Analytical perspectives: classifying the heritage debate according to sociological theories

The theoretical models that were employed in the British heritage debate to explain the origins of the heritage boom oscillated between arguments that were politically oriented (heritage as an elitist political agenda), economically oriented (heritage as an industry), culturally oriented (heritage as a nostalgic structure of needs and leisure phenomenon) and sociohistorical (heritage as a movement from below). The researchers agreed on two points, however: first, that deindustrialization, the recession, and the dissolution of the two-class society and the identities associated with it had, since the 1970s, prompted people to turn to the past in a search for stability and security (Huyssen 1995), and, second, that heritage looked to the past to establish the credentials of group affiliations and delineations—mostly in the form of genealogies—but it selected its historical materials and affiliation traits based on the needs of, and therefore the power relations in and between, present-day social groups. However, this present-centered explanatory model and the associated compensatory basic figure were used and evaluated by the theorists in very different ways—and, as will be seen in what follows, were clearly inspired by different sociological theories.

Patrick Wright interpreted the spread of heritage in the 1980s as a concerted effort on the part of the political, economic, and cultural elites of the UK to maintain the hegemony of the property-owning classes. From a classical Marxist perspective, he described how the highly exclusive conception of history represented by Deep England was naturalized and nationalized through the New Biedermeier movement in combination with appeals to patriotic feelings. Because its substance therefore appeared to be “naturally emergent” and immutable, Wright viewed heritage as a political agenda that exercised its power in the area of ideology and therefore of consciousness—in other words, in the social superstructure (Uberbau). Marx and Engels had demonstrated in their critique of “German ideologues” that ideologies are, first, products of a “false consciousness” of the property-owning classes, who have been able to decouple their existence from the material base—and thus the (economic) reality—of a society founded on the division of labor and who could therefore devote themselves to the “phantoms” of ideas instead: “Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process” (Marx and Engels 1970: 47). On this basis, Wright illustrated that, as the “opium” of the non-ruling masses, who, in turn, “lack the means of mental production” (ibid.: 64), ideas—in the guise of apparently natural patterns of order—were also ideological tools of authority.

For Robert Hewison, on the other hand, heritage was not just an ideological tool of power, it was an economic nexus of mediation in the middle of the base of society. Hewison viewed heritage as a standardized (mass) cultural product, which obscured its production process and use value and had become a fetish: “Instead of manufacturing goods, we are manufacturing heritage” (Hewison 1987: 9; regarding commodity fetishism, cf. Marx 1976). As a commodity that purported to satisfy human needs but was actually just a distraction, Hewison said that heritage led to a false consciousness of social reality on the side of the ruled and consuming class as well. According to Hewison, the heritage industry commercialized culture and commodified history as heritage, resulting in the ossification of production relations and conservation of existing power structures. By crippling the forces of productivity and producing passive masses instead, the heritage industry derailed the class struggle that guaranteed social change and therefore constituted a materially grounded and ideologically shaped vicious circle, which put the capitalist means of production on a permanent footing.

John Corner and Sylvia Harvey also assigned heritage to the economic base, like Hewison, but they did not share his skeptical, entropy-oriented view of the heritage industry. Although they too thought heritage was subject to an “enterprise imperative,” Corner and Harvey viewed heritage as a productive force (Corner and Harvey 1991a: 46). According to their theory, heritage worked in combination with enterprise to moderate, stabilize, and perpetuate urgently needed economic change, thus generating new cultural and political values which would modernize society in the long term and, over time, revolutionize its base and superstructure. In this respect, Corner and Harvey considered the commercialization of the heritage sector to be an opportunity for the working class and other marginalized groups to gain much more power.

Raphael Samuel’s research approach was also based on a positive assessment of heritage, though Samuel identified the (hi)story of the marginalized classes as a driving historical force, and he criticized both the official conception of history and academic heritage discussions as being “blind to the left” and therefore representing the discourse of dominance. Samuel did not conceive of heritage as “Disneyfied” ideology, he reconceptualized it as a self-assured social movement from below which was initially informal but gradually crystallized into new institutional forms and was nurtured by a widespread desire to preserve what was being lost— a desire that Samuel believed was creative and not contemptibly nostalgic, as Hewison saw it. As such, he believed heritage had the potential to provide democratic access to the past based on local communities and thus to create a pluralistic social order. For Samuel, political and economic processes were ushered in on the level of everyday culture and were influenced by this culture as well. By starting with individuals and emphasizing the socially formative power of their actions, Samuel reiterated the criticism of Marxist theory as articulated by Max Weber in his Protestantism thesis (Weber 2001) and shifted the focus from the analysis of economic and political structures to the sociocultural processes (of action) which helped form and strengthen these structures.

David Lowenthal’s formal definition of heritage, by contrast, stressed the potential of heritage to foster group identities. Lowenthal argued that if heritage was interpreted as a form of viewing the past, it ceased to be restricted to privileged social groups and, on the contrary, became the medium of “ordinary people”—unlike history, which, according to Lowenthal, was theoretically open to everyone but was actually shaped heavily by intellectuals and professionals. Following Lowenthal’s definition, the genuine quality of heritage was its everyday basis and its ability to connect with the beliefs and actions of groups. Based as it was “on a subjective feeling of the parties, whether affectual or traditional, that they belong together,” heritage described a type of Vergemeinschaftung (communal relationship) within the meaning of Max Weber (Weber 1978: 40). Because heritage encompassed everything that contemporary groups believed was their shared legacy (and not what this legacy was or could be on the basis of academic historical analysis or essentialist arguments), Lowenthal’s definition also drew attention to the constructivist dimension of heritage. By ensuring that the accepted, established knowledge of a group was passed down through generations—in the form of myths and rituals, for example—the successful construction of heritage additionally entailed an institutionalization and internalization of the social world. When viewed with a focus on social agents and not on ideology, heritage constituted both a subjective and objective reality that formed the basis of communities and integrated individuals into these communities (cf. Berger and Luckmann 1966).

The sociological potential of the early heritage debate therefore evolved in three different respects. First, in the context of Marxist theory, the position of heritage as a social phenomenon shifted from the cultural superstructure (Wright) to the economic base, where it was conceptualized initially as a “history industry” in the sense of ossified production relations (Hewison) and then as a dynamic cultural and economic productive force (Corner and Harvey). Heritage was judged negatively in the first two cases, but from the latter perspective it encouraged democratic change instead of authority-maintaining stagnation. Second, when Samuel adopted Max Weber’s conceptualization of heritage as a culturally important activity by individuals and groups, the focus of the heritage debate shifted from political and economic structures to the everyday sociocultural actions of subjects. And, third, Lowenthal conceived of heritage in a social-constructivist way as one of several possible perspectives on a past which were always socially constructed, narratively arranged, and oriented to present-day needs—a past which could only be partially reconstructed, as “no account can recover the past, because the past was not an account, it was a set of events and situations” (Lowenthal 1985: 214). Lowenthal felt that the specific function of heritage was to create an objective social reality which made it possible to form communities by means of “perceived” identities.

We also have Lowenthal to thank for giving the heritage debate the conceptual foundation it had lacked for so long. Despite the justified criticism of his formal definitions of history and heritage (Section 1.4.3), and even though it would be almost impossible to empirically trace the two concepts as defined by Lowenthal, both terms can be identified as ideal types in the sense of Max Weber, and they can be used to describe and meaningfully understand social phenomena—based on the distance between the observable empirical case and the ideal- typical, instrumentally rational case—as “congealed actions” (Weber 1978). It is in this sense that I have adopted this terminology for the book at hand (Section 5.3).

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