[Cover ofHeritage Regimes and the State]

Heritage Regimes and the State

Edited by Regina Bendix, Aditya Eggert, and Arnika Peselmann. 2013. Göttingen: Universitätsverlag Göttingen. 413 pages. ISBN: 978-3-86395-122-1 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Michael Herzfeld, Harvard University

[Review length: 1160 words • Review posted on October 29, 2014]


This massive, detailed, comparative, and largely ethnographic collection shows how the logic of international institutions dealing with the regimes of heritage identification and conservation is refracted through the cultural specificities of different countries and local traditions. The editors have sustained a remarkably coherent sense of common purpose among widely divergent analytical styles applied to a vast array of cases. If, as they concede, a distinct bias toward European materials persists, that, too, reflects a conceptual heritage, philosophical as well as political, for which UNESCO is often, and justifiably, criticized.

While Kristin Kuutma’s magisterial overview rightly avoids simplistic deconstructions of institutional regimes, calling instead for an understanding of how universalism is refracted through local cultural and social experience, such a move requires sustained critique, not only of the institutional dynamics of heritage, but also of the geopolitical shaping of its underpinnings; and that is what the volume delivers. Numerous contributors (Anaïs Leblon, Katia Ballacchino, Nicolas Adell, Caroline Bodolec, Chiara Bortolotto, Alessandra Broccolini, Florence Graezer Bideau, Laurent-Sébastien Fournier) agilely reveal the contingent selectivity of what counts as intangible heritage. Rather than seeking the origins of a Cartesian perspective that has gained such a strong purchase on global ideals of common sense, these authors focus on the specific filtrations performed by what Chiara De Cesari, in a richly thoughtful concluding essay of explicitly Foucaultian lineage, and from the perspective of her research in the critically atypical Palestinian context, identifies as heritage regimes generated by the logic of the modern nation-state.

From one angle, UNESCO promotes ideals of cultural openness and tolerance that, as Adelheid Pichler suggests for Cuba, conflicts with state orchestrations of heritage and a concomitant suppression of political critique. UNESCO’s apparent uniformity may even conceal and protect hidden dialogues and differences that, as Maria Cardeira da Silva argues, too intense a critique could unravel. At the national level, as Philip W. Scher finds in Barbados, that official celebration of heritage may conflict with ordinary people’s desire to forget the past it represents – a past, in that case, of slavery and humiliation. From another angle, however, UNESCO continues to impose an increasingly invariant, reified aesthetic—a global model of clearly Western design (Bortolotto) – articulated by a cultural bureaucracy (discussed by Markus Tauschek) that has little tolerance for anything that would violate bureaucratic humorlessness. The essays, taken together, would seem to suggest that we should both focus on such blind spots and recognize that UNESCO’s heritage bureaucracy also confronts local re-articulations of its goals.

Indeed, if revelations of “covert heritage,” as Adell calls it, are as yet relatively few and weak, his description of the elevation of journeymen to the status of a living heritage inhabiting the monumental homes of the old musical aristocracy suggests the unpredictability that any bureaucracy would—fortunately—find difficult to control. This case also demonstrates how effectively social actors can direct heritage presentation to outsiders—a fact that perhaps explains the extent to which living heritage is today invoked by many groups seeking a foothold in national imaginaries as a way of protecting their particular interests. Leblon cogently argues as much when she shows how a particular pattern of turning Malian pastoralism into an inventory of heritage sustains wider discourses of environmentalism and social development by deeply engaged social actors with specific political agendas. Perhaps especially in Europe, however, relatively recent vernacular oral traditions often fare badly in such contests, especially when—as we see in Máiréad Nic Craith’s analysis of the Skellig Michael boatmen’s lighthouse narratives—they compete with national religiosity, monumentality, great age, and nature.

All heritage issues are highly political. Broccolini’s analysis of the Italian failure to pursue the nomination of the Sienese Palio, for example, incisively shows how political-party rivalry can subvert the recognition process; Baldacchino’s exposure of the silencing of internal conflict shows further how such sanitizing distorts cultural experience. A particularly interesting contrast is that between the federalist Swiss and centralized French responses to the recognition of heritage. While in Switzerland Graezer Bideau shows how the concern with balance among the cantons produced a new set of stereotypes that ultimately represented neither “Swiss culture” nor any specific local version, but a compromise between the two political levels “in the name of… an imagined community invented by the expert group for the purposes at hand” (314), in France Fournier shows us that anything that emphasizes local forms is immediately rejected as too obviously “political” and “denied legitimacy as a genuine cultural initiative” (333). If the Swiss process “leave[s] all manner of expressions in the shadows” (316), the same, a fortiori, must apply to the French process, since by definition what cannot be assigned to French national culture can be allowed to count. (As Tauschek demonstrates, the converse logically and demonstrably applies to Francophone understandings of heritage within the Belgian context.)

The bureaucratic process of reification distorts cultural flow and complexity in the name of creating a static, manageable, and museologically accessible collection of distinct items—but is in turn subverted by these sectarian interests. Jean-Louis Tornatore, in a wickedly ingenious analysis of a rather restricted range of documents—his rejection of others’ insistence on more extended ethnographic research seems unnecessarily defensive—shows how the French reading of UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage Convention has, from the opposite end of the spectrum, turned the recognition of what should have been a grassroots phenomenon of universal significance (French food practices) into an idealized, elite, and above all national gastronomic triumph over all competition—not at all the purpose of UNESCO listings.

But the central thrust of this volume is precisely that the regulatory mechanisms of international cultural bureaucracy do not overdetermine local and national practices and interpretations. To the contrary, they become new channels for the articulation of the politics of local, regional, and national identity, according to the particular dynamics of each constituent nation-state. In the “presidential democracy” of Uzbekistan, as Gabriele Mentges shows, it is the president’s daughter, working directly with UNESCO’s representatives, who largely controls the fashion industry that provides work and aesthetic direction for many artisans and squeezes out weaker competitors. Ulrich Kockel’s study of the nicely contrasted Russian and Lithuanian modes of managing the Curonian Spit reveals dramatic consequences in the effects of the two national bureaucracies’ respective practices. Bureaucracies are culturally distinctive, as Don Brenneis finds in Bodolec’s analysis of Chinese understandings of “excellence” (see especially her insights into the updating of the Maoist distinction between “essence” and “scrap,” page 255); institutional regimes “are themselves under ongoing negotiation” (374). This is a specific and ironically reflexive instance of Laurajane Smith’s timely reiteration of the creative capacities of heritage politics and (in an ironic twist) of the consequent “intangibility” of all heritage as the product of a process of designation over time; as Leblon especially shows (105), generational shifts in attitude can produce major shifts in content. Rosemary J. Coombe richly complements all these insights by exploring how the legal implications of recognition can both enhance and subvert social justice—the ultimate ethical question raised by the politics of heritage.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.