Various iterations of this post have been bumping around my drafts folder for a bit and after my last post where I complained a little about the popular use of ‘culture’ I feel like it is time to work the draft into a proper post. I want to talk a little about truth, teachings, culture, and appropriation.
This begins for me with W. E. B. DuBois and his observation about the nature of the color line. While he was keenly aware of its reality and the necessity to confront it in its many manifestations, he was also clear that the color line was something of a lie. Or, to quote Leonard Cohen, that it was “real, but it ain’t exactly there.” One of the most important challenges that we can mount against the color line is an assault on that reality and an effort to realize the “there” that is actually there.
Part of that assault has to be an assault on the reality of culture. What we call ‘culture’ is most often an amalgam of habit, imitation, and adaptation. That stuff is important, don’t get me wrong. We are deeply mimetic and there is a comfort to it that is cruel to take away unnecessarily. However, when those habits reproduce cruelties that exceed the comfort they provide? Something is wrong and we need to get at it, not pass it off as mere cultural variation.
There are fragments of truth embedded in culture. The mimesis that sustains culture also sustains the memory of decisive moments when a balance was struck between desire and environment. While those deals are almost struck outside of culture, it is through culture that they are preserved. The lessons of the past exist in our habits and rites as much as they do in books of history. Perhaps, in fact, the lessons of the past are preserved more truly in the habits than in the books.
Those fragments of truth do not justify the culture and they are not justified by the culture. They are caught up in it but they don’t belong to it. Moreover, the fragments of truth in culture are preserved in a fashion alien to their creation. Born in accident and cleverness, they are preserved mostly through imitation. Separated from the matrix of their birth, they can become disconnected from the situations that made them true, like a rejoinder excerpted from the voice it answers. This is the value of genuine teachings, for in them the dialogue is refreshed, but teachings are not culture though they occur within the world sustained by culture.
It is from this angle that we need to address the question of appropriation. You can’t properly steal truth. It doesn’t belong to any one culture and eats away at all of them. It can’t be appropriated, only circulated. Culture, on the other hand, does belong to a people as a special form of comfort. When the question of appropriation arises, it comes down to the question of comfort. Does the appropriation of some aspect of a culture undermine the comfort it provides to the people living it? While it often seems like imitation is a form of flattery, we also have to appreciate that imitation is a form of dissolution.
When we take up an element of another culture, we insert ourselves into the pattern of that element’s transmission. We enter into the circle of comfort and belonging that it signals. The comfort of belonging is deeper than the mimesis, though, because the belonging relates to the way in which culture has adapted to a world. When appropriation occurs without adaptation, it performs a special kind of lie. In privileging imitation over adaptation, it obscures the way in which culture only makes sense as a kind of form of life and makes of that form of life nothing but a play of behaviors. It reduces the appropriated culture to a kind of play and denies its history and its connection to its own series of livable teachings.
Remember DuBois’s complaint that to the white man the stories of the black people were only twice-told tales? This is what he is talking about. When appropriation occurs within a context of cultural disparity, it contains a degree of disdain for the appropriated culture that needs to be challenged. Again, though, there is a form of engagement with the teachings of a culture that we have to be careful about criticizing. An engagement with the teachings is a grasping after truth, something which exceeds any and all culture (including our own).
The same question applies to all matters of cultural reform. How does the reform impact the comfort of those within the culture? This is why cultural reform is often justified in the face of cruelties embedded within the culture. However, in the matter of reform, there is also the question of truth. Within the cultural forms subjected to reform there will be habits born in decisive and true moments and the difficult question must be asked: can these remembrances still be brought to the level of a rejoinder or have they become simply social comforts?
We ought to struggle to preserve forms that still teach even when reform presses. While there are occasions when the need for reform outweighs the demand to preserve a truth, we should know those occasions by the struggle and failure to preserve and reform, not by the favoring of one or the other from the outset. And it isn’t something we are entitled to inflict on another culture, a culture whose adaptations and teachings we are not positioned to appreciate.
This lack of entitlement is very difficult to bear and especially where cultures have become tightly integrated with each other, it is exceptionally difficult to apply. The boundaries between one culture and another are never absolute, and the struggles around identity politics helps make this clear. Class, gender, race, ethnicity, and nation are all amalgams. Still, for all the difficulty, it is worth struggling toward restraint and respect even if we will necessarily fail. Even if sometimes we can make out the appropriate boundaries of respect only by overstepping them and working through the muddle that results.
That, and remain committed to truth, so that we keep encountering each other in the world outside of the artificial but comfortable boundaries of our various cultural homes.