What Makes Us and What We Make: Kwame Anthony Appiah on the Mutability of Identity and the Limiting Lens of Cultural Appropriation
By Maria Popova
“A person’s identity,” Amin Maalouf wrote in his superb investigation of what he termed “the genes of the soul,” “is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” A century before him, Whitman bellowed his hymnal affirmation of this living pattern: “There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal,” he wrote. “This is the thought of identity.”
And yet this is precisely what makes identity not eternal but transient: It is a thought. Existential ephemera. We are hardly even identical to ourselves, moment to moment, season of being to season of being. For this reason, I find identity to be the least interesting aspect of personality and the least imaginative byproduct of consciousness. At the same time, its interaction of the realities within and the realities without — that exoskeleton of the self we call culture — is one of the most interesting aspects of being human, and one of the most challenging. What we make of that challenge — whether we turn its inherent frictions into a creative force or into kindling for arson — is the making of our character and the making of our world.
That is what Kwame Anthony Appiah explores in The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity (public library) — an uncommonly perceptive and sensitive book about the nested nature of belonging, punctuated by poetry, with the appropriately nested sub-subtitle “Creed, Country, Colour, Class, Culture.”
Our cultural inheritances, Appiah observes again and again from these five angles, are constantly being interpreted and reinterpreted, nowhere more clearly than in religion:
Our ancestors are powerful, though not in the ways the fundamentalists imagine. For none of us creates the world we inhabit from scratch; none of us crafts our values and commitments save in dialogue with the past. Dialogue is not determinism, however. Once you think of creedal identities in terms of mutable practices and communities rather than sets of immutable beliefs, religion becomes more verb than noun: the identity is revealed as an activity, not a thing. And it’s the nature of activities to bring change.
In the ethical realm — whether civic or religious — we have to recognize that one day we, too, shall be ancestors. We do not merely follow traditions; we create them.
He offers a thought experiment to illustrate that “interpretation itself is a practice”:
Imagine that we sent the Torah and the Talmud to some utterly remote Amazonian tribe and persuaded its members to create a religion based upon its commandments. Would it look like rabbinic Judaism? That seems unlikely. What if they took to heart the parts about genocidal slaughter and passed over the parts about charity? Or simply read everything in wildly unfamiliar ways? We shouldn’t be surprised whatever the outcome. It would be like sending aliens a violin and learning that they used it as a percussion instrument, or a measuring device, or a surface on which to carve love poems.
This interpretive quality of scripture is something it shares with evolution — only by reading the demands of the environment did nature continually rewrite the genetic code of the organism to better adapt it for life. Appiah shines a sidewise gleam on this parallel in his interpretation of interpretation:
If interpretation is a practice, we should bear in mind that practice changes over time, sometimes slowly, sometimes swiftly; and that changed practice can lead to changed belief. Scriptural passages can get new readings. If they can’t adapt, they’re often abandoned… If scriptures were not subject to interpretation — and thus to reinterpretation — they wouldn’t continue to guide people over long centuries. When it comes to their survival, their openness is not a bug but a feature.
Identity survives through change — indeed… it survives only through change.
A similar mutability scores the history of race. With an eye to the troubled cultural heritage of trying to enlist science in reckoning with social realities — which invariably bleeds into pseudoscience — he writes:
One illustrious discipline after another was recruited to give content to color… What the new understanding of genetics has made clear is that the old picture of race conflated questions of biology and questions of culture. It wanted to explain every difference between groups in terms of an underlying racial essence, inherited by each generation from the one before. Nowadays, it is clear that one of the most distinctive marks of our species is that our inheritance is both biological and cultural. Each generation of human beings in a particular society can build on what was learned by the ones before; by contrast, among our great ape cousins, there is little cultural inheritance, and in most other organisms there is almost none. What makes us the wise species — sapiens, remember, is the Latin for “wise” — is that our genes make brains that allow us to pick up things from one another that are not in our genes.
What lovely affirmation of Maalouf’s generation-old notion of identity as “the genes of the soul.”
To me, the most heartening portion of Appiah’s book is the systematic elegance of reason with which he demonstrates how the real assault on culture is not the practice of cultural appropriation but the notion of cultural appropriation — a blamethirsty notion I find to be a particularly malignant metastasis of American propertarianism. He writes:
All cultural practices and objects are mobile; they like to spread, and almost all are themselves creations of intermixture.
The real problem isn’t that it’s difficult to decide who owns culture; it’s that the very idea of ownership is the wrong model. The Copyright Clause of the United States Constitution supplies a plausible reason for creating ownership of words and ideas: “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” But the arts progressed perfectly well in the world’s traditional cultures without these protections; and the traditional products and practices of a group — its songs and stories, even its secrets — are not best understood as its property, or made more useful by being tethered to their putative origins.
He offers an illustrative example of how policing the remixing of culture kills the very soul of creativity and keeps capitalist power structures in place:
For centuries, the people on the Venetian island of Murano made a living because glassmakers there perfected their useful art. Their beads, with multicolored filaments, some made of gold, were among the artistic wonders of the world. To keep their commercial advantage, the Venetian state forbade glassmakers from leaving with their secrets; the penalty for revealing them to outsiders was death. Good for Murano and its profits: bad for everyone else. (As it happens, lots of the skilled artisans escaped anyway and brought their knowledge to a wider European world.) Venetian beads were already being imported into the Gold Coast by the turn of the seventeenth century, arriving across the Sahara, where they had been an important part of the trade on which the empire of Mali had risen to commercial success centuries earlier. Crushed and sintered to make new beads, they developed into the distinctive bodom you still see today in Ghana, beads my mother and my stepgrandmother collected and made into bracelets and necklaces. What sorts of progress would have been advanced by insisting that the Venetians owned the idea of glass beads, and policing their claim? Unfortunately, the vigorous lobbying of huge corporations has made the idea of intellectual property go imperial; it seems to have conquered the world. To accept the notion of cultural appropriation is to buy into the regime they favor, where corporate entities acting as cultural guardians “own” a treasury of IP, extracting a toll when they allow others to make use of it.
Those who parse these transgressions in terms of ownership have accepted a commercial system that’s alien to the traditions they aim to protect. They have allowed one modern regime of property to appropriate them.
Larger than identity, larger than commerce, is the atmosphere we breathe in: culture, which Appiah devotedly illuminates as our ground for connection rather than division. Nearly a century after the visionary Ruth Benedict wrested the term culture from the technical terminology of plant cultivation and chemistry to give it its modern meaning and observed in her epoch-making book Patters of Culture that “the life-history of the individual is first and foremost an accommodation to the patterns and standards traditionally handed down in his community,” Appiah writes:
Culture isn’t a box to be checked on the questionnaire of humanity; it’s a process you join, in living a life with others.
Where this leaves us is a place of both greater freedom and greater responsibility — to ourselves and to each other, evocative of Simone Weil’s nuanced reflection on the relationship between our rights and our responsibilities. Appiah writes:
There is a liberal fantasy in which identities are merely chosen, so we are all free to be what we choose to be. But identities without demands would be useless to us. Identities work only because, once they get their grip on us, they command us, speaking to us as an inner voice; and because others, seeing who they think we are, call on us, too. If you do not care for the shapes your identities have taken, you cannot simply refuse them; they are not yours alone. You have to work with others inside and outside the labeled group in order to reframe them so they fit you better; and you can do that collective work only if you recognize that the results must serve others as well.
Social identities connect the small scale where we live our lives alongside our kith and kin with larger movements, causes, and concerns. They can make a wider world intelligible, alive, and urgent. They can expand our horizons to communities larger than the ones we personally inhabit. And our lives must make sense at the largest of all scales as well. We are denizens of an age in which our actions, in the realm of ideology as in the realm of technology, increasingly have global effects. When it comes to the compass of our concern and compassion, humanity as a whole is not too broad a horizon.
For a very different lens on the many paradoxes of identity, complement The Lies that Bind with quantum pioneer Erwin Schrödinger on the atom and the doctrine of identity, then revisit Simone de Beauvoir on how chance and choice converge to make us who we are, Hermann Melville on the mystery of what makes us ourselves, and this lyrical illustrated meditation on otherness and belonging.
Published August 20, 2022