Thursday, April 11, 2019

“[The] effort is to conserve a cultural environment within which it might be possible for questions to arise and personal commitment to root and collective order to flower.” Henry Glassie. 963 (below) 

A distinguished and admired musical colleague and friend--an Aussie of Irish ancestry who plays Irish traditional music on Hindustani sarod--has made a central career goal his reclamation of the word “mongrel” from its connotations of the “debased” and “impure”: vile adjectives, these, derived from late nineteenth century empiricism, and now permanently stained by their associations with racism, ethnocentrism, and genocide (cultural or physical).[1] To his credit, Matthew wears the label “mongrel” proudly, reclaiming its vitality, adaptability, and capacity for empowering cross-fertilization, recognizing that words themselves, like city streets or artistic idioms, can be the battle-space within which to wrest subaltern identity away from the dominant-culture forces which would seek to silence, erase, or steal it. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and privilege are an inextricable and not-to-be-avoided part of the history of culture in the west, and appropriation and caricature, by the privileged of the outward appearance of the subaltern, have given us blackface, yellowface, and the dominant-culture masking which borrows the externalities—the feathers, costume, makeup, and/or cultural expressions—of the subaltern, as plumage for a kind of privileged cosplay.

This is never okay. If those, like myself, whose experience is grounded in white, male, CIS, or middle-class privilege (or all of these), engage in any way with subaltern cultural expression, even if, or especially if, we do it from love and respect, than we will and should have to grapple with the very history which has permitted us to perform such appropriation. If I have to hold my tongue under accusations of appropriation, carpet-bagging, white-boyism, or any of the other suite of exploitation which for over 500 years has taken from the subaltern and given to people like me, then I should consider that to be my most miniscule start at reparations that recognize the colonial history which, however reluctantly, we inherit.

That said:

Like my friend Matthew, I also seek to contest a word: the “tribal”: a word whose historical usage has too often connoted, on the one hand, the “primitive” and “picturesque,” and, on the other, the “instinctive” and “intuitive,” implicitly lacking intention, intellect, or agency. Those adjectives carry, and should be recognized to carry, equivalently problematic connotations. Too often, people from my kind of social/racial/economic/gender background have used words like “tribal” as conveniently-appropriative costuming—a way of “playing at” the more picturesque and evocative elements of subaltern identity, absent the disenfranchisement and suffering inherent within that identity and out of which the cultural expressions arise. It’s why, esteemed dance and music friends’ usages to the contrary, I should not and will not describe a music, or a dance expression, as “tribal”—because of the injustice inherent in just such locutions.

On the other hand:

Like my friend Matthew, I seek to reclaim the word: “tribal.” Following in an intellectual heritage of respect, engagement, and willingness to learn from subaltern cultures, which I found inherent for example in works like Gary Snyder’s “Why Tribe?”, Nanao Sakaki’s The Tribe, and Henry Glassie’s work with indigenous-artist teachers worldwide, I want, for myself and my students, the experience of opening to learning from the tribal.[2] I want us to approach these indigenous expressions, emerging from the thoughtful wisdom of people who live close to the earth, to the cycle of the seasons, and to one another’s shared needs, goals, and art forms, with the humility of a pupil: a receptivity and openness to what these peoples, their traditions, and their cultural expressions can teach us about how to live. There are modes of wisdom, sanity, and sustainable values inherent in such subaltern and marginalized societies—acceptance, tolerance, a sense of place and time, respect for living beings of all genus and species—which, I believe, we privileged classes in the global post-industrial West desperately need to recover, if it is not already too late. And, given the 500- (or 1500-) year history of the west’s colonialization, exploitation, appropriation, and dehumanization of subaltern, indigenous, and/or marginalized peoples and cultures, we ought to do it with some humility. We need what the tribes can teach us. We should pay our respects, acknowledge our sins, shut up, and learn.

But for me it also can’t stop there: as a scholar and a creative artist, and a teacher of these skills to young people, I have an ethical (and practical) obligation to situate such recovery, such openness to learning from the subaltern, within the wider patterns of history and discourse that lead to subalternity in the first place. I have to impart to my students and audience, not only a sense of humility and receptivity to subaltern wisdom, but also an active and activist response to the injustices that have made such marginalization happen. I therefore have a responsibility to contest recurrent patterns of exploitation and appropriation, most particularly—though by no means exclusively—when I and my students and people like us have directly benefited from them. To “interrogate one’s own privilege,” in the world of scholarship and creative artistry, it seems to me, means as well to contest injustice, even at the risk of discomfort, opposition, or penalty. We privileged types need to have some skin the game.

So, when I say, of my ensembles and Institute and circle of scholarly and creative comrades,

“It’s kind of a tribe: that’s kind of the point,”

I mean, less aphoristically,

“We aspire to the wisdom, integrity, rootedness, placedness, kindness, courage, compassion, willingness that the best of many wisdom traditions have found in common. We aspire to shut up and learn.”

That is my own, lifelong response to the question, “Why ‘Tribe’?”


[2]See Gary Snyder (1969) "Why Tribe?," in Earth House Hold (New York: New Directions); Snyder’s discussion of Sakaki’s intentional communities, in The Gary Snyder Reader (1999) (Counterpoint); Henry Glassie, "The Practice and Purpose of History," The Journal of American History 81/3 The Practice of American History: A Special issue (Dec 1994), 961-68.