Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Timothy Burke on Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Regulation

Timothy Burke has an absolutely superb blog post on the latest flare-ups about cultural appropriation and his concerns about how some student activists are unwittingly reinforcing a project of bureaucratic regulation of cultural expression. It's definitely a "read the whole thing" bit, but here's a taste:

The concepts of appropriation and ownership.... is where moves are being made that are at least potentially reactionary and may in fact lead to the cultural and social confinement or restriction of everyone, including people of color, women, GLBQT people, and so on. In some forms, the argument against appropriation is closely aligned with dangerous kinds of ethnocentrism and ultra-nationalism, with ideas about purity and exclusivity. It can serve as the platform for an attack on the sort of cosmopolitan and pluralistic society that many activists are demanding the right to live within. 
Appropriation in the wrong institutional hands is a two-edged sword: it might instruct an “appropriator” to stop wearing, using or enacting something that is “not of their culture”, but it might also require someone to wear, use and enact their own “proper culture”.
When I have had students read Frederick Lugard’s The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, which was basically the operator’s manual for British colonial rule in the early 20th Century, one of the uncomfortable realizations many of them come to is that Lugard’s description of the idea of indirect rule sometimes comes close to some forms of more contemporary “politically correct” multiculturalism. Strong concepts of appropriation have often been allied with strong enforcement of stereotypes and boundaries. “Our culture is these customs, these clothing, this food, this social formation, this everyday practice: keep off” has often been quickly reconfigured by dominant powers to be “Fine: then if you want to claim membership in that culture, please constantly demonstrate those customs, clothing, food, social formations and everyday practices–and if you don’t, you’re not allowed to claim membership”. 
And then further, “And please don’t demonstrate other customs, clothing, food, social formations and everyday practices: those are for other cultures. Stick to where you belong.” I recall a friend of mine early in our careers who was told on several occasions during her job searches that since she was of South Asian descent, she’d be expected to formally mentor students from South Asia as well as Asian-Americans, neither of which she particularly identified with. I can think of many friends and colleagues who have identified powerfully with a particular group or community but who do not dress as or practice some of what’s commonly associated with that group. 
What I think many activists mean to forbid is not appropriation but disrespect, not borrowing but hostile mockery. The use of costumes as weapons, as tools of discrimination. But it’s important to say precisely that and no more, and not let the word appropriation stand in for a much more specific situational critique of specific acts of harmful expression and representation. “Appropriation” is being used essentially to anticipate, to draw a comprehensive line proactively in order to avoid having to sort out with painful specificity which costumes and parties are offensive and which are not after the fact of their expression. 
One of the things that I heard coming from a substantial wave of student activism here several years ago was that they held themselves to be already knowledgeable about all the things that they felt a good citizen and ethical person should know. It was the other students, the absent students, the students who don’t study such subjects, who worried them. And some of the activists had a touching faith in a way in the power of our faculty’s teaching to remake the great unwashed of the student body. If only they took the right classes, they’d do the right thinking. As one Swarthmore student in spring 2013 said in the group I was in, “I can’t believe there are students here who graduate without having heard the word intersectionality.” 
This moment worried me, even though it is important as always to remember: this was a young person, and I said things under similar circumstances that I would be deeply embarrassed to hear quoted directly back to me. It worried me because I hear that same concern a lot across the entire space of cultural activism, both on and off-campuses. 
It worries me first because that student and many similar activists are wrong when they assume that what they don’t like in the culture is a result of the absence of the ideas and knowledge that they hold dear. Far more students here have been in a course where concepts like “intersectionality” come up than this student thought. All political ideologies in the contemporary American public sphere, from the most radical to the most reactionary, have a troubling tendency to assume that agreement with their views is the natural state of the mass of people except for a thin sliver of genuinely bad actors, and therefore where a lack of agreement or acceptance holds, it must be because the requisite knowledge has been kept from the masses. This is a really dangerous proposition, because it blinds any political actor to the possibility that many people have have heard what you have to say and don’t agree for actual reasons–reasons that you’ll have to reckon with eventually. 
It worries me second because I think some activists may be subconsciously thinking that if they can sufficiently command custodial or institutional power, they will not have to reckon with such disagreement. Not only does that mistake custodial power as permanently and inevitably friendly to their own interests, it is where the temptation to use class power against other social groups will enter in, has already entered in.
This is what worries me most. The thing that I wish that student had recognized is that some of the people that he wishes knew the word intersectionality already know the reality of it. They might not have the vocabulary he does, but they have the phenomenology right enough. Perhaps more right than the student did.
That is, I concede, a pretty long taste. But the whole thing is nonetheless worthwhile. Timothy Burke was one of the very first bloggers I read, and for whatever reason he had kind of fallen off of my radar screen. This is a mistake on my part, and one I will hopefully remember to correct in my reading habits.

JVP Just Can't Quit Alison Weir

Hey remember that time that Jewish Voice for Peace cut ties with Alison Weir due to her anti-Semitism due to her not bothering to hide the obvious fact that the totally-not-anti-Semitic positions she shares with the JVP are also widely-beloved by neo-Nazis? Well, that lasted all of six months.

Who could have predicted!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump: United in Grievance

The claim that Bernie Sanders is the left-wing equivalent of Donald Trump has always been absurd. The real parallel is newly-minted UK Labor chief Jeremy Corbyn. Like Trump, Corbyn appeals to a really nasty id deep inside their party's base, who are delighted that someone is finally saying aloud the extremist things they've thought for years but have not dared say until recently. And like Trump, Corbyn's base is driven by a sense of grievance and victimization, allowing him to defy predictions that he'd fade once the media took their more fringe-y (or outright vicious) positions and placed a spotlight on them. Indeed, such attention is an aid rather than a hindrancethe media pointing out Corbyn's extremism only fuels his supporters' sense that its them against the evil powers-that-be. Which pretty much has been the story of Trump's campaign, when you think about it: the media just assuming the fever would eventually break, and being ever-more dumbfounded when it doesn't.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

At the Margin of the Margin

Zachary Braiterman has an interesting post providing some historical context to the recent vote by the American Anthropological Association favoring a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Anthropology, as a discipline, has had a troubled history when encountering Jews -- "troubled," here, being a nice way of saying "they don't really like to encounter Jews." This doesn't surprise me, not because I have a particular familiarity with anthropology as a discipline (on the one hand, my partner did graduate work in anthropology which gives me a favorable disposition; on the other hand, anthropology ranks very highly on my list of 'disciplines which produce absolutely wretched academic writing.'), but because it fits with the general erasure of Jewish experience from large swaths of the humanities and social sciences.

Braiterman links to an extraordinary article by Marcy Brink-Danan which goes into more detail.* The founding figures of modern anthropology included a strong Jewish contingent, but paradoxically this did not lead to sustained interest in studying Jewish culture for two main reasons. First, because the primary late-19th/20th century strategy for combating anti-Semitism was to stress Jewish similarity and assimilation into mainstream culture, Jews seemed to offer little to study that differed from the majority. Second, continued currents of anti-Semitism dissuaded many Jewish academics from pursuing identifiably "Jewish" topics, for fear of being typecast, pigeon-holed, or worse. The result is that Jewishness occupied an intellectual "no-mans land", where it was not accepted as a true outgroup (either by insiders devoted to that project or, later, minority scholars seeking to change the conversation from below) while also not being incorporated inside the dominant narratives.

This basic narrative is one I have observed in quite a few other disciplines (Evelyn Beck compellingly documented it in women's studies, for example). Jews occupy a space that is, if not entirely unique, then certainly unfamiliar in the public imaginary.  They are at the margins of the margins; the outgroup that's in. Thought of as too mainstream to be studied as an outgroup, Jews are likewise too differentiated to have their experiences adequately captured by the ubiquitous majoritarian discourses that more critical commentators claim to be interested in undermining. This is buttressed by the more classic anti-Semitic trope of Jewish hyperpower: it's hard to conceptualize Jews as a "real" outgroup because the idea that Jews are super-privileged, world-dominating figures is deeply woven into the public conceptualization of Jewishness. The old anti-Semitism and the new work in perfect harmony. And so anthropologists (and others) don't see the need to encounter Jewish specificity because they assume that Jews are anti-discrimination winners -- they've already "made it" and the discipline can accordingly move on to look at the "real" victims (of which Jews by definition are not). Jewish voices are assumed to have been already heard -- if not overheard -- even in spaces when they actually have been largely silenced.

One upshot of this outlook is that Jews occupy a peculiarly vulnerable space on the left (the also are vulnerable from the right for other reasons). The left project is intensely concerned with normative change, but is deeply skeptical of its ability to do so in a non-oppressive, non-imperial way across cultures. The natural inclination, then, is to engage in self-critique -- but of course, such criticism runs the risk of undermining very real privileges that progressives in the west enjoy and take for granted. Enter the Jews. They are the outgroup you're allowed to target because they're not "really" an outgroup; even though the tactics employed against them only work because of their marginal status. Jews are marginal like other outgroups (though not necessarily in the same way as other outgroups), can be dominated like other outgroups, but they lack the standing to assert claims as an outgroup (demanding, for example, degrees of deference or heightened protection or acknowledgment of difference) that the left is, in other contexts, willing to recognize. It's a move of projection -- Israel is the bad us

The boycott campaign, for example, depends precisely on a massive asymmtery of power even as it self-constructs as resistance to power (Jewish power -- Jews are inherently powerful, after all -- but also "our power", since the Jews are simply a transplanted and slightly quirky iteration of "us"). It leverages anti-Semitic domination even in the course of denying it (in the process of denying Jewish specificity altogether). A counter-boycott by Israeli academic groups of American anthropologists, for example, would have less than no impact -- materially, it's limited by the raw fact that there just aren't that many Israelis, and symbolically it lacks any real punch because hearing less from those overbearing, superprivileged Jews is a feature rather than a bug. This is why a boycott of Israel "works" in a way that a boycott of, say, Chinese universities wouldn't; in addition to simply being in a better position to fight back, if Chinese voices expressed a sense of alienation or disregard then American academics would experience that as a meaningful loss in a way that they don't when it comes to the Jews. What "loss" is there, when Jews already (we're told) have their stories woven into the dominant narratives we hear every day?

All of this reminds me of how one British writer reasoned through his particular emphasis on Israeli human rights violations as compared to those of other nations; since it (obviously) wasn't anti-Semitism (it never is), he settled on the sense that Israel was basically "an English county planted on the Mediterranean shores." Having erased Jewish differentiation entirely, targeting Israel becomes not the delicate project of assailing an embattled other, but the noble and virtuous project of self-critique. As I put it: "It's all the joy of liberal guilt-induced self-flagellation, except the wounds show up on someone else's body."

* "Anthropological Perspectives on Judaism: A Comparative Review," Religion Compass 2/4 (2008): 674–688,