind of ownership of the Native American identity runs the risk of feeling: Something I own was used without permission.

That, I suspect, is what really rankles those who gnash their teeth when someone lectures them about how art is all about borrowing and exchanging freely. That's exactly what art is, but our whole edifice of intellectual property law is increasingly designed not to facilitate that borrowing and exchange, but to frustrate it, in the service of protecting the value of incumbent cultural products — the ones owned by corporations. [emphasis added]

The solution, though, isn't to build more walls, so that everyone sticks to their cultural knitting. That will just exacerbate existing baleful trends. Rather, what's needed is to restore the artistic commons, before the only culture we know is one we'll have to pay a fee to join. [emphasis added]

In other words, insisting on putting a stop to cultural appropriation is counterproductive because cultures are not intellectual property.  As the definition and enforcement of intellectual property has tilted in favor of corporate juggernauts able to enforce their interests complaining about cultural appropriation is a far lesser concern than what Millman pretty directly articulates, the reality that our culture as a whole has been steadily reaching a point where there's functionally no public domain for the culture we can easily get.

Now there's a substantial body of public domain work in literature and art and music but that gets us back to the Western artistic canon.  It may be not everyone is happy that the history of Western art, literature and music seems to be those proverbial dead white guys and gals but at least it's public domain!  By contrast, if it's been recorded by a record company the record company owns the copyright and the rights to its reproduction and distribution.  Perhaps one of the advantages of the old Western canon these days is how much of it is public domain.  Pride & Prejudice & Zombies can be a thing because Austen's book was published centuries ago.  But as we were reminded with the passing of Prince, he was choosy about how people had access to his music and he literally had every right to be. 

As a guitarist and a composer who's fond of 18th century music I'd say Millman will want to remember that we already have a spectacular public domain for the arts.  Perhaps a blogger at The American Conservative could note a potential irony in this, the wealth of the Western artistic canon that's literally free for cultural appropriation of every possible sort can be the one most objectionable to those who wish the canon wasn't so white and patriarchal.  All right ... but at least you don't have to pay a licensing fee to get permission to rewrite Jane Austen or Dostoevsky ... or do you?

1 comment:

chris e said...

"For people who are actually religious we understand that that level of justice Abdel-Magied alludes to is only possible when a god who created the entire universe/multiverse decides to bring that utopia about. Until then, injustice and inequality will always reign, most frequently these days through those who would insist to us they can bring it about, unfortunately."

On the other hand, it's possible to view the end state as an unattainable utopia, even as one views attempts to move along that line as slight progress that is good and attainable.

.. and even in music there's a spectrum at one end of which would lie things like blackface, and the other the quote of someone else's piece that has passed into popular culture.