Understanding How Culture Propagates, Changes Everything

I cannot remember when I last saw a Von Dutch hat. I remember being offended twenty years ago, when for a time they were all over the place, on the heads of people imitating at third hand the ironic poses of other people who had never heard of Kenny Howard; who had no idea who Larry Watson was, nor therefore where the “crab claw” flame stylization came from; to whom the names of Dean Jeffries and even Ed Roth meant nothing. I was offended because Von Dutch was a small component of a world with which I had been intimately familiar for a long time, ever since my seven-year-old eye had been caught by some Tom Daniel box art in a toy shop window in Italy. I was offended because the adolescent I had actually been in 1975 was hereby reduced to a caricature, a shallow, sneering caricature with overtones of cultural slumming, for the sake of a fashion statement. The experience gave me some insight into the way people can and do get justifiably offended by what is, however problematically, called “cultural appropriation.”

But then, it seems, the phenomenon of Von Dutch as a “pure brand,” unanchored to any meaning pertaining to product quality, simply ran its course and fizzled, as fashions and empires alike are wont to do. The poseurs grew weary of LARPing ‘70s middle-class teenage boys and decided en masse to dress up as pirates or cavemen or whatever instead. Those of us who had before appreciated Howard’s pinstriping work — and decried his racial bigotry and personal curmudgeonliness — continued as if nothing had happened. This second experience underlines what is wrong with the idea of intellectual property and the common dictum that “piracy is theft.” We custom car nuts still have Von Dutch, despite his being overwritten for a while with whatever strata of frivolous meaning by the entire might of brand capitalism, just as the owner of putative copyright still has the original work after however many copies have been made.

Of course the voice of an obscure community of custom-car history geeks is not particularly diminished in the scheme of things. For a season it was drowned out by sheer money proclaiming a wafer-thin caricature of our bag, but it passed. Still, it gave me a taste of how it must be like for those whose voices are permanently and structurally diminished, who spend their lives screaming to no avail against blithe mischaracterizations of things which are to them replete with significance and sanctity far, far greater than the cultural legacy of a not-very-nice pinstriper. Those voices must not only be heard, but restored.

I nevertheless say that the expression “cultural appropriation” is problematic as an expression because, in the most basic of senses, the overwhelming bulk of all culture can be characterized as something for which “appropriated” is a reasonable word, at the most literal level. Culture exists because it is appropriated, and only in so far as it is appropriated. Unless it is appropriated, it dies. Apart from a proportionally tiny amount of personal original invention, we get everything we know by learning it from someone else. More accurately, every instance of learning something from someone else contains some element of invention, however small: the process is largely but not entirely mimetic.

Culture consists in propositions, not facts. That somehow bobbed up in my mind, and I knew then that it said exactly what I meant, but it took me years to figure out just what it was I meant. What I meant, I think, was that cultural goods function as such insofar as they constitute invitations for people to respond to them. Everything cultural has a question mark behind it; it wants an answer, even if the answer is merely, OK: yet it is itself already an answer to another proposition. It is intrinsically dialectical. Thus culture exists as a stream (or nebulous multi-dimensional expanding mesh) of personal responses to personal responses to personal responses, etc. And, importantly, culture has no existence outside this.

Of course, the idea that culture has an existence as a sort of fixed impersonal edifice impervious to the aforementioned multi-dimensional expanding mesh can exist as a cultural proposition — and hopefully elicit the response, bullshit! For that would involve us in the construction of boundaries which I submit to be toxic and counterproductive to understanding the issues of cultural appropriation, diffusion, assimilation, etc. A linguist friend of mine likes to say that there are no languages but only language. I likewise say that there are no cultures but only culture. Culture is unique in each personal instance, but it draws on the single field of the entirety of all human culture. And while differences in the ease of access will result in regional differences in the dominant flavour of culture it is impossible to draw lines, except with violence.

It is due to such violent drawing of lines that it is not as obvious as it should be that a Norwegian has no cultural claim to the Parthenon which is not shared in exact equal measure by any Vietnamese or Moçambican. All each of them has of the Parthenon is what they have personally learned from other people. Each has a consequent perfect moral right to do with the Parthenon, the Doric order, the octastyle temple format, and the principle of entasis whatever they please. The more mills for which it is grist, the better.

The two important principles here are, firstly, that culture is propagated by personal learning, and secondly, that this process constitutes people actively making culture. Understanding this must result in a shift in our view of culture, from a body of received “heritage” to an ongoing process of active creation as something people do. And this must in turn inform our reading of instances where violence has interrupted culture.

Thus we are able to condemn campaigns of forced cultural assimilation, for instance, not because a “nation” has been “robbed” of a body of cultural heritage, but because people, an arbitrary slice of a cloud of relationships, have been denied their freedom to go on creating culture as they among them variously see fit. We can condemn aspirations to nationalistic dominance without ourselves resorting to nationalism. We are also able to see where “cultural appropriation,” in the sense the expression has taken in the discourse, does actual damage to people’s practical ability to transmit culture, without having to twist the matter out of shape.

For that is what it is about: we are all creators of culture. We are all propagators, both transmitters and receivers, of culture. But some have too long had the power to transmit farther and more loudly than others. That power should be available equally to everyone.

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