In my article ‘The trouble with cultural appropriation’ I took a critical stance against this concept and it’s popularisation through social media. I argued that the use of the concept, and much of the online bluster around it, often employs moralistic and essentialist presuppositions. Since I probably came across as a mansplaining arsehole I’ve written this follow up piece to take a more sympathetic angle. It’s always worth guarding against the cheaper arguments against so-called ‘identity politics’.
For starters, it’s good that there is a debate around this issue. Social media has many faults, but it has allowed new spaces for criticism to be heard. Particularly given that the music industry deserves more scrutiny than we are currently heaping upon it. So it’s more than a welcome sight to see people taking slingshots and aiming at the likes of Macklemore. Equally, we shouldn’t forget that culture is not immaterial, far from it. This is a really important side to this issue.
All music and television flow from economic formations. This isn’t to say it’s simply propaganda, but it may illuminate some dark corners. Plenty of contrarians like to engage in anti-identitarian ranting. It’s almost as easy as it is inexpensive. Even in the radical sections of the Left you will encounter arguments against identity politics (a curious category, from which they like to exclude class politics). It’s as if the vital questions of race, sexuality and gender are seen as post-materialist concerns. But this is utterly false. Social reproduction, under capitalist conditions, reinforces a whole array of norms and pressures.
As critical race theorists argue, black identity emerged in resistance to oppression: from the slave trade to present day wage labour. It’s undeniable that the music industry has squeezed black performers, and still does, for decades. The emphasis on exploitation should not be lost – philosophy and economy remain fundamental – if we want to politically engage with culture. So it’s more so about how the issue is framed I think. This isn’t to say anything remotely original. The concept has been applied in a much more radical way, which is not detached from political economy.
My friend Caroline Glassberg-Powell has applied cultural appropriation in just this way. In particular, she applied to instances of biopiracy in the Americas. One such example is that of the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and how it has been privatised by the capitalist system. This traditional knowledge applies to ecology and, specifically, how to procure and cultivate the desired harvests from the right seeds. The pharmaceutical industry can utilise traditional knowledge without accrediting indigenous people. Corporations can do this because, technically, traditional knowledge belongs to the commons.
The traditional Marxist analysis would see this as primitive accumulation. The legal foundations of property predicated upon expropriation, just as the famous phrase goes: “Property is theft”. The angle of cultural appropriation highlights the extent of the damage. The legacy of expropriation leaves behind little in its wake. Malcolm Little took the surname ‘X’ to designate the African cultural identity and heritage from which his African ancestors had been torn. Likewise, the death of indigenous languages robs Native Americans of a cultural identity and heritage. Meanwhile the supermarket attitude towards their culture leaves behind showpiece tepees and garish mascots.
So if we think of the case against appropriation as a historical claim, rather than one grounded in any essentialism, then it may hold more weight for cultural criticism. It’s much easier to ground structural responses in this way. The case for slavery reparations can and should be made against the system, which could not reproduce itself, without the fortunes amassed by one group for another’s gain. Although the reparations can’t make up for the depths of the wounds, they are a step in the right direction. The ultimate aim has to be a society which is not dominated by the wealthy and by white men.