Heritage as a medium of intercultural understanding

The cultural turn: the path to a relativistic concept of culture

The term “cultural turn” is used in the humanities and social sciences to describe the transformation of cultural knowledge, in the course of which the significance of everyday culture for the constitution of society became the focus of the heritage debate from the late 1990s. The cultural turn was triggered by two developments: first, the intensification of crossborder cultural exchange (not only in the form of tourism (Section 2.1)) resulting from the multiplication and gradual globalization of media and communication systems; and, second, the growing dynamism, pluralization, and fragmentation of Western societies as expressed in high rates of spatial and social mobility. The accompanying and increasingly apparent “explosion of cultural diversity and difference which is everywhere our lived daily reality” turned the concept of culture itself into a topic for critical reflection (Hall 2000: 3). In scholarly discussions, culture had been unquestioningly accepted as a semi-natural, homogeneous, and stable cluster of traits more or less timelessly fixed to places, races, nations, and classes:

We tend to see cultures, anthropologically, as well-bounded entities, where difference is fixed and essentialised, indeed naturalised, and sometimes effectively biologised, tied to places of origin, inclusive of all its members and powerful enough to script fixed differences over time, and in that sense as trans-historical.

(Hall, quoted in Perryman 2005: 204; Gilroy 1996)

This normative basic assumption, which homogenized internal cultural differences and factored out cultural development, had dominated the heritage debate until heritage researchers who were inspired by cultural studies—led by the Jamaican-born, UK sociologist Stuart Hall—began to criticize it as traditionalist, nationalist, and retrospective and, in doing so, attracted growing interest from academic and professional audiences: “Attacked from all sides, the so-called paternalist, elitist model of culture lost its ascendancy” (Lumley 2005: 20; Hall 2000).

The attempt to decouple knowledge of culture from normative basic assumptions was referred to by Hall as a process of the systematic “decolonialization of the mind” entailing a relativization of the central values of the Enlightenment, which had propagated a belief in the universal authority of “objective” truth and reason (2000: 8). This effort brought into view the countless cultural practices of minority social groups that had been overlooked or silenced by a canonized culture and the scholarship that reproduced this canon, and it involved a thorough explication of and reflection on the researchers’ own presuppositions (cf. Section 1.3.1).

These new research practices had far-reaching effects on the scholarly concept of culture. Instead of emphasizing the integrative function of (nationally homogenized) culture, researchers who were oriented to cultural studies conceptualized culture as an arena of relentless practical confrontation with unequal power relations: “For the field of cultural studies, culture is not stable, homogeneous and fixed, it is characterized by openness, contradictions, negotiation, conflict, innovation and resistance” (Horning and Winter 1999: 9). When viewed as an active and creative social process tied to everyday activities, culture becomes a “medium [...] in which both power and social inequality are represented on the one hand, while various social groups express themselves and attempt to highlight and assert their differences through processes of delineation on the other” (ibid.: 10).

Culture thus generates meanings which create relationships between community and identity while also influencing individuals and therefore constituting subjective as well as objective shared social realities (Berger and Luckmann 1966). Since the cultural turn, truth and culture have no longer been presented as “facts”; instead, they are viewed as a provisional consensus associated with power processes and continual negotiation, while attributions of meaning are generally considered to be contingent and contestable. Consequently, in the field of cultural studies—unlike in Marxist theoretical approaches, for example (Section 1.2) —“cultural forms and processes are not considered something secondary or derivative, they come to the fore in the analysis as dynamic and productive forces which are constitutive of society itself” (Horning and Winter 1999: 9).

This paradigm shift gave rise to a process-oriented conceptualization of culture as a medium for the contested production and representation of meaning, whereby attributions of meaning are always considered to be context-dependent, i.e. both historically specific and dependent on the socio-structural positioning and power position of the group producing or representing culture. As the cultural theorist Jim McGuigan demonstrated using the example of England (1996), there had always been not just one, but rather countless ways of being “English.” He said that these had emerged in connection with social class, ethnic affiliation, gender, age, and lifestyle, and each had “invented” and practiced its own traditions while frequently being ignored by scholars and the cultural mainstream alike. By conceptualizing culture relativistically as the sum of the specific life expressions of all social groups in a certain time and place, the discipline of cultural studies—which also conceives of itself in the plural on account of its multitude of perspectives—pillories the normative distinction between (auratic) high and (mixed) mass culture by consistently applying postmodern theories. The ethnologist Rolf Lindner explained the success of cultural studies by saying that “they revealed themselves, in hindsight, to be the first postmodern research project, and therefore very much in keeping with the times” (Lindner 2000: 10).

But how did the cultural turn that led to this new concept of culture affect the conceptualization of heritage, which is so closely connected to culture?

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