Talking About Cultural Misappropriation

First and foremost, we never intend disrespect towards our subject matter, which is comparative mythology and folklore.

Just as importantly, we never intend disrespect to the practitioners of the many faiths, cultures and beliefs that we chronicle.

Even the one who’ve been abducted by aliens.

Or haunted by ghosts.

Hell, I think my wife believes in the fur bearing trout.

The point is, we understand that cultural misappropriation can become callous, even mean-spirited, especially when there’s a cash-motive involved.

However, who watches the watchers? It’s one thing when a corporation steals cultural images for the purposes of branding, and another when a person identifies with cultural emblems that are not “rightfully” theirs by birth.

For instance, I know an Indian guy who used to fly a Confederate Flag.

Likewise, I once knew a Texan Cowboy who flew a Tibetan-Buddhist Prayer flag.

In both cases, there are people who would cry “Cultural Misappropriation!”

My response is to misquote the Dalai Lama:

“Remember your sense of humor!”

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I am currently listening to Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to the movie, The Last Temptation of Christ. It stands out as an early work of what is now called “world music”. It steals big and little from the sounds of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, as well as aboriginal and tribal music, all colored by the sensibilities that emerged from Gabriel’s time fronting the formerly prog-rock band Genesis.

It’s nearly thirty years old, and I think it still holds up.

At the time, it was hailed for what it was: an example of effective cross cultural synthesis.

If this album was released today, I know some people that would shout:

Cultural Misappropriation!

Ah, my friends, this post – as well as the entire mythcrafts blog site – is a response:

The notion of C.M. (for short) involves a very deep assumption, namely:

the fixedness, the solidity, the homogeneity of any given process we call “culture”.

Culture is not a “thing”; it constantly evolves. Every culture is demarked by a permeable membrane, and while some are more permeable than others, they all let things in, and out.

Maybe cultures grow through dispersion/diffusion, or maybe it’s the collective unconscious expressing itself in ever-changing archetypal images; I’ve already riffed on those opposing viewpoints here. The point is, all cultures end up being syncretic as they move through time and space; you’ll have better luck finding the philosopher’s stone than finding a “pure” culture, despite what the Thule Society might have you believe.

Zeus, Jupiter, Indra – all the same god, wandering through time and space, changing name, form and habit to suit the immediate environment.

Like all living things, culture only stops growing when it’s dead.

*

I respect that some groups are deeply protective of their storytelling – for instance, despite their rich beauty, we avoid retelling living tradition stories that are deemed too sacred for outsiders, as is still the case with many aboriginal tales.

Still, the stories leak out. Damn those leaky membranes!

The point is, all cultures are full of misappropriations. It’s how Tonantzin became our Lady of Guadalupe, how the Buddha became the ninth Avatar of Vishnu, and how Br’er Rabbit became Bugs Bunny.

Let’s not even talk about the Canaanite god  El’s transformation into Jehovah (Yod He Vau He for the elect), or the wisdom tradition of his scribe, Moshe, the Egyptian magician who led the Jewish people out of exile.

So, if you can find a pure culture, one that hasn’t assimilated anything from any other cultures, I’ll give it the due reverence it deserves.

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The closest to the “pure culture”- scenario I can imagine is akin to Star Trek’s Borg, and hell, even they  assimilate; it’s in their motto.

Until then, I’ll be listening to Passion, watching Bugs Bunny, eating Crab Rangoon Tacos (food – the best part of C.M.), reading Ovid (the Roman poet who recycled the Greeks), running from the Borg (who were ripped off from the Brits: Doctor Who’s Cybermen)…and appreciating all the wonderful things that come out of the melding of cultures.

jimi-hendrix-axis-bold-as-l-poster-pp32439.jpg
The poster for Jimi Hendrix‘s second album, Axis: Bold As Love. To further the misappropriation game, Hendrix is my youngling’s middle name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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