Making, Sustaining, Breaking – The Politics of Heritage and Culture

Annual Conference: Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context”

Forum Transregionale Studien (Berlin) and the Max Weber Stiftung – Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland
in collaboration with the German Archaeological Institute (Berlin)

Heidelberg, October 12-14, 2016

Conference website here.
Programme here.

The deliberations of the conference will address some of the urgent questions that surround heritage as a political and cultural issue at a historical juncture when the idea of culture is being drawn into a field of intense contestation. While in certain intellectual circles and scholarly discussions culture is slowly but steadily being uncoupled from the nation, these impulses are at the same time being countered by moves to reinforce – even reinvent – national identities as culturally homogenous. As societies confront their transcultural pasts, the concept of a monolithic, integrative heritage is not only becoming increasingly untenable, it is turning into a site of conflict. Ruptures induced by the spatial and cultural displacements that come with modernity and contemporary globalization have in turn meant a return to notions of an ancient, untainted civilizational identity in many regions of the world. Such positions cut across the domains of politics and civil society – they include political and institutional authorities as well as scholarly practices, have at the same time found articulation in religious extremism and xenophobia embodied by fundamentalist groups, themselves a modern, transnational phenomenon. Fissures within public spheres that cut across national boundaries in an increasingly connected world have brought questions of cultural heritage to the heart of any engagement with the tangled relationship between concepts of culture and the nation-state.

Heritage here, conceived of as the historical imagination of modern nations, encompasses built structures, artefacts, images, texts and practices. One component of the conference will be to explore the nexus between objects canonized as heritage, transcultural conceptual formations the institutions entrusted with its care, and the disciplines – archaeology, art history, history, literature, philology, anthropology, architecture and conservation studies as well as studies of media and tourism – all of which produce and order knowledge about the uses and meanings of heritage. Contributions to the conference are invited to unravel the contestations surrounding the production of heritage as a concept and practice in the past and present. As new nation states come into being and older ones continue to redefine themselves, the processes by which the past is selectively celebrated and grafted to the aspirations of nations call for a close examination. If heritage is “predatory” (Arjun Appadurai) in that certain forms of remembering are predicated on the elimination of other memories, under what circumstances does this happen? What are the languages brought forth by multiple, competing versions of the past that signify the politicization of culture? Do transculturally shaped identities and social formations in flux generate a yearning for (imagined) stability through a search for “origins” or the recuperation of “purity”?

As an expression of identity, a source of confidence or anxiety, a subject of governance or site of consumption, alternatively as an archive of knowledge and subject of scholarly research, heritage generates imperatives to safeguard, retrieve, preserve, shed and destroy. A second thematic focus of the conference invites panel proposals to discuss each of these aspects that form part of a dynamic of making, saving and breaking. Is conservation also a form of redefinition or an act of transformation that reconfigures an object? How do specific concepts of value and authenticity shape decisions and measures to preserve and to archive? When contemporary cultures of the spectacle enabled by the power of digital and other technologies of simulation create “hyperreal” (Baudrillard) heritage sites to replace the real ones, does the copy democratize the original, possibly by making it redundant?
The third element of the triad is the destruction of heritage – of historical sites, artefacts and archives – in the name of revolution or historical justice, religious fundamentalism, ethnic cleansing, alternatively in conjunction with illicit trade, plunder or natural disaster. The discussion of iconoclasm – both in the past and the present – with a view to making sense of the tangled relationship between the act of destruction and the ways it comes to be signified, and of understanding the place of iconoclasm in collective imaginations will form a third important plank of the conference.

The Annual Conference 2016 is a collaborative enterprise of the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context” at Heidelberg University, the Forum Transregionale Studien, the Max Weber Stiftung- Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland, and the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. The main conference will take place over two and a half days at the Karl Jaspers Centre in Heidelberg. It will be followed by a roundtable discussion in Berlin, at a later date, comprising distinguished speakers across disciplines and including practicing individuals in the field of heritage and curating. The Heidelberg segment of the conference will consist of panels following different formats: the morning panels (2 each on October 13 and 14) will be plenary sessions devoted to broader themes of the conference, while the afternoon will feature parallel sections, with panels in different formats, with a view to foster more intensive dialogic exchange. Two keynote addresses are planned for the evenings of October 12 and 13, and a concluding discussion in plenum for the afternoon of October 14.
The date of the second segment of the conference will be announced by the organizers in Berlin.