Cultural Appropriation and the Politics of the Imagination

Identity and the affective regimes of information and cultural consumption

When Walter Benjamin composed the maxim that ‘there is no work of art that is not at the same time a document of barbarism’ he highlighted an uncomfortable truth about culture within ‘civilised’ societies. Most immediately, Benjamin was commenting on how culture is prized as the spoils of invasion, imperialism, war and occupation—brought back by the victors to be exhibited, gazed upon, imitated and appropriated until its history is largely forgotten. More generally, culture and barbarism are inextricably connected in any unjust society—that is, where specific economic and social conditions determine who gets to create art and what it gets used for. Various facets of Marxist, poststructuralist and postcolonial critique have been informed by variations on this approach right up to the identity-led criticisms of cultural appropriation that we currently see, criticisms that in one sense derive from these earlier critical approaches but differ from them in significant ways. These differences are partly theoretical and political, as history, race, gender and identity are rethought, together with their relationship with past and present culture. However, our current understanding and contestation around art, culture and the right or limit to creative expression are not entirely due to changes in thought or politics. Indeed, our present struggles over culture respond to larger shifts in how it is made and consumed via globalisation and digital technologies. If critical examination of the forces shaping cultural and artistic production remains crucial today, if we are to catch the shifts and consequences of this new setting, we need a wider net than the one laid down in modernist frameworks once (and still) applied to art and cultural production—a net that is also critically sensitive to what have emerged as powerful new taken-for-granteds in the current climate. Whether the terms of the debate over cultural appropriation, and the acrimony that typically follows a bout of identity politics, are a challenge to those new forms of power, or rather share some characteristics of the new setting, is what I will examine in this article.

The rise of a global culture industry, the massive expansion of cultural production and circulation, the desire for more books, TV, films, games—for stories generally as life becomes more privatised—means that the status of art and culture has changed. No longer is there a taken-for-granted realm of high culture or a bounded canon of identifiable works as there was in modernity. Instead there is continuous cultural flow, where culture is used as fodder to satisfy the content-commodity machine that feeds us all. This has recalibrated our understanding of culture and the artist. The modernist paradigm—the division between high and low art, the championing of transgression, the elevation of the artist as God-like figure—has been replaced by a more ‘modest’, functional role for culture. Culture is everywhere present and holds a certain power, but in today’s conditions it is largely shorn of any transcendent, radical ambition that it might once have had. The integration of culture into the economy has increased cultural production by several orders of magnitude but has curtailed the lasting significance of any particular work. To what extent can one be profoundly moved, affected, changed by a book, poem or piece of music when they exist on a continuum of cultural consumption? The role of the artist or ‘creative’ has changed accordingly. No longer outsiders, they are integrated into society, often less a critic of the state than a component of it. Increasingly, many producers of culture are employees of universities or reliant on state funding; in such cases culture is reimagined to serve a quasi-utilitarian purpose, boosting the creative economy, promoting ‘mental health’ or ‘social cohesion’, or seen as part of a valuable ‘conversation’. Art and culture that doesn’t integrate into this administered environment is ripe for criticism, where any negative or outré qualities are no longer perceived as subversive but rather as potentially hurtful or traumatising.

As a consequence, cultural critique is made differently—often more reductively. No longer can artists escape accountability by appealing to freedom of speech or the autonomy of the aesthetic if they have, for example, transgressed ‘acceptable’ representations of race or gender. If art has largely been stripped of its transcendent power—a casualty of commodification and oversupply—and is now measured by utility, it is simultaneously policed for its potential negative effects. In another reversal, much of this comes from elements of the ‘Left’ rather than conservatives. The return of morality as a category of judgement is a notable shift, readily adopted by elements of progressive politics that would once have veered away from demands for censorship, exclusion or public denunciation of artists for their own blindness to privilege. This newly censorious environment can certainly be looked at as a corrective to the excesses of a liberal artistic imagination, and its aims are often in line with exposing suffering or unacknowledged power, yet it often falls short in terms of a politics outside that of denunciation. The argument I wish to make here is not to defend or reinvigorate any vaguely liberal notion of creative freedom against this new moralistic judgement of culture. Rather, I argue that progressive cultural criticism today, particularly the use of ‘cultural appropriation’ as a political critique of art, is an impoverishment of the critical heritage it draws upon. In many cases, I believe, it is conservative rather than radical: it is unwittingly captured by neoliberalism, aiding current power structures rather than setting itself against them.

In a globalised, multicultural world, cultural appropriation is an easy accusation to make if for no other reason than the continual production and flow of cultural products makes it inevitable that elements of one culture will flow into another and that territorial or proprietary disputes will arise. In some cases, attentiveness to cultural appropriation allows for the protection of traditional cultures, where art and artifacts have often been cynically reproduced for profit by those outside the culture. More generally, it appears as a corrective to the presumption of the white, European standpoint as a universal one, a presumption often written into the treatment of characters or subjects represented in fiction or art. However, the accusation of cultural appropriation has become an increasingly superficial judgement, drawing on the history of oppression to generate rhetorical power, but all too often failing to articulate this into any politics outside the defensive claims of identity.

One of the difficulties in any discussion of cultural appropriation is the conceptual vagueness of the term. What criteria are there for placing boundaries around culture—does the term apply only to traditional culture, or should it expand to contemporary ‘minority’ cultures, whose makers often embrace cross-cultural borrowing and hybridity, and whose social relationships may differ quite radically from those of previous generations? Are the targets of cultural appropriation tangible objects (dance, dress, music, language, cuisine, traditional medicine) or more intangible representations contained in stories or ideas? Do the boundaries drawn around culture include specific forms as well as specific content (for example, musical genres such as hip-hop and jazz)? Then there is the question of what actually counts as appropriation and how we might determine the difference between the theft of someone’s culture and a process of cultural interchange. Such distinctions are typically not made, with one consequence being, as novelist Kamila Shamsie has observed, ‘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’.

The example of Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, a contemporary US painting based on the iconic photographs of the body of Emmet Till, is one of many examples that illustrate this refusal. In 1955, Emmett Till’s mother urged the publication of photographs of her son’s mutilated body as it lay in its coffin. The 14-year-old Till had been lynched for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Till’s murder, and the photographs, played a major role in shaping the American civil rights movement. Schutz’s painting, which abstractly depicts Till’s body, has been denounced as exploitation by a white artist of a black person’s suffering. Hannah Black, a British artist of colour, petitioned the Whitney Museum to remove the painting from view. She wrote in 2017:

Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist—those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others and are not natural rights. The painting must go.

As Adam Schatz observed at the time, the petition argued that Schutz’s work was objectively complicit with racism, even though it was protesting against racism. It was enough that a white artist represented a mutilated black body, using it as ‘raw material’, to equate the act with exploitation and white supremacy. By contrast, Till’s cousin, Simeon Wright, claimed Mamie Till had said that ‘she wanted the world to see what those men had done to her son’. In other words, there was no exclusion of non-black people from the perspective of Till’s family. Shatz concluded that the campaign against Schutz’s work contained an ‘implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines’.

If the campaign against Schutz invoked a history of racism, it ignored other histories of representations of suffering by black and white artists and how they had been used. Coco Fusco noted that:

[Hannah] Black does not consider the history of anti-racist art by white artists. She does not recognize that the trope of the suffering body that originated in Western art with the figure of the Christian martyr informs much representation of racialized oppression—by white and black artists. She does not account for the fact that black artists have also accrued social capital and commercial gain from their treatment of black suffering. Numerous black artists have depicted enslaved bodies, lynched bodies, maimed bodies, and imprisoned bodies in the early stages of their careers—and then moved away from such politically charged subject matter without having their morality or sense of responsibility impugned.

Instead of exploring which depictions of historical racism might be most effective (for instance, whether the abstraction of Till’s body is an unnecessary aesthetic stylisation or, by contrast, more evocative in its ambiguity), we find that identity and the politics of exclusion are paramount, in contrast even to the desires of Till’s family. Open Casket illustrates the problematic implications of any strident call to ‘ban’ representations, no matter how sympathetic, by those outside the racial identity that is being represented. 

Open Casket depicted an actual historical subject. How much more problematic then to extend this approach, which puts identity first, to figures of the imagination? Here there is continual slippage in charges of cultural appropriation between claims of problematic representation (this text depicts a stereotype or racist cliché) and linking this representation to an artist’s identity. They are not the same thing. This raises a practical issue. If we narrowly restrict creative representations to the identity and experience of the person who makes them, we pretty much end the possibility of representation altogether, a scenario where women cannot represent men, ethnic groups are unable to represent ‘outsiders’, and so on, with the category of identity further splitting and bifurcating until the taboo on imagining the other undermines all attempts to speak across the divisions.  

In nearly all cases, those who make the charge of cultural appropriation invoke the histories of colonial rule, the destruction of people and cultures under such rule, and the complicity of cultural representation in legitimising the closing down of such representation. No serious person would question any of this, and any critique of the identity politics that propels the charge of appropriation ought to distinguish itself from the cynical takes of the political Right, which may identify some of the contradictions and fragmentation of identity politics (‘the Left eats itself’ etc.), but in scoffing at the ‘hysterical’ reaction of individuals offended by a piece of art or writing fail to account for the historical conditions of oppression and suffering—conditions that have ongoing impacts for subjects today. In Australia the multigenerational impact of colonial practices upon Aboriginal people remains palpable, for example in the disproportionate rates of Black incarceration, deaths in custody and systemic racism in various institutional settings. The relatively recent and disastrous ‘Intervention’, championed at the time by many ‘progressives’ as well as the Right, indicates the still embedded nature of the colonialist mindset, and how the state remains implicated in Aboriginal suffering through its policies and practices. Beyond this, it is almost impossible to fully register the impact of the ongoing grind of colonial attitudes, policies and suppressions in the lives of Aboriginal people. 

However, to what extent can an identity-based politics represent a way out rather than a dead-end? Why a dead-end? Firstly, because emphasising the primacy of identities in any act of representation often tends to close off the possibility of dialogue, reconciliation or resolution—and the capacity to generate a politics outside that of the specific group. Secondly, because, while identity-based politics wants to resist the very forces that have oppressed its constituents, it can remain constrained by the conceptual apparatuses of those forces. As political theorist Wendy Brown asks, ‘What kind of political recognition can identity-based claims seek…that will not resubordinate a subject itself historically subjugated through identity?’ Historically, the othering and marginalisation of colonial subjects or ethnic minorities within nation states was a disastrous consequence of the systems of power that constructed them. What happens when the identities produced by the same systems become the very thing placed at the heart of the political struggle, where identity itself confers the right of representation? As Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, ‘race is the child of racism, not the father’: there is a danger in potentially reifying identities that are themselves products of oppressive structures.  

In this sense identity politics has departed radically from its original context in the 1960s New Left, where it was more closely tied to material conditions and linked to collective struggles. As Chi Chi Shi notes:

This politicisation of identity was a response to the material consequences of its historical formations, and as a forced imposition that stems from exploitation and subjugation. Black Liberation groups struggled ‘against the alienation and one-sidedness of blackness’, while Women’s Liberation groups ‘struggled for reproductive and sexual freedom in an effort to gain control over the means of production (their bodies)’. Here, identity was treated as a political relation…

While contemporary identity politics namechecks historical structures of power and exploitation, it is generally less interested in overcoming them. Rather, it sees the affirmation of minority groups as a political end in itself. This is evident in the recent championing of terms like ‘privilege’ and ‘lived experience’ as, respectively, the key identifiers of oppressor and oppressed groups. Reducing politics to a question of ‘checking one’s privilege’ means that the causes of oppression and suffering are invoked but generally left intact. Any potential solidarity is cut off as politics is narrowed to an issue of guilt and complicity—where the holder of privilege performs individual acts of renunciation—or at the other end, authenticity—where the marginalised identity’s experience holds and epistemological primacy is largely unchallengeable. Chi Chi Shi sums up this contradictory politics:

Even though it is stressed that oppression is ‘systemic’, it is the effects of oppression that are focused upon. This is divorced from an analysis of why systems such as racism and patriarchy exist. The problem with this…is that focusing on the victims of misrecognition often overshadows analysis of the causes of misrecognition. This takes place in a framework which valorises powerlessness, placing denigrated identities within a moral register, attempting to coalesce suffering into a political programme, while encouraging a politics of guilt which equates self-flagellation with transformation.

This reductive politics often unwittingly aligns with the goals of neoliberalism and its aim of destroying any sense of a collective subject. The preoccupation with affect means it hardly comes as a surprise that cultural appropriation has become a key weapon in the arsenal of identity politics, where the material and the structural are supplanted by the cultural.

These issues around identity and representation surfaced in a recent exchange between writers in Arena and Overland. The exchange stemmed from a writing competition where Overland editors asked potential contributors if their entry ‘takes up the voice or experience’ of marginalised or vulnerable identities and, if so, did the entrant ‘personally identify’ with who and/or what their story depicted. Answering this question was declared optional, but some thought it could be read otherwise, fearing that in the current climate the declaration or otherwise of a specific identity would shape all judgement. Along these lines, H. C. Gildfind critiqued the connection between identity and authentic representation in an Arena Online article, using a range of writers from different cultures and across the political spectrum to make her points. She argued that the demand that fiction remain within the parameters of one’s identity was too high a price to pay. It placed too strong a restriction on the creative imagination, reduced the capacity for imaginative empathy and, if taken to its logical conclusion, foreclosed the possibility of representation altogether. Overland responded, stating that what they had intended was a more modest procedure where the optional question about identity served as a supplement to the judging process if conditions required it. It was also a reminder to writers to think about their proximity to the stories they tell and the ethical responsibilities of representation. 

The issue might have ended there, except for the fact that a second, more detailed response to Gildfind followed in an essay by one of the Overland editors. Jeanine Leane’s ‘No Longer Malleable Stuff’ is a powerfully written piece, implicating white settler Australia in a history of theft and appropriation. It is also a piece whose politics are strongly separatist, a politics in which there is little scope for reciprocal exchange between whites and non-whites, and in many ways resembling the prohibitive rhetoric found in the calls to censor Open Casket. Leane reads Gildfind’s article as an exemplary expression of ‘white panic’, where the white imagination, ‘boundless, colourless, neutral and universal’ demands the right to imagine whatever it likes—symptomatic of the ‘legacies of unchecked settler imaginations’…[who] ‘depend on…the control of how others are represented’. As an essay on the historical relationship between material theft and cultural representation the essay is fiercely eloquent. But this eloquence is only possible though a particular understanding of the role of culture and identity in contemporary society as being largely unchanged from earlier periods of domination and oppression. Indeed, the metaphors of ‘margin’ and ‘centre’ that Leane relies upon throughout the essay are more suited to the age of empire than to multinational and multicultural capitalism, where a whole new layer of power emerges to function in different ways from that of colonialism within modernity.

Leane sees in Gildfind’s essay another expression of the colonial, expansionist subject, and indeed yes, in other places there are countless examples of the imperialist imagination that treats ‘others’ as fodder, or worse. Yet Leane’s framing of Gildfind is enabled through a series of projections. For instance, the claim that Gildfind ‘cherry-picks across authors of colour…while [for] solidarity in white identity politics Gildfind relies heavily on white American settler writer Lionel Shriver’. Are cherry-picking and solidarity always already decided along racial dichotomies? If so, what scope is there for different kinds of solidarity and for a radical politics outside of identity? The point is that even if Leane’s assumptions about Gildfind are correct (and it’s hard to see any textual evidence to support this), her overall position on identity and representation leaves little capacity for outsiders to act in ways not determined by the prejudices of the monolithic ‘White Imagination’. At this level it would seem an example of Shatz’s concerns over restricting the possibility of ‘acts of radical sympathy and imaginative identification’.  

Such constrictions do not merely impact the relationship between (essentialised) black and white identities but can undermine the possibility of a collective politics between different non-white groupings. After the murder of three young Arab men in North Carolina in 2015, online activists began using the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter to draw attention to ongoing hate crimes and prejudice against Muslims, largely a consequence of state- and media-cultivated Islamophobia after 9/11. This was met with a critical, often angry response that accused those responsible for the hashtag of appropriating something that emerged specifically as a response to anti-Black racism (hijacking #BlackLivesMatter). Indeed, several Muslim anti-racist activists urged people not to use the hashtag. Rather than solidarity, such responses could only see appropriation and co-option of another group’s suffering. This logic of exceptionalism worked to distort other attempts to build a broader political movement. Take the contestation over the political framing of the Palestinian struggle, where any analogy between the suffering of Palestinians and that of Afro-Americans is rejected by some because the identity of the former grouping is said to be caught up in the history of the slave trade, which means, in these terms, that no coalition is deemed possible. After a delegation of representatives from Ferguson, Black Lives Matter and the Black Youth Project returned from a trip to Palestine and released a statement of solidarity, the reaction was swift, with many donors withdrawing from the BLM movement. In discussing this, Annie Olaloku-Teriba argues that such responses dictate ‘that not to share in the experiences which are generalised among a given group is to be implicated in the oppression of that group. In other words, it means the impossibility of genuine solidarity’. She concludes, ‘black lives in America was one thing but Palestinian lives were something entirely different’.

Is this desire to separate, to keep identities strongly demarcated from each other, progressive? Do we really need another ‘great big, beautiful wall’? Edward Said, whose Orientalism formed the basis for much of postcolonial theory, claimed ‘Identity was as boring a subject as one can imagine’. Rather than identity politics providing a means out of colonial structures of power, it was, for him, a product of that power:

identity politics becomes separatist politics and people retreat into their own enclaves… It was a classic of imperial rule that you got different groups dependent on you and suspicious of their compatriots.

Rather than defend marginalised identity against the hegemonic projections of an outdated liberal or colonial imagination, we need to question the extent to which advocating marginalised or minority identities as ends in themselves enables a radical alternative to the present situation. This is not to deny that in the present period a politics of race is strong and empowering for many; indeed, Black Lives Matter campaigning has raised the visibility of police brutality, the carceral state and the disproportionate impact of racialised justice systems, not only in the United States but also in other countries, including Australia. But, alongside these gains is the increasingly trenchant championing of identity as the foundation and culmination of politics, which can ultimately stall any advance by regarding diversity within contemporary power structures as the only imaginable political outcome.

What do critiques based around cultural appropriation ultimately want to achieve? Is it raising awareness around ideological representations, often based in colonial, racist legacies? If so, there is little need to ground that politics in authorial identity; such representations can be examined in their own right. In Australia, for example, writers often cited as constructing problematic images of race—Patrick White, Henry Lawson and Katharine Susannah Prichard, for example, can be (and have been) critiqued through highlighting their representational strategies: stereotypes, erasure, invisibility, racist fantasies and so on. These strategies, well recognised by now, can be applied to all writing, and judged irrespective of the writer’s identity. For example, the scandal of awarding the Miles Franklin prize to The Hand that Signed the Paper is often cited as a cautionary tale about judging that links bad representation (anti-Semitism) and bad practice (plagiarism) to the projection of an ersatz identity (‘Demidenko’). But it is an error to automatically equate representation with identity—real or fake. Would the anti-Semitism of The Hand that Signed the Paper be any less problematic if it had been written by a ‘real Ukrainian’? Indeed, the attempt to find authenticity in identity ignores the role of larger processes that shape who we are and how we think. Are identities, including marginalised ones, suddenly immune to ideology, for instance?

But to rest here would not take into account those forces that are shaping the field of culture both generally and specifically in relation to these heightened questions today of race and gender. Is it any coincidence that identity politics and the embrace of diversity have been easily accommodated by corporations, including universities, and by neoliberal governments without their having to alter their substantive practices? The expansion of the professional-managerial or knowledge class, whose practices involve the manipulation of knowledge and information, mostly in the service of global capital, disposes them towards an abstract and often heterogeneous network of associations—so that diversity within that class is unproblematic and is then projected onto the rest of society. Under these conditions, diversity masks a more thoroughgoing social fragmentation. What is seen as a moral quality—the embrace of diversity—is enabled though the material conditions of information and high-tech work, which dis-embed people and things from prior social contexts such that heterogenous associations become normalised. The problem is, however, that these techniques that enable the high-tech market to penetrate and reconstitute even the most personal spheres of life create insecurity, precariousness and fragility across all cultures. Isn’t the almost fetish quality of identity politics itself a symptom of a larger ontological insecurity—a lack of solidarity produced in high-tech consumer society that undermines and disrupts identities and sustainable ways of living? Under such conditions, it is understandable that people are often less expansive, retreating into like-minded identity groups and becoming more fragile, more likely to be hurt or offended. Be this as it may, we should not confuse the symptom with the cause.

One of the key tenets of neoliberalism is the spread of market values—particularly competition—across the spheres of life. There is very little that is not valued according to a competitive logic—from education (league tables) to culture and information (the attention economy) to relationships (online dating, reality TV), and so on. The imperative that certain identity groups should keep away from imagining others only reinforces this neoliberal logic of competition—weaponising difference so that, race, gender, sexuality, ability, ethnicity and religion are pitted against each other, and where the politics of transgression and harm are largely played out at the level of the individual. What mechanism enables these heightened and divisive exchanges? Here we need to return to the historical differences between cultural representation within modernity—governed by restricted flows of production and reception—and the almost ubiquitous flow of culture that is a mark of the contemporary era. In the former, a small number of cultural products (novels, paintings) became canonical and as such legitimised or challenged accepted ways of seeing the world, and in turn were challenged. By contrast, neoliberal capitalism, with its attention economies, alters the scope of influence, producing a continuous flow of culture. The politics of cultural appropriation operates within this flow, where media platforms encourage the seeking out of new examples of privilege or prejudice as part of the larger surveillance economy. The result is a climate of instability and impermanence: one week we will be arguing over this film, painting or author; the next week it will be something else. This transient mode of exchange is itself intimately connected to the production and commodification of affect within information/surveillance capitalism, whose profits are made by keeping subjects online, connected and affected as much as possible. This new form of control ought to frame any discussion of culture, identity and representation. 

The defensive and divisive politics of identity, when combined with the affective regimes of information and cultural consumption under surveillance capitalism, offer little except a series of fights without any larger purpose. By contrast, we can pose a broad-based collective politics that finds commonalities outside of identity and opposes the extractive and exploitative forces of capital and high technology—forces that cynically wear the face of diversity while still abusing the marginalised, destroying land, culture and ways of life. Culture needs to be thought of in this context as a means of exchange and a way of imagining a different world for all. By overly policing the imagination we prevent new ways of combining and acting in the world, and instead fall back on pre-existing identities often too closely tied to their conditions of historical oppression.

To argue for these kinds of imaginative exchanges is not, however, to declare a cultural free-for-all. There are cases where some groups (particularly Indigenous peoples) need a degree of separatism to work out how they can live after the disaster of colonialism, and in doing this connect and negotiate traditional ways of being and knowing with aspects of contemporary existence. However, this would also mean not retreating into the kinds of defensive identity boundaries that preclude broad alliances and larger political transformation. The multiple global crises that face us are connected with historical forces that subjugated and destroyed many peoples and cultures, but they have also taken on new forms, supercharged by a fusion of technology and capital, that impact all of us. The exaggerated oppositions and separatist philosophy that govern much of the politics of identity and cultural appropriation are unable to develop a universal politics that is our only means of avoiding catastrophe—and of which the capacity to create and imagine differently is an essential component.

Stay in your Lane: the oxymoron of ‘authentic fiction’ (Part I)

H. C. Gildfind, 22 Oct 2020

Are these judges…genuinely concerned about cultural appropriation? Or are they actually concerned about the accusations of cultural appropriation that are likely to result (via social media) if they award and publish a story that turns out to be written by someone who doesn’t identify clearly and directly with their subject matter?

About the author

Simon Cooper

Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor.

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