I have in earlier entries addressed the ideas of Walter Benjamin, and I have also explored one of my principal academic interests: cultural appropriation. However, I have managed to avoid fully exploring the intersection of reproduction (in Benjamin’s sense specifically) and appropriation (in a more general cultural sense). It is doubtless that these two concepts do indeed have some conceptual overlap, and so I will attempt to explore that space.
Chelsea Ousey’s blog entry I’m Confused… Is this Insulting? The Recreations of Bollywood in Popular Media gives an excellent synthesis of the problems of cultural imitation (and consequent appropriation) in one mass-media instance. A North American TV show featured a segment where the dancers did a “Bollywood” piece (not “Bollywood-style” or “Bollywood-inspired”). Chelsea explains in her blog that “The general consensus was that the dance and costumes were insulting to Indian culture… The performance was criticized for being a “tourist Bollywood,” too tainted by Western influence.” Power imbalances aside, this is an instance of blatant, unoriginal appropriation, which is very distanced from its source.
Jeff Hart, analyzing the Pussy Cat Dolls’ reinterpretation of Jai Ho in his blog, says that
Firstly, the entire music video – the mock subway and Indian market – has most likely been filmed in an Interscope Records warehouse in Los Angeles. Thus, the aura is altered as I recognize this shift in subject position and context. Secondly, the ‘covert’ insertion of American electronic companies Nokia and Beats headphones into the video manipulates our senses dial in on these commodities.
This is an excellent jumping off point; from this image we can see Benjamin’s concept of aura (or lack thereof) intersecting with the idea of blatant cultural appropriation. Although it seemed to me at first that the two concepts had little to lend one another, I think that we can safely say that where there is problematic cultural appropriation, there is also a diminished aura. This argument is based on the idea that a piece like the Pussycat Dolls’ does not create something new, but instead pulls an “Indian” or “Bollywood” costume over the same (tired, redundantly reproduced) routine of hyper-sexualized consumerism. There is nothing new or original here, and in this way it lacks an aura. A favourite quote from another entry is useful again here: “why try to be original, when you can be exotic?” I think it can be argued that this video shows a lack of originality, and in the same way, a lack of aura.
Maira (1969) utilizes the ideas of Appadurai in a way very relevant to the argument being made by Chelsea, Jeff, and myself:
…Arjun Appadurai argues that when objects are “diverted” from the path they customarily follow in their “social lives” as commodities, this is a “sign of creativity or crisis, whether aesthetic or economic,” and one carrying a “risky or morally ambiguous aura”; it is in this sense that I wish to link cultural and material consumption with the politics of cultural production. (1969:332)
What Appadurai describes is the uncertain space in which cultural remediation occurs. As a precedent to considering the wider implications and context in each scenario, we can consider the degree of originality, (is this something new or an unoriginal reproduction?) or the aura, of what we are witnessing.
Maira, Sunanaina. Henna and Hip Hop: The Politics of Cultural Production and the Work of Cultural Studies
Jeff Hart’s Blog. Process Reproduction – The Pussycat Dolls Analyzed. http://jeffalexanderhart.blogspot.com/. Accessed March 31st, 2011.
Media and its Discontents. I’m Confused… Is this Insulting? The Recreations of Bollywood in Popular Media http://couseymedia.blogspot.com/. Accessed March 31st, 2011.