Racebending and Lifestyle Theft
“If you go exploring in another culture only as a way of improving yourself and your work, that’s blatantly appropriative. Rose Fox, “A Whiff of Colonialism,” Publishers Weekly
Another day, another shitstorm in the SF Café. A couple of months back, some of you might recall, it was one Young Turk turned Old Guard with an ill-fated article on international SF, a Caesar of dubious pontification that met a Senate of aggravated responses. Others said all that has to be said about the article at the time, and it’s sorta blown over now, so I’m not going to add my dagger; but in a couple of the responses (or responses to responses,) as the entrails slipped to the ground, fingers were pointed and the dread words whispered: cultural appropriation. As in the quote above, the link was made.
Yes. Another day, another shitstorm in the SF Café. Only today it’s a shitstorm about a Hollywood adaptation of a well-loved cartoon series — the film being M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, the original series being Avatar: The Last Airbender, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, and aired over Nickelodeon. And the shitstorm? Well, that’s circling around a problem that emerged the moment its cast was announced, with three of the four main characters being utterly whitewashed in the eyes of many fans of the original series. In the world of the show, the three heroes have roots clearly riffing off Buddhist/Shaolin monks (Aaang) and Inuit/Eskimo tribes (Katara and Sokka,) while the antihero/villain Zuko’s culture equally clearly riffs of feudal Japan; and the characters are drawn with appropriate skin tones. In the film, three out of the four are played by lily-white European-American actors. You can guess which one is played by an actor with actual Asian roots, right? Only the antihero/villain has dark skin, funny enough.
Forget airbending, the fans said; this is racebending.
Note that the shitstorm has little to no focus on the fact that the original — a series made by a Western network, by Western creators, which mines Asian cultures for its inspiration — is, by the definition above, “blatantly appropriative.” With DiMartino and Konietzko, and even more so with Nickelodeon, if there’s any grandiose ethical rationale for their exploration of these foreign cultures, it’s not obvious. The crafting of the milieu is intensely skilled and done with integrity, yes, but there’s little evidence of a solemn socio-political agenda at play here; they just, it seems, wanted to craft a really good story, one with a rich setting that was a step beyond the usual fantasyland backdrop. The influence of Hayao Miyazaki is obvious. They have, it seems, gone exploring in the contemporary and historical cultures of Asia simply in the aim of making their cartoon series really fucking good.
(I’m taking that quote out of context, I should add here, in a way that’s unfair to an intelligent article, full of valid and important points. I’m not arguing with Fox or what she has to say there; that sentence simply jumps out as a good springboard for investigation, because if one takes it at face value, as a basic principle, it has some profound ramifications; works like Avatar: The Last Airbender do fall foul of it, and I think it’s worthwhile contrasting this with the issues raised by Shyamalan’s adaptation.)
If this exploration is enough to damn them for cultural appropriation — or to coin a less academic term, which I’ll lay some more foundations for below, lifestyle theft — it seems strange that DiMartino and Konietzko are being held up as worthy of respect, while Shyamalan and Paramount are being pilloried for their racebending. But actually, I don’t think it’s that strange at all. I think the discourse of cultural appropriation, the whole notion of lifestyle theft, is flawed, while the reaction against The Last Airbender‘s whitewashing of characters is spot-on. Largely it’s a matter of perspective, of priorities, so don’t be jumping to the conclusion that I’m sweeping the whole complex question of cultural appropriation aside, either because you want to berate a contention that it doesn’t matter at all, or because you want to shout out an ill-considered agreement with such a contention. Just don’t, OK. That is not my contention.
Rather I want to explore just how representation and figuration can go wrong, ethically speaking, in a number of different ways, with my core contention being that there are very different problems involved, which should not be conflated. Where I need to use academic parlance, I’ll use it. Where I think it simply obscures the reality, I’ll do my best to smash it the fuck out of the way. Ultimately I’m most interested in what I see as the real problem at the heart of the matter — the process of abjection, of making something (or someone,) abject. Wherever concerns about racebending or lifestyle theft are dismissed, it is most often, I’d say, rooted in a blindness to this process; and that’s what I’m really interested in tackling here.
If the term cultural appropriation just gets your hackles up, if you don’t think the term whitewashing really applies to the fabricated worldscape of The Last Airbender, maybe, hopefully, this’ll give you a sense of why some of us really care about shit like this. Because stories have a lot more power than many give them credit for. Every narrative, I’ve said before, is like a water fountain. We thirst for stories because they replenish the soul, invigorate us, make us feel fresh; and by creating a story we provide a supply to any and all who care to come and drink from that fountain. But we can erect signs above those fountains that turn away some for entirely unacceptable reasons. And worse, if we’re not careful, that water may be poisoned with the very hatred that leads to those signs in the first place. And to the very real and physical crimes that go hand-in-hand with them.
So let’s begin.
A Quick Definition
Cultural appropriation. It’s a loaded term. And it’s kinda… Latinate for my liking. That should make it very specific, cause those Latin roots are pretty good for precision, but the artificial gravitas that Latin lends a term can lead to an alienating air of pomp, and that may well undermine it. Many recoil from what they see as simply an academic buzzword, reject it as meaningful. Some, in their use of the term, give these naysayers good reason too, sadly. If you use cultural appropriation when you’re talking about what are really prejudiced representations or figurations of other cultures, you’re not doing the cause any favours, just blurring its meaning in a way doubters will see as vindicating their dismissal.
For the purposes of this column then, given the distinctly negative connotations of the term appropriation, I’m going to bind it to a very specific denotation: to take and use without permission that which belongs to another. This is crucial, I think, because the debate is muddled by every elision or obscuring of this basic common-use meaning. To appropriate is not simply to pick up and use that which one comes across while wandering the streets of New Sodom; if it’s nobody’s, it’s everybody’s. Nor can we really talk of appropriation if that use has been allowed for by the owner; if it’s somebody’s but you’ve got permission from that somebody, well, what’s the dealio? (If you think it’s somebody’s, but it’s really somebody else’s, that’s a different matter; and that still brings it back to taking and using without permission that which belongs to another.)
No, there’s no sense of inequity or iniquity attached to taking and using someone’s property with their blessing, or to taking and using that which isn’t property to begin with. Which is the key point: appropriation, as that prop- root should make clear, is all about ownership. Appropriation is theft.
The cultural part of it is as straightforward to define: lifestyle. We’re not talking about style just in terms of superficial flourishes here, mind; we’re talking style as the approach one takes in doing something — in this case, how one lives. We’re talking the entire system of tools and techniques, concrete or abstract, that one brings to bear in the simple aim of existing, the system of such systems, in fact, which we might well contribute to ourselves in developing our own personal lifestyle, but which we don’t have to build from scratch because we’re born into it. A big part of my individual lifestyle is really the lifestyle of my whole community. My culture.
Filing Off the Serial Numbers
Geography may play a part in a culture, but it’s more about topography than the hard facts of the map — about highland and lowland cultures, island societies or riverside communities, cities and villages. The hard facts of history contribute too, but similarly they are swallowed up and transfigured by time into the more abstract heritage. Many in a culture may not know or care about the hard facts of the battle they’re celebrating with a parade, centuries later. In a story, we might well leave those facts out in a scene portraying that parade, because we’re not trying to represent the history but rather the here-and-now culture born of it. We’re trying to represent that part of a character’s lifestyle that is the lifestyle of their community at large.
Or rather than a representation we might be aiming for a figuration.
An artist exploring New Sodom will come across many such lifestyles in their travels, cultures that are not their own. They might choose to represent them directly, with literal description, but this is not the only way to write the qualities of other cultures into a story. What Avatar: The Last Airbender does is draw on those cultures to create a figuration — a non-literal representation, which does not pretend to give an accurate picture of a particular reality, but nevertheless speaks to that reality in the same terms as metaphors or myths. The creators have clearly striven to build coherent and comprehensive figurations from the cultures they’re drawing on, and to be true to those cultures in doing so — as true as we are with an apt metaphor. That truth is important, for all that the series is a fantasy.
The point is this: the geography and history of that cartoon series is pure fabrication, but in the broad terms of topography and heritage, the fantasyland does function as an analogue of historical Asia. And in terms of the tools and techniques that construct a lifestyle — in terms of clothing and cuisine, combat and communication — Avatar: The Last Airbender is determinedly rooted in Asia. Individual cultures of the worldscape can be traced directly to individual cultures of reality. So even as a figuration it speaks to that reality. It speaks of that reality, fantasy culture mapping to actual culture, just as the vehicle of a metaphor maps to the tenor.
Filing off the serial numbers, the hard facts of history and geography, doesn’t mean you’re not communicating something about the actual culture you’re riffing off. It works exactly as metaphor, as analogy. Fantasy and reality, vehicle and tenor — what you say about one, with respect or disdain, you are saying about the other. One of the most laudable aspects of the cartoon show is that even as it sets one culture up as aggressive and imperialist, it does not demonise it. That matters because it means the show doesn’t demonise the actual feudal Japan that culture is based on.
Some readers deny that such things matter. They will happily shrug off a figuration that demonises one individual culture as rotten to the core. It’s a fantasyland, they might say. Just because the Evil Enemy in the story is a culture of swarthy thieves and swindlers, rapists and murderers, ruled over by a Caliph who is wicked to the core, whose scimitar-wielding minions are constructs of cowardice and brutality, just because the entire lifestyle of this fictive community is portrayed as essentially corrupt at every level, that doesn’t make it an insult to Arabs. They’re not Arabs, at all, a denialist might say; see, they’re called Rahgheds!
Those denialists are talking bollocks. Whether it’s by figuration or representation, the culture such a story is riffing off is still being spat upon with contempt. And given a history of pulp fiction in which Asian culture is all too often painted as a Yellow Peril — with Fu Manchu as the paragon (or nadir) of such demonisation — little wonder that Avatar: The Last Airbender is held in such respect by its fans. The whole worldscape is Asian. The very heroes are Asian. There’s not a shred of demonisation even in the villain.
But the very thing that makes the result of DiMartino’s and Konietzko’s exploration so well-loved points up the difference of problems at play here. Because, wait, isn’t it still “blatantly appropriative”? Clearly, I’d say, we need to understand how a laudable figuration/representation sits in relation to this whole notion of lifestyle theft.
Enculturation, Acculturation, Transculturation, Deculturation
What does it mean to steal a lifestyle? To take up and use, without permission, a lifestyle that belongs to another?
Well, what does it mean to take up and use a lifestyle?
At a base level, what we’re talking about when it comes to taking up and using a lifestyle is enculturation, the learning of lifestyle from one’s own community. Then there’s acculturation, the learning of lifestyle across a border between two communities. This is a little gnarlier, because here we’re talking about a lifestyle that could well be said to belong to another; but note that there’s no sense of absent permission here. Maybe permission is granted. Maybe it’s not required. Let’s say I’m a Scot and you’re a Pole. If I give you a recipe for haggis, and you give me a recipe for bigos, and we go on to cook those on a regular basis, that’s acculturation in action. And those recipes belong to us, right? We’re perfectly entitled to exchange them. It’s not lifestyle theft; it’s just lifestyle sharing.
Except maybe they were family recipes, learned from our mothers, who learned them from their mothers. Does that mean they don’t belong to us as individuals? Even if we’ve put our own twist on them? Do we have to go ask grandma as the Grand Matriarch of Recipes whether it’s OK to pass them on? Is that authority legitimate or, when that recipe is passed down to me, do I have the right to give it to whoever I damn well please? Do I get to give it to my Polish friend regardless of the fact that my grandma objects? Does it matter if she objects because she hates all those “Eastern European immigrants”? Or if she’s simply committed to the Scottishness of this dish, thinks it must remain uniquely Scottish so that being Scottish retains such unique attributes? What if she’s cool with the acculturation, but others aren’t? In the absence of a Great Council of Grand Matriarchs of Recipes invested with decision-making authority, do I have to accept an informal consensus of peers who would deny me the right to decide myself?
These questions are all circling round the core question of cultural appropriation, as I see it: is that notion of lifestyle theft truly legitimate?
To relate it to the case in point, DiMartino and Konietzko turning to Miyazaki for inspiration, learning from him the approaches and styles that make his influence obvious in their work — this can easily be seen as an act of acculturation. It is only one of many, in fact, with Western animation over the last few decades clearly showing a debt to anime. I don’t know any creator, in whatever media, who ever called up another and asked, Do you mind if I’m influenced by you? Is it OK if I take up and use these approaches I’ve gleaned from my appreciation of your work? There is no Great Council of Patriarchs of Anime. If there were even an informal consensus, would that really be authoritative? Can two American animators adopting the approaches of a Japanese animator legitimately be called out for lifestyle theft?
It’s not about the respect they show the cultures they’re figurating, by the way. It’s not about them paying tribute to their influences. If we’re talking about taking and using without permission that which belongs to another, what purpose that something is turned to, good or bad, and whether or not the source of that something is attributed — these are entirely other matters. If a creator pisses on a foreign culture, this matters whether the tools they use to do so are pilfered or not; it’s a different offense. If permission is required to use those tools, a gracious acknowledgement of having nicked them hardly cancels out the transgression of the act.
(Unless maybe, in the ethics of creators, ownership is understood as being on a purely personal level, the community is understood as worldwide, and such non-plagiarising uses across the boundaries of nations and ethnicities are understood as permissible by default… as long as a little nod is given out of good form. In other words, just because you happen to be in the same granfalloon as Creator X doesn’t mean you can deny Creator Y the right to copy Creator X’s approaches just because they’re not. All creators are in an international karass which has its own ethos in such matters.)
No, if respectful use and acknowledgement of debts are solutions, or parts of a solution, to a problem, it’s not one that could be labeled theft. Focusing on them only begs the question of why we’re not focusing on the absence of permission, the ownership issue, the basic criteria that make an act appropriative. It only returns us to the question of whether lifestyle theft is a legitimate charge.
Still, it all gets more gnarly as the acculturation of individuals factors up to the reshaping of communities (and the borders between them) that is transculturation. Because here the large-scale effects of lifestyle sharing play out in the fusion and fission of cultures as a whole. All those individual acts may add up to a profound change. Where before there was your culture and mine, the end-result of mixing it up might be one big ours; or maybe that merged culture will splinter as other acts of lifestyle sharing take place here but not there, there but not here. Such cross-fertilisation and evolution seems inevitable to me, and not essentially a bad thing — I can remember when spaghetti only came in a can, and I’m damn well having proper spaghetti bolognaise for my tea tonight — but I can understand why some are wary of this societal-level lifestyle mutation.
See, it becomes gnarlier still when you look at how power-differentials between communities may mean that this whole process entails the deculturation of one by the other — which is to say cultural annihiliation. Lifestyle destruction. The various native languages of my national culture — Gaelic, Lallans, Doric and Scots English — are spoken less and less. And for me, words like scunner and thrawn carry such meanings that they simply have no equivalents in UK English; they carry a value that will be lost if they die out. And unlike other such tools and techniques that are dying off due to a passive deculturation — simply abandoned by generations that don’t care to keep them going — there’s an extent to which the deculturation here has been active, these native languages discouraged if not outright forbidden in schools, in accordance with policies set in Westminster over the centuries.
And if the Scottish people have been the victim of systematic deculturation as a political strategy on the part of a more powerful culture, that’s nothing in comparison to what’s happened to some. Colonialism isn’t just an academic conceit. Imperialism isn’t just a rallying-call of sophomore poseurs going through a radical phase. Where race enters into it in particular, acculturation has been forced on all too many. People of this ethnicity or that have been driven to it with sticks — literally, if you think of a schoolkid being caned for not speaking the Queen’s English. And where they’ve been drawn toward it by the carrot, when there’s an institutional goal of creating conformity it still comes down to the eradication of a culture, of an ethnic identity.
Lifestyle destruction. Lifestyle elimination. Lifestyle extermination. Part of the reason I’d challenge the notion of lifestyle theft is I think it trivialises an act of erasure better understood as murder than as theft.
Enculturation, acculturation, transculturation, deculturation — if we’re going to adopt poncy academic terms for the learning of lifestyle and what can go wrong with it, I think we do well to use a full toolkit of precisely purposed words rather than swing the monkey wrench of appropriation into use on every nail, screw, rivet and wingnut. Where we talk of appropriation we should, I think, be applying this to the nuts and bolts it’s built to deal with, or else we’re only using this monkey wrench because the Latinate root gives it a nice heft of it in our hand. The precision is the point of such jargon, not the privileged status of Latinate appropriation over Anglo-Saxon theft, not the power one word accrues because of that as a rhetorical bludgeon.
There is good reason then to be concerned with lifestyle sharing. Where does it scale up into lifestyle mutation? Where are the power-differentials between cultures pressuring for lifestyle destruction? But for me Avatar: The Last Airbender points up a weakness in a crude moral dictum against lifestyle theft, one that essentially says DiMartino and Konietzko had no right to pilfer Miyazaki’s approaches, Asia’s heritage. Rather than working as one small step in an ongoing process of erasure, if the outcry against Shyamalan’s racebending is anything to go by, if you look at what is being said by those who care most deeply about it, this example of lifestyle sharing profoundly strengthened the ethnic identity of many Asian-Americans.
That cartoon series was a water-fountain they could drink from, one not poisoned by the bullshit of the Yellow Peril, one with heroes they could identify with. I love that series myself, but as a queer writer thirsting for stories with queer protagonists, knowing how much such stories mean to me, I can imagine exactly how much more it meant to many whose difference lies in ethnicity rather than sexuality, how deeply it replenished other souls, far deeper than it did mine.
Exploring New Sodom
Does that quote at the beginning really hold water in the face of such a work, or is it just too easy, too glib?
It certainly requires some tweaking, I’d say. If I set out to explore the strange culture of this city I call New Sodom, solely on the basis that what I learn will benefit me and my work, is this lifestyle theft in and of itself? Is the act of exploration blatantly appropriative. Well, no. The exploration itself is only travel and observation, and it might well be fruitless. If I walk blindfolded down empty alleyways and return with nothing to show for it, I can hardly be said to have appropriated. If I keep my eyes open and study everything I see, that’s still not appropriation if all I’ve done is cram some sights and sounds into my pointy skull; it’s just learning. A pedantic answer, sure, but with a point: we’re not really talking about the exploration here, nor even about the gleaning of experience, but about the taking and using, the incorporation of my gleanings into my system of tools and techniques, the learning of lifestyle from a community I’m not native to — acculturation.
So, let’s take it further. Let’s say that I arrived in the city of New Sodom at the age of sixteen, a student at the university, living in a small flat in the university district, the Bohemian Quarter. As I had done since childhood, any time I came in to the big city on the airtrain from Nowhere Town, and as I still do today, I hung out at the SF Café in the ghetto of Genre; but now, enthralled by the volcanic glow of halogen streetlights on sandstone, I had a thirst to see more of my new environs. So, at night, I would set out to explore New Sodom, wandering its streets, the neighbourhoods I’d never visited, the neighbourhoods I’d never thought to visit. One night, down by the spacedocks, I got talking with a young street-punk — call him Mouse — who sported a long nail on the pinky finger of one hand, learned from him that this is a common affectation of New Sodomite street-punks. I asked myself a question: if I write a character in a story with that attribute, is this appropriation?
Down in the SF Café, it seems some would answer yes, concerned as they are with the Culture Wars — and not without reason. My answer is an emphatic no. I’m not adopting an element of another culture, not taking it and using it in an act of acculturation. I haven’t grown a long nail on the pinky finger of one hand; I’m simply creating a work of fiction in which a character has that attribute. That’s representation, and while abusive representation is one important weapon in the Culture Wars, it is entirely distinct from abusive acculturation. Forget the pedantry above about exploration. This is where the real crux of the matter lies.
In writing a character — or painting a portrait, drawing a caricature, whatever — an act of representation may become an act of abjection. Yes, this is, I’m afraid, another poncy academic term — from the work of Julia Kristeva, in this case — but it’s a very useful one, I think, nailing a precise mechanism of abuse. Literally abjection means the state of being cast away; in social/psychological terms though, it specifies a particular process by which we — as individuals or communities — may react with a profound revulsion towards that which was once a part of us, maybe even on a basic level still is. Blood and semen, piss and shit are abjected. Social groups may be abjected on the basis of skin colour, sexuality, physique. In the latter case, it is a self-perpetuating feedback loop: the process by which that revulsion marks out a part of us and renders it abject; the use of revulsion to define the very boundaries on which that revulsion rests.
But an example would be better here, right?
In the media of New Sodom then, it is common for the tabloid fucks of Vox News, say, to use that pinky nail as a signifier of criminality. It is represented as having a nefarious purpose. Originally, some journalist will say, it was for better pickpocketing silk handkerchiefs and suchlike. Now, some novelist will say, it’s for scooping up cocaine to snort. But mostly, some character in a radiovision serial will say, it’s to prove you get by without doing the honest work that would break it. Sooner or later, someone will link it to the culture of the Côte de Cuivre, the copper-skinned immigrants from that region having settled in the docklands area and been subject to the systematic disenfranchisement that turned many of their Nth generation sons into street-punks (as we know from the number of copper-skinned, long-pinky-nailed street-punks shot by Clint Westwood in his kinescopic role as Dirty Larry). If one visits the Côte de Cuivre, in fact, one indeed finds young men sporting that long pinky nail — as a decorative affectation invariably combined with a gold stud in the opposite earlobe. In its origins the pinky nail is simply an adornment. In its representation it has become a focus of abjection, a marker of otherness that fuels the prejudice it’s born of.
This is how abjection works through (mis)representation. It latches on to a marker of difference, often a superficial and arbitrary one — a coppery skin tone or an extra-long pinky nail — and turns it into a mechanism of social exclusion. It reconfigures the meaning of that sign by ascribing prejudicial connotations — and even denotations. It reconfigures the very semiotics of society in respect of that sign, so that any who bear that marker of difference become the subjects of an essentially moralistic rejection as transgressions (not just transgressors, but transgressions in and of themself,) of the “normative” social order. We are all abnormal in some respect or other, deviating from the normative, but only some abnormal attributes become the focus of abjection. This is a weapon of the Culture Wars waged by any seeking to define themselves as normative regardless of, say, their freakishly pale skin or aberrantly low rating on the Kinsey Scale.
This is not lifestyle theft. To crowbar it into the discourse of cultural appropriation on the basis that, say, the control of one’s own image is being stolen… this is a sophistry. Worse, it’s a sophistry that requires us to pretend that we own the notions others have of us, which is all too easily dismissed as nonsense — which means the very real impact of abjection is all too easily dismissed with it. To call it lifestyle theft is to obscure a quite distinct tool of the abusive fucks. This is lifestyle slander, defamation, libel. At its worst, when carried out systematically, ideologised and institutionalised, it is lifestyle agitprop. Lifestyle slander is all too often the blood libel used to justify pogroms and ethnic cleansings.
The term Yellow Peril is a cog in the mechanism of one process of abjection. This is the semiotics of society reconfigured in a simple pairing of words. It is the definition of one skin tone as a marker of deviance from the normative. It is the binding of that sign to prejudicial connotations. It makes “yellow” skin a signifier of a dread threat, a menace to Western society as a whole. In the pulps of the past, the tales of Fu Manchu and other such villains, tales of conniving Orientals with nefarious schemes, it stands as a raised flag over lifestyle slander of the cheapest sort, in which a group is abjected, demonised, simply because demons make for a more sensational story. And who cares about the chinks and nips and gooks who suffer the consequences?
What does it mean if, in the same way that “yellow” is bound to “peril” in that phrase, visual and narrative signifiers are bound together in a movie? If, for example, a film’s villains are all dark-skinned in distinction to its white-skinned heroes? How is the semiotics of society reconfigured if a tale in which the three heroes and the antihero/villain are all various shades of non-white — the colour of Chinese, Inuit or Japanese individuals — becomes one in which the three heroes are all white, while the antihero/villain is dark-skinned?
Hold that thought.
Of Difference and Desire
Let’s say that when I was in my early twenties, I began to spot a curious phenomena in the gay bars of New Sodom — long pinky nails worn by those who were clearly not dockland street-punks. I’m pretty sure I can tell you how and why this happened, because I was one of those who picked up the affectation. Hanging out down by the docks with Mouse, I confess, I saw those street-punks through shades tinted with desire. Some were hustlers, in the grifter sense if not the rentboy sense, and all were invested with the appeal of the exotic — not so much for the copper skin, but for the arms bared by sleeveless t-shirts, the skinny ripped jeans, the bleached spiky hair, the single gold stud in one ear. And, yes, the pinky nail. When those pinky nails started appearing in the gay bars of New Sodom, it was clear to me that this was an attempt to take on the attributes of the fetishised hustlers of the docklands, that certain markers of difference had become markers of desire.
This act of acculturation, it is fair to say, is something more in the nature of appropriation. The decorative affectation taken to oneself is certainly a learning of lifestyle — and one that takes place without permission. On an individual level, none of the gays in the bars thought to ask if they were allowed to wear their pinky nails long. On a cultural level, no delegation was sent from the gay village to the docklands to sign a treaty agreeing this in principle. If challenged, I suspect most gays would have been baffled as to who or what legitimate authority existed that might require such supplication.
Acculturation versus representation. It’s important to make clear the distinction here, because the key point is this: that acculturation — the transmission of the pinky nail from (copper, working-class) street-punk culture to (white, middle-class) gay culture — is a quite different process from the (mis)representation that takes place in an act of abjection. Where the latter is categorically hostile, effectively manifesting prejudice in a way that propagates it, fundamentally agitprop, blood libel, the former is… more complex.
In part, I think it’s fair to say, such fetishising attraction is powered by abjection and has to perpetuate it to exist — which is to say, the other must be kept other in order to function as object as desire. And in adopting the attributes of a street-punk, the gay man might well be said to be bolstering the semiotics of exoticism and transgression by (re)presenting the stereotype in their style. If they reinforce the sense of criminality in playing on the allure of the outlaw, this is all well and good in the war effort of the would-be normative. Funny enough, given the topic at hand, the general term for such fetishising exoticism is Orientalism.
But in part, I think it’s also fair to say, (re)presenting the self in the attributes of the other evidences a desire to become the object of desire, a desire for a union of self and other that abolishes the distinction, a striving to invert abjection. If the ultimate result of that acculturation is not an inversion of abjection, coding desire rather than disgust into the marker of difference, it is at very least a perversion of it, one that ultimately can only fray and blur the boundaries by breaking the binding of the abject and one of the markers of difference on which their abjection rests. The binding of the pinky nail, as signifier, to a sense of criminality is challenged where it might equally well indicate sexuality.
If it is problematic, in fact, is it the acculturation or the fetishisation that’s the problem? Is adopting that long pinky nail wrong as an act of lifestyle theft or is it really the dubious attitude that’s problematic, the fixation that sees only the glamour of a class of individuals, not the individuals themselves? The more fundamental problem seems to me that glamour, which is only a… permutation emerging where the misrepresentation is developed down a certain type of path, from one stereotype loaded with fear and hate to another charged with desire — but still in service to the normative.
The real problem, it seems to me, is of automatically casting a whole class of people as second class citizens in one’s own personal narrative, supporting characters. Sidekicks or sex objects, it’s about being boxed into a compartment set aside for you, a seat at the back of the bus. Like the role Mouse plays in this figuration, an exotic copper-skinned other there to serve a narrative centred on the white-skinned protagonist, yours truly.
(In case you haven’t already spotted it, by the way, Mouse is an act of appropriation of sorts, a set of attributes (name included) lifted straight from Delany’s Nova. Gotta acknowledge my debts, after all. I hope I’m putting my version of his character to good use. Given Delany’s ethnicity, is this cultural appropriation? Or given his sexuality, do he and I share a “gay culture” that makes it OK? Does it matter that the long pinky nail on Delany’s Mouse has its origins in an actual real world culture that’s not his? Me, I think it matters more that my Mouse is a walk-on while Delany’s is at the very heart of his story from beginning to end.)
The Absence of the Abject
There’s a more subtle knock-on of abjection, you see — a sort of fall-out of this weapon in the Culture Wars, which can itself become a weapon. Abjection doesn’t just lead to more misrepresentation in the same malicious manner. Once the abject has been excluded, defined as other, it ceases to truly belong within representations of the community as a whole. Abjection leads to absence, to non-representation. Audiences will not identify with the abject, the makers in the media assume — forgetting of course that the abject is the audience as much as anyone, because for all their abjection they remain, on a basic level, a part of us every bit as much as the normative. How could the audience identify? the makers ask. How could the normative audience identify with those who define their identity by standing for its opposite?
So characters are written as normative by default and the abject suffers erasure. In the media of New Sodom, actors with copper skin get passed over in casting calls for central characters, because protagonists default to normative in the imagination even when this is not specified. Even in a child’s radiovision cartoon that systematically develops its worldscape from the rich cultural tapestry that is the Côte de Cuivre — from the whole continent that Copper Coast is only one small part of — even when that cartoon presents every single character, from the most central to the most subsidiary, as copper-skinned, the live-action kinescope adaptation, The Last Aetherbender, whitewashes its protagonists leaving only the villain in something approximating his original hue. Because, of course, the one standard exemption to the principle of non-representation of the abject is the misrepresentation of the abject as the abject — the hated enemy, the reviled other.
Yes, I’m mixing up my figuration of New Sodom with my representation of reality. You understand that even in the fabricated worldscape, I’m addressing the reality though, right?
But the Culture Wars are not a one way process, or they would not be wars. If New Sodom is not a utopia, but rather a city striving for utopia and always already descending into dystopia, it is, as the city of the queer, a culture predicated upon the restoration of the abject. Founded by those who survived their abjection in the Bible — their sexuality made a signifier of depravity in that ancient act of lifestyle agitprop — it is a city of exiles sworn to welcome all outcasts, one that’s hit on a sneaky way, we think, of frustrating the hostilities of the self-professed normative by defining itself as the community of others. Which is to say any marker of difference used to render one abject is what makes one a citizen of New Sodom. So, even as the normative carry out their abjection, (and we are all normative in some way and so prone to do this,) the culture is in a constant drive to counteract this.
As a citizen of New Sodom one cannot help but identify with those who define the normative by standing for its opposite. We all do in one way or another. As a citizen of New Sodom, when those actors get passed over, when that kinescope adaptation gets whitewashed, one is furious with frustration. If the media is fucked-up in this way, that may only make the creators more determined to create works where this sort of shit don’t play. So some creators might well set out deliberately to craft a work in which the characters are non-normative — and not non-normative in the way those creators are. They might set out to write a child’s radiovision cartoon, for example, in which all the characters are from the Copper Coast, even though they themselves are not.
Hell, because they are citizens of New Sodom, because they automatically identify with any other citizen of New Sodom, they may do this simply because it doesn’t occur to them that there’s a fucking issue.
What, audiences can’t identify with a copper-skinned protagonist, you think? Like, you can’t identify with Ron Weasley because he’s a ginge? Are you fucking shitting me?
Still, if that counteracting drive on the part of creators leads to the odd radiovision cartoon here or there, the prejudice fights back. Even as the abject strive to reclaim their place within the community, as they pressure for a return into the fold, the best they can hope for at first is selective representation. Since the one standard exemption to non-representation is the misrepresentation that sets the abject as the enemy, rather than a simple abolition of the exclusion, what we see is a vast redemption narrative which takes that core misrepresentation at its root, but develops it, branching into a host of permutations that are not wholly negative but… negotiated compromises, and as such tightly bound.
So, in The Last Aetherbender, the dark-skinned villain is a bit more complex than your average outright blackguard, something of an antihero, in fact, bound for redemption if the sequel follows the narrative of the cartoon. If the sequel actually gets made, given the reviews.
So, in other works on the screens of New Sodom, we see the abject sneaking into supporting roles, but always roles of certain shapes. The copper-skinned street-punk becomes the swaggeringly hip informer who helps Harsky and Stutch with their crime-fighting… though he’s always really looking out for himself. He becomes the rookie cop, the kid from the slums who has hauled himself out of the rookery of his native culture to become sidekick to T.J. Hustler. He becomes the police captain whose angry authoritarian bluster, as he tells the white hero he has 24 hours to solve the case, inherits from the macho aggression of the gangster.
Sadly, it is all too easy for the process to grind to a halt at this point, in a set of stereotypes, a scattering of stock roles.
This offers one simple principle in “writing the other,” by the way. To understand the process of abjection is to understand the specific markers of difference, how the semiotics of society have been reconfigured around that sign, how the stereotypes arise as permutations. To do this is to understand how individuals of an abjected group are expected to fit those stock roles, to understand some of what they may be dealing with on a day-to-day basis, and to understand that it is different for each group because each has a different marker, a different semiotics, a different set of stereotypes. There is no lumpen thing called Prejudice that wears the same face to all of us, but a process of abjection that plays out uniquely for each abject.
I say this not to downplay the difference, the uniqueness of each experience, but because I see the absence of the abject as inexcusable, complicity justified by a cowardly “but I might get it wrong” as a cop-out: it’s not that fucking difficult. Someone will always say you got it wrong. I’ve seen some gay writers or readers criticising Richard Morgan’s gay protagonist, Ringil in The Steel Remains, saying it doesn’t ring true to them. I think he got it spot-on. Me, I may have gotten it wrong with Seven and Eli, the black characters in “Escape from Hell!” because I’m deliberately trying to address abjection via stock roles, to speak of how expectations can bind us. I may have gotten it wrong for any number of readers and pissed them the fuck off, but I’d rather that than be too chickenshit to try.
A Second Class Citizen in the Republic of Art
As long as this selective representation is the case, the abject remains at best a second class citizen in the Republic of Art. Developing their own art, of course, those of whatever abjected social group will represent themselves in roles that aren’t bounded by those stereotypes, but all too often these works will be ghettoised into genres defined as by and for the abject alone.
Stepping out of New Sodom for a second, back into our world, we have Gay Cinema, Black Fiction. And what happens if a work could equally well be situated in another genre — High School Movie or Action/Adventure? Smack-dab in the centre of the mainstream in genre terms, we have a Romantic Comedy called “Falling for Grace,” co-written and directed by and starring Fay Ann Lee, that was branded as unsellable as a Romantic Comedy because it had an Asian-American lead. A pure-bred John Hughesian High School Movie like The Curiosity of Chance has to be filmed on a micro-budget in Belgium and played on the queer cinema festival circuit because it has a gay kid as the central character. When it comes to these most popular of genres, you see, the Asians and gays are only allowed to inhabit the stock roles set aside for them in this system of selective representation. They couldn’t be heroes in an Action/Adventure blockbuster. Normativity forbid!
Not that this played any part in the casting calls for Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, mind, casting calls that invited, to audition for the parts of the main characters, actors who identified as “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.”
Caucasian. Or, you know, any other ethnicity. I guess.
The name for this process whereby the normative is allowed here in these protagonist positions, in these seats at the front of the bus, while the abject is only allowed there in those second class roles, in those seats at the back of the bus — the name for that process is segregation. It’s segregation via the media — segregation in the works themselves and segregation in the audiences.
Blood libel and segregation. These are the effects of abjection via the arts, of lifestyle slander in figuration or representation. Personally, I find these a much deeper concern than a notion of lifestyle theft that I’m not sure is even legitimate, that often seems to crumble under examination to an underlying concern with lifestyle destruction — which comes from lifestyle sharing via lifestyle mutation, may be deliberate and strategic or simply institutionalised, and strikes me as deeply important… but tangential to an argument over whether a community as whole has the ownership required to render an unpermitted usage theft.
The forced acculturation of individuals in colonial territories is nothing to dismiss. Children made to speak English in schools instead of their native language, the way this scales up to a systematic transculturation — all of this plays out as a deliberate deculturation, a gradual elimination of that native language. Think of immigrants entering a community, assigned citizenship tests, required to pledge allegiance, to fit in. Lifestyle imposition and lifestyle annihilation. And there is the deculturation that takes place where acculturation is undergone without such pressure, as individuals assimilate actively or passively, making a conscious effort or simply surrendering to the sway of their environs. Or might we see another pressure at play there, a covert force in the shape of abjection? It seems to me, a steady diet of “Yellow Peril” narratives might well have a certain effect on how comfortable Asian-Americans feel being Asian-Americans rather than just Americans. As defined by WASPs.
I’m undecided on the notion of lifestyle theft, I admit, on the label cultural appropriation as it parses to a meaning for me. If I were Robert Burns, whose poetry has become a core aspect of Scottish culture, with all manner of ritual accreted around Burns Night celebrations, would I accept an argument that an Englishman who hosts a Burns Night is guilty of transgression? Would I accept that claim of exclusive ownership at a community level? I think I’d be inclined to tell anyone making that argument where to get off. Just being Scottish however many hundred years later doesn’t give you a say over who gets to do what with my work, cause you had fuck all to do with creating that work, mate, and I don’t give a fuck where you were born. Oh, I give a fuck about lifestyle destruction, but whether an Englishman hosting a Duncan Night might play a part in that is a whole other question than whether the Scottish people are my literary executors in perpetuity. And what I really give a fuck about is the process of abjection. The blood libel and the segregation.
Ultimately, as I see it, the cartoon series of Avatar: The Last Airbender is a work that functions as a step taken against blood libel and segregation. Shyamalan’s movie manifests the same old “swarthy villain” trope, albeit with a hint of that redemption narrative, and the same old exclusion of people of colour from protagonist status. It is blood libel and segregation.
And the one is evidence that the other didn’t have to be that way. That’s the most frustrating thing about the whole sorry situation. The cartoon series points us to the movie that could have been made, the one that cast actors of at least vaguely appropriate ethnicities, the one that didn’t whitewash, that didn’t racebend, the one where it was entirely insignificant that the antihero/villain was played by Dev Patel because all the main characters were people of colour, where Hollywood showed some balls for once by grabbing a golden opportunity to practice integration in the media, with actors of non-normative ethnicities playing the fucking ass-kicking heroes rather than subsidiary characters in service to the whiter-than-white protagonists. That’s what M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender could have been, and the success of the original cartoon only rams home how few of us who do happen to be white would actually give a flying fuck that the protagonists — shock horror! — weren’t our skin colour. Shit, as if those idiots who would care even deserve a moment of consideration.
No, that’s what could have been, and if you don’t think it matters that it wasn’t… well, I guess you’ve never been turned away from the water fountain of a narrative, pointed at one set aside for your kind. And I guess you’ve never drunk from the water fountain of a narrative and tasted the poison in it, the fear and hatred of abjection. Hell, it’s partly the reality of such obliviousness that makes the movie that could have been matter so much to those of us who do care.
And that’s where the title of this column comes from — the movie that could have been, the one I would have gone to seen, the one I might now be fucking celebrating for the very reasons I’m slamming the reality.
That’s The Lost Airbender.
– originally published 7/3/2010
Hal Duncan is a sodomitic Scots smoker who staggered drunkenly into the SF Café in 2005 with his debut, VELLUM, and now has various novels, novellas, short stories, poems and essays circling in print or the aether. Further scribblings and rantings can be found at www.halduncan.com.