Rosemary Coombe’s The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties is a fascinating examination of the myriad levels at which power is exercised in struggles over signification. Though the book makes weighty theoretical interventions, I found Coombe’s deployment of brief ethnographic narratives as a means to explore broad-based issues of authorship, ownership, and meaning particularly compelling. Though some of these accounts were, in my opinion, more successful than others, together they weave a powerful argument for the necessity of cultural studies of copyright law, demonstrating the varied ways in which colonial-imperial power relations are recycled, retooled, and resisted in struggles of appropriation and commodification.

I wish I had waited to write my previous post on Chief Keef and respectful use until I had finished Coombe’s book, because I think many of the points Coombe makes in the latter half of the book speak very strongly to the issues I raised re: appropriation of African American cultural art forms, particularly the power relations embedded in consumption and production of (‘trap’) hip hop. Though I felt Coombe’s treatment of Troop, Reebok, and Church’s to be slightly problematic at times, the larger points made—connecting legacies of chattel slavery to African American cultural production, community spaces, and white consumption of the black body—are prescient in both my discussion of Chief Keef and Tiffany’s initial post on Sir Mix-a-Lot (Coombe’s arguments shed a whole new light on the politics of white male nerds copping Sir Mix-a-Lot’s lyrics, “gimme a sista, I can’t resist her/red beans and rice didn’t miss her!”).

I also appreciated Coombe’s discussion of appropriation of elements of Native cultures (in her case, names and Indian bodies themselves), though I admit the Redskins problematization is, in my mind, a bit tired (and Coombe acknowledges this in part, including a quote reminding us that a story on mascot controversy will be eagerly recycled nationwide, while other perhaps more dire “Native issues” fall by the wayside in dominant press). I do wish Coombe had devoted more space to an exploration of the ways Native peoples continue to resist offensive mascots—examples include Tsalagi scholar Adrienne K’s popular writings, First Nations powwow step trio A Tribe Called Red’s newest mixtape (which samples the Atlanta Braves’ theme music), and the following shirt (far right; incidentally, the below photo is of A Tribe Called Red):    
All that said, I greatly enjoyed Coombe’s discussion of the appropriation of names—there have been numerous discussions of this issue on NDN tumblr, from which the general conclusions were: “don’t google your tribe—it’s gonna be a bad time.” On a personal note, when you search “Cheyenne” on tumblr, the tag is full of teenage white girls named Cheyenne who feel the need to tag all their personal posts with their first name (also someone who takes screenshots of their Sims character named Cheyenne?).  As Coombe points out, this appropriation of Native names and bodies is situated in a larger landscape of colonial occupation and genocide, which is an excellent example of Coombe’s larger points regarding power relations in what she describes as “struggles to fix social meaning” (26).


Coombe’s discussion of appropriation of elements of African American cultural productions and things like the Redskins and Crazy Horse malt liquor both speak to legacies of colonial violence and quite literally bring up issues of ownership of self and the body—how might Coombe’s arguments here be understood from an understanding of imperial biopolitics?

Is it possible to mobilize law regarding intellectual property and copyright towards a more equitable or just understanding of authorship and ownership? If we understand the current structure set in place as defined by axes of (race, class, etc) power, can we also see space in it for restorative justice? What would that radical restructuring look like in the context of ongoing colonial occupation and exploitation of POC? 

Leave a Reply.