Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Editorial: Nine Wonders of Intangible Heritage

Recently there was a world competition to select the seven new wonders of the world. UNESCO, incidentally, refused to participate, perhaps because of a potential conflict with the World Heritage list of 851 “properties”. UNESCO is of course correct in recognizing that there are far more than seven locations in the world that deserve protection as unique elements of mankind’s natural and cultural heritage. However, there is also value in recognizing that there is a much smaller number of sites of more transcendental importance. Each of the seven wonders is – in my opinion as well as that of the general public – a more important element of man’s heritage than the average of the 851 sites listed by UNESCO.

UNESCO makes occasional proclamations of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”, creating thereby a list of such “masterpieces”. I suppose that the masterpiece list is supposed to complement the World Heritage adding intangible items to the tangible locals of the World Heritage Center’s list. The Masterpieces list specifically seeks to recognize “two types of expression of intangible cultural heritage: forms of popular and traditional cultural expressions and cultural spaces. This heritage is made up of many and varied complex forms of living manifestations in constant evolution including oral traditions, performing arts, music, festive events, rituals, social practices and knowledge and practices concerning nature.”

The three proclamations to date have together identified 90 “masterpieces”. They include the Cultural Space of Jemaa el-Fna Square in Morocco, Woodcrafting Knowledge of the Zafimaniry of Madagascar, and the Andean Cosmovision of the Kallawaya of Bolivia.

Let me suggest a set of Nine Wonders of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Each of these is a complex cultural element in constant evolution, which is not limited to any one country or region, and which transforms the lives of billions of people on a daily basis. Each involves social practices.

Scientific Agriculture: Based on a variety of plant and animal species domesticated in centers all around the world, scientific tools are utilized to provide improved varieties and breeds. These are combined with scientifically developed farming practices and the use of scientifically developed inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers in farming environments modified by such means as land leveling and provision of irrigation, and appropriately engineered farming equipment. Individual farms and farmers are supported by complex institutions such as extension services, agricultural research services, plant protection services, soil protection services, etc. The term “scientific agriculture” is used here in contrast to, for example, “traditional agriculture”.

Participatory Democracy: Obviously, participatory democracy has developed slowly, with many steps back, over millennia, including innovations pioneered by Athens in ancient Greece, the British Magna Carta, the American and French Revolutions. Equally obviously, there are many current versions among democratic states, many nations that have only partially institutionalized participatory democracy, and some nations that are governed by dictatorial or theocratic elites. I suggest that those societies that have institutionalized participatory democracy well tend to have governance responsive to their peoples, who enjoy the benefits of rule of law.

The Modern Market Economy: The fall of Communism and the triumph of Capitalism testify to the advantages of modern market economies over centrally planned economies. It must be recognized, however, that there is variety among the national implementations of the modern market economy, and that much of the world is still dependent on other economic systems including informal economies, subsistence economy, or barter systems. The modern market economy differs from earlier laisser faire models in that it is more regulated and includes provisions for a social safety net. Globalization is a feature of the evolution of the market economy with changes in infrastructure. The modern market economy is supported by a myriad of institutions for regulation and support, and depends on acculturation of buyers and sellers to function through markets. With the introduction of improved national and international information infrastructures, organizations have been reengineered to meet changing market needs and demands, and sectors have been comparably restructured, indicating the complexity of institutionalization of the market economy.

Modern Engineering Technology: The application of science to practical arts has produced the knowledge and understanding underlying our modern infrastructure. Modern engineering includes aeronautic, civil, electrical, electronic, environmental, industrial and mechanical engineering. Modern engineering is institutionalized through government and commercial engineering services as well as within corporations, and is supported by a complex web of research, standards, educational, and professional institutions. The term “modern engineering technology” refers to professional practice that has been professionalized (starting in the 19th century), is based on modern scientific knowledge, and is distinguished from the engineering practices of traditional societies or of informally groups.

Modern Urbanization: Today more than half of the people of the world live in cities, but a very large portion of those who do live in urban slums. Still, large cities of developed nations represent a cultural invention that yields the residents unprecedented security and comfort. It is a relatively modern invention, in that there were very few ancient cities that could support a population as large as one million people. It is the modern urban culture of Tokyo, London, Paris or New York that I would consider prototypical of modern urbanization, and that is a model to which cities in developing nations sometimes aspire.

Modern Science: Modern science is based on what is termed “the scientific method”. It is implemented by institutions for the conduct of scientific research, for the replication and validation of experimental results, for the organization of scientific information, for the formulation and validation of scientific theories, and for the dissemination of scientific information. There are also institutions for the support of modern science, including for the training of scientists and their supporting personnel, for the supply of scientific equipment, for science policy, and for financing science. Modern science can be contrasted with other knowledge systems, such as those for traditional or indigenous knowledge or for local knowledge, or political, legal, or other knowledge systems. It includes natural sciences (both physical and biological) as well as social sciences and mathematics.

Modern, Knowledge-Based Medical Practice: I use the term to include both preventive medicine and public health measures as well as curative medicine with its networks of doctors, nurses, dentists, hospitals, health centers, and consultation rooms. It is the practice of modern, scientifically trained practitioners, as contrasted with the practice of traditional practitioners (midwives, herbalists, curers, etc.) or of families using traditional or local knowledge. It depends on the availability of appropriate pharmaceutical products and medical instruments, both of which are supplied by complex institutional systems. While modern, knowledge-based medical practice serves all of mankind, its full benefits are currently limited to a relatively small fraction of the world’s population (those who can afford its cost).

Cyberspace and the International Information Infrastructure: With the development of the telegraph, telephone and radio, a new kind of communication became possible, and the technological extensions (television, mobile phones, satellite communications) have made such communication much more widely spread. Digital information technology, and the creation of the Internet and World Wide Web extended cyberspace, which now contains a huge library of knowledge and expression. Cyberspace provides a new virtual forum for global communication, which perhaps a billion people use actively today. It provides for new forms of institutionalization of other wonders in this list, such as e-commerce and e-government. I include it in this list especially to make the point that mankind’s most important intangible heritage need not be of ancient origin.

World Religions: A few religions include most of the world’s population as their adherents (Christians 33.03% of world population, Muslims 20.12%, Hindus 13.34%, Buddhists 5.89%). Each of these religions has evolved – during the course of millennia – not only an extensive and complex theology but institutionalized rituals and networks of places of worship. They have all institutionalized systems for training of leaders and members of the faith. For at least 70 percent of mankind, these religions provide patterns of religious belief, codes of moral conduct, communities of faith, and comfort. They would seem clearly to be among the most important elements of mankind’s intangible cultural heritage. They are to be distinguished from religions of the past that no longer have adherents, and many religions that are limited to small numbers of adherents, usually geographically concentrated in a relatively small region.

Concluding Remarks: Culture is often misunderstood. The term (and the concept it represents) is not limited to “high culture” of symphonies and classical literature, nor to “popular culture” of movies and pop music. Nor is it something found only in traditional societies, marked by is fragility and picturesque nature. UNESCO should conceive of its cultural responsibility as relating to “the whole product of an individual, group or society of intelligent beings. It includes technology, art, science, as well as moral systems and the characteristic behaviors and habits of the selected intelligent entities.” (Wikipedia)

UNESCO in its list of Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity has focused exclusively on elements of traditional cultures. Indeed, many of these are endangered, likely to be abandoned by the societies in which they once thrived as the people abandon the traditional and adopt more modern institutions. There is merit in recognizing the beauties of oral and intangible heritage of traditional cultures, encouraging their preservation while it is still possible.

It is perhaps more important to recognize the benefits of intangibles of modern culture. UNESCO is a development institution, seeking to help societies achieve conditions that they value, including education for all. Its efforts to promote science and communication are part of its development agenda. Ultimately, societies will not achieve adequate levels of health and nutrition nor freedom and security without development in areas to which UNESCO must contribute.

Thus, it is critical that UNESCO recognize that cultures will have to evolve in ways that are conducive to their social and economic development if they are to meet their members aspirations, and that UNESCO’s job is not merely to encourage protection of endangered quaint customs from the past, but to encourage development and dissemination of cultural practices which are needed for social and economic development to meet current and future needs. Thus it is important that UNESCO recognize the cultural elements that underlie such progress and find ways to help cultures find and adopt useful cultural practices and traits. There are elements in its cultural programs that do this, but they are relatively few and those are relatively weakly supported. UNESCO’s education, science, and communications programs also encourage development-enhancing cultural change, but do so little informed by UNESCO’s cultural expertise.

The United States and other developed nations embody many important cultural elements which can contribute to social and economic progress. The people and government of the United States have historically been more than willing to share the riches of our intangible culture with other nations and peoples. We should encourage UNESCO to recognize our leadership in many of the areas that I have identified above as Wonders of Intangible Culture, and to lead in encouraging other nations and peoples to consider incorporating these elements more fully in their own cultures.

As a final comment, let me reject the notion that such action would be “cultural imperialism”. Imperialism would involve the imposition of cultural elements on other cultures through the use of economic or other kinds of power. Making cultural elements available to other cultures for them to accept or reject – placing the power in their hands – is quite the opposite of imperialism. Indeed, one of the advantages of working through UNESCO in this respect is that an intergovernmental organization is much less likely to slip into an imperialistic mode than bilateral assistance agencies.

John Daly
(The opinions expressed above are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent those of Americans for UNESCO.)


Ned Hughes said...

Thanks for this article. You really touched on everything and I couldn't really disagree.

Joao Soares said...

Fabulous work...another step in UNESCO effort to promote public participation.
I linked your blog in my Dossier Planificando a Paz, meaning, Planning Peace.
Best regards
João Soares
From Portugal