- This is the first installment of our CP 101 series. The second post of this series is: CP 101(2): What is a Property Right? by Kilian Bizer.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org