As I write this, in August 2017, the US is convulsed by the repercussions of a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and activists are being arrested for tearing down a memorial to the Confederacy in Durham, North Carolina. With the culture war spilling out onto the streets, the polarization of the current debate about appropriation and the viciousness of its tone shouldn’t come as a surprise. Culture is, as always, taking a central role in larger political struggles. What’s at stake is not just the right to paint a particular image or use particular words, but the legitimacy of much wider ideological formations: cultural and ethnic nationalism, freedom of expression and, above all, diversity. Against the backdrop of a resurgence of the far Right, these are not abstract concerns.
Bringing down diversity, by attacking a straw-man with that label, is a central aim for those on the identitarian, white Right who want to reverse the long trend towards a complication or pluralization of culture. They view diversity as a stifling orthodoxy enforced through public shaming rituals. Each social media pile-on about cultural politics – and cultural appropriation in particular – is interpreted as further evidence of the tyranny of ‘cultural Marxism’: a conspiracy to undermine the moral and metaphysical foundations of the West, started by the (((Jews))) 1 of the Frankfurt School.
Legitimate appeals to free speech have lately acquired a problematic identity-political inflection, thanks to the weaponization by white supremacists of so-called ‘Enlightenment values’ – in particular, the paradoxical and self-defeating claim that objectivity and universality are the cultural property of Europeans. This old fantasy that whiteness is a prerequisite for rationality is also, of course, a twisted reading of the postcolonial theory that the young alt-Rightists found so hard to choke down as undergraduates. The critique of ‘Western Reason’ was intended to expose the historical discourse of European rationality (impersonal, universal, white) as a Trojan horse for the project of colonial domination. It was not – except, perhaps, in the minds of a few radical social constructionists – a means of questioning the existence of rationality itself. Instead, the identitarian white Right has taken an identity-political lesson and doubled down on the claim that whites are culturally and biologically predisposed to be objective, laying claim to a whole suite of values (democracy and free speech among them) associated with the Enlightenment. This comes at a moment when many people on the pro-diversity Left (including many people of colour) base their politics on some idea of the inviolable authenticity of personal experience and see their role as defensive or conservative, policing cultural boundaries in the name of fairness or safety.
Liberals who are concerned, say, about the no-platforming of controversial campus speakers may be unaware of the Right-wing dogwhistling around ‘free speech’, and may experience any unwillingness to engage on the terrain of freedom of expression as a sign of antagonism to basic democratic values, rather than antagonism to the tiki-torch bearers who are using them as a wedge. The far Right ruthlessly exploits the liberal’s fear of illiberalism to frame campus protestors and critical intellectuals (particularly those of colour) as fanatical Red Guards, while presenting their own provocations as expressions of popular democracy. Everyone suspects everyone else of incubating the seeds of fascism. Meanwhile, actual fascists are on the streets of Charlottesville and working in the White House.
We all tacitly understand that any fight about cultural ownership is a fight about power and, against the backdrop of the Trump presidency and similar currents elsewhere in the world, it is disingenuous to frame it in bloodless academic terms. This may, indeed, be a car crash between a European metaphysics of Geist and a waning intellectual fashion for absolutist social constructionism, but the consequences are real – especially for those whose access to networks of cultural production and influence depend on the outcome. Diversity is no doubt problematic as a political category, but it has also been a loophole through which many of us have grabbed the chance to make and circulate our work. The attack on diversity puts people of colour and other minorities in the invidious position of having to defend the reasons we were asked to the table, when we may have our own reservations about those reasons and are, in any case, more interested in what we can do now we’re here.
This is the terrain of the debate about cultural appropriation, and hovering over it is the suspicion that the concept is being asked to do too much work. Is a $1,300 Chanel boomerang ‘the same thing’ as a painting of Emmett Till? Is an Instagram photograph of sorority girls in blackface ‘the same thing’ as a Canadian novelist’s unsubstantiated claim of indigenous roots? Are we not now at a stage where we need to differentiate between them, at least in degree? What about in kind? Is a failed piece of conceptual art always a racist aggression? How are we to understand and measure the harm? The classical liberal position is broadly that all cultural objects should be freely available for use, that gatekeeping in the name of minority rights is a misguided and intolerable assault on individual freedom. There is a broad tendency on the non-identitarian Right to dismiss the whole issue of cultural appropriation as meaningless, except in narrowly legalistic terms. If something isn’t specifically protected under intellectual property law, there is no more to be said. Despite this, the concept of cultural appropriation is finding its way into legal discourse. In the face of a long and well-documented history of exploitation, legal scholars have, for example, proposed the concept of Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property as a way to allow claims of cultural appropriation to be litigated in court.
It is notoriously difficult to adjudicate cultural ownership. Culture is about use, as well as rights. Every writer, artist and musician understands that you have to create culture, not just defend its borders. A propertarian understanding of culture as a possession – a copyrighted hoard from which the culture-haver creates tradeable goods and services – fails to capture the dynamic creative processes that make it more than heritage. If there is a bourgeois economics of culture whose hallmarks are accumulation, conservation and investment, there is also a vital cultural economy of expenditure without hope of recompense, of reckless display, even of waste. The tension between culture as living practice – something with fuzzy boundaries that, in a certain sense, depends on the transgression of limits – and culture as a storehouse of IP, is at the heart of the current culture war.
Of course, this all sounds like the kind of thing the man says when he’s trying to get you to work for free or take your work and exploit it for himself. It is always instructive to see who is making appeals to art for art’s sake, and in what contexts. If you have the political aim of promoting the access of minority producers to networks of cultural power and influence, it is sensible to follow the money. Who gets to work? Who gets reviewed? Who gets paid? There is a clear progressive cultural politics here that does not depend on policing who is ‘allowed’ to make particular gestures or address particular material.
For some, that politics is insufficient. It is striking to see how the therapeutic discourse of trauma and survival has now become part of the way cultural objects are discussed, particularly when it comes to appropriation. If minorities are the bearers of historical trauma, the argument is that this can be triggered by certain material, particularly in the hands of those with privilege. This isn’t just to say that people may find an artwork, book or film morally abhorrent, boring, reactionary or unworthy of media attention because it is derivative of the work of a neglected minority artist. It is to say that it causes them stress or pain. This is an inflammatory accusation, which has the side effect of restoring to art its lost modernist power: the power to shock or psychically alter the viewer.
We have long claimed that art ought to be violent (the press-release term is ‘challenging’) in certain circumstances and that one of its functions is to administer such modernist shocks to the social body, etherized on its table. But who gets to crank the handle and who is strapped to the gurney? And if harm is done during the procedure, what are appropriate and proportionate reparations?
I believe that regardless of how we understand cultural appropriation, those of us who find the concept meaningful need to have an honest conversation about the boundary between appropriation and legitimate engagement. Unless you are an ethnic nationalist, chances are that you believe engagement across lines of ‘cultural ownership’ is not only desirable but necessary for what used to be called ‘the mutual understanding of peoples’. I am a fiction writer, and the project of fiction would be impossible without transgressions of this kind. It’s inherent in the form of narrative fiction that the writer speaks in voices that are not his or her own. Short of total solipsism, it is unavoidable.
Determining the boundary between engagement and appropriation in the abstract is a doomed undertaking. Each work, each gesture takes place within a particular matrix of history and relations of power. As a novelist, the recognition that I have no choice but to engage doesn’t absolve me from criticism. Nor am I obliged to be grateful for someone else’s attention to the things I consider mine to make and interpret. Asymmetrical relations of power are real and the question of who gets to be an authority is a loaded one. We must remember that engagement is not just an ethical imperative, but also a political demand that we have long made of white artists. Right now they may be forgiven for considering the price too high. Within the space of engagement, there has to be room for failure, but in 2017 failure is treated as absolute. Of course, failure in this context is neither ‘just’ nor purely aesthetic, but has other overtones, personal and political. Lazy or spiteful attention can be worse than none at all, and no one should have to grovel for ‘scraps from the table’, but the notion that an artistic failure should necessarily lead to absolute and permanent disqualification from making art is a politically useless form of scapegoating. In internet discussions of cultural appropriation, the highly charged rhetoric of individualized sin and shame, though couched in political terms, smacks of secularized Puritan moralizing.
In an excoriating 2013 essay, the critic Mark Fisher, angry at the hollowing-out of Leftist politics by liberalism, identified a formation he termed ‘The Vampires’ Castle’:
The Vampires’ Castle specializes in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd. The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if – and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought – that one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements. The Vampires’ Castle was born in the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognized by a bourgeois big Other.
The priest’s desire, the pedant’s desire and the hipster’s desire have driven the metastasization of critique into call-out. Instead of a politics of liberation, we risk being left with impotence, fragmentation and resentment. If a progressive cultural politics means exiting the Vampires’ Castle, it means leaving some cherished heroes waving from the battlements: the artist as fearless transgressor, the survivor as Christ-like victim and, above all, the virtuous gatekeeper who opens the door to the marginalized outsider and turns over the tables of the appropriators in the great hall. It means rediscovering the productive and creative possibilities of the struggle to escape our definitions, not just the libidinal pleasures of policing their borders.