Interview with Daniel Herwitz, Part II

“Heritage began as a secular religion and is now a battleground between the forces of recognition, politics and commerce. It is where art, culture, history, politics and markets meet. Little could be more interesting than this.”—Daniel Herwitz

Daniel Herwitz, Heritage, Culture, and Politics in the PostcolonyHere is the second part of our interview with Daniel Herwitz, author of Heritage, Culture, and Politics in the Postcolony. (You can read the first part here):

Question: How then did the modern practice of heritage arise?

Daniel Herwitz: The modern practice of heritage arose with the modern European nation. Heritage picked out and exalted certain social values as time tested and time immemorial, representative of everything great in the new/emergent European nation. This is for-he-is-an-Englishman stuff, Gilbert and Sullivan stuff, Lady Diana stuff. Heritage converted past values into a special bank of (to pursue the example) Englishness, whose currency would forever appreciate in value, whose future would be assured through that currency. England thus demonstrated through its heritage bank longevity, futurity, superiority. The Institutions of the new state (courts of law, museums, universities) all collected and recited this patrimony.

At the same time heritage became understood as a common origin, partly obscured by the sodden character of modern life, a source which the likes of Matthew Arnold and Fredric Nietzsche believed had to be rediscovered, and reinvented for modern life to put modern life back on the right footing, insuring its destiny. This destiny was usually believed to be found in ancient Greece. And so heritage practice articulated a new link between origin and destiny for the nation.

Heritage justified empire: the nation would gift its culture to those otherwise unable to have it. The forcing of heritage onto the colony also served to dispossess the colony of its own past: Graft English heritage onto the colony while devaluing the colonial past and you have made the colony into your appendage, you have robbed the colony of its chance to find its own route to modernity in the light of its own past. Heritage making is central to decolonization because it gives the new nation the ability to imagine its own route to the future by giving it a sense of its own origin.

Q: How does marketing fit into it?

In the contemporary world it is impossible to reinvent the past without simultaneously profiling it for markets. African traditions of carving, reinvented as art heritages, find their entry into art markets, and in ways which inevitably ring changes in the horizons of the carvers themselves. This usually causes rupture with tradition, since the carvers are now given global horizons, their work globally profiled. Many groups have capitalized on the marketing of their pasts by turning their villages and towns into the stuff of ritual, museum and bed and breakfast. The Comaroffs have written about this (Ethnicity, Inc.). And so the past lives a new life in the stream of commerce.

The effect of this is increasingly to turn what was auratic, spiritual, aestheticized, sacred into the stuff of yet another consumer product. Even as profound a site as Robben Island, a tiny salt deposit off the coast of Cape Town where anti-apartheid political prisoners lived in tiny cells and worked digging salt during decades of isolation, connected to the wider world only through samizdat documents smuggled onto the island, even this site of memory is also increasingly a pit stop on the itinerary of the tourist. The tourist takes in the island along with a township between photographing the wild game at designer game parks and shopping for wire sculptures of animals, mohair shawls, and printed tablecloths—heritage items all—at the Cape Waterfront. The silence of the liminal island haunts, its aura of incarceration is too powerful to disappear into ecotourism yet (especially when the guided tour is given by a former prisoner whose recitation is a ritualized act of testimony). But the ability of this island to suspend the consumer stance and produce an experience of shock (which stops the traveler in their tracks, inviting complex reflection), to remain a moral beacon, is challenged by the tourist routine. If even this island is in danger of reducing to another pit stop on the moral tourist’s day planner, then everything is.

Heritage began as a secular religion and is now a battleground between the forces of recognition, politics and commerce. It is where art, culture, history, politics and markets meet. Little could be more interesting than this.

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