Kenan Malik Asks Some Questions about Culture and Its Appropriation

by Bill Benzon

Back on June 14 Kenan Malik published an op-ed, In Defense of Cultural Appropriation, in The New York Times. I liked it; it was a good piece. But, said I to myself, he’s going to catch hell for it. And he did.

Three days later he posted a series of replies on Twitter, starting with this:

He then posed a series of tasks and questions for the “cultural appropriation warriors”. I’ve decided to post some replies as a means of teasing out some of the implications of those prompts. I’ve put Malik’s statements in boldface while my elaborations are in ordinary text.

1 Define a culture (‘Western culture’, ‘black culture’, etc)

One might try to define Western culture as a geopolitical entity that has its origins in ancient Greece (philosophy, math) and Israel (religion), continues in Europe and then spreads to the Americas starting with European exploration, conquest, and colonization at the end of the 15th Century. That, for example, is more or less the scope of a two-semester art history course I took during my freshman year of college some decades ago. But in what sense is that all ONE culture?

Imagine yourself transported back to the ancient world – Sparta, Jerusalem, Rome, wherever. Would you be able to function? Chances are you can’t speak the language, and whatever culture is, language is surely a big part of it. But assume that whatever magical power took you there also gave you command of the local language, would you be comfortable with the customs, the food, clothing, housing, social structure? What if, in the magic of transport, you ended up a slave? Is slavery essential to Western culture or merely contingent?

I began to have my doubts about “Western culture” when I learned that those Greek sculptures and temples in pristine white marble had not, in fact, been white. They’d been painted in shades of blue, red, green, yellow, and so forth. They’d have been rather gaudy, even, you know, “Oriental”. Whoops! Not so “Western” after all.

We could try defining this Western culture by such things as democracy and reason. How much democracy was there in the ancient world? Medieval Europe? As for reason, just what do you mean by that anyhow? Maybe you mean scientific reason? And just what is science? I understand that there was something called The Scientific Revolution and that it happened in Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries. And that required mathematics, mathematics conveyed to Europe through the work of Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, a Persian mathematician, astronomer, and geographer. The word “algorithm” is derived from his name, “al-Khwārizmī”. That’s where we get the system of Arabic numerals on which modern arithmetic calculation is based.

The modern “Western” world would have been impossible without that mathematics. Science depended on it, but so did navigation and accounting. Without navigation, no empire. No empire, no capitalism, which also required accounting. Think about that, the cultural fabric of the modern “West” is woven through and through with “Oriental” mathematics. If you pull that math from the fabric, it will fall apart.

So, just what IS this Western culture? It’s not exactly nothing, but it’s nothing very definite. What of African, South Asian, East Asian, Oriental, and Middle Eastern cultures? Beyond geographical designators, what are they? Ideological fictions. As for black culture. . .

2 Define the boundaries of a culture (where does ‘black culture’ end and ‘white culture’ begin in America?)

Malik took the relationship between black culture and white culture in America as the central case in his op-ed, which is appropriate enough for a piece published in an American newspaper. He brings up the case of rock and roll:

Certainly, cultural engagement does not take place on a level playing field. Racism and inequality shape the ways in which people imagine others. Yet it is difficult to see how creating gated cultures helps promote social justice.

There are few figures more important to the development of rock ’n’ roll than Chuck Berry (who died in March). In the 1950s, white radio stations refused to play his songs, categorizing them as “race music.” Then came Elvis Presley. A white boy playing the same tunes was cool. Elvis was feted, Mr. Berry and other black pioneers largely ignored. Racism defined who became the cultural icon.

But imagine that Elvis had been prevented from appropriating so-called black music. Would that have challenged racism, or eradicated Jim Crow laws? Clearly not. It took a social struggle — the civil rights movement — to bring about change. That struggle was built not on cultural separation, but on the demand for equal rights and universal values.

Before rock and roll there was jazz and swing, afterward we have hip-hip. In each case these and other musical forms have gone worldwide, engaging indigenous musical traditions in the process.

The history is rich an complex, but as the music exists on the ground, as it were, in what sense is it (purely and exclusively) black, or anything else? Is that even a meaningful question? If so is that meaning anything other than a mythology of pure cultural essences? As Malik goes on to observe, “Campaigns against cultural appropriation reveal the changing meaning of what it is to challenge racism. Once, it was a demand for equal treatment for all. Now it calls for cultures to be walled off and boundaries to be policed.“

3 Define membership of a culture

When someone from, say, India (Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Muslim, or Sikh, for example?) moves to the United States, do they thereby exit from South Asian culture? Perhaps not, not immediately. But when? When they become a citizen? That requires that they pass a test involving American history and principles of governance and be able to speak English, but that is, at best, only part of what we (might) mean by American culture, much less Western culture. It certainly doesn’t require them to completely give up lifeways they acquired in India.

Whatever these cultures, these containers of cultural forms, are, they don’t for the most part have governing bodies that dictate membership requirements.

Yes, the Federal government of the United States administers citizenship exams, but that’s at best one facet of culture in America. The French Academy makes pronouncements on the French language, but those dicta aren’t binding on speakers French, nor, for that matter, is the French language the sum total of French culture. The Roman Catholic Church has a body of doctrine and canon law that is promulgated by the Vatican, but Roman Catholicism is not all of Christendom, if I may use that rather quaint term, nor are other Christian denominations so tightly organized. For that matter, various professional bodies – lawyers, physicians, architects, electricians, nurses, hairdressers, and so forth – have professional groups that set standards for professional licensing. But these things, all of them, only contribute facets of the cultural endowment of any one individual.

Each one of us is in possession of a diverse array of attitudes, ideas, skills, beliefs, and customs that constitute our individual cultural endowment. We may hold membership in a church, a professional association, and of course we will hold citizenship in one or more nations. We may also belong to various clubs and civic groups each of which organizes a body of cultural knowledge and practice. But there is no one organization or group to which each of us belongs that is somehow responsible for all aspects of our individual cultural endowments.

We are members of nations, of civic, occupational, business, familial and informal groups and organizations of all kinds, but none of those memberships defines our individual cultural “idolect”. The idea that we are members of all-inclusive cultural groups is an ideological fiction. That’s not how the modern world is.

4 Define what it means for a culture to ‘own’ a cultural form

5 Define how a cultural form belongs to a culture and only to that culture

6 Define who provides permission for a cultural form to be used by ‘another culture’

I’m going to treat these as aspects of one question and I’m going to flip the script.

Consider The Walt Disney Company, which Wikipedia defines as “an American diversified multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate, headquartered at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California.” Roughly speaking, Disney is in the culture business. As such it claims ownership over a wide range of cultural forms and licenses their use. Chief among them, of course, is Mickey Mouse, which is the official mascot of The Walt Disney Company.

Disney was started by Walt and Roy Disney in 1923 to create and market cartoons. Mickey was created in 1928 and quickly became the studio’s figurehead. While Walt had stopped drawing by that time – Roy had always headed up the business side – he voiced Mickey though the mid-1940s. But Mickey is hardly the only piece of intellectual property, or IP, owned by Disney. Nor, for that matter, is Disney the only corporation in the culture business. There’s a lot of them.

My point is simply that, in Disney, we have a specific organization that is in the business of commodifying culture and so is in a position to own cultural forms and give/sell permission for their use. Mickey was drawn by Ub Iwerks, who was an employee of the company and who, as such, had no individual ownership rights in the character. They belong to the corporation and they still do, for Disney has been vigorous in lobbying Congress to extend the term of copyright so that Mickey is still the private property of Disney. In theory there will come a time when Mickey passes into the public domain. But who knows, maybe Disney will once again succeed in getting the term of copyright extended.

Our discussion of culture has now collided now with the complicated morass that is copyright. I have no intention of wading into that morass here, nor the associated issue of patents, which are also about culture. The discussion of cultural appropriation presupposes the commodification of culture.

When asked about commercial activity involving corporations in the business of creating and marketing cultural forms Malick’s three questions are readily answered. Rephrasing them slightly:

Question 4: What does it mean to “own” a cultural form? It means you, a private individual or a corporation, have copyright, which has been assigned by the government.

Question 5: How does a cultural form belong to one corporation and only to that corporation? That’s how the law works. Joint ownership can of course be defined by the appropriate documents.

Question 6: Who provides permission for a cultural form to be used by another corporation? The corporation that holds copyright.

Do we really want to constitute most of our cultural and civic activity as some kind of (quasi-)commercial transaction? Do we want to convene a whole raft of cultural watchdog councils to administer a new body of law and regulation?

7 Define who defines what is a ‘respectful’ use of a cultural form, and why they should possess that authority.

What Disney, and other owners of cultural forms, wants first and foremost is money. You have to pay to use any of the cultural forms they own. But of course they’re also concerned about the integrity of their brand and won’t license uses that compromise that. Absent those kinds of organizations, and the attendant laws and procedures, who gets to determine “respect”?

Each of us must reach our own judgment, one grounded in the diversity of our own experience. Do we really want to empower yet another administrative tangle of gatekeepers dictating how we think, feel, and live?

Over to you.

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Other 3QD posts where I’ve addressed issues of cultural identity: