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Trying To Move My Thinking Forward On Cultural Appropriation

I've had trouble getting my head around the idea of cultural appropriation -- when and how it's appropriate to adopt elements of other cultures -- in large part because I've had trouble applying the pragmatist criterion I described in an earlier post. That is, I've struggled to pinpoint just what it is that's harmful about the borrowings we label "appropriation." (To be clear, this does not mean that I doubt such harm exists or assume that it's OK until I can explain exactly what's wrong with it.) The most obvious response is to adopt a culture as property" paradigm, which I find problematic because it draws on certain assumptions about cultural independence and boundedness that seem to map poorly onto anthropological reality.

I had a minor "aha" moment reading a comment by atlasien in response to Rachel raising this issue. The nut of it is this:

I tend to use a simple idea to spot appropriation… the belief that a unique aspect of another culture can be absorbed into your identity while remaining a marker of that other culture (in other words, still viewed as authentic and unique, not melded into globalized pop culture) while being stripped of its negative connotations.

I need to ruminate more on this way of looking at the issue -- currently I can't even come up with a snappy label for it to parallel the "culture as property" view. I've encountered similar perspectives before, but never quite hashed it out enough in my own brain to be able to recall it (as opposed to being baffled as described in my opening paragraph) when confronted with new questions of potential cultural appropriation. Atlasien's description highlights the way that the wrongness of cultural appropriation is more about how it seeks to define/speak for/claim authority over/claim the benefits of the identity and way of life of the apropriate-ees.

For the moment, I'll note two considerations about this view. First, I would say that a cultural element can qualify as wrongfully appropriated if it's treated as a marker not just of "that other culture ... viewed as authentic and unique," but also of a sort of generalized Other/opposite-to-my-culture-ness (contrast, for example, the new-agey practitioner of an eclectic hodgepodge of non-Western cultural traits with the narrowly-focused Japanophile). Second, I'm hesitant about the (usually implicit) presumption that the only valid alternative to appropriation is total immersion in the other culture (leading either to becoming fully bicultural, or a conversion away from your old culture). Taken too far, this could tempt one back into the same conception of cultures as distinct and internally holistic and fully integrated that I found problematic in the "culture as property" view.

Stentor Danielson, 22:25, |


Executive Committee Of The Bourgeoisie, Again

In theory, the government is supposed to protect citizens against corporations running wild in the free market. In practice, government seems to just as often protect corporations against citizens acting in the free market. Case in point: an impending ban on labeling milk as artificial-hormone-free in Pennsylvania and possibly several other states:

As of Jan. 1, Pennsylvania is banning labels on milk and dairy products that say it comes from cows that haven't been treated with artificial bovine growth hormone, which is sometimes known as rBGH or rBST. State officials say the labels are confusing and impossible to verify.

... "It confuses them," [PA agriculture secretary Dennis Wolff] said. "It seems to imply there is a safe, nonsafe dimension."

A former dairy farmer, Mr. Wolff said he decided to look into the issue after he received calls from farmers complaining that they were being forced to stop using bovine growth hormone if they wanted to continue selling their milk to certain dairies. He also said his office had received many calls from confused consumers.

Mr. Wolff's office could not provide surveys or research showing that consumers were confused by the issue, and was unable to come up with even one name of a consumer who had complained.

Aww, poor companies being forced to keep up with consumer demand -- don't worry, Comrade Dennis will fix the production quotas for you. Hey Mr. Wolff, I figured out an innovative scientific test to verify whether milk comes from cows treated with hormones: go inspect the farming operation. Dairy farms are pretty big, so it shouldn't be too hard to find them and go have a look around.

In addition to the regulatory capture issue, this story pushes another one of my buttons: Wolff's rationale assumes that the only legitimate reason to choose one product over another is the physical characteristics of the item on the shelf. So if there are no hormones in the milk itself, it's wrong to distinguish between hormone-treated and non-hormone-treated milk -- and indeed, consumers must be prevented from making that distinction. But that is a false way of looking at consumer choice. When you buy something, the effect is to support everything that happens along the production chain in order to bring you that product. And any physical/causal effect of an action may legitimately be taken into account in deciding whether to do that action. So even if Wolff is right that milk from hormone-treated and non-hormone-treated cows is identical down to the molecular level, I would still want to buy milk from hormone-free cows because of the effects of the hormone treatment on the cows.

Stentor Danielson, 10:50, |