Making Intangible Heritage: El Condor Pasa and Other Stories from UNESCO

Making Intangible Heritage: El Condor Pasa and Other Stories from UNESCO

by Valdimar Tr. Hafstein


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253037930
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 08/29/2018
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Valdimar Tr. Hafstein is Professor of Folklore, Ethnology, and Museum Studies at the University of Iceland. Former Chair of Iceland’s National Commission for UNESCO and ex-president of the International Society for Ethnology and Folklore (SIEF), he is the author of a number of scholarly articles and books on intangible heritage, cultural property, international heritage politics, folklore, and copyright in traditional knowledge.

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Making Heritage


What unites beer culture in Belgium with Chinese shadow puppetry? What do Estonian smoke saunas have in common with kimchi making in the two Koreas or with summer solstice fire festivals in the Pyrenees? How about the Capoeira circle in Brazil and the gastronomic meal of the French? How is tightrope walking in Korea like violin craftsmanship in Cremona, Italy, and how are both of these like Indonesian batik, Croatian lacemaking, Arabic coffee, and Argentinian tango? What might connect yoga in India with the ritual dance of the royal drum in Burundi, carpet weaving in Iran, or Vanuatu sand drawings?

The answer: these cultural practices and expressions are all on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). That means they have been selected to represent the diversity of human creative powers. Chosen because they give aesthetic form to deeply held values, they speak of skill and competence, of bonds that tie, and of different relationships to history, society, and nature. They testify to various ways people tend to previous generations, to other people, and to the universe. UNESCO's Representative List displays humanity at its best, showcasing its capacity to create beauty, form, and meaning out of its various particular circumstances. Sharing what they enjoy or endure, people give form to value in their cultural practices and performances (see Hymes 1975). New generations recreate these forms according to their own conditions, cultivating the talent, the knowledge, and the necessary appreciation. It is this creative dynamic that member states of UNESCO have set out to safeguard. The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage makes us all responsible for the continued viability of these cultural practices and expressions — for making sure that their practitioners can keep practicing them and that future generations can continue to be inspired by them.

The convention frames them in terms of cultural heritage, a concept into which UNESCO itself has breathed life over the past half century. This concept defines a particular relationship to the objects and expressions it describes, one that is of recent vintage. We tend to assume "cultural heritage" has been around forever; in fact, it is a modern coinage and its current ubiquity is limited to the last few decades (Klein 2006; Bendix 2000; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998; Lowenthal 1998; Hafstein 2012). Its novelty speaks of contemporary societies and to their own understanding of themselves, their past, present, and future (Holtorf 2012; Eriksen 2014). Valuing a building, a ritual, a monument, or a dance as cultural heritage is to reform how people relate to their practices and their built environment, and to infuse this relationship with sentiments like respect, pride, and responsibility. This reformation takes place through various social institutions that cultural heritage summons into being (centers, councils, associations, clubs, committees, commissions, juries, networks, and so on) and through the forms of display everywhere associated with cultural heritage: from the list to the festival — not to omit the exhibition, the spectacle, the catalog, the website, or the book. Folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett refers to these as metacultural artifacts (1998, 2006): cultural expressions and practices (e.g., lists and festivals) that refer to other cultural expressions and practices (carpet weaving, ritual dance, tightrope walking) and give the latter new meanings (tied, for example, to community, diversity, humanity) and new functions (e.g., attracting tourists, orchestrating difference). A hallmark of heritage, following Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, is "the problematic relationship of its objects to the instruments of their display" (1998, 156). This book brings those problems into plain view. But of course, this book is itself a metacultural artifact, a critical addition to the profusion of publications, websites, newsletters, press releases, and exhibitions brought forth as a result of UNESCO's global success in promoting intangible heritage. The book goes back to the moments of inception, the making of the concept and of the convention dedicated to its safeguarding, and to its genealogy — events, actors, and circumstances that gave rise to intangible heritage.

The book's ambition is to change how we think about intangible heritage. It asks questions that at times go against the grain, challenging official stories and conventional wisdom. Turning the usual order of things on its head, it asks: If intangible heritage is the solution, what is the problem? What problems do people set out to solve with the concept of intangible heritage and with the convention for its safeguarding? With what effects? I have come at these questions from various directions over the past decade and a half, as a scholar, fieldworker, policy maker, and consultant. In this book, I propose some answers.

My account begins inside UNESCO headquarters in Paris with the negotiation of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. Then I work my way back in a historical analysis of the present moment to reconstruct the challenges that intangible heritage is designed to meet. But the book also moves forward and outward to the convention's implementation in different corners of the world. Citing various expressions and practices recognized as intangible heritage, I unearth the ways in which processes of selection, designation, exclusion, preservation, promotion, and display actually affect these practices and the people who practice them — that is, what difference intangible heritage makes, for better and for worse.

UNESCO's Intangible Heritage Convention signals a reformation of the concept of cultural heritage, extending international heritage policy from monuments and sites to the realm of the "intangible." This elusive notion suggests practices and expressions that do not leave extensive material traces, such as storytelling, craftsmanship, rituals, dramas, and festivals. I observed the meetings of the committee that drafted the convention and later of the convention's executive committee. Based on a critical ethnographic approach, complemented by archival research and case studies from the convention's implementation, this book peers underneath the official story to reveal the importance of context for understanding what is happening.

Intangible heritage — the notion of it and the convention dedicated to its safeguarding — conceals a wide divergence of views on cultural production, conservation, control, and dissent. Some of this divergence crystallizes in the concepts adopted and some in the concepts rejected — the gaps and silences of the convention's final text. Stretching the concept of cultural heritage beyond national delimitations and inflecting it to encompass social practices and expressions, the idea of an intangible heritage of humanity is ripe with possibility and paradox.

The terms of the convention already define how officials, bureaucrats, scholars, and community advocates carry out cultural work, and it will continue to do so for decades to come. It also sets a standard to which practitioners of various traditions around the globe now adhere in order to receive national or international recognition. The intent of this book is to bring critical awareness to ideas of intangible heritage and to its safeguarding; to open up widely accepted liberal policies (who could be against helping cultural traditions survive?) to critique by embedding them in the organizational contexts, political conflicts, and negotiations out of which they emerge. The stories I tell show how individual personalities and states can shape texts that become the foundation of global narratives and how propositions made for a particular local reason become global instruments with entirely different effects in other corners of the world.

Heritage conservation has long been a pedagogic project. It employs scholars, experts, and professionals to educate people about their identities, loyalties, and affiliations, and to encourage them to manage this heritage, to identify with it, and to take care of it. The pedagogical instrument best suited to these goals is the narrative. In turn, UNESCO's objectives may be summed up as world-building: summoning into being a new collective subject — humanity — and encouraging people and peoples around the world to identify with it and take responsibility for its welfare. Cultural heritage is a major resource in this endeavor, a material metonym for an imagined community, standing in for a unity-in-diversity vision of humankind and charging "us" with common curatorial responsibility. This charge is sustained by the unique affective and argumentative powers of narrative (Lafranz-Samuels 2015).

As a folklorist, I was trained to make sense of narrative communication, one of the discipline's long-standing critical concerns. It shows through in the following chapters. My orientation is shaped by a discipline that is fieldwork-based and historically informed; focused on everyday life and vernacular practices and expressions; and concerned in particular with cultural forms or genres, their uses and circulation, whether these forms are material (objects, dress, food, or architecture), bodily (gesture, posture, or hairstyle), verbal (narratives or proverbs), visual, musical, or technical.

Intangible heritage is very much concerned with such cultural forms, their performance, their circulation, and their uses. But the people — communities, groups, and individuals — that the Intangible Heritage Convention addresses are not alone. The diplomats and experts who negotiated the convention, and the scholars, administrators, and cultural workers charged with implementing it, also share such forms — material, bodily, and verbal. This book brings these forms into focus: UN storytelling about storytelling, or intangible heritage about intangible heritage: meta-folklore, if you will, or meta-heritage, if you prefer. The book makes plain the performative power of words: when spoken under these particular circumstances they bring into being new realities, new concepts and categories that people then draw on in sundry settings around the world.

Ethnographic Detail

My folk roam the hallways of Place Fontenoy, UNESCO's headquarters in Paris. They ride elevators in the Geneva headquarters of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). They have their own forms of folk speech (distinguishable, for example, by the use of the third-person national: "Iceland finds that ...," "Greece supports ...," "the United States believe ...," and so on), their folk rituals and customs (for example, "as this is the first time that Iceland takes the floor during this meeting, I'd like to congratulate you, Mr. Chairman, on your reelection"), their foodways (coffee/tea and biscuits, anyone?), and their traditional gestures and postures (shaking hands, waving the country badge, applauding, congratulating, and so on), all very much on display during diplomatic gatherings such as those that gave currency to the concept of intangible heritage. Few communications are as deliberate, thought-out, and pregnant with meaning as diplomatic exchanges. As the saying goes, a diplomat thinks twice before saying nothing. That is because in meetings like the ones I describe here, words and actions are one; the debates and negotiations of diplomats in these settings are clothed with the power to fix rules and to shape practice outside the walls of the conference room.

Their traditional folk costume is the dark suit and tie and the skirt-suit; it is a uniform connoting power at work, authority, and respect while deemphasizing differences of gender, class, race, and ethnicity by adhering (with slight variations and a few exceptions) to an unmarked European norm of bourgeois masculinity (there is also a more marked and colorful, festive garb for times of celebration, worn especially by female delegates in connection with the listing of intangible heritage from their country). By the time I took part in UNESCO's General Conference in 2011, I had been attending UN meetings for a decade as a participant observer, following negotiations on intangible heritage at UNESCO and on intellectual property and traditional knowledge at WIPO; I was already steeped in diplomatic folkways. Representing Iceland, I wore a suit of my own. Call it power dressing, call it camouflage, but being an academic I had only the one suit. On the second day, my fly broke. As luck would have it, there was a tailor next to my hotel, and he was so kind as to fix the zipper right away. I must have put on weight since I had bought the suit, for two hours later the fly broke again. So, I danced around Place Fontenoy for two weeks, debating world heritage and the freedom of the press, greeting ambassadors and heads of states, conferring with colleagues and casting votes — always with an open fly. I had my shirt tucked out over my trousers, the best I could do under the circumstances. I don't think many people noticed.

Having a broken fly brought me an awkward moment of clarity. Deeply revealing, it spoke to questions of dress and material culture, to questions of etiquette, propriety, and the body; it opened to scrutiny the cultural norms of everyday life in this particular setting. Not culture in its solemn, monumental, high-brow denotation, as in the concept of world heritage, but the more prosaic and commonplace culture of daily life. But it is within the latter that the former is made. Debates about intangible heritage are framed by the cultural practices of the body that this (slightly embarrassing) anecdote spotlights. Because, if you give it second thought, most things, big or small, take place in everyday life and take shape through everyday practices and expressions. That is where the folklorist comes in, or the ethnologist or anthropologist.

In writing this book, one of my ambitions is to contribute to the critical study of cultural heritage from the specific perspective of folklore studies. Another ambition is to contribute to folklore studies proper by following the discipline's concepts, its outlooks and insights, into international organizations where they, partly rehabilitated, gain force and traction to go back to work in the world, shaping people's understanding of their own practices and therefore the practices themselves. A third ambition is to help build an ethnographic perspective on international organizations and diplomatic meetings: to lay bare in ethnographic detail the way they work, and to give context to the artifacts they shape — artifacts such as the concept of cultural heritage.

Heritage as Social Imagination

Taken over from probate law, the concept of heritage (or, in Romance languages, patrimony) points to one metaphor for the nation: that of the family (Poulot 1997, 2006; Bendix 2009; Swenson 2007, 2013; Ronström 2008). Projecting onto the state intergenerational relations, obligations, and succession, the republican nation-state carried over to the cultural sphere a dynastic model that it did away with in other areas of government. At the same time as it evokes an earlier model of the body politic, however, the notion of national patrimony democratizes what belonged to elites alone (Bendix 2000). A common cultural heritage transfers "the goods and rights of princes and prelates, magnates and merchants" (Lowenthal 1998, 60) to the public at large; it throws open the doors of the Louvre to the throng in the streets outside (Poulot 1997).

The simultaneous adulation of material signs of privilege and assertion of universal access to them reveals an interesting paradox in the patrimonial imagination. On the one hand, those castles, manors, monuments, crown jewels, and courtly fashions that figure prominently in representations of heritage all belonged to the few in a society where the many were downtrodden and destitute. Now as before, it is the many who pay for the maintenance of these outwards signs of class privilege. The difference, however, lies in the patrimonial valuation of these material signs, their consecration as "our" heritage, which urges the general population to identify with the façade of its own historical subordination. The present accessibility of these signs of privilege, albeit behind rails or in glazed cabinets, underlines and perhaps overstates the difference of contemporary societies from those of previous eras. Through an act of heritage imagination, identification with these symbols of social distinction helps to foster the illusion not so much of classlessness as of universal inclusion in the ruling class — or, to be precise, inclusion for the museum-going, heritage-conscious middle classes who are most invested in the cultural field. This facility for fantasies of social climbing is an innovative feature of the patrimonial regime, for, as Regina Bendix has remarked, what distinguishes heritage from other ways of aligning the past with the present "is its capacity to hide the complexities of history and politics" (2000, 38).


Excerpted from "Making Intangible Heritage"
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Copyright © 2018 Valdimar Tr. Hafstein.
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Table of Contents

Prelude: Confessions of a Folklorist

1. Making Heritage: Introduction

2. Making Threats: The Condor's Flight

3. Making Lists: The Dance Band in the Hospital

4. Making Communities: Protection as Dispossession

5. Making Festivals: Folklorisation Revisited

Postlude: Intangible Heritage as Diagnosis, Safeguarding as Treatment

Conclusion: If Intangible Heritage is the Solution, What is the Problem?


Works Cited


What People are Saying About This

Laurajane Smith

Underpinned by lively and humorous ethnographic observations of intangible heritage in all its cultural and bureaucratic expressions, Valdimar offers an engaging, critical, and insightful account of the uses and consequences of intangible heritage and its safeguarding. This captivating and theoretically important book offers an overdue assessment of the impact and consequences of what the concept of intangible heritage does at international and local levels.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

A brilliant and beautifully written examination of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage initiative in theory and practice from multiple perspectives. This landmark volume will change how we think about intangible heritage.

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