09 August 2013

Cultural appropriation

For future reference: From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation.

Based on the range of literature addressing the topic, I identified four categories of cultural appropriation (adapted from Wallis & Malm, 1984; additional influences from Bakhtin, 1975/1981; Clifford, 1988; Goodwin & Gore, 1990; Ziff & Rao, 1997). Based on the assumptions identified above, these four categories can best be understood as naming the conditions (historical, social, political, cultural, and economic) under which acts of appropriation occur. After briefly defining each of the four types of appropriation, I discuss, illustrate, and evaluate each in depth.

  1. Cultural exchange: the reciprocal exchange of symbols, artifacts, rituals, genres, and/or technologies between cultures with roughly equal levels of power.
  2. Cultural dominance: the use of elements of a dominant culture by members of a subordinated culture in a context in which the dominant culture has been imposed onto the subordinated culture, including appropriations that enact resistance.
  3. Cultural exploitation: the appropriation of elements of a subordinated culture by a dominant culture without substantive reciprocity, permission, and/or compensation.
  4. Transculturation: cultural elements created from and/or by multiple cultures, such that identification of a single originating culture is problematic, for example, multiple cultural appropriations structured in the dynamics of globalization and transnational capitalism creating hybrid forms.

Cultural exchange operates in the literature as an implied baseline for clarifying the inequalities involved in the other conditions of appropriation and is generally assumed to be a nonexistent ideal. Cultural domination, in contrast, highlights the asymmetries under which acts of appropriation occur. Although many approaches to this set of conditions emphasize the power of the dominant to impose its culture on subordinated peoples, cultural dominance as a condition nevertheless requires attention to how the targets of cultural imposition negotiate their relationship to the dominant culture through a variety of appropriative tactics. Extending this implication, cultural resistance, a form of appropriation that occurs under the conditions of cultural dominance, highlights the agency and inventiveness of subordinated peoples by examining how they appropriate dominant cultural elements for resistive ends.

Resistance through appropriation, however, demonstrates the ‘‘impurity’’ of acts of resistance and of culture itself. Cultural exploitation focuses on the commodification and incorporation of elements of subordinated cultures. However, in defending the rights of subordinated peoples to protect the integrity of their culture and to control its use, most of the discourse of cultural exploitation operates from a model of culture as clearly bounded and distinct, as singular and organic. Such a model of culture is not only empirically questionable but also complicit in the subordination of ‘‘primitive’’ cultures. Transculturation further questions the validity of an essentialist model of distinct cultures that merely engage in appropriation, highlighting appropriation and hybridity as constitutive of culture, reconceptualized as an intersectional phenomenon. Although the literature on transculturation is grounded in the conditions of globalization and transnational capitalism, the implications of transculturation question the assumptions of the previous three categories in both contemporary and historical contexts.

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