Well I see it didn’t take long for the heritage geniuses on the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention to go down the same sorry national(ist)-marketing-and-promotion trail that the World Heritage List has already blazed. There is so much that is new and innovative in the ICH convention– so much that stresses evolving ideas and practices over fossilized “specimens”– that it is a shame that so many policy makers and decision makers have such a hard time distinguishing patriotism from heritage, and heritage from economic promotion that is artificially themed.
At the recent 5th meeting of the Committee in Nairobi, fifty-one intangible traditions from around the world were recognized,protected, or honored, but two in particular stand out as laughable attempts at EU puffery:
“The gastronomic meal of the French“ besides being insanely homogenized, detached from class and region, and frozen in a seemingly timeless, homogenized national identity, this ICH “element” makes a mockery of any idea of cultural authenticity . Read the description for yourself but note: “The gastronomic meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert. Individuals called gastronomes who possess deep knowledge of the tradition and preserve its memory watch over the living practice of the rites, thus contributing to their oral and/or written transmission, in particular to younger generations.” Um. What about poor people, fully French, who did not or could not afford all the courses. Was the Gastronomic Meal in Lille even remotely similar to the Gastronomic Meal in Marseille? Or what about the couscous of St. Denis? Is that meal (and its eaters) somehow not French? This is Intangible Heritage that teaches homogenization and disregards local contexts– more or less exactly the opposite of what the Convention seems to intend.
“The Mediterranean Diet“ description reads like a restaurant advert or the promotion of a faddish weight-loss plan: “The Mediterranean diet is characterized by a nutritional model that has remained constant over time and space, consisting mainly of olive oil, cereals, fresh or dried fruit and vegetables, a moderate amount of fish, dairy and meat, and many condiments and spices, all accompanied by wine or infusions, always respecting beliefs of each community. However, the Mediterranean diet (from the Greek diaita, or way of life) encompasses more than just food. It promotes social interaction, since communal meals are the cornerstone of social customs and festive events. It has given rise to a considerable body of knowledge, songs, maxims, tales and legends. The system is rooted in respect for the territory and biodiversity, and ensures the conservation and development of traditional activities and crafts linked to fishing and farming” I mean, come on! Wine or infusions? There are many more unlump-togetherable customs here, making its sponsors Spain, Greece, Italy, and Morocco, ignore the distinctive variations that they do not share. Is this highly generalized cluster of food habits really a single tradition? And are the countless Greek and Italian restaurants of the Western Hemisphere, Northern Europe, Asia and Australia– with their Mediterranean wall murals and faux-classical statuary part of this intangible heritage too?
For all it has done to promote culture and heritage worldwide, UNESCO is in danger of packaging as “heritage” almost anything its most powerful states-parties call for– and emptying the concept of “Authenticity” of almost any meaning at all…