The Joy of Appropriation

To adopt aspects of another culture because you value it as a crystallization of human excellence is an unqualified good.

Of late, it seems that we can scarcely go a day without hearing yet another sad report of good people brought low for their interest in other cultures. Some of her followers criticized an African-American teenager for displaying her immense talent at Irish dancing on TikTok. A member of a UK knitting circle was ostracized for acknowledging that she had drawn creative inspiration from a trip to India. A petition was launched to compel the Trader Joe’s grocery chain to stop labeling its vaguely Latin American products as “Trader José’s” and its Chinese-themed products as “Trader Ming’s.”

For the most part, mainstream institutions have not come to the defense of these embattled innocents. The Los Angeles Times covered the Trader Joe’s story with strained neutrality, citing one former customer who bemoaned the company’s “failure to reflect on what their goal is in this movement” for racial justice—as if the grocery chain were a student activist who had overslept and missed a demonstration. The New York Times ran a pitiable op-ed by a confused young person who broke up with a romantic partner because of their ethnoracial differences. (What greater appropriation could there be than to take another into your heart?) The BBC has solemnly reported about the efforts of haute couture to eliminate such transgressions as cornrows on “white” male models.

It would be nearly unthinkable for any establishment media outlet today to run an op-ed defending, say, the wearing of dreadlocks by a person of European descent—even though this hairstyle was known as the plica polonica or “Polish plait” and associated with the Tatar horsemen who inhabited the Polish-Lithuanian duchy long before it was associated with the African diaspora. Yet, outside of our current cultural context, such arguments seem moderate and reasonable.

Cultural appropriation is far too widespread a process to be classified in Manichean terms like good and bad. It is simply a general law of culture: it explains why, for example, horses and guns are to be found in nearly every populated corner of the world, why there are Muslim Indonesians and Christian Inuit, why the Taliban use Toyota pick-up trucks, and why I like Siberian epic poetry.

I want to focus here on the kind of case that is now most frequently derided as “problematic”: freely adopting aspects of another culture simply because one values them as crystallizations of human excellence. Cultural appropriation, in this narrower sense, is an unqualified good—and to oppose it is nothing less than anti-human.

The most familiar critique of cultural appropriation is that all cultures are made up of borrowings from one another. In a scandalous speech at the 2016 Brisbane Writers’ Festival, novelist Lionel Shriver defied our era’s sensibilities by donning a sombrero and declaring that the work of an author necessarily involves “putting on other people’s hats”—that is, imagining her way into their worlds in a manner that the new prohibitions on cultural appropriation seek to prevent. The well-known boy’s-life guru Jordan Peterson, for his part, has observed that “there’s no difference between cultural appropriation and learning from each other.”  

These arguments are true enough. Art has no higher purpose than to transcend our limited, provincial subjectivity. And there is no more edifying or noble pursuit than learning from others whose subjectivities differ from our own. But we would do well to rethink our apprehension regarding cultural appropriation for another, more important reason: individual cultures are variations on a fairly limited range of patterns that are grounded in human nature.

All human beings are the product of the same evolutionary forces. We all have the same brains, and the same mortal bodies, more or less, and we all inhabit the same natural world. A return to an unafraid universalism regarding human nature would require us to pay attention to the ways in which the history of culture as an idea has contributed to our fragmentation. It is no mere coincidence that the word that came to be used for the vital and unique character of particular human communities is the same as the word used to describe the bacteria that give yogurt its strange essence. Early culture theorists like J. G. Herder were motivated by their rejection of the universalist orientation of the Enlightenment, which—in spite of its claim to belong to no particular soil or tradition—seemed to many to speak with a distinctly French accent. Over the course of Herder’s lifetime, significant portions of the German-speaking world, fragmented into a vast number of politically and militarily feeble duchies, principalities and margraviates, came under the occupation of an expansionist French empire. It was only natural to interpret French claims to represent a universalist civilization as politically motivated.

To oppose this Enlightenment conception of civilization, German intellectuals adopted a metaphor of organic growth. It contrasted the form of life that develops spontaneously in a particular soil to the purportedly universal, or universalizable, condition to which modern man might aspire through force of will, ingenuity, planning and hard work. To that end, Herder exhorted his countrymen to “speak German, O you Germans” and to “spew out ... the ugly slime of the Seine.” Yet, while Herder hated the conceit of universality, which he saw as a pretext for one group of people to impose their form of life on another, he regarded individual human cultures as the distinct local inflections of patterns of behavior that may be found wherever there are human beings—and viewed no culture as either superior to or totally distinct from any other.

This basic understanding shaped the emergent field of anthropology. For all its complicity with imperialism, the discipline demonstrates that there is a possible third way between the hierarchical measurement of progress implicit in the idea of civilization and the bleak atomism of provincial exceptionalisms. For most early anthropologists, the human species is one, and the variety of its cultures is a flourish upon that underlying unity. To lose sight of this unity is as great a failure as to forget to value cultural specificity. As G. W. Leibniz put it as early as the seventeenth century, both the entire natural world and the human world contained within it are characterized by “unity in variety.”

Even when we can find no evidence of borrowing between two cultures, or when they are geographically remote from one another, what those cultures are doing—what they are cooking, sewing and singing—is not theirs in any robust sense. Cultural properties are really only a local modulation of species-specific capacities, part of a natural, evolved repertoire of human behavior.

A version of this naturalistic universalism came to dominate mid-twentieth-century theories of language, thanks in no small measure to Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar.  Vladimir Propp identified the thirty-one basic structural elements of folktales, showing that to tell a story is not so much to engage in pure literary invention as to follow the rules of a combinatorial game. Claude Lévi-Strauss pursued this project further by seeking the underlying patterns in Native North American myths, while Alan Lomax studied the folk music of the American South, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe in order to build an invaluable archive of cultural expressions.

Like many of his contemporaries, Lomax was driven by a desire “to explore and sustain the world’s expressive traditions with humanistic commitment and scientific engagement.” It is just such commitment and engagement—such love of culture and of learning about other cultures—that the campaign against cultural appropriation would, should it prove successful, destroy.

Many uses of other cultures’ productions truly are morally wrong. Some are even materially and politically harmful. But this is not in virtue of whatever element of appropriation they may involve. Rather, it is usually because someone else’s culture is being used in an exploitative way—and is thus wrong in the same way all forms of exploitation are wrong.

The opponents of cultural appropriation fail to identify the real sources of exploitation. It is not, for example, the individual “white” American musician who is guilty of exploitation, unable as he is to avoid channeling the Black musical forms in which he has been immersed his whole life. It is the record companies that cynically promote him, even as they deny the same opportunities to equally talented Black artists.

We can see one egregious example of this misunderstanding in the infernal question of Halloween costumes. It is not enough to problematize cultural appropriation by invoking the common slogan my culture is not a costume. For it is difficult to see what a culture could be other than the sum total of such things as recipes, songs, lines of epic poetry, prayers and, yes, costumes. I myself have memorized significant portions of Sakha epic poetry, and have worn the traditional costumes associated with its recitation—in order to work my way into the culture as best I can, with the encouragement of those born into it. Anyone who insists that a culture is not a costume has never put on the right costume in the right cultural context. What the slogan really should signal is opposition to the decontextualized appearance of serious elements of culture in a setting of charivari and subversion.

The venerable tradition of Halloween upends our ordinary values and rules of conduct, and, in such a context, the natural presumption is that one’s clothes are chosen specifically to make one look foolish or savage. Combine this carnivalesque element—which has equivalents all over the world—with the cynical incentives of the contemporary commercial behemoth into which Halloween has been swallowed up, and it is not difficult to see why many people frown at the sight of some ignoramus in a sombrero. Cherokee writer Adrienne Keene is perfectly right to observe of the proliferation of Native American headdresses come late October that, for Native American communities, “these headdresses … represent respect, power, and responsibility ... When it becomes a cheap commodity anyone can buy and wear to a party, that meaning is erased and disrespected.” But this is an indictment of our current economic system, rather than of the moral failings of any individual costumed reveler.

We do ourselves a disservice if we allow a frat boy in a sombrero to stand in for all of us—or to determine what is possible for culture as a whole. Halloween is a stupid holiday, and serious adults sit it out. In her comments about cultural appropriation, Lionel Shriver spoke as if every day were or should be Halloween—treating culture as if it were nothing more than a collection of cheap commodities.

But art, literature and music are worth defending in a way that a commercialized holiday tradition is not. When we attempt to adjudicate good and bad instances of appropriation in that very different context, things grow much murkier.

There is a small but real subgenre of rap music made by “white” Americans that addresses the disillusionment characteristic of poor rural Trump voters. Whatever else may be said of this music, it certainly keeps it real in a way that ought to preserve it from the familiar criticisms leveled against, say, Pat Boone, for his commercial whitewashing of the musical fire he stole from Little Richard.

The strange new musical scene represented by Tom MacDonald and similar “white trash” rappers shows just how difficult the work of interpreting the flow of culture can be. What is homage? What is parody? What is theft? These are questions for people immersed in the traditions under discussion—not for petty rule makers and boundary policers.

Much art—perhaps more than we realize—is satirical. Satire and subversion work by taking up the symbols valued by others and processing them through one’s own voice, thereby revealing something about their nature that previously lay concealed. Cultural tradition works this way too: you develop your own art by studying the masters and channeling their voices. And if you are good, or if you are bad in an interesting way, you may reveal something new about the project that you inherited from them.

There is a fine line between mockery and homage, between the subversion of a tradition and its perpetuation. Much of the best art leaves us wondering whether it is an instance of the one or the other. Yet our current cultural landscape gives us no opportunity to process this wonder, and no one to turn to, to help us process it. We have all but abandoned the fields of cultural and art criticism to a generation of zombie pseudo-critics, who do not know what art is, but only how to apply the Bechdel test, tally up the number of people from different identity groups in a given movie, and enforce a hundred other rules to ensure an entertainment stays on message.

The ascendant class of cultural philistines seems to have decided on the nuclear option for combatting cultural appropriation. There can be no such thing as appropriation if there is no culture at all.

Last November, I went to my friend Jerry Rothenberg’s reading at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, a venue he helped to found in the 1960s. His opening recitation was a “summoning of the animals,” a chant he learned from a Native American mentor while living on the Allegany Seneca Reservation in the early 1970s. The entire poem consists of a single incantation, “the animals are coming,” followed by some guttural grunts that can only be learned through years of close attention to the animal realm—a form of attention that has long ceased to be part of the European poetic tradition, but lives on in Native American recitative art.

In front of that crowded hall full of NYU comp lit types, pierced and shaved according to the rules of their tribe, my friend—a descendant of the thirteenth-century Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, and Paul Celan’s first English translator—was briefly transformed into a bear. He chanted and grunted with authority and authenticity, and no one dared dispute his right to do so. The sheer aesthetic power of his performance—the shivers it sent through the crowd—were proof enough that he was doing it for the right reasons.

Today, young people are relentlessly discouraged from becoming the next Jerome Rothenberg. This will not remedy the power asymmetry between privileged and disadvantaged groups. No crusade against cultural appropriation will stop Indigenous children around the world from being compelled to learn English, Spanish, Russian or some other imperial language, nor will it save any of us from the junk culture of corporate entertainment. But if those who are born into the privileges of the dominant culture are pressured into knowing only that culture—if, say, they are scared away from learning the Seneca language by a social attitude that conflates such an undertaking with dressing up as an “Indian” for Halloween—the dominant culture will not be chastened or disciplined by this forced parochialism. On the contrary, its ignorance will be bliss—of the sort only the privileged will ever know.

Justin E. H. Smith is the author of The Living Mirror: A Philosophy of the Internet, appearing from Princeton University Press in 2021. He is currently translating the Olonkho, a Siberian epic poem, for University of California Press.