A striking development that has come out of the last decade’s concern with indigenous IPR and, more broadly, with the world’s mad scramble for rules of cultural ownership is the rise of global initiatives to identify and protect anything defined as “heritage.” UNESCO is the single biggest player here, but UNESCO discussions have spawned new bureaucracies in many parts of the world.
Some experts close to the process see this as a good thing. Their argument is largely a pragmatic one: at least the world is talking about this stuff and finally taking measures to protect heritage from IP piracy. If you want to get the general flavor of this, click here to read about South Korea’s current efforts to define and preserve whatever it defines as its cultural heritage.
Although I’ve met many people involved with heritage protection and generally find them smart and motivated by the best of intentions, I’m a heritage protection skeptic, which puts me in good company. For a bracing critique full of tart humor, check out David Lowenthal’s article “Heritage Wars,” published in a UK online magazine last year. Other recent contributions to the skeptic’s position include Rob Albro’s 2005 essay “Making Cultural Policy and Confounding Cultural Diversity,” as well as a recent essay by Dorothy Noyes called “The Judgment of Solomon: Global Protections for Tradition and the Problem of Community Ownership,” accessible here.
Among the points made by these critics: (1) the current passion for heritage protection gives the state increased formal control over heritage and the definition of heritage; (2) the inevitable bureaucratization of heritage tends to provide employment to elites rather than the grassroots communities ostensibly being helped; (3) state control is likely to encourage less heritage diversity rather than more; and (4) by ossifying heritage and treating it as if it were a national resource subject to rational management, heritage legislation may kill, or at least significantly distort, the very thing it attempts to protect.
As a topic for anthropological research, this is obviously the mother lode, at least for fieldworkers who can manage to stay awake during endless, highly legalistic conversations about how best to manage culture and heritage. (Oh, and they’d better have big expense accounts,too, since so much of the policy debate takes place in New York, Paris, and Geneva.) It is clearly only one expression of a larger social process of rationalization to which I’ll turn my attention in my last comments as a carpetbagger at SM.
But one has to ask: In an era when anthropology has dedicated itself to ceaseless moralizing, where should we stand on the issue? It would be hypocritical to reinvent it as just another “social problem” for dispassionate research, since anthropologists themselves were instrumental, first, in defining culture, and second, in raising a hue and cry about the commodification and theft of cultural elements via the global IP system. It’s an interesting dilemma.
(BTW, the organigram above is an edited version of a real organizational chart from a Ministry of Culture (or was it Tourism? I can’t recall) cribbed from the website of an eastern European republic that will remain anonymous. Truth really is stranger than parody.)