Midas Touch & Whispered Words

Intangible Cultural Heritage in Switzerland

The concept of intangible cultural heritage (hereinafter "ICH") has been in circulation since the 1970s and has spawned a number of measures, culminating in the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. It is the fruit of the realization that previous measures to protect heritage have unduly favored rich, industrialized countries, with their monumental constructions, over countries in the "South" in which cultural products often take more intangible forms: rituals, music, belief-systems, etc, that deserve international protection.

Switzerland ratified this Convention on July 18th, 2008. Under its terms, the government is obliged to create an inventory of Swiss ICH. Given the relative novelty of the ICH paradigm, its broad political mission and the latitude granted to signatory states, one would think that the application of the UNESCO Convention in the Swiss context would be open to widely diverse interpretations. In fact, a certain number of commonsense understandings of ICH, promoted by associations for folk traditions, are largely determining the ways in which Switzerland positions itself in relation to its treaty obligations. The broadest aim of this multidisciplinary research project is to keep reflections on ICH open at this initial stage by critically examining what it might mean, whom it might benefit and what might be worth inventorying and preserving under its auspices.

The project brings together research teams from the Universities of Basel, Lausanne and Neuchâtel, the Museum of Ethnography (Neuchâtel), the CNRS (Laboratoire d'anthropologie et d'histoire de l'institution de la culture, Paris) and the Haute Ecole-Arc (Institut horlogerie et création).

ICH in Switzerland : the Journey

The Anthropology Institute of the University of Neuchâtel was first confronted with the notion of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in 2006, when the Swiss UNESCO Commission organized a series of meetings on the question of whether Switzerland should sign onto the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage . UNESCO’s website defines ICH, also called “living heritage”, as “ the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills transmitted by communities from generation to generation”. Acknowledging that the notion is new, the website goes on to place the emergence of ICH in historical context: “ The term ‘cultural heritage’ has changed content considerably in recent decades, partially owing to the instruments developed by UNESCO. Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions , performing arts , social practices, rituals, festive events , knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts . While fragile, intangible cultural heritage is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization. An understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps with intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life.”
At the outset our reaction, and that of our colleagues at the Neuchâtel Ethnography Museum, was skepticism. While the Convention is clearly a fascinating and in many ways laudable political response to questions raised about the international framework for heritage protection, particularly by countries in the global South, from a scientific point of view it poses a series of problems. First of all, it reflects an arbitrary division of reality into material and immaterial spheres, despite anthropological insistence on the need for a holistic perspectivein the study of culture and society. Second, it fails to take fully into account the dynamic, disputed and deterritorialized conception of culture that is current in cultural studies today. Third, it cleanses culture of all of its violent, discriminatory and disciplinary functions and effects. And finally, it blinds us to the fact that collective memory and identity involve not only repetition, transmission, recognition and celebration, but also substitution, innovation, destruction and loss. (Hertz & Gonseth and online document)
Our concern became all the more pressing when we learned that the discussions about Switzerland’s adhesion to the 2003 Convention were being conducted in a relatively closed circle with a heavy presence of amateurs active in the promotion of folklore on the national and international scenes. Eager to take part in the debate, we organized the submission of a letter to the Federal Councilor responsible for culture at the time, Pascal Couchepin, signed by the presidents of the Swiss Ethnological Society and the Swiss Folklore Society. We cannot know for sure, but we suspect that our letter had an effect on the procedures that followed, as the Federal Office for Culture began actively to seek out the participation of Swiss academics in the implementation of the Convention. All of this to say that from the outset, we have played an active if indirect role in the way in which Switzerland has gone about fulfilling its obligations under the Convention and that we can in no sense pretend that we are simply neutral observers of the process, although we try also to be that.
Precisely in order to gain a more objective understanding of the implications and results of Switzerland’s adherence to the Convention, we designed a multi-disciplinary research project, to be funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. Accepted as two separate projects, “ICH in Switzerland: the Midas Touch” (2009-2012, see "The Midas Touch" section) and “ICH in Switzerland: Whispered Words” (2013-2015, see "Whispered Words" section), this project involved five research institutes in addition to the Anthropology Institute and the Neuchâtel Ethnography Museum: the Seminar für Kulturwissenschaft und Europäische Ethnologie, at Basel University; the Center for Area and Cultural Studies, at the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne; the Center for Dialectology, at the University of Neuchâtel; the EDANA research laboratory, at the HE-Arc University for Applied Sciences; and the Laboratoire d’anthropologie et d’histoire de l’institution de la culture, at the French Centre national de recherche scientifique.
Collectively and individually, these research projects have enriched our understanding of the effects of the ICH Convention, in Switzerland and internationally. Some of the predictions we made – particularly the one implied in the project title “The Midas Touch?” – turned out to be too alarmist. While making lists and inventories is indisputably a process of cultural reification (see Hafstein, Vladimar. 2009. "Intangible heritage as a list: from masterpieces to representation", in (Laurajane Smith & Natsuko Akagawa, eds.) Intangible Heritage, pp. 93-111. New York: Routledge), it is accompanied, countered and contradicted by other processes of re-appropriation, rejection and indifference, particularly with respect to the fluid and situated practices that the ICH Convention attempts to track. Thus, while there is a real risk that ICH inventories, lists and registers essentialise cultural expressions, blocking innovation and silencing contestation (Hertz 2015), our case studies show that inventorizing also produces new conceptions, mobilizes new actors, and sparks debate (Hertz & Cattacin 2015).
The Midas Touch
“Then did the god [Bacchus …] grant to the king the free choice of a boon, a pleasing, but useless gift. Midas, fated to make an ill use of his gift, exclaimed: ‘Grant that whatsoever I may touch with my body may be turned to yellow gold’. Bacchus granted his prayer and gave him the baleful gift [….] The Berecyntian hero [Midas] gaily went his way, rejoicing in his fatal gift, and tried its promised powers by touching this and that [….] His mind itself could scarcely grasp its own hopes, dreaming of all things turned to gold. As he rejoiced, his slaves set a table before him loaded with meats; nor was bread wanting. Then indeed, if he touched the gift of Ceres with his hand, the gift of Ceres went stiff and hard; or if he tried to bite a piece of meat with hungry teeth, where his teeth touched the food they touched but yellow plates of gold.” (Ovid’s Metamorphoses (F. J. Miller, translator), Book XI, pp. 127-128. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1916.)
Financed from 2009 to 2012 by the Swiss National Science Foundation, “Intangible Cultural Heritage: the Midas Touch?” sets out to explore the consequences of Switzerland’s adhesion to the 2003 UNESCO ICH Convention. The broadest aim of this multidisciplinary research project was to keep reflections on ICH as open as possible at an initial stage, and to provide a scientific space for critically examining what it might mean, whom it might benefit and what might be worth inventorying and preserving under its auspices. As the title indicated, we wished to call attention to the richness but also the paradoxes and potentially undesirable consequences of the ICH paradigm while there was still time to do something about them. (press release)
The project explored the principal issues raised by ICH through a series of targeted empirical case studies. It asked: How we can meaningfully distinguish material from immaterial cultural expression? How can we reconcile the use of media (writing, recording, photography and film) necessary for the constitution and preservation of ICH with the charged norms of orality, immediacy and authenticity underlying the ICH paradigm? Are items of ICH distributed in space and time according to the community-based UNESCO model, and if not, what are the relevant units of analysis? What is the relation of ICH to the various forms of culture, including so-called "elite culture," already financed by other institutions? Which groups does the ICH paradigm favor, whose cultural expressions are included and whose are excluded? Finally, how does the bureaucratization of cultural preservation alter its object, creating new understandings of culture and new resources for which social actors might be inclined to compete?
Six subprojects, guided by a common set of research goals, questions and methods, allowed us to explore these questions from a variety of angles. Subproject A was designed as an institutional ethnography of the inventory process at the cantonal and federal levels. Subprojects B-E were designed as in-depth ethnographic studies of potential items of ICH that do not necessarily fall within commonsense understanding but nonetheless correspond to the five subcategories specified in the 2003 Convention. These are: a) collections of stories told in dialect ; b) migrant theater repertories ; c) hip-hop performance ; d) traditional healing practices ; and e) watchmaker know-how in the Jura region . Finally, Subproject F involved the creation of a trilogy of museum exhibitions (“ Noise ”, “ Off Screen ” and “ Secrets ”) to accompany our reflections, in collaboration with the Neuchâtel Ethnography Museum, including the constitution of an alternative inventory (see “The Alter-Inventory” section) of ICH for and in Switzerland.
With hindsight, it appears that our research design was felicitous. Sub-projects A and F have allowed us to work as a team, continuously interrogating issues that unite and differentiate the other four case studies. As for the case studies, our predictions about which elements would be included and excluded from the national inventory proved generally correct. Switzerland’s list of “ Living Tradition s ” includes a number of elements grouped around traditional medicinal practices and watchmaking know-how, the subjects of sub-projects D and E respectively. Others elements do not appear on the national list, despite the existence of “bearers of culture” ready to promote them, as with the storytellers analyzed in sub-project B. The case of hip-hop (sub-project C) is particularly interesting as it figured prominently in the images that the Federal Office for Culture initially circulated on its website, but did not end up on its list. Likewise, the absence of migrant theater (sub-project C) speaks worlds about the logics of inclusion and exclusion that are a central issue in our research design .
The conclusions of the first phase of this project were interesting enough to justify its continuation. They can be summed up as follows:
  • In Switzerland, the management of political, linguistic, religious and historical differences between the Swiss cantons – which take the form of stereotyped “cultural differences”, most prominently through the ready-to-think metaphor of the “Rösti Curtain” of “Röstigraben” – appeals to the same rhetoric of respect for “cultural diversity” that the Convention invokes in its efforts to safeguard ICH against the pressures of globalization. The similarities between this domestic political agenda and UNESCO’s far more radical program for the preservation of “ other ways of life ” represents a happy coincidence for Switzerland, and one of our most interesting findings to date.
  • ICH in Switzerland is a hybrid, multidimensional, virtually infinite object. More precisely, it is not an “object” at all, but a way in which certain social actors perceive and represent slices of historical or contemporary reality, and infuse them with virtue. The bureaucratic ethnography we conducted details the processes by which this non-object was given political and administrative form. These processes are necessarily arbitrary, incomplete and exclusionary. They are also successful, creating an object – a website – that circulates with perfect legitimacy in national and international arenas.
  • So-called “ordinary” social actors entertain ambivalent and complex relations to the ICH paradigm, and often seem more exacting and less naïve than the stereotypes we held about them at the beginning of the project. In other words, the variety of attitudes towards ICH – ranging from passionate engagement with its preservation through ironic distance to dogmatic rejection and/or total ignorance – does not correspond to the social binaries in which UNESCO frames the Convention’s application: “top” vs. “bottom”; “experts” vs. “communities”; etc.
  • Some of the potential problems raised in our original research design have turned out to be non-issues. For example, the question of the distribution of ICH in space, and specifically across cantonal borders in Switzerland, has been “pragmatically” solved by the FOC, which has required cantons who submitted similar cultural expressions to work together to produce joint dossiers, and has even enrolled some cantons that explicitly declined to heritagize certain practices in the seemingly innocent task of uniting forces for the national list. It remains to be seen, however, whether all of these re-articulations and recombinations will meet with approval; for the time being, not enough media attention has been paid to this process to raise anyone’s cultural hackles, but certain items could cause problems in the future, depending on how the dossiers advance at the international level. In particular, the question of watch-making know-how could become a fascinating bone of contention, as the main industry actors in the cantons of Neuchâtel and Jura explicitly refused to place this element on the cantonal lists, only to find that Geneva and Vaud had taken another decision. As the element stands, it currently involves the seven cantons of the “Jura arc”, but has not been submitted to the relevant “bearers of culture” for approval. Were it to figure on the list proposed to UNESCO (which is somewhat likely given the “natural” inclusion of watch-making in a list supposed to represent Swiss culture internationally), then informed consent would have to be solicited from people who have already refused to play the ICH game. We will be following this case closely, to see how “pragmatics” and “commonsense” play out in this instance.
As this example demonstrates, some of the other questions we raised in our initial project proposal continue to pose problems. Much of the process of applying the UNESCO Convention to Switzerland has revolved around one key activity: fudging. Without a series of seemingly insignificant acts of bending, ignoring and distorting the Convention’s “spirit”, it is quite possible that the national inventory could never have been constituted. Most telling are the ways in which the fashionable participatory ideals of “community”, “informed consent” and “bearers of culture” have been ignored or distorted), silencing potential controversies and channeling the process towards already existing institutional actors such as associations, cultural groups or even commercial enterprises, readily available to sign “informed consent” forms and represent the “identity” of the “community”.
More generally, the role of written, cosmopolitan culture and of economic, social and political interests backing the ICHization process has also been (willfully?) overlooked, figuring occasionally in the background of the dossiers that cantons submitted to the FOC but not discussed during the rapid (2-day!) meeting in which the 376 items from the cantonal lists were reviewed and accepted, nor in the second (1 day!!!) meeting in which these 378 items were recombined, cleansed and reformulated to become the 176 items of the national inventory. It remains to be seen whether the next round of selection, involving the Federal Counsel and a reduction from 176 to 6-12, will elicit the return of the repressed: battles over “representativity”, accusations of elitism or, to the contrary, demogogery, and acknowledgement that very few of these elements of ICH are backed by “constituencies” other than local governments and the tourist industry.
In short, the next phase of our research will allow us to provide answers to the final and most important question raised in our proposal, both in its current form and under Midas (I): which cultural expressions are included and which excluded from the ICH process, and on what grounds? So far, what we have seen emerging is a very mixed picture, in which stereotypical and highly conventional notions of tradition find their place alongside more unexpected, ironic or innovative items that have been promoted by a variety of actors for a variety of very different reasons. A thorough analysis of this schmorgesbord of interests and rationales will take up the remainder of our research time.

Collaborateurs et collaboratrices

Bernard Knodel
Fabrice Gerber
Florence Graezer Bideau // Centre for Area and Cultural Studies –  EPFL
Grégoire Mayor // Musée d’ethnolgie de Neuchâtel
Laurence Bodenmann
Yann Laville



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