Monday, July 10, 2017

The insane confusion about culture that's behind too much contemporary thinking

The logic is on vivid display in a TV ad for featuring a woman named Kim who pays her money, gets her DNA scan, and is thrilled to discover that she’s 23-percent Native American. Now, she says, while standing in front of some culturally appropriate pottery, "I want to know more about my Native American heritage." If the choice of Southwest-style cultural artifacts seems a little arbitrary, that’s because, as the website warns you, the technology isn’t yet advanced enough to tell you whether you’re part Navajo or part Sioux. But, of course, that arbitrariness is less puzzling than the deployment of any artifacts at all.The point of Kim’s surprise is that she has no Native Americancultural connection whatsoever; the point of those pots is that they become culturally appropriate only when they’re revealed to be genetically appropriate.

As befits an ad, Kim’s story is a happy one. But it could have gone differently. The genetic transmission of an appreciation for Navajo pottery could just as easily have turned out to be a genetically traumatic relation to the catastrophe of the Long Walk. What if Sam Durant had gotten himself an saliva test and discovered that he, too, was part Native American? The bad news: Thirty-eight of his ancestors had been unjustly hanged; the good news: their hanging was part of his story after all.
Later, writing about sociologist Alice Hoffman, who'd done fieldwork in a black neighborhood in Philadelphia:
Even when the experiences really are shared — when something actually did happen to us — we don’t think that autobiographical accounts of people’s own experiences are necessarily more true than other people’s accounts of those same experiences, or that only we have a right to tell our stories. No one thinks that either Goffman or the men she wrote about are the final authorities on their lives. My version of my life is just my version; no one is under any obligation to agree with it, much less refrain from offering his or her own.

So even our own stories don’t belong to us — no stories belong to anyone. Rather, we’re all in the position of historians, trying to figure out what actually happened. Interestingly, even if the logic of their position would seem to require it, the defenders of a racialized past haven’t been all that interested in confining historians to what are supposed to be their own stories. Maybe that’s because history (at least if it isn’t cultural) makes it harder to draw the needed lines. You obviously can’t understand the political economy of Jim Crow without understanding the actions of both white and black people. And you can’t understand the actions of those white and black people without reading the work of historians like (the white) Judith Stein and (the black) Adolph Reed.
And so:
The students at elite American universities come overwhelmingly from the upper class. The job of the faculty is to help them rise within (or at least not fall out of) that class. And one of the particular responsibilities of the humanities and social-science faculty is to help make sure that the students who take our courses come out not just richer than everyone else but also more virtuous. (It’s like adding insult to injury, but the opposite.)

Identity crimes — both the phantasmatic ones, like cultural theft, and the real ones, like racism and sexism — are perfect for this purpose, since, unlike the downward redistribution of wealth, opposing them leaves the class structure intact. [...]

The problem is not that rich people can’t feel poor people’s pain; you don’t have to be the victim of inequality to want to eliminate inequality. And the problem is not that the story of the poor doesn’t belong to the rich; the relevant question about our stories is not whether they reveal someone’s privilege but whether they’re true. The problem is that the whole idea of cultural identity is incoherent, and that the dramas of appropriation it makes possible provide an increasingly economically stratified society with a model of social justice that addresses everything except that economic stratification.
Not THAT's an interesting argument.

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