Invasive species, cultural appropriation, and creolization

European starling


A few years ago, I worked for the Adrian Dominican Sisters at their motherhouse campus. We were experimenting with permaculture design. For those who may not be familiar, its a land use design methodology aiming at the synthesis of increased biodiversity to create sustainable, food-forage-fuel-yielding mini-ecologies, employing a kind of extended conversation between land and steward.

We did little tours and presentations, and we had volunteer work parties from the adjacent university; and inevitably I got questions about “preserving native species” and ridding ourselves of “non-native, invasive” species. Contained in these interrogatives were, first, the idea that “non-native, invasives” would disrupt some natural, pre-existing harmony, and second, the idea that we could exercise this kind of control.

As if there was some long standing natural legacy here in Southeast Michigan, untouched by anything until the “non-native, invasives” came along — in a region that has practiced agriculture, extraction, extractive agriculture, and heavy industry for many decades . . . since the seventeenth century, actually. If there’s an invasive species here, it’s us.

Above is a picture of a European starling, perhaps one of the most successful “non-native, invasives” in this hemisphere, brought over originally by a guy named Eugene Scheiffelin in 1890 who wanted to transplant every species mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to the “new world.”

He released around a hundred in New York’s Central Park, and it was like dropping yeast into a bowl of warm sugar water. Starlings are aggressive, omnivorous, travel in huge flocks, tolerate cold and heat well, and really thrive in our built environments. North American starlings now constitute one-third of all the starlings in the world. In other words, they are here to stay. We are way past “invasion.” We live in a starling-rich ecology. As the old blues tune says, “Cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good.”

If someone were to design a way to kill off North America’s “European” starlings en masse, our ecology would not revert to some pristine pre-starling reality. Because this adaptive dynamism we call “ecology” has adjusted to starlings in literally countless ways and gone through serial “restabilizations,” the abrupt elimination of some 200 million birds would undoubtedly have countless major, intermediate, and minor ramifications, the net effect being absolutely unpredictable and very likely deleterious.

[On the bright side, when the combination of biospheric disruption and the attendant collapse of civilizational systems comes in thirty-five years or so, these things are pretty good eating. “Sing a song of sixpence/ A pocket full of rye/ Four and twenty blackbirds/ Baked in a pie.” Remember that? Those were starlings.]

In 1958, China’s leader Mao Zedong declared war on sparrows, seen by farmers and the state as a pest. It was part of what was called the Four Pests Campaign, the other pests being mosquitoes, rodents, and flies. Good luck with those. But the sparrow elimination campaign was nearly successful, and sparrows neared extinction in China. Insect populations, including locusts, exploded, and the plan to increase crop yields (the original intent of killing the sparrows) resulted in disastrous crop yields. The sparrows were eating crops, yes, but they were eating a hell of a lot more bugs.

When I can, I fish for brook trout on the north edge of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Throughout the Spring and Summer, anglers (and everyone else) in Luce County face ravening clouds of mosquitoes, deer flies, and biting black flies in the great cedar swamps of Luce County where I chase the trout. I hear people say, if it weren’t for these bloodsuckers it would be paradise. Actually, those bugs are a big part of fish diets, so . . . no bugs, no fish. No “paradise.” If you want to fish, stock up on that lemon eucalyptus oil or get a head net. It’s part of the deal, so deal with it.

Abruptly withdraw a species, and a biome’s equilibrium is disrupted. We have the ability to make dramatic change, but hardly any capacity to control the ramifications of our changes.

What’s going on here with these panics about “invasion” (war metaphor!) is plain old compartmentalization, the idea — fostered in schools by the way — that something called Nature can be subdivided and reduced into mechanistic parts. In the epistemic background of these panics are the contradictory ideas that (1) Nature (as opposed to nature) is a misanthropic God-substitute — a hazy cosmic goodness and harmony spoiled by fallen humans, and/or (2) that Nature can be managed. Faux-romantism and modern control freakery, a combination that can bend toward ecofascism and other apostasies— herein resides the most dangerous notion of them all, that we can turn back the clock to some imaginary past by ridding ourselves of the invaders.

Back at the Adrian Dominican Sisters campus, we discovered early on that we didn’t have the kind of control necessary to micromanage the terrain. A guy came out from the Farm Bureau once and suggested a massive dose of herbicides to wipe the life off the surface of the campus so we could start over. Extermination.

In 1996, I belonged to a discussion group with a communist historian named Mark Jones, who was fond of saying that “exterminism” is the final stage of imperialism. Exterminism has underwritten imperialism all along. “Exterminate the brutes.” as they said. Bulldoze the forests, spray the whole field with Roundup. It’s a mindset that goes all the way down, a man-conquers-nature trope. Ads aimed at housewives and hubbies tell us about cleaners that kill all the “germs,” poisons that exterminate the roaches and mice, sprays that wipe out the dandelions in the lawn. It’s not hard to transfer this thinking to more species, even humans. The Nazis portrayed the Jews as vermin to elicit disgust, the precursor emotion for extermination. The Hutus called the Tutsis “cockroaches” during their genocidal bloodletting.

This control freakery and boundary policing has caught on in the coffeehouses of the petit bourgeoisie, too. In a newer, more moralistic, and less lethal guise; cultural appropriation.

Cultural Appropriation

The discursive war on “cultural appropriation” is analogous to the invasion panic, but it’s complicated by social factors, which — because of the ecosemiotic nature of human sociality — is more unpredictable by orders of magnitude. This unpredictablity translates into even less capacity to control than the nearly non-existent capacity to control that inheres in the notion of controlling “invasive” species.

I’ll point out here, again, that “invasion” is a term borrowed from war. And just as there is a futile fantasy war against “invasive species,” there is a futile fantasy war against “cultural appropriation.” Except that Culture (as opposed to culture) in this context is even harder to pin down than Nature. I think it was Cornel West, a music aficionado apart from his teaching and activism, who said that jazz was black musical innovation using European instruments.

There is more than a little irony in the fact that so many who rail against “cultural appropriation” live in the US. We speak a bastardized Angle-Saxon-Jute-Celtic language littered with French, German, Spanish, indigenous tongues, and Arabic. Some of us even speak Spanglish, a mestizo tongue. We eat “Canadian” bacon, tacos, pho, pizza, ceviche, cabbage and corned beef, baked potatoes, fried okra, gyro sandwiches, goulash, and Yangzhou fried rice.

Yes, there are eminently lampoonable moments in these fusions, thinking now of Offspring’s hilarious music video, “Pretty Fly for a White Guy.” But “cultural appropriation” has been a constant in human societies since the cross migrations of the Lower Paleolithic era. The attempts to stop “cultural appropriation” bespeak yet another power-delusion about hardening absolutely porous boundaries against “non-native invasives.”

First of all, pop(ular)-culture is now a basket of commodities regulated by capitalist media. While the commodification of culture has been around for some time, enhanced and expanded first by the “science” of “public relations,” and later by electronic mass media, it’s only in the very recent past that “culture” in the pop(ular) imagination has come to be reified and taxonomized as a set of expressions (language, manner, music, fashions, recreations, food, etc.) that are assigned to particular, re-essentialized, and immaterial “identities,” detached from place, practice, and tradition.

In the past, what we now refer to with any rigor at all as culture was a composite combination of terrain, climate, history, and how people made a living; and the practices, narratives, and traditions that grew within these constellations. Historically contingent conditions. Different conditions give rise to different cultures, but they don’t overdetermine them. Think of conditions as habitats. Necessities provided, but room for play. New conditions are new habitats. Rapidly shifting conditions create unstable habitats.

When capital forged the modern nation-state, a priority for the nation-builders was the destruction of what Ivan Illich called “vernacular culture” — subsistence cultures. Capital could not persist without the twofold move of enclosure and proletarianization. Illich called modernity a “war on subsistence,” a war on vernacular culture.

Even grammar was an attempt to wipe out the vernacular. Every time you encounter a “grammar cop,” you are encountering the history of capitalist imperialism. Grammar was part of the mission to “enclose” (choke off and destroy) vernacular culture — material and linguistic.

Enclosure, from capital’s perspective, is foundational. There’s a recursive bond between vernacular cultures and the varying degrees of independence they had from the regimes of accumulation. That vernacular bond between culture and relative independence from capital resists capital by its very existence.

Capital has nearly completed its project of enclosure — that is, destroying all means of non-monetized subsistence. The material bases for other previous cultures have been removed, and what marches on is a kind of cultural inertia which itself is beginning to wither away. There are big differences between US culture, for example, and Chinese culture; but in urbanized China, there is already a spike in health problems associated with the consumption of industrial fast food. Kids are eye-locked onto their devices. Monoculture marches on. Histories hold on against capital like people caught in a flood and grasping for handholds, but over time exhaustion and floating debris will knock those histories loose and send them downstream with the current.

Culture mediates all of our relations, to each other and to the non-human cosmos, but capital has a direct interest in concealing one kind of relation . . . the relations of production. As the old cultural mediations shrivel and die absent their formative conditions . . . their habitats . . . the need persists for some form of cultural mediation without which we would fall into disastrous disorder and cease to exist. Capital’s answer . . . manufacture it, manufacture culture. Culture, the retail phase.

Western metropolitan (bourgeois) culture, since the early nineteenth century, has been based on the acquisition of particular commodities, and the goal of such consumption has shifted from survival and acceptance to acceptance and respectability. Woodruff Smith wrote a very good book about this which was published in 2002: Consumption and the Making of Respectability.

Of course, there were cultures, so to speak, which grew in the interstices, where the poor and marginalized worked out their problems — a proliferation of subcultures; and there were (and are) the edges of these phenomena, where surprising things happened.

With the giant leap forward of the panopticon through digitization, we see the emergence of a pernicious “monoculture” of no culture . . . culture transformed totally into consumer-like choices in isolated virtual pockets. You can pick your virtual tribe . . . just hit that “friend” request.

With the increased hypermobility demanded in the emergent Age of Precarity, the attachment to place has been uncoupled from previous cultures, and in the coming years of disaster and migration, new consolidations of people from multiple backgrounds will eventually reorganize into new subcultures, the kind that solve problems together . . . not the cacophony of commoditized-virtual-reality bullshit we live with now.

Cultural appropriation is yet another fetish most enthusiastically embraced by what’s come to be called the professional managerial class . . . and by the powerful liberals who pump their sunshine and snake oil up the collective ass of the PMC.

Better to speak of cultural appropriation than capitalist appropriation. Better to reinforce the old boundaries of race and ethnicity — “culture” now replacing “biology” — with a mask of performative compassion. Look to the sides, never up. “Cultural appropriation” is the new ethnic purity code. Its gravedigger is the creole.


When I joined the Army in January 1970, having loitered around aimlessly for months after barely finishing high school, I went abruptly from a predominantly white, working class, suburban “habitat” (every family in our neighborhood had jobs with the same DOD contractor, then McDonnell Aircraft) to a very, very “mixed-ethnicity” environment. The draft was still in effect, and I found myself working, suffering, eating, laughing, crying, shitting, and sleeping with black men from ghettos and farms, racially ambiguous men who barely spoke English, second-generation immigrants from big cities, Polynesians, Natives, guys who were given a choice between the work house or the Army for things like auto theft, and a few crazy people (one guy I knew compulsively ate spiders).

In Vietnam, we slept in the mud together, whored together, fought together, gambled together, swapped stories about home together, used drugs together, walked up and down those mountains together, and yes . . . learned to hate the Vietnamese together (in wars of occupation, the occupier has to dehumanize the occupied, or the occupier suffers an epistemic crisis).

We also hated the officers together and drank down our disillusionments together. We were a subculture, the subculture of enlisted grunts, and sometimes a culture of resistance, albeit one where you joined and left in a year — if you were lucky. That subculture was, for lack of a better word, a kind of creole subculture that took in parts of the war and parts of “the world” and parts of the cultural upheaval that backgrounded our predicament.

Creolization (or mestizaje) is what happens along permeable boundaries and margins; cultural embryos, imperfect, sometimes confused and even violent, but viable.

Our family today — a military family in many respects — is “non-traditional,” with white, black, indigenous, Asian, Latino, and even Native Hawaiian members. Forged in the melting pot of military culture — where we all learned a common practice and its attendant language — we are not atypical. Military creole is a thing, named or not, its vast institutional framework planted in the middle of a great “cultural” Venn diagram.

The almost emblematic creole culture is that of Haiti. Even the language is called Kreyol. Like Haitian “religion,” creolisme is syncretic. It takes bits and pieces laying around from its multiple sources and forges them into something new. We can have Jesus and Ezili Danto, too. The practices, traditions, and narratives from slavery, from revolt, from French, Africans, English, and Spaniards, from peasants living in steep mountains and fishermen on the coast, from serial coups and occupations, and from the day-to-day business of survival. If you say, “Bullshit!” in Haiti, no translation is necessary. It’s a Haitian word, too, cribbed from the violent early twentieth century US occupation carried out by Marines. The Marines left, but the phrase retained its phatic utility. Creolisme is jazz.

Vernacular cultures, survival cultures, creole/mestizo cultures . . . they are put together in work and play and sex and marriage — never ideology — and held together by day-to-day problem solving. Today’s metropolitan “middle” class identitarian subcultures are about expression and consequence-free performance — bumper sticker culture. There are no common practices upon which anyone’s life depends. That’s why they resort to cancel-culture shadow-boxing and turn into insufferable, bitter, little scolds.

The drug-enterprise-street-culture (portrayed in the television series The Wire, for example) is far deeper and more substantive than the performative cultures of the “middle” class by orders of magitude, because it is held together by problem-solving in a shared practice. The same applies to other “criminal” subcultures, as well as to landless peasants transplanted into slums, refugee camps, Amish communities, sports teams, the Army, etc. etc etc. The are held together not by ideology, but practices with material goals aimed first at survival. They are disciplined and conformed by results, not abstractions.

Late capitalist hypermobility has undermined the old bonds, per Polanyi, continually disembedding and re-embedding us. The war-capitalism/biospheric disruption dialectic will force mass migrations. There will be mixing, and more mixing. When the basis for that hypermobility fails, when the old institutions and habits fail, when the current faith in social engineering (right and left) fails, the new ground will be creole through and through.

That new ground will be tactical.

Making do

Then there are the “culture wars” . . . the endless digital skirmishes on “social media.” Everyone is a general with his or her very own imaginary army. Somewhere beneath all this virtual warfare, however, far below the exosphere of academic abstractions, there are living people, working out their existence as “tacticians.”

Few people know of Michel De Certeau (1925–1986). He was a Catholic priest,a scholar, and a philosopher. He wrote a book in 1980, called The Practice of Everyday Life. This was a broadside against the fantasies of some and the fears of others . . . that everyday people are like sheep being led around like automatons by The All Powerful System (TAPS).

I don’t want to confuse anyone by combining the concepts of (virtual) war and tactics. Certeau used the war terms strategy and tactics in a very different way from war planners. Strategy — for Certeau and for our discussion — is a “self-isolating calculus,” carried out from some center and wielded by pre-existing power.

I call a “strategy” the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an “environment.” (Certeau)

Tactics, for Certeau — unlike the military concept as a subset of strategy (tactics win battles to facilitate strategies) — are everyday practices that “poach” from the “strategic environment” — or the environment constructed by power and strategy.

Thus a North African living in Paris or Roubaix insinuates into the system imposed on him by the construction of a low — income housing development or of the French language the ways of “dwelling” (in a house or in a language) peculiar to his native Kabylia. He superimposes them and, by that combination, creates for himself a space in which he can find ways of using the constraining order of the place or of the language. Without leaving the place where he has no choice but to live and which lays down its law for him, he establishes within it a degree of plurality and creativity. By an art of being in between, he draws unexpected results from his situation.

These modes of use–or rather re-use–multiply with the extension of acculturation phenomena…of transiting toward an identification of a person by the place in which he lives or works. That does not prevent them from corresponding to a very ancient art of “making do.” I give them the name of uses, even though the word most often designates stereotyped procedures accepted and reproduced by a group, its “ways and customs.” (Certeau)

Tactics are what everyday people employ to “make do.”

By contrast with a strategy (whose successive shapes introduce a certain play into this formal schema and whose link with a particular historical configuration of rationality should also be clarified), a tactic is a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus. No delimitation of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition necessary for autonomy. The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power.

It does not have the means to keep to itself, at a distance, in a position of withdrawal, foresight, and self-collection: it is a maneuver “within the enemy’s field of vision,” as von Bülow put it, and within enemy territory.

It does not, therefore, have the options of planning general strategy and viewing the adversary as a whole within a district, visible, and objectifiable space.

It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow. It takes advantage of “opportunities” and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids. What it wins it cannot keep. This nowhere gives a tactic mobility, to be sure, but a mobility that must accept the chance offerings of the moment, and seize on the wing the possibilities that offer themselves at any given moment. It must vigilantly make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers. It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected. It is a guileful ruse. (Certeau)

Everyday life happens upon and along the built infrastructure, but it also happens in the interstices. Been there, done that. Stole small necessities from employers. Sold drugs. Dove in dumpsters. Worked under the table. Jumped trains. Hawked fake Oakleys along the roadsides. Malingered extravagantly when necessary. Some things that will remain unsaid because . . . “statute of limitations.”

Creolization and tactics are not under some would-be social engineer’s thumb or penetrable by the blunt instruments of statisticians. They happen where abstractions can’t see and where the market has the least hegemony.

Marriage (legal or common law) with children is the main institution keeping people in one place . . . or compelling them to move when they’d rather not. Marriage can also break traditional family continuities.

I already mentioned the high rate of “interracial” marriage in the military, as one example; and this trend is now increasing in society’s gen-pop. Marriage is also where the real creolization takes root . . . not in study groups or wannabe “movements” or ideological affinity groups, where the group is always on the lookout for opportunities to enhance “diversity.” Marriage and children don’t do tokenism (except perhaps in a few misguided affluent adoption schemes). Too much work, too much time taken in problem solving together, too many material requirements to be met for the relentless politicization of the home.

Marriage is a practice, one at which we don’t always succeed, and the home is where relations — in spite of the fact that we subsist now on a constant money-facilitated flow of commodities — are the least commodified. The home, that place inside the threshold, is where market relations lose their hegemony.

The opposite of market relations is love — no matter how battered, no matter how distorted by the Hobbesian rat race that surrounds it. This is why capital has such a complex relation with the family and the home. Capital needs to penetrate the home as part of its restless expansion, but it needs the non-market relations — love, care — to continually motivate people to buy, even as relations in the home give the lie to capital’s economics.

When capital collapses, many homes will collapse, but many will survive by making do, by exercising “a mobility that must accept the chance offerings of the moment, and seize on the wing the possibilities that offer themselves at any given moment.”

That won’t involve, doesn’t involve, building imaginary walls around the phantoms called “cultures.” There will be, are, countless “appropriations.” There will be, are, countless “non-native invasions.”

Pay attention to the everyday. Watch the interstices. Get tactical. And love . . . the ultimate subversion and the telos of tacticians. It’s what can’t be captured or contained.

Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” “Tough Gynes,” and “Smitten Gate.”