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Monday, August 29, 2011

Reflections on a Visit to China II: The Hegemony of Archaeology


I’m old enough to remember when the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) used to fulminate about “hegemonism.” It was a kind of post-colonial version of rants on colonialism, and referred to how, in the PRC’s view, the U.S., sometimes the Soviet Union, and various European powers tried to push their values and points of view on the rest of the world – to exercise hegemony over everyone else.

The term kept running through my mind in Beijing while listening to papers at the World Archaeological Congress’s Intercongress on Cultural Heritage Management in East and Southeast Asia. It did so because the hegemony exercised by archaeology seemed so manifest in – it seemed – everyone’s understanding of cultural heritage management. There seemed to be a widespread shared assumption that “archaeology” and “cultural heritage” were essentially synonymous. Or rather, that there was academic research archaeology, and then there was cultural heritage, which was essentially applied archaeology and the care and interpretation of archaeological sites and historic architecture (itself not much represented in the WAC’s gathering of archaeologists, co-sponsored by the Institute of Archaeology in the Chinese Academy of Social Science).

I know, I know, this is my usual complaint, expressed in the U.S. context as “cultural resource management isn’t just archaeology and old buildings, dammit!” But it was kind of discouraging to find myself lodging the same mental criticism against what my Asian and European colleagues were doing, and how they were thinking.

It seems so painfully obvious: “cultural heritage” means the heritage of a community, group, tribe, nation, or planet that is cultural in character, and that heritage includes customary ways of doing things, systems of belief, values, practices of all kinds – as well as, rather incidentally, the sites, buildings, building complexes, landscapes, and artifacts with which all those things are associated. When we implicitly, virtually without thinking about it, redefine the term to mean only the sites, buildings, artifacts and other physical leavings of culture, we’re ignoring most of our – everyone’s – heritage. And since most people aren’t interested only in culture’s physical leavings, since most people value their cultures as whole things that include but aren’t limited to stuff on and in the ground, we risk losing, or never gaining, the support of most of the population. Both things strike me as sad, and unwise.

Before someone protests – yes, UNESCO has fairly recently begun promoting the care and feeding of “intangible” cultural heritage, but it’s done so by putting together a convention that reflects the intellectual traditions of site/structure/artifact management. Signatory nations are to put together lists of nifty intangible stuff (Manchurian throat singing is a hot issue in China), and then – uh – do something about it. Exactly what they’re to do besides listing stuff isn’t clear, and of course there are already the inevitable arguments about what ought to be listed, by whom, and how it ought to be described. None of this strikes me as a very useful exercise in cultural heritage management. It does, though, illustrate the hegemony of archaeology (and architectural history) over the cultural heritage game. If something like throat singing is going to be recognized as cultural heritage, it seems, it’s got to be officially vetted, given a professional, official, governmental stamp of approval, and put on an official list. That’s the way we’ve always done it with archaeological sites and old buildings, so that’s obviously what we’d better do with anything else we’re going to call cultural heritage.

Of course, my own paper was about doing it another way – eschewing official lists and professional vettery and simply respecting what people and communities view as their cultural heritage. Leaving them alone to practice it except when some sort of conflict arises, and then consulting respectfully about how to deal with it. I beat the drum as usual for my favorite (sort of official) guidelines on the subject, the Akwe:kon guidelines of the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The paper went over like the proverbial pregnant pole-vaulter; people clapped politely and that was that.

Still, though, there were quite a few discussions at the Intercongress about how to engage communities in “cultural heritage” work, and about the effects of things like World Heritage Listing on living communities. It’s not that academic and governmental cultural heritage managers don’t realize that cultural heritage exists in people’s minds and influences people’s behavior, and that it extends beyond the boundaries of sites and the walls of buildings, or that we don’t care about it; it’s that we don’t have a model for dealing with it.

We cultural resource management (CRM) types in the United States sometimes talk like we do have a model, because we, after all, are anthropologists first, archaeologists only second. Unlike those benighted Brits and other old-worlders who define archaeology as a discipline in its own right. But in fact it’s rare that we do much with our anthropology, and particularly rare that we pay much attention to the fundamental anthropological ethic of trying, first of all, to understand, respect, and help the people we “study” in maintaining their own lives, lifeways, and traditions. It’s much easier to focus on the buildings and sites in their own right, for their own sake.

Back in the days when the PRC was beating the drum about hegemonism, we hegemonists pretty much ignored them. Not (I think) that people like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz didn’t see some merit in what they said, but that no one could figure out anything to do about it that didn’t compromise our essential national interests. Similarly in archaeology/CRM/cultural heritage, some of us can recognize that our centralized, bureaucratized, place and thing-dominated models are faulty, but we don’t know what to do about it.

But times change, and things happen, whether we’re ready for them or not. And those once hegemonized can become hegemonists themselves. There’s something to be said for the idea that this is what’s happening today with the PRC vis-à-vis the rest of the world. I wonder what would happen if the people whose sites and buildings we seek to “preserve” in accordance with our own notions of propriety and professionalism ever found a way to exercise real hegemony over us. I wonder how this could happen, and what its outcomes might be.

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