Edible, intangible, dodgy

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:

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2010/aug/23/mediterranean-diet-world-heritage

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 [1] 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.

(pp.69–71:)

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.

(pp.73–5:)

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?

 

[1] As in “Where do you stand on Donald Trump?” “On his windpipe.”

The great British tradition

In order to satisfy their new bedfellows, the “government” of the “United” “Kingdom” needs more time to insert some suitably misogynistic details into the Queen’s Speech. Perhaps aficionados of calendrical rituals can look forward to more parades too…

One obstacle to the prompt delivery of the Speech is a fine technical detail—just the kind that I relish:

Also known as the gracious speech [sic—SJ], it was historically written on vellum with ink that takes three days to dry. Although it is now written on thick goatskin parchment [YAY! Getting down with the kids—SJ], this also needs several days to dry, meaning a speech cannot be amended at the last minute.

I rest my case. Go on, Queenie, just tweet it. We all know how well that works

Resting case

Resting my case. After Li band tour, Paris.

 

Michelle Obama

Meanwhile (see my previous post), the passionate engagement, dignity, and basic human decency of Michelle Obama are desperately needed in these disturbing times.

We may indeed have reservations about her husband’s legacy, and his current conformity to the distressing rule of enrichment (a trail blazed more predictably by our own former “socialist” leader), but if only we had appreciated him more at the time—all the more so, given the dangerous pompous immoral self-serving infantile sulky posturings of his successor.

Even as an orator, while her hubby is no slouch himself, Michelle is in another league. Her passion was movingly evinced in her speeches to schoolgirls on her visits to Britain since 2009:

Now I realize all this is a clichéd bleeding-heart liberal do-gooder Guardian reader’s take, and I quite get the surly defensiveness of the fusty conservative stuck in the 1950s, before their birthright was threatened by uppity women and foreigners, when (or so they thought) the unwashed classes still knew their place. For a fine article on the antithesis to inspirational women like Michelle, see here—and note several BTL comments that throw out the baby with the bathwater by “refusing to be told what to think”.

Anyone unmoved by Michelle’s speeches has a heart of stone. Her inspiration is already bearing fruit here. Still,

Peccable musical sensibilities

I guess we should be grateful—nothing focuses the mind like having a vindictive sulky misogynistic illiterate baby as Philistine-in-chief in the White House. Some of his advisers were concerned that withdrawing from the climate agreement “might damage his credibility”. Where have they been?

Sure, we have worse thing to worry about than his highly peccable aesthetic sensibilities, but they evidently developed early. In “his” 1987 book The Art of the Deal, Trump wrote:

In the second grade I actually gave a teacher a black eye—I punched my music teacher because I didn’t think he knew anything about music and I almost got expelled.

I’d love to know more about this music teacher—just how little is it possible to know about music? Can it be that the young boy’s ire was caused by the inexplicable absence from the syllabus of the late Beethoven string quartets, which as we all know would later form his core listening?

But unseriously though folks, this is a fine spoof. I particularly love

bachs-goldberg-variations-1457709453

stravinskys-rite-of-spring-1457709448

barbers-adagio-for-strings-1457709451.jpg

And if you think translating medieval Daoist texts is difficult, spare a thought for interpreters, trying to make sense of the prez’s mangling of the English language. At least culona inchiavabile can be transformed into something even more evocative.

Back in Blighty, I see Bumbling Boris has escaped again, leaping back into the fray by welcoming a kindred spirit to Britain with more blithe inanities.—but he’s got The Latin, so that’s all right then. Imagine Conservative Central Office:

How did he get out? I thought we packed him off to Bongo-Bongo Land.”

Homage to Nina Hagen

I unfairly tucked away the mind-blowing Naturträne in a post setting forth from Viv Albertine and the Slits, but Nina Hagen richly deserves her own homage.

Rather like the leader of the free world shoving the prime minister of Montenegro aside in Brussels:

(The only logical explanation is that he somehow mistook the occasion for a beauty queen molestation contest with a prize of unlimited ketchup-drenched steaks),

Nina elbows the competition out of the way. In her case the competition includes Maria Callas, Kate Bush, Sid Vicious, and Lady Gaga. As one youtube BTL comment observes, she could be Klaus Nomi’s sister.

Pre-punk, while still in the GDR, her early song Du hast den farbfilm Vergessen (1974) is nuanced:

With all due respect to free healthcare, she is one of the great things to come out of the GDR—which she did, of course, inevitably. Even if the GDR “didn’t always have enough bananas” (my book, p.147), at least Honecker could pat himself on the back for inadvertently nurturing a superstar.

Whether or not you subscribe to Nina’s Weltanschauung, her vocal technique is, um, breathtaking. Here’s a live version of Naturträne:

Some more BTL comments:

This is what comes out when you stuff highly talented kids with best education and at one point they start to think for themselves.

Please, when I die I want to be reincarnated as her mic.

She gives Sid Vicious a run for his money in My way (this also from 1978):

And listen how she subverts Somewhere over the rainbow:

Good to see the Leipzig Big Band accompanying her instead of Bach for a change. I’m not sure I’m quite ready for her version of Erbarme dich, though. OK, she belongs to a particular moment in time—but expressive culture always does, like Bach.

The von Trump family

The recent visit of the Addams family, sorry I mean Trump family, to the Pope afforded ample fodder for the “enemy of the people”:

Did Tweety’s hapless advisors fail to point out that it wasn’t a Godfather-themed Halloween party? Not to mention the gender angle:

Either I’m not a woman or my female share of timeless wisdom comes with a mutant variation, because rich girls in luxe outfits hanging round a bunch of guys and saying nothing doesn’t exude much intelligence, let alone “power”, to me. Maybe I’m misreading what “feminine power” means in this context. Is it something biological—like when your internalised resentment at patriarchy coils so tightly into your Kegel muscles that your eyes start glistening? Flicking male hands away from you may indeed be a symptom.

Among several gems from US TV, Jimmy Fallon was good:

Everyone in the US was watching closely and looking for some white smoke to see if we had a new president.

Signoffs and other cross-pond drôlerie

In our daily badinage on orchestral tours of the US of A in the Good Old Days, we got into the habit of handing over to each other by imitating CNN’s signalling style:

And they say there could be more revelations to come. Wolf.

[Wolf Blitzer, [1] of course, was an “anchor”. Considering that Britannia Rule the Waves (just dig that funky optative verb there, folks—”You Wish”, as the Argot of Yoof [2] would have it), it’s curious how we don’t much go in for anchors. [3]  I guess we consider them beneath us…]

Rather like my teacher Paul’s empirical use of classifiers, we interpreted it as a fixed signoff at the end of every sentence, which led us to:

I thought the Adagio was really too slow last night. Wolf.

I’m starving. Let’s go eat. [4] Wolf.

Usually, rather than an interrogative (“Wolf?”), it’s declaimed confidently in the matter-of-fact descending fourth tone.

It does seem wise to keep such signals simple:

On stage at the end of a concert, among ourselves we would also adopt the brilliant casual signoff,

Well folks, I guess that’s just about it for tonight!

This works particularly well after an obscure or meditative work. Like:

Join us next time for another whacky episode of Ockeghem’s Marian Antiphons!

For an equally zany intro for such pieces, see here; and PDQ Bach is also essential listening. Wolf.

 

[1] OK, we Brits have our own proud tradition of silly names, but American names are in a class of their own. Following the credits at the end of a Hollywood movie is like reading an avant-garde poem, plunging into an exotic cornucopia containing all the cultures of the world. Though if Tweety has anything to do with it, there will be no more films, no more culture, no more world. Nothing, as Stewart Lee observes.

[2] The Argot of Yoof: a popular media pub, always packed at lunchtime. Near the somewhat quieter Aardvark and Climbing Boot.

[3] Unless you count Piers Morgan, who tries unsuccessfully to lose the initial W.

[4] For me at least, there’s an illicit thrill in uttering the formulation “go eat”. Similarly for “Can I get” instead of “May I have”—a quick web search reveals mainly  the usual pompous British indignation yearning for ethnic purity, though one writer suggests rather elusively that “Shakespeare probably would have loved it” (as in the little-known line from Romeo and Juliet: “Can I get a Diavola and a supersize Coke to go?”). Can I get or May I have, that is the question. See also my thoughts on “Who is this?”.