Do I even deserve this? To come back, after all this time away, and write a post about Miley Cyrus? Don't I have to earn it a little, perhaps with a resume of the Syrian situation and the threat of impending war, before indulging trivial nonsense? Well, look, I'm doing it anyway. Deal with it. Besides, I will write about Syria shortly. And anyway, this isn't really about Miley Cyrus, but about the way otherwise trivial cultural moments become Rorschach tests for all and sundry.
So, a few points about Miley Cyrus.
1) Miley Cyrus is, in and of herself, not particularly interesting
. She comes to my attention only because of the reactions to her, pertaining to a musical performance in which she 'twerked
2) There are three types of reaction. The dominant reaction which is evident on Youtube, CNN, Fox, in the outrage of Robin Thicke's mother, and in endless commentary about how Cyrus's eroticised dance with Thicke was done despite knowing he had a 3 year old daughter and a wife, etc. (Innocence horribly shattered, irreparably stained, killed to bits.) And also, as Fox pundits insisted (protesting too much), this dance was "not attractive, Miley". Basically, the dominant reaction of the media was to "slut-shame" her.
3) The other types of reaction are, a) the denunciations of the "slut-shaming", and b) the leftist and anti-racist critique along the lines that Miley Cyrus should not be shamed, but her dance was a type of minstrelsy, a patronising and degrading appropriation of black culture
which reinforced the traditional racist notion of the 'black jezebel'. (A good example of this here
, although it specifically uses the term 'misappropriation
4) The intriguing thing about the language of 'appropriation' is that it leads to a terrible logjam of incoherence. Since few want to explicitly buy into a racial metaphysics, and no one wants to believe that culture is neatly segregated according to 'race', nationality, etc., the claim of 'appropriation' cannot be sustained. Culture is an open-ended process of cooperative creation, not a thing with definite, imporous boundaries. Cultural forms are not coherent, and their edges are more like shifting weather fronts than the neat, static lines of maps. They do not have an author; far less could their author be a certain 'race' or nationality somehow embodied. Cultural forms do not have an origin, a once-upon-a-time, and the search for origins is a sure route to absurdity. (If you doubt me, check this out
). The notion that a representative of one culture can appropriate from another, each corresponding to a certain racial belonging, seems implausible outside the framework of a metaphysics of race.
5) The charge of 'appropriation' boils down to this. Miley Cyrus, implicitly and in other ways, claimed to be appropriating 'blackness'. The line was, 'as a dumb, Southern hillbilly white, I can do this cool black dance'. And of course, she did so in a way that used 'twerking' in a pantomime of race, as a symbol of black femininity (cf, the 'jezebel' stereotype). It is not so much an accusation of appropriation - I'm just guessing, but I bet that no artist who has 'twerked' thus far had anything to do with the invention and creation of that particular movement - as of the misuse not only of the 'twerk' but also of the black women on her set whose 'big butts' she literally handled as props. And this is what one would expect. I am not inclined to moralise about 'commodification', but there is a sense - one sense anyway - in which the inevitable attempt to turn a profit from a developing cultural form tends to have hypostatising effects, which arrest and freeze its development, assigning its fluid elements fixed meanings. In this case, the 'twerk', and the 'big butt' have been assigned their place within a system of meanings connoting a conception of black femininity, and they can be used again and again to evoke the same thing for the music industry.
6) This adds another dimension to the shaming mentioned earlier, because it seems obvious that one of the things the Right resents about the performance is that they really feel it did represent blackness - they really believe in it. And they're not concerned about 'appropriation' so much as a white woman embracing what they imagine to be 'blackness'. After all, on the authority of two white, male, middle aged and rich presenters: "That's not attractive, Miley."
7) Obviously, all of this was anticipated by Cyrus's producers and marketers.