Ref. :  000017210
Date :  2004-08-04
Language :  English
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Crucial Points in the Transmission and Learning of Intangible Heritage(1)

Author :  Christoph Wulf


The intangible heritage is a central element of the cultural heritage of humanity. The Masterpieces and The Second Proclamation of the Oral and Intangible Heritage as well as the Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Cambodia document this. Less obvious is, what the specific characteristics of intangible heritage are and what their role in a globalizing, cultural diversity encouraging world is. The following article develops six arguments to elaborate the specific characteristics of intangible cultural heritage. These arguments refer to:

- the human body,
- the performative character of rituals and social practices,
- mimesis and mimetic learning,
- otherness and alterity, the need for intercultural and transcultural education and
- to anthropology, understood as philosophical, historical and cultural anthropology.

The human body

Whereas the monuments of architecture can be precisely identified and easily protected, the intangible cultural heritage is much more difficult to be identified, transmitted and safeguarded. Whereas the architectural monuments of cultural heritage are made out of durable materials, the pieces of cultural heritage are immaterial and not durable. Whereas the architectural monuments are material cultural objects, the “products”, elements and dimensions of intangible cultural heritage have as medium the human body. This is the case of a) oral traditions and expressions including language as a vehicle of this heritage, b) performing arts, c) social practices, rituals and festive events, d) knowledge and practices about nature and the universe, e) traditional craftsmanship. If we want to understand the particular character of intangible cultural heritage we have to relate its practices to their body related character.

If the human body is the medium of the intangible cultural heritage, this has several implications. The body based practices of intangible heritage are determined by the flow of time, by the temporal character of human life. Whereas architectural monuments are preserved and hardly change, the intangible cultural heritage undergoes rapid changes. Therefore the social practices of intangible cultural heritage depend on the dynamics of time and space. In contrast to cultural monuments and objects the practices of intangible cultural heritage are not fixed but undergo processes of transformation. The practices of intangible cultural heritage are related to social change and exchange; interrelated with the dynamics of life they have a process character. Therefore the practices of intangible cultural heritage are more sensitive to the influences of homogenisation and more difficult to be protected against the unifying process of globalization.

The performative character of rituals and social practices

When the human body is the medium of the practices of intangible cultural heritage, this has consequences for the perception and comprehension of these practices. In my view, it is the performative character of the body that makes rituals and other social practices socially and culturally effective. Since they are performed with the body, we have to pay special attention to the physical aspects of their performance and note how they are performed through a particular arrangement of the body. On what body concept an analysis of practices of intangible heritage is based on, is a crucial issue. It is essential to consider the different historical and cultural dimensions of body concepts as they are expressed in the various social practices of intercultural heritage and to compare different conceptions of staging the body in rituals and other social practices.

Rituals have different social functions. They help to organize the transition from one social status to another. They organize the transitions at socially and existentially central moments like marriage, birth and death. Rituals include conventions, liturgies, ceremonies and festivals. They are related to different times of the year. When they are successful they create a sense of belonging together; they create communities and the social. They are essential for the constitution of a community and its culture.

For a ritual to be successfully performed, an individual's body arrangement and how it relates to the other participants in the ritual plays a decisive role. For indeed this body dimension is what guarantees the performativity of the ritual. The character of a ritual, that aspect of a ritual which creates community, is bound up with its corporeality and materiality. Whilst the physicality of a performance may incite the participants to have different interpretations of the ritual situation, these differences in fact play only a secondary role in the performance and evaluation of a ritual. Indeed what is decisive about a ritual is not its shared interpretation but its collective performance.

When we speak of the human body in this context, then what we have in mind is a concept of the body as something which is inscribed within a certain society and culture, which has been shaped and moulded by these processes and which itself simultaneously creates social and cultural processes. These processes are conceived in terms of what Pierre Bourdieu has described in relation to the creation, sustenance and modification of habit forms (Bourdieu 1972, 1997, 1999).

Many “intangible” aspects of culture are made visible in rituals, mainly in their performative character and its analysis. The performative character of rituals being central to their effects is related to the staging of the body in social situations. There are three aspects to be distinguished. One aspect relates to the performative character of language, used in ritual situations. John Austin has elaborated this aspect of language; he demonstrated “how to do things with words”. When in a wedding ceremony a person says “yes”, she or he has committed an action and is married and his or her life will completely change. The second aspect of the body based performativity is related to the fact that rituals and other social practises are cultural performances, in which cultures present and express themselves. By means of rituals communities create a continuity between traditions and the challenges of the presence. The third aspect of performativity characterizes the aesthetic side of the body-based performance of rituals and of performing arts. Rituals can not adequately be understood, if their analysis is reduced on their pure function (Wulf/Göhlich/Zirfas 2001; Fischer-Lichte/Wulf 2001, 2004).

Rituals deal with differences and otherness and create cultural continuity. Through their performative character they create community and cultural identity. Rituals are focal practices in the field of intangible cultural heritage, since they allow community members to establish cultural continuity from one generation to the other. They balance tradition, presence and future. On one hand they transmit traditional cultural values and social practises, on the other hand they adapt them to the actual demands of the community. Rituals are windows into a society which facilitate the understanding of its cultural identity and its dynamics of change. If rituals adapt only to traditional values and not to the actual needs of a society, they miss their function. If they only focus on traditional values and perspectives they come to be rigid practises and stereotypes loosing their community building power. On the other hand if rituals adapt too easily to the challenges of globalization, they miss their social identity building function too (Wulf et alii 2004a, 2004b; Wulf/Merkel 2000).

The example of rituals as focal practices of intangible cultural heritage draws our attention to five aspects (Wulf/Zirfas 2003, 2004).

- First rituals fulfil their function as central parts of intangible cultural heritage due to their body based performative character.
- Second, rituals create continuity between traditions, present needs and future challenges. By changing their staging and meaning they balance traditions, present tasks and future demands.
- Third rituals fulfil their task not by just copying the same ritual models over and over again. The performance of rituals is not a simple repetitive activity, but a creative social act, unifying the different socials groups in one performance and producing social order and cultural coherence and master the potential of social violence.
- Fourth to stage and perform rituals it needs a practical ritual knowledge. This knowledge is learnt in mimetic processes.
- Fifth for the understanding of rituals and other social practices related to intangible cultural heritage the problem of otherness is of central importance.

Mimesis and mimetic learning

To a very large extent the practices of intangible cultural heritage are staged, transmitted to the young generation and learnt in mimetic processes. Rituals and other social practices entail mimetic processes. Those are involved when people participate in ritual performances. Mimetic processes are processes of creative imitation that necessarily build upon models. In these processes, the one who is acting mimetically wants to become like his model. This process of copying or becoming like relates to the way a person enacts himself physically and socially, how he presents himself to the world, to other people and to himself. It relates to what makes a human being unique. In mimetic processes human beings take copies of the social world and make the so internalized world to a part of themselves. By doing so the intangible cultural heritage is transferred and learnt by the young generation (Gebauer/Wulf 1995, 2003, 2004).

The significance of mimetic processes for the transmission of practices of intangible cultural heritages including educational practises can hardly be over-emphasised. Theses processes are sensorial, relate therefore above all to the human body, to the performance of human behaviour and mostly take place unconsciously. Through mimetic processes, people internalise images and schemes of rituals and other social practices. These become part of their inner world of images and conceptions. In other words, mimetic processes transform the world of intangible cultural heritage into the inner world of human beings. They contribute to expanding the culturally formed inner world, that is, enhance the development of people who behave mimetically. Practical knowledge as a central part of intangible cultural heritage is acquired through the help of mimetic processes. This culturally diverse knowledge develops above all in the context of body performances and plays an important part in the staging of these performances in new ways. As a practical form of knowledge, it is the result of a mimetic processing of performativity that itself arises out of a practical body-related know-how.

Because of this crossing of practical knowledge, mimesis and performativity, repetition plays an important role in the transmission of intangible cultural knowledge. Cultural competence arises only in cases where a culturally formed behaviour is repeated, and changed in that repetition. There can be no cultural competence without repetition, without the mimetic reference to something either present or past. That is why repetition not only constitutes a key aspect in the transmission of intangible cultural heritage in education and rituals, but also plays a fundamental part in mimetic processes and physical enactments - that is, in performativity of social practices and rituals.

Otherness and alterity

To safeguard cultural diversity a sensitization for the Other is essential. To avoid the reduction of cultural differences to the same and the homogenisation of cultural diversity, it is necessary to sensitize people for cultural heterogeneity, i.e. for the other and alterity. Only through a sensitization for alterity the homogenisation of culture as a result of a unifying globalization process can be avoided and cultural heritage and diversity be guaranteed. Master pieces and social practices of intangible heritage play a central role in this process of experiencing otherness and alterity.

The homogenized culture of globalization has developed three strategies to reduce alterity and to “protect” people from the challenging experience of the other: Discourse on the other must take into account the psychological, epistemological, and cultural aspects that are respectively associated with the traditions of egocentrism, logocentrism and ethnocentrism, which play a central role in the process of globalisation; in their actual forms they are based on European culture and tradition and are a challenge to many other cultural traditions.

Although it seemed for a while as if the other were gradually being unveiled and demystified, this has not proved to be true. Things, situations and people, right in the centre of our everyday well-known familiar world, are becoming increasingly foreign and unknown. Standards of living that one expected to remain secure and familiar are being called into question. Admittedly, the strategy that consisted in demystifying the unknown other through increasing understanding, has succeeded in making many foreign things seem more familiar and replaced people’s insecurity and fear with confidence and trust. Yet this sense of security is often only superficial; underneath it (and at its margins), feelings of fear and danger are still strong. The gesture of ‘making-the-world-familiar’ has not fulfilled our expectations. Instead, increasing the realm of the familiar has meant expanding the sphere of the unknown. Knowing more about it does not make the world any less complex (Morin 1994). In fact, the more we know about phenomena and connections, the more there is we do not know. Time and again, ignorance exposes the limits of knowledge as well as the limits of human action based upon that knowledge. Though attempts are often made to reduce the other to a concept of ‘sameness’, it cannot as such be overcome. The other expresses itself in the centre and at the boundaries of the familiar, and demands to be considered.

Egocentrism: Elias and Foucault have described in detail the processes involved in the constitution of the modern subject and the emergence of egocentrism (Elias 1976; Foucault 1977). Technologies of the self are involved in the development of subjects. Many of these strategies are linked to the idea of a self-contained self, which, as the subject-bound centre of action, is called to lead its own life and develop its own biography. Yet the unwanted side effects of a self-sufficient subject are manifold. Often, the self-determining subject fails in the act of self-determination. In addition, other forces that are not bound to the same principles can counteract self-determination and the hope of autonomous action. The subject’s constitution is constantly ambivalent insofar as its inherent egocentrism constitutes on one hand, a survival, appropriation and power strategy, and on the other, a tendency to reduce and level out differences. The subject’s attempt to reduce the other to its usefulness, functionality and availability seems to both succeed and fail. This insight opens new horizons for dealing with the other, as well as new fields of knowledge and investigation.

Logocentrism: As a consequence of logocentrism we perceive and deal with the other according to the rules of reason. We only let into our field of vision that which is capable of reasoning or shaped by reason; everything else is excluded. He who stands on the side of reason is necessarily right. This is valid even for the reduced reason of functional rationality. Thus, parents stand above children, civilised people above the so called primitive, and the healthy above the sick. Those who possess reason are superior to those who possess only pre-forms or weak forms of reason. The more a person’s language or reason differs from the general, the more difficult it is to approach and understand that person. Nietzsche, Freud, Adorno, and many others have criticised reason’s self-satisfied status, and pointed out that people live in all kinds of ways that reason cannot fully comprehend.

Throughout history, the ethnocentric tradition has also resolutely subjugated all forms of otherness. Todorov (1982), Greenblatt (1991) and others have analysed the processes involved in the destruction of foreign cultures. One of the most horrific examples is the colonisation of Latin America in the name of Christ and the Christian kings. Conquering the continent meant eradicating the cultures there. Even on first coming into contact with them, the conquerors demanded, on pain of enslavement or death, that the natives conform to their beliefs. With incredible force they asserted their own beliefs and values, as if to create a world devoid of otherness. Their power-thirsty strategy of reasoning enabled the invaders to instigate the eradication of the natives. The indigenous people failed to understand that the Spaniard’s behaviour was scrupulously calculated and that they used their language to mislead them: friendliness was not what it seemed; promises were not used to make agreements, but to mislead and deceive others. Every act served another purpose than that which was purported. The interests of the crown, the missionary duty of Christianity, and ‘inferiority of the natives’ were claims used to legitimise colonial behaviour. Greed and economic motives were kept silent and indeed barred from the conquerors own self-image or vision of the world.

Egocentrism, logocentrism, and ethnocentrism interrelate and mutually reinforce each other as strategies for transforming the other. Their common aim is to assimilate the ‘foreign’ or ‘other’ to that which is not foreign, that is, to the self, and thereby eradicate it. The processes involved can be observed on many levels. Not only is the multitude of cultures destroyed as a consequence, but so also are the lives of many people living in societies that are forced to change and conform. The situation is particularly tragic in cases where local or regional cultures have been eradicated, but no other cultural values introduced that would help the people come to terms with their changed conditions.

«I is someone else »

To sensitize people for the importance of cultural diversity and intangible heritage it needs the experience of otherness. Being able to experience and cope with the alterity in its differentness is a precondition for the willingness to get to know other people and cultures. Individuals are no unified entities; they consist of many contradictory components which are fragmented, each with desires for action of its own. Rimbaud found fitting words for this state of being: “Je est un autre”. Here the realisation is stated that the ego is not the master of his house (Freud). By suppressing the most glaring contradictions, the ego again and again tries to gain its freedom, but it is again and again constrained by heterogeneous urges and normative commandments. The inclusion of excluded parts of one’s own personality in self-perception is a precondition for dealing with the external other person in an accepting way. Thus the focus is repeatedly on that excluded, non-permissible otherness which is contradictory to the norms of society and the individual, an otherness which is linked to the body and nature and which is resistant to representation through language and thought.

Heterological thinking

There is no better key to an open attitude towards others than to be aware of one’s own non-identity. Confrontation with foreign cultures, with the other in one’s own culture, and with the foreigner in our own person, teaches us to perceive and think from the other’s point of view. This change of perspective should prevent us from too easily reducing the ‘foreign’ to that which is our own. In order to see from the other point of view, I must develop heterological thinking, that is, suspend my sense of self and contemplate it through the other person’s eyes. Central to this is the relation between that which is familiar and the ‘foreign’, the relation between knowledge and ignorance, certainty and uncertainty. Processes of de-traditionalising and individualising life, differentiation and globalisation have meant that much of our everyday life, otherwise taken for granted, has been called into question, demanding individual reflection and decision. Yet, this does not necessarily mean a gain in freedom. Conditions under which a decision can be made are often not within the control of an individual. In the realm of environmental issues for instance, the individual may be able to make environmentally conscious decisions, yet these will have little impact on the macro-structures of society, which really determine the quality of the environment.

Intercultural - transcultural learning

In order to sensitize the young generation for the value of cultural diversity and the importance of the preservation of intangible cultural heritage today’s education has to be conceived more than ever before as intercultural and transcultural education. This implies an interest for cultural difference and otherness. It also implies a sensitization for the role of mimetic processes in the transmission and assimilation of culture as well as a sensitization for the role of rituals and social practices of other communities and cultures. Considering that more and more people do not belong only to one culture, but unite in themselves various cultural traditions, intercultural education intents to help coping with different and sometimes even controversial cultural traditions. Inasmuch as identity cannot be conceived of without alterity, intercultural education contains a relational connection between a fractal ego, which in its developed state is irreducible, and an otherness of many forms. In this context hybrids forms of culture are increasingly more important (Featherstone 1995; Wulf 1995, 1998; Wulf/Merkel 2002;).

If the question as to the other person contains the question as to one’s own self and the question as to one’s own self that of the other person, then the processes of intercultural education are also processes of self-education. When they are successful, they not only lead to the insight in the incomprehensibility of what is different. They also bring about self-difference. In view of the demystification of the world and the disappearance of the exotic being strived for by the universalism of present-day globalization, there is the danger that in the world of the future, the human being will only encounter himself and there will be a lack of the differentness through which he can develop by dealing with it. If the loss of what is different is a source of threat to human development and educational potential, its protection, the de-differentiation of the known and self-differentness take on major importance. An effort to preserve differentness in human being’s inner self and in the exterior would then be a necessary manoeuvre to counter a universalism which levels off differences.

For intercultural learning the impossibility of getting behind the individual, non-identity, the void in the individual, plays the crucial role. It points to the openness required for encountering the other person. Therefore intercultural learning must not be limited to the acquisition of capabilities for dealing with minorities. The confrontation with different cultures, the other person in one’s own culture and in the individual himself is constitutive for education. The confrontation with differentness in one’s own and different cultures takes on new meaning and must gain a new quality. It is given in the fact that intercultural education must be conceived from the perspective of the different, other person. Within the framework of such a procedure the main focus is on the development of heterological thinking (Wulf 2002).

The need for further research in philosophical, historical and cultural anthropology
In order to understand the tension between the intension of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage and the dynamics of change and to be able to decide where to protect and where to change, comprehensive anthropological studies are needed. After the “death of God” (Nietzsche) and the “death of man” (Foucault) in the sense of the white, male and abstract European-American human being as model for the development of mankind, i.e. after the end of one normative anthropological, model, comprehensive anthropological research is needed. Such research needs the consideration of three paradigms of anthropology: the philosophical anthropology with a German cultural background going back to Immanuel Kant and stressing open character of human history and the importance of the human perfectibility; the historical anthropology of French origin having its origins in the school of the Annales stressing the historical character of human culture ; and the Anglo-Saxon cultural anthropology or ethnology with its interest in cultural diversity and heterogeneity (Wulf 2004).

On the basis of these three paradigms anthropology has become a historical and cultural anthropology, not being limited to certain cultures and certain epochs. In reflecting its own historicity and culturality anthropology is able to overcome the Eurocentrism of the humanities and the purely historical interests of history; it engages in the unresolved problems of the present and the future. Anthropology must involve an philosophical criticism of its own self-conception , which focuses on its competence and on its limits. Such a concept of anthropology implies transdisciplinary and transcultural research (Wulf 2002).

With its results anthropology can contribute to a better understanding of the tensions between cultural heritage and the dynamics of change, aiming for creative solutions. Those can never last for ever; they have to be related to the particular historical and cultural context and its particular values and perspective. The more homogeneity of human development is aimed at, the more cultural diversity will spread. There is no universal way out of the problem. Knowing this is already an important contribution to the handling of the controversy and to the transmission of intangible heritage.


(1)Paper given at: GLOBALIZATION and INTANGIBLE CULTURAL HERITAGE. Opportunities, threats and challenges. An International Conference jointly organized by UNESCO & the United Nations University, Tokyo, 26-27 August 2004 and at the Regional Meeting on the Promotion of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage for Countries of Europe and Northern America, Kazan (Russia), 15-17 December 2004.


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(This article has been synthesised. It can be found in the Critical Dictionary at the following entry : Intangible Heritage)

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