‘Nothing Comes From Nowhere’

James O. Young and Susan Haley: ‘Nothing Comes From Nowhere’: Reflections on Cultural Appropriation as the Representation of Other Cultures

This essay discusses ideas of subject appropriation, (sometimes known as voice appropriation) addressing seven subjects of how cultural appropriation is debated; subject appropriation as a inappropriate name, misrepresentation, cultural appropriation and assimilation, harmful and accurate representation, privacy, authenticity and envoy (advocate). They are all addressed by considering the members of one culture (outsiders) representing members of other cultures (insiders).

Young and Haley state that all appropriation involves a form of taking which tends to not be obvious to those who are engaging in taking from the insiders. Even if nothing is taken by subject appropriation, it is still ethically dubious to represent another culture.

It is considered that nothing is taken by subject appropriation, as cultures do not own subject matters since they are thought of as public domain, that anyone can write about or represent from their own experiences, which questions whether the term ‘misnomer’ has been unjustifiably harsh.

Minority cultures have experienced misrepresentation in the past, which continues to occur within the fields of fiction and film giving the example of old Hollywood Western films which show Indians in a cruel manner. They say that misrepresentation is completely wrong, in the same way as belittling a person, it is wrong to distort all members of a culture.

However they discuss that it is not all bad if an outsider represents an insider suggesting that it could be more harmful if they are not. Giving the example of the American author Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose that explores the present and historical violation of Indian rights. The example shows that if outsiders always resisted from representing insiders and their cultures, it would not be a true depiction of reality and that insiders could be caused more harm by being overlooked than ignored completely. Sometimes we can learn more about ourselves through other people’s representations of us.

It’s argued that it isn’t enough to recognise that subject appropriation is wrong by outsiders representing a minority culture and aiding its integration.

Invasive prying to a culture can leave the individuals of a culture feeling violated. It can be extra sensitive for those of a smaller culture yet they say that ‘the right of a culture’s members to privacy does not rule out all representation of other cultures’.

Young and Haley argue that ‘every work of art is authentic in some sense’ yet it could be said that an artwork representing other cultures may be inauthentic as an ‘outsider cannot produce authentic expressions of insiders’ culture’ even if the outsider is fully educated within that culture, although aesthetically this does not make the work unsuccessful.

Only a person possessing a culture can truly understand it as they have the advantage of constant access to it. It is explored that this view is related to cultural relativism, where one can only look at other cultures from inside their own which provides a very different perception to its actuality. It is argued that we cannot attempt to understand other cultures until we exchange cultural information, so without doing this, we could be led to misunderstand.

Young and Haley conclude by saying that through suggesting something is an example of subject appropriation does not make it ethically objectionable. Some examples may be harmful yet the context of it needs to be identified. 


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