Shut Up and Do It Yourself: A Meditation
Lately, I have heard a lot about ideas such as cultural appropriation and cultural exchange, ideas of privilege and oppression, ideas, which, ultimately create a quandary for the artist. Of particular note, has been the increased calls for diversity, both behind the art and in the thing itself. These goals, I believe, are admirable and well within reason. It is largely benign, of neither insult nor disfigurement to American art at large; instead, it is to our shared benefit. We should have a plethora of unique and boisterous voices to admire. Good art is always worth striving for. However, there seems to be strain of these criticisms that seems ill-defined at best, an uncertainty, an inability to articulate exactly what the critic wants. The closest I have to a definitive statement comes from J. A. Micheline’s “Creating Responsibly: Comics Has A Race Problem,” where the author states: “Creating responsibly means looking at how your work may impact people with less structural power than you, looking at whether it reifies larger societal problems in its narrative contents or just by existing at all.” There are a couple of ideas here that I take issue with, ones that don’t necessarily mesh with my ideals of the artist.
Hegel wrote that “art is the sensuous presentation of ideas.” Nowhere is the suggestion that art comes attached with responsibilities. I’m not saying that art doesn’t have the power to shape ideas, but more so, there is often a carefully considered and carefully crafted idea at the heart of every work of art. That overarching theme is given precedence and whatever other points a critic discerns in a work fails to recognize the text’s core. In other words, how can we present evidence of irresponsibility of ideas that are not in play?
This, no doubt, branches out of the structuralist and post-structuralist concepts of binary opposition, and most of all, deconstruction’s emphasis on hierarchical binaries. I no doubt concede that such things exist in every text: love/hate, black/white, masculine/feminine, et cetera. However, the great flaw in this reasoning is that these binaries, even when they arise unconsciously, conclusively state a preference in the whole. Such thinking is a mistake. If we reason that such binary hierarchies exist, why should we conclude that they are unchanging and fixed? Such an idea is impossible, regardless how much or how little the artist invests in their creation. Let’s take a look at a sentence–a tweet, in fact from Roxane Gay–in order to make such generalities concrete:
I’m personally going to start wearing a lion costume when I leave my house so if I get shot, people will care.
We will ignore the I of this statement as it is unnecessary in order to make this point. We have to unpack the binaries at play. First, we note the distinctions in life/death, animals/humans (and also humans/animals). These binaries exist solely inside this shell, yet, if we consider this as a part of a much larger endeavor, we are likely to find contradictory binaries in other sentences. When exactly can we decide the author has concluded? How can we determine the author’s point? Can we ever decide? Now think of applying such an act to a text of 60,000, 80,000, 100,000 words. There’s no doubt it is possible. Yet, should we sit there and count any and every binary that privileges one of the terms? Would that move us any closer to a coherent and definitive message? I find it unlikely.
Of course, I’m not advocating for a return to the principles of New Criticism nor I am saying that post-modern philosophy and gender/race/queer theory have no place in the literary discourse, but to simplify a text, to ignore its argument, seems inherently dishonest. Critics are searching for validation of their own biases, a want to see what they see in society whether real or imagined. This is by no means new, as Phyllis Rackin notes in her book Shakespeare and Women, “One of the most influential modern readings of As You Like It, for instance, Louis Adrian Montrose’s 1981 article, ‘The Place of a Brother,’ proposed to reverse the then prevailing view of the play by arguing that ‘what happens to Orlando at home is not Shakespeare’ contrivance to get him into the forest; what happens to Orlando in the forest is Shakespeare’s contrivance to remedy what has happened to him at home’ (Montrose 1981: 29). Just as Oliver has displaced Orlando…Montrose’s reading displaces Rosalind from her place as the play’s protagonist….” Rackin’s point is clear: If you go searching for your pet issue, you’re bound to find it.
I am not fond of polemical statements nor do I want to approach this topic in a slippery-slope fashion as it simplifies a large and complex issue which is too often simplified to fit the writer’s implicit biases. In order to explore thorny or shifting targets such as these, we need to strip away whatever artifice clouds our judgement and consider the assumptions present therein. Unfortunately, most of the discourse has been narrowly focused, boiling down to little more than a sustained shouting contest, a question of who can claim the high ground, who can label the other a racist first. This is not conducive to any dialogue and only serves to make one dig in their trenches more deeply. It is distressing to say the least.
One of the assumptions most critics make goes to the pervasiveness of power, that power is, as Foucault puts it, everywhere, that there is no one institution responsible for oppression, no one figure to point to, but instead, it is diffused and inherent in society. Of course, Foucault’s definition of power is far from definitive and impossible to pin-down. Are we merely subject to the dominance of some cultural hegemony, some ethereal control that dictates without center as some suggest? This, it seems to me, only delegitimizes the individual. Foucault suggests that the subject is an after-effect of power; however, power is not a wave that merely washes over us. It is a constant struggle for supremacy. Imagine it on the smallest scale possible: the interaction of two. Even when one achieves mastery over the other, the subordinate does not relinquish his identity. These two figures will always be two, independent to some degree. The subordinate is relinquishing control not by coercion but by choice. Should the subordinate resist, and he does so simply through being, the balance of power shifts however slightly.
Existence is not a matter of “cogito ergo sum,” but a matter of opposition, that as long as there is an other, we exist.
Many people have made the distinction between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation, that the former is a matter of fair and free trade across cultures while the latter is an imposition, a theft of cultural symbols used without respect. While this sounds reasonable, the exchange is impossible.
There is no possibility of fair and equal trade: One will always have power over another.
We assume that American culture is some definable entity, that there is some overall unity to it, but just as deconstructionists demonstrated the unstable undecidability of a text, a culture too is largely undecidable. A culture is not some homogenous mass, but a series of oppositions at play, vying for influence.
We can use myself as an example. Of the categories to which I subscribe or am I assigned, I am a male, cis, white, American, Italian-American, liberal, a writer, an academic, a thinker, a lover of rock n roll, and so on. Each of these cultures are in opposition to something else: male/female, cis/trans, white/black, white/asian, white/hispanic, et cetera. These individual categories form communities based on shared commonalities, but to suggest that these segregating categories can form a cultural default or mainstream is deceptive. Each sphere is distinct from the other, a vast network of connections that ties one individual to a host of others based on one facet. Yet this shared sphere does not create a unified whole. There is no one prevailing paradigm. It is irreducibly complex.
So what’s the point here?
Cultural appropriation, if such a thing exists, is inevitable.
It should go without saying, but these ideas of oppression and power are ultimately relative. Depending on what community you venture into and your privilege inside it, you will find yourself in one of these two positions—always. America is as much a text as a novel or any other piece of art. We can count up our spheres of influence, those places we are powerful and those places we are powerless and come no closer to overall meaning.
This is not a call to throw up our hands in nihilistic despair for the artist. The artist would be wise to remember their own power, their ability to draw the world uniquely as they see it. If an artist has an responsibility at all, it is not to worry what part of the binary they are or are not privileging, what hierarchy they summon into being. Someone will always be outraged, oppressed, angered as long as they are looking for something to rage about, regardless of whether it is communicated consciously or not.
Freudian criticism often looks at the things that the author represses in the text, the thoughts and emotions that the author is unwilling to admit explicitly. When asked to give evidence, the critic often claims that the evidence does not need to be demonstrated because it cannot be found: It is somehow hidden. And it is this vein, that sadly, has infected our current approach to texts. We co-opt a text for our own biases, to express what the critic can project onto them, rather than what the work itself describes. We look for any example which might fit our goal and consider it representative of the whole. That is cherry-picking at its most obvious, and an error we should all strive to avoid.
We tend to forget that there are bad texts available to us, that do absolutely advocate the type of propaganda that critics infer in works that approach their subjects with care and grace. How can we scrutinize The Sun Also Rises as antisemitic, as heterosexist, as misogynist when we have books like The Turner Diaries that clearly are? How can we damn Shakespeare for living in a certain era? How can we cast out great works which recognize the complexity of existence and ignore those which undoubtedly make us uneasy?
To the point, we are more enamored by the implicit over the explicit. The central argument of a text is what deserves our attention, how it is made and whether it is successful. We cannot presume to know the tension of other binaries as that text is still being written, constantly shifting, unending in its fluidity.
It is easy to make demands on the artist. Anyone can do it. Criticism is one of the few professions that does not require any previous knowledge or qualification. It is, at its heart, an act of determining meaning, and many, I would argue, have been unsuccessful. The hard part is creating meaning. And to those who make some great claim on what art should or should not do, my advice is simple: Shut up and do it yourself, because, by all means, if it’s that easy, demonstrate it.