Paul Gilroy and Aijaz Ahmad on The Politics of Culture

Anyone who has read what I’ve written whether on Twitter or in essay form will know that I have strong opinions on so called ‘cultural appropriation theory’. The Labour MP Dawn Butler’s attack on Jamie Oliver for supposedly appropriating ‘Jerk rice’ from Jamaica is just the latest in a line of these low level controversies where people, mainly celebrities and artists, are alleged to have taken the cultural expressions, knowledge and artefacts from another culture without permission and according to Susan Scafidi, professor of law at Fordham University, guilty of the “unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc”. White people are not the only ones to have had the accusation of cultural ‘theft’ hurled at them. Rihanna was accused by Krystyna Chavez, the social media editor of Marie Claire of allegedly appropriating thin eyebrows associated with the chola look from Mexican culture (“my culture” she stresses), even though thin eyebrows also have roots in Southern African cultures and 1920s American culture. But don’t expect these inconvenient facts to deter these insecure ‘woke’ cultural nationalists from their quest to guard ethnic purity.

It’s strange that some of those who champion immigration, diversity and multiculturalism; who abhor the use of the words ‘indigenous’ and ‘European’ together; who argue that countries like Britain have always been nations of immigration and stress the ‘foreign’ influences from migrants that have shaped British culture over the centuries, who (rightly) push back against claims of ethnic and cultural purity to national identity when it comes from the white, racist, anti-immigrant right. Yet, take a ‘Blut und Boden’ view of minority communities and their Culture(with a capital C) treating them as ‘traditional’, ‘native’ and ‘exclusively theirs’ thereby setting up borders between cultures which ‘outsiders’ dare not cross. This is not multiculturalism as the melting pot or as the gorgeous Mosaic society. Rather, it is its total and absolute negation. This is “Plural monoculturalism” to borrow a phrase from Amartya Sen. I suppose this is ‘multiculturalism’ in a very superficial sense, but its one I reject as it undermines everything that is good about a plural, diverse and cosmopolitan society.

Now, the issue for me is more broader than ignorant Marie Claire reading teenagers castigating a white woman for wearing a Chinese dress to her Prom night, but how essentialist ideas about race, identity and culture have translated themselves into a whole host of issues such as race, diversity, identity politics, multiculturalism, the canon wars and cultural appropriation theory. My argument is simple: it is that one can’t help but notice that many of those who claim to be ‘progressive’, ‘anti-racist’ and ‘decolonial’ in their kulturkampf against white supremacy, Euro-centrism and Orientalism draw upon deeply reactionary ideas that have historically been rooted in racialist thinking; and that identity politics and concepts such as cultural appropriation theory will not only undermine the struggle to bring about equality, social justice and liberation for racialised minorities in the West but will lead to the empowerment of self-appointed, power hungry gatekeepers to particular communities, or as Adolph Reed jr labels them “the guild of Racial Spokespersonship”.

I am here going to quote extensively extracts from two writers, Paul Gilroy, a leading scholar in international cultural studies, and Indian Marxist literary theorist and political commentator Aijaz Ahmad, both of whom have written in their own way on the relationship between identity, culture and politics and both of whom are highly critical of the politics of identity, in particular what Gilroy calls “cultural insiderism” where regressive ideas about culture become means by which nationalist elites and cultural chauvinists assert their hegemony over entire communities and repress all internal diversity and dissent from those that don’t conform to their narrow and essentialist notion of the identity of the group they claim to ‘represent’. What is often forgotten is that the prime victims of this authoritarianism are always minorities, particularly minorities within minorities.

The extract from Gilroy is from his 1993 book The Black Atlantic, a fascinating study of the intellectual history and the cultural formation of African diaspora in the New World. In this extract he argues that volkish ideas of culture speak to ‘the special needs and desires of the relatively privileged castes within black communities’. As he pointed out in Darker than Blue much to the chagrin of ‘woke’ cultural nationalists, “black vernacular no longer belongs to any discrete group and cannot therefore be held under ethno-historical copyright”. A very important rhetorical question is then asked, “Is this impulse towards cultural protectionism the most cruel trick which the west can play upon its dissident affiliates?”.

It is a very important question to ask as the supreme irony of all this is that the ideas that are used buttress the arguments of these wannabe decolonisers are from a tradition that has a deep history in European thought. They may not realise it but their ideas echo those that come straight from the Counter-Enlightenment tradition as expressed by Edmund Burke, Joseph De Maistre and German Romanticism that was a reaction to Enlightenment univeralism that stressed the particular over the universal, the local over the global, the concrete over the abstract, tradition over reason, community over the individual, religion over science and so forth, ideas that would develop to eventually forming the basis for 19th century European ‘Blood and Soil’ nationalism and racial theories. Whose doing the appropriating now?

Aijaz Ahmad, currently the Chancellor’s Professor at the UC Irvine School of Humanities’ Department of Comparative Literature, is perhaps best known for his work In Theory which contains what in my opinion is the best critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism. This extract comes from his essay titled The Politics of Culture which explores, in the Indian context, how Hindu nationalist elites have long sought to create an exclusivist Indian identity based on Hindu cultural nationalism where Christianity and Islam are designated as ‘foriegn’ and ‘alien’ to Indian culture despite their millennia long presence in the country. Here Ahmad makes a crucial point that cultures are a field “of contention and conflict, among classes and among other social forces that struggle for dominance”. Nations and cultures are not homogeneous, but are internally contested between elites and dissidents over their meanings and manifestations.

Both these excerpts don’t address the specific idea of cultural appropriation per se, but they do criticise the essentialist and primordial notions of culture and identity that undergirds it. Far from challenging racism, Eurocentrism and Orientalism, it simply appropriates their core ideas and repackages them with a pseudo radical style. This is what the Syrian Marxist Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm once called “Orientalism in reverse”.

Gilroy and Ahmad come from different political and intellectual perspectives and wrote these excerpts in different contexts, Gilroy in the Black Atlantic context, Ahmad in the Indian context. I don’t always agree with them, but I find them to be very interesting and independently minded thinkers, whose ideas are far more useful for operating in our increasingly globalised world and for any approach that is serious about anti-racism, social justice, decolonisation and in the words of Ahmad building “a democratic, secular culture of modern civic values and radical equalities”.

Paul Gilroy
Extract from The Black Atlantic:
Modernity and Double Consciousness, pp 32–34

At its worst, the lazy, casual invocation of cultural insiderism which frequently characterizes the ontological essentialist view is nothing more than a symptom of the growing cleavages within the black communities. There, uneasy spokesman of the black elite — some of them professional cultural commentators, artists, writers, painters, and film makers as well as political leaders — have fabricated a volkish outlook as an expression of their own contradictory position. This neo-nationalism… incorporates commentary on the special needs and desires of the relatively privileged castes within black communities, but its most consistent trademark is the persistent mystification of that group’s increasingly problematic relationships with the black poor, who, after all, supply the elite with a dubious entitlement to speak on behalf of the phantom constituency of black people in general. The idea of blacks as a national or proto-national group with its own hermetically enclosed culture plays a key role in this mystification, and, though seldom overtly named, the misplaced idea of a national interest gets invoked as a means to silence dissent and censor political debate… Is this impulse towards cultural protectionism the most cruel trick which the west can play upon its dissident affiliates?

The same problem… is evident in recent debates over hip hop culture., the powerful expressive medium of America’s urban black poor which has created a global youth movement of considerable significance. The musical components of hip hop are a hybrid form nurtured by the social relations of the South Bronx where Jamaican sound system culture was transplanted during the 1970s and put down new roots. In conjunction with specific technological innovations, this rooted and re-rooted Caribbean culture set in train a process that was to transform black America’s sense of itself and a large proportion of the popular music industry as well. Here we have to ask how a form which flaunts and glories in its own malleability as well as its transnational character becomes interpreted as an expression of some authentic African America essence? How can rap be discussed as if it sprang intact from the entrails of the blues?…

An additional, and possibly more profound, area of political difficulty comes into view when the voguish language of absolutist cultural difference associated with the ontological essentialist viewpoint provides an embarrassing link between the practice of blacks who comprehend racial politics through it and the activities of their foresworn opponents — the ethnic absolutists of the racist right — who approach the complex dynamics of race, nationality and ethnicity through a similar set of pseudo-precise, culturalist equations. This unlikely convergence is part of the history of hip hop because black music is so often the principal symbol of racial authenticity…

In seeking to account for the controversy over hip hop’s origins we also have to explore how the absolutist and exclusivist approach to the relationship between ‘race’, ethnicity and culture places those who claim to be able to resolve the relationship between the supposedly incommensurate discourses characteristic of different racial groups, in command of the cultural resources of their own group as a whole. Intellectuals can claim this vanguard position by virtue of an ability to translate from one culture to another… Today’s black intellectuals have persistently succumbed to the lure of those romantic conceptions of ‘race’, ‘people’ and ‘nation’ which place themselves, rather than the people they supposedly represent, in charge of the strategies for nation building, state formation and racial uplift.

Aijaz Ahmad
Extract from The Politics of Culture:

Most discussions of culture in India, as they take place in academic
circles and the dominant media, tend to confuse ‘culture’ with
‘civilization’ and civilization with ‘religion’. These discussions then
prepare the ground for identifying the essence of Indian culture with
Brahminical classicism. Hinduism remains the centre of gravity in
these confusions of culture, civilization and religion. Christianity,
which has an older presence in India than most smriti literature, is
rarely regarded as an intrinsic part of this all-Indic culture and is
jettisoned, in the discourse of revivalist conservatism, to the domain
of missionaries. Islam, which has an older presence here than most of
medieval bhakti, is itself regarded as marginal and additional. The
very terms of this debate, with their extraordinary orientation toward
the past, pave the way, objectively speaking, for a revivalist and even
fascist kinds of cultural nationalism, since the culturalist claims of an
organised religion in the context of modern politics, where religion
gets intermeshed in cultural nationalism, almost always conceal very
high degree of violence against those who stand outside the charmed
circle of this religiously defined cultural nationalism.

Against this revivalist definition of culture, we need a a materialist
conception which looks at culture not as spiritual or religious heritage
but as a set of material practices through which people live and
produce the meanings of their lives. The starting-point for such an
analysis is not the heritage of the past but the actual realities of the
present, and one of the things that most crucially matter, then, is the
degree of access to cultural goods — such as education or training in
the arts — that different classes and social groups have in real life.
When we look at culture in this way, we immediately recognise that
social conflicts of various kinds, along lines of class, caste, gender,
ethnicity, etc. actually leave very little room for all the people, or even majority of the people, to have roughly equal access to cultural
goods, that may be shared by ‘a people’ or a whole nation to any
significant extent.

Culture, in other words, is not an arena for
harmonious unfolding of the National Spirit, as is often supposed by
those who borrow their nationalist vocabulary from German
Romanticism. Nor is ‘Culture’ simply a zone of the aesthetic. It is a
field, rather, of contention and conflict, among classes and among
other social forces that struggle for dominance. Every nation has at
any given time not one culture but several, and these contentions
take not only the benign form of ‘unity in diversity’, as our nationalism
presupposes, but also as unity of opposites. In today’s context, then,
we have to reject certain kinds of cultural nationalism and fashion
for ourselves a different kind. The essential task in the politics of
culture is to combat the elitist, revivalist, communalist culture with
its orientation toward the past and toward Brahminical classicism.
Instead of that kind of culture, we have to build a democratic, secular
culture of modern civic values and radical equalities.

Link to the full essay

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