One of the more entertaining excursions of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) project is in the field of cuisine, under whose august portals “Mediterranean diet” has been loftily inscribed:
Among many fun BTL comments there is one from a certain Nickov:
Might have a stab at protecting the Bristol Channel Diet:
Gregg’s pasties, white cider and chlamydia.
I also eagerly await an application from the Glasgow cultural authorities (whoever they might be) to, um, preserve the venerable deep-fried Mars bar.
And what of Spotted Dick, I hear you cry?
I was reminded of all this on my recent trip to Lisbon, whose fine cuisine hardly fits into the Mediterranean gastronomic jigsaw.
While we’re on the topic of transmission, this important corrective doesn’t entirely confound the popular cliché that Bach’s music fell out of use after his death. His sons, and their audiences, might not have taken kindly to being told to continue performing their father’s music—though doubtless ICH funding would have influenced their attitude.
Were one to be at all jocular (surely not?—Ed.), one could query many ancient cultural traditions. Where might UNESCO stand on  wife-beating? Or indeed FGM? And whatever happened to child chimney-sweeps? Witch-burning, a tradition eradicated in most parts of the world, is also seriously endangered. Molvania has nice comments on all this kind of flapdoodle.
Thanks to Helen Rees (herself a great authority on the ICH) for alerting me to this article, succinctly broaching such issues:
- Richard Kurin, “Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage in the 2003 UNESCO Convention: a critical appraisal”, Museum 56.1 (2004), pp.66–77.
The definition, as given in the Convention, can encompass a broader range of activity than the framers assumed. Such cultural forms as rap music, Australian cricket, modern dance, post-modernist architectural knowledge, and karaoke bars all symbolize cultural communities (albeit not necessarily ethnically or regionally) and pass on their own traditions (though not usually genealogically).
Not all intangible cultural heritage is recognized for the purposes of the Convention. To be recognized, intangible cultural heritage must be consistent with human rights, exhibit the need for mutual respect between communities, and be sustainable. This is a very high and one might say unrealistic and imposing standard.
Understandably, UNESCO does not want to support or encourage practices inimical to human rights such as slavery, infanticide, or torture. Yet the standard is not without controversy. Is female genital mutilation a legitimate part of intangible cultural heritage to be recognized by the Convention or not? Is a religious tradition that includes Brahmins, but excludes non-Brahmins disqualified as intangible cultural heritage because of its discriminatory quality? Is a musical tradition where only men play instruments and only women sing inequitable, and thus contrary to human rights accords? Determining what is allowable or not as intangible cultural heritage under the Convention will be a difficult task.
Similarly problematic is the “mutual respect” clause in the Convention. Intangible cultural heritage is by definition something used for community self-definition. Many cultural communities though, define themselves in opposition or resistance to others. Their very identity as a people or community relies on their victory over or defeat by others. Their defining songs and tales may celebrate the glory of empire, victorious kings, religious conversion, or alternatively resistance to perceived injustice, martyrdom and defeat—not the mutual respect of peoples. The Convention’s standard is quite idealistic, seeing culture as generally hopeful and positive, born not of historical struggle and conflict but of a varied flowering of diverse cultural ways. Including the “mutual respect” standard can however disqualify much of the world’s traditional culture from coverage by the Convention.
Kurin goes on to query the problematic standard of “sustainability”:
The whole treaty is about safeguarding heritage thought to be endangered to some degree or other. The very fact that a tradition is endangered means that it is not sustainable in its current form or in its current context—hence the need for national or international intervention. Yet by definition a tradition to be recognized as intangible cultural heritage under the Convention and thus worthy of safeguarding, must itself also be sustainable. The provision, though well meaning, is confusing. Sustainability here is an ideal to be achieved, not an eligibility requirement for action.
Surely no one rationally envisions the Convention as safeguarding the transmission of intangible cultural heritage through such coercive forms as legally requiring the sons and daughters who practise a tradition to continue in their parents’ footsteps. No cultural treaty should ensure results through the denial of freedom promised under human-rights accords, with the opportunity for social, cultural, and economic mobility.
Culture changes and evolves. Practices of the past are discarded when they cease to be functionally useful or symbolically meaningful to a community. UNESCO and Member States need not guarantee through financial and symbolic rewards the survival of those customs and practices, beliefs and traditions that the community itself wants to discard. Nor should they encourage particularly harmful practices, or “freeze” cultural practices in the guise of preserving cultural diversity or defending against cultural globalization.
The Convention tends to reduce intangible cultural heritage to a list of largely expressive traditions, atomistically recognized and conceived. The actions it proposes miss the larger, holistic aspect of culture—the very characteristic that makes culture intangible. This is the intricate and complex web of meaningful social actions undertaken by individuals, groups, and institutions. Thousands of human cultures today face a myriad of challenges. Whether they survive or flourish depends upon so many things—the freedom and desire of culture bearers, an adequate environment, a sustaining economic system, a political context within which their very existence is at least tolerated. Actions to safeguard “tangibilized” inventoried items of cultural production are unlikely to safeguard adequately the larger, deeper, more diffuse intangible cultural patterns and contexts. Saving songs may not protect the ways of life of their singers, or the appreciation due by listeners. Far greater more holistic and systematic action is likely to be required.
There are many lessons for China here. In the south of Fujian province—alongside the extraordinary Hokkien traditions of Daoist ritual, processions with god statues borne aloft on sedans, and nanguan chamber ballads—vicious chronic inter-village feuds are a hallowed part of the local heritage.
I’m sure theorists have been beavering away at unpacking the prescriptive assumption that all tradition must be “good”. Conversely, ethnography avoids prescription—I prefer to devote my energies to documenting the traditions themselves, as I find them, rather than awarding prizes on questionable aesthetic and theoretical grounds, or leading them down the tortuous path of state institutionalization and commodification.
In China at least, one must observe that the ICH is a state agency to trumpet the grandeur of ancient Chinese culture, rather than a dispassionate body supporting scholarly research. Where do spirit mediums (anchors in maintaining local ritual life, among both the ethnic minorities and the Han Chinese) stand here—they seem most unlikely to be offered the poisoned chalice of ICH status?
 As in “Where do you stand on Donald Trump?” “On his windpipe.”