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A Blog About Culture

Recognition, Situation, Identity, Reality

Following the implications of hurt feelings, finger-pointing, sensitivity, and – as one commenter put it – the “culture of umbrage” that envelops the cultural sphere.

Bully Bloggers

by Jack Halberstam

I was watching Monty Python’s The Life of Brian from 1979 recently, a hilarious rewriting of the life and death of Christ, and I realized how outrageous most of the jokes from the film would seem today. In fact, the film, with its religious satire and scenes of Christ and the thieves singing on the cross, would never make it into cinemas now. The Life of Brian was certainly received as controversial in its own day but when censors tried to repress the film in several different countries, The Monty Python crew used their florid sense of humor to their advantage. So, when the film was banned in a few places, they gave it a tagline of: “So funny it was banned in Norway!”

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Humor, in fact, in general, depends upon the unexpected (“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”); repetition to the point of hilarity “you can…

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Even I’m sick of writing about cultural appropriation, but as a debate wages on my alma mater’s Facebook group, I’m choosing to write my thoughts here instead of adding to a back-and-forth thread there. I try not to be adversarial. I truly hate getting into debates with others about theories and beliefs because it is just so hard for me to accept that there are people out there who (gasp!) don’t agree with me. So instead I will write here, without being a direct response to anyone. 

BUT. That person who challenged cultural ownership as a limiting, static rulebook that ignores the opportunity to exchange, create, and fuse did bring up good points, too. I think I just want to defend the rights of ownership a little bit by explaining the following. 

Even though it is a problematic, constructed notion, heritage as a marker of identity is a strong indicator of community belonging, a feeling that has numerous psychological and social benefits. Other indicators of identity (what I always seem to call “cultural markers”) are expressions of that identity, and many of those markers (foodways, language, dress, art, etiquette, etc.) claim a shared heritage as a referent. When those markers are plucked and re-used out of a cultural context by outsiders to the community — especially for commercial profit — it feels wrong. It feels like those ties to a shared community memory have been violated. I think that’s why so many communities become defensive about it.

Imagine this scenario: 

Your parents downsized in retirement and sold your childhood home to a woman who happens to be an advertising executive. While she was cleaning out the attic, she found some old video tapes of your first Little League baseball game. Then she used the videos in a television commercial for a major sporting goods department store. 

Okay, before you say “She can’t do that because of copyright laws, etc.” think about the communities who aren’t protected by laws! It’s the same feeling, to me. 

While I think cross-cultural communication and evolution are great things, I also think that cultural identity is very important – crucial, even – to the health of some communities. Severing those ties by reusing cultural markers shows a lack of respect for the people who depend on or claim those ties.

But I don’t think I’m saying it shouldn’t ever be done. I think I’m saying it should be done respectfully. Just as a scholar wouldn’t copy-and-paste a quotation without explanation of its source and context, and definitely not without a citation, people who are borrowing or putting their own spin on expressions from other cultures should do the same.

“The free market idea doesn’t correspond to cultural responsibility in lots of ways,” says Tania Willard, curator of Beat Nation. “We can say people shouldn’t do that and it’s not respectful, but if people are buying it, that’s what’s going to happen.”

Read more from Samia Madwar’s article “Inappropriation,” about the appropriation of Canadian aboriginal cultural objects and artifacts. She discusses the success of Beat Nation, a modern art exhibit featuring cross-cultural fusion, versus the failure of Inukt, a fashion line of apparel very loosely inspired by aboriginal (and a “mish mash” of other) designs.

Here are more links about Canadian appropriation:

At the end of the day, people have different priorities. It is the crusade of cultural workers to educate others about cultural sensitivity and why appropriation, along with plenty of other practices that run rampant in Western culture, has deep social ramifications.

***N.B. As I type “Western” above, I realize that it sounds like I’m saying that European and American cultures are the only ones that act this way. They’re not. Far from it. It might be that almost every country isn’t terrible culturally sensitive. I guess I write about Western culture because I live in the US, and it’s the dominant culture here. ***

Back to our main program. A few months ago, I was talking with a friend about the debate over the name of the Redskins football team.

My stance:

“If you know you’re offending someone, change, even if it’s an inconvenience.”

Her stance:

“Those will be a lot of pissed off Redskins fans,” and “Besides changing the name, they’ll have to spend a lot of money to change all their logos and uniforms and t-shirts.” (This isn’t word for word, by the way.)

She brought up capitalistic motives for keeping the status quo. I guess those capitalistic motives aren’t as important to me, but they’re certainly important to a lot of people, especially in the US, and especially to people who own multi-million dollar companies that benefit off of cultural appropriation. So, as above, if it makes you money, and you don’t care about the people you’re offending, then it’s fine. [???????]

I guess that ethic is what disturbs me the most.

But it’s not enough, or even fair, to vilify people who do think that way now. They are our neighbors and coworkers and friends, too. They shouldn’t be written off. That’s the ethic we are working with, that is the paradigm that we should be working to change. If public education and exhibits and blog posts aren’t working… what else can we think of to try to make this change happen?

More of my posts on cultural appropriation:

Disney-darling-turned-pop-star Selena Gomez has recently come under fire for appropriating South Asian culture as she promotes an album that features tabla-style drumming and Punjabi beats. She wears clothing similar to saris and wears bindis as a fashion statement wherever she goes. Here’s the song most people are talking about, although she’s not wearing a bindi here. Yet.

In response to her critics, including religious and cultural groups that have urged her to discontinue the appropriation, she says ridiculous things, like, “The song kind of has that almost Hindu feel, that tribal feel. I kind of wanted to translate that,” she said. “Plus, I’ve been learning a lot about my seven chakras and bindis and stuff. I’ve learned a lot about the culture, and I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s fun to incorporate that into the performance.” (NYMag.com.)

Some people, including Indian women, don’t think it’s a big deal that celebrities are wearing the bindi — because it no longer has a religious significance, as it once did. In South Asia, bindis are worn decoratively. That’s true, and I’m not going to get into a whole discussion about the bindi or cultural appropriation because it will probably make me too angry and frustrated, but here are links to two of my favorite responses. These highlight the deeper problem, the hegemonic nonchalance and perpetuation of Otherness:

What’s even worse is that when asked about this song in interviews, Selena Gomez just perpetuates the grouping of all brown bodies by stating the song is “tribal” and has “Middle Eastern vibes.” Because the Middle East and South Asia are two geographical areas that are entirely interchangeable, right, Selena Gomez?

(Anisha Ahuja, FemInspire)

 

On her, it’s a bold new look; on me, it’s a symbol of my failure to assimilate. On her, it’s unquestionably cool; on me, it’s yet another marker of my Otherness, another thing that makes me different from other American girls. … I understand being a little flummoxed at the rage that the bindi issue inspires in our community. The anger always seems disproportionate to the crime. But will I celebrate the “mainstreaming” of a South Asian fashion item? Nope. Not when the mainstream doesn’t accept the people who created it.

(Jaya Sundaresh, the Aerogram)

So, Selena Gomez doesn’t care about Us vs. Them or cultural appropriation or that she sounds like an idiot while she simultaneously ignores the fact that she is a woman of color too. But here is what prompted this post (finally, I know you’re thinking).

Selena is in Nepal right now. She is staying at Dwarika’s, a luxury hotel in Kathmandu. A relative of mine works there and posted a selfie to Facebook.

Because I am unfortunately a little essentialist and dreadfully elitist, my initial reaction was the scoff that I had when I first found out that celebrity Lauren Conrad was in KTM the same time I was. These celebrities — and why don’t I include any Western tourist while I’m at it? — only want to experience a mystical, spiritual, hippie-esque journey in an exotic land. It’s easy to feel jaded that way, especially having studied tourism while I was there.

But I would be terribly, terribly remiss if I didn’t also admit what I did learn from my studies and my experiences in grad school — that I’m not always right, that my (usually negative) preconceived notions are stupid, and most importantly, that we cannot think that we understand and know everyone. Tourists visit other places for a variety of reasons, and should we hold celebrities to standards different than the public?

When you visit a new place, do you wear the traditional or ethnic clothing? Personally, I don’t, because I find it a culturally inappropriate version of playing dress-up. But some people try it to express their excitement and appreciation for the culture they are experiencing. Some natives (in the sense of people who live there locally) love it when tourists do that!

So, if Selena Gomez is in Nepal right now, pouting in a selfie while she wears a bindi and a sari, well… maybe she is there because she really does want to learn more about the culture. I wouldn’t say I applaud her, but I would rather she go and experience the culture for herself rather than rely solely on cultural markers created from exoticizing media.

 

If you are interested in more on cultural appropriation (which I say this blog is not about but, looking back at my previous entries, apparently it is), check out this article: The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation by Jarune Uwujaren.

Attraction to Decay

“Verlassenes Schwimmbad” [Abandoned Pool] Acryl/Öl/Leinw, H100 x B100, 2012

There is something quietly reverential about happening upon an abandoned space — a boarded-up house, an old swimming pool (see above), or even just perusing through someone else’s things at an estate sale. Some people imagine what kind of life someone might have had before; they make up stories about who lived in that house or who swam in that pool. I’m not one of those people. I find a peculiar arcane sensation in simply knowing that someone was there before.

As a swimmer, I am especially drawn to the above painting by Carola Schapals, who was recently featured on the art blog The Jealous Curator (which is how I found it).

Here is a thought that crossed my mind as I was sitting in the typical northern Virginia traffic recently: Why are cars all solid colors? It is unusual to see a car painted even a custom color, or a two-tone (except wood paneled station wagons, I guess), or with any kind of pattern at all — even subtle ones. Why is that? We personalize everything. We buy covers for our phones. We decorate our homes. We wear clothing to express who we are. Why are our vehicles all the same?

What are your first reactions when you see a car like this? Who do you think drives this car?

What about this one?

My guess is that you have some pretty specific connotations about the owners of those vehicles.

The only kind of decorated vehicle I see regularly are commercial vehicles with signs, logos, or other forms of advertising on them. I think that has a lot to say about the acceptability of capitalistic motivations in our mainstream media/lives/world. Sometimes it’s done in interesting ways. I’ve seen a Lilly Pulitzer jeep driving around before — not sure if it was the official advertising one or just some ladies who were really into pastels… but either way, it points back to the brand.

Why is it okay to advertise our work and businesses on our vehicles, but expressing our personalities for the world to see isn’t really done? As I was looking up photos to use in this blog post, I did come across the blog of someone who was documenting painted cars in Key West. Maybe that’s something they do there, and maybe it just isn’t done here for whatever reason. Do other places in the US decorate vehicles?

Or, maybe people do express themselves using their cars. Perhaps the self that they want to portray is “normal” or “professional.” “Fitting in” means a lot to some people. It is easy to change your clothes based on whatever situation you’re going into, but it is pretty costly to change your car’s paint job frequently. A basic, solid color can fit into any setting… and I guess you could always slap on a bumper sticker for some personality.

A reblogged post from Paul Mullins (Archaeology and Material Culture). He covered a lot of ground on the topic of “the anxious enchantment of poverty” (and what a title! Much better than I could have come up with). I’m left with a variety of [unanswerable] questions. See “Comments” for my thoughts re: his post.

Archaeology and Material Culture

The Emoya Shantytown Hotel The Emoya Shantytown Hotel

Westerners have long been fascinated by poverty, simultaneously enchanted by human resolve in the face of hardship and anxious about gross human injustices in the midst of affluence.  In 1896, for instance, traveler H.C. Bunner noted that “I have missed art galleries and palaces and theatres and cathedrals (cathedrals particularly) in various and sundry cities, but I don’t think I ever missed a slum.”  Bunner and many of the observers chronicling the lives of the poor often painted pictures of impoverishment that are patently ridiculous at best, and in many cases the representations of penury are simply reprehensible.

One of the most crass contemporary interpretations of poverty may be the Emoya Shantytown Hotel, a faux South African “informal settlement” in Bloomfontein borrowing the aesthetics of South African townships.  The hotel allows guests to “experience staying in a Shanty within the safe environment…

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