Why I apparently do not belong in academia.

December 7, 2010 Comments Off on Why I apparently do not belong in academia.

My World Dress class was absolutely infuriating this morning. We had a guest come in and read a presentation on cultural appropriation to us; she focused on steampunk and it was kind of cool. But then I asked a question about how appropriation (i.e. borrowing an item from a smaller culture, often using/wearing it out of context) is different from authentication (i.e. borrowing an item from a larger culture, often using/wearing it out of context). I said I thought it was a false distinction, intentionally valorizing smaller cultures in what is at heart a condescending way. So then we started talking about appropriation in earnest. And it turns out that you actually cannot separate power from appropriation, and it can be appropriate to talk about it in those terms. The persuasive example was the fascination with Orientalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

L'odalisque à l'esclave, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Harem women were romanticized and sexualized, and the dress of these characters was appropriated into Western fashion. Okay, fine, the West could only get away with it because they had control over the region. (Did I mention that the professor repeatedly encouraged us not to be discouraged by the “big words” in a quote about the “politics of hegemony”? Grr.) So, I was wrong. But the whole discussion made me furious for three reasons.

The worst thing was how complacently she delivered her sermon. These are good things to think about and of course you don’t want to offend people, but I think it’s worse to have someone who has thought about it for years and presents it condescendingly and with assurance that they are in the right than to have someone who occasionally puts their foot in it but is a considerate person who is ready to eat their words. Academics/people obsessed with the concept of “politically correct” are terrible about this. They have a morbid, almost Catholic gluttony for the guilt of being white, American, and rich, and at the same time they feel saintly because merely considering the sins and crimes of past civilizations and eras absolves them of the same sins and crimes in their own lives. The product is that smug complacency which was shoved in my face this morning and which I deeply resent. Not to mention how lowbrow it makes you if you disagree with any detail or haven’t written at least an article about this.

What doesn’t come through in these smug speeches is exactly how complicated this issue is. It is so complicated that even saying “This issue is extremely complicated” doesn’t really cover it. It is so complicated that you can’t even talk about it, because as soon as you zero in on one aspect, you immediately begin to neglect several others. Okay, yes: Europe was dominant in the world at the time we’re discussing. Some artists and designers thought they would take Eastern ideas and adapt them to Western ideals to make them better. Is that evil? Or offensive? Yes? What about being moved to say, hey, a turban is a pretty nifty item of clothing. I think I’ll put it in my high-fashion designer’s line. What about genuine admiration for the culture you’re borrowing from, even if, when it comes right down to it, you think they’re not as smart as you are? How much can you blame people for the ideas of their time? Should you analyze 19th-century appropriators differently than you would 21st-century appropriators? (Because nowadays we know better…right?) What about the oppressed culture? Did they borrow anything from their overlords? Is it human nature to try to imitate and adopt other styles? Maybe the difference power made was in the reaction to the borrowings rather than the borrowings themselves. (An Indian wearing some articles of British dress would get very different reactions from Indians and British, and the other way around.) Where does influence become borrowing? How badly are you allowed to get offended across cultural boundaries? There is no way to treat all these questions fairly; there might not even be any way to actually get to all the questions in the first place. It would get monotonous to keep reminding people how complicated it is, and yet if you don’t—if your entire discussion doesn’t center on how very complicated it is—you are not giving it its due.

The final thing that pisses me off about the way academics approach this is that their approach is not prophylactic. You can take the most learned professor there is, who has written dozens of books and given hundreds of lecture about intercultural senstivity, but drop him in a culture he is unfamiliar with and he will still make a gaffe. Knowing all this stuff doesn’t make you good at anything. It is, of course, laudable to try to avoid offending people. But people are so easily offended! And sometimes (I would argue) you should not let the displeasure of one group of people deter you from doing something you feel is good or right. (An Indian woman might be offended by a white woman wearing a bindi, even if the white woman finds it deeply significant and spiritually uplifting to wear. Does that mean she shouldn’t?) So is there really so much benefit to dissecting the past? Does it really give you all that much insight? Does it make you a better person? I say NO, and that is why I take exception to condescending, smug lectures that gloss over a lot of the complexities and imply that learning this well enough will save you from yourself someday when you are visiting the jungle headhunters à la the Far Side. I firmly believe that if you are a good person and you keep your eyes open and are constantly ready to drop your hasty judgments and take back your hasty words, you will do just fine. Who needs you, Beverly Gordon?

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