Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Cultural Appropriation

Ok. So this is a big ask, but if you want to follow my thoughts here you’ll need to actually read at least this first article.  Then the conversation I had with a few people on Facebook about that article. … ONLY THEN will my thinking below will make sense.  In other words.  Turn back now if you don’t have a solid hour to work through this stuff.

Josh Foreman Shrivers was a very interesting talk. I'm of two minds on this. First, I feel like I agree with almost everything she says about over-sensitivity and the slippery slope of having to write only memoirs if one takes the cultural appropriation movement to its logical conclusion. However, it's also impossible for me to consider every angle, especially of those with less cultural capital and privileges than I have. Also, slippery slope arguments are almost always terrible arguments. Also, also, maybe fiction IS simply inherently immoral. That's a point not even considered by Shriver.
I'd love to hear from anyone with different backgrounds than me on this topic.

Caprise Sireay Adams My opinion is also of two minds, a dialectic, and that is, until humanity is unified and equal, cultural appropriation is offensive. We steal the headdress and patterns of Native Americans and we leave them in the dust with nothing.

However, if we weren't treating people terribly, a sharing of cultural ideas and colors and patterns would be amazing and I think is the only way we could hope to achieve any kind of realistic utopia. I don't just mean clothes, I mean religion, traditions, connectivity with historical significance, etc. The world will be open to all of us at some point and we can hand pick the things we fill our lives with, sharing in the bounty of human experience.

But we can't try to take from "them" their identity and their beauty while we steal everything else.

Josh Foreman Hm. That makes me think of another angle on it. What if we privileged white folks STOPPED -completely- our cultural appropriation? What would that actually mean? Would we stop listening to R&B? Would we never eat at Mexican or Chinese restaurants? Would we only wear... "white people clothes"? Let's say all that is even possible. Would that be healthy for society? Or am I misconstruing what CA is?

Jennifer Hoffman An important sub-note to this is that if you engage honestly and respectfully with a marginalized group in order to accurately represent their feelings and worldview in a piece of fiction, then that's not cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is stealing the pieces you like and ignoring the rest; it's not including the other side of the story and/or pretending there is no other side than the facet that happened to appeal to you.

Caprise Sireay Adams I'm not sure that buying hip hop CD's or eating Mexican food is cultural appropriation, though I'm just a white girl so my opinion is nowhere near expert. I think it's more assuming the roles, becoming an R&B singer, wearing the clothes, doing the hair that way, speaking like them, especially taking religious icons like traditional African clothing or branding and selling Kokopelli and not giving any of the profits to the Native Americans who created the entire thing. I think it's less consuming what the people are making and more trying to take over the spaces of creation and ownership.

Another interesting perspective:

Josh Foreman Hm. I'm trying to find the right heart to approach this issue. I can't seem to find a way to articulate the problem with rules, and since MY inherited tradition is the western philosophical logic-chopping scientific interpretation of things, this makes it really darn hard for me. Not because I can't accept the premise of a movement that can't be nailed down with rules. (After all, all human relationships are navigated in an organic, interactive process.) But since I want to do the right, most loving and respectful things, it's scary to know that anything I don't spend a lot of time ruminating about could be hurting/offending others. And even when I do ruminate a lot, I'm still bound to screw up. Mostly I'm worried that the very mechanism I hope to use to change the world for the better (fiction stories) could be inherently immoral under this framework.

Josh Foreman Jennifer Hoffman: "Cultural appropriation is stealing the pieces you like and ignoring the rest; it's not including the other side of the story and/or pretending there is no other side than the facet that happened to appeal to you."

How would you apply this to fantasy or future sci-fi settings?

Jennifer Hoffman Fantasy and sci-fi things are almost always inspired by something in the real world. When you take elements or details from another culture to flavor your imaginary world, with no regard for the larger whole they come from, then yeah, it's cultural appropriation.

What is the message that you are sending with the pieces you've taken? Even if you don't think you're sending a message, you are, and the problem comes in when that message is something that doesn't respect the people it came from.

As for hard and fast examples, the first one that springs to mind is exoticism... any time one or two details are brought in simply to make something feel "other" and thereby exciting. Even if you think you're portraying it in a positive light, the underlying message at that point is "Look at this thing which is not normal."

Josh Foreman Here's some brass tacks. Walk with me here. Our first novel's protagonist is an islander living on another planet in the far future. Since he's descended from humans, there is a history of Earth, which of course includes real island cultures, but they are not remembered in any way, and his people aren't necessarily even descended from Earth islanders. His people were genetically enhanced to thrive in tropical climates. In developing his culture we naturally looked at existing and historical island cultures to learn how people living in similar physical situations tend to live. But we didn't want to have them BE Hawaiian or Indonesian or anything else. Certain technologies and styles tend to emerge among peoples from tropical island ecosystems. Outrigger canoes. Skirts. Shell decor. Light huts. That sort of thing. How in the world can I tell if any of the flavor elements we've infused into our fictional world is stealing without regarding real island cultures?

Caprise Sireay Adams I think the first comment Jennifer made is your best bet. Have some open loving dialogue with people whom this affects, like, not me, and who feel passionately about it.

I think we're too afraid to make mistakes lately. It's okay to make mistakes especially if we're willing to correct them and our intentions are good.

Jennifer Hoffman As to your specific scenario, Josh, I'm no expert on this so take what I say with a grain of salt, but it seems to me that one of the areas you have to be most careful with is when you're not representing a specific people but generically the idea of a group of people. That's where things like "generic asian" or "redskin" come from, which are the most offensive type of cultural appropriation, because they not only steal details at random, but they then paint all peoples and all cultures in a very large region as if those details were the only important things.

That said, there are people who come from marginalized cultures who have experienced the whitewashing and silencing of their cultures. I'm thinking not just directly of what is still happening, but also the silencing that has already passed, that the generations now are trying to deal with. The lost culture, the lost languages, the very real sense of pain and hollowness that results... and that seems a closer analog to your character than any particular pacific island culture. It also opens up another avenue of who you can talk to to get another perspective, one that is a little broader reaching.

In that case, the context shifts from a commentary on how you view all pacific islanders regardless of their individual cultures to a commentary on cultural silencing and its aftereffects instead.

The former: "I have decorative shells around because it was important to my people 'pacific islanders'" (cultural appropriation and also pretty racist without any direct contribution by specific pacific island peoples)

The latter: "I have decorative shells around because that's what I've been told my people used to do, but no one can tell me why and sometimes I wonder if it's even true, but I cling to it because I don't really have anything else from the past to identify with and now I've developed a weird love hate relationship with this random collection of details from a people I know nothing about"

That last could easily branch into discoveries that some of the symbols were originally imposed on the people by their subjugators, as tends to be a thing that happens. If you wanted to go there and your story allowed.

The biggest problem with using with race and culture not your own, is that by the time you've done research and listened to the people your story represents, you may find that your original story idea has not survived or that cultural themes have tried to subsume it. Continuing on and strictly adhering to your original idea, ignoring those cultural themes that want to be stronger, is a very quick way into creepy appropriation, where the story begins to feel like cultural paint on a white story.

Lelia Rose Foreman Caprise Sireay Adams, If you make some profit with an indigenous icon, just who are you supposed to give the money to?

Jennifer Hoffman Lelia Rose Foreman, Maybe to the people whose icon you used? Maybe in an amount that you agree to before you use their icon? Maybe don't use it if everyone can't come to an agreement?

Lelia Rose Foreman Caprise Sireay Adams, About American blacks wearing African fashions: I could not believe how excited the Rwandans were when I wore clothing I had sewn from fabric I had purchased from the local market.

Lelia Rose Foreman Jennifer Hoffman, I'm not trying to be tedious here, but again, to whom would we hand the money? Our neighbor whose heritage is at least one-eighth Navaho? A tribal council on a reservation?

Caprise Sireay Adams My opinion is, take the Kokopelli example: don't. Let the Native Americans make and sell statues if they want to. A white guy shouldn't come in, steal their idea, and sell Kokopelli as a novelty item in a gas station. It's not his.  It's exploitation.

Jennifer Hoffman It's more important than just handing money to a person. It's about respecting the people. I've seen corporations respectfully work with a tribal government to use culturally appropriate native logos. In that case the money goes to the tribal government who uses it however they deem to best help their tribe.

Josh Foreman Jennifer Hoffman: "could easily branch into discoveries that some of the symbols were originally imposed on the people by their subjugators"

Interesting. That is, actually a sort of a twist ending in the story. Though none of it goes back to Earth societies, as practically all memories of Earth are lost in a mythical past.

"one of the areas you have to be most careful with is when you're not representing a specific people but generically the idea of a group of people. "

Hm. I'm having trouble here applying this idea. If one is creating a fantasy culture (as we are) and specifically attempting NOT to make it a representation of a specific culture... would you think that whole endeavor intrinsically racist/exploitative? On the one hand, we aren't trying to make a 'generic' Islander culture. We are trying to make a new, specific, deep, respectful, diverse culture. On the other hand, the details of that fictional culture have to come from SOMEWHERE. It would break the whole point of fantasy as a genre to make our Islander culture specifically Hawaiian or Maori or whatever. And that's what I'm trying to get at. I'm trying to figure out if the whole notion of genre fiction is intrinsically exploitative according to this framework.

Here's a proposition. Tell me how this strikes you. If we use a specific carved pattern from Indonesia, a specific yam harvesting dance from Papua New Guinea, and a specific head dress from Fiji to build our fantasy culture we are appropriating. But if we use the basic concepts of these things as inspiration for derivations on them, it is not?

Sorry if it sounds like I'm cross examining you here. But you're the first person I've found who will talk as deeply about this as I've found. (Also, if you know of anywhere else I could pursue this line of inquiry, please point it out to me.)

Caprise Sireay Adams The more you're talking, Josh, the less I'm thinking you're in danger of cultural appropriation and may be more in danger of some kind of racism where you're portraying a specific group of people a certain way and calling upon real examples of societies to do so, much like Avatar, which has a strong case against it for portraying a number of racist themes. Having the Na'vi use bows specifically wasn't necessarily the problematic portion. Though, again, it may be worth trying to reach out to some people with some expertise on cultural appropriation, and racism, and maybe some representatives from your specified groups like Hawaiians. Where to start? That's complicated but I bet you could do it. I would start in academia. University professors who specialize in race, history, anthropology or culture. Maybe some of them could point you in another direction if they can't help you themselves.

Josh Foreman Here is an opinion that I can comfortably digest. (Which l've learned from being a guilty white liberal is something I need to be suspect about.)

'Cultural exchange happens mutually over time, for example, the Indo-Chinese who have aspects of both traditional chinese and Hindu culture. Another one is North America and Mexico. The Southern states of the US have tons of Mexican and Latin influences, even down to the naming of states and towns. Appropriation is purposefully taking choice aspects of a culture and using it for profit or mockery. Korean culture is notorious for appropriating Islamic and Black culture for use in their music videos, which they then profit off. Wearing Native American headdresses for Coachella as a way to seem indie. Iggy Azalia stereotyping Indian culture for her music video (both profiting off of and mocking Indian culture). Another distinction to make is cultural appreciation, where people have genuine interests in real cultures instead of being enamoured with the stereotyped cliche aspects.'

Caprise Sireay Adams "For my part, as a German-American on both sides, I’m more than happy for anyone who doesn’t share my genetic pedigree to don a Tyrolean hat, pull on some lederhosen, pour themselves a weissbier, and belt out the Hofbrauhaus Song." ***K, false equivalence, Germans and Americans aren't being oppressed, aren't minority groups, aren't experiencing any real forms of racism, etc. This is privilege speaking. "I don't mind it done to me so why do you mind it done to you?" If the "why" is genuine, it's not too bad of a question, but if the "why" is pressing more of a judgement and an implication that the hurt need to change, it's just another form of microaggression. Like, if you constantly hit Heather on the shoulder. You're stronger, it may not hurt you when she hits you on the shoulder, so instead of trying to empathize or at least sympathize with how she might have some validity when she tells you it hurts, you tell her YOUR experience, as though it should also be hers. Privilege. Naïveté. This sets the tone for the rest of her speech to me.
She starts out giving an example of actual cultural appropriation, i.e. sombreros, and then takes that into writing fiction without actually making a connection, which again betrays a lack of understanding cultural appropriation.

“taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” ***Right here, in her own speech, she is proven wrong really. Nowhere does it say you can't write a story about people who wear sombreros. It says, don't wear sombreros, don't manufacture and sell them, don't try to inject them into mainstream American fashion, don't hijack them and claim them as your own. She still fails to connect any of her points to writing fiction.

"to be manipulated at his whim, to fulfill whatever purpose he cares to put them to.

This same reviewer recapitulated Cleave’s obligation “to show that he’s representing [the girl], rather than exploiting her.” Again, a false dichotomy."

***Again, she's conflating racism/sexism/ism with cultural appropriation.

"What stories are “implicitly ours to tell,” and what boundaries around our own lives are we mandated to remain within? I would argue that any story you can make yours is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job."

When fiction reinforces negative stereotypes which will go on to cause further harm to an already marginalized and oppressed group of people, it crosses an ethical line. They have freedom of speech. That doesn't mean we shouldn't shun them for their effect on the world. Not all, and in fact very few, acts of racism are intentional, but intention doesn't negate effect. Again, she's arguing from a perspective of privilege. Since she cannot imagine the harm that a white British guy could cause by writing a story about a 14 year old Nigerian girl, there must be no harm. Since she can't experience that potential harm, she can't empathize with it.

I'm not even going to read the rest. It's self indulgent, whiny, spiteful, narrow minded and pathetic. The blanket of privilege is thick. Her points are all predicated upon faulty premises.

Just read the counterpoints, pretty good.

Josh Foreman Caprise Sireay Adams, Maybe it's because I'm more privileged than you, but I had the opposite impression. Though I agree with everything you've written on this thread.

Caprise Sireay Adams It's just so typical White Feminist.

Josh Foreman If you wrote a book about a White Feminist would that be cultural appropriation?  My tongue is only half-way in my cheek.

Caprise Sireay Adams Well, my head is only half way up my ass, so maybe it would be?

Josh Foreman hahaha!

Jennifer Hoffman I agree with Caprise that it seems like you're more at risk of the over-simplification-turned-stereotype kind of racism than cultural appropriation.

It's a fine line to walk when you want to invent something new in fantasy based on generalizations you've made about the world.

I think in world building especially there's a line between asking the question "imaginary group lives by large ocean at a certain climate within a certain technological period, what real world examples can I research?" vs "what do pacific islanders do? (because they happen to meet the above criteria while also appealing to you)"

Respectful research can go a long way, but you are still walking a fine line. The only way to stay on the right side of it is to listen to the people who it might affect, and take their concerns into consideration. Even then, if you do everything right you could still offend people because no group monolithically agrees on anything, and the nature of racism/appropriation is that it has already hurt many people and anything too close can open their wounds again.

Finding the right people to talk to it's also hard, because no one owes us their time / energy. So not only do you need to find people who are a part of the cultures you are referencing, but you need to find people who are also interested in your project? It's why so many ask forgiveness rather than permission.

To that end, professors are not a bad place to start, as long as you understand that they may share your biases and blind spots.

Lelia Rose Foreman To interject about our research of Pacific Islanders, the reason we looked at them was because they were the only people (at the technological level we were working with) who had the kind of mobility we wanted. We researched how they were able to sail for weeks and months across the Pacific. How did they navigate? How were the canoes built? Most of the other cultural stuff is made up. Yeah, shells are used for decoration, but people decorate with what's around them, and shells are endemic on island shores. And as Josh has pointed out, the characters are not Hawaiian, never have been Hawaiian, and furthermore are genetically engineered people who live on a world that aliens will not let anyone progress beyond a certain level.

Josh Foreman So the question then, would be: how could our project be racist if no existing race or culture is being portrayed? And I suppose the answer would be something like: If these people FEEL to the reader like Hawaiians or Tuvalus, and are perceived to be tokens or two dimensional caricatures of those peoples, then the harm the story does is the same as if we had set a story in Hawaii or Tuvalu and paid no heed to the opinions or reality of life for those people. Maybe? I still haven't figured this out yet.

Caprise Sireay Adams That sounds about right to me, Josh.

Jennifer Hoffman Seems like you get it, even if you don't feel comfortable with it yet.

Josh Foreman Well thanks, everyone, for patiently working through this with me. Sounds like I have a lot of research to do. Which is great. Because I don't have enough projects in my life. :(


With that background set, now I’ve given myself a couple days to ruminate.  One pleasure I’ve gained of getting older is coming to better understand the machinery of my mind, and thus recognize (slightly better) that I have large blind spots, and where many of them are.  And extrapolating from that, being confident that there are other unknown unknowns.  Besides recognizing the limits of my mind machinery, I’ve discovered a lot of triggers that I didn’t realise were there.  And in recognizing when those triggers are flipped, I’m empowered by that knowledge to learn to take a step back and spend more time with an idea rather than automatically accepting or rejecting it.  Two examples: Any whiff of conspiracy theory and my brain wants to instantly dump it.  Any whiff of the idea that I’m hurting someone and my brain wants to instantly embrace it.  These are obvious biases and so when I come across them I try my best to spend a little extra time working through them.  That is the case with the topic of cultural appropriation.  It hits me right in the feels.  I just HATE the idea of inadvertently hurting people.  But you know what I HATE even more, with the burning passion of a thousand suns?  Finding out I’m hurting someone and then just excusing my actions or minimizing or denying that I even could be.  I find that kind of arrogance to just be completely at odds with the kind of Love I hope to propagate around the world.  I think Love involves more than warm feelings towards others.  It requires actually listening closely to what they have to say even when it’s accusatory or angry.  That doesn’t mean automatically accepting that what they say is Truth.  That would be impossible since there’s so many contradictory ideas out there.  But it does mean accepting that their perceptions of a thing are a true state of their being.  And if your actions are having a negative impact on their state of being, you ought to have a really damn good reason for those actions.  A better reason than “I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong. Stop whining.” Which seems to be the default setting for humans.  Reasons that are thought-through in such a way that you have evidence that your actions that negatively impact their mental state include things like:  Not feeding your toddler what they want all the time.  Not enabling people to continue an addiction.  Not giving cash to a homeless person that you don’t know.  (These are, of course hotly contested by a lot of people; they are just examples of where I, personally, have thought a lot about it, researched it, and came to a difficult conclusion.)  

So while most people I know find the whole notion of cultural appropriation (I’m gonna shorten it to CA for the sake of brevity) ridiculous, I’m digging into it.  I legitimately want to know if I’m hurting people, and if I can avoid it.  

As you can see from the previous conversation about CA, I’m having trouble processing the mechanical aspects of it.  My designer brain wants to break it down into a rule set, that, if followed, will result in hurting people less. Since I’m already convinced of several of the premises that build the platform of CA, I thought I would be in a good position to find the natural flow of the arguments and follow them to their conclusions.  

Here are the premises as far as I can tell.

1. Power Dynamics. It’s a thing I spent most of my life oblivious to.  After research I can see it everywhere.

2. Historical oppression has a long tail and still massively affects the lives of everyone, both for good and for ill depending on your ancestors.  This is anathema to most conservative thought, and is dismissed out of hand by many, especially privileged U.S. American’s who don’t recognise how much advantage their race, gender, sexual identity, etc. gives them.

3. Just because person does not feel that other races are inferior, that does not mean that they cannot contribute to systemic racist institutions, traditions or ideologies without realizing it.  It’s the old fish-not-knowing-what-water-is problem.  We don’t see how our actions affect others because the results are woven into the culture and we are just acting according to the way we were raised.  That doesn’t mean our parents did a bad job raising us.  Or that their parents did.  It means culture is inherited and culture carries with it both good and bad.  Since cultural influence is largely invisible to us (like water is to a fish)  it’s natural that we propagate the bad unless we ferret it out aggressively.  

Since most people disagree with all of those ideas there’s no way to layer on cultural appropriation that will convince them it’s a thing to be concerned with.  But for me, the same impulse that allowed me to look into those three premises and come away convinced that they are a reality is what’s pushing me to look into CA.  

That being said, this is a hard one for me, because unlike those three premises that have statistics and a line of reasoning that that can be traced clearly and observed if you know what to look for, when it comes to CA I can’t find those things.  Perhaps it is because the notion is fairly young and still finding its place in the world.  Like I mentioned in one of the comments above, my tendency is to try to understand something in a pragmatic rules-oriented way.  But that’s not necessarily the best way to approach every problem.  I don’t navigate my personal relationships that way.  I don’t have a list of rules for being a good husband.  Instead I follow my instincts, and look and listen closely to how my wife responds to those instincts, then iterate from there.  I like making her happy so I’m naturally drawn towards the things that do that.  

But I can’t find a relational vector for approaching CA either.  And without rules OR relation, I’m kinda lost.  One thing I feel like I need to do is just record all my rules-oriented questions so that I can at least have that out of my system.  Even if a rules-based approach is not the right one for understanding or avoiding CA, if I never express these confusions I have about it, I think they would always be under the surface just waiting to disrupt any progress I’m making towards a true understanding of the matter.  So here’s my (possibly inappropriate) brain dump of questions regarding my current understanding of cultural appropriation.  I’m mainly working off the conversation I had above, and the Wiki article. Here’s a good summation from the Wiki:
Opponents view the issues of colonialism, context, and the difference between appropriation and mutual exchange as central to analyzing cultural appropriation. They argue that mutual exchange happens on an "even playing field", whereas appropriation involves pieces of an oppressed culture being taken out of context by a people who have historically oppressed those they are taking from, and who lack the cultural context to properly understand, respect, or utilize these elements.”

  1. Is it possible for a person to “properly understand” the cultural context of any given artifact from another culture?  How would that be defined?
  2. If avoiding CA requires tracking down some kind of representative from every group you wish to include elements of their culture, do such representatives exist?  Is it even possible for such a group to exist?  It seems impossible to me because every way you try to group people you’re going to be including fringes, heterodox, and edge-cases.  Obtaining a consensus among that group seems impossible.  Every culture and subculture would need to have an outward-facing media relations organization.  Which, CA would insist, they don’t OWE to the world.  They shouldn’t HAVE to do any work to keep artists from stealing from them or disrespecting them.
  3. Let’s take an example from literally any work of fantasy fiction, be it book, movie, games, comics, etc.  Artist A has a vast reference library.  They have spent countless hours pouring over images and descriptions of thousands of places and cultures and times.  When Artist A sits down and starts drawing or writing concepts for their fiction world, their brain is working behind the scenes, stitching all those elements together in random patchworks.  Then the front part of the brain starts sorting those patchworks and selecting the ones that Artist A finds compelling and appropriate for their world.  Given that the ‘catalog’ in Artist A’s brain is mostly subconscious, how can they protect against or recognize CA?  If the answer is “Ask people from oppressed cultures.” then we need to resolve number 2, above.
  4. Is it even possible for any human to NOT appropriate multiple cultures?  I’ve heard that white people letting their hair do what hair does when you don’t wash it for months, and end up with dreadlocks… THAT is CA.  OK.  What about other fashion decisions that are shared between groups?  Sneekers?  Kilts?  Tattoos?  Piercings?  At some point in history pretty much every culture has had various forms of body modification.  But I understand that the issue is not having your ancestor's practice it... but rather, if a group that your group subordinated in the somewhat recent past or present has a fashion that you use, THAT’S the issue.  So I suppose we need to be able to identify what is distinctive between the two cultures, and what is shared.  This, again, requires some kind of curation or arbitration.  As far as I know, no such authority for that action exists, or even COULD exist.
  5. Humans have finite brains. We use stereotypes and tropes as shortcuts and timesavers, not because we are horrible people, but because it would take more than one lifetime to learn what we would have to in order to more fully understand the things that the stereotypes are based on.  For example: I have a very vague understanding of Eastern European cultures.  In my mind's-eye I see a crazy juxtaposition of goat herders, cobblestone huts, dirt roads, maybe some Gypsy carts, and also old run down communist brutalist architecture buildings.  If I randomly decided that I wanted to write a book that takes place there, and did zero research, my story would HORRIBLE.  Every artist knows this.  Instead, I could do a ton of research.  Maybe even take a tour of the area.  After that my story would be a lot better, more grounded, and less full of inaccurate cliches.  But would I actually KNOW Eastern Europe?  Of course not.  I could take it to the next level and move there.  Live there for decades.  But I can never reset my life and be born and raised there.  And without that, how could I really say I KNOW a culture or region?  Now multiply this problem by the hundreds or thousands of tiny inputs that are pulled from all over the world when an artist creates anything.  There’s simply no way to know enough about the influences we use to know if we are appropriating.
  6. That quote from the wiki above indicates that there’s a difference between appropriation and mutual exchange, and it has to do with an “even playing field”.  This ties into larger problems with identity politics and many other cultural concerns having to do with who determines what a level playing field looks like.  Let’s take the very easiest example.  The white people in the U.S. who benefit from hundreds of years of slavery of (mostly) Africans.  On the current playing field, whites have most of the advantages, so it’s clear that in this context, using African American culture for our own benefit would fall under the heading of appropriation rather than mutual exchange.  Though all of the same technical and logistical confusions and limitations I’ve listed so far still apply.  But what about some other group, such as Asians in the U.S.?  Is it possible for a white person to have “mutual exchange” instead of appropriation with U.S. Asians? (Not to mention every subheading under “Asian”.)  And looking as hard as I can for an even playing field, we can compare subgroups of white people.  Let’s say, poor white people and middle class white people.  Since financial disparity is a universal indicator of an uneven playing field, does that mean that a middle class white person could be accused of CA by adopting a style of a poor white person?  Is a middle class guy drinking cheap beer CA?
  7. Philosophical and religious concepts provide an interesting perspective on CA.  I’ve seen yoga as practiced by non-Indian people described as CA.  This makes me wonder about buddhist concepts such as meditation.  Is the band Nirvana guilty of CA for using that word as the name of their band?  Certainly, anyone from outside a buddhist culture will inevitably be practicing any buddhist ritual poorly and out of context.  Some indigenous buddhists would appreciate westerners attempting that way of life.  And I’m sure some would say it’s wrong.  Which people do the westerners listen too?  Is it a percentage thing?  Is it wrong if even one person objects?  
  8. What’s a creative endeavor that doesn’t rely on subconscious juxtaposition of culture soup?  Documentaries and photography seem close.  But even the most dutiful documentary fails to capture all context.  Same with photography.  Both these artforms are subject to editing by biased, ignorant humans.  If a white photographer takes a photo of an ancient Aztec temple and sells the image, I can’t see what logic would defend them from CA.  If a white documentarian makes a film about indigenous Mongolian herdsmen, she is still using her white brain to determine what images and sounds make the cut.  How to pace them.  What people should be shown and where to point the camera.  All of those decisions are removing context.  
  9. When I try to think of some creative endeavor that a person of privilege can engage in without skirting the line of CA the closest I can get is autobiography.  Which, besides generally being the most boring of all artistic pursuits, STILL couldn’t avoid charges of CA, assuming the biography includes ANY people from any other culture.
  10. How does a privileged person consume culture through the lens of CA?  In conjunction with the idea that we ‘vote with our dollars’, every time I eat American Chinese food I could be contributing to CA.  If I buy a decorative samurai sword, I could be committing CA.  If I buy pants sag too much I could be committing CA.

Ten seems like a good place to stop.  I swear I’m not trying to be facetious or difficult by articulating these concerns and questions.  I honestly want to understand how to honor the heart behind awareness of cultural appropriation.  Because there is clearly a THING here.  I don’t think anyone can make a good case for the Nazi appropriation of the swastika.  Not only did they steal something from other cultures, it became such a powerful symbol for them that it has now polluted the original sources.  (hopefully time will wear that effect away.)  So I can’t simply dismiss this concept out of hand.  But I also don’t see a way to embrace it without answers to the questions above.  

And one final thought.  Could a lot of the power behind CA be a moral illusion?  Here’s a quick video with a description of moral illusions:  Could it be that the extreme cases such as the Nazi swastika, and the racist sports mascot are examples of some other form of immorality?  Perhaps attempting to build a new set of social ethical norms extrapolated from these things is just a non-starter because the current implementation via cultural appropriation theory would be both impossible, and also not actually improve the overall morality of the world.  This is not my contention.  But I think it ought to be a consideration.  In the meantime I’m going to continue to ponder, research and most importantly LISTEN to those who have something to say on the topic.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Challenging Art

Here's a quote from a book I read by Spelunky Creator Derek Yu called, not-surprisingly: Spelunky.  In it, he's talking about the first Zelda game vs. the rest of the Zelda franchise.  He's quoting Tevis Thompson's 2012 essay "Saving Zelda".

"Hyrule must become more indifferent to the player.  It must aspire to ignore Link.  Zelda has so far resisted the urge to lavish choice on the player and respond to his every whim, but it follows a similar spirit of indulgence in its loving details, its carefully crafted adventure that reeks of quality and just-for-you-ness.  But a world is not for you.  A world needs a substance, and independence, a sense that it doesn't just disappear when you turn around (even though it kinda does). It needs architecture, not level design with themed wallpaper, and environments with their own ecosystems (which were doing just fine before you showed up).  Every location can't be plagued with false crises only you can solve, grist for the storymill."

Derek then comments:

"It's easy to mistake Thompson's assertion that "Hyrule must become more indifferent to the player" for an assertion that game developers shouldn't care about the player or shouldn't guide the player towards their ultimate vision.  What it means is that the guides must be a natural part of the world, and that world, like Miyamoto's cave, must simply exist.  If a world is independent and self-sufficient, so are its inhabitants.  If every part of the world exists only for the player, both the world and the hero will feel artificial."

And later in the book:

"I may not enjoy the new Zelda games as much as the older ones, but I still credit the series for giving me one of my best and earliest lessons in game design.  Nintendo was so influential to me that even when I criticize their games, it's often by standards that they themselves have set.  My worry is that as players we've grown too comfortable with being comfortable.  We revel in being consumers of products, rather than contributors to a rapidly-evolving art form.... We've gone from asking "How does this game play?" to asking, "Does this game play the way I want it to play?"
We can't have everything that we want all at once, though.  We can't know what to expect and also be surprised.  We can't be free from frustration and also be challenged.  We can't go unchallenged and also feel satisfied with our accomplishments.  Mystery, surprise, tension, challenge, and a real sense of accomplishment always come at the cost of feeling uncomfortable.  Given the opportunity, many of us would rather take the easier road, but that's usually the less rewarding one.
The best games come out of a mutual respect between the creator and the player.  The player does not demand a certain experience from the creator because they trust in the creator's expertise and because they want to be surprised.  A personal creative vision cannot bloom without the freedom afforded by that trust.  At the same time, creators must trust in the curiosity and abilities of their players.  Continuously interrupting play to steer players with direct text messages and other obvious hints not only infantilizes them, but it also reveals the creator's insecurity in their ability to design games."

There’s a lot to think about here.  And not just about games, but modern pop-art in general.  I think of the summer blockbuster films and how they are all designed by committee, narrowing in on a framework of proven data points.  Pop music is the same.  But my chosen profession is games, and that’s where I think I can comment most meaningfully.  I’ve complained before about the Zelda franchise and how it has become more and more artificial feeling.  Mostly because there’s always exactly one way to do a thing or get to a place, and exactly one character who sells or owns the thing you need.  And while those characters are always interesting and artistically well-done, it completely kills the illusion that the world has any substance or depth.  To me, it’d be like a movie where there are no background extras, ONLY characters who the protagonist needs to talk to to progress the plot.  

So while I agree with the sentiment of all these quotes I’ve shared, I have to step back and acknowledge that it’s more complicated than that.  Games don’t HAVE to be about mastering skills and feeling the accomplishment of doing so.  The PROBLEM that I see is that as games have become more and more expensive to make they are falling into the same trap as the Hollywood Summer Blockbuster.  They are designed by Big Data to appeal to the most people in the broadest way possible.  And for games, that means stripping away most of the skill mastery elements and any ambiguity that could lead to frustrating lulls in the meticulously crafted narrative arc.  And while doing that works for the goal of mass appeal, it also damages the ability of any other games to do otherwise.  Just like it’s hard for a Summer Blockbuster to NOT have the world imperiled and involve a city getting demolished; it’s hard for a game to get greenlit that requires a player to master skills to progress.  (I see the Souls games as the exception that proves the rule)  

I think the fundamental issue driving these changes is a fundamental lack of respect or trust for creators in favor of respect and trust in data.  And while I’m definitely NOT anti-data, I think the entertainment industry en masse is doing what always happens when a new invention or technique is discovered: over-using it.  And I’m sure it’s giving the money-people the short-term gains they expect which then becomes entrenched dogma.  However, as far as I can tell, what this data is doing is pushing media towards a singularity.  After all, what it’s doing is simply representing an aggregate human psychological model, exposing the gears and levers for the producers to command the artists to pull.  The biggest practical problem (besides being a crime against art) is that a person really enjoys getting a particular lever pulled only so many times.  Eventually they become bored with experiencing the same thing over and over but in a different color outfit.  

That’s where the indies and underground artists have the advantage.  But since they generally lack the budget (since the people with the money all want their artists to follow the data) they can only be cool in a limited number of ways.  For example, if you want to set your film in a fantasy, historical or sci-fi world, most of your budget is going to be used up creating the world, leaving little for getting quality actors and film/sound equipment.  The equivalent in games is that if you want to make a photoreal game then most of your tiny budget is blown very quickly creating or purchasing those photoreal assets.  That’s why so many indie games are pixel art or paper craft, or some other simpler visual language.  And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with those styles.  What I find distressing is  the fact that you can’t choose other ones IF you want to make risky art.

Since a big part of my Big Dream involves making very high quality, very risky films and games, this is of utmost concern to me.  But I do see a potential light at the end of this tunnel.  (Hopefully it’s not a train.)  And that is procedural tools for asset creation and customization.  It’s basically leveraging algorithms to assist in creating things like terrain, trees, spaceships, outfits, etc. for virtual worlds.  It’s been used in limited ways in the game and film industry for quite a while.  For instance, every time you see a building collapsing in a movie, that’s the result of a physics simulation running on the the virtual pieces.  It’s not an animator who meticulously moved all those hundreds of thousands of parts around.  And in most games, the foliage is placed by virtually seeding the ground and the placement of the trees, grass and small rocks are randomly chosen so we environment artists don’t have to spend months hand-placing each blade of grass.  

There have been attempts to bring these procedural systems to the foreground.  The most recent was a debacle of a game called No Man’s Sky, which presents players with an entire universe of planets to explore, each with semi-unique flora and fauna, as well as different terrain types and atmospheres, etc.  Unfortunately, it took so much focus to get the algorithms working well enough that the team failed to execute a compelling game on top of it.  But more importantly for my concern, they demonstrated a lot of ways that procedural systems can fail to make quality assets. Failure is an absolute requirement for progress.  I think it will take several more attempts at this scale before we can crack this nut.  But I think it will be done.

If we CAN pull it off, and artists have access to near Holodeck levels of freedom of creation, then the data-crunching money overlords won’t be curtailing the vision and output of the truly creative people out there.  That’s why I’m really glad that people like James Cameron are pushing those boundaries in film.  (even though I don’t think Avatar worked very well as a movie) and No Man’s Sky is pushing it in games. (even though I don’t think it worked very well as a game)  I think they are laying the foundations for future generations to have both the full range of artistic expression AND be able to do so in whatever medium and style they like.