Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Editorial: American Intangible Cultural Heritage

The 2003 Convention defines ICH as the practices, representations,

expressions, as well as the knowledge and skills, that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural


The definition also indicates that the ICH

to be safeguarded by this Convention:

  • is transmitted from generation to generation;
  • is constantly recreated by communities and groups, in response to their environment, their interaction with nature, and their history;
  • provides communities and groups with a sense of identity and continuity;
  • promotes respect for cultural diversity and human creativity;
  • is compatible with international human rights instruments;
  • complies with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, and of sustainable development.
UNESCO is compiling a list of representative elements of cultural heritage. There are currently 90 such elements
in the list, but none from the United States. The purpose of this editorial is to recommend American submissions for the list.

The Easy Nominations

There are some obvious choices that are much like those submitted
by other nations:
  • Music: Jazz, Bluegrass, The American Popular Song
  • Events: The Rodeo, the Native American Pow Wow
  • Art: Abstract Expressionism
Culture is not merely the arts.

I suggest that some of the most important aspects of American intangible culture would not be included in these categories. For example:
  • The National Republic: The United States was the first nation to be established as a republic. Prior to the creation of the United States, it had been assumed that the republican form of government would only be feasible for a small body, such as the ancient Greek city state. In the two centuries since its creation, the American national republic has been emulated in many nations, but we still are in a process of recreating it to meet new challenges and opportunities.
  • Civil Society: American society has been recognized at least since de Tocqueville as exceptional in its use of non-governmental organizations to do what in other societies is left to government or the commercial sector. Yet we are in a constant process of reinventing civil society.
  • The American System of Manufacture: The idea of interchangeable parts in mass production was first put into operation in the United States, and since has swept the world. Yet our processes of mass production are always being recreated.
The Internet

Let me also suggest that the United States nominate the Internet for the list. We are familiar with the trillion pages of Internet content and the many applications that utilize the Internet. The Internet, however, is fundamentally an abstract concept. The first version of the Internet Protocol that allowed computer networks to communicate among themselves was developed in the United States, and the Internet was first introduced in networking computers in this country. Yet the idea of the Internet is being continuously, if rapidly recreated.

Why Recommend These Elements to the List

Culture includes not only the quaint and picturesque, but also the most practical aspects which contribute to human wellbeing. UNESCO, as the United Nations agency responsible for culture, should focus not only on the protection of the ideosyncratic elements of local culture, but on recognition and promotion of the aspects of culture that contribute to human wellbeing.

UNESCO already recognizes the Internet, but it focuses on the Internet as a technology to be disseminated. Focusing on the Internet as a cultural element, created in the United States, that must be recreated to meet the requirements and opportunities in different cultures would be an alternative, and I believe an even more fruitful role for UNESCO.

Americans are proud of our civil and political cultures as well as our historical role in finding ways increasing the production of goods that meet the needs of people. Our government could help gain more international recognition for those achievements. Moreover, by focusing UNESCO attention on cultural elements that improve governance, social intercourse, and economic productivity the government might help UNESCO become more relevant and useful as a development agency.

John Daly
(The opinions expressed above are those of the author, and don't necessarily represent those of Americans for UNESCO.)

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