“We feel and act about certain things that are ours very much as we feel and act about ourselves.  Our fame, our children, the work of our hands, may be as dear to us as our bodies, and arouse the same feelings and the same acts of reprisal if attacked.”

William James,  Principles of Psychology (1890)

Although William James was writing a hundred years ago, his words capture the outrage that people express when they believe that their food has been appropriated.

As an example, consider the question “Who Owns Southern Food?” (where “food” refers to the cuisine of the American South) and the fervor with which it is addressed, as in the articles here and here.

Yet “Who Owns Southern Food?” might seem an odd question if you haven’t been following American food politics. What’s owning got to do with food? You might own a dairy farm, perhaps, or a pantry full of groceries, but a whole cuisine? What’s going on? A whole lot, it turns out.

Property (along with power and memory or heritage) recurs time and again in the articles coming fast and furious about appropriation.

Property, power, and memory are issues that have been on my intellectual to-do list for ages, so now’s the perfect time to try to get a bit clearer about them.  It turns out that my earlier optimism that I could develop answers that satisfied me, even if no one else, in just three or four blog posts was totally overblown.

Just on property, I’m drafting four posts: “Owning Land and Bodies;” “Owning Knowledge;” “Owning Things Made in a Certain Place;” and “Owning Culture.”

There’s no avoiding the legal literature.  Laws are not everything about ownership, as William James makes clear, but they are where practices are tested, established, and changed.

Ownership is central to all the cultural appropriation debates not just the debate about culinary appropriation in the American South. The kind of ownership at stake, however, depends on the particular group and its history.

For convenience, I am going to classify the groups protesting culinary appropriation into four rough categories.

Indigenous peoples worldwide. They tend to be most concerned about ownership of land, and about how their history and culture (cultural property) are represented (or branded).

Peoples in former white colonies, particularly those who were lower in the social scale in those colonies. Migrants, often from those colonies, now in wealthy countries. These two groups also tend to be vexed by how their cultural property (cuisine) is treated. They are not so concerned about ownership of land.

African Americans, whose long history of deprivation of ownership of body, land, intellectual, and cultural property, followed by promises, all too often broken, of access, bring that entire record to many aspects of food, including cultural property (cuisine), intellectual property (trademarks and copyright) and land.

This, the preceding posts, and the ones to follow are works in progress and subject to correction as I learn more.


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