Culture and its uses


I thought I had a brilliant insight into cultural appropriation yesterday after Minicon. But Patrick says it is not brilliant and not an insight. Ah well.

The idea seems mighty fuzzy this morning. The political point about cultural appropriation — made on many con panels — is a good one. One should not go in like a band of Vikings and misappropriate other people’s cultures; though I have to say it worked well for my Viking ancestors and for later generations of Icelanders who borrowed their writing and grammar from the Anglo-Saxons and their medieval and modern cultures (in good part) from mainland Europe. But sorting out cultural appropriation from cultural assimilation, cultural diffusion and cultural borrowing can be difficult.

And there is also the question of what is a culture? I had a moment of blazing insight yesterday in which culture — at least my cultural identity — seemed to be a construct. That I made up who I am out of bits and pieces of different cultures available to me when I was young. I don’t know how common this experience is. Fairly common in fandom, I suspect. In so far as the US is still an immigrant culture, it must be common. In so far as the world is full of rapid change and the fluid exchange of cultural information, it must be common for many people. When you are given a choice among cultures, then who you are begins to be a matter of decision, not inheritance. All of this is pretty obvious. But I think it’s important to not think about cultures as separate and unchanging. In reality, they are all happily exchanging information like microbes exchanging genes.

The Icelanders paid back a little for their attacks on British culture in the early middle ages. Per Wikipedia, “Grímur Jónsson Thorkelín (1752-1829) was an Icelandic -Danish scholar, who became the National Archivist of Denmark and Professor of Antiquities at Copenhagen University.In 1786 he travelled to England in order to search for documents relating to medieval Danish-English contacts. In 1787 he hired British Museum employee James Matthews to transcribe the sole extant manuscript of the Old English epic poem Beowulf and made another copy himself. Under a commission from the Danish government, Thorkelin had prepared Beowulf for publication by 1807. Unfortunately during the Battle of Copenhagen (1807) his house was burned, and the manuscript of his edition (the work of 20 years) was lost. The two transcripts survived, however, and Thorkelin began all over again. The poem was eventually published in 1815… The Thorkelín transcriptions are now an important textual source for Beowulf, as the original manuscript’s margins have suffered from deterioration during the 19th and 20th centuries. His early copies provide a record in many areas where the text would otherwise be lost forever.”

This thinking may be useful, because I’m currently writing about a young hwarhath man who is trying to become his own person in a very rigid society. There may be good arguments for building your own cultural identity. The culture around me when I was a kid was the white bread Midwest of the 1950s, the era of the Cold War and Joe McCarthy. I did not want to assimilate into that. I remember the horror I felt at the options available for women. I didn’t want to be a wife and mother. I wanted to be a writer and maybe a space cadet.