On cultural appropriation, from American Spirit to Palmyra

While symbols and their deployment undoubtedly structure our experience, Will Searby argues that power relations have a materiality that an uncritical understanding of ‘cultural appropriation’ can obscure. 

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I still remember the first time I came across American Spirit tobacco. I was in Berlin roughly two years ago and I saw a Swiss friend rolling a cigarette. Even armed with the proletarian science of Marxism-Leninism (!), I naively assumed that such orientalising imagery would never be able to circulate on a British market; for some reason, I assumed that because the Dutch had their Sinter Klaus and the French had aggressive state-sanctioned Islamophobia under cover of laïcité, that Britain was just better, at least on its own terms, of masking liberal hypocrisy (I was, to be fair, two years younger than I now am).

The imagery in question struck me as instantly and unambiguously racist. For those not familiar, the packaging of American Spirit tobacco features a side-on silhouette of a muscular figure drawing on a long pipe, wearing a native-American chieftain’s headdress, all set against a red sun; the typeface on the packaging invokes the same aesthetic, and a short description on the packaging proudly proclaims that this imagery ‘is a visual representation of all values that we are bound to since the beginning of our company’s history’; ‘a life-style in harmony with nature’. It is a case study in the production of orientalised otherness, situating the image of a ‘noble savage’ to signify nature and ‘harmony’ against the perception of an amoral and alienated civilisation. It could hardly be more typical.

Obviously this imagery is only more offensive when one considers the actual material impact of tobacco production on indigenous American communities, and the methods of primitive accumulation that accompanied the development of an export market for American tobacco. This process was obviously inextricable from the calculated depopulation of indigenous people by white colonisers, their transplantation to conditions of economic dependency in enclosures, and the instrumental role played by large tobacco in developing monopolies to break prior social-productive structures and ensure the abject ruination of indigenous communities. On top of this, of course, must be noted the environmental impact of tobacco production; this involved large-scale deforestation, pesticide and fertiliser use, contributing to the destruction of the conditions on which any previous system of production could have been based.

My frame of reference for this question was dramatically shifted, however, a few months later, when raising this point with a friend, I was told that American Spirit tobacco was owned and produced almost exclusively by indigenous Americans (a claim I still find highly dubious, but which I’ll take at face value for the sake of argument).

Obviously this ‘fact’ doesn’t change any of the dynamics of the material aspects of tobacco production, however much American Spirit claim to be committed to an ‘obligation to protect and preserve our natural heritage and the natural resources from which our tobacco is grown’: it is an incontrovertible aspect of the needs of capitalist production that it necessarily exploits a dependent labour force. And though they may claim to have ‘developed environmentally sustainable cultivation programs for natural tobacco’, there is only so far that this is reconcilable with the demands of mass-production for a world market. ‘The enjoyment of tobacco in its original state’, inasmuch as it means anything beyond an airy platitude, is fantasy.

But what is more interesting is the question as to whether the ownership of the brand changes the symbolic dynamics of the orientalising imagery deployed. I am going to suggest that it doesn’t: the imagery still plays on the same racist cultural assumptions which are themselves a symptom of European imperialism; it still plays the same role in perpetuating stereotypes of cultural ‘otherness’; and it is still deployed in a process of legitimising the practices of expropriation which accompany capitalist production (does it make much difference if the capitalists contributing to deforestation are indigenous or not?). But this question of cultural ownership is nonetheless interesting, and deserves development. To what extent do the orientalised images of Native Americans ‘belong’ to them?

Last year, when the renowned neo-fascist Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, visited Britain, a series of memes circulated on social media about the Kohinoor, the diamond looted in the British expansion into India and subsequently incorporated into the crown jewels. The memes generally depicted Modi ‘awkwardly’ raising the issue of the Kohinoor at his state appointment with the Queen, the subtext obviously being that he was calling British imperialism to account for its crimes in the Indian subcontinent.

On the face of it this appears to indicate a hopeful attempt to develop a mainstream critical attitude to the past abuses of British imperialism, and it should be recognised that signifiers like the Kohinoor, rendering as they do the crimes of colonialism in a harsh light, can serve this purpose. I can’t help but wonder, however, at the use of Modi as the personification of Indian colonial victimhood. In real terms Modi can probably be counted a major beneficiary of British imperialism, as his Islamophobic and sectarian rhetoric plays directly on the fractures created in Indian society by British policies of divide-and-rule in the Raj, and, more recently, in the form of the outstandingly violent partition of 1947. The only logic that seems to govern the structure of these memes is that both Modhi and the Kohinoor are expressions of ‘Indian culture’.

Appraisals of the past and continuing impact of British imperialism are obviously urgently needed. In the 1770 Bengal famine, roughly a third to a quarter of the population died in a ten-month period, whilst the British East India Company ramped up taxes. In the 1877-79 famine, Lord Lytton instructed British officers to ‘discourage relief works in every possible way’, stating that ‘mere distress is not a sufficient reason for opening a relief work’. In 1896, between 1.25-10 million people died in the famine, whilst Lord Curzon cut back famine relief that he described as ‘dangerously high’. British officials pursued a conscious policy of segregation, deploying Hindu police in Muslim majority areas of the Raj and vice-versa, creating cultural antagonisms that had barely featured prior to British rule.

This sheds some light on the function that the conceptual problematic of cultural ‘ownership’ and appropriation plays in discussions of oppression and exploitation. For a large majority of ordinary Indians, the experience of British imperialism was predominantly material; it involved watching families starve in manufactured famines and coerced labour for British Tea companies, or the petty and banal injustices inflicted every day by a colonial bureaucracy. Whilst the phenomenon of cultural looting stands as a striking cultural expression of these injustices, we shouldn’t forget that it is also, most clearly in the case of the Kohinoor, an example of conflict between British and Indian elites. If the Kohinoor is taken as a comprehensive signifier of Indian culture, rather than an example of a select and exclusive aspect of it, it flattens the very real dynamics of power in Indian society, dynamics which closely determined the experience of imperialism.

I think this is exactly what is at stake in the Kohinoor memes; the reason both Modhi and the Kohinoor can stand as images of Indian culture in the abstract is because they are both presented in a manner which detaches them entirely from the class relations of Indian society. The result of this is that rather than developing critical attitudes to ongoing and historic imperialism, they serve to mask it, to allow us not to think about the actual structures of petty control and violence involved in imperialism, and ignore its continued development. Incidentally, Modi is still involved in smoothing the channels for the external intervention of international capital in India; whilst chief Minister of Gujarrat, his aggressive neoliberalisation of the agricultural economy led to drastic spikes in farmer suicides, and his election to the government was widely praised by financial writers for his proposed deregulation of the Indian economy. In such a scenario, the conception of imperialism as a purely cultural phenomenon plays an incredibly pernicious role.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that issues of cultural appropriation do not matter. The Kohinoor is still in many ways a good place to start a discussion about British imperialism because of its symbolic value, in the same way that the high publicity campaign against the racist imagery of the ‘Redskins’ American Football team, or the campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College in Oxford provide valuable lynch-pins for anti-racist critique. Cultural symbols and signifiers fundamentally structure our experiences of subjectivity and identity, both on an individual and social level. One final example will, I hope, demonstrate what I think is at work in the particular anxiety occasioned by the phenomenon of cultural appropriation.

Last year ISIS militants destroyed historic artefacts across Iraq and Syria, most notably at the complex at Palmyra. This was met with widespread outrage across anglophone media, which was countered by an outrage at the fact that a greater value seemed to be placed on these cultural artefacts than the tremendous loss of life that had already resulted from ISIS’s sectarian violence. The proposed dichotomy, between human culture and human life is, I think, largely a false distinction, but its deployment tells us a lot about the anxiety of cultural exchange and appropriation.

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The western response to the “Islamic State’s” destruction of Palmyra illustrates how cultural appropriation can legitimise imperialist intervention.

In a particularly farcical article in the Telegraph, Boris Johnson claimed that he would be very ‘tempted’ to sign up to an ‘Antiquities Protection Force – a special brigade of pipe-puffing leather-elbowed history buffs and ancient monument fetishists, dedicated to repelling the attacks of the barbarians’. In the article, BoJo gushed about the destruction of ‘our common cultural heritage’, stating that ‘these artefacts and ruins do not belong to the people who happen now to claim sovereignty over these currently wretched deserts. They are the property of all mankind.’

Again, the issue is posed as one of cultural ‘ownership’, this time reframed as an appeal to universalism. As I’ve already stated, this isn’t entirely wrong; the classical art of Iraq and Syria does fundamentally structure Western self-perception, but only as a retrospective projection. Western civilisation situates itself in this history, both because it forms its prehistory, its selective genealogy, but also because this rhetorical move is how actors in the West convince themselves of a ‘cultural inheritance’ and therefore the universalism of their own culture. If this culture is ‘the property of all mankind’ – if we all share these cultural reference points – we also share an aesthetic and ethical judgement, ethical duties and responsibilities. This claim to cultural universality is what justifies ethical intervention and contemporary imperialism, exemplified by BoJo’s ramblings.

But this universalism is also dependent on the fact that these artefacts mean something; on no account can it be seen that the structures at Palmyra are just rubble and mortar, materially interchangeable with all other structures of their type, because they are the supports to a worldview, they structure a logic by which imperialism can be rationalised.

Imperialism, like capitalism, has no innate ‘logic’. Though each individual instance of imperial intervention may fulfil certain strategic goals, the overall apprehension of the world imperialist system means confronting a profound and terrifying indifference to anything but the necessity of capital accumulation. Similarly, in cultural appropriation, when the symbols (ways of braiding hair, headdresses, styles of art) that intimately structure identity are decontextualised and subjected to the indifference of the market, we are confronted with the anxiety of a void, but clinging to these symbols only serves to mask the real antagonisms at play.

In his essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin follows something very like this line of argument, charting how in an era of mass cultural production our subjectivity becomes progressively more alienated. He links the process that correlates to this, the aestheticisation of violence, to fascism, a poignant reflection from 1930s Germany. The final words of this essay perhaps deserve greater reflection:

This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.

On one level it is true that all politics is just the exchange and conflict of images and signs; but it is also true that real exchanges of power structure these dynamics. As long as we render politics aesthetic by flattening these structures under abstract ideas of ‘culture’ and appropriation, we run the risk of becoming apologists for grave injustice. Politicizing art surely means using the symbolic symptoms of injustice to elaborate its abstract, but painfully determinate functioning.

In other words, you won’t necessarily help those being exploited by switching to Cutters Choice.

There are 7 comments

  1. Colin Wilson

    People like Boris don’t get equally agitated, of course, about the severe damage done in the last few years to the Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo, which dates from 8th century, or the Al-Madina Souq in the same city, much of which dates from the 14th. But Palmyra is Roman. The Romans – despite ruling over areas we now think of as parts of Asia and Africa – are identified as European, adopted as part of “our” heritage in a way a mosque isn’t. Kids “do the Romans” in school – nobody “does” Persia or Babylon.

    The other distinctive thing about Palmyra is that its romantic ruins are in the desert, not a Syrian city – so it’s much easier to abstract it from the reality of Syria today. There’s much less danger that, to explain what happened, you might have to mention the crimes of the Assad regime.

    And so Boris maintains the same approach that led Lord Elgin to feel justified in nicking bits of the Parthenon – “our” culture has somehow ended up in “their” country. Things which aren’t part of “our” culture are treated quite differently, as with the mosque and the souq. Indeed, Lord Elgin himself, later in his career, ordered soldiers to burn down the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. It took 3,500 of them three days to do it, and as one remarked, “You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt.” The British ruling class’s concern for ancient monuments is, at the very least, selective.

    1. rs21

      ‘The British ruling class’s concern for ancient monuments is, at the very least, selective.’ – exactly, which is precisely what makes Boris’s designation of the Roman Ruins as ‘the property of all mankind.’ so pernicious – there’s obviously not actually an organic link between modern European culture and Rome; it’s tirelessly constructed (Eighteenth Brumaire?). Western civilisation glorifies itself through the appropriation of past event and Histories, develops it’s own mythic narrative, and then projects this onto he world in the form of Enlightenment universalism. – this is, of course, only half the story, and we can’t speak about this without also talking about a mode of production, but we should also be wary of a simple base/superstructure reduction, when we discuss cultural production – obviously cultural production conforms in a certain relation to the economic infrastructure; but more by a relationship of adequacy – the transplantation of Roman Law onto Bourgeois society provides a useful example; and Marx lays out a similar schematic when he discusses classical art in the General Introduction to the Grundrisse.

  2. will searby

    ‘The British ruling class’s concern for ancient monuments is, at the very least, selective.’ – exactly, which is precisely what makes Boris’s designation of the Roman Ruins as ‘the property of all mankind.’ so pernicious – there’s obviously not actually an organic link between modern European culture and Rome; it’s tirelessly constructed (Eighteenth Brumaire?). Western civilisation glorifies itself through the appropriation of past event and Histories, develops it’s own mythic narrative, and then projects this onto he world in the form of Enlightenment universalism. – this is, of course, only half the story, and we can’t speak about this without also talking about a mode of production, but we should also be wary of a simple base/superstructure reduction, when we discuss cultural production – obviously cultural production conforms in a certain relation to the economic infrastructure; but more by a relationship of adequacy – the transplantation of Roman Law onto Bourgeois society provides a useful example; and Marx lays out a similar schematic when he discusses classical art in the General Introduction to the Grundrisse.

  3. Sanjay Shah

    Great commentary on the cultural appropriation debate. I especially enjoyed the materialist analysis of this debate and it definitely gave me a new way to think about this debate. As a person from India, I am wary of the way discussions on reparations and appropriation are carried out among the Indian (specifically Hindu) diaspora. There is tendency to fixate on certain artifacts (Kohinoor, yoga, bindi), and endless lamentations about how white people are appropriating these. While appropriation by white ppl is definitely a problem, I am more intrigued by the way these discussions are used by privileged-caste South Asian to construct an identity of “colonial victimhood”. I am not the only one feeling this discomfort. There are increasing critiques of the “cultural appropriation” debate that have come up mainly from oppressed-caste people. For example, Prachi Patankar said, “I am distressed by the increasingly popular rhetoric among some South Asians in the US diaspora, who simplistically fault the “Western” embrace and “white” appropriation of the yoga that belongs to “our culture.” Some of this rhetoric dangerously echoes existing claims in the diaspora that have already gotten play in US media. Rooted in the chauvinistic Hinduism among some sectors of the upper-caste minority, these voices claim yoga as their homogenous culture—in ways that obscure the caste, class, and religious diversity and injustices among South Asians.” Moreover, Patankar also goes to show how many of these symbols that the people who identify as “South Asians” and “desis” want to “reclaim” are really just symbols of privileged-caste culture which is projected by South Asian elites as “the” South Asian culture. So I think another thing we need to critique in these cultural appropriation debates is how they privilege the concerns of the indigenous elite, which in South Asian means those with privileged-caste origins.

    On a slightly different note, I am not entirely in agreement with your analysis of Indian history because it seems to privilege class while obscuring caste. This is an entirely different debate but I just wanted to bring to your notice that many Dalit critiques of Indian Communism fault it for (1) invisibilizing caste by framing it as a quaint tradition or an outgrowth of class, and (2) the dominance of privileged-caste members in the Politburo. This may come as a surprise to you but even the neo-fascist party of Narendra Modi has more representation from oppressed-castes (Dalits, formerly “untouchables”) than the CPI (ML) which is completely filled with Brahmins. This reluctance to engaging with *specificity* of caste oppression has really cost Indian Communism a lot of support from the people it claims to represent, the underclass. Here is a good article on this issue if you want to read on this: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1130419/jsp/opinion/story_16795272.jsp

  4. will searby

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post – I think you’re absolutely right about the manner in which attitudes around cultural appropriation flatten caste dynamics in favour of elite culture – this is something I would have said more explicitly if not for my relative ignorance of the concrete structure of Indian society, but it’s one of the main reasons I drew on the Kohinoor.

    I’m familiar with the criticism of class analysis in an Indian context re; ignoring caste, and again, this comes back to a relative ignorance of the specific nature of Indian social dynamics on my part. On this point though, my first response would be to say that whilst, from what I gather, caste oppression has a specificity which is irreducible to class relations, that this is true of all oppression, and a class analysis doesn’t intrude on this fact by making normative claims about concrete social structures. The only pre-requisite for a class analysis is a mode of production which relies on the extraction of surplus labour, though I can well see how economistic analyses would be even more disastrous in an Indian context than in a european one.

    I can equally believe that the BJP is more inclusive of dalits than the CPI(ML) – I think a large proportion of the communist parties that had links to the State Capitalist bureaucracies in Russia and China, as the CPI did, adopted incredibly economistic analyses which naturally alienated them from the real actors in Indian society.

    Apologies for my ignorance – I wouldn’t have used the Kohinoor/Modhi at all had it not fitted so well with te argument I was trying to advance.

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