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Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, and the Commodification of Difference

by Deborah Root

Buy the book: Deborah Root. Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, and the Commodification of Difference

Release Date: November, 1995

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: Deborah Root. Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, and the Commodification of Difference

helped shape my thinking

This important book helped shape my own thinking and writing. She describes clearly and compellingly how the dominant culture destroys the hearts of other cultures while cannibalizing them aesthetically. Thus we kill indigenous cultures and hang dream catchers from our rear view mirrors. Thus we consider ourselves sophisticated because we eat at ethnic restaurants and at the same time we do not seem to mind that the real cultures of Ethiopia, India, Mexico, are destroyed, turned into cheap imitations of mainstream capitalism. She details this process. It is an extraordinary book.

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This is a very interesting subject, and the author raises a lot of thought-provoking questions, but the book has a number of weaknesses that made it difficult for me to really enjoy. Most obvious (and admittedly most superficial) is the amount of trendy jargon Root employs. The word "elide," for instance, is a synonym of "omit" and is not unique enough in its meaning to warrant being used on every other page.

Similarly (though pointing to deeper issues), there seems to be an unduly heavy reliance on the flow of language - on the drawing of elegant if relatively unsubstantiated connections and the making of neat, sweeping generalizations - over the presentation of actual evidence and a structured argument. This may be a problem of the genre, and it's not that she's off the mark on her pronouncements, but when the writer's only obvious expertise is in comparative literature, I'd prefer that historical generalizations be left out of the text. As a side note, the use of the "cannibal" theme is not, to me, justified by the arguments made in the book. It just sounds good. Overall, I felt that a lot of interesting threads were begun and never followed through, another consequence of the form-over-substance style.

I do have one serious issue with the book's intellectual honesty. Specifically, the sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit focus on what white Western males are doing to everyone else, and the elision (hah!) of any analysis of how museums, and the appropriation of elements of other cultures in general, operate in non-Western societies. Take Japanese society in relation to the US, for starters. How about an analysis of how elements of American culture are fetishized/commodified in other countries? This is actually highly relevant to whether Root's relatively political thesis of the Western colonial impulse obtains across the board, or whether a different kind of analysis (more psychological and anthropological) is required.

The themes investigated in this book, problems notwithstanding, are certainly worth the time of any thinking person. In sum, I recommend reading it with a grain of salt (or a simultaneous dose of something a little more scientific and a little less focused on stringing phrases together), and I wouldn't put it at the top of my list.

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