On Cultural Exchange

by Shaun Terry

(Note: links in references aim to give a cursory understanding of the underlying thoughts to which they correspond. In more robust works by the authors referenced, they give much more thorough explanations than those embodied by the explanations given in the linked pieces.)

We live in a contentious and divided time. More and more, people seem to silo themselves among people who think and act just as they do, often choosing to see people who do differently as inimical to themselves, regardless of what the evidence might say.

An important question has arisen in regard to the place of contemporary cultural exchange, and for good reason. While it may be easy to point out that cultural exchange is a phenomenon that has always been with us, the stakes seem to have never been so high. Changes to art, religious practices, food products and preparations, languages, and other forms of culture have always been influenced by interactions between people of different cultures, leading to appreciable innovations in all of the above. However, cultural exchange under capitalism takes on a different form and involves different stakeholders acting on different motivations than on those embodied by past people. Perhaps this is increasingly the case.

The appropriations of blues, jazz, rock, and hip-hop musics, Mexican and Chinese foods (especially “fusion” varieties), minority-founded revolutionaries’ salutations (“Peace in the Middle East,” “Power to the people,” etc.), emoji, parts of language, aspects of “exotic” religions, etc., ad nauseam increase at an increasing rate as global capitalism spreads its tendrils into more and more isolated locales, sped up by the incredibly rapid dissemination of communication technology and the like. Under capitalism, this more and more takes on the quality of commodity fetishism and postmodern jockeying for hipness currency (which then leads to commodity fetishism as well). Corporate communications reference the coolness and hipness of things, throwing in catch phrases and cultural references that give corporations credibility to younger, and more diverse, demographics. By doing so, they’re able to sell goods and services similarly extracted from cultures not their own, by means of cultures not their own, in order to cultivate and harvest the products of new markets, i.e. profits.

But, is cultural exchange always a problem? If it has always taken place, when and why did it start being a problem? Can it be avoided? In essence, why did this happen and what is to be done?

To address the first question first, it’s difficult to say whether cultural exchange is necessarily problematic on its own. What’s clearer is that it has likely almost always taken place and is almost definitely very difficult to avoid. Consider maybe the most common form of cultural exchange: that of communication between two peoples who speak different languages. It would appear inevitable for one culture to adopt some of the other culture’s words; after all, some languages have words for things that other cultures don’t. So, is this problematic? In order to consider what cases are and are not problematic, perhaps some examples would help.

If we think of pre-capitalist England, shortly after the Norman invasion, it would have been clearly problematic if the mostly Frankish-speaking king had gone down to the peasantry and addressed them in mostly Germanic language in order to try to win their favor. It would have been problematic because the king would have been dishonest and pandering for his (forgive the gendering, but the kings were all men) own benefit. Otherwise, it is difficult to imagine that most forms of pre-capitalist cultural exchange would have been so problematic, but this may become clearer later.

To help to think of why appropriation under capitalism is problematic, we might consider Paul Simon’s well-received and incredibly successful (by capitalist standards [i.e. highly profitable]) 1986 album, Graceland, which made heavy use of African sounds, including performances by African musicians. Controversy around the album’s release had to do with its apparent break with the boycott of apartheid South Africa, which addressed a highly tense issue of that time. What was not then controversial in the mainstream was Simon’s appropriation of African music. Simon decontextualized and recontextualized African musical forms and performance styles, repackaging the cultural products with rock and folk music aspects, and he gained personal accolades, as well as considerable profits from the production and release of the album.

But what, exactly, made this problematic? It might have been less problematic had Simon chosen to dedicate a track on the album to describing the historical legacies of the musical forms he was exploiting, including paying homage to prominent musical figures in Africa. Had he then donated the profits to African initiatives to help Africa and Africans, this also would have been less problematic than what he instead did. Simon exploited the work and innovations made by African musicians; he failed to clearly pay sufficient respect to the histories and contexts of the musics; and he benefitted greatly without having given back to those from whom he had taken these musics.

Borrowing from cultures seems to be somewhat inevitable, but these exchanges take on different forms. On one hand, privileged capitalists are often able to freely take at will what appears to them beneficial to take. On the other hand, people might experience a reality by which their experience of culture is inherently and unavoidably bimodal (or even multimodal), forcing them to operate on multiple cultural planes—in such a case, the deployment of one or the other set of cultural understandings and phenomena seems unavoidable and devoid of some of the problematic aspects of capitalistic appropriation. Between these two forms of cultural exchange lies a wide range of forms of cultural exchange by which some problems are avoided and some aren’t.

If someone grows up in a community primarily comprised of people of a different culture from their own, it is completely reasonable that this person might adopt many of the cultural norms of the people from this other culture. This can appear problematic if the person adopting these norms is a person whose difference affords them privilege not afforded to the people who embody the cultural practices being adopted. In such a case, the culture-taker can be faced with a choice of altering their behavior if it occurs to them (through their own inquiry or the influence of others) that this might be appropriate. If not, then it is difficult to see how a solution might present itself.

If someone grows up in a community of people who share their own cultural heritage, then it is easy to see why their adoption of others’ cultural aspects would come into question. It may be that such a person enters a social context in which it appears appropriate to adopt these foreign cultural practices, but it requires a choice on the part of the agent. At this point, if they are confronted with the problematic presented by the situation, the choice should be clear.

Often, the difficulty in these fraught social situations lies in the inherent tension that arises when a problematic case of cultural exchange appears. Blame of a particular agent appears to be unreasonable (for better understanding of this position, please see the work of Robert Sapolsky) and violent. In essence, blaming someone seems to be both without merit and it perpetuates the tools of privilege and power in an ironic reflexive (albeit mistargeted) response to capitalism. While violence toward those who control the most significant levers of power may be tempting, violence is proven less effective than nonviolence (the work of Erica Chenoweth helps here), while also presenting the inherent contradiction and paradox of responding with the ultimate expression of power in order to address the inherently problematic phenomenon of unequal power (along with helping to perpetuate this very phenomenon), but that is a subject appropriate for further discussion at a later point.

What appears to be an appropriate response to the problems presented by cultural exchange, then (as in many other cases), is to observe, learn, educate, speak out, and do what is in one’s power in order to raise awareness and to help to try to change the oppressive system in which these phenomena take place.