“Small minds cannot grasp great ideas; to their narrow comprehension, their purblind vision, nothing seems really great and important but themselves.”
― James George Frazer
If the Enlightenment was the epoch of Sense, and the Victorian age was that of Sensibility, then we seem to be living in the time of great Sensitivity. The twin dynamos of the internet and gratuitous post-secondary education have created a feedback loop, where a certain kind of sensitive people are offended by the injustices of the world. Their outrage is amplified by the sounding box of social media, and the social media echoes their outrage by feeding them more things to be outraged at. In the hoary days before the advent of the interwebs this sort of behaviour would have been isolated. But now, the combined and artificially amplified noises of the appalled and the sensitive have acquired the power to affect the sensible.
Take cultural appropriation, which has been making the rounds recently, giving joyful outrage to the PC-mongers everywhere. Due to a successful campaigns of public anger, an Ottawa basketball team was forced to change its name from “Tomahawks” to something even more banal, No Doubt pulled their Western themed video, and Victoria’s Secret realised that putting too many feathers on their models made people upset. On a more serious note, Urban Outfitters was recently in legal trouble for its tacky “Navajo Hipster” line of panties and flasks, which apparently did not stop them from running afoul of more sensitivities with their recent bout of ethnic motifs in their designs. And taking a page from the theatre of the absurd, the Harlem Shake meme apparently devalued the true meaning of the Harlem Shake dance (originating from Egyptian mummies). Oh, the humanity!
It may be easy to write these off as non-events, or as a product of that virulent class of people that trawl university campuses, internet comment threads, and NIMBY meetings, driven by an insatiable thirst to find the next thing to be appalled by. But I fear that there is larger issue here. The issue of the outraged few, the sword of sanctimony, and the whip of guilt in hand enforcing their narrow-minded simplistic worldview on the rest of society. The issue of the threat of public tarring-and-feathering suppressing the free flow of ideas throughout culture.
And I love culture. I love the glorious kaleidoscope of civilisation with which humans have bejewelled the world. I love the arts, the flavours, the languages, and the stories that gush forth from the fount of human creativity. I am fascinated by the cornucopia of meaning that simple objects may have, and by the fields of anthropology, semiotics, linguistics, and art history that study these.
And this is why I am worried by the ghoulish banners of the cultural appropriation crusaders who would cast a shadow of guilt on our enjoyment of culture; would see it ossified and frozen to fit their own particular worldview.
Before pursuing the discussion, we must define that which we are discussing. What is cultural appropriation? In its simplest, it is the use of certain traits of one culture by another: acculturation and absorption of symbols from one culture into another. But what is a culture, and what is a symbol? In general terms, a culture is a collection of people with similar cultural traits. But these traits are learned, and more importantly, these traits are organic – they grow and evolve based on an interaction within the culture, as well as traits of other cultures. Consequently, cultures are never static. The only cultures that stop evolving are those consigned to the dusty halls of the museums. Thus, trying to define culture based on the cultural traits is not going to get us very far.
A more static target is ethnicity or geographic location. But linking culture with ethnicity has significant issues, not the least of them being the presupposition that people of a certain skin colour ought to only partake in a certain type of culture they are racially qualified to. And geographic location, in the age of internet and RyanAir, is not worth much either.
Onwards to symbols. Under the basic theory of semiotics, a symbol or a sign is made up of two components: the physical representation of the symbol called the signifier, and the conceptual meaning conveyed by the symbol called the signified. Aside for things like onomatopoeia, the relationship between the signifier and the signified is largely arbitrary and the connection is motivated only by social convention. Postmodernist thought views the arbitrariness of the connection as complete disconnection. In PoMo, a free floating signifier is a signifier that is connected to a highly variable signified. Such signifiers mean different things to different people: they may stand for many or even any signifieds. That is, they may mean whatever their interpreters want them to mean.
In the context of culture, the creation of symbols through the connection of a signifier with a signified gives rise to the creation of memes. The related concept of meme was developed by Richard Dawkins, who defined it as “an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. Memes also travel across cultures, thus becoming a unit of cultural transmission. But whereas the signifier component of a meme retains a degree of permanence in the transmission (appearance or sound travel easier than meaning), the signified is liable to change, or to get lost in translation. Thus, as memes move throughout cultures (or within them) they constantly evolve their meanings, creating new signs and symbols.
Static memes are dead memes. No memes exist in a vacuum independent from others. The transmission of memes across cultures and generations is the way in which culture evolves and develops. At its basic, this transmission takes existing signifiers and attaches to them new signifieds. However, when the signifier in question is transmitted from one culture to another, this is acculturation – or in other terms, cultural appropriation.
This concludes Part I: The Outrage of the Memes on Ilya’s series on cultural appropriation. Tomorrow, we will be concluding the series with Part II: From Mithra to Cowboys.