Intangible heritage is a central element of the cultural heritage of humanity. We will try to identify some of its specific characteristics and to underline its role in a globalising world through the following points : 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 the need for philosophical, historical and cultural anthropology.
Whereas the monuments of architecture can be precisely identified and easily protected, intangible cultural heritage is much more difficult to identify, transmit and safeguard, for it is immaterial and not durable. Whereas architectural monuments are material cultural objects, the “products”, elements and dimensions of intangible cultural heritage have the human body as a medium. Such is the case for oral tradition, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, and traditional craftsmanship.
The body-based practices of intangible heritage are determined by the flow of time, by the temporal character of human life. In contrast with architectural monuments, which are preserved and hardly change, intangible cultural heritage undergoes rapid changes. Its practices are related to social change and exchange, interrelated with the dynamics of life: they have a process character. They are therefore more sensitive to the influences of homogenisation and more difficult to be protected against the unifying dynamics of globalisation.
Rituals have different social functions: they help to organise the transition from one social status to another, and the ones taking place at socially and existentially central moments of human life, like marriage, birth and death. They include conventions, liturgies, ceremonies and festivals, and are normally related to different times of the year. If they are successful, rituals create a sense of belonging and are essential for the constitution of a community and of its culture.
Many “intangible” aspects of culture are made visible through rituals. In particular, three aspects should be distinguished: first, the performative character of language, used in ritual situations; then the fact that rituals and other social practices are performances in which cultures present and express themselves; finally, the performativity characterising the aesthetic side of the body-based performance of rituals and of performing arts.
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. Thus, they balance tradition, presence and future.
To a very large extent, practices of intangible cultural heritage are staged, transmitted to the young generation and learnt in mimetic processes. This process of copying or becoming like the other relates to the way a person enacts himself physically and socially, to the way he presents himself to the world, to other people and to himself, that is, to what makes a human being unique. In mimetic processes human beings internalise the social world; by doing so the intangible cultural heritage is transferred to and learnt by the young generation.
Only through a sensitisation for alterity can the homogenisation of culture resulting from unifying globalisation processes be avoided and cultural heritage and diversity guaranteed. Masterpieces and social practices of intangible heritage play a central role in the experience of otherness.
The homogenised culture of globalisation has developed three strategies to reduce alterity and to “protect” people from the challenging experience of the other: the psychological, epistemological, and cultural dimensions that are respectively associated with the traditions of egocentrism, logocentrism and ethnocentrism play a central role in the processes of globalisation. These interrelate: their common aim is to assimilate the ‘foreign’, and thereby eradicate it.
More than ever, in order to sensitise the young generation to the value of cultural diversity and to the importance of the preservation of intangible cultural heritage, today’s education must be intercultural and transcultural.
Being able to experience alterity is a precondition for the willingness to get to know other people and cultures: 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, that is, to develop heterological thinking.
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 that levels off differences.
To understand the tension between the intention to safeguard intangible cultural heritage and the dynamics of change, comprehensive anthropological studies are needed. These must take into account three paradigms of anthropology: firstly, the philosophical anthropology, from a German cultural background going back to Kant, stressing out the open character of human history and the importance of human perfectibility; secondly, the historical anthropology, having its origins in the French school of the Annales, pointing out the historical character of human culture, and, thirdly, the Anglo-Saxon cultural anthropology or ethnology, with its interest in cultural diversity and heterogeneity.
Anthropology can contribute to a better understanding of the tensions between cultural heritage and the dynamics of change, and aim at creative solutions. These cannot last for ever: they have to be related to the historical and cultural context, with its particular values and perspectives. 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.
(This article synthesises a longer study by the same author. It can be found at the following address : Crucial Points in the Transmission and Learning of Intangible Heritage)