Like Minh-Ha, I’m dedicating my time this week to my manuscript (and also all the end-of-the-academic-year functions, like graduations and awards ceremonies for “the kids”). But the most recent iteration of the phenomena of “native appropriations” sent me to my bookshelves for some choice commentary, stirred by vague memories of the same damn debate in days of yore. (And I think we actually have quite a number of posts here that speak to some of the general structural and ideological issues at hand, if not to the specifics.)
Interdisciplinary scholar and artist Coco Fusco, in an essay called “Who’s Doin’ The Twist? Notes on Cultural Appropriation” (published in her collection with the genius title English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas), offers some useful analytics for unpacking the premises of some of the defensive and hostile responses to Jessica Yee’s Bitch post, for instance, that claim a diffuse “right” or freedom to wear whatever one might want.
In this essay, Fusco addresses those moves by an aesthetic avant-garde to appropriate the signs and symbols of racial otherness in order to enhance their own identities as transgressive personalities, akin to bell hooks’ concept of “eating the Other,” and we can easily see how her criticisms of the avant-garde myth of originality (to cite Rosalind Krauss) might apply to the hipster or hippie in the headdress:
Writing and talking about cultural appropriation, I reposition myself in a somewhat precarious way within a society that seeks to deny how segregated it is; I go from being a “minority” critic dutifully explaining otherness to one who addresses whites as agent in an ongoing dynamic of racialization. This shift in terms disrupts the commonly held assumption that desire for the Other is in itself a way of eliminating racial equality. Furthermore, to speak of whiteness as a way of being in the world still disturbs many of those for whom a racialized discourse is in itself a minority discourse, a mode of marginalization. Dominant cultural and white avant-garde defenses are cast in terms of aesthetic freedom (But why can’t I use what I want as an artist?) and transgression of bourgeois banality (But I cross boundaries and therefore I rebel too). What is more fundamentally at stake than freedom, I would argue, is power — the power to choose, the power to determine value, and the right of the more powerful to consume without guilt. That sense of entitlement to choose, change, and redefine one’s identity is fundamental to understanding the history of how white America has formed ideas about itself, and how those ideas are linked first to a colonial enterprise, and in the postwar period, to the operations of industrialized mass culture. (68)
Fusco also tackles the divide that assigns creativity to acts of appropriation of “exotic” or “other” cultural forms performed by privileged persons, and simultaneously decries as derivative those acts of parody, recycling, creolization, and adaptation of imposed cultural forms performed by non-privileged persons. In this troubling formulation, she argues, the privileged person is granted a sense of self-making or creative agency, while the non-privileged person is either a mimic or tragically “unnatural” and “inauthentic.” (See the entire history of the 20th century American and European avant-garde, perhaps most egregiously the movement dubbed “primitivism.”) We witness this dynamic play out in those comments that both proclaim a “right” to wear feathers as a matter of personal freedom absent of historical “baggage,” and at the same time suggest that indigenous peoples themselves “sold out” their cultures, by manufacturing commodities for tourist consumption. (An alternate reading might interpret this as the creative recycling of an always already problematic concept of “Indianness,” as artist James Luna does in his installation work.)
Finally, Fusco ends with this very much relevant note to distinguish between such acts not through some hazy notions of moralism or intention, but via historical knowledge of the relations of power and cultural exchange:
What is at stake in the defensive reactions to appropriation is the call to cease fetishizing the gesture of crossing as inherently transgressive, so that we can develop a language that accounts for who is crossing, and that can analyze the significance of each act. Unless we have an interpretative vocabulary that can distinguish among the expropriative gestures of the subaltern, the coercive strategies that colonizers levy against the colonized, and dominant cultural appropriative acts of commodification of marginalized cultures, we run the perpetual risk of treating appropriation as if the act itself had some existence prior to its manifestations in a world that remains, despite globalism, the information highway, and civil rights movements, pitifully undemocratic in the distribution of cultural goods and wealth. (77)
Coming up next in THEORY FLASH!, “Native Appropriations” Edition, is Rosemary Coombe’s brilliant The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties.