Culture is appropriation

The issue I have with the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ is that too often it is unthinkingly applied to instances of ‘cultural misappropriation’. That some acts of taking are crude or crass is undeniable; that all such acts are, intrinsically, is over-extended.

The issue I have is that, to me,  in a certain crucial sense, culture is appropriation.

The act of arrangement is intrinsically appropriative; I am taking these elements, divorcing them from their ipsissimosity – their as-given ‘this-ness’ – and subjecting them to my scheme. This is the case whether that which I am appropriating is the artefact of another culture or not (as if cultures were akin to nation-states, with borders and controlled access points – I find that idea troubling, especially as it parlays into the notion of ‘safari cultures’, cultures kept in a notionally ‘pure’ state for the enjoyment of visitors paying to access them).

‘Appropriation’ comes from the Latin ‘ad-‘, “to”, and ‘proprius’, “one’s own, particular to oneself”. Hence the word carries the meaning ‘to take to oneself’. But ‘proprius’ comes to English via the Old French ‘propre’, which has subtly different meanings to the Latin original. As well as ‘one’s own’, ‘propre’ carries the implication of something like ‘fitted-ness’. It carries the meaning ‘adapted to a purpose’, ‘exact’, ‘neat’ – indeed, ‘appropriate’, in the sense of being suitable or correct to the situation. ‘Nice’, in its original meaning of “minute, subtle, accurate to the purpose”.

This means that ‘appropriation’ carries the sense of taking something to oneself by dint of adapting it suitably to a purpose.

There are two modes of taking something to oneself: possession and property.

‘Possession’ denotes a bare act of force. You take this from me because you are more powerful than me, and only by a ceaseless readiness for further force can you maintain this taking of the thing to yourself. ‘Property’ indicates a situation in which your holding of a certain thing is by dint of a mutually recognised system of legal ownership.


An aside: Trump’s rhetoric, for example, undoes the work of the Enlightenment, as it assumes the supremacy of possession over property; his worldview assumes force to lie at the bedrock of all human interaction. This seems apt, as the notion of ceaseless vigilance – a consequence of forceful possession – is built into the founding myth of America. The words of Jefferson: ‘the price of democracy is eternal vigilance’. That which, as I see it, Jefferson intended we should be vigilant for is the supplanting of property by possession, as a foundational concept in political discourse. In the case of America the reason for this danger is clear: the original act of establishing property in America involved the act of possession, of taking occupied land. The danger of instituting a system of property is that such a thing occurs by means of taking possession. The same is true in Britain – consider the Inclosure act.

As abolitionist Wendell Phillips put it ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few’. That is, what must be watched isn’t simply the extension of liberty – how many are free – and its gradual contraction, but the understanding of liberty itself – how we consider ourselves to be free. What must be watched for is a contraction in the notion of freedom, over and above (rather ‘under and below’) any practical contractions in freedom itself.

If what we must be vigilant for is the sliding from property to possession – and perhaps a natural consequence of any time in which the governing ideological framework, in our case neoliberalism, is breaking down, is to chase that system back to its contradictory root – then the political connotation seems to be the movement from liberalism, in its crudest sense the ‘marketplace of ideas’, towards majoritarianism. The triumph of the will of the majority is the triumph of force. Consider the debate around Brexit, and its relation to the language of possession over property. Even those arguing for the apparently democratic process of a second referendum are succumbing, whether they like it or not, to the language of possession, the supremacy of political force. Their argument is not whether the majority will is a sound way to decide policy, but what the majority actually want.


To me, an act of culture – which I take to be pretty much the same as an act of creativity – stands between these two understandings – property and possession. In some sense, yes, creation involves an act of force, of possession. But not in the crude sense that I take control of something and direct it, instrumentally, to my ends. That is mere design. That is mere ‘conceptuality’.

Rather, it is possession in the sense that I subject myself also to the demands of an event, which is somehow latent in the materials I have encountered, in my presence before them, their presence before me. Nietzsche said it better, so why try harder?

Every artist knows how different from the state of letting himself go, is his ‘most natural’ condition, the free arranging, locating, disposing, and constructing in the moments of ‘inspiration’ — and how strictly and delicately he then obeys a thousand laws, which, by their very rigidness and precision, defy all formulation by means of ideas.

Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil

To create stands between possession and property, in that it is the mutual possession of the artist and their material that imbues the result as the artist’s ‘property’.

The fact that we crudely understand the art as the artist’s property – their copyright – is on the basis not of the brute ownership of the materials employed – paint, canvas, brush – but on the acknowledgement that these things have been made appropriate to their outcome. This includes the artist also.

The act of appropriation, when performed by the artist, involves the suspension of that to which the material is apparently appropriated – the ‘I’ itself. That is, the notion of the isolated, self-directed, willing individual who stands apart from the universe and arranges it at a technological distance. Only once the act is complete – the score is written, the painting dry, the story edited – does the I re-emerge and take to itself what was made in its suspension. To me at least, the artist only possesses the result, because in the act the artist is submerged, suspended – absent.

On his deathbed, James Clark Maxwell described the process of arriving at his equations, which are foundational to classical electromagnetism: “What is done by what is called myself is, I feel, done by something greater than myself in me.” Descartes apparently claimed the notion of radical scepticism came to him in a dream. (Which means that the philosophical method by which one could purportedly distinguish between dream and reality derives from the impulses of the former, not the paranoia concerning the latter.) Poincaré found that the solution to a problem, which he had been wrestling with for months, came to him only after he had given up the issue, as he was stepping onto a bus. To assert oneself as a creator – an assertion which is always belated – is itself to appropriate the work of your own buried being.

Culture is appropriation. Creation is always dance; to paraphrase ee cummings, all that is not dancing is mere walking. Art is quite useless in that its movements, like dance, do not involve the notion of travel, or transportation.

To object to cultural appropriation is, to me, casting the net far too wide. So often what is objected to is cultural misappropriation. That is, an act of appropriation which does not involve ‘making appropriate’. It is the mere purchase of a costume, the simple ‘picking up’ of an artefact on no basis other than that it fits the look I want. To me, how I distinguish between the two – appropriation and misappropriation – involves an assessment of the instrumentality of the act. Misappropriation doesn’t involve the suspension of the ‘I’, the directed self, which is involved in any act of creativity.