Pandaemonium

WHO IS APPROPRIATING WHAT?

mounir-fatmi-modern-times

Last week the novelist Lionel Shriver gave the keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival. It did not go well. She addressed the question of ‘Fiction and identity politics’ (apparently the organizers had originally asked her to talk about ‘community and belonging’, but she had submitted to them a different topic), providing a robust critique of identity politics and of the idea of ‘cultural appropriation’. Beginning with a story about colleges attempting to ban the wearing of sombreros as an act of cultural appropriation, Shriver observed,

The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.

.

In the latest ethos, which has spun well beyond college campuses in short order, any tradition, any experience, any costume, any way of doing and saying things, that is associated with a minority or disadvantaged group is ring-fenced: look-but-don’t-touch. Those who embrace a vast range of ‘identities’ – ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability – are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.

Shriver picked up on the definition of cultural appropriation by Susan Scafidi, law professor at Fordham University, 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’, Shriver observed,

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?

She then argued that cultural appropriation lies at the heart of all fiction writing:

who is the appropriator par excellence, really? Who assumes other people’s voices, accents, patois, and distinctive idioms? Who literally puts words into the mouths of people different from themselves? Who dares to get inside the very heads of strangers, who has the chutzpah to project thoughts and feelings into the minds of others, who steals their very souls? Who is a professional kidnapper? Who swipes every sight, smell, sensation, or overheard conversation like a kid in a candy store, and sometimes take notes the better to purloin whole worlds? Who is the premier pickpocket of the arts?

.

The fiction writer, that’s who.

.

This is a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best.

Finally, Shriver challenged the meaning of identity as it is often currently understood:

Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived. I reviewed a novel recently that I had regretfully to give a thumbs-down, though it was terribly well intended; its heart was in the right place. But in relating the Chinese immigrant experience in America, the author put forward characters that were mostly Chinese. That is, that’s sort of all they were: Chinese. Which isn’t enough.

.

I made this same point in relation to gender in Melbourne last week: both as writers and as people, we should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth. If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us. We pigeonhole ourselves. We limit our own notion of who we are, and in presenting ourselves as one of a membership, a representative of our type, an ambassador of an amalgam, we ask not to be seen.

Shriver’s speech caused a ruction, both at the festival and globally. One audience member, the Australian writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied, ostentatiously walked out of the lecture live tweeting her actions on Twitter. Another apparently accosted Shriver later demanding, ‘How dare you come to my country and offend our minorities?’ The Festival organisers removed from their website links to Shriver’s talk, while also organising a ‘right to reply ‘session with, among others Abdel-Magied and the Korean-American author Suki Kim.  Lionel Shriver was not at this session because it was deliberately organised at the same time as Shriver was speaking, promoting her new novel The Mandibles. There is something more than a little ironic for a festival of writers to remove from their website the keynote speech at the festival because some objected to it, and to organise a ‘right to reply’ while both ensuring that the speaker being replied to cannot attend and removing the speech which is being replied to. The Festival seemed less concerned with opening up debate than with assuaging hurt feelings.

mohammad-ehsai-untitled

Abdel-Magied later wrote an article venting her fury, published in the Guardian and on Medium. The issue raised by Shriver, Abdel-Magied suggested, ‘was — or could have been — an interesting question: What are fiction writers “allowed” to write, given they will never truly know another person’s experience?’ There is, Abdel-Magied suggested, ‘a fascinating philosophical argument here’. Instead, however,

that core question was used as a straw man. Shriver’s real targets were cultural appropriation, identity politics and political correctness. It was a monologue about the right to exploit the stories of ‘others’, simply because it is useful for one’s story.

Abdel-Magied’s point was not simply that Shriver was missing the point, or was mistaken in her arguments. It was rather that in targeting ‘cultural appropriation, identity politics and political correctness’ Shriver was committing some kind of thought crime, that it was simply unacceptable in some deep moral sense for Shriver to tackle these issues as she did.

The issues that Shriver raised are a matter of debate and contention. What is striking about much of the criticism, though, is the sense not that Shriver is mistaken in her beliefs, but that she should not have said what she said, and that what she said was in some way a personal attack on all minoprity or non-Western writers. Even more nuanced accounts of the controversy could not shed the sense that Shriver had somehow crossed a line that she should not have. Writing in the Guardian, Nesrine Malik criticized both Shriver and Abdel-Magied.  Shriver, she wrote, was ‘disrespectful’ and showed insufficient ‘humility’. Disrespectful how? Certainly Shriver was contemptuous of identity politics and of ideas of cultural appropriation and mocked attempts to ban appropriation. What is wrong with that? There is a world of difference between being contemptuous of ideas or beliefs and being disrespectful of people holding those ideas or beliefs. Unfortunately, the line between the two has become increasingly blurred.

According to Abdel-Magied, Shriver’s attitude

drips of racial supremacy, and the implication is clear: ‘I don’t care what you deem is important or sacred. I want to do with it what I will. Your experience is simply a tool for me to use, because you are less human than me. You are less than human…’

The insistence that one should not challenge or question ideas or beliefs that some may deem ‘important or sacred’ is a deeply pernicious claim, the modern secularized version of religious blasphemy. And, as I have argued many times,  those who suffer most from such an insistence are those whose interests Abdel-Magied claims to be defending – minorities and the powerless:

‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged.  To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged… Once we give up on the right to offend in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.

Who is appropriating what in Abdel-Magied’s argument? She is appropriating the right to define what may be said by whom about issues she regards as ‘important or sacred’. In other words, she is setting herself up as a gatekeeper to particular identities or cultures. But it’s the gatekeepers who are the problem. ‘The real fight against injustice’, as I have observed, ‘begins with ridding ourselves of our self-appointed gatekeepers’.

In her Guardian article critical of both Shriver and Abdel-Magied, Nesrine Malik pointed out that

To demand that writers not encroach upon the experience of others is a death sentence that seeks to limit us not only by what we know, but also by our place in a hierarchy of inequality. The most valuable literature not only teaches us what we do not know about others (and ourselves), but also reminds us that common human traits – love, fear, loss, family – bind us together both vertically throughout history but also horizontally across race, gender, disability and sexual orientation.

Similarly, the novelist Aminatta Forna observed last year,

The way of literature is to seek universality. Writers try to reach beyond those things that divide us: culture, class, gender, race. Given the chance, we would resist classification. I have never met a writer who wishes to be described as a female writer, gay writer, black writer, Asian writer or African writer. We hyphenated writers complain about the privilege accorded to the white male writer, he who dominates the western canon and is the only one called simply “writer”.

Forna posted on her Facebook wall the question: “Where did the new orthodoxy arise that writers must only set stories within their own country of origin or nationality?” To which the novelist Kamila Shamsie responded:

When I was at uni in America in the 90s there was a lot of criticism around the idea of ‘appropriating’ other people’s stories. What started as a thoughtful post-colonial critique of certain types of imperial texts somehow became a peculiar orthodoxy that essentially denies the possibility of imaginative engagement with anyone outside your little circle.

marcos-grigorian

Many supporters of the campaign against cultural appropriation argue, like Abdel-Magied, that theirs is a stance against racism:

It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity?

It is true that women, blacks, minorities, face discrimination and can find it difficult to make their voices heard. That requires a social challenge to racism and inequality.  Claiming certain identities or cultures or ideas as one’s own, upon which others cannot encroach, creates not a more just world but a more fragmented one that makes the struggle for equal treatment and universal rights more difficult. The campaigns against cultural appropriation express not a struggle for equality but the disintegration of the meaning of ‘anti-racism’:

Once it meant to struggle for equal treatment for all. Now it means defining the correct etiquette for a plural society. The campaign against cultural appropriation is about policing manners rather than transforming society.

As for Abdel-Magied’s claim that challenging ideas of cultural appropriation is to believe that ‘You are less than human’, the ‘kind of attitude that lays the foundation for prejudice, for hate, for genocide’, it is not only overheated to the point of hysteria, it is also the reverse of the truth. The ideas that now underlie the claims about cultural appropriation once underlay racial ideas:

The idea that the world could be divided into distinct cultures, and that every culture belonged to a particular people, has its roots in late eighteenth century Europe. The Romantic movement, which developed in part in opposition to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, celebrated cultural differences and insisted on the importance of ‘authentic’ ways of being. For Johann Gottfried Herder, the German philosopher who best articulated the Romantic notion of culture, what made each people – or volk – unique was its particular language, history and modes of living. The unique nature of each volk was expressed through its volksgeist – the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history.

.

Herder was no reactionary – he was an important champion of equality – but his ideas about culture were adopted by reactionary thinkers. Those ideas became central to racial thinking – the notion of the volksgeist was transformed into the concept of racial make-up – and fuelled the belief that non-Western societies were ‘backward’ because of their ‘backward’ cultures.

.

Radicals challenging racism and colonialism rejected the Romantic view of culture, adopting instead a universalist perspective. From the struggle against slavery to the anti-colonial movements, the aim was not to protect one’s own special culture but to create a more universal culture in which all could participate on equal terms.

.

In recent decades, however, the universalist viewpoint has eroded, largely as many of the social movements that embodied that viewpoint have disintegrated. The social space vacated by that disintegration became filled by identity politics. As the broader struggles for social transformation have faded, people have tended to retreat into their particular faiths or cultures, and to embrace more parochial forms of identity. In this process, the old cultural arguments of the racists have returned, but now rebranded as ‘antiracist’.

shafaq ahmad al mussawar

The dangers of promoting claims of ‘cultural ownership’ can be seen in contemporary discussions of immigration in which many on the right (and not just on the right) use (‘appropriate’) arguments about cultural difference and ownership to make the case against immigration as undermining their culture and values. In his book Multicultural Politics, the Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka makes a case for the right of cultures to protect their unique characters from changes wrought from the outside. ‘It is right and proper’, he argues, ‘that the character of a culture changes as a result of the choices of its  members.’  But ‘while it is one thing to learn from the larger world’, he insists, it is quite another ‘to be swamped by it’. That is, I have observed, ‘a telling phrase’:

For the fear of being ‘swamped’ has long been a rightwing trope, used to whip up fears about immigration and about the Other. ‘It’s not our country any more’, has become the common cry of those opposed to immigration. ‘There are now substantially growing areas in many of our major cities which are in some important respects rather more like foreign countries than those of the ordinary English domestic scene’, argues the Oxford demographer David Coleman, a leading critic of immigration . ‘They’re not parts of the country where most English people will want to go.’  This has led to the ‘dethronement’ of what ‘the ordinary people of Britain… take to be their national identity and their history.’

Kymlicka, I noted, is liberal to his bones, resolutely hostile to such reactionary arguments against immigration. But once it becomes a matter of political principle that cultures should not be swamped by outsiders, then it is difficult to know how one could possibly resist anti-immigration arguments.

We can see the problem in Lionel Shriver own work. In a review of novels on immigration, Shriver makes the interesting and valid point that most novels about migration are from the viewpoint of immigrants, rarely from that of the ‘host communities’. She goes on, however, to talk of immigration seemingly as a form of inappropriate cultural invasion.  ‘Illegal immigration’, she claims, ‘occasions the sensation of a householder when total strangers burst through his front door without knocking and take up indefinite residence in the guest room’. Mass immigration, she insists ‘duplicate[s] the experience of military occupation – your nation is no longer your home’. Westerners, she argues, are ‘being made to feel a foreigner in one’s own country’, and reveal ‘understandably primal reactions to the compromise of one’s home’. For Shriver then, it seems that certain cultures, certain ideas of ‘home’ – but only certain ones – must be protected against ‘invasion’ and  change.

This might suggest that Abdel-Magied is right in her critique of Shriver. In fact what it reveals is that Shriver’s argument about immigration to the West is not that different from that of Abdel-Magied about Western cultural imperialism. That makes the critique of cultural appropriation and cultural ownership not less valid but, ironically, more urgent.

.

My thanks to Jonathan Portes for pointing me to Lionel Shriver’s book review on migrant novels.

The paintings are ‘Modern Times’ by Mounir Fatmi; Mohammad Ehsai, ‘Untitled’; Marcos Grigorian, ‘Untitled’; and Shafaq Ahmad, ‘Al Mussawwar’. The cover image is ‘The Blues’ by Zahi Khamis.

27 comments

  1. Ted

    Your closing point “Shriver’s argument about immigration to the West is not that different from that of Abdel-Magied about Western cultural imperialism” unfairly equates the two positions.

    It’s not difficult to visualise the impact on host communities of sudden, large scale immigration (or it’s historical equivalent, colonisation). Historically that impact has ranged from human destruction (I’m thinking of the introduction of smallpox to Native Americans by European colonists) to milder effects such as social dislocation, loss of community solidarity, strain on public resources, etc, from modern day mass immigration. One can argue that these latter impacts are exaggerated by the media, or worsened by bad government policies in public service planning, but at least one can easily visualise and maybe empathise with the people ‘on the receiving end’.

    But what are we to make of the impact of cultural appropriation? Firstly, we are not talking about appropriation in the sense of taking away a fixed resource or asset from one group to give to another. When the waiter at my local tex-mex restaurant dons a sombrero, he does not reduce the sombreros available to Mexicans. If I (English) write about a fictional character in Mumbai, I have not consumed a share of some finite quantum of Mumbai culture, at the expense of that city’s residents. I have not lessened the ability of a local resident to tell their own story, nor interpret or share their own story. This is abstract content we are talking about, not land and livelihoods. When the shoe is on the other foot and I see a ‘British pub’ in Tokyo, my reaction is not a sense of loss, invasion or mockery, but more a mild amusement at what does or does not interest the Japanese about my home country. So, besides a few upset Marxists in academia, what exactly is the damage caused by cultural appropriation and to whom, and is it really comparable to the impact Shriver was referencing from immigration?

    • What links the two is that both are rooted in Romantic, Herderian notions of culture: the idea that there are certain fixed notions of ‘culture’ or ‘home’, and that only certain people should define the character or boundaries of those cultures. Both embody notions of ‘authentic’ belonging. The point that both miss is that cultures are neither fixed nor owned but continually and constantly changing, and continually and constantly changing because of social interaction. In her comments on immigration, Shriver is not making a point about smallpox or even about social solidarity but, like Abdel Magied, about that sense of ‘authentic belonging’. Shriver wants to preserve the authenticity of the host culture from being made too ‘foreign’, that is to preserve the authentic essence of national culture. Both her analogy about strangers bursting into one’s house and taking residence and the extraordinary comparison of immigration to military invasion speaks to this. Romantic views of culture can be expressed in multicultural or in nationalist terms. But in whichever way they are expressed, they are problematic.

      I certainly empathise with those who feel ‘at the receiving end’. But the point is that they are usually at the receiving end, not primarily of immigration but of broader social and political changes. These changes have, however, come to been seen in terms of cultural loss and immigration has come to be seen as symbolic of that loss. So long as we continue to view political, economic and social marginalization in cultural terms then we will not be able to address the real reasons for that marginalization.

      • Ted

        Thank you for the reply, which added a lot to my understanding. I need to re-read your other posts to see if I am convinced that perceived cultural loss from immigration is really explained as ‘broader social and political changes’. I had always seen these as compound i.e. social and political changes such as the growth of individualism, loss of work-based solidarity (unions, working men’s clubs, etc), are compounded by rapid immigration (either actual or in nearby locales, creating fear) that adds to a sense of lessening solidarity and social trust as The Others do not immediately share the same language, social customs, historical reference points and so on. I see I need to read your argument with David Goodhart!

        • I made a related brief comment on Abdel-Magied’s Medium post, with reference to contemporary debate among writers https://medium.com/@holtzermann17/james-has-the-useful-label-cultural-ventriloquism-for-the-kind-of-effect-you-described-shriver-2a0626ae9775#.eyuv8ml32

          Ted, I feel your comments bring a class aspect into it that isn’t so transparent elsewhere in the discussion: and this does seem important! If as Marlon James argues (via link above) ‘Writers of colour pander to the white woman’, keep in mind that the Writer is not pandering to all white women, but to the ones who buy books.

          “that archetype of the white woman, that long-suffering, astringent prose set in suburbia. You know, ‘older mother or wife sits down and thinks about her horrible life’.”

          She, this Reader, may not have much to do with “work-based solidarity” — has she ever worked in her ‘horrible’ life? Her experience may be very different from e.g. the next-door neighbour of the Writer.

  2. nannus

    The idea that I as a German „white“ male must not use cultural forms developed by other groups (like, say, the Cameroonian ancestors of my wife), i.e. I must not commit “cultural appropriation”, is a deeply racist one. The racism is not in what is called “cultural appropriation” but in claiming that it is something bad. If I learn a dance from an African culture, information is passed from some Africans, who teach it to me, to me. If I would not respect them and their culture, why should I invest the considerable time it takes to understand that music and dance? If I am forbidden to do so, because I am “white” that means that people are distinguished into groups (“white” and “non-white” or “black” or whatever, based on the color of the skin (a trait that has absolutely nothing to do with the culture or my ability to learn that dance).To deny me the right to gain this skill would be an act of racism.

    My daughter, on the other hand, would then be allowed to learn that dance, because of her Cameroonian ancestry? What a strange kind of argumentation. Actually, according to that way of thinking, she would only be allowed to learn things invented by Kom people and by Germans (including Chech people since I also have ancestors from there). She must not learn anything invented by other ethninc groups in Cameroon, nor by other Africans. She must not learn anything invented by British, Indian, French, or Chinese people.

    I am not even allowed to write in English, according to that logic, so let me continue in German. Aber dann verstehen mich hier die meisten Leser nicht mehr. I must not use letters from the Roman alphabet. I must not even write. I must not wear cotton clothes since cotton was originally domesticated in the Sudan.

    And so on. This “cultural appropriation” argument is absolutely ridiculous and extremely racist. It does not understand the basic fact of culture: culture is information and information can be copied and shared without diminishing. As a result, practically all cultures are mixes of elements from many parts of the world.

    What can be appropriated is not culture (information) but artefacts. Yes, the British museum should return the bronzes stolen from Ife and Bini, but they may replace them with replicas (retaining the information) so all people visiting the museum can see how marvelous they are.

    I am going to continue dancing Adowa, Makossa, Soukous and other African dances I have learned. No African watching me dancing ever told me I did not have the right to learn these dances, and some have been my teachers. Restricting the right to learn this to Africans or to members of the respective ethnic groups would have been an act of racism. In fact, if person A invents something and person B uses it, claiming to have the right because of a shared identity (e.g. belonging to the same ethnic group), what you get is some kind of nationalism or identity-based chauvinism. Different people are assigned to arbitrarily defined groups (“ethnic groups”, “nations”, “races”) and then assign different rights to those people.
    Of course, the Adowa I am dancing is taken out of the context in which this dance is often employed in its original culture. For me and in my experience, it is an extremely beautiful movement that feels wonderful, a piece of proprioceptive art of extraordinary quality. In its original cultural context, it is a funeral dance. I know that and I would not join into its use on a funeral if I have no relationship to the deceased person. But in a context where people use this movement (or any other) just for fun, I see no reason not to do the same. I listen to Jazz, to Highlife, to Akpala music, to Vietnamese Ca Tru music and many other kinds of music (including German classical music, Italian Classical music etc.).

    All the innovators and inventors of Germany are not among my personal ancestors, as far as I know. According to the logic of “cultural appropriation” I can only use things invented by Germans. But what is my connection to those inventors. If they are not my direct ancestors, why should I restrict myself to things invented by them? Ancestry is a matter of genetics and biology. The spread of cultural ideas has nothing to do with genetics, but with language.
    On what basis are the groups constructed that claim to have exclusive rights on the use of some cultural information. If they are constructed on the base of skin color or ancestry, the idea of the badness of “cultural appropriation” seems rather near to the ideas of the Nazis.

    But as cultural groups, these groups are, of course, constructs of culture. And as such, they can be criticized and questioned. The “cultural appropriation” argument, it appears to me, comes out of some form of nationalism or other groupism. It is far right wing.

    I will continue to integrate elements of many cultures into my personal mix. An “identity” is not a membership in a group, it is your personal, unique mix. It is always a mix. I will continue to be culturally partially African, partially German, and have some elements from many other parts of the world. I will continue admiring ancient Vietnamese and ancient Australian rock art and art from North West Coast Native Americans. Cultural purity (connected to “blood”) is a Nazi idea. Since I am not a Nazi, I am going to continue having and valuing many roots.

    • nannus

      One more note: the author of a bad book should not be criticized because of his “identity” as a “white male” or whatever he/she is but because he/she wrote a bad book, a piece of kitsch or whatever. Criticizing her/him based on some (constructed!) “identity” is an ad-hominem argument. It is a racist insult, not a valid criticism. On the other hand, it the book is good, there is no point in such criticism.

  3. “Shriver wants to preserve the … authentic essence of national culture.” Essence indeed. The entire exchange between Shriver, Abdel Magied, and their ilk is about which Platonic Ideal should be used. They are not opposites. They are debating fine points of a shared philosophy.

    The proper debate is whether Platonic Ideals should be used at all. How can someone argue that some vague idea we make up for convenience, such as nation or culture or economic class or victimization status, is more real than actual human beings you can touch, help, love, or kill? And how can someone argue that, when you use one of these vague constructs to put human beings into boxes and then do things to them because they are in the wrong box, you’ve done anything but evil?

  4. To me the question is, how do these ideas affect a writer’s ability to represent a diverse society? If I am allowed only to write from the point of view of my own ethnic group, since I am a white American Jew, I will end up perpetuating the kind of segregation I have fought all my life. I have written two historical novels about radical Jewish immigrants from Russia to the US. After the first was published, my friend Alice Childress, a black feminist writer older than me, with roots in the Harlem Renaissance, telephoned. Couldn’t you have put in just one teeny black character? she asked. Completely taken aback, I stammered something about how I thought I wasn’t supposed to. She said that was nonsense; I should write about the whole society as best as I could and if I got something wrong, just take my lumps. I did as she suggested in the sequel to my first novel and found it enabled me to reframe some of the story I had covered in the first. And I have been true to Alice’s instructions since. Which has not made it easier to get my fiction published–though that may have more to do with changes in the publishing industry than political booby traps.

  5. From my own experience I can tell that people from other cultures do not reject foriegners “apropriating” it, on the contrary, they see it as a sing of respect for their culture if you show interest in it. South Americans enjoy and encourage Europeans learning to dance Salsa or Tango and are themselves inertested in european culture.

  6. “Shriver’s argument about immigration to the West is not that different from that of Abdel-Magied about Western cultural imperialism.”
    How convenient that you and Shriver both ignore the history of empire. Most people would like to stay in the land of their birth. They’re not traveling for fun and adventure.

    You equate Shriver’s glib moralizing with the arguments of her critics. It makes it easier for you to sound superior and donnish. None of them are defending absurd claims about yoga and sushi. You’re not the only adult in the room.

    “Shriver makes the interesting and valid point that most novels about migration are from the viewpoint of immigrants, rarely from that of the ‘host communities’.” Wow. Shriver’s more of an idiot that I thought. “Racist” may not be too strong a word. Ast to art: Henry James’ argument against historical fiction is an argument for writing from what you know. All fiction is ventriloquism, but Iggy Azalea’s language has become a debate topic while Eminem hasn’t.

    It’s a topic for discussion. See the old debate about William Styron and Nat Turner. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/07/books/review/Row-t.html

    Also there was no censorship.
    https://newrepublic.com/article/136815/happened-brisbane

    • You write

      “Shriver’s argument about immigration to the West is not that different from that of Abdel-Magied about Western cultural imperialism.”

      .

      How convenient that you and Shriver both ignore the history of empire.

      And how convenient of you to ignore my argument. At the heart of my piece is an argument about how to challenge racism, imperialism, injustice. Since you seem to have missed it, let me repeat it here:

      Radicals challenging racism and colonialism rejected the Romantic view of culture, adopting instead a universalist perspective. From the struggle against slavery to the anti-colonial movements, the aim was not to protect one’s own special culture but to create a more universal culture in which all could participate on equal terms.

      .

      In recent decades, however, the universalist viewpoint has eroded, largely as many of the social movements that embodied that viewpoint have disintegrated. The social space vacated by that disintegration became filled by identity politics. As the broader struggles for social transformation have faded, people have tended to retreat into their particular faiths or cultures, and to embrace more parochial forms of identity. In this process, the old cultural arguments of the racists have returned, but now rebranded as ‘antiracist’.

      In other words, the problem with campaigns against cultural appropriation is that far from challenging injustice they resurrect forms of thinking that buttressed racism and empire in the first place. And, again as I pointed out, such campaigns are at heart about policing manners rather than transforming society, the products of the disintegration of the meaning of ‘anti-racism’.

      I have no doubt that you will disagree. But at least try to engage with what I have to say.

      You write:

      “Shriver makes the interesting and valid point that most novels about migration are from the viewpoint of immigrants, rarely from that of the ‘host communities’.” Wow. Shriver’s more of an idiot that I thought. “Racist” may not be too strong a word.

      You seem unable to comprehend that it is possible to profoundly disagree with someone on one point while also accepting that they may have other things to say that are interesting and valid. The point that Shriver makes about immigrant novels is valid (and factually true). What is not valid is her arguments about the impact of immigration, arguments about which I was critical (perhaps you had not noticed that). But my point is that the same view of culture undergirds Shriver’s arguments about the impact of immigration and the arguments of those complaining about ‘cultural appropriation’. For you it’s enough to denounce Shriver as ‘racist’, without recognizing that you are promoting similar kinds of views about culture. For me it’s necessary to point out the reactionary arguments on both sides.

      • “most novels about migration are from the viewpoint of immigrants, rarely from that of the ‘host communities’.”
        You’re asking for fantasy fiction. The literature that lasts is observational not speculative. That’s why we divide it into periods. Historians do the same for philosophy, which of course horrifies philosophers who pretend to be engaged in a timeless, universal, activity.

        • The novel form uses characters and situations to explore truths about the human condition that transcend identity. One hopes that you did not take from Moby Dick that obsession is a characteristic limited to white males.

          You are welcome to spend your life obsessing about what Paul Simon called the myth of fingerprints. I’ll spend mine exploring our common humanity and ways to improve the human condition for all people.

    • Given that I quoted from those last paragraphs, and was highly critical of Shriver’s arguments in those paragraphs, I don’t think it’s me that’s blind.

      • You don’t respond to the actual points made by her critics; you respond based on your own assumptions that they’re as childish as the idiots who scream about yoga and sushi.

        Shriver’s new novel is being compared with Houellebecq. Now tell me again about universalism.

        Here she is writing in the FP in 2006
        http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/bf3ff562-e21c-11da-bf4c-0000779e2340.html

        “So are the powerful emotions surrounding immigration on the receiving end inherently unworthy of compassion? Are westerners who are uncomfortable with a tide of uninvited new arrivals ipso facto the villains of the tale? I think not. That discomfort need not proceed from bigotry alone, but surely from the same primitive notion of home that concerns Segun Afolabi. Illegal immigration occasions the sensation of a householder when total strangers burst through his front door without knocking and take up indefinite residence in the guest room. Britain memorialises its natives’ brave fight against the Nazis in the second world war. In sufficient quantity, the arrival of foreign populations can begin to duplicate the experience of military occupation – your nation is no longer your home. Yet native western citizenries are implicitly told on a daily basis that to object is prejudiced, and they had best keep their mouths shut. This is a silencing in which fiction has been complicit.
        As an American resident of Britain, I am an immigrant myself. Perhaps I can never quite regard the UK as home either, so that on my yearly trips to New York City I would like to relish returning somewhere that is. Yet one in four adults in New York today does not speak English. The recreation area where I once hit a tennis ball against a backboard in Riverside Park has now been colonised by immigrants from Guatemala. The last few times I practised my forehand, I drew wary looks and felt unwelcome. I don’t practise there any more, and I resent that a bit. Does that make me a bigot? In a story, would I look bad?”

        Here she is interviewed recently
        “Lionel Shriver’s American Collapse.”
        http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/lionel-shrivers-american-collapse
        “’I really like the idea of this country, and I wish we were more loyal to it,’ she said. “I think the initial concept of a place where you could do pretty much whatever you wanted to as long as you didn’t hurt anybody else is positively brilliant. And most countries don’t have ideas. Most countries are just places, and collective histories.”

        You criticize culture as an idea, but your pompous superior “universalism” is a culture. Modernism is a collection of cultural tropes. It failed. If you want to talk about the move away from universalism talk about CIA support for the Muslim Brotherhood against Nassar, and Israel fostering Hamas as a counter to secular socialist Fatah.
        Tell me about US UK and French arms sales and support for Saudi. Details matter. You remind me of Naipaul, a colonial more British than the British. That too is a cultural trope.

        • If you want to talk about the move away from universalism talk about CIA support for the Muslim Brotherhood against Nassar, and Israel fostering Hamas as a counter to secular socialist Fatah.
          Tell me about US UK and French arms sales and support for Saudi. Details matter.

          You mean like this article on how Israel helped create Hamas? Or this on the role of the West in supporting Saudi Arabia? And since ‘details matter’, it is worth pointing out that both Nasser and his successor Sadat let Muslim Brotherhood militants out of jail and encouraged them to organize against the left, a policy analogous to Israel’s encouragement of Hamas. And that the problem is not merely the West supporting the Muslim Brotherhood when it suits it, but also consistently supporting Egypt’s secular dictators against its people.

          But it is, to use a word that you seem fond of, ‘fantasy’ to imagine that the actions of Israel or Britain or the USA are the cause of the ‘move away from universalism’. To understand the roots of anti-universalist sentiment on the left we need to look at the left itself and its development.

          your pompous superior “universalism” is a culture. Modernism is a collection of cultural tropes. It failed.

          Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. Universalism is not a ‘culture’ (for some people, it seems, everything is a ‘culture’). It is a political and moral viewpoint that lies at the heart of modern progressive thought (and at the root of notions such equality and democracy). Modern anti-universalist arguments are the products of the reaction against the Enlightenment, and have given rise to some of the most backward sentiments of the past two hundred years, including the ideas that underpin race and empire. That ’radicalism’ has degenerated so far that some ‘radicals’ are happy to appropriate (and I use the word deliberately) the arguments of reaction, and to celebrate being ‘anti-modern’, is the real problem.

        • Shriver’s new novel is being compared with Houellebecq. Now tell me again about universalism.

          Again: You seem to blind to the fact that it is Shriver’s arguments about immigration that I criticized. But I also pointed out that such anti-immigration arguments are rooted in the same reactionary views of culture that underpin the arguments against cultural appropriation. And please don’t respond to this by saying yet again ‘But Shriver is reactionary about immigration’. I know. It was me that pointed it out.

        • You don’t respond to the actual points made by her critics; you respond based on your own assumptions that they’re as childish as the idiots who scream about yoga and sushi.

          Again you seem to ignore what I actually write. At the heart of my argument is the insistence that claims about cultural appropriation are rooted in the same reactionary views of culture that have underpinned ideas of race and empire (and seem to underpin Shriver’s views on immigration), an argument with which you have not engaged. You seem to want to criticize what you imagine I believe (I ‘ignore the history of empire’, I don’t talk about ‘Israel fostering Hamas as a counter to secular socialist Fatah’ or ‘US UK and French arms sales and support for Saudi’), rather than what I actually believe or write. Far from me not ‘respond[ing] to the actual points made by her critics’, you have so far signally failed to engage with any of my actual arguments, but simply thrown up new irrelevant fantasy claims each time that I have pointed out why your previous claim is wrong.

  7. Dan Richard

    Just a quick comment, and I hope somebody has the time to take this up.

    There’s a certain element to your final paragraphs that, as right as they are, only speak to one aspect of cultural appropriation – of something coming in and ‘swamping’ another. I am reminded of my time researching textiles in Eastern Indonesia, and witnessing cultural appropriation in action. Once investors – be they Balinese, Indonesian, French, Chinese, Australian – realised the potential value in cloth from Sumba, the aesthetic appeal of their motif and design, these designs were exported to areas for cheap production. Ritually significant designs, developed over countless changes to culture and belief systems, were taken by outsiders without respect to their meaning and mass-produced. Where this shifts towards a troublesome example of appropriation is when these cloths were sold into the tourist markets in Bali as ‘Sumbanese Cloth’. Since that time, the late 80’s and 90’s, the understanding of what Sumbanese cloth is has been shifted by the appropriators. Tales about the motif, of headhunters and cannibalism, were invented and embellished for the market by Balinese stall holders, and these narratives spread with the cloth as it traveled to the nations of their respective owners. Thus, Sumbanese culture was appropriated and created by non-Sumbanese in the image of whatever was most profitable.

    That, to me, is cultural appropriation.

    • I don’t, of course, know the specifics of the case you describe. But what you are describing seems an issue of exploitation of people rather than of cultural appropriation. It’s not fundamentally different from, say, the way that blues, rock and roll and r‘n’b, initially developed in African American communities (and called ‘race music’ and ignored by white radio stations), became exploited by (mainly white) businessmen; the way that someone like Elvis Presley came to be seen as the creator of rock and roll, and made millions, while black performers struggled, and were denied access to radio play and audiences. Would demanding that blues, rock and roll and r‘n’b were African American cultural forms, not to be appropriated by white performers, have been a useful way of tackling this injustice? I doubt if many would think so. The problem was that of institutionalized racism and of exploitation. That is what needed (and still needs) to be challenged, not ‘cultural appropriation’. The same, it seems to me, is true of Sumbanese textiles.

  8. Heinrich Sauer

    seems, resp. feels as it should be part of proceeding discuss
    greets by German native

    Cosm[et]ic

    man[hood] seems to be / dedicated|y on the fly… pardon / obviously in state of f|owin’… deeply

    kind of ambition{s}!? purely to get rid of pouring anger

    hain’t been only, but almost always, on the fly {al|-so-right, out of} now!?] //

    How the smartly unlocked gate, even if furiously, ought to be managed by his own fortune to keep up with ‘words of plenty, ye lonesome, by means o’

    standin’ [also trying to know how only {not alone} to be it?self!sh] on all over one tight ~wor|d~ steadily, tryin’ to [keep{in’ ^t} up with further over]flʸov^ver{s} nevertheless {out} oᵉver|y t’ing{s} anytime ?

    hs

  9. “The moral of the sombrero scandal”

    I’m Latin American… I can’t think of a single Latin American that would find offensive seeing a gringo wearing a sombrero… Latin Americans love when people speak Spanish or dance any of the thousand kinds of tunes the continent has produced. Cultural appropriation is encouraged… and the whole debate would sound really bizarre to anyone south of the Rio Bravo…

  10. In the limit, even the act of defending a particular cultural group can be seen as cultural appropriation: If you become outraged, you may be said to have appropriated their outrage. If you become upset, you have appropriated their pain, etc. Moreover, in order to become genuinely upset or outraged, you have to be able to imagine what that group is going through, i.e. you have, in some degree, to appropriate their experience. Then, if you make a living as a social activist, you benefit from this appropriation too.

  11. Jennifer Reese

    This is the most lucid, calm, nuanced, informed, complex, and persuasive analysis of the Lionel Shriver flap that I’ve read, and I think I’ve read them all. I especially appreciate the distinction you draw between exploitation and appropriation. Thank you so very much for this.

Comments are closed.