Academic journal article Ethnologies

Re-Totalizing Culture: Breathing the Intangible into Museum Practice?

Academic journal article Ethnologies

Re-Totalizing Culture: Breathing the Intangible into Museum Practice?

Article excerpt

The entanglement of the global and the local, and the problematic position of nation states in globalization must not be examined only as political questions. They are first and foremost questions of image and technologies of representation. (Yoshimoto, 1996: 109)

With the growth of concern over diminishing cultural diversity, homogenization, and the preservation of tangible patrimony, UNESCO has increasingly assumed a lead position in devising new legislative instruments --programs, proclamations, conventions, and treaties--for the safeguard and regulation of cultural heritage. This cultural policy has been re-directed in the last two decades by a newly emergent and confident cosmopolitan political bloc that has attempted to reverse the organization's Occidental bias by extending the protection it gives to tangible heritage to include intangible cultural expressions.

This new political interest coincides with wider demands for the retotalization of both aspects of culture aimed at encouraging the institutional use of vernacular interpretations in place of typological and externally imposed classifications. While these movements share a common interest in the decolonization of institutional culture, there is no overarching consensus on the means by which authority over interpretation can be returned to and exercised by originating communities and practitioners. Superficially, these new currents appear to be aimed at the empowerment of a large, but marginalized number of less developed nation states or internally colonized peoples, that are rightly demanding control over the interpretation of their cultural practices which are globally recognized as indices of ethnic identity. On closer examination however, the discourse and policy of some of these decolonization strategies appear to be compromised by their intimate linkage to globalization, thus forcing intangible cultural policy issues into an acutely politicized arena of contestation.

To support its relatively new cultural mandate, UNESCO has revised its definitions of culture. These rearticulations--largely appropriated from specific anthropological discourses--expand the concept of culture to include its tangible and intangible manifestations and provide a legitimating moral and intellectual authority to promote its wider acceptability. This essay represents a modest attempt to define and trace the influence of part of the rhetoric generated by globalized institutional cultures on museum practice and to raise questions on the current choices museums have been called to make.

The Internationalized Politics of Culture

Derrida, in The Rights to Philosophy, proposes that international organizations, like UNESCO, and their associated instruments, derive an extraordinary power from being constituted by, what he calls, philosophemes:

   They are philosophical acts and archives, philosophical productions
   and products, not only because the concepts that legitimate them
   have an ascribable philosophical history and this a philosophical
   history that finds itself inscribed in the charter or the
   constitution of UNESCO; rather because, at the same time, and for
   this reason, such institutions imply the sharing of a culture and a
   philosophical language, committing themselves consequently to
   making possible, by means of education first of all, the access to
   this language and to this culture (2002: 331).

He goes on to argue that while philosophy through its institutionalization has been narrowed to its modernist lineage--ultimately traceable back to the Greco-Roman world--it is nevertheless 'in-itself' essentially irreducible to any one language or specific national origin, or to any singular codification or institutionalization (Derrida, 2002: 340).

Despite Derrida's concerns over the persistence of its institutionalized meta-narrative, UNESCO's advocacy and leadership role in the struggle for the inclusion of intangible expressions, as an essential and legitimate manifestation of cultural heritage, has been paramount (Arizpe, 2004: 134). …

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