Call for papers on ‘Cultural Appropriation and Creolization. The political uses of culture’

Anni Roenkae, Pexels

To be published in Cahiers de l’URMIS Appartenances & Altérités, n° 23, juin 2023.

Deadline: October 31, 2022.

In the general movement of politicization of identities, the notion of cultural appropriation has gained prominence in public debate. The aim of this issue is to take a step back from the current controversies by starting with a reminder that the idea of cultural appropriation is not unique to contemporary discourse. Is it not contained explicitly or implicitly in all the terms (acculturation, assimilation, syncretism, transculturation, métissage) that mark the field of cultural encounters?

However, the main part of the dossier will focus on the current use of the expression and on the new accusatory register in which it is used. In this perspective, we do not apprehend appropriation as a simple modality of cultural borrowing, but as an act of qualification of certain borrowings as thefts, spoliation, usurpations, in a context of unequal cultural exchange. It will be a question of specifying the social, political and economic stakes of this categorizing discourse: How does it challenge the visions of history that dominant groups try to uphold, and put forward alternative visions based on inequalities between racialized groups?? For if the claim develops in the cultural register, it is intimately mixed with a denunciation of the racial domination. Another question to be explored concerns the way in which several types of grievances are combined in the denunciation of cultural appropriation: the symbolic offence represented by the detour of the meaning of a heritage or sacred object into an object of cultural consumption; the political minorization represented, in particular in the artistic domain, by the usurpation of the word or the representation of the body of minorities by first-world actors; the capture of value represented by the merchandising of tangible or intangible items with no economic benefit for the populations from which they are borrowed.

The discourse of cultural appropriation is often criticized for being essentialist, for enclosing cultural expressions, while fixing them, in the enclosure of a group, of a “us” separated from the others and holder of a property right, for being often expressed in terms of “race”, renewing the idea of a primordial link between race and culture.  Cultural appropriation, as a conceptual tool mobilized in a resolutely militant perspective, and the controversies it raises, thus raise fundamental questions: can a culture have an owner? Can it be considered as the exclusive property of a group, thus defined in terms of identity? Who controls its use? Who can arrogate to themselves the power to determine how a particular cultural form can be used, and by whom?

It seemed to us heuristic to put into perspective the notion of “cultural appropriation” with that of “creolization” which involves a different conception of culture and identity : In this Creole model, even though we are in the presence of societies affected by a strong racial hierarchy, the cultural traits are brought to live with a life of their own, detaching themselves from the original groups that originally carried them. In such a context, processes of appropriation are also present, but they are oriented very differently, no longer within the framework of a “predation” from the “top” exercised towards the “bottom”, but within the framework of complex games of transformations and equivalences. 

As a model of cultural relations in plural contexts, the notion of creolization could also be claimed in a militant posture or a political display: as an alternative to ethnic division, nationalism and separatist “negrism” in the West Indian context, or more recently in the French political context as an alternative to assimilation, of Jacobin inspiration, to the dominant culture, a vector of standardization. It can therefore serve as a counterpoint to the accusatory logic of cultural appropriation while raising new questions. We will question the validity that the notion of creolization can find in various contemporary plural societies.  Can cultural encounters resulting from migratory movements be conceived in turn as places where cultural inter-systems can be shaped, i.e. zones of osmosis or overlap where traits from different origins come together? To what extent can the (re)combinatory power of cultures be exercised despite the persistence, or even the hardening, of identity markings based on origin that can be observed in many contemporary societies? How can we think about the intermingling of practices and representations when social and racial segregation and inequality are reproduced?

By putting these two notions into perspective, the objective is to bring to light what they say about our time, but also what they hide or do not allow to think, and why.

We will first look at the contexts in which these two notions have found their social relevance, the meanings they carry and the power relations in which their political and social uses are embedded. By approaching cultural appropriation and creolization as discourses whose genealogy can be traced, the aim is to identify the moments in which these terms appeared and the ways in which they were disseminated nationally and transnationally in different arenas. How did borrowings come to be stigmatized as appropriations or valorized as creolization?  Which social actors are at the origin of these interpretations? To what extent are they debated?  Are they disseminated beyond the circles of anti-racist activism, intellectual elites and the media?

We will then look at the contours of the social categories concerned by these discourses, the nature of the boundaries established with other categories, and their implications for identity and inter-group relations. Considering cultural appropriation, we will ask ourselves on what basis (ethnic, religious, national, political) the groups carrying this discourse define themselves. How do denunciations of cultural appropriation take into account class and gender inequalities? In the case of creolization, how does the cultural phenomenon of creolization relate to the asymmetrical relations between social groups? What about situations where it takes place in a “bastard” mode, as described by Édouard Glissant? In these cases, the dominant and the dominated share cultural practices that are creolized without the equal value of the different contributions being recognized.

Finally, attention will be paid to the cultural items privileged to support the discourses of cultural appropriation and creolization.

In the case of cultural appropriation, they have the peculiarity of often pertaining to display and performance, and even to certain body techniques that play an important role in the social presentation of the self. In most cases (dreadlocks, African braids, Indian hairstyles), their symbolic force functions as a reminder of an oppression or its contestation. Through case studies, we will trace the trajectory of a given cultural element, from its endogenous meaning (religious, sacred, artistic) in local history to its circulation in a globalized space. With what historical depth has it been invested with the power to signify a group identity? How, by extending the circle of its “owners” beyond the community of origin, has a traditional cultural object taken on new meanings (for example, that of evoking suffering and struggles, of being an emblem of resistance to racial oppression, to colonial domination…)? Attention may be given to counter-examples of cultural objects associated with a category of belonging whose adoption by non-members has not led to an accusation of appropriation.

With regard to creolization, the aim is to use case studies to see how the idea has spread to different parts of the world (the Americas, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, Europe, etc.) and how the use of the term has extended beyond the linguistic domain to designate the emergence of creative practices, new cultural productions, and original aesthetics (cuisine, music and dance, religious beliefs) emblematic of de-ethnicized intercultural encounters. 

Proposals (title and abstract) should be sent to the coordinators of the issue before October 31, 2022:

  • Jean-Luc Bonniol
  • Ary Gordien
  • Jocelyne Streiff-Fénart Jocelyne streiff