Staking a Claim

a drawing of two people exchanging something

Check out NPR’s latest bit from their code switch blog on what’s been termed “Columbusing,” or claiming originality for something that’s been around for a while, just in a context different from one’s own.

On its face, the impulse here is a relatively useful one: the things we think are new and edgy tend to be…, well, not. It can be pretty funny, too, thinking about all the latest fads that can be demystified by pointing out that they’ve been around for another group of people for a long time. Besides, scholars in anthropology and religious studies have long suggested there’s good work done in the process of making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. Maybe you’ve come across the oldie-but-goodie “Body Ritual among the Nacirema,” wherein Horace Miner describes modern America (well, mid-twentieth century, anyway) as it might appear to a non-participant, rendering it all but unrecognizable to the American students reading it in my Introduction to Religious Studies course. What’s become even more interesting still for me in teaching it is seeing even the revealed practices — what he’s “really” talking about — start to become unfamiliar to my students as more time passes. For instance, when we find out that his description of women baking their heads in ovens is “actually” a description of seated hood hairdryers, some of my students have no context for that either, being at least a couple generations removed from when those were used regularly. Just goes to show: there are always inevitably layers of familiarity and unfamiliarity, description and redescription, rendering the practice of seeking out original or authentic cultural artifacts a self-defeating one.

And there’s what I find problematic about the Columbusing article, even in its good intentions toward walking a few steps outside our own shoes. Not far beneath that surface lesson lies yet another claim about a true or real origin — and, consequently, about who owns what. It’s just that the claim is reinscribed in the service of a nominally progressive aim. The idea is that our ethnocentric narcissism would take a hit if we just understood that the increasingly popular color runs did not invent the idea of tossing colorful powder at passers-by. That tradition has been going on for ages in the centuries-old Hindu festival Holi. Our clever hand pies are actually empanadas, and so on. Enter progressively minded writers who are here to help us realize what we are really doing, eating, and referring to.  Thus, “Columbusing is when you ‘discover’ something that’s existed forever,” the article tells us.

Therein lies the rub: the label “Columbusing” is used to mark instances of appropriation as special or unique, as if such cultural borrowing is not happening all the time already. It’s a rather ordinary occurrence, in fact. What ritual, musical genre, or turn of phrase hasn’t taken cues from something else? But that something else surely wasn’t original either, and around and around we go. Learning social codes is all about performance and mimicry, and in that manner, there is not a pure or pristine original from which we create derivative forms. Instead, our quest for origins and ownership will only ever result in the discovery of further iterations, more copies — an endless game of telephone except without the original utterance (and even in that game, no idea appears “originally” in a vacuum) and so no clear way to identify one rendering or another as “borrowed” versus “stolen” versus “cleverly appropriated.”

For instance, what should we make of this article (thanks to Russell McCutcheon for passing it my way), describing people dressed as monks while asking for money on the streets of New York City?

Is this an instance of cultural theft? Borrowing? Appropriation? The difference between insensitive manipulation and savvy retooling is a line that is ever-shifting, and it has everything to do with those making the call — people with vested interests in either protecting or deconstructing the “original” form. After all, as the bit on Columbusing points out, pizza has become downright American! And some cover performances have outsold those of the original songs they copy. But in the instance of the folks asking for money in NYC, they are giving a bad name to “real Buddhists.” So, we call something borrowed or stolen only in certain instances. Making sense of when this happens and why — as opposed to identifying something as a strategic appropriation — is what I find interesting.

The author of the Columbusing article suggests that, in order to ensure we do not wrongly stake the flag of originality on another culture’s tradition (suggesting, again, a clear ownership of this or that tradition), we should ask ourselves a series of questions about our intentions: “It is best to enter a new, ethnic experience with consideration, curiosity and respect.” But therein lies another question of classification: what is the line between considerate curiosity and patronizing condescension? The answer, of course, depends on how much is at stake for you in declaring the origins of that slice of pizza

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