This blog post is based on:
Malpas, J. 2008. “Cultural Heritage in the Age of New Media” in New Heritage.New York: Routledge, pp. 13-26.
Srinivasan, R. et al. 2010. “Diverse Knowledges and Contact Zones within the Digital Museum. Science, Technology & Human Values 35(5), pp. 735-768 (pp. 1-36 on the PDF).
Using Walter Benjamin’s authorial aura again as inspiration for extending a treatment of cultural artifacts towards issues of cultural heritage, we see more authors state that material objects are still valued but that we have a new heritage paradigm where the narrative context allows us to now magically transcend the fetish of the collected object (Malpas 2008:15). If we have access to the narrative (through agonizing negotiation at our local “contact zone”), then we feel that we can complicate the traces of ownership and be gained access into another culture’s proprietary heritage (Ibid). But, this would depend on which cultural paradigm being referred to. In our Western Consumer Capitalist society, we require the purchase and collection of the commodity representation just to get permission to include the collected entity into our imagined personal narratives. In my opinion, this situation reinforces the fetish of collecting by making the narrative cultural experience fully contingent on the collected proprietary artifact. As noted by Srinivasan et al (2010), museum collections until the mid-20th century “continuously discuss, study, and reorder the world in miniature” (Bennett 2005 in Srinivasan 2010:4) and I would say that such worlds are still being re-ordered in miniature through the purchasing and collection of fetish-representations of the desired narrative.
As a kid, my imagination was stifled by this paradigm. I felt an ontological disconnection from relating to a specific super-hero or villain in my head unless I owned the action-figure representation of that character. I could not even imagine a suitable narrative without purchasing and collecting the commodity fetish version first. I would imagine that the museum works in a similar fashion. They cannot embody their idea of someone else’s narrative without owning the fetish-object first. Museums also need the object for ritual activation of cultural heritage as a proprietary narrative.
In fact, without gift-shop ready representations of each fetish object, museums may feel that these narratives are out of their grasp and truly located within the authoritative domains of other cultures. If the museum had a certain reproduction of their mask in their gift-shop, is it then ok to have the mask repatriated back to the originating culture?
Being “neither distant nor close” (Malpas 2008:22), the non-material narrative (i.e. stories and rituals) blends in through the residual process of capitalist consumption (another incentive to visit the Museum’s gift shop).
Is it any surprise then to know that video game companies see the value in owning an end-user’s own emergent cultural heritage? With Malpas’ “Virtualism” (17, 20), the company can restrict proprietary access to BOTH the “autonomous” artifact (including the user’s own self-representation) and the corresponding narrative or personal ritual. This paradigm goes beyond Benjamin’s notions of mechanics implying digital reproduction – proprietary access consumes living cultural heritage as well – whether it be the private rituals of First Nations cultures or the public expressions of avatars and agents in video games and virtual worlds.
As Malpas notes, the current notion of “heritage interpretation” (20) helps determine one’s own heritage manifestation. And now, we not only hold up a mirror of culture to see ourselves in it, we have social networking sites like Facebook beginning to shape how we access and mediate our reflected image.
I would say that the Consumer-Capitalist paradigm works as a counter-balance to those “multiple-ontologies” offered by an object or fact (i.e. Bruno Latour’s “immutable mobiles”, Srinivasan 2010:5). With the Zuni example (Srinivasan 2010:7), narratives were shared but were not included in the museum’s catalog. This omission reverses consumer capitalism’s collection drive. Without the Zuni narrative, there is no permission to access the fetishistic power of the object. In consumer capitalism, without first possessing the fetish-object, there is no permission to access the narrative. This re-contextualizes Appadurai’s assumption (1986 in Srinivasan 2010:9) that an object is “inert and mute” without narrative as the activation agent. In our culture, possession of such an object becomes the key to activating the narrative. How much of this activation is attributed to human agency or narrative is in the mind of the beholder.
One final thought…here was what was going through my head when Malpas considered language itself to be an artifact…