An Operatic Cultural Property: Smetana in Berlin

I just attended a performance of Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride at the Berlin Staatsoper (remaining performances on 26 April, 20 June, and 23 June 2012). Originally performed in 1866, this opera is a prime example of what central Europeans call Folklorismus: high culture drawing on traditional genres and conventions for its form while taking the peasant culture of the national past as its subject matter. In contrast to the ideology of heritage as the preservation of tradition in its authentic form, Folklorismus treats tradition as the raw material from which a self-aware culture may be constructed. Folklorismus as a concept is thus less naive than heritage about the activities of intellectuals and policymakers, and it does not condemn them as destructive or inauthentic. But like heritage, Folklorismus tends to posit tradition itself as inert, unselfconscious, and clearly demarcated from cosmopolitan modernity.

In Smetana’s opera, the setting of a generic “Bohemian village” frames the classic comic plot in which a young couple who want to get married outwit the older generation and manage at the end to have it all: love, money, and parental consent. Local color inflects the story with the introduction of a marriage broker and the supposedly traditional custom of bride purchase. More broadly, local color provides the musical and scenic decor: the drama is set during a single day at a village feast complete with dancing, embroidered costumes, a choral ode to beer, and a traveling circus. The score draws heavily on Bohemian dance rhythms.

So we are given all the familiar Bohemian cultural properties, in the scenic sense. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the celebrated composer of this emblematic Czech national opera, Bedřich Smetana, was christened Friedrich Smetana. He was educated in German, received the cosmopolitan musical formation typical of Prague in the 1840s, and began to use the Czech language regularly only in the 1860s, when he returned from six years in Sweden to establish his reputation in a Bohemia newly buzzing with public nationalist fervor under Franz Josef’s scheme of aristocratic federalism. Throughout its history, Prodaná Nevěsta has been performed as often in German as in Czech, making it accessible to enthusiastic international audiences. In Berlin the opera was accordingly performed as Die Verkaufte Braut, in a new translation.

How does one stage such an opera today, when we cannot help seeing the once thrillingly new Folklorismus through a thick scrim of the nationalist kitsch that followed? Capturing the audience’s attention is a general challenge in the staging of dramatic works from the past, which may be over-familiar or alien in their conventions or both. The debate plays out in terms that can be compared to the current debate in policy circles over moral rights in indigenous traditions: does the piece belong to the composer-author, to the singer-actors, or to the director? In opera, singers long held primary control over performances because they have historically commanded the audience: they could change composer-prescribed costumes or staging, add embellishments and high notes to their parts, even switch and interpolate arias for music better suited to their voice. In the twentieth century, two other agendas have competed with this privileging of the star performer: respect for the composer’s intentions and the desire to give the opera contemporary relevance as drama. The historical performance movement (earlier unfortunately termed “authentic performance”) seeks to restore performance practices, instruments, and stagings from the time and place of the piece’s composition. Although a contemporary perspective inevitably shapes such efforts, the project is intrinsically allied with what Paul Ricoeur called the “hermeneutics of completion,” the desire to help a text from the past speak on its own terms. When well done, it makes old work simultaneously strange and eloquent.

The contrary tendency is known as Regietheater, director’s theatre. Concerned to create a performance that is effective in the present, it frequently practices the characteristically modern “hermeneutics of suspicion,” proposing to open up what is tacit or repressed or distorted in the original text. This critical agenda interacts with the director’s assertion of will and pursuit of reputation as an auteur in his or her own right. Regietheater is often maligned, sometimes with good reason, for simply ignoring rather than challenging the spirit of a text, making it the pretext for the imposition of other scenic effects or concerns. In some respects, historical performance and Regie, as approaches to the single-authored historical products of elite culture, are comparable to heritage and Folklorismus as approaches to historical folk culture.

Born as Folklorismus, The Bartered Bride is by now itself a core monument of Czech national heritage, a familiar sacred cow to which homage must be paid, but not, perhaps, attention. It is not yet strange enough to audiences to create the demand for a historicist staging. For a theater that cares about its artistic reputation, Regietheater is the only option. The Berlin staging by Balázs Kovalik–who as a Hungarian has his own experiences with nationalist Folklorismus–struck me as the best kind of Regietheater, coming straight to terms with the chief points of tension between the past of the text and the present of the audience. One tension is stylistic, the other ethical.

How do we stomach all that Czech folklore? Well, Kovalik acknowledges the way we see it now: across a proscenium, without a context or human agency. During the brilliant overture to the piece, the curtain rose one quarter to reveal the sneakered feet and bluejeaned legs of a boy wandering around the stage; he was approached, in seeming threat, by one and then a second pair of scarlet-stockinged masculine legs. Instead of closing in on him, these then kicked up their heels and started dancing. As the sneakered figure backed uneasily away, the stage filled up with the standard folkloric ballet, of which we saw, however, only spinning skirts and dancing legs, all in traditional scarlet stockings–of which, according to the program, four dozen pairs had been ordered for the opera’s premiere in the imperial capital Vienna.

When the curtain rose fully, we saw the boy sketching: sketching a Bohemian village, each pen stroke projected onto a scrim. Behind this was a massive folding screen with a beautiful video image of a dense nineteenth-century forest, which changed color and light as the time and mood changed. Then came the chief conceit of the staging. Immobilized in heavy embroidered folk costumes, the bride and groom made their entrances standing in glass cases like those of an ethnographic museum, pushed in by uniformed workers. As the drama proceeded, the customs and traditions constraining the characters were objectified in dioramas of home, church, bedroom, circus tent: they stepped out of the cases to take action and back into them as they accepted their traps or sought their comfort. The village festival was populated by both costumed folkdancers and urban tourists coming in to drink beer and reclaim their roots. In a drama about a bride who is treated as property, the scenic materialization of containment and constraint provided a gloss rather than an obstacle to understanding. And despite the aggressive framing of the sets, the acting was naturalistic and the singing expressive, true to the Romantic spirit of the piece.

The ethical obstacles for a contemporary audience have to do, in the first instance, with Mařenka, this bartered bride. She is clever and assertive but has to stand up against her parents and the marriage broker, trying to marry her off to the feeble-minded son of a wealthy family, and also eventually against her lover, who has apparently relinquished his rights in her for three hundred guilders. Then there is that feeble-minded son, Vašek (the boy in the sneakers): not only foolish, sexually impulsive, and disoriented but a stutterer. He is freely manipulated throughout the opera by his contemptuous parents, his putative bride Mařenka (who tricks him into refusing her), and even a beautiful circus performer, who persuades him to take over as dancing bear from a drunken member of the troupe. In contrast, the other tenor is Mařenka‘s successful lover Jeník, a prodigal son who turns out to be Vašek ‘s older brother from the landowner Micha’s first marriage, returning home to claim his inheritance. He accomplishes this by pretending to sell Mařenka back to the marriage broker and stipulating in the contract that she must marry the son of Micha. The Berlin staging gives due weight to the lyric lamentations of both Mařenka, when she thinks that Jeník has betrayed her, and Vašek, who understands at least that everyone is playing cruelly with him.

When the trick is revealed, Mařenka’s parents quickly reseal the bargain with the rich couple, who cede at once to avoid scandal. At this abruptly happy conclusion, Mařenka sings “Now I understand, my dearest love,” not with instantaneous delight but with sarcastic fury as she takes in the way she has been instrumentalized. Vašek, no longer needed, sadly retreats into a display case and resumes his sketching; Mařenka, finally recognizing the kinship between them, draws near and looks at him through the glass as the chorus and families around them proclaim their delight at the wedding. The audience recognizes its own complicity in laughter as well as the distance it shares with Vašek from this tightly engineered social operation. Instead of the classic joyous comedic finale we have something like one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”: specifically, Measure for Measure, with its formally happy ending dictated from above.

We are reminded that village tradition–to say nothing of the bourgeois culture that voyeuristically celebrates it through the lenses of museums and tourism and opera–is not all beer and dancing . It encompasses the propertization of women, the abuse of the disabled, and the unscrupulous but unavoidable struggle over scarce resources.

The great theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (who was in fact a conglomeration of at least three people, posing his own challenges to narrow conceptions of intellectual property), spoke of aesthetic work as holding potentialities. Art is designed to speak beyond the moment of its making. The intention embedded in a text (whether traditional or single-authored) includes growing in time, exceeding the conscious intentions of its makers and the understandings of its immediate time and place. Smetana was not an immemorial Czech. He drew on a particular artistic repertoire–the Czech cultural properties–in his effort to create a career in Prague at a moment when an explicitly “national” theater had just been opened and because his earlier work had been accused by local critics of “Wagnerism.” The Prague audience was not particularly impressed with the new opera, and only after it was enthusiastically received at the Vienna Music and Theatre Exhibition of 1892 (with intensified folkloristic decor, including those four dozen pairs of red stockings) did it return home to become a national treasure. To what moment and what audience can we really say it belongs? The Berlin staging of Die Verkaufte Braut opens up the potentialities of the piece in such a way that it becomes a common property.


  • Bendix, Regina. 1988. “Folklorism: The Challenge of a Concept.” International Folklore Review 6: 5–15.
  • Die Verkaufte Braut. 2011. Program book with texts by Stefan Horlitz, Marion Recknagel, etc., and new German libretto by Kurt Honolka. Berlin Staatsoper.
  • Morson, Gary Saul and Caryl Emerson. 1990. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford University Press.
  • Ricoeur, Paul. 1977. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. Tr. Denis Savage. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Tyrrell, John. “Bartered Bride, The.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, edited by Stanley Sadie. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed April 18, 2012).

Online Publication: Culture Archives and the State: Between Nationalism, Socialism, and the Global Market

The Center for Folklore Studies at the Ohio State University is delighted to announce the online publication of Culture Archives and the State: Between Nationalism, Socialism, and the Global Market. Proceedings of an international conference held May 3-5, 2007, at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. Columbus: The OSU Knowledge Bank, 2010.

The papers address the political uses of ethnographic archives from the late nineteenth century to the present. Archives keep tabs on populations, define and discipline national identities, shape and censor public memories, but also shelter discredited alternative accounts for future recovery. Today their contents and uses are tensely negotiated between states, scholars, and citizens as folklore archives become key resources for the reconstruction of lifeworlds in transition. Case studies and reports come from China, India (Bengal), Afghanistan, Spain, Finland, Estonia, Romania, Croatia, the US, and the German-speaking lands. In a keynote address, Regina Bendix provides a general account of “property and propriety” in archival practice.

More Thoughts on Dignity: Gargoyles in Lyon, the Qur'an in Florida

This morning Regina Bendix sent me a BBC story about stonemasons working on Lyon Cathedral. Following the millenial Catholic architectural tradition, they decorate the building’s exterior not only with fantastic creatures and details of everyday life but also with portraits of one another. A new gargoyle in Lyon charmingly immortalizes one of the master masons, a French Muslim who has worked for decades on the renovation of French religious monuments. A far-right group calling itself Les Jeunes Identitaires Lyonnais—see what pretty things breed inside the black box of identity!—has denounced this “Muslim takeover” of a Catholic monument (as if Muslims were a new presence in the south of France). A church spokesman, on the other hand, says that the church authorities neither authorized nor condemns the gargoyle. His endorsement is not exactly a ringing call for ecumenical inclusion: “In history, gargoyles were always profane figures and a chance for irony and satire. In any case, they’re not inside the church.” Nonetheless it reflects the accommodation that Catholicism has traditionally made with social reality, policing orthodoxy inside enclosed spaces of power (cathedrals, texts, liturgies) while accepting that mixity and instability are the price of popular participation, so that the excrescences of buildings, the marginalia of manuscripts, and some of the festivals calqued upon holy days offer richly untidy encyclopedias of everything formally excluded from the center. Dignity and purity are trumped by a recognition that the reality is always more complex than our chosen picture of it.

That was the morning’s email. On the radio was President Obama denouncing the loony pastor of the Dove Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, who has announced his intention to burn copies of the Qur’an on September 11th. The President echoed General Petraeus’ recent statement that such an action would damage US reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, alienate the Muslim world, and endanger American troops. The pastor reports with a certain complacency that he has had 300 death threats and says that he is willing to meet with the President to discuss the matter.

American representatives from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the mayor of Gainesville have appropriately denounced the proposed action as marginal, extremist, and profoundly alien to the spirit of the Founding Fathers. But the most intelligent immediate response seems to be that of the Muslim community of Gainesville. One local imam is asking his congregation not to turn up and protest but, if they wish to do something, to spend Saturday volunteering in local hospitals or charities. He cites the desire to avoid escalation, and given the current hysterical tone of American political life this is certainly prudent; as Heine famously observed, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen. But perhaps he is also inclined to put a damper on the discursive escalation. Petraeus’ comments have helped to up the ante, so that this small man in Florida is suddenly able to call for meetings with the President; he suddenly holds international relations in the palm of his hand; he is credited by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari with the power to “cause irreparable damage to interfaith harmony and also to world peace.” Heady stuff for a pastor with a flock of 50 people. One thinks of the delight the Taliban took in announcing their intention to blow up the Bamiyan Buddhas, in exciting the outrage of the world, and at last in carrying out the execution of it.

Which takes me to cultural property concerns more narrowly defined. Bruno Frey and Paolo Panini (2010) have suggested that UNESCO designations and other international instruments of recognition may endanger cultural monuments in conflict situations by raising their value as targets, citing not just the Buddhas but the destruction of the Mostar Bridge, the bombings of Dubrovnik and Sarajevo, and the border conflict over the Temple of Preah Vihar, studied in our own project (Hauser-Schäublin, in press). A copy of the Qur’an has a different status, to be sure. It is not a unique physical monument; when copies are burned, the text remains. But apart from the generally powerful symbolism of book-burning in the modern world, the burning of a Qur’an is an act of profanation and an outrage to believers. Thus another issue arises that is often invoked in international initiatives to protect cultural goods: that of moral rights over sacred things, the idea that the dignity of peoples, cultures, or belief systems is vulnerable to the misuse of cultural goods by outsiders.

Petraeus’ comments on the proposed Qur’an burning remind me of one of the famous “koans” expressed in U.S. Army/Marines Field Manual 3-24, the counterinsurgency handbook produced by Petraeus and his team in the aftermath of the Iraq debacle: “Insurgents succeed by sowing chaos and disorder anywhere; the government fails unless it maintains a degree of order everywhere.” Many would argue that the US’s ambition (that of states in general) to maintain order everywhere has greatly increased the force of disorder in the world, with global apparatuses mobilized to address every local disruption and raising the stakes thereof. The image of America has itself been a major casualty of this change, damaged not only as propaganda abroad but as a genuine social imaginary for Americans themselves, as we see in the current rise of intolerance. In parallel to the errors of states, the Catholic church, once accustomed to living with a “tolerated margin of mess” (Babcock 1975), is today struggling mightily with the pathologies of an excessive zeal for control. Will not an international regime to protect the dignity of identities make itself as vulnerable to every ambitious local strongman as American power has done?

To be sure, in an age of viral communications, a Gainesville pastor can be heard by Indonesian activists without the intervention of governments or television cameras, and there had been protests at the US embassy in Jakarta long before Petraeus decided to speak. For good and ill, local actors have new kinds of agency open to them, both to initiate actions and to represent the actions of others. But I wonder whether the man in Florida would care so much about responses in Indonesia if these were not in turn provoking attention closer to home. If no cameras showed up to see them, would Qur’ans be burned in the end?

The hunger for recognition, the desire for protagonism, are a central human urging: they are in fact intimately bound up with that desire for dignity, the mix of attention and distance that the Latin languages call re/spect. But attention, as Richard Lanham argues, is the great scarce resource of a connected world. You have to do something big in the face of so much competition. Like many others, the man in Florida is treating respect as a limited good: he can obtain it by damaging someone else’s, and the bigger the target he can attack—1.5 billion Muslims is a start—the greater the hoped-for repercussions for himself. Having apparently little credit locally, he is escalating in order to rise into a more consequential sphere of action, and governments and media are inevitably giving him assistance despite themselves.

But the Muslims of Gainesville have declined to magnify his act into a conflict of civilizations, and their actions, geared to the immediate situation and the immediate community, seem apt to earn them the local respect which matters most to human happiness in the long run—that of one’s daily interlocutors, the network of people who know one over time. In their tempered response to a ridiculous gesture, they seem to be managing their own dignity quite effectively.

CP 101(1): Traditional Culture: How Does It Work?

As a visiting fellow of the RGCP in August 2010, I found myself doing yet again something I often find myself doing: complaining about the conceptualization of “traditional culture” (and its various avatars–folklore, ICH, TCEs, TK, etc.) embedded in current intergovernmental protection and propertization initiatives. One afternoon I sat down and wrote out the principal points of irritation, trying to imagine what a general alternative statement might look like so that it could be made available to policymakers and local actors engaged on various sides of cultural propertization initiatives.

This is a risky venture, for those of us in the ethnographic fields have grown leery of generalization, remembering the Eurocentric exercises in classification for which folklorists were known before 1968. We know the risks of reducing complex and diverse situations into inflexible formulae.Yet if we refuse to put forward ideal-typical accounts of how vernacular cultural practices operate, we abandon the field to bad theory. Well-meaning actors will continue to construct policy on the basis of a series of outmoded and often dangerous assumptions about community, traditionality, and culture.
As one of the goals of the RCGP, therefore, we would like to create a short, accessible guide: “How Traditional Culture Works.” This will be the first of the “CP-101” series of informational papers intended to lay out the general conceptual and institutional frameworks that shape the stakes in current cultural property debates. Others planned include “What is a Property Right?”, “What is an International Convention?”, and “Policy in Practice: Intended and Unintended Consequences.”
We therefore publish my unvarnished first draft, inviting your comments, corrections, and questions. We hope to expand it a little, but not so much that it will not be read by policymakers in a hurry. What else should be talked about? What is of limited applicability or completely wrongheaded? What can be better conceptualized? (Note that the language of this draft is of course too compressed and academic for a general audience: for the moment I am trying to sort out the ideas.)


The rhetoric of UNESCO and WIPO –community, identity, heritage, property, etc.–is often taken at its word because indigenous groups and local actors also adopt it. Sometimes this adoption is opportunistic. Often it is sincere, but even then it is taken as doxa divorced from real practice. It appropriates what is sometimes the only idiom of valorization available to those actors that outsiders will also acknowledge. Adopting the rhetoric becomes a means of getting a seat at the table.

But if you listen more closely to what local actors are doing and saying in more indirect ways, you see that the public rhetoric provides a highly ideological and inaccurate rendition of how traditional culture (that is, all culture) actually works. This is a major cause of the perverse effects of many protection efforts.

I list here some of the most egregious misunderstandings followed by a more evidence-based ideal-typification of traditional cultural process. In each case a too simple generalization is followed by a better generalization. Alas, it is usually less euphonious.

TOO SIMPLE: Folklore is created and owned by a community (i.e. a group). It is thus different in kind from author-creation or networked scientific and technological innovation. A community is a natural group, bounded and homogeneous. Once the tradition is created it is generally stable unless there is outside interference. (The UNESCO process and propertization initiatives have tended to re-racialize culture as based in descent; they have assumed local homogeneity and therefore allowed local power grabs by self-proclaimed representatives and/or created instrumental legal persons. Their assumptions about authenticity as tied to origins have imposed freezing on practices.)

BETTER: Folklore is created and continually recreated in communities (differentiated and unbounded social networks) in a process of competitive mutual observation. (Even among indigenous peoples.)
Traditional creation is slow open-source. It arises in a milieu of greater constraint and scarcity and is thus less specialized and fixed, more adaptable, than open-source or academic innovation. It is designed, as it were, for continual recycling and for ease of transmission. But it is likewise dependent on voluntarism and social control, likewise negotiated and contested, and likewise ongoing, even after the arrival of modernity.

TOO SIMPLE: Using folklore is a right.

BETTER: Practicing folklore is a responsibility.
• You can’t just “use” most kinds of folklore–you have to invest time and effort and you have to learn from somebody who is willing to teach you, typically in a collective situation. Most of what makes folklore valuable is not susceptible to straight copying: folklore has to be re-created, and that depends on a social context as well as on key performers.
• Most traditional practices demand constant, sometimes hard and often boring labor for little or no direct economic gain; many, indeed, demand expenditure of money as well as time. The resources that must be devoted are typically far out of proportion to any income or objective rewards generated.
• Traditions continue to exist only insofar as they are continually practiced and transmitted interpersonally, because artisanal and performance knowledge cannot be fully captured by codification or recording.
• Use rights may come from descent or other formal entitlements, but in most cases they are earned through doing the work: showing up and lending a hand. Practitioners look above all for successors who will do the work and do it well.
• The social and cultural value assigned to the tradition creates one set of incentives to do the work of maintaining it: its practitioners derive personal honor as well as a sense of obligation to keep it going. If you don’t have to earn the honor associated with the tradition but receive it automatically by virtue of group membership, and if the practice is “protected” by some supervising authority, there are strong incentives for free riding by individuals (i.e., assuming that others in the group will take care of it). The tradition loses a critical mass of dedicated performers and thus loses complexity and meaning.
• Another incentive has historically been that traditional arts offer an intellectual and aesthetic outlet in a climate of scarce options–a world of no exit and sublimated voice, in Hirschman’s terms. If the tradition is frozen as heritage, this creative outlet is lost. And with globalization and abundance of cultural and political options, this outlet becomes less necessary: the sense of an obligation to maintain it and the possibility of creativity within it become more important as incentives to practice. Thus regimes organized around a notion of stewardship may offer possibilities for certain individually based, labor-intensive and specialized kinds of tradition if they are not linked–as the UNESCO ICH regime has been in practice–with freezing of the form. The best successes have come not with property rights or protection of the “authentic” thing, but with apprenticeships and fellowships that free people’s time up to allow them to practice the tradition–free them from the demand of adapting the work to a market or making a living at something else. Note that the kinds of art protected by the National Treasures system of Japan and Korea are typically professional traditions that once depended on elite patronage. This would be somewhat analogous to state funding of opera houses, universities etc., which also replaced elite patronage of artists and scholars.

TOO SIMPLE: The principal use of traditional culture is to maintain group identity.

BETTER: Traditional culture serves all the same varied purposes served by codified forms of practice, even in the contemporary world. It may serve as entertainment, sport, religion, education, politics, medicine, philosophy, etc.–particularly for the lowest-status members of poor communities who lack access to the codified forms.

• In some cases–artisanal and some performance traditions–it allows individuals to earn income. Other forms are not commercialized until late in their histories, or at all, but serve other purposes, which may be differentially affected by “protection” or propertization. Some examples:
• Entertainment and aesthetic experience. The conditions of protection–i.e. sacralization, touristification, freezing–can remove many of these satisfactions for local participants.
• Developing verbal, physical, and other skills–typically related to traditional forms of labor or prestige.
• Collective reflection, political debate, social theorizing, and exercise of social control, typically in the absence of a free and accessible Habermasian public sphere. This space is jeopardized by freezing, public and state scrutiny, and labelling of meanings.
• Opportunities to earn prestige, social protagonism, and a public voice for actors who lack other kinds of social authority. (Subaltern castes or ethnic groups, women, sexual minorities, landless day laborers, children etc.) When the tradition acquires external prestige, the senior men and/or the best-positioned entrepreneurs have a tendency to take it over.
• The initiation/socialization of children and outsiders, e.g. immigrants but also local patrons, useful resource persons, etc. The latter uses can be lost with propertization that creates exclusive rights to participation.
• Religious devotion. Elements of the built environment that are fenced off from the everyday world as heritage may not be accessible for local devotional activities. “Intangible” traditions conserved as heritage have sometimes been divorced from their religious context.

The sense of identity is a secondary effect of long practical intimacy: the tradition is “in the blood.” (When people say this they mean that they feel driven to perform and/or can perform without thinking–they are talking about passion and habit, not descent.) Communities do sometimes maintain traditions that have lost their primary uses because of this sense of belonging and pleasure in participation. Bureaucratization of such traditions reduces this already thinner form of intimacy, alienating people from their own practices.

TOO SIMPLE: Folklore disappears with modernity, colonialism, globalization, etc. (The dinosaurs are dying out.)

BETTER: In most cases, old folklore is transmuted into something else, and/or moves to a more available environment. (The dinosaurs evolved into birds.) There is a natural history to traditions too. Note that with culture this does not entail evolutionary “progress” or increased complexity; it does not entail free choice; it does not entail increase of well-being. But people do adapt valued practices with remarkable ingenuity and tenacity; conversely, reform and abandonment and forgetting are never as thorough as either our fears or our hopes would have them. Culture is a continual recycling, both willed and unwilled.

TOO SIMPLE: Cultural diversity is a scarce resource, so all traditional culture should be preserved.

BETTER: Cultural invention and differentiation are ongoing, and forgetting is as necessary as remembering for life to go forward. If people don’t value practices, why not let them die? New stuff keeps happening. History did not end. Some deaths, however, are more violent than others. Radical interventions into cultural practices, whether intended to abolish or preserve them, often have painful and destructive consequences for the larger social situation.

AND the poor lack the freedom of choice possessed by the rich as to maintaining their traditions. This is a problem of inequality, not of cultural difference. It has to do, dare I say, with fast-capitalism: the rapid global transformation and equally rapid abandonment of landscapes, labor forces, etc., by international capital and the simultaneous, equally abrupt, penetration of local markets by global consumer goods. It’s hard to maintain time-consuming traditions when you are working long hours in a factory, still harder when you are forced to migrate and lose both materials and a community of knowledge. Even without migration, it’s hard to keep young people interested in the practices of the poor when seductive facsimiles of those of the wealthy are on offer. But in less insecure parts of the world global options are often rejected in favor of, or adapted to, local tastes, and with an increase in prosperity local tastes are likely to reassert themselves still further. (Consider the history of American culture in Europe; consider contemporary Japan or China.)

TOO SIMPLE: Dignity is damaged when the tradition is exposed or misused.

BETTER: Dignity is at bottom a problem of inequality, particularly of unequal access to privacy. [I am not so sure of myself in this section and need to think further–help welcome] How many people reading this document derive their own sense of personal dignity from their inherited cultural traditions? How many of us would want to outlaw parody of, say, the Catholic mass? Would we want to protect the right to secrecy of Western politicians in the same way we are concerned to protect the secrecy of indigenous ritual specialists? The problem is rather that those peoples classed as “traditional” or “culture” are increasingly pressured to admit outsiders and expose and commodify their cultural practices–which means also their own bodies and everyday lives–in a context of scarce economic options. To be sure, they often find ways of partitioning their practices so that some aspects are made public and others are reserved for insiders. It should also be remembered that the possession of secrets is an important source of traditional authority–there are plenty of contemporary Western examples–but to gain this social power you have to advertise the existence of the secrets. (Their existence is often more important than their actual content.) The relationship between dignity and attention is thus complex.

Version 1.0 for comment, 27 Aug 2010
Dorothy Noyes, The Ohio State University,