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Folklife at the International Level: The Roots of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ Part V, Globalization and Death

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Two men sit in chairs. One plays the bellows-blown uilleann bagpipes, the other a bouzouki.
Patrick Sky (left) plays uilleann pipes and John Campbell (right) plays bouzouki at the Rhode Island Ceilidhe Club in Cranston, Rhode Island, November 30, 1979. Photo by Thomas A. Burns. Part of the online Rhode Island Folklife Project collection, 1979. Find the original photo here.  The uilleann pipes were, as ICH of Ireland, inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2017.

Now that we have introduced UNESCO’s 1989 Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore in the last blog post in this series, and discussed some of its recommended approaches, let’s delve back into tracing the development of the ICH concept. As a starting point, the 1989 Recommendation offers us this:

Folklore (or traditional and popular culture) is the totality of tradition-based creations of a cultural community, expressed by a group or individuals and recognized as reflecting the expectations of a community in so far as they reflect its cultural and social identity; its standards and values are transmitted orally, by imitation or by other means. Its forms are, among others, language, literature, music, dance, games, mythology, rituals, customs, handicrafts, architecture and other arts.

As previously discussed, this definition is similar to those used in the 1980s UNESCO committee meetings that led to the Recommendation’s adoption. One obvious modification concerns the notion of folklore representing the “totality” of a cultural community’s tradition-based creations, which serves to both connect expressions to specific communities and acknowledge that they draw on traditional culture in a broader sense. However, Janet Blake (in her Developing a New Standard-setting Instrument for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage) noted that the definition was still too narrow in scope, failing to address all “aspects of ‘traditional culture and folklore’ that need safeguarding.” Similarly, she questioned the inclusion of the list of ‘folklore’ forms that comes at its end, arguing that such lists inevitably omit forms that are not so easily “reduced to a category.” This issue of categorizing and, thereby, universalizing highly specific and nuanced ICH has a rather long history, as already touched upon, and remains important today.

Nonetheless, going beyond the definition and looking at the Recommendation’s Preamble, folklore is stated as having “social, economic, cultural and political importance,” as well as constituting “an integral part of cultural heritage and living culture” (emphasis mine). Here, it is apparent that ‘folklore’ was understood as a contemporary phenomenon that has been passed down over time and, thus, is changing, with relationships to broader contextual forces, such as the economy. It is possible to say that this 1989 concept alludes to a more holistic notion of how and why folklore exists, rendering it difficult to view as operating in a vacuum. Yet, this is not the definition that ultimately stuck.

Taking a step back, let us look at what the 1989 Recommendation sought to accomplish as a whole. Even though coming up with a definition for folklore/ICH was an integral first step, remember that the overarching goal of these efforts was to create some sort of global instrument, such as a convention, through which the safeguarding of ICH would be promoted and fostered. A lofty, significant, and challenging goal does raise the question: why was (and is) safeguarding ICH viewed as so important?

A man plays a Hardanger fiddle (a Norwegian variant of the violin) while standing up.
Jørgen Hyland, Hardanger fiddler, Evanston, Illinois, 1977. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer. Part of the online Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection (AFC 1981/004). Find the original photo here. The Hardanger fiddle is integral to “Setesdal traditional dance and music,” which is currently nominated by Norway for inclusion on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The decision will be made at the end of 2019.

In the Preamble, it is stressed that “folklore forms part of the universal heritage of humanity and that it is a powerful means of bringing together different peoples and social groups and of asserting their cultural identity” (note the use of ‘universal’). Here, it is conceived of as able not only to play ‘powerful’ social roles, but also to be mobilized for political purposes –for example to ‘assert’ shared identities. One may wonder against whom or in relation to what ‘different peoples and social groups’ would be asserting their cultural identities, and perhaps the answer lies in some of these less explicit aspects of the then-budding ICH concept. For instance, as the Preamble continues, folklore was also understood as ‘extremely fragile,’ “particularly those aspects relating to oral tradition and the risk that they might be lost.” Furthermore, the document stresses “the need in all countries for recognition of the role of folklore and the danger it faces from multiple factors” and, as such, “governments should play a decisive role in the safeguarding of folklore and…should act as quickly as possible.”

These opening statements, as true as they may be, paint a rather grim picture with respect to the well-being of living cultural traditions worldwide: many are dying and there is an urgent need to protect them. Yet, this is not a new viewpoint; it recalls the early days of anthropology and folklore, when cultural practices were often viewed as ‘fossils’ and ‘survivals’ from earlier times, threatened with inescapable death as a result of modernization, industrialization, and colonization. With respect to the 2003 Convention, the eventual outcome of these efforts, Michael Brown bridges the two by stating: “The policy is oddly reminiscent of early anthropology, which was driven by the conviction that primitive cultures should be documented in their entirety – from basketry techniques and healing arts to kinship systems and religious beliefs – because their extinction was inevitable.”

For example, one early (prolific and yet controversial) folklorist, Alexander Haggerty Krappe, echoes this notion of cultural practices dying (from the forces of modernization) in his 1930 The Science of Folk-Lore:

In every modern country the rural populations are still addicted to beliefs and practices long since given up by the bulk of the city people. But the conclusion certainly justified that the ancestors of the present-day city-dwellers, who lived at a time when there were no large cities or who simply had not yet moved into the city, followed the same customs and held the same beliefs as the contemporary peasants. Again, therefore, we may say that the cultural stage held by one social group will throw light on the former social stage of some other group.

An altar for Día de Muertos, or Mexican Day of the Dead, in Burien, Washington, November 1, 2009. Photo by John B., shared on Flickr with a Creative Commons License. Día de Muertos was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008. 

Heading back into the late 20th century, the 1989 Recommendation does not offer much elaboration on the “multiple factors” threatening folklore, but does refer to “human and natural dangers to which it is exposed, including the risks deriving from armed conflicts, occupation of territories, or public disorders of other kinds,” as well as what can be understood now as globalization. In particular, in the section on “preservation of folklore,” it states:

Preservation is concerned with protection of folk traditions and those who are the transmitters, having regard to the fact that each people has a right to its own culture and that its adherence to that culture is often eroded by the impact of the industrialized culture purveyed by the mass media. Measures must be taken to guarantee the status of and economic support for folk traditions both in the communities which produce them beyond.

These measures clearly relate to the efforts of the World Intellectual Property Organization at the time (and today) in protecting folklore against misappropriation and commercialization, as discussed earlier in this series. They also signal an increasing concern at the time about the negative impacts of globalization – namely, cultural homogenization and all that gets diminished and/or destroyed in its wake. Here, the rise of mass media and its wide dissemination across the globe is seen to ‘erode’ cultures, especially those considered to be ‘less-industrialized.’ Even in 1977, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss was sounding a similar alarm when, in a speech delivered on Canadian radio, he said:

What threatens us right now is probably what we may call over-communication—that is, the tendency to know exactly in one point of the world what is going on in all other parts of the world. In order for a culture to be really itself and to produce something, the culture and its members must be convinced of their originality and even, to some extent, of their superiority over the others; it is only under conditions of under-communication that it can produce anything. We are now threatened with the prospect of our being only consumers, able to consume anything from any point in the world and from every culture, but of losing all originality.

Lévi-Strauss is more or less describing cultural homogenization via globalization, mainly in terms of late-20th century advancements in communications that increasingly connected the world (of course, pre-Internet). Skipping ahead, though, comparable statements are also found in the 2003 Convention’s Preamble, such as:

Recognizing that the processes of globalization and social transformation, alongside the conditions they create for renewed dialogue among communities, also give rise, as does the phenomenon of intolerance, to grave threats of deterioration, disappearance and destruction of the intangible cultural heritage, in particular owing to a lack of resources for safeguarding such heritage[.]

It is clear that inherent to the definition of ‘ICH’ is globalization, or stated more elegantly by Valdimar Tr. Hafstein in 2004: “I have argued that the threat posed by globalization is in fact so closely intertwined with the intangible heritage – so centrally involved in its discursive construction – that the two cannot be disentangled: the menace of globalization must be considered intrinsic to the concept of the intangible heritage.” Moreover, present in this knot of entangled ideas is death or, at least, the threat of death. In this sense, ‘ICH’ as a concept comprises the notions of globalization and, in close proximity, death as a sort of twofold notion, inextricably linked to each other.

As this series continues to unknot the ideas in ‘ICH,’ remnants of long-ago concepts, beliefs, and values, such as from when anthropology and folklore were young, come to the surface. Fortunately, these ideas can be used to illuminate ways in which ICH of today can more effectively remain vitalized and mutable for the future. Perhaps, as I will return to later, this could include the acceptance of death as an ecological process and, as such, living cultural traditions, practices, and expressions are viewed through a wider, more holistic lens. Ecologically-speaking, we can see ICH as embodied and changed in response to an array of complex, contextual forces by those who are its true experts. From there, new possibilities can open up as we relieve ourselves of the heavy burden of traditional preservation. Until next time!

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