Friday, April 3, 2020

Unpopular Opinion #257: Contra 'Cultural Appropriation'

When asked what it means to be a humanist in the twenty-first century, I like to quote, unoriginally, that locus classicus of humanism from the ancient Roman playwright Terence: "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto": I am a man, and nothing human is alien to me.


As a humanist, I consider the entirety of human cultural production to be the inheritance of every human being. This idea obviates and negates the currently popular discourse of 'cultural appropriation,' an idea born of identity politics, tribalism, ahistoricism, aesthetic ignorance, misdirected political energy, and a kind of xenophobia just as stupid and pernicious as that spouted by Trump supporters wearing MAGA dunce caps. Anyone who has studied deeply any aspect of human culture--art, politics, economics, religion, whatever--knows that the history of culture is a history of cultural appropriation. To appropriate another Latin tag, ex nihilo nihil fit: Nothing comes from nothing. Every cultural product--every poem, every painting, every novel, every economic theory--comes out of, is influenced by, borrows from, earlier products of its own and other cultures. This is how cultures live and grow. Or as that great literary cat burglar T. S. Eliot once wrote, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." Years ago on the Guardian books site a commenter remarked that the brilliant contemporary London writer Iain Sinclair "stole everything from the Situationists." I replied with the following sarcastic mini-diatribe:


"Yes, in the same sense that the writers of the New Testament stole the Messiah idea from the Old Testament, later Christians stole the Jewish sacred texts and renamed them the 'Old Testament' (what chutzpah!), Homer stole the Troy and Odysseus tales from folk tradition, Socrates stole his peripatetic philosopher shtick from the Sophists, Dante stole Hell, Purgatory and Paradise from mystics and theologians, Shakespeare stole the events of Titus Andronicus from Ovid's tale of the rape of Philomel and the Sonnets from Sidney and Surrey, Milton stole from the book of Genesis (which stole from even more ancient Mesopotamian sources), Blake stole from everyone Milton stole from as well as from Milton himself, Fielding stole from Cervantes (as did Sterne, Diderot, and all the postmodern novelists from Barth through Rushdie), Joyce stole from Homer, Woolf stole from Joyce, Nabokov stole from Lewis Carroll (who stole everything from poor, pedophilic Charles Dodgson), and so forth and so on unto the last syllable of intelligent writing (which may be written any day now). As T. S. Eliot (and George Eliot, who stole from Balzac) knew, it's not whom you steal from; it's what you do with the stuff you steal. And Iain Sinclair has done fantastic things with what the Situationists left lying around."


A similar expostulation might be written for every field of human endeavor. In art history, Picasso invented Cubism partly by appropriating the figural style of African masks; in turn, Latin American painters such as Diego Rivera, Wifredo Lam and Roberto Matta appropriated some of Picasso's styles and techniques. The Impressionist and Post-Impressionist appropriation of Japanese prints is well known, but more obscure is critic Kirk Varnedoe's argument in A Fine Disregard that the characteristic style of those prints was influenced by European Renaissance paintings and drawings, prints of which circulated in Japan in the 1700s. Likewise, in the history of cinema we might mention Akira Kurosawa's appropriation of John Ford and Quentin Tarantino's later appropriation of John Woo. In the history of thought, Marx and Engels were influenced by American anthropologist L. H. Morgan, a student of Iroquois culture. In politics, Mahatma Gandhi's satyagraha (nonviolent resistance) was appropriated partly from the writings of Thoreau; Gandhi's idea was then appropriated by Martin Luther King, Jr. for the American Civil Rights movement, and so on... 


The life of human culture knows neither borders nor oceans nor differences of tongue. Appropriation is the beating heart of culture. If we attempt to police or control it, we might stop the heart and kill the mind.

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