Sense and Essence. Heritage and the Cultural Construction of the Real

26 July, 2018

Ed. Birgit Meyer and Mattijs van de Port

Contrary to popular perceptions, cultural heritage is not given, but constantly in the making: a construction subject to dynamic processes of (re)inventing culture within particular social formations and bound to particular forms of mediation. Yet the appeal of cultural heritage often rests on its denial of being a fabrication, on its promise to provide an essential ground to social-cultural identities. Taking this paradoxical feature as a point of departure, the chapters in this book explore how this tension is central to the dynamics of heritage formation.  

The key concern of the volume is to provide heritage scholars with two heuristic concepts that may help them to address this tension: the ‘politics of authentication’ and the ‘aesthetics of persuasion’. The ‘politics of authentication’ recognizes the importance of notions of the ‘really real’ in heritage formations, but purports that heritage forms have no ontological grounding in an objective reality out there. The authenticity of a heritage form can only be achieved through procedures of representation and certification that profile it as present and real to its beholders. In this sense, the authentic is not given – though often posing as such – but rather a result of a careful ‘cultural construction of the real’. The concept ‘aesthetics of persuasion’ provides new inroads into the analysis of the sensorial, emotional and mental entanglement of heritage forms and their beholders.  

Next to an exposition of the proposed intervention in the field of heritage studies in the introductory chapter, the volume offers eight chapters on heritage formation in Europe, Africa and Brazil, based on ethnographic fieldwork, by André Werneck de Andrade Bakker, Bruno Reinhardt, Maria Paula Fernandes Adinolfi, Duane Jethro, Ruy Llera Blanes, Marleen de Witte, Rhoda Woets, Markus Balkenhol and Irene Stengs. Three eminent scholars – David Chidester, David Berliner, Ciraj Rassool – conclude the volume with reflections on its findings and propositions.  

The volume is grounded in longstanding collaborative research in the context of the NWO-funded research program ‘Heritage Dynamics: Politics of Authentication and Aesthetics of Persuasion in Brazil, Ghana, South Africa and the Netherlands’ and the HERA-funded research program ‘Currents of Faith, Places of History: Religious Diasporas, Connections, Moral Circumscriptions and World-making in the Atlantic Space. It is part of the Berghahn series, ed by Birgit Meyer and Maruška Svašek, Material Mediations. People and Things in a World of Movement.  

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