barry_king (barry_king) wrote,

And What Is Good, Phaedrus? And What is Not Good? Need We Ask Anyone to Know These Things?

Musing on cultural appropriation. Here's a very good example, a series of TV lectures for KQED San Francisco. Alan Watts, in his time, used the teaching of "Oriental Philosophy", in which case he meant his own interpretation of certain schools of East Asian thought and practice, to introduce "The West" by which he meant his own WASPy sort of people, to ideas that, at the time, had a great deal of appeal.

It was a time of extreme anxiety in the U.S., where, like today, people were looking for enemies under the bed and expecting Nuclear Conflagration at any time. These TV shows were recorded Before: The Cuban Missile Crisis, Martin Luther King's march on Alabama, the Birth Control Pill (just barely), psychadelic drug culture, and all the associated events that were associated with the counterculture of the Sixties. He was doing this in the centre of a Western School philosophy in finally pinning down the nature of experience (in vast volumes that were to thinking what the mummified corpse is to the living man).

What's wonderful about them is not that he was point-of-fact accurate (he's better than some, like Rexroth, but oversimplifies far too many things) or gave proper context to the concepts he was talking about (thousands of years of variation over history are entirely absent from his discussions), but that he uses a Western craving for reductionism combined with an Eastern appreciation for the indefinability of the Numinous. (see, I'm doing that cultural oversimplification right there, just trying to talk about this!)

In that, though, I think he came up with a hybrid philosophy that was at the same time attractively simple and incredibly subversive.

I like to think of him as one of America's great philosophers, in the same way that Leonard Cohen is one of its great poets (never mind that niether of them were born in the U.S., it's where you hang your hat that counts). He just chose to use the media at hand to do what Philosophers should do: allow life to continue by supplanting the dross of the past.

So, that's my challenge to the question of cultural appropriation: When you fail to subvert your own culture when appropriating another, you are performing cultural appropriation, and deserve to be called out on it. If you don't, you are performing synthesis, and in so doing, allowing both to continue in a new direction.

But take a look for yourself—If you only have half an hour, take a look at the first one, "Man and Nature":

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