Heritage and history

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"The Senseable Past: History as Sensational Form".

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Heritage and history

  1. 1. Call for Papers:Heritage and History: the Past as Sensational FormPatrimônio e história: o passado como forma sensível17-19 October 2011, Centro de Estudos Afro Orientais, Universidade Federal da Bahia,Salvador, Brazil. Conference organized by the NWO research program ‘Heritage Dynamics: Politics of Authentication and Aesthetics of Persuasion in Ghana, South Africa, Brazil and the Netherlands’ Convenors: Maria Paula Adinolfi André Werneck de Andrade Bakker Birgit Meyer Luis Nicolau Parés Mattijs van de PortWe are excited to announce a new conference of the NWO research program HeritageDynamics: Politics of Authentication and Aesthetics of Persuasion in Ghana, South Africa, Braziland the Netherlands, to be held in the city of Salvador, Bahia (Brazil) and hosted by theCentro de Estudos Afro Orientais of the Federal University of Bahia.Our research program ponders the salient paradox on which the politics of culturalheritage thrives: while heritage refers to tangible and intangible repositories of value thatfeature as given resources for identity politics, much effort is put in the actual making ofheritage. States make(-up) their historical canons; ethnic groups (re-)invent their ‘age oldtraditions’; religious communities cast the sacred essence of their creed in ever newmedia forms. However, when the made-up character of heritage becomes ostensiblyvisible -- and an awareness of the constructedness of heritage becomes hard to avoid -- itmay render forms of cultural heritage vulnerable to perceptions of fakeness, shallowness,randomness or partiality. For indeed, the appeal of cultural heritage often rests on itsdenial of being a mere fabrication: it promises to provide an essential ground to sociallyand culturally constructed identities.In previous meetings (Amsterdam 2009; Accra 2010) we have been exploring andanalysing the authenticating strategies through which heritage forms become persuasive.We have underscored the pivotal role of the body and the senses in processes of heritage
  2. 2. formation and perception. The sensory appeal of particular heritage forms turns out toplay an important role in persuading people of its truth and linking the heritage form andits beholder. Successful heritage forms offer the possibility to sense the essence and powerof the cultural past (rather than grasp it intellectually); they make people feel that theselected cultural forms are an ‘authentic’ part of their identity.Under the title Heritage and History: the Past as Sensational Form, this conference seeks tofurther our understandings of the politics of authentication and the aesthetics ofpersuasion by rethinking how sensational heritage forms intersect with the forces ofhistory.Cultural heritage always involves an historical framing. Historical narratives are the mostmanifest layer of this framing. The story about the people who built a historical edifice;the tale that explains the origins of the ritual; the research report about the identity of thepeople who left their pots and bones in an archaeological site: these are the narrativesthrough which objects, sites and practices are singled out as particularly relevant to theidentity of the group. More often than not, these narratives already contain the outline asto whom this heritage belongs (and consequently, who cannot make such claims). In plural societies, such as the ones under study in our project, historical narrativesare as much subject to contestation as the heritage forms they frame; and they aretherefore as much depending on ‘authenticating strategies’ and an ‘aesthetics ofpersuasion’ as the heritage forms we have been discussing thus far. We should thereforeask: How exactly should we conceive of the relation between historical narratives and theobjects, sites and practices they frame? What do narratives bring out in objects, sites andpractices, and vice versa, what do objects, sites and practices bring out in narratives?What kind of historical narratives are persuasive and why? In what way are the addresseesinterpellated by the historical narratives that frame heritage forms? Important as historical narratives may be, the presence of the past can never bereduced to being conveyed through the registers of spoken or written language, and thehistorical awareness thus instilled in the minds of people. The past is present as athoroughly material legacy: ruins, withered surfaces, stony remains are ever so manytraces of times-gone-by (thus complicating every conservation effort that might undo thecoating of tarnish that history has left). The past has marked the organisation of space:imposing grids and patterns; defining centres, peripheries and no-go-areas; subjectingpeople to a structuring that remains in place long after anyone is able to narrate whatthese histories of place were. The past is embodied: residues of the past live on in thehabitus – history turned into ‘second nature’, as Pierre Bourdieu would have it – and inthe sensorium, which is able to bring back long forgotten memories. The past isencountered in silences and absences, testimonies to the impossibility of the laws ofsense-making that dominate historical narratives. The past pervades the do’s and don’ts ofthe present as ‘implicit social knowledge’ – the knowing that ‘comes without sayingbecause it goes without saying’. Or it may manifest itself in the present in such forms asthe spirits of long deceased ancestors or ‘evil winds’. A study of these more latent forms
  3. 3. of history, while less readily available for empirical research, ought to be part and parcelof any attempt to understand the appeal – or lack thereof – of particular heritage forms.The question to be addressed here is: what is the past when studied and discussed as(what Birgit Meyer would call) a ‘sensational form’? Last but not least, we want to suggest that an understanding of the appeal ofheritage forms requires a closer look at the dialectical relationship between ‘history’ and‘memory’: the way these two dimensions of recollecting the past reconfirm and/ordestabilize each other. Clearly, histories that are articulated in (and acknowledged by)heritage narratives, forms and practices are in constant dialogue with people’s memoriesof their own past. While remembering the past is a thoroughly social process – what oneis prone to remember or to forget is very much subject to available narrations of historyand heritage forms -- memories may also contradict and destabilize these dominanthistories. One might thus ask: what does a particular narration of the history of slaverybring to the black woman who contemplates her own life as a maid, and vice versa, howdo her personal recollections impact on her understanding of the history of slavery? Inwhat way – if it all – do visitors to an apartheid commemoration site in South Africa usetheir own recollections of injustice, suppression and discrimination to animate thenarration of history that this place presents (or reject it). In brief: how does heritageresonate – or fails to do so – with the experiential histories of the people that are beingaddressed?To state that these questions about ‘history’ as a sensational form requires full attentionto the political is to state the obvious: the configurations of power within which heritagedynamics occur, as well as the power-play between authenticators (institutions and actorsendowed with the power to authenticate) and their audiences (with their own resourcesto resist or re-encode the definitions of which they are objects) need to be taken intoaccount in every analytical move. The proposal to understand history as a ‘sensationalform’, however, brings a new urgency to issues of power. If authenticities – as we havemaintained -- are in the plural, then what kind of knowledge do authenticators need topersuade the people they address? If heritage perceptions are inextricably linked toembodied dispositions and memory; if ‘de-codings’ and ‘re-encodings’ are operative atevery level of heritage dynamics, then what is in fact the power of definition? We couldask here how, in fact, the requirements of authentication – i.e. the need to be persuasive-- reconfigures the power arrangements that produce histories.Salvador da Bahia, where the conference will be held, is a place where all of these issuesare immediately relevant. At present, the ‘history of black people in Brazil’ is a hot issue,now that the government has ordered it to become an obligatory part of the nationalcurriculum: many groups are accessing this field, bringing with them all kinds of ideas asto what constitutes ‘the history of black people’. The history of blacks in the fight forabolition is being highlighted, as well as the contributions of black people to Braziliansociety and culture. Much attention is given to the formation of maroon communities(quilombos), and the recollection of ‘quilombo memories’ has in fact triggered the
  4. 4. emergence of new ‘ethnic’ groups (quilombolas). Other contemporary pleas for rights (toland, education and work, for instance) are also founded on counter-hegemonic historicalnarratives, aimed at ‘repairing’ historical injustice. Beyond the African legacy in Bahia,Bahia’s indigenous peoples have been contesting the influential historical narratives thatdominated the recent commemoration of 500 years Brazil. Rejecting the representationof the ‘birth of the nation’ as the ‘discovery’ of a new land, leading into a symbioticmerge between the haulers of Christianity and civilization and the noble savages, they seekpublic acknowledgement for a narrative centered on invasion, brutality and massdestruction. Where it concerns cultural heritage ‘proper’, local experts have been talkingabout a ‘heritage craze’, with ever more groups making claims to have their cultural andreligious legacy recognized as ‘heritage’; ever more definitions of what counts asheritage; ever more contestations occurring over the reality of the past in the present.‘Aesthetic value’ and ‘artistic exceptionality’ still seem to be exclusively ascribed to theLuso-Brazilian legacy, while the value attributed to Afro-Brazilian objects and sites is stillmostly ‘ethnographic’. However, in Bahia – as elsewhere in the world – the emergenceand consolidation of the category ‘intangible heritage’ has opened up avenues for groupswho were previously dispossessed of ‘heritage capital’, and can now claim thepatrimonialization of their cultural assets. Thus, in the case of ‘black culture’, the greatmajority of the ‘assets’ that have been entitled as national heritage are intangible.Interestingly, this has also meant that the notion of heritage has increasingly been appliedto people, rather than to sites or objects. Finally, Afro-Brazilian religions have become a privileged arena for contestationsover heritage, and particular narrations of the past are mobilized in order to acquireofficial recognition. The narration of individual trajectories, which inscribe people in alineage and a ‘nation’, are set to organize the past and adjust it to official expectations onauthenticity. On the other hand, the definitions of authenticity are also being disputedand there is a permanent effort made by candomblé people to impose their ownunderstandings of history and heritage, so as to be included in the highly selective heritageroll. Similar observations can be made where it concerns indigenous groups in Bahia:Tupinambá indians, who were held to be ‘extinct’, or Pataxó indians, who were deemed‘acculturated’ by consecrated ethnological canons, have been (re)emerging in the publicarena, persuasively asserting their cultural and genealogical linkages with their ‘pre-contact’ ancestors through archeological objects found in their lands, family memories oftheir ‘wild kin’, and a sophisticated use of bodily aesthetics.We will make sure that a number of presentations will address the Bahian and Braziliansituation, but we urge presenters to bring in findings from their own research fields, as itis exactly the comparison of similar processes in different worlds that will trigger newways of thinking. The conference will have the format of a workshop, and also includesexcursions prior to and after our meetings.
  5. 5. If you are interested in participating in the conference, please let us know as soon aspossible, preferably with a provisional title of your paper, or an indication what issueyour contribution might address. Please send your reply to:Mattijs van de Port: m.p.j.vandeport@uva.nlMaria Paula Adinolfi: paulaadinolfi@yahoo.com***This is the third conference organized within the framework of our research project “HeritageDynamics: Politics of Authentication and Aesthetics of Persuasion in Ghana, South Africa, Braziland the Netherlands.” In this research project, cultural heritage is taken to be the material andimmaterial legacy of a group or a nation, its sacrosanct performances and canons of cultural truth.In four case studies we will investigate the processes that make cultural heritage a truthful, embodiedsource of identity in a rapidly changing world.

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