Heritage Keywords: Rhetoric and Redescription in Cultural Heritage. Edited by Kathyrin Lafrenz Samuels and Trinidad Rico. Boulder: University of Colorado Press.
Authenticity. Civil society. Cultural diversity. Cultural property. Democratization. Difficult heritage. Equity. Heritage at risk. Heritage discourse. Intangible heritage. Memory. Natural heritage. Place. Rights. Sustainability. These “keywords” serve as chapter titles for this volume, framed by a programmatic introduction by one of the editors and closing thoughts by the other.
Each chapter seeks to demonstrate the rhetorical nature of the keyword in question. This focus on actual uses of a term rather than its abstract meaning substantiates the “redescription” of the title. Note that the purpose is not to deconstruct a notion and move on: emphasis is much rather laid on understanding the shifting uses of terminology, the work heritage actors do with words, in order to get on and move forward with better dialogue and continued engagement.
The introduction states that the “keywords” of the title are more than just commonplaces: they constitute “prevailing heritage vocabularies” (p. 5) but are themselves subject to change. As persuasive keys, they unlock a “rhetoric of heritage” particular to a time (and a place), but remain provisional and emergent. Their dynamic nature is illustrative of the volatility of rhetoric and its transformative potential that always also affects itself. The book’s drive towards “more equitable and inclusive research programs” (p. 13) is grounded in this basic diagnosis. Considering that one chapter seeks to redescribe the very notion of “equity”, this phrase encapsulates the fraught approach chosen: to critically review keywords in heritage management without undermining the whole enterprise. This leads to tangible tensions throughout.
Anna Karlström’s contribution on “authenticity” proceeds by comparison: in the spirit of UNESCO’s Nara Document on Authenticity (1994), she discusses a specific incident of Buddhist merit-making in Laos to point out how locally, authenticity is very different from “our” view. There, “social performance” generates authenticity, where we might use carbon-dating (p. 35). In overemphasizing this contrast, the chapter fails to convince that what the Lao are doing in their “popular religious practices” is usefully translated as authenticity. The juxtaposition makes it possible to dodge the critical analysis of the author’s own understanding of authenticity, on which her views of “heritage management” critically depend. In its insistence on ontologically separate spheres, the chapter fails in achieving a genuinely anthropological conversation.
Sigrid Van der Auwera’s subsequent chapter on “civil society” diagnoses current tendencies of devolution in heritage responsibility and accountability that go along with a “rhetoric of community” (p. 48). But civil society is often uncivil towards heritage itself, so clearly cannot be a panacea for all of heritage’s woes; and the author wavers. Seeing the limitations of the notions of “community” and “civil society”, as well as of heritage policies that postulate both as key factors, her response still consists in policy suggestions tempered by admonishments. But that “[c]ivil society activities in the field of cultural heritage must consequently point to the importance of developing inclusive, pluralistic, multilayered, and democratic heritage communities” (p. 59) is hardly a persuasive roadmap considering her own misgivings.
“Cultural diversity” receives a more decisive treatment by Alicia McGill. Her rich material from education in Belize substantiates the rhetorical nature of this keyword, as “reified versions of culture and heritage are often considered a kind of ‘cure-all’ for addressing social problems” (p. 67). Her analysis skillfully weaves together local specificities with globally recurrent patterns of national diversity management in the face of grievances regarding property, rights, and representation. I expect this useful chapter to speak to many readers working in places marked by fraught identities.
Alexander Bauer continues the discussion of “cultural property”, providing the notion’s cultural history as a context for the dramatic tension in the struggle over museal restitutions. Seemingly “narrow-minded parochial and nationalistic interests” (p. 82) clash with more cosmopolitan views suggesting that “cultural property” might properly belong to the whole world. These disappointingly turn out to conform with market logic and desires for free trade of antiques. Alternative models, such as shared stewardship and kula-like circulation of artifacts, out of which prestige accrues to all stakeholders, promise egress. Braun’s redescription of cultural property works particularly well: he shows how the term has been reconceptualized by various actors, a dynamic that we neglect at our own peril. The chapter fulfills the book’s promise spectacularly.
Cecilia Rodéhn, in discussing “democratization”, delivers an equally clever and careful paper that—without any cheer or glee—unmasks “heritage parlance” in regard to political transitions. I would quibble with the use of Speech Act Theory made here, but this does not impinge on the strength of the argument that “democratization” in museums is often used as a normative and temporal critique of previous politics, but inadvertently reproduces hegemonic practice. Like those of Bauer, McGill, and to a degree Sigrid Van der Auwera, this chapter challenges the idea that legitimacy can be derived from putative “bottom-up” approaches that favor marginalized communities.
Joshua Samuels adds a twist to this thrust. The “difficult heritage” he expected to find when looking at resettlement villages (borghi), material remnants of Sicily’s fascist past, was not understood as “difficult” by local users, who felt no need for Vergangenheitsbewältigung. This raises a number of questions, foremost about the bias that a researcher’s expectation or an established interpretive frame can introduce. While it won’t set the world on fire, this is an illustrative piece.
Jeffrey Adams delivers the probably angriest chapter, and one of the best: “equity” as a key notion of international heritage management (IHM) suffers a thorough drubbing. Based on high-minded presumptions that empirically do not apply, especially about “communities”, the call for equity is rarely more than a rhetorical flourish (p. 135) that ends up sustaining inequity more than anything else. This tour de force will be cited for years to come.
Invoking Ulrich Beck in a critique of modernism, Trinidad Rico reminds us that heritage being “at risk” is a difficult-to-assess claim, a “commonsensical verdict” (p. 151) that empowers experts and technocrats while encouraging a depoliticization of conservation. Centrally located in the volume, this is a good chapter in that its core argument is easily abstracted and applicable well beyond the empirical example pursued here.
Cooper carefully dissects (authorized) “heritage discourse” in regard to the question whether double-glazed windows should or should not be permissible in Edinburgh’s New Town. The chapter culminates in taking a strong stance against easy denunciations of AHD as state-centered, monolithic, or heavy-handed, and demonstrates the analytic power of rhetoric regarding any arguments for or against heritage.
When does living heritage end? Klaus Zehbe explores the analogy of brain death and “intangible heritage” in his playful but self-indulgent chapter that combines Rortyean irony with Fleck’s thought styles and more criticism of taken-for-granted community. The point seems to be, crudely put, that (intangible) heritage cannot be objectified but is always a product of particular social relationships, as is brain death.
As incisive as Adams’s contribution, Gabriel Moshenska’s chapter on “memory” as a “predatory synonym” (p. 201) firmly demands that we redescribe this notion that too often stands in for vague and methodologically unsound generalizations. Our use of memory should instead attend to agency, practice, and rhetoric at work in observable phenomena. This precise text could be required reading at all levels of instruction.
Melissa Baird’s take on “natural heritage” urges reflection on the rhetoric of nature and its relation to culture. In a counter-hegemonic move, communities (here opposed to “colonial” forces) are taken as much less problematic than in other chapters. But exempting “deep cultural connections to place that we may not fully understand” (p. 215) from the rhetorical analysis limits the range of the argument.
In a strikingly specific paper, Robert Preucel and Regis Pecos discuss “place” in regard to the decades-spanning case of a dam and how it threatened Cochiti Pueblo. They follow Baird in being more gentle on indigenous rhetoric than on the AHD of Western specialists.
Kathryn Samuels uses the Roman ruins at Oudhna in Tunisia as a window into that country’s repressive democracy as it co-opts (and subverts) international conservation efforts, subordinating human rights to neo-liberal interests. The strategy used is to constrain social imagination by means of a “rhetoric of reality” (p. 245) employed in planning and development. This is another stimulating chapter, but “rights” was not necessarily the best keyword to encapsulate its argument.
Paul Lane explores the undermining effect the argument of “sustainability” has on cultural tourism in East African pastoralist communities. Proceeding by strict application of the rhetorical categories invention, arrangement, style, delivery, and memory, the chapter traces the connections between discursive commonplaces and stereotypes, shifting expectations of authenticity, and heritage pursuits. By emphasizing the sustainability of their lifestyle, Maasai and others inadvertently play into dichotomies denying the “adaptive change” (p. 279) they so clearly pursue.
Rico’s “After Words” reiterate what I see as the basic and laudable ambition of the book:
These debates do not aim to stall further dialogue, but rather to recognize the epistemological cycles that embrace a heritage vocabulary that is, or rather should be, constantly in flux. This fluidity is not naturally occurring in the normative framework of heritage in which these vocabularies play a key role. (p. 286)
Most chapters do speak to this promise, which makes this a successful edited volume that shoulders aside calls for a (merely) discursive turn in heritage studies by demonstrating the capabilities of rhetoric’s inbuilt attention to dynamism and agency.
Center of Excellence
University of Konstanz