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Cultural Revivals

Theoretical Trajectories And Contemporary Contexts

While it may seem at first glance that cultural revivals work to undermine the political hegemony of the nation-state, and oppose themselves to dominant cultural and economic interests, these relationships are complex and frequently ambivalent. A new generation of research on cultural revivals parses their role in the sociopolitical formations, economies, and belief systems of nations.

Antimodernism, revival, and the tourism and heritage industry.

Scholars have noted the constitutive place that appeals to lost heritage have in the rhetoric of modernity. If to be "modern" is to be severed from one's ethnic past and the holistic sense of community it represents, critiques of industrial modernity tend to be expressed through the idealization of heritage and the cultural integrity of "primitives" or "exotics." This yearning for a lost wholeness and authenticity results in support for salvage and preservation efforts that in turn present the "lost" or "recovered" cultural materials for the consumption of the dominant, modern culture, frequently as tourist or heritage attractions. The ironic structure of belief underpinning this process has been called "imperialist nostalgia"—where imperialist or capitalist expansion causes the ongoing damage and erasure of traditional lifeways, and is "nostalgically" lamented by its agents even as they continue to perpetuate it, or "ethnological antimodernism," expressing one's commitment to the superiority and normativity of modernity through a romantic, consumerist overvaluation of "premodern" peoples and their cultures.

In material practice, this can lead to an uncomfortable symbiosis as the group in the process of cultural revival becomes a symbolic resource and economic asset for the very state that is responsible for their oppression as an ethnic minority. The power to articulate cultural identity, meanwhile, remains clearly in the hands of the state, the market, or the dominant ethnic interest: cultural identities are validated insofar as they conform to hegemonic agendas, and particular forms of cultural expression (a ritual, distinctive costume, or festival, for example) are selected for preservation and display while others are neglected or actively repressed. At best, cultural revival under these conditions can offer some minimal form of recognition, representation, or leverage that can be capitalized on by a minority group.

Theorists such as Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett have elaborated these observations, suggesting that the action of naming and presenting a set of cultural practices as heritage constitutes in itself an ironic form of cultural revival. The culture that becomes "heritage" is both given a second life (endowed with cultural and economic value by its prospective consumers) and declared dead in the same gesture, as it enters the domain of cultures deemed to belong to "history." An instance of this is the preservation of closed Welsh coalmines by local governments with the aim of reconstituting them as tourist attractions that feature the lifeways and work of the colliers of a past age. This development strategy obviously has mixed implications for those for whom this way of life is a living concern and whose political energies are devoted to encouraging reinvestment in coal production by the British government.

Liberal multiculturalism.

Some scholars have examined the paradoxical codependence of cultural revivals and the states against which they articulate themselves through the lens of political discourse and juridical practice. Anthropologists such as Elizabeth Povinelli, drawing on work in radical political theory, have noted that liberal multiculturalism demands the demonstration of cultural difference to validate its prevailing ethic as a "rational, non-violent form of association based on competing knowledges and moral values" (p. 6). Yet the national recognition of difference is always conditional, disqualifying differences that prevailing morality finds repugnant, however irrationally, or that are incompatible with Western constructions of "tradition" (preferring, for example, continuity over revival, spiritual over economic or material orientation). This logic is particularly conspicuous in cases where revival is accompanied by legal procedures for restitution. As in the Aboriginal land hearings that Povinelli discusses, court proceedings function as public revival rituals, occasions for the collective demonstration of national repentance and the celebration of majority tolerance, which center paradoxically around the state's legislation of what constitutes "traditional custom," and its demand that aboriginals not only identify with but perform this version of culture as a prerequisite of their recognition as political subjects.

Globalization and revival.

The phenomenon of cultural revival is entering a new phase with the changes in social and political formation that accompany globalization, giving rise to cultural revivals that operate above the level of the nation-state, linking members of an ethnic group residing in geographically distant locations, and appealing for recognition not just to national governments but to transnational publics. Scholars of contemporary cultural revival are beginning to focus on the new strategies and discourses that emerge as revivals are shaped by their challenge to transnational rather than national relations of ethnicity and race, and operate predominantly through the dissemination of images and discourse in communications media, rather than through the immediacy of cultural performance and territorial sentiment. What new forms of affinity and belonging do global revivals draw on? What new ideas about culture do they produce, and which old ones do they perpetuate? These may well be the questions asked of cultural revival in the future.


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Margaret Werry

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cosine to Cyano groupCultural Revivals - Critical Approaches, Fourth World Revivals, Ethnic Nationalisms And Race-centered Solidarities, Theoretical Trajectories And Contemporary Contexts