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22 Dec

Oral and performative cultures and the recognition of the intangible cultural heritage

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In 2003, the UNESCO celebrated a convention that reflected a new understanding of cultural heritage.  It didn’t only considered material objects as part of the common heritage but “living expressions and the traditions that countless groups and communities worldwide have inherited from their ancestors and transmit to their descendants, in most cases orally.” (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO], 2007). 


The recognition of this type of cultural heritage responded to an increasing international concern for important identification processes such as oral tradition, rituals, traditional knowledge, etc.  As the convention proclaimed “This living heritage, known as intangible, provides each bearer of such expressions a sense of identity and continuity, insofar as he or she takes ownership of them and constantly recreates them” (UNESCO, 2007).

But this convention wasn’t the first effort to protect it. It can be traced back to the 1980s when the same organization tried to establish the first list of intangible cultural heritage. It also reflected a general trend in the academic world and the upraising of the cultural studies as a valid epistemology and methodological vision.

In that period, Latin-American and Caribbean thinkers related to cultural studies as Antonio Benitez Rojo, Antonio Cornejo Polar, Alberto Moreiras and Stuart Hall were developing their theories surrounding cultural manifestations and identity in their own cultural spaces. They all understood that we, Latin-Americans and Caribbeans, build our identities based on traditional oral expressions and rituals. We are an oral and performative culture. Our feeling of belonging can’t be detached from the sound of the drums, the myths that found their way into our everyday lives. Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban writer, said that there could be no other place in the world where the “magic realism” could have been born other than the Caribbean because everything about those spaces is permeate with a mystique vision of the world. Time in our society is always conflictive because of the double articulation it has: on the one hand we try to live in an historical and progressive time; on the other hand, the mystique time, ahistorical, is always beneath the lineal one.

Nothing can define us better than the rhythm of our music or the notion of the carnival (the Rio de Janeiro Carnival, the Barranquilla Carnival).

There is no tangible heritage that could exist without the counterpart of the intangible Of course, one could argue that every culture has an oral or performative background, but Latin-americaneity relies as a whole in that notion. There is no tangible heritage that could exist without the counterpart of the intangible heritage: the Mexican pyramids are an outstanding architectural monument but it has no meaning if they are not taken as part of the vision of the ritual as an entity.  The same could be said for the literature of Garcia Marquez, which is embedded in the oral traditions and popular culture. Even the structure of most of his work has a circular or spiral structure that echoes the mythical one.

It is no coincidence that most of the countries have adopted a particular intangible heritage manifestation as their brand or distinctive feature. For example, Colombia adopted a slogan that relates to a form of intangible heritage; “Colombia is Passion” supposes living, transformable expressions present in any form of intangible heritage as the many carnivals, the music and the important oral tradition (the “cuenteros”). In the same way, Panama chose as a key minister (tourism and culture), Ruben Blades, an iconic salsa figure. They wanted to be looked at from the outside as a sum of intangible expressions.
These examples prove that national governments in Latin-America and the Caribbean are interested in the recognition of the intangible heritage because of two main reasons. First, as mentioned above, we have constructed our identities as national and regional subjects based on our oral and performative traditions and we still rely vastly on those cultural expressions to remain a coherent social body. But national governments also needed intangible cultural heritage to be recognized because it is an interesting tool to change the outside vision of the country. In that sense, the convention allowed national governments (in Latin-America, they are the more interested stakeholders) to nominate and recognize a specific manifestation that was unique and valuable for the identity of the Nation and region.

Ultimately, it was not only a recognition of a precise type of cultural heritage but also a legitimization of who we are and the overthrow of the subaltern vision of our cultural patrimony in the international scene.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO]. (2007). Intangible heritage. Retrieved December 17, 2010, from www.portal.unesco.org/culture

Tatiana Marino Villate

Tatiana Marino Villate

I was born in 1987 in Bogota, capital of Colombia where I studied my undergraduate degree in “Literary Studies” at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana. There I developed an interest for Cultural theory and more specifically for Latin-American critical theory and postcolonialism which resulted in my dissertation “The repeating island: writing and reading critical theory from the margins”. Afterwards, I did a research master degree in Cultural Studies in Universite Paul Valerie in Montpellier, France; and currently I am undertaking a master in Arts Management and Cultural Policies in the University of Manchester.

1 Comment

  • Kate Mohan

    Interesting concept: intangible cultural heritage...am surprised it took so long for it to be "officially" recognised.

    Kate Mohan Sunday, 26 December 2010 19:21 Comment Link

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