Hope you’ve had a good weekend and enjoyed some of this first real fall weather. Wednesday’s class is our last day with Kunzru’s and our last day in the first section of the course overall — this final section of the novel, along with the roundtable in Artforum, gives us a final chance to think about what appropriation, copying, and theft mean in artistic, ethical, and cultural terms.
So let’s use this blog post to do some conclusive thinking and writing about these issues overall: what claims do the novel and the roundtable seem to make about, against, or on behalf of appropriation of various sorts? How do you respond to these? There’s lots to think about in this final chunk of material, so you’re free to pursue whatever strikes you as most intriguing, as long as you directly quote and engage with material from both this final section of the novel and the Artforum roundtable.
Reminder: Your writing should go in the comments section for this post — click on the link near the top of this post where it says “Leave a Comment.” It should be at least 300 words, and is due by midnight Tuesday, October 3. If you have any questions, let me know via email.
17 thoughts on “Blog Post 5: In Appropriations”
Through the character of Seth, White Tears explores the hypocrisies in thought and action of those in cultural power but “reluctant” to wield it. When talking about the idea of the commons, Joan Kee says “The idea of the commons… gives rise to the fallacy that everyone has an equal share… in the production and reception of culture. And that is absolutely not true… because some people have more access to resources than others. …perhaps it’s part of the duty for every individual to contribute to the development of the commons, rather than just endlessly taking from it” (Artforum 271). No matter how Seth defends his “blameless suburban childhood”, it granted him certain resources and a sense of entitlement to take from the public commons without much thought. The commons he takes from are random public conversations which he constantly records at the start of the book. However, Seth never chooses to participate and give back to these commons; he never starts a public conversation with anyone he records, he just hides in his headphones. Seth never feels this constant “stealing” is wrong; he cannot even recognize a problem in it. Only when it comes to Carter putting the song stolen from these commons up on the internet under the assumption they own it that Seth asks “Is this really a wise idea?” (Kunzru 61). By that point, it is too late, as Seth has already used his cultural power to appropriate and his and Carter’s studio is popular or successful enough in the mainstream that it can turn profit off of their appropriations. This point of profit is when appropriation tips from wrong but mostly harmless to truly harmful, according to Jacoby Satterwhite who said “in pop culture, appropriation never becomes controversial until the performer who’s doing it becomes popular or successful” (Artforum, 268). Seth and Carter were never popular enough to receive widespread scorn, but they deserved the hatred and bitterness they got from the circles they were big in no matter what they say.
The ultimate reversal is at the end. Seth appraises his own story by saying that “[Living things] possess a boundary of some kind… the ability to react to the world. And to make copies. …I have made no copies. I am a punctum, an end.” (Kunzru 270). Seth is thinking about Carter and the other Wallaces in this line as he knows that even vegetable-esque Carter will “live on” with the foundation founded in his name. But, just as how Carter and Chester could only see musicians as musicians and not as people, there will be a group of people who can only understand Seth as a mass-murderer. Seth’s life by most definitions are over, but the afterlife of his story has just started, and anyone can use it to profit. Such as a British 50-year-old author. Seth’s intentionality in his actions no longer matters. The cycle of repurpose continues even though Seth’s personal bloodline ends; his brother may be able to continue that at least.
We see many parallels in the roundtable discussion with White Tears. The question of Seth’s intention, his power and his social status come into play throughout the entire novel. While his career consists of making a giant profit from appropriating, Seth does not make his intention known to the public. In the round table discussion, Ajay Kurian says, “it’s almost as if it’s assumed that whatever cultural practitioner is putting these symbols next to each other is aware of what they’re doing” (Artforum, 270). Like Katy Perry and other pop culture figures, they supposedly may not intend to appropriate an oppressed culture and profit from their act. However, because of their cultural power, they produce content that the entire nation consumes, thus highlighting the disrespect and creating controversy that it deserves. Seth never intends use the lives of an oppressed population for profit, but because he did it, it proves he had a malicious motive.
Seth ends the novel by saying, “I wanted life, but maybe that’s not true. Maybe I never wanted it, was never even capable of wanting it” (Kunzru, 271). He dug himself a deep whole through his career and all of his relationships, never thinking about consequences and his intent. Homi Bhabha says, “It seems to me that if you say, ‘only those who have suffered, or who have been oppressed, can speak for the oppressed,’ it cuts out the possibility of building a larger coalition of people and structures that are opposed to forms of oppression and can speak for liberty or the common good” (Artforum, 277). This speaks to the idea of supporting and being interested in other cultures without producing cultural content and appropriating in a disrespectful way. Seth was proud of his work and it resulted in consequences and a bad reputation that he truly deserved. He kept appropriating and kept using other people’s content for the benefit of himself, concluding with the end of his life psychologically. In the end, he has no direction to go in, his relationships have suffered and he is tired of his life.
There is no way around it—the final 90 pages or so of White Tears are fucking weird. In this last third of Kunzru’s novel, the narration is convoluted and perpetually changing, switching between Seth and JumpJim, back to Seth, (sometimes to Charlie Shaw?)—all the while being stuck somewhere in between plausibility and the paranormal. Within this chaos is the following exerpt:
“Three white men stood in postures of ease and authority, one with folded arms, a second with his hands in his pockets, the third cradling a shotgun. Behind them, scattered through the frame, were black workers, carrying spades and picks or paused in the action of wheeling barrows along a duckboard path. They were dressed in convict’s stripes.
Captain Jim, Captain Jack and Judge Wilbur, up on the levee. Starting the [Wallace] family firm” (Kunzru, 247-248).
So not only do Seth and Carter appropriate work of black artists, the financial security that gives them the opportunity to do so turns out to be the result of unpaid labor forced upon blacks by Carter’s ancestors decades before his birth. The idea of this ability that Carter and Seth have to produce appropriated music is also brought up in the roundtable discussion:
“The idea of the commons—especially with respect to digital reproduction and technology—gives rise to the fallacy that everyone has an equal share, or an equal role, in the production and reception of culture. And that is absolutely not true, of course, because some people have more access to resources than others.” (271)
Of course, the terrible irony in Seth and Carter’s case is that their access to certain resources—high end recording equipment and a functioning studio—is a direct product of black suffering. This is the epitome of the power dynamic that K. Tempest Bradford touched upon in her NPR article, one “in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group” (NPR, 2/11). In the case of the Wallace family, the situation goes well beyond systemic oppression—it is direct oppression conducted by the founders of their conglomerate family business. The final pages of the novel are, again, strange to say the least, however it is abundantly clear that the Wallace’s crimes of violent oppression and cultural appropriation do not go unpunished. The Wallaces are almost all dead and Seth—a naive bystander to at least a handful of the wrongdoings turned punisher of those who committed them—is imprisoned.
To be honest, the supernatural aspects of White Tears, as well as the narrative’s temporal inconsistencies, distracted me when it came to comparing this text to the Roundtable reading (though I am not critiquing it for having these qualities). I did end up finding two quotes that I thought tied in perfectly with each other, both having to do with the consideration of cultural legacy in “appropriation discourse.” The first one comes from Homi Bhabha in the Roundtable reading, “…universalization is the enemy of historical specificity” (271). The second comes from Charlie Shaw himself, in which he describes being “…thrown into silence and darkness,” and laments his inability to, “take [his] first step into history” (255). In the separate instances that I read both of these passages, I was reminded of my first blog post about this book, in which I brought up the idea that Seth and Carter were not committing a heinous act by “making” the Charlie Shaw record. However, considering the context, the creation of that record is actually, for lack of a better phrase, “history theft.” Charlie’s detention at the hands of Carter’s descendants robs him of his place in history by making him miss his recording session, and this history is bestowed upon Carter and Seth when they make the record. While the two are certainly not at fault for what happened to Charlie, as Seth so graciously reminds us frequently throughout the story, they still benefit directly from his loss. In my first response, I also wrote about Carter’s familiarity with and respect for the style of music the two of them were recreating. At that point, I was of the opinion that universality is the ideal model for handling instances of alleged cultural appropriation. I didn’t really have any questions about whether or not an aspect of culture should be restricted to the group from which it originated, and thought it was simply a matter of finding a way to share it that appeased said group. Both the Roundtable reading and the ending of White Tears changed my opinions on the matter. I have yet to be able to form any new assertions regarding what cultural forms and practices should be “off limits,” but I can fully appreciate Bhabha’s sentiments concerning historical sacrality. I don’t know if we turned our class discussion towards whether or not there are things which can never be appropriated in good conscious no matter what while I was absent, but I would love to throw that question into the mix if possible.
I was especially interested in the scenes near the end of Kunzru’s novel when Seth is arrested, is somehow lost among the folds of time and seems to undergo a transformation from a hipster white man to a black man: “I looked down at my hands…but as in a dream when you find yourself unable to read text or tell the time, they are vague…I pull up my shirt. The same thing. I can’t tell. I look at my stomach but I can’t tell what color it is. I can’t tell what color I am” (206). It’s never confirmed that Seth does, in fact, turn into a black man – but that is clearly what the novel wants readers to think.
I’m not entirely certain what effect Kunzru wanted these passages to have on his conversation about cultural appropriation. It seems to me that Seth is being punished for his part in appropriating Charlie Shaw’s voice – in fact, the novel seems to suggest that Seth, because he has taken a black man’s music, must now undergo the true suffering that is behind that music. Seth now gets to experience truly what his claim to the music means.
Is Kunzru saying that a black man’s suffering can be truly felt by a white man? The idea that a white man can simply turn into a black man through appropriation – regardless of the suffering he undergoes – is obviously problematic. Does Seth somehow have some viable claim to the music now that he has literally stepped into Charlie’s Shaws shoes?
I’m reminded of Bordowitz question in Roundtable: “How does one judge the sincerity of someone’s pain?” It simply cannot be done, nor can the depth of someone’s pain be judged or felt by anyone other than the person experiencing that pain. Seth should not be able to traverse through time and cultures in order to experience the black man’s suffering. In fact, it seems to diminish the value of that pain – regardless of any larger point Kunzru hoped to serve with this passage.
Truthfully, I am very confused by this book. At no point did I expect it to include murder(s). It was definitely a whirlwind of a last section of reading.
I don’t know what to make of this, but I would like draw attention to pages 264 – 267 aka the 3 ½ pages of “ha ha ha ha”. On the one hand, I laughed at these pages and don’t know if they actually represent anything. On the other hand, these pages were pretty overwhelming to read. They caught me off guard, they made me uncomfortable. These pages might not have any significance but, I think they can also be seen as representative of the larger issues of cultural appropriation that Kunzru is trying to discuss. The “ha ha ha ha ha”’s are meant to show how haunted Seth is by Charlie Shaw. Kunzru communicates the severity of this by making his readers feel the same way.
I think Kunzru is also warning his readers about being passive about cultural appropriation. In the case of White Tears, Seth is very passive, to the point where he has, generally, no idea he is appropriating another culture in his career. Carter appropriated and was beat up for it. Seth, appropriated and went crazy and killed the Wallace family. Clearly Kunzru is trying to illustrate that there are consequences to passive cultural appropriation – not only the act of doing it unconsciously, but not caring that you’re doing it.
On page 269 Salome Asega mentions “BUFU” and the fact that they use the word “scamming” instead of “appropriation”. Either way – it is his definition that is note worthy. He says that “in order to survive, you have to appropriate the signs and the language of people in power in order to attain institutional resources”. This sense of appropriation is how leaders of social movements fight for equality, but in this context, it highlights the irony of Seth’s actions because his idea of successful is appropriating the non-dominant culture.
Charlie Shaw’s vengeance, characterized by his ruination of the Wallace family, is a punishment of two parts. The first part is the most direct; he wants to cause damage directly to the family that brought him down, that prevented him from making it big. He says, “They lay me down and cover me in the cold dark earth. Lay me down in the mud with hate in my heart. I ought to have made that session, ought to have walked through the door of the Saint James Hotel” (Kunzru 258). His first revenge is to get back at the men who robbed him of his future, both in the professional sense and in the very literal sense. One could argue that he’s taking revenge on the very system that swallowed black men such as him and thousands of others and crushed them, as the revelation of Walxr’s status as a private prison company suggests. The second vengeance, however, is subtler. Seth argues that he does not deserve the punishment that Charlie brings on him, he is wrong. Seth, along with Carver, tried to steal Carver’s soul. Rather, they attempted to steal the collective souls of black musicians by attempting to master them. JumpJim accuses Seth of this, saying, “You hate the real music, the music that was actually happening, because you’re so hung up on what you like to call the authentic” (Kunzru 243). By trying to capture the authentic, Seth and Carver destroyed the real and tried to destroy Charlie. By appropriating black music, they attempted to control it, to master it. However, as Homi Bhabha says, “Nothing is going to stop you from combining anything you want, just like nothing is going to stop you from plagiarizing—until you get caught. You can appropriate what you want, but it’s only when you get caught that the issue rises” (Artforum 274). Charlie caught them, and his vengeance is a stand-in for the entire culture that the duo tried to appropriate.
One of the first questions in the beginning of the Artforum Roundtable piece captures, what I believe, to be an essential question to the culture of appropriation as a whole: “When is such movement [appropriation] a form of resistance, and when is it a form of violence?” (Roundtable 266). Kunzru’s novel and the roundtable piece both explore the ins and outs of this question and attempt to offer some sort of insight into the violence of appropriation.
As a reader, towards the end of the book, it was hard to tell if Seth was becoming a black man or something non-human, even he couldn’t tell who he was anymore, “I pull up my shirt. The same thing. I can’t tell. I look at my stomach but I can’t tell what color it is. I can’t tell what color I am” (Kunzru 206). This part in particular caught my attention because that is exactly what happens to work that is *violently* appropriated. After the violence, the work is unrecognizable. One maybe has a faint idea of its origin, but the colors, tone and concept are all profoundly misconstrued. While reading, the whirlwind of the last section and this moment seem to take on the life violently appropriated work takes on. It reads as a haunted, almost supernatural mess of the original form to the point where we don’t recognize the original creator, but in this case, we don’t even recognize the appropriator, Seth. It’s interesting because this is what Seth and Carter did to Charlie Shaw’s work. The whole time Seth and Carter think they are in total control of an African American man’s voice, but towards the end of the novel, it is clear that everything around Seth becomes muddled and out of control. Seth no longer can identify his original self, which is what he did to Charlie Shaw. Although Seth and Carter originally held the power, the fates of both characters demonstrate the way violent appropriation doesn’t just silence those without power, but also destroys the treatment and process of art as a whole, no matter who tampers with it. This is the violent capacity of appropriation that the Roundtable piece warns of and how quickly we can lose control of knowing what is real and what is fake in this world.
I believe this inability to tell what is real and what’s fake is one of Kunzru’s conclusions in answering the Roundtable question of when appropriation turns violent. I think we need to consider those who have the power to appropriate and those who are victimized from that appropriation. If we do not question every step of our creative process, especially if it’s building or taking from something that’s been done, we erase and victimize the original creators, and risk losing ourselves and our own creativity in the process, just like Seth and Carter.
During our past couple classes, I’ve been thinking a lot about a German history class I took last year, covering Bismarck to Merkel. Towards the end of the class, especially after our unit on the Cold War, we started to discuss Germany’s process of unification and reformation, and a question our professor posed on one of our last days was, “When will Germans be able to stop apologizing for the Holocaust?” And at first the question seems sort of ludicrous, because obviously the Holocaust was so devastating that it is inconceivable to even think of a day when it ceases to be mourned in the public memory. But we were pressed to question that notion – the powerful generation of today’s Germany was not even alive during the Holocaust, and thus, should they be forced to apologize for the crimes of those long-dead Nazis tried at Nuremberg? In that class, we left the question largely open-ended, but reading White Tears has brought me closer to a definite answer.
In the Roundtable discussion, Satterwhite says that the current generation is “just parodying another generation’s pain,” but I think White Tears directly challenges this notion (Roundtable 272). While it could be said that Seth and Carter spend the first part of the novel parodying another race’s pain, and that they gradually come to associate that pain with the blues singers of the 1920s south, the second half of the novel complicates the simple nature of this appropriation.
The first major complication arises when Seth and Leonie arrive in Mississippi, trying to track down Charlie Shaw. When they arrive at the place where Miss Alberta’s shack supposedly once was and start asking questions, a car with two black men pulls up (blasting a bass-heavy version of the Charlie Shaw blues track) and one of the men gets out. Seth describes him: “He wears a crisp white XXL tee shirt and jeans. Short dreadlocks poke out beneath an angled cap. As he gets closer I see his light-skinned face, delicate and mournful. Tattoos snake down both forearms, onto the backs of his hands” (172). He is the embodiment of that which Seth and Carter aspired to be in college. Here was a Real Live Black Man, opposed to the somehow inauthentic black students at their school – this man is who, at one point, Seth wanted to know, to /be/, even. Whereas now, Seth is “cowed by these men, conscious of [his] meager white body” (173). This scene is further complicated when “The driver walks backwards, lifting up his shirt. He indicates a gaping wound in his side” and says, “Right through my motherfucking lung” (174). Later Seth and Leonie reminisce on “The bloody rise and fall of what? Not his heart. Some other organ” (185). This is the moment in the novel where Seth’s perspective of black experience shifts from one of nostalgia to a brutal realization of the continual struggle of black Americans today. Significantly, at this moment, Seth was not experiencing any sort of temporal displacement. He was able to see a real example of today’s black pain, to see that it is not a thing of the past, not something to romanticized.
This theme is explored further during the prison scene, where Seth takes on the unpleasant role of a black man in police custody, not realizing what privilege he had until it is lost. This is first foreshadowed during the scene of the arrest, when Seth says, “There’s a knee on my neck. I can’t breathe,” experiencing what Eric Garner experienced when he was killed by police violence (187). When Seth is taken to the station, he is repeatedly beaten, and verbally abused, including being called the N word twice (206). This time, significantly, he does experience temporal displacement, frequently commenting on the cops’ antiquated technology. This episode not only epitomizes the racism inherent in law enforcement today, but also reinforces the institutional racism which has always existed in America.
These two scenes combine to prove that Seth’s appropriated pain is not generational as Satterwhite implies. I see no way for pain to be generational if it is ongoing, and therefore, I don’t know if it’s ever possible to stop atoning for crimes of the past.
By the end of White Tears a quote from Homi Bhabha in the ArtForum round table came to ming. Bhabha says “Unlike citation or quotation, appropriation assumes a proprietorial sense: who owns what? In what sense do I own my history, or you own your art?… the oppressed are the subjects of a certain history, which becomes in some way their own. That is their experience. But that experience has also been created by the oppressor – so there is a duality, at least.” (ArtForum 269). Bhabha goes on to discuss that the history of slavery and colonialism are the consequence of violent, unethical, and politically oppressive relationships imposed by white people. The dynamics of this history are important because by not acknowledging the oppressive forces at work there can be no progress.
Bhabha’s point led me to thinking about Carter because of how his family made their money and his fetishization of black culture and music. What level of ownership does Carter implicitly feel he has on black culture simply because of his family’s southern Jim Crow ties? A quote that caught my eye on page 264 furthered this question even though Carter is not physically in the scene. The Judge is talking about how the Wallace family now controls black employees without Jim Crow. He says “Either way, we get ours and they stay in their rightful place. Same as it ever was. So put down the knife, son. There’s no purpose to it. You can’t kill something that ain’t got no head.” Most obviously, the Judge is pointing out that racism is alive and well though it is no longer as blatant as it was in the Jim Crow era. Subconsciously, and maybe I am stretching here, this pushes me to consider how cultural appropriation is blurry. How far is too far? Obviously, something like a white person with dread locks or wearing a Native American headdress is too far. But what about sampling music as Carter and Seth do? What about white hip hop artists? If there is no clear line between cultural appropriation and cultural “quotation” as ArtForum tries to call it, how are we supposed to know how far is too far? Who owns what?
Together, the ArtForum piece and White Tears generated more questions than answers for me but at the end of both one thing is clear. Passive cultural appropriation takes place every day and by not acknowledging it, we allow oppression to continue.
The last section of White Tears that we read highlights some significant inequalities that make the cultural appropriation taking place in the novel that much more hard to digest. It was brought to the reader’s attention that the wealth of Carter’s family originates from the labor abuse of Black workers from previous generations. This means that the economic stability and affluence that Carter lives with is the result of the exploitation of an entire group of people. With this in mind, the ability Seth and Carter had to appropriate Black Culture, in a way, was a result of that awful point in history. Seth says, “An invisible thread connected Carter and Leonie to Charlie Shaw. I thought of the buildings I had lived in, the expensive things I had handled and consumed. Whose work had paid for them?” (248). Is Seth actually thinking introspectively about his relationship in the mistreatment of this group of people? He is suddenly examining Charlie Shaw as a real person that existed in history, and not as a character that he thought up. Seth and Carter perpetuate a cycle of unfair treatment that starts and ends with the same group, yet said group does not benefit from any of the monetization.
One of the people in the Artforum piece claims that “In pop culture, appropriation never becomes controversial until the performer who’s doing it becomes popular or successful” (268). Unfortunately, it is unclear if Seth ever comes to the conclusion that he, in fact, appropriated culture, and there is a strong argument to say that he never makes this realization. However, I do think that the introduction of JumpJim is the only time when he has to question if what he has done is wrong. The appropriation was not critiqued until it gain attention online. It the record never gained the attention that it did, Seth would have not even thought twice about what he was doing.
In Kunzru’s “White Tears,” Seth plays the role of ignorant white guy who has many readers rooting for him somehow. When the oppressed call him out on his invading black music culture, Seth defends himself instead of apologizing for perpetuating racial oppression; “All I want is to be able to reason with him. I just need to find out what it is I’ve done. It’s not fair to blame me for things that took place long before I was even born. That is what I want to say to him: I am not the one to blame. But I don’t know to whom I should address my complaints.” (237) I cringe at the whole rant, but I mostly cringe at the words “not fair.” Does Seth realize how “not fair” racial oppression is? It doesn’t matter if he wasn’t the one owning slaves or using the n-word; racist things still happen every day, and I don’t see him doing anything to combat or even acknowledge that.
In the roundtable, Bhaba said, “We are in the midst of a ferocious erasure of the lives, experiences, and histories of the marginalized, the oppressed, of minorities. It’s an old story, but a new one, too.” (277) The speaker goes on to describe instances in which people are accused of being criminals just because of their race or religion.
While I think the minorities themselves should be the ones saying exactly how white people can improve, I will share my understanding of what needs to be done to avoid being like Seth in this instance: When somebody is mad at you, you shouldn’t immediately say, “It’s not my fault” until you’ve considered what you may have done to contribute to this person’s pain. If you are sure that you’ve done nothing wrong, then consider what you might be a bystander for; what are you not standing up to? It’s possible we’re not as bad as our ancestors, but that doesn’t mean we’re perfect now.
White Tears is a book about hypocrites, for hypocrites, and probably by a hypocrite. Seth and Carter, and to a lesser extent Leonie and the rest of the Wallace clan are people profiting off the work of black Americans without giving them compensation or even credit. However, Hari Kunzru’s novel comes off as more of an apology for the discrimination that African-Americans have faced from white people than a sincere work. While an apology for these injustices is not an inherently bad idea, it is the fact that while appropriating to prove a point, the author is guilty of shifting the focus from black blues musicians to white hipsters. Because of this the author loses any merit and good-will that he would have otherwise have earned if he had kept the focus on the artist who had lost it all because of a system that was rigged against them.
This work of hypocrisy is most evident in the latter half of White Tears, after Carter falls into a persistent vegetative state. The finale of the novel is when the elders of the Wallace family and the Judge that sentenced Seth play the B-side of Charlie Saw’s record, “The Laughing Song,” which is just 126 lines of “ha ha ha ha,” (Kunzru 264-7). The fact that they are the ones who play this song, which resolves one of the longest plot points of the novel, and call it “…our side of the record,” (Kunzru 264) represents the type of the appropriation that the author is trying to apologize for. However, in his attempts to appropriate the suffering of black Americans, he fails to fully appreciate the culture that he is talking about. By making a fictional blues song, from a position of power, being a white affluent man, he loses what the blues were originally about, suffering in the Post-War South.
Furthermore, as a British-born author, he is already at a disadvantage in understanding the fragile American race relations that have plagued the United States for over two hundred years. Anything that he has learned from his time living in the United States and being married to an American, is just not able to be equivalent to an American who has lived in the United States all of their life.
From the onset of the roundtable discussion on cultural appropriation. The concept of cultural translation versus cultural appropriation is introduced. Scholar Homi Bhabha states that, “Translation assumes that there will be interpretational changes over time relative to an anterior text, or work, or thing that came before” (Bhabha, Artforum Roundtable on Cultural Appropriation, 273). Going by Bhabha’s logic, one can extrapolate his views onto the central plot of Kunzru’s novel, White Tears. Bhabha asserts that for a work to dodge the somewhat pernicious title of “cultural appropriation” and be deemed a work of “cultural translation,” the secondary work must expand of slightly modify the original work that it has originally stemmed from. To this extent, the outright copying and distribution of Charlie Shaw’s Graveyard Blues in Kunzru’s White Tears is a blatant case of cultural appropriation and in no way reflects the aspects of cultural translation that Bhabha outlines.
Additionally, Bhabha touches on the intricacies of the culturally appropriated at the close of the roundtable when he states:
“When such erasures occur, there is an understandable desire to hold onto something that is your ‘own,’ that is not being taken from you or imposed on you for the power and profitability that is achieved at your cost. In such moments people become possessive—unfortunately even ‘essentialist’—as if to stand up to hegemonic ‘fundamentalisms’ with some alternative foundational identity or belief, with something that belongs to you that is endangered and vulnerable.” (Artforum, 277)
Throughout Kunzru’s novel, Seth as well as Carter occupy the cultural space of the other through their creation and dissemination of their counterfeit record, but no where is it more apparent than in the final chapters of White Tears. At a certain juncture when Seth returns to Mississippi, he’s confronted by a woman outside what he believes to be a record store. The transaction is as follows:
– Is this your business ma’am?
– What if it is?
– Is it a music store?
– It is a community bookstore. And it’s closed. And it’s not for you.
– I’m just interested in local history. This was called the Black Mecca, did you know that?
– Local history. Have mercy. Only two reasons people like you come down here. The blues or taking pictures of ruins. We’re fascinating to you, long as we’re safely dead.
– Look, I had nothing to do with whatever happened to your neighborhood. I’m not the one to blame.
(White Tears, 246)
This passage explicitly illustrates the “endangered and vulnerable” culture that Bhabha describes. Here the woman speaking to Seth outwardly says of the store “it’s not for you.” She is aware of his culture, and has seen others try to occupy the cultural space she inhabits to obnoxiously colonize it without reverence for its history. To this disregard to cultural history, Seth is blind. Firstly, he has entered an area that the reader is to assume has a rich cultural history, and yet he talks down to the local woman by attempting to explain her own culture to her. “This was called the Black Mecca, did you know that?” Seth’s condescension is blatant. If this was not enough, Seth goes on to say that he had nothing at all to do with what happened to the woman’s neighborhood, and the theft of her culture, the ruins that she describes. To this, Seth is blind to the generations of racism and cultural appropriation that his culture is responsible for. Here he is merely passing the buck.
The artists, scholars, and activists who participated in the Artforum roundtable seem to struggle with questions regarding appropriation that many of the authors we’ve read on the subject do, a major one being the indecision of “who draws the line” between what is and is not appropriation. The table seems to somewhat agree that questions of appropriation will “phase out generationally,” as culture continues to grow, change, adapt, and adopt appropriation further into the mix (Satterwhite 271). I’m yet unsure as to how I feel about this sentiment specifically, but I know I disagree with it. I believe that the discussion on cultural appropriation will continue as people feel increasingly comfortable talking about the scamming of cultures.
Though briefly, the Artforum roundtable touches upon the curious case of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who famously lied her way into the head of an African American studies department by claiming to be black: spoiler, she is not. Dolezal has become in many circles the poster child for cultural appropriation. She appropriated black culture, spaces, voice, and lifestyle so hard that some would argue she truly convinced herself that she is black. An extreme case, yes, but I believe Dolezal to be a perfect real-life example of a strawman. Gregg Bordowitz brings up this idea of self-determination, or the individual’s categorization of the self into identities (277). To see this idea run off the rails in such an overbearing fashion makes Dolezal a prime example for the case against cultural appropriation.
Though Carter and Seth never pass themselves as black men in their day to day lives, by making “Charlie Shaw,” they in a sense take a Dolezalian approach to appropriation. I’d argue that the two come at it in a scholarly sense; if they are informed aficionados on blues music, then they are fans, not overstepping their bounds. It is in the Great Charlie Shaw debacle that the two cross this “line” that we as a class have been struggling to define.
I wonder if Seth being haunted by Charlie Shaw is meant as a metaphorical manifestation of guilt. The novel of course presents this haunting as more tangible than a metaphor, but I read Seth’s increasing weariness and panic as a sort of punishment that is both from external causes as well as self-inflicted. I think about the repeating “ha ha ha ha” that Seth hears on page 211, and the fluid that drips from his ear. The weight of what he’s done, the deterioration of his life, the demise of the Wallace children, all translated into a maddening ear ringing and leaking. I find it significant that it’s Seth’s ears that betray him, the very same ears with which he first heard “Charlie Shaw” (I’m not even sure if it’s appropriate to put the name in quotations anymore. Shaw is a man of multitudes). The fact that this “ha ha ha ha” is seen again on pages 264-267 only further solidifies my belief that this is the haunting presence of the real Charlie Shaw. It is on the whole, unnerving, “the most terrifying sound I’ve ever heard” according to Charlie Shaw, regarding his very own recorded voice (264).
In my first blog post for White Tears, I concluded by stating that I was interested to see how appropriation would “haunt” Seth and Carter. Haunt was an even better choice of word than I could have ever predicted after reading the first section. Overall, Kunzru’s novel makes the argument that cultural appropriation haunts those who take part in it, however literally or metaphorically. The Charlie Shaw record effectively ruins the lives of Seth and Carter (and Leonie, who can be called a bystander). Though not in such fatal ways, cultural appropriation tends to haunt anyone who does it publicly enough; the Katy Perry’s, Taylor Swift’s, and Rachel Dolezal’s of the world risk righteous public backlash for their appropriative tendencies. In the case of all three of these women, appropriation is not a mistake but rather a form of personal or economic gain.
The Art Forum’s Roundtable discusses a variety of important issues concerning the manifestations and discourse surround cultural appropriation. A specific point that Homi Bhaba brings forth about the influence of time in changing the meaning or dissemination of a work feels particularly relevant to Kunzru’s novel. In the roundtable discussion, the artists contemplate the word “appropriation” and explore alternatives to better represent the complexities of the issue. Bhaba begins the conversation by defining his preferred alternative term “translation” stating, “translation is a process of interpretation of relocation” (Artforum 268). He also proposes that a work that becomes translated should be called the “anterior” instead of the original, to place less inherent emphasis on a work because it was made first. He further explains this distinction later in the conversation as he discusses how a work can be translated through the process of time and that understanding this “is to emphasize the temporality of the event, object, or idea, its place in time rather than its exclusive possession of time as frozen, immediate, or immovable moment” (Artforum 273). Hence, when a viewer is experiencing a work from a different time period they are not seeing an isolated representation of that time, instead they are experiencing the music through the new lens of the time period in which they live. Listening to an entire album from 1963 that I found via Youtube feels like a perfect example of this difference.
Bhaba’s description of translation and anterior are at odds with Seth and Carter’s affinity for the authenticity behind the vinyl records to which they listen and collect. JumpJim confronts Seth about the culture of vinyl collectors stating “You hate the real music, the music that was actually happening, because you’re so hung up on what you like to call the authentic” (Kunzru 243). If one believes in Bhaba’s argument, of the natural change in an anterior work over time, than the notion of and reverence for the “authentic” becomes flawed. Kunzru’s manipulation and representation of time in this novel reveals the way in which ideas, art, and people from the past can always influence the present; but that there is also an extremely disruptive nature when the one comes in contact with the other. Seth’s violent and uncontrollable movement between time periods reveals the difference between appreciating a work from a previous era and appreciating the era itself.
Ruby wrote in her blog post that it seems as though Kunzru is warning readers not to be passive about cultural appropriation. I would agree with this and go a step further. Kunzru is writing more than a cautionary tale here—he is showing that passiveness can cause absolute danger and destruction. Though marketed as a murder mystery and thriller—Kunzru is showing us, through Seth’s eyes, what can happen through oblivious passiveness. As I said before in class, I do think Seth is oblivious and I do think that the need to victimize him shows just how oblivious he is.
In the Art Forum round table, Greg Bordowitz says, “One analogy that came to my mind was the movement to end the use of racist, stereotypical American Indian images for sports teams’ logos. Perhaps this analogy is not completely appropriate to the situation at hand, but a long time ago, I heard an American Indian activist say, “What part of ouch do you not understand?” That really stuck with me. I mean, I could never presume to judge the sincerity of someone’s claim to pain”. This resonated with the way I felt about the general themes of the book.
The theme of Seth trying to find himself in something that is inherently not his—he is not black, he is not a victim of oppression because of his skin color, he is not someone searching for simple equality in this country. Though, this does not deny his own story—the death of his mother. He is someone who carries pain but is looking for healing in the wrong places. He appreciates these artists but does not accept their stories completely. He does not see that this music came from oppression—Seth does not understand the pain. All it takes is a basic understanding, something that Seth lacks because he is passive. I think that is the real theme of the story—to understand.