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In sociology and cultural studies, reappropriation is the cultural process by which a group reclaims—re-appropriates—terms or artifacts that were previously used in a way disparaging of that group. For example, since the early 1970s, much terminology referring to homosexuality—such as gay and (to a lesser extent) queer and poof—has been reappropriated. Another example of reappropriation would be an African American collecting lawn jockeys or other artefacts of darky iconography. The term reappropriation can also extend to counter-hegemonic re-purposing, such as citizens with no formal authority seizing unused public or private land for community use.
The term reappropriation is an extension of the term appropriation or cultural appropriation used in anthropology, sociology and cultural studies to describe the reabsorbing of subcultural styles and forms, or those from other cultures, into mass culture through a process of commodification: the mass-marketing of alternate lifestyles, practices, and artifacts.
A reclaimed or reappropriated word is a word that was at one time pejorative but has been brought back into acceptable usage—usually starting within the communities that experienced oppression under that word, but sometimes also among the general populace as well. (The term 'reclaimed word' more often implies usage by a member of the group referred to.)
Reclaiming or reappropriating a word involves re-evaluating a term that in the dominant culture is, or at one time was, used by a majority to oppress various minorities of that same culture.
In some cases, this reappropriation is so successful as to turn a previously disparaging word into the preferred term: for example, gay, previously an insult, is now strongly preferred to 'homosexual', both as an adjective and a noun.
One of the older examples of successful reclaiming is the term 'Jesuit' to refer to members of the Society of Jesus. This was originally a derogatory term referring to people who too readily invoked the name of Jesus in their politics, but which members of the Society adopted over time for themselves, so that the word came to refer exclusively to them, and generally in a positive or neutral sense, even though the term "Jesuitical" is derived from the Society of Jesus and is used to mean things like: manipulative, conspiring, treacherous, capable of intellectually justifying anything by convoluted reasoning.
Reclaimed words differ from general reclamation outside of language because of their deliberately provocative nature. In addition to neutral or acceptable connotations, reclaimed words often acquire positive meaning within the circles of the informed. Outside the community, such transitions are rare. As such, the use of these terms by outside parties is usually viewed as strongly derogatory. For some terms, even "reclaimed" usage by members of the community concerned is a subject of controversy—for example, there is considerable debate within the transgender community over attempts to reclaim the term 'tranny', usually applied offensively to trans women.
Michel Foucault discusses the idea of reclaimed words as a 'reverse discourse' in his History of Sexuality: Volume I. The New York performance artist Penny Arcade sold what turned out to be her most popular show on the basis of the title, Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, words she was reclaiming.
However, the phenomenon is much older, especially in politics and religion.
In England, for example, Cavalier was a derogatory nickname reappropriated as self-identification, while Roundhead, a Royalists derisory term for the supporters of the Parliamentary cause, is not (it was a punishable offence in the New Model Army to call a fellow soldier a roundhead). Tory (orig. from Middle Irish word for 'pursued man' Tóraidhe ), Whig (from 'whiggamore' (See the Whiggamore Raid)) and 'Suffragette' are other British examples.
In the American colonies, British officers used Yankee, from a term used by the British to refer to Dutch pirates, as a derogatory term against colonists. British soldiers created the early versions of the song "Yankee Doodle," as a criticism of the uncultured colonists, but during the Revolution, as the colonists began to reappropriate the label "yankee" as a point of pride, they likewise reappropriated the song, altering verses, and turning it into a patriotic anthem.
The Dutch and German languages actually have a separate word for such a term, "geuzennaam" (Dutch, commonly used) and "Geusenwort" (German, used among linguists). These words derive from the geuzen, i.e., Dutch opponents to Spanish rule in the 16th century, who eventually created the Netherlands under William of Orange. Being derisively called 'beggars' ('gueux' in French of the era) by their opponents, they appropriated a Dutchified form of the word as their own "battle name". In French during the French Revolution the word "Sans-culottes" (literally "without knee-breeches") gained a similar meaning.
More recent political examples include:
Many style in art, music and popular culture got their names from pejorative remarks made by critics at their first appearances. In recent history, the word punk comes to mind: First it was a cuss-word directed at the musicians and their followers. Quickly afterwards the fans reappropriated the word as a mane for their community. Now it is a music style.
Other examples include:
To a lesser extent, and more controversially among the groups referred to, many racial, ethnic, and class terms have been reappropriated:
More generally, any kind of community can reappropriate words referring to them:
A closely related phenomenon is the recontextualization of material objects, as for example when the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University displays such Jim Crow Era artifacts as golliwog marbles or Sambo masks.
Other such examples are the display of an anti-Semitic poster in a Holocaust museum, or the removal of the Coat Of Arms, featuring animals sacred to Australian Aborigines, from the Australian Federal Parliament building by Aboriginal elder Kevin Buzzacott.
You see similar recontextualization in Black African cinemas. Boulou Ebanda de B'béri use the term "rappropriation" a Belgian euphemism to explain the process of claiming back and cleaning out the image of Africans on Western screen.
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