Archive for July 2011

Did You Say Cultural Heritage Protection in War Situations?

Did You Say Cultural Heritage Protection in War Situations?

By Fernando Gómez Herrero,

Initial Quotes:

“He [British officer named Daly] could go out 50 miles with his pilot and bomb a tribe, come back for the usual morning’s work at his desk; run out and give ‘em another after lunch and transact the regular afternoon’s business before tea, or postpone the bombing picnic until after tea, and return in plenty of time for a bath before dinner. The scattering of camels the first time he did this, said Daly, was very amusing. In two cases, the tribal sheik held out for fifteen days and then yielded to the discontent of his tribe and came in and submitted” (James Henry Breasted, Pionners to the Past, 58).

“The discouraging aspect of [the situation] is that even in archeology, it reeks with politics, and intrique and couter-intrigue are everywhere” (James Henry Breasted, Pioneers to the Past, p. 36).

“I don’t have time for this fucking bullshit” (Army General Tommy R. Frank, Antiquities under Siege, 9).

“[T]he Pentagon neglected to include culture in the list of things that would need to be cared for once the regime had fallen, even though its officials had previously experienced the embarrassment of museum looting on their watch… We hope that the[se] recommendations will lead to real changes in the way in which countries preparing for war recognize and take responsibility for averting the threat of untrammeled looting of the cultural patrimony of mankind in the wake of war” (Lawrence Rothfield, Antiquities under Siege, xvi & xx)

“[I]t is in our best interest to take all possible means to preserve and understand culture in all its facets. Even in desperate times, culture is a unifying force that gives people a reason to live and hope for a better future” (Nancy C. Wilkie, Antiquities under Siege, 246)

“The significant issue for the West here is not Buddhas and lamas, but what we mean when we refer to “culture.” All human sciences are turning into a branch of cultural studies (…).  “Culture” has commonly become the name for all those things we practice without really taking seriously. And this is why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as “barbarians” with a “medieval mindset:” they dare to take their beliefs seriously. Today, we seem to see the ultimate threat to culture as coming from those who live immediately in their culture, who lack the proper distance” (Slavoj Zizek, “How China Got Religion,” New York Times, Oct. 11, 2007).


Beware of cultural managers who claim advocacy of heritage protection in the Middle East geography of Empire, without ever raising questions about Empire in the first place. If this initial sentence may sound ominous and theatrical, almost in the dark tones of the assassinated father figure tormenting the young prince full of suspicions and doubts, it may however also point fingers in the direction of the monumental barbarism near the initially benign sign of  “culture.” In dealing with spoils of war, one will learn to summon courageous interrogation in ways that do not automatically yield to the “intelligence” one most often sees strutting its stuff in public (i.e. state secrecy, conventional field of foreign affairs, typically the institutionalized field of international relations, at least in the home of the brave). To make a political omelette, one must break the eggshell of culture. There is no way around it, also intellectually inside declining university spaces not always hospitable, and outside.

I decided to join a gathering with the title “Who Owns Culture?” (April 15-17, 2010) as faculty representative of a little college of some national name, one in a series directly connected to a  Mid-West networks of institutions of higher learning. The hospitality was provided by a modest unit, the Center for Teaching and Learning, at the big-name University in the proud city of Rahm Emmanuel. The reading of Antiquities under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War (2008) [AUS from now on], edited by one of the participants, Lawrence Rothfield, reinforced the critical impressions that follow.

The gist of the cultural critique: the cynical-reason spoliation holding tight to the sign of “culture” as though Edward Said’s postcolonial critique of cultural imperialism had never existed on this side of the Atlantic. I have in mind both dimensions, the real-life all-faculty gathering and the AUS text. This should have been a two-day escape from the moderate excitements of institutional settings in the mid-West, an excuse to see again the interesting architecture in the big city. I got more than I bargained for. The topic of cultural heritage protection in war situations had been broached institutionally before, so states AUS (p. xiii & 257). The core issues were ownership and copyright, but also (de-)regulation in the shade of the military intervention in the area typically called the Fertile Crescent, the “cradle of civilizations,” the land in between the rivers Tigris and Eufrates (Mesopotamia), and current post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. It is big hail-Mary pass from the important university funded by Rockerfeller in the important city in the mid-West of the sole standing superpower!

The sign “culture” here signalled a rare thing, an “out-there” kind of thing. Something that foreigners did a long time ago and perhaps still do. The overriding interest was managerial: how to make connections to “it,” the antique dimension. But not philosophically or socially: culturally as managers and administrators tend to understand the term “culture.” My main interest was to see how these individuals made explicit connecting with “it,” i.e. the market of antique goods. How do social relations with faraway foreign dimensions coalesce around reifications or commodifications of cultural value?, this was the crucial question, at least for me. There was no show of foreign languages on display. There was no conclusive answer to the generic question, “who owns culture?,” the totalizing singularity of an answer, surely utopian;  and there was, as far as I could see, no genuine impulse towards the UNESCO-type pieties of world heritage patrimony (the World Monument Fund 2006 list places the entire country of Iraq among the 100 most endangered sites, p. 85). The main point here appeared to be to leave the situation  as wide open and vague as possible, elastic, grey-area, up for grabs, fair game, and gamely so, perhaps for speculative roaming, and certainly “free trading” (some participants defined themselves as “free traders,” that is convinced capitalists with an open enthusiasm for theoretical deregulation; how far away into the total no-regulation contact zone of libertarianism?). “Free tradism” was one of the assumed core beliefs in this meeting that emerged obliquely.

The second assumed belief: US supremacy in relation to the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. These two were naturalized assumptions that were not disturbed for the most part of the meeting. In fact, the occasional theoretical disturbance around these assumptions was typified as “hijacking the meeting,” but not publicly, in a corner of the room by the organizer who, acting of behalf of missing others, then invited proper behavior in the following sessions, that she did not of course get. “Who owns culture?” made no effort towards a brief geopolitical contextualization, let alone the interrogation, with or without condemnation, of the war enterprise that “liberated” such antique cultural goods in the black market in the first place. These antiquities were deliberatedly talked about as though they were placed in a social and historical vacuum. There was a sanitizing, clinical operation that did not really touch the big mess as though it was not worthy of language, in the way a certain understanding of politeness obliges never to engage with ugly matters publicly. And who doubts that these geopolitical matters upon which the antiquities are to be situated are really ugly.

The Iraqi people were unaddressed background to commodity circulation: these subalterns did not have a voice. Your curiosity will double check if such voice exists vigorously in AUS. Eerie silence indeed. And yet the official feeling was that not everything was perfect in the vicinity of deregulated cultural heritage precisely because of the said lack of regulation or policy. What is a free-trader to do and not to do with or without old and rare things? How close to a state of pure libertarianism from the theoretical position of force on the side of the occupying army? This margin seemed to be the main dilemma of the presenters. To insist: the level of explicit politics was deliberately erased from the presentations as though a trifle thing (imagine talking about the broken foot of one football player without engaging the entireity of the football game, the competition, etc.). In such environment of destruction, the language is of “rape” and of “catastrophe,” and of lack of cultural policy, the invocation of “protection” only circulated towards the reified goods with no too many foreigners around. Who are the rapists? Who are the “catastrophers”? Monstrous silence. The paramount concern was: who is going to do such good protective thing when no one out there appears to be too keen on doing it convincingly? What type of institution inside what web of institutions is going to map out the provenance of these goods inside such a vast geography of war and destruction, check out the players, identify these rare cultural objects, blow the whistle, flag the money flows, give out rules of good behavior, publicize and punish? And in the name of what exactly?

“Who owns culture?” did not firmly venture away from very general terms to make this antique-good market background concrete. Who is going to name names in high places? The interest of the presenters was –and is– the well-being of the “market” inside which aestheticized antiquities are situated. It was revealing to see the label of criminality inside the larger context so impoverished to address only the illicit nature of trade or the existence of black market (the kids who steal Corleone’s gardenias from his gardens are criminals and do black market with others without ever addressing the professional endeavors of Corleone and how he got to have such a beautiful garden in the first place). The word “capitalism” –naturally– never touched the lips of the presenters, instead “free trade” or “market.” The talk of protection was to be imagined against the vast context of destruction (the friends of Corleone say they want to protect you from Corleone?). Heritage: whose in the fertile crescent? Handled by whom, for whom? Who is the referee here when there are no independent organizations of international reach in the “cradle of civilizations”? And yes, the pliable and elastic enough word: the c-word, culture. What other safe nouns can you imagine in its stead?

This meeting was not guilty of indulging in antiquarianism or historicism. This was never about the historiographic friction between the antique and the modern and how this misencounter may have an impact on the perspective provided by an aggressive and imperial postmodernity. Foreignness was not summoned to signify politically, socially, historically, a clear sign of xenophobia if there ever is one. The word “postcolonial” was unsurprisingly missing in action. This was all-American in the bad stereotypical sense of the word, anti-historical, decontextual, of practical and immediate individual and “policy” in the central or core interest: how to make the most out of it (the looting and the black market)? How to go about it? I failed to perceive a sustainable sense of common good or welfare: private interests appeared to win the day in the (policy) failure of military state intervention. Yet, the suggestion was to seek collaboration with US state powers, or at least roam near its outsourcing capabilities, NGO private interests, etc. But they –we?—have to be convinced of the need to pay attention to the famous trio (cultural heritage protection). The US makes the war. The market generates the black market. The fog of war causes illicit trade and criminality, that lands such goods in the geographies of the invading armies, and who is going (to want) to become a regulator among the dealers and wheelers, developers — never the politicians or soldiers—doing bad things in such a context? The localization of criminality in one aspect, or dimension, among these messy organs without a coherent vision of the total political body leaves all others alone, justified, and naturally just (war is fine, it is the disorders of the postconflict pacification that allowed the looting of antiquities;  the black market is the black sheep, but really?, in the perhaps excessive lack of control, not in vain it is a war, that allows the destruction and loss of cultural capital, etc.).

There was a perceptible “what’s in it for me” type of attitude in a fog-of-war situation, academics seeking their visibility inside the immediate institution, lawyers suggesting possible lawsuit intervention, etc. Mess, destruction, violence, and culture destroyed: o.k., no bleeding hearts, and what does that foreignness have to do with Uncle Sam, who, you will surely agree with me, is largely unfussy about its own collective memory and desire? Assuming naturalized individual selfishness: any collective horizon of any kind around these antiquities under siege? Is the care big enough about the old cultures of others? There was no one instance of lip service to what is going on. You would have thought that some occasional expression of concern, if not condemnation and despair might have accompanied these endeavors that had to do with faraway locations directly occupied by the big nation. Rest assured: zip, zero, cero, supposedly an Arabic arithmetic invention. The general attitude was as though the war was a natural disaster. What remains worthy of note is the collective conservative-supremacist belief system around the culturization of brutal politics that your critical imagination could easily scratch. The politicization of culture is something these men and women were doing but were unwilling to discuss publicly, with the excuse and pretext of caring for “a bunch of old rocks with funny writing” as Matthew Bodagnos puts it humorously in AUS (154). The straw that broke the camel’s back (I am the camel!): the attempt to silence the occasional interrogation of the assumptions underpinning the theoretical interest in the old culture, but it was only in so far as it acquired a market value via the black-market mechanism. The market was here the most natural thing on this earth. Capitalism was the political unconscious force among these cultural practitioners looking at social things from a global position of relative force. There was a serious unwillingness to expand social things, keep them “modest” instead, not to cause trauma to the symbolic texture of these beliefs, assumptions, lest they become uncomfortable, unnatural and problematic. Antiquities were the silly excuse and paltry pretext.

The colleagues gave poker face and silence not liking some of the insisting questions. The balance was tactful and tacit. The language, euphemistic, of culture heritage protection, or humanitarian intervention, yet within a vast landscape of destruction. The spoliation of the foreign country under occupation was looked at from the small window –and narrow mind?– of the institutional violence that zeroed in on “culture,” perhaps the only public sign that could easily be invoked (culture, fewer syllables than humanitarianism). No thick descriptions: everything thin discursively. No “distractions” or deviations allowed. Do the following thinking: the self-appointed cultural manager does not bother with capitalism and treats war as a natural thing that will be repeated, says nothing bad about past and present governments, much less about past and present administrations of the immediate institution. There is never a convincing historical lesson, a cognitive mapping, no reliable history of genuine investment in these specific antique cultural riches of others, as though the history that matters had started five years back and will continue five years from now say, which makes the Middle-East-Fertile-Crescent-Mesopotamia-Iraq geographies and their riches interchangeable, also excuse and pretext for profit, always already from the foreshortened perspective of the invading army, defending the template of the invading imperial nation, ideally accessed from the immediate platform of institutional observation. What these cultural managers want is a private piece of the cake, and eat it too, together with your complicit, cynical exercise of reason, or silence, which are here not getting. In short: Corleone tells you he cares about gardenias, his, and as soon as you know a little bit about him and how he got to like the gardenias you might want to reconsider a few good things. This is what these pages want you to do in relation to postmodern engagements with the luxury and rare world of antiquities.

In the Shade of The Oriental Institute.

There was a cutting irony in the institutional proximity of the Oriental Institute. Founded by James Henry Breasted, this institution holds a good collection of antiquities and is, by all means, worth your visit next time you find yoursel in Chicago. I was lucky: there was a good exhibit in honor of the founder. I even bought the commemoration publication, Pioneers to the Past: American Archaeologists in the Middle East 1919-1920 (2010), edited by Geoff Emberling, a nice, slim volume that does not shy away from acknowledging the proto-imperial and colonial conditions embedded in the origins of the institution and of the Western supremacist attitudes of Breasted himself (some of the included quotes of the founder are clear enough in this respect), not to mention the making of the noted University in the vicinity of Rockerfeller capital accumulation. The Institute is excellent testimony of the kind of vigorous archeological enterprise that preceded the time of Edward Said’s Orientalist accusations.

I feel we are less likely to be enthusiastic about such enterprises today, if they still take place as such. Ours is a post-heroic, messy moment that does not have in its belly to fund anymore big endeavors of such archeological conviction in foreign lands, but also in the immediate circumstance, perhaps these endeavors are migrating to the virtual-digital domain? I was informed in the visit that skyscrapers are not built in Chicago anymore, and perhaps big enterprises have migrated outside the “West” to selected locations in the Middle East, China, India, etc. In my experience, most American students hesitate vis-à-vis such amorphous entity of vague boundaries in quotation marks not quite knowing what to do with it. Does this uncertainty mean an increasing post-Western condition of being, what a certain philosophical and historicist, postcolonial desire called “pos-occidentalismo” in Spanish?

Perhaps. Pioneers to the Past is more institutionalist, historicist approach than policy-oriented. It speaks in certain terms of a more certain, upswing time, our immediate past. There is no bombast, no retro chic, instead a tactful acknolwedgement of the cultural imperialism embedded in the politics of antiquities historically side by side Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 Paris moment.

See this gem:

William Buckler was a member of The Inquiry, a secret task force made up of approximately 150 scholars that was convened in 1917 by Woodrow Wilson to help determine America’s policy in the post-war world. The Inquiry included experts in diverse fields including Egyptology, Native American affairs, medieval history of the Middle East, and engineering. William Westermann, professor of ancient history at the University of Wisconsin was the leader of the Western Asian Division (Oren, Power, Faith and Fantasy, p. 378). The findings of the Inquiry formed the basis for President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the foundation for his foreign policy. Buckler served on a subset of The Inquiry, called the American Commission to Negotiate Peace, that was sent to Paris in 1919 to express the American vision. Breasted and Buckley corresponded about the composition of a proposed international sub-commission that would oversee archaeology in the Middle East, and their goal was to make this group a part of the provisions of the Paris peace treaties, (p. 32).

Nothing of this kind is available in AUS: studies providing historical vistas in the wings of geopolitics, particularly international or foreign, afforded by the superpower interventions, and available inside Uncle Sam’s circumstance. This paragraph probably delivered the dream of some around me in the said meeting and in AUS: to be part of the new Inquiry in the new century in some cultural annex of the State Department or big NGO with good connections! In Pioneers to the Past, one reads that in the year of the big depression,1929, Breasted accompanied Rockefeller on a trip through the Nile Valley piquing his interest with specific bodies of material. Lovers of architecture will remember the Middle-East embellishments in Chicago skyscrapers around that time and the private Egyptian pyramids in the cemeteries of noted cities of the industrial northeast (Chicago, Pittsburgh, etc.). Breasted’s first travel to the Middle East takes place the previous decade, in 1919, while Wilson meets in Paris with big-power representatives, the King/Crane commission runs parallel Breasted completing the mandate to record popular opinion in the region… And this juxtaposition of big politics, or geopolitics, and studies, particularly in relation to vast imaginary and real dimensions is surely a big exciting topic of research: this past never leaves us. We have not passed it yet.

This immediate past includes the economic crisis of the great depression, the literary and cultural modernism in between two massive wars (is it possible to think of this American ancient history building collections in the world of the antiquities as one “conservative” reaction to such European modernisms?). But it is also the moment of the demise of the Ottoman Empire, of British and French mandates in the Middle East, the upswing of the US, and the Americans already follow the British lesson plan (Breasted takes his landscape photography from British planes, which were used for bombing the Arabs). Our “Lawrence of Arabia” appears less adventurous and “open-minded” by comparison than the fabled Englishman, and it cannot be otherwise since the Americans have less of a historical cushion and are relative newcomers to this international scene. Yet, the learning happens fast and by the end of WWII magnificent collections such as the Oriental Institute, but also of modern art are based in the US. A magnificent historical abyss opens up accordingly as soon as we are willing to compare and contrast the present ramshackle configuration of cultural studies, particularly those with foreign and international dimensions, in the home of the brave with the inaugural, if foreshortened perspective afforded by Breasted’s predilection for ancient antiquity, which he called “New History”! A hundred years later, dare I say it, I witnessed a farcical repetition in the vicinity of neo-wilsonianism (justification efforts for humanitarian intervention) coupled with a soft-power neo-orientalism –gamely, bypassing Said-type postcolonial criticisms– at least in this Chicago-based cultural policy studies vicinity, with the focus exclusively on the market of antiquities in contexts of war still dominated by US and British “coalition” forces. A hundred years later, our new history acquires an old meaning: culture vulture.



Antiquites under Siege: Whose and by Whom?

What took me by surprise was the narrow-focus cultural imperialism almost in a pure state– as though Said had never reached this side of the Atlantic. The meeting was summoned in the good-qua-neutral name of cultural policy, which must mean something like the normative impulse of goods labeled “cultural.” Politics was rhetorically out of the picture. Policy focus was all in, or rather in the absence of it, at least rhetorically. In fact, it was the only thing inside the explicit symbolic texture of the meeting: to want to have some kind of policy of cultural heritage protection in war situations. Better yet, there was a disposition towards policy desire in the zero-ground of one also inside the definition of the utopian institution with the genuine disposition to make it happen. Hence, no policy, no institution, elasticity of “culture,” inside a nation that does not ratify international protection protocols because among other reasons it is the perpetrator of war in the first place (the army does not think it is its duty to care for “culture”). Isn’t this real-life situation theoretical paradise for the free traders? And yet the meeting was trying to articulate that something had to be done, that this type of  “benign neglect” culminating in the looting of the Iraq Museum was not good to have. Yet, there was no elaboration, as though this was axiomatic, against the silence surrounding war and occupation. If the “us” had thin elaboration, the “them” was non-existing ghost, and yet the political formula was implicit, brutal and xenophobic (nothing good came out of the Iraqi side). The surrounding colleagues did not leave in me the impression of being faithful lovers to all things Iraki. What was to be done other than complicit silence with state operations? This was left unanswered and the language was vague and grey-area. The “soft” word of “culture” came to the rescue (possible synonyms in the English vernacular: what we do around here, the culture of the place, what people do, manners, modalities, lifestyles, what happens, high, middlebrow and low or popular). What management culture for the black market initiating in the Iraq situation? The impulse was to try to move an abstract institutional culture to have an impact in the general situation of no policy of cultural heritage protection “over there.” Reification: culture was an “old foreign thing” with invisible webs connected to present-day life in Iraq and the US from looters to elite groups through the black market. The “culture” of smuggling does the connectedness that was of interest to the theme of cultural heritage protection. Not this or that belief system afforded by this or that religion. No this or that framework afforded by this or that philosophy. No this or that modality of democracy. In the vicinity of humanitarian intervention, this use of “culture” never goes all the way to (foreign) state building.

This was accordingly the styling of “culture:” contingent modalities of being, ad hoc cut-and-paste of becoming, typically with no big time frame of past and future, and an uncertain geography of foreign meaningfulness of unclear sovereignty. The managerial impulse is to try to get a piece of the action,  without ever getting caught in the explicit horns of ideological schools. The immediate US circumstance was left unspecified, a desert with no social groups, no beloved culture or sustainable structure of meaningfulness. The end-result: the public virtue of the sign “culture” that this cultural-studies critique is calling a vice, the vice of imperialism, for lack of a better word. A pot calling the kettle black? Is this situation only for Americans and Iraqis to arrange? “Culture” becomes the politically correct speech modality of our “post-ideological” times largely complicit with major forces of destruction, at least in these environments of culture heritage, where “stronger” appeals to religious belief, ideology, group solidarity or class do not appear to have interpellation appeal. As the Zizek quote, this conventional use of “culture” conveys the vagaries of privatized life style, of individual choices and opportunities in the naturalized marketplace. What is not compliant with this ethos or horizon, acquires the impetus of a foreign challenge or a dangerous threat (the liberal fallacy is to keep analysis individualized, atomized). There is an unbearable lightness in this cultural being accordingly, a thinness that does not typically tolerate the application of a thick description of the stylistics of this or that “culture” presentation: the multi-directional plasticity and desirable versatility of the noun that requires collective implementations and short-range or long-range timeframes. Surely there has to be something wrong with the benign-looking marshmellow, or the cotton candy, of this ever-present euphemism: how can anyone be against “culture”? What would the negative, the non-cultural, approach to the sign “culture” ever be? Where has the counter-cultural gone? How do these answers square with a “culture of war”?

My American friends had nothing to say publicly about the big picture of politics, much less in the ugly modality of war, in the vicinity of the biggest agent, the US government and its military. Don’t say anything if you have nothing nice to say? Nothing to say because it is not a polite thing to say anything about a messy situation? Nothing to say because it is the most natural and unsurprising thing on earth? Nothing to say because the saying violates the etiquette of compliance and docility to state power? Nothing to say because it is after all in the belief system of the freest nation in the history of the world? Complicity? Timidity? Or all those affects tied up in one tight knot not wanting criticisms in the vicinity? One more time: the dominant desire in this gathering was to try to find a way of collaborating with state power in the capacity of cultural managers, so that some do the destruction and others do the alleged cultural-heritage protection hand in hand like good comrades. There was an indeed miserable type of internationalism accordingly that only contemplated the flow of rare cultural goods into the Western market (Iraq, London, New York, pp. 65, 79, 83) with the origin point in a non-West location under occupation, which, when you come to think of it, is indeed a very good business situation: the soldiers do what they have to do and the cultural managers do what the culture portion. Isn’t this selected protection more deplorable than benign neglect? There was no discourse about who wins or loses, of victims, not officially quantified by the invading armies on either side of the Atlantic. And who do you think will get to enjoy those cultural riches? In this managerial vision, people are not “culture:” at best, background decoration, at worst collateral damage. In either case, cultural democratization is out of the question. Old things are (high) culture, of the kind that you can see at the Oriental Institute and in big museums in metropolitan cities. There was no amorous rendition of this or that antique piece in particular.  The speakers had no history in these laborious investigations, except for one (6 out of 22 in AUS). The narrow interest was to trace the routes of these goods and how they may come to be owned: who stole what where, who bought what, where, when, how, etc. Only Matthew Bogdanos makes a reference to one missing piece that “breaks his heart” at the end of one of his three pieces included in AUS (p. 45), while highlighting the academic complicity with such illicit black market, “the modern-day version of the old molasses to rum to slaves triangle trade of pious New England ship captains and owners who sang hymns and offered prayers while getting rich off human misery” (p. 60). The closest equivalent to Breasted: Art Institute of Chicago’s Director James Cuno?

The policy failure to anticipate and act on the looting of the Iraqi treasure was addressed, so that “we” –the institutional we side by side the state We of the US—may do something better in relation to the next war! The non-US world is kind of “out there” but in parliamentary minority status (check out the institutional provenance of contributors in AUS!). Yet it is not clear what this previous adverb, in the doing it “better,” would mean in another war situation in the near future. It is not a matter of if but of when: Hobbes is taken for granted and the dosis of cultural humanitarianism that is here addressed fits comfortably in one his small pockets. Although ideologies are difficult to x-ray, the smell in the sessions was strong in relation to the lack of seriousness apropos the (foreign) culture at stake –theirs?, ours?, world heritage or legacy?, what notion of welfare or commonality of what kind, if any?, managed by whom if not “us” –we and We–? Any volunteers? And the money will come from what source in the deep crisis? What are the incentives of these private interests? No central policy, the American final solution, always?, as Rothfield writes (pp. 7 & 15). Criminality functions at what conceptual and political level in relation to this cultural-goods traffic? Who are the “crooks,” who are the “bad guys,” and who is to put the “squeeze on the bad guys” (p. 40 & 43)? Are these stealing Corleone’s gardenias? Are they all sitting at some other table in some faraway country? The big problem that concerns these “free-traders” was not the violence and destruction, or US supremacism. It is rather the vagaries of unregulated (antique) goods in the (black) market, and what they want is to be in the game of regulation, up to a point. This is the game that matters to them and gamely they will be forced to say, or rather not say if they can help it, that everything else is fair game. There were no bleeding hearts. The concern towards the destruction of antiquities was occasional, phlegmatic, matter-of-fact.

The explicit bad addressed was the criminality or illicit trade attached to the looting and the disappearance or destruction of antiquities. Yet, what to make of this when the larger context of an illicit war in a country in turmoil was not provided? Who? For whom? The political equation was entirely missing in the meeting and is emphatically missing in AUS. Who are the players? Rothfield’s chart of “Policy Stakeholders involved in Cultural Heritage Protection Efforts in Iraq, 2002-2003” (pp. 2-3) of AUS? American-British humanitarian “soft power” with the Iraqi National Congress in exile? The only Iraqi voice in AUS, out of 22, is that of Donny George Youkhanna, former director of the Iraq Museum, currently listed as visiting professor in the anthropology department at Stony Brook University in New York. If UNESCO is the most noted organization addressing world heritage, such network is a mess to negotiate, and here, in the list of world monuments, the US effectively has a thin presence, mostly parks, effectively a (cultural) “desert” also in the sense of Jean Baudrillard, reinforcing the conventional sense that the culture worthy of attention is “out there, not here,” at least from the conventional platform of observation of a  globalized, amorphous,  diffuse, messily regulated, pop-or-mass-culture type of  postmodernity, and I still feel that this American exceptionalism needs to be thought further. But you will remember that there is no Ministry of Culture in the US and cultural avatars are mostly left out to private interests to pursue, with interconnections of course between public administration and private interests in the tangle of “not-for-profit” tax exemptions (one example, the New York Public Library, which is open to the “public,” but run by corporate and private interests inside the general privatization of social life, and this  liquidation of the welfare state characterizes our immediate political and social reality, also inevitably the affairs of cultural heritage protection that directly concerns us here).

The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) is part of the State Department, and not the other way round, in an annex far removed from the main State Department headquarters (AUS, pp. 238 & 243). Ask obliquely about “culture” in the US and see what happens: “culture” is privatized eminent domain, something to be outsourced if the state had interest in it. Analogy I can’t resist: the annex status of foreign literatures, cultures and languages inside the US university-and-college complex, and of the humanities at large in the bacherlor-of-arts pedigree in the home of the brave (in fact, the “policy” impulse of these cultural studies is one way of claiming relevance for the humanities in moments of crisis if not liquidation, as Rothfield acknowledges in the working papers of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago). Should I even mention the English-only conditioning of the gathering I attended and the AUS text in question?: no foreign words ever bothered the meeting about international vistas! The US has not ratified the 1954 Hague Convention and the 1954 First Protocol on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. It does not comply with the International Criminal Court and the U.S.-U.N relations are always shaky with moments of open hostility during the Bush years. So, what is the theoretical way out in relation to the theme of cultural heritage protection, American style, when the only option for intervention in foreign nations is precisely because of  war, and how else? The only way to go, apparently: the persuasion of private interests to do something about it. For the love of the ancient world alone?

I sensed a double epistemic debilitation: desocialization of social forces and dematerialization of (artistic) goods. In other words, there was little effort to convey the texture of trans-individual energies, only individual names were included acting in various undefined settings (“the fog of war” conveys such lack of clarity). I had therefore the feeling of syntactic destructuration, of a computer cloud, underneath the sign of “culture,” with no explicit frame, institutional or (inter-)national that allowed the making sense of these spoliations, surely embedded in the worldwide forces of capital. The world of antiquities will have to be imagined a relatively small, if significant portion of the whole market world of goods to be bought and sold, oil is certainly the most coveted in the Middle East. Free-traders have a word for what is not the strict core reality of this buy-and-sell transaction between two parties: externality. “Culture” will be a small portion of the goods and a big portion of the imaginable externality in comparison with oil that will be a big portion of the goods and probably a big portion of the imaginable externality as well (are we think of direct correspondence: big business, big externality, small business, negligible externality in narrow capitalist terms?). There is still an awful lot of externality, world, reality or horizon that does not automatically quantify as market value accordingly, in this air-conditioned free-tradism, a miserable world, an empire of dust to be sure. One example is the  cynical use of reason that appeals to culture, heritage and protection in relation to the destruction of a foreign country under occupation. But cynicism or hypocrisy is not –and cannot ever be– the main charge that one musters politically. The question to ask rather is “who, to whom?” “And to what end?” What type of society is being built around these events? What logic to appeal to that does not automatically fall into market logic? How to make sense in relation to this violence, also in relation to the timespace of the antique commodity?: its unprovenanced condition that erases its past, the 1970 cut-off date of proof requirement that an antiquity was not illegally looted (p. 59).  There are institutions of the importance of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the British Museum implicated here (the MET’s current policy is to require documentation covering only the last ten years of an object’s history!, p. 59). So, what are academics and scholars,  lawyers and self-appointed cultural managers in the American vicinity of such Iraq /Afghanistan occupation to do –and not do– once condemnation is out the discussion table? Business! And many social things come “home” side by side the word “culture, and discomfort must be publicly verbalized.

Did You Say Antiquities under Siege?

Antiquities under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War (2008) includes two sections: “the case of Iraq and the context of looting,” and “preventing future looting after armed combat.” The emphasis is on the “way forward” with an eye towards the desirability of the implementation of already existing international legislation by legislative bodies and military commanders, planners, NGOs, and cultural ministries, departments and agencies. There are 22 participants, some of them write more than one piece (Bogdanos is the most enthusiastic and biting with 3). AUS is a minority report that has to be handled with extreme care. The volume advocates a policy of protection of cultural heritage, presumably at the international or world level, when there is none firmly in place. Yet how to go about it when the template of the war, US unsigned status, US state interests, occupation, etc. remain intact? What these authors would like to do is to be able to collaborate in the capacity of cultural managers and administrators on the side of the invading army and human resources in the next war and occupation. AUS endorses US orthodoxy that toes the faithful line of military intervention no matter what (there will be criticisms ex post facto but not in toto). The good pursuit: the future implementation of cultural protection policy never in detriment of everything else that goes on. AUS raises awareness about the monumental lack of institutional care in relation to the world of antiquities (I have no doubts as to what would happen if such issue was posed to the American public, it would side with the slight regard of the military typified by the introduction quote by Franks). The related good pursuit: the turning around of the black market into a white or whitewashed marketplace of (antique) cultural goods never in detriment of everything else that goes on. The emphasis, particularly in a context of “free traders,” is on the adverbial qualification of the adjective regulated, somewhat regulated by some kind of multi-institutional organism of international reach. The explicit little bad, or the bad guys: the crooks and looters over there and to a lesser extent those involved in the black market in various parts of the privileged world over here. A leisure walk in big museums will give historical dimensions to such processes of appropriation in the wings of imperialism and colonialism, the Oriental Institute is one among others. The explicit big bad: the destruction of antiquity goods, the inability to intervene culturally, convincingly inside international environments of war and destruction, and  I must insist, never in detriment of everything else that goes on. This is the synthetic misery of the said volume: the smallness of these alleged good and bad aspects that intentionally fails to contextualize the big diachronic history of Western intervention in the Middle East region, at least since Breasted. There is accordingly an impulse towards the museification of social energies by these “free traders” who want nothing to do with the vitality of historical dimensions that does not always already assume the amputations of the Procustrean bed of market values. What AUS forces to contemplate, is the ruins of the museum impulse, at least in some foreign geographies. I hope it is clear: this ugly Americanism abroad also plays ugly at home and it is not only practiced by Americans (it should be clear that my writing is emphatically not interested in anti-Americanism, a rough nomenclature as such, or in demonizing this or that nationality in toto: the crucial point is to link up discourses and silences with mentalities and dispositions, conextualize them and define policies within politics).

The mea culpa remains exclusively circumscribed to the policy failure of cultural heritage protection. Those wanting a big historical and geopolitical lesson will be disappointed: the modus operandi of the editor in chief is similar to the complicit observer who claims to want to defend the health and beauty of Corleone’s gardenias in his own private garden without ever telling you who Corleone is, how he got those beautiful gardenias in his private garden in the first place, who profits from such externality, who may wish to steal those rare flowers, etc. There is no need to assume the good faith of Corleone or the editor of AUS, or myself included, particularly against the horrific landscape of two societies going at each other, the university-state collaboration, the privatization of social energies, etc. A different analogy: AUS is identical to the narrow-focus tinkering with the body parts of a broken car involved in an accident and the parsing of the bits and pieces and how to go about them, buying or selling, without ever telling us who was driving the car at the time of the accident, what happened, any victims, etc. This wheel-and-deal mechanic wants your intellect to focus solely on the money it costs to purchase the pieces of interest, and the written rules on the piece of (wet) paper, and who is watching anyway?

Yet, what to invoke in this type of bellicose environment in which the very notion of “war” is being redefined (what does it mean to win, for how long does it go on, no parades, etc.)?  You have various institutional competitors and agencies. And you have the “market state” –as the recent nomenclature has it–  privatizing and outsourcing services to “stakeholders” (the non-institutional dimension is out the mental picture and yet the landscape of cultural heritage protection appears thoroughly institutionally dysfunctional). It is not difficult to figure out who has access now to the cultural goods –or any other goods—of international impact inside Iraq. What is the conceivable over-arching frame to invoke? The center cannot hold tight in relation to any aspect of cultural heritage protection that you may wish to consider: The US has no strong commitment to “culture,” its own, much less that of others, particularly those under occupation. There is no strong “culture” agency in charge. And what does world (i.e. non-US) “culture” mean anyway when the lives of men and women are at stake? The social imaginary of this “culture vulture” that comes to mind out of AUS is close to Ted Hughes’ Crow. It is not a pretty picture. In the name of what to claim to protect it in a larger context of destruction? It is clear that the humanist / humanitarian rhetoric of unity in mankind such as Nancy C. Wilkie in the hush-hush of the war endeavor in the initial quote is impossibly cynical and hypocritical. Praising the beauty of Corleone’s stolen gardenias without contextualizing anything about the alleged owner is sinning by omission, at least initially (you will remember the three Catholic modalities of sin, deed, word and omission, and some of these “free traders,” also in liberal institutions, probably sin in all three modalities with hypocritical salt and cynical pepper). One should never fall for the good nominalism of “cultural heritage protection,” one modality of humanitarian intervention in war situations.

This is the strongest justification that will find no easy public rebuke in the current reduced frame. Matthew Bogdanos again: the black or illicit market provides money to those fighters who fight our soldiers (p. 60). The military mission is untouchable. The repudiation of US intervention is totem and taboo also inside university houses of learning in modalities that go beyond individual pronouncements (very telling that the military contributors to AUS put in parentheses that these views are theirs only and have nothing to do with the policies or positions of the US government, p. 319, 320). Sifting the rationale: this humanitarian dimension inside which the theoretical cultural heritage protection policy remains homeless yet it should find its proper utopian place never in detriment of anything of geopolitical importance from the US perspective that is going on. As mentioned before, such cultural policy is a very small place inside the bigger issues at stake (wouldn’t it be completely “barbarian” of any self-declared civilization to circle out favorite sites and favorite pieces of antiquity, such as the one that makes the heart of Bogdanos bleed, and save them from looting and destruction, while the whole country of Iraq remains under occupation, keeps generating victims, gets destroyed?). Call this use of “culture,” ancient or otherwise, the soft-power that accompanies the hard power of military intervention (several contributors in AUS make it abundantly clear that the US military does not think this cultural rescue to be its mission).

Others will simply call failures in the “post-conflict or stabilization phase” of the military operation. The entire intellectual edifice of the invasion inside interconnected US foreign-affairs interests remains intact –complicity in silence, sin by omission, initially–  without ever broaching the topic of international-law in war situations such as the Iraq war in the first place: Corleone’s garden is his garden! The rules are his whether he signs a piece of paper or not! It is telling that there is of course never the attempt to bring together international criminal court parameters, and cultural-heritage protection parameters closer to each other in between administrations (it is telling to witness the more tactful management in the Obama moment of the previous Bush war situation, while essentially maintaining the fundamental premises, supremacist templates, essential goals, etc.).

To recapitulate, “culture” spoken in these institutional terms falls within the humanitarian rationale (p. 156), which i soft-power invasion-and-occupation rationale by indirect means (this I called neo-wilsonianism). Institutionality is naturalized, even if dysfunctional and the disposition is to find some para-state arena of international organizations or of private interest with its provision of contractors that could collaborate with others. The specific modality of the humanitarian rationale that concerns us here is the antique market of cultural goods. The caricature of the ugly Americans abroad may be useful here, in relation to the ugly American within domestic borders acting with the same ruthlessness in relation to his / her own national culture (I have been told more than once by American students that there is no such thing as American culture, their argument assuming an amorphous entity of vague timespace boundaries where atoms and monads circulate in individual bliss). I am not yet used to the sorry spectacle of servilism to the immediate institution where some of these cultural practitioners function professionally, and largely to the official discourse of the state and its machine of naturalized violence (the ideological state apparatus in Althusserian nomenclature). This is made evident in the meeting “Who owns culture?” and in the AUS anthology. It is the cultural-policy logic of the hermeneutic endeavor that one must confront forthrightly (check out the public documents “Cultural Policy Studies?! Cultural Policy Studies?! Cultural Policy Studies?! A guide for Perplexed Humanists” (April 1999) and “Why Humanities Belong to the Public Agenda” by Lawrence Rothfield (Sept. 2000), Cultural Policy Center, U of Chicago, working papers, accessed May 2011).  The purchase of the humanities in severe decline is presented in terms of the ability of engagement in public discourse and influence of policy (the orphan status of the humanities, the drop in humanities Bachelor of Arts in the US, etc.; the  future of cultural studies is here the managerialism of cultural policy studies!). The fine equilibrium is how to negotiate the interests of the private institutions where these initiatives emerge and the state-apparatus externalizing, outsourcing or privatizing endeavors of theoretical general interest, sometimes in collaboration with international institutions such as UNESCO. Individually, of course. The cynical-reason articulation of the protection of the old cultural good in war-torn environments naturalizes the geopolitics of war and the market, or capitalism, inside which such logic is intelligible (references are made to the thriving of the Western market of antiquities, p. 72). So what’s the problem? And whose problem?

Some Hasty Conclusions.

The modality of culture policy studies highlighted here is one type of escort service, in all senses of the word, claiming humanitarian services, para-militarily. It is an effort of some individuals to influence federal-state policy in foreign locations, which is currently not happening. And it is unlikely it will happen, who will assume this responsibility?, since  “the military does not consider knowledge and handling of cultural goods and environments to be part of its core business and certainly not a priority” (p. 177). Although the focus of these cultural policy initiatives is deliberately narrow, the issues summoned are large, even philosophical: how to go about preserving places and objects of significance, and symbols and landscapes undergoing destruction with no end date (my American readers will summon courage to ask how vigorous the federal efforts are preserve places of identity and objects of significance inside the US). There is truly a deracination of significance or meaningfulness, of barely livable habitats, of “benign neglect,” in the pejorative sense the expression acquired, also in the US. What would the irruption of rare antique forms of increasingly uncertain Middle East provenance mean in the apparently unstoppable postmodernity of attenuated signification processes imploding inside and outside US borders? Anything other than the ornamentalism of elite class privilege of ownership and copyright finding occasional museum visibility?

There was precious little effort at providing a history lesson in the meeting “Who Owns Culture?” The policy level is always anti-historical modern with a density of history of five years back and five years ahead at most. And this is the thinness of our global actuality, doubts anyone? Identical situation in AUS, with a more genuine humanitarian neo-orientalism that goes fittingly with neo-wilsonianism in circles of international policy in a moment of severe financial crisis and of liquidation of the welfare state. No vigorous archeological grandeur for us then, which does not necessarily mean the end of imperialism vis-a-vis older and “proper” versions, American and European, of Orientalist endeavors of another time and place, Breasted for example. His calls were for the “New History,” ornamentalism of industrial civilization at a time when the city of Chicago was doing big things. No such big calls are made today: our today is small in more meanings that one against the background of the Oriental Institute, side by side a past gathering remembered in these pages. For a meaningful vignette: the aerial photography of Breasted with a bellows camera in an open-cockpit British plane (Pioneers to the Past, pp. 52-3), perspectivism in the age of mechanical reproduction, a hundred years ago, not yet in the main seat of  imperialism and colonialism. Who –our ancestors of one hundred years ago or us in the institutional we or the big WE of the US– in the early decades in the new century– does such perspectivism against the benign neglect of the casualties of war better? Who does the brutal, raw and uncooked Eurocentrism better? Whose form of culturalism is the most pernicious? Who profits the most from the spoils of war under the name of heritage protection? This type of comparative approaches may force the foreshortening of the virtual present against older and vast West/East dimensions falling ever so unevenly into fields of study, typically presented by the academic menina to the occasional figure of global power.

I mentioned I got no whiff of antiquarian historicism in “Who Owns Culture?” and AUS. I am curious to see if explorations of two other items, Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past (2008) by Geoff Emberling and Katharyn Hanson, published by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum (2009) by Lawrence Rothfield, will change dramatically these observations for the second half of this piece. Does the reader want to bet? In the meantime, you will not miss the occasional piece along the same lines of ruinous heritage ad maiorem gloriae imperium… (Ann Marlowe, “ A heritage in ruins” (New York Times, June 3, 2011).

In the fog of war, the light of your match finds funny shades near the reified notion of “culture.” Are you willing to contemplate the reversal operation, the occupation of the main cities in the big nation, Washington and Chicago say, the looting of the Mall and of the Oriental Institute, the surfacing of these goods in powerful hands and pockets in other countries who claim Americans do not have a natural connection with their own cultural goods within their borders,  and how the international community is best served otherwise, the managing of gatherings to talk about these issues only with Middle East managers who do not like being called upon, and one of them asking rhetorically “is cultural imperialism always bad?” and the editing of volumes titled for example “American Postmodernities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the America War,” but in a foreign tongue, edited by a cultural practitioner with a foreign name, etc.You get the point of the small antiquities department inside the cultural attaché of the humanitarian intervention of the military occupation.

At least the answer to the question title of this essay is clear: did you say cultural heritage protection in war situations? Barbarism of civilization, and twice barbarian: first, in relation to the occupation and destruction of the rich and dense timespace of global significance; and second,  in relation to the culture-vulture attempt of cynical reason that in the name of preservation policy of such foreign riches keeps the larger template of war and the largest frame of capitalism largelly intact, mostly silenced and affirmatively positive.

Any comments, questions, issues for FGH? Get in touch,