Or, Sorry, You’re Already Assimilated to Capitalist Modernity
[Warning: This essay employs such hateful buzzwords and terms (in alphabetical order) as authenticity, call out, cultural appropriation, hating on, imposter syndrome, looks like me, stay in your lane, virtue signaling, and woke, as well as such shopworn and problematic terms from yesteryear (that will surely date the author) as a priori, always already, consciousness raising, poseur, and that schoolyard grand-daddy, sellout. Enjoy.]
Richard Russo has written an article on the perils of cultural appropriation in the current issue of Harper’s. He argues valiantly that an author should be permitted to use his imagination to transcend his own reality and put himself in somebody else’s shoes (I use the masculine pronoun since, I suspect, he has a particular author in mind).
Russo avers that if he were to write a book about a trans character (for example), he would resort to a “device” and “use an intermediary [character]—someone more like [my]self—to interpret the story’s main character.” He says he could only undertake such a project only if he were to
acknowledge the moral responsibility that would trail in its wake. I would have to examine my motives, because in addition to (hopefully) making art, I would also (hopefully) be making money. I’d have to be willing to admit defeat and pull the plug should it become clear that the book I was writing was misbegotten, even if that realization came after years of hard work.This is because he happens to be friends with a person who has transitioned, although it’s unclear whether he would feel freer to write about such a character if he wasn’t friends with such a person. A bestselling author (nice work if you can get it, although I worked at a bookstore for five years and didn’t recognize his name), presumably Russo has to issue such virtue signals from time to time, to demonstrate that he’s woke.
However, I think Russo is granting too much to his hypothetical critics, as if these issues were a real thing.
The discourse of “Cultural appropriation” and “authenticity” is completely illusory, as anyone who has ever read Alice Walker’s 1973 highly-anthologized short story “Everyday Use” (decades before her own bizarre anti-Semitism came to light) should know. In the story, a young woman who’s gone off to college has her consciousness raised, finds her “authentic” cultural identity, then comes to appreciate (for all the wrong reasons) a homemade item laying neglected back home that she had previously ignored. The kicker is her mother, bemused by her daughter’s Journey into Insincere Posturing, pointedly refuses to bequeath the item to the daughter, who wants to enshrine it in a kind of Museum of Overvalued Virtue-Signaling Status Symbols.
Walker’s story suggests that anyone who has been “woke” to their authentic cultural identity has already been assimilated a priori—the search for authenticity arises from inauthenticity or Imposter’s Syndrome. If you’ve got a culture that you feel is being appropriated by others, chances are you always already appropriated it yourself first.
The brilliance of Saturday Night Live’s Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, written by Jack Handey and performed by the late, great Phil Hartman (perhaps the best piece of satire worthy of the label to ever emerge from the show), is that Keyrock, the Neanderthal who falls into some ice and is unfrozen by modern scientists, can still plausibly claim to be “just a caveman” despite having graduated law school and demonstrably living an affluent, jet-setting lifestyle filled with modern appurtenances such ascell phones, BMWs, and a home in Martha’s Vineyard.
|Which one looks like me? Take your pick.|
Claiming you’re “just a caveman” is an all-American shuck-and-jive routine as old as Ben Franklin pretending to a simple backwoods sage while partying with the sophisticated elite in Ancien Régime Paris, and it’s not a lot different from the song-and-dance that assimilated defenders of authentic culture perform when they complain “their” authentic culture has been appropriated usurper. By their view, only assimilated moderns with some demographic legitimacy are allowed to exploit certain premodern traditions and subcultural tropes, even if these have only come to be cherished by inauthentic, overeducated poseurs like Walker’s woke protagonist.
America used to be a melting pot, or at least that was the prevailing metaphor. Immigrants become homogenized then hyphenated (American, then -American). Now, you have to “look like me” before you can even imagine what my experience is all about. It’s easy to see how such a discussion is discourse in counterfeit currency with no Gold Standard at its root.
A New York Times foodie was recently lambasted for claiming that she had no culture, and was told to “stay in her lane” (in not so many words). This cultural appropriator, who blanderized traditional recipes, was also forbidden to criticize other foodies of a particular demographic “when she had plenty of paler or maler to choose from.” That the critic of this foodie shares the same demographic profile as the subject of her derision speaks a lot about the cultural appropriation vs. authenticity movement. It is mostly people of a certain demographic relieving themselves of the guilt they feel for being, for the moment, the dominant plurality, at least for the next five minutes. Like Russo, an author taking himself to task for non-existent transgressions of the imagination, it is white people feeling white guilt.
Back in grad school, the folks who tended to assail me most often for being a paler and maler (and older and straighter) sellout among a diverse demographic tended to be individuals who most closely shared my demographic profile. These tenured professors, nervously clinging to their academic perches, routinely called out one of their own to use as a whipping boy to demonstrate their wokeness.
Just like foodies and bestselling authors hating on themselves or their surrogates, signalling their virtue and burnishing their credentials.
Whether Neanderthals had much of an imagination is highly debated (could they create art that imagined the point of view of Cro Magnons? Of Australopithecus?), it is clear from cave painting that Homo Sapiens could at least imagine the point of view of bison and aurochs. (Question: Did the cave painters “look like me”? Did Homer? Did the author of the Book of J?) Whether modern, assimilated, capitalist humans of one particular demographic happenstance are able to use their imaginations creatively to wonder what it’s like to be other modern, assimilated, capitalist humans of another demographic happenstance shouldn’t be an issue. We’re all just unfrozen cavemen.
On a sadder note, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette book reviews, of which I’'ve freelanced over a dozen, are an endangered species. Formerly on a dedicated Sunday page and numbering three a week, they’ve been cut back to two per week, the book editor’s strong defense of this institution notwithstanding. This will not spark anything like kind of indignation that the departure of an overpaid one-not editorial cartoonist a couple years back, although it should.
On the bright side, my review of my favorite book so far among those I’ve been privileged to review appeared today. Here’s a list of links to all my past reviews.
Read my YA prose experiment, The Ms. Megaton Man™ Maxi-Series! New chapter every Friday!