Why Culture Matters

Liberals are obsessed with "cultural appropriation" nowadays. But what would a materialist account of the phenomenon look like?

Sun Records Studio, where Elvis Presley got his break into the music industry, was also home to blues artists Howlin' Wolf, Junior Parker, Little Milton, and B.B. King, among others. Carol M. Highsmith / Library of Congress

New York Times op-ed columnist Bari Weiss recently decried what she calls the “increasingly strident left” for its “separate-but-equal” rhetoric around the question of cultural appropriation. According to Weiss, “charges of cultural appropriation are being hurled at every corner of American life: the art museum, the restaurant, the movie theater, the fashion show, the novel and, especially, the college campus.”

Cultural appropriation has become a flash point for debate. From sites as ordinary as dining rooms to those as lofty as the opera house, conflict has erupted over perceived power imbalances in cultural exchange. But Weiss seems unaware that the Left is hardly unified on this matter, with debates on cultural appropriation and identity politics perpetually starting feuds and ending friendships.

Weiss, however, flattens any dialogue over the subject into nonexistence:

The logic of those casting the stones goes something like this: Stealing is bad. It’s especially terrible when those doing the stealing are “rich” — as in, they come from a dominant racial, religious, cultural or ethnic group — and those they are stealing from are “poor.”

It isn’t clear whether Weiss is equating the “rich” with “a dominant racial, religious, cultural or ethnic group” or if she’s alleging that the Left makes this conflation. She doesn’t bother to explain what she means by “poor.” Weiss then uses these ill-defined terms to separate cultural appropriation from cultural development, a distinction she claims the “strident left” fails to see.

Few of us doubt that stealing is wrong, especially from the poor. But the accusation of “cultural appropriation” is overwhelmingly being used as an objection to syncretism — the mixing of different thoughts, religions, cultures and ethnicities that often ends up creating entirely new ones. In other words: the most natural process in a melting-pot country like ours.

Weiss differentiates appropriation — stealing — from syncretism, the organic synthesis of separate cultural groups’ practices. Although she implicitly allows for the possibility of politically objectionable forms of appropriation, she doesn’t give any examples. Even more disingenuously, Weiss suggests that syncretism demonstrates the uniqueness of one culture — namely, American culture, that “melting pot” we heard about in elementary school social studies.

Weiss’s commentary has, rightly, met with widespread criticism. A response in Paste called it the work of “another writer who thinks white people deserve accolades when they take an idea from a marginalized culture and abuse it like it’s an accessory they own.” But the column’s problems go deeper than who Weiss is, which cultural practices she cites, and how she treats those citations.

If Weiss “doesn’t know what cultural appropriation is,” as Paste’s headline claims, what is it?

Process vs. Product

The word “appropriation” is now used to denote a wide range of practices. One that Weiss doesn’t concern herself with is subcultural formation, which, as it was theorized by Marxist thinkers like Stuart Hall, describes how groups, especially marginalized groups, use subcultures to build community. There is a broader category of cultural syncretism, which Weiss claims to be defending, that describes exchange across cultural barriers. Finally, there is commodification, in which capital reproduces a cultural practice to generate profit. These elements are not always clearly separated, but our understanding of cultural appropriation suffers if we fail to identify the material factors at play.

By suppressing how economic and social hierarchies shape culture, Weiss creates a false dichotomy. She glibly dismisses those who claim that cultural appropriation is an instance of the rich stealing from the poor, but she doesn’t explain whether this is because she believes that the rich are entitled to these spoils, or because she believes that the gap between rich and poor has no bearing on cultural production. She imputes this incoherence to “the strident left” without advancing an alternative framework.

Weiss’s terms conflate material effects with idealist concepts like racial difference. As Barbara Fields has pointed out, this error inverts social processes and their products. Summarizing her work on race with Karen Fields, she says,

We see race not as a physical fact, but as a product of racism. And we see racism not as an attitude or a state of mind, like bigotry: it’s an action. It’s acting on a double standard, with that double standard itself based on ancestry or supposed ancestry.

In short, racism is real, but race is not. When people talk about race, they’re referring to a range of factors, including biological phenotype and cultural heritage, often neglecting to differentiate between them. While phenotypical and cultural difference will always exist, they are not inextricably linked, nor are they determined by birth.

The most discerning thinkers who have dealt with the politics of culture do not make this mistake. In fact, some early critics of cultural appropriation weren’t concerned with syncretism itself. The object of their analysis was a problem Weiss doesn’t acknowledge: capitalism.

Weiss fittingly uses the MTV Video Music Awards to launch her diatribe, as music criticism has been the site of the most intense debates over cultural appropriation. The poet Amiri Baraka, a founder of the Black Arts Movement, addressed this subject in the context of his advocacy for black jazz musicians. Even through the mid-sixties, white musicians like Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond tended to overshadow artists like John Coltrane. In his 1963 essay “Jazz and the White Critic,” Baraka writes:

Failure to understand, for instance, that Paul Desmond and John Coltrane represent not only two very divergent ways of thinking about music, but more importantly two very different ways of viewing the world, is at the seat of most of the established misconceptions that are daily passed off as intelligent commentary on jazz or jazz criticism.

The complexity of the question led Baraka through a range of perspectives, including black nationalism, which temporarily mired his thinking in biological essentialism. But over a lifetime of active intellectual engagement, political practice, and cultural production, he refined his perspective, as he explained in a 2007 interview:

In the United States, whatever you say becomes commodified immediately, in terms of the mainstream. I don’t have any problem with that per se; all cultures learn from each other. The problem is, if The Beatles are gonna tell me they learned everything they know from Blind Willie John, I wanna know why Blind Willie John is still running an elevator in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s that kind of inequality that is abusive, not the actual appropriation of culture, because that’s normal.

In the final measure, Baraka wasn’t concerned with whether white musicians imitate black musicians. His quarrel was with a society that allows some to rake in profits at the expense of others, a process that has consistently and aggressively exploited racial divisions.

A Hero to Some

Perhaps the most archetypal example of cultural appropriation is Elvis Presley: a white performer who stole everything from black musicians, most notably Chuck Berry. This historical interpretation has made Presley the target of as much animosity as admiration. Chuck D famously rapped on Public Enemy’s 1989 song “Fight the Power,” “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me.” Many critics argue that Elvis’s success came at the expense of black artists like Big Mama Thornton, who sang “Hound Dog” years before Elvis did without ever reaching his level of wealth or fame. Elvis, the story goes, built his career on theft.

But this position is difficult to maintain. Chuck Berry’s first record, “Maybellene,” came out in July 1955, a full year after Elvis’s first recording session at Sun Studios. On that first record, Presley sang “That’s All Right Mama,” a blues song by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, with a hillbilly inflection that reflected his country-music roots. Scotty Moore’s guitar accompaniment bore the influence of the Appalachian string band tradition. The b-side, bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” featured blues licks from Moore and a driving rhythm reminiscent of R&B progenitor Louis Jordan.

Which side counts as cultural appropriation? Was it playing a country song with the grit of the blues, or was it playing the blues with a country twang? Or was it both?

Chuck Berry — whose pianist Johnnie Johnson described as “a black man playing hillbilly music” — raises a similar question. “Maybellene” was a rewrite of the traditional “Ida Red,” which Berry had heard on country bandleader Bob Wills’s 1938 recording. As for “Hound Dog,” it was written not by Big Mama Thornton in Alabama, but by two young Jewish songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, in Los Angeles.

It seems beside the point to suggest that Elvis, Chuck Berry, Big Mama Thornton, or Lieber and Stoller were stealing from each other. A cultural practice as dynamic as American popular music is not so flimsy that a single artist can shift it off course, and there is a danger of allowing the logic of intellectual property to limit the cultural potential for community and solidarity. But the imbalance of these artists’ reception in the marketplace is a separate question, which Chuck D suggested in a 2002 Associated Press interview:

As a musicologist — and I consider myself one — there was always a great deal of respect for Elvis, especially during his Sun sessions. As a black people, we all knew that. My whole thing was the one-sidedness — like, Elvis’ icon status in America made it like nobody else counted. . . . My heroes came from someone else. My heroes came before him. My heroes were probably his heroes.

If we can imagine a world where Chuck D and Elvis Presley share heroes, then we can imagine one where we all share more than that. As C.L.R. James wrote in his essay “Discovering Literature in Trinidad,” “We live in one world, and we have to find out what is taking place in the world.” This means recognizing and fighting inequality built on the illusions of identity. But it also requires us not to lose sight of the world that can be won beyond those illusions.

Stuart Hall believed this was why the study of culture mattered. As he said in his 1981 essay, “Notes on Deconstructing the ‘Popular’”:

Popular culture is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is the stake to be won or lost in that struggle. It is the arena of consent and resistance. It is partly where hegemony arises, and where it is secured. It is not a sphere where socialism, a socialist culture — already fully formed — might be simply “expressed.” But it is one of the places where socialism might be constituted. That is why “popular culture” matters. Otherwise, to tell you the truth, I don’t give a damn about it.

In order to have a meaningful conversation about culture, we have to reject the framing that critics like Bari Weiss give it, in which culture becomes just another market. We need to look for the “historical openings” within it that Hall pointed to, with a critical eye. But we should never forget the goal: not a world where the rich cannot steal from the poor, but a world where rich and poor no longer exist.