Academic journal article Ethnologies

Intangible Roles: Theory, Policy, Practice and Intangible Cultural Heritage

Academic journal article Ethnologies

Intangible Roles: Theory, Policy, Practice and Intangible Cultural Heritage

Article excerpt

The case of intangible cultural heritage throws two particular issues into stark relief: first, questions about the boundaries of cultural policy, or what it is possible to administer; and second, heated contemporary debates over the desirability of academics engaging with the administration of culture. In this chapter I want to consider how we might perhaps be able to understand more about intangible cultural heritage, and what might be possible to do with it, by bringing it into contact with a number of debates in cultural studies, cultural policy and cultural theory.

In 2006, in an article in the international journal Cultural Studies, the British philosopher Peter Osborne critiqued the turn in cultural studies toward a greater engagement with cultural policy: with the new definition of culture as "a political-administrative resource." Osborne argues that in their search to "be relevant" and "have an effect", cultural theorists often do not critique the language of managerial administration that they are analysing, and in the process end up implicitly endorsing the neoliberalism that they should be critiquing. His point, in short, is that the

desire for a cultural studies linked to a transformative left populism [has] come to terminate in the sorry state of a cultural theory dedicated to legitimating an emergent political-administrative status quo (Osborne, 2006: 43).

Osborne argues that a more imaginatively useful route would be to pursue a greater engagement with the many strands of the philosophy of pragmatics, to uncover its richer traditions rather than simply practising a narrowly short-term expedient version of pragmatism, which, he suggests, would also involve a greater theoretical engagement with the politics of time.

To some extent this piece deploys what Osborne describes earlier as "the clarifying power of the strategic use of exaggeration" (Osborne, 2006: 37). For as most academics thoroughly steeped in the field of cultural studies would recognise, there are clearly strands of cultural work in existence which do manage to engage with questions of policy whilst simultaneously interrogating the broader political context on which its analysis and recommendations are built (see McGuigan, 1996; 2004). In addition, it is also worth emphasising that some of the policy analyses Osborne is gesturing towards provide a set of critical terms to extend understandings of how policy works, which do not have to necessarily be articulated to neoliberal politics, or to a lack of interest in either the more complex genealogical meanings of pragmatism or the politics of time.

However, Osborne's critique interests me, partly as someone who has linked post-Marxist cultural studies with an analysis of cultural policy (Littler and Naidoo, 2004; 2005) and partly because to a large extent I think his analysis is both very useful and timely, in the most far-reaching and multiple senses of the terms. For it is the case that there can be a pronounced tendency in many governmentality-oriented studies in particular to analyse cultural policies and to suggest ways in which they could be improved whilst failing to interrogate the broader context and politics within which these policies are made in the first place. As Osborne, with customary clarity and incisive flair points out, this means they end up, despite themselves, endorsing the broader political agenda these policies are part of rather than critiquing it.

Given these factors, it seems worth considering how we might work with this argument as a means of helping us theorise perspectives beyond it; how we might use it as a prompt to investigate some of the deeper factors shaping the emergence of cultural forms--and, in this particular case, of the emergence of intangible cultural heritage. For if we apply the points I have extracted from Osborne's narrative to the case of intangible cultural heritage, the implication is that whilst analysing its strategic uses and policies as an instrument of govemmentality, what we might do as well, at the same time, is to ensure that we capaciously interrogate, in a number of different ways, the heritage of intangible cultural heritage itself. …

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