On the Very idea of Cultural Appropration

There’s an interesting “David and Goliath” story coming out of Austin, TX this week involving a local beer emporium and a national brewing company over intellectual property.  The NPR affiliate for Austin, KUT, reports that “Whip In,” a so-called “Dhabapub” serving Indian cuisine, is under pressure from Dogfish Head Brewing Company to change the name of its in-house line of beers, Namaste Brewery

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According to an email received by Whip In’s owner, the name infringes on the exclusive trademark held by Dogfish for its Belgian-style white beer branded as “Namaste.”  Intellectual property disputes are certainly not uncommon in American society, even to the point of absurdity (consider Disney’s exclusive rights to the song “Happy Birthday”).  Yet, this case brings to the surface prevailing assumptions about cultural ownership, religious speech, as well as the power of the brand in American life. 

 

The general manager of Whip In, Dipak Topiwola, who is of South Asian descent, likens the position of Dogfish Head to “cultural imperialism” on Facebook, suggesting that terms and ideas stemming from ancient religious traditions are intended, by definition, to remain free to all.  Dogfish Head, on the other hand, maintains their actions are nothing more than protecting its brand.  “There is no point,” they replied, “in having a trademark unless we actively defend it.”

 

Are terms like “Namaste,” when deployed as part of a commercial branding strategy, exempt from intellectual property law because they presumably transcend private ownership altogether, as the owners of Whip-In assert?  If so, does this endanger other brands who utilize seemingly “religious” language, such as Redemption Rye? Or are the owners actually making a claim about authenticity and who can claim the rights to certain “religious” ideas and practices? 

 

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All of these questions are significant and worthy of exploration.  However, while this appears as a conflict between, on one side, the logic of business, and the integrity of a religious tradition on the other, I believe that this dispute actually reveals the common ground between both sides.  It says something significant about how market societies imagine “culture.”  Both parties in this case characterize “culture” as a kind of brand.  Like a brand, it refers to a discrete object in the world, which only an authorized group can legitimately own.  Moreover, the culture must be protected from theft and cheap imitations that diminish its value. 

 

Perhaps what is most interesting about this dispute therefore is not how contemporary business appropriates religious beliefs and practices in the pursuit of profit and brand identity, but rather how the very idea of “appropriation” is premised on a notion of ownership grounded in the logic of capitalist markets.  

Some thoughts on the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

I am finally kicking off this blog, after several weeks of learning the subtleties of WordPress, with some thoughts about business culture in the twenty-first century.  As I browsed through the news this morning, an article caught my attention that raises important question about the role of business in American society.  The Washington Times reports that the Natural Products Expo East, the “East Coast’s largest natural, organic and healthy living trade event,” is promoting the theme of “Conscious Capitalism.”

According to an article in The Washington Times, the Natural Products Expo East, the “East Coast’s largest natural, organic, and healthy living trade event,” is underway at the Baltimore Convention Center this week.

The theme of the trade show is “Conscious Capitalism,” an idea that business should as a matter of principle pursue the good of its stakeholders as well as the larger society.  Conscious Capitalism has gained some traction in recent months through the support of several business leaders, particularly John Mackey of Whole Foods, whose book, Conscious Capitalism (2013), has been received with enthusiasm from socially concerned business thinkers.

Still, what I find intriguing is how the rhetoric in the article plays with our assumptions about the “nature” of business.  “Conscious businesses,” we are told, “are driven by a higher purpose, built on love care rather than fear and stress.”  Implicitly, then, the typical business model must aspire no “higher purpose,” and thrive on negative emotions.

What, exactly, is at stake in this claim?  Is free enterprise actually erected on a moral foundation of fear and stress?  This characterization of business culture seems to reveal more about the contemporary moment rather than the history of American business.  It speaks to the uncertainties wrought by globalization, the increasing mobility and volatility of capital, and growing job insecurity under neoliberal political regimes.

According to author, this perspective is the cornerstone of much more than financial success, but “also a meaningful vocation and potential for social change.”  Conscious Capitalism therefore seems to represent a political claim here: that business, imbued with the proper virtues, can improve the world.   Is the morally aware business actually the solution to our social problems?  After all, haven’t initiatives committed to the idea that business is the savior, such as “free trade,” “right to work,” and “privatization” contributed to, or even caused in some instances, the very problems that Conscious Capitalism seeks to overcome?