Culture without borders: The history of culture is the history of cultural appropriation

Kenan Malik writes: Cultural appropriation is, in the words of Susan Scafidi, professor of law at Fordham University, and author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission”. This can include the “unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

stepping-stonesBut what is it for knowledge or an object to “belong” to a culture? And who gives permission for someone from another culture to use such knowledge or forms?

The idea that the world could be divided into distinct cultures, and that every culture belonged to a particular people, has its roots in late 18th-century Europe.

The Romantic movement, which developed in part in opposition to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, celebrated cultural differences and insisted on the importance of “authentic” ways of being.

For Johann Gottfried Herder, the German philosopher who best articulated the Romantic notion of culture, what made each people – or “volk” – unique was its particular language, history and modes of living. The unique nature of each volk was expressed through its “volksgeist” – the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history.

Herder was no reactionary – he was an important champion of equality – but his ideas about culture were adopted by reactionary thinkers. Those ideas became central to racial thinking – the notion of the volksgeist was transformed into the concept of racial make-up – and fuelled the belief that non-Western societies were “backward” because of their “backward” cultures.

Radicals challenging racism and colonialism rejected the Romantic view of culture, adopting instead a universalist perspective. From the struggle against slavery to the anti-colonial movements, the aim not to protect one’s own special culture but to create a more universal culture in which all could participate on equal terms.

In recent decades, however, the universalist viewpoint has eroded, largely as many of the social movements that embodied that viewpoint have disintegrated. The social space vacated by that disintegration became filled by identity politics.

As the broader struggles for social transformation have faded, people have tended to retreat into their particular faiths or cultures, and to embrace more parochial forms of identity. In this process, the old cultural arguments of the racists have returned, but now rebranded as “antiracist”.

But how does creating gated cultures, and preventing others from trespassing upon one’s culture without permission, challenge racism or promote social justice? [Continue reading…]

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