Thursday, August 04, 2011

Koreans USE Arirang... but OWN it?: Part Four: China... and UNESCO Looks like Tools Right Now

This is a several-part response to The Korean's post about Korea's ownership of Arirang. The Korean's post was a response to my post in June, stating provocatively that Nobody Owns Arirang.

Part three of this series.

Some food for thought:
Becoming a Canadian.

Waking up Canadian. It's that easy to become a Canadian. That's what happens when nationality is civic instead of ethnic. Nationality isn't the same as ethnicity OR identity. Nationality's a piece of paper. Identity's a lot more.

These beer commercials are like putting video clips of the 2002 World Cup crowd scenes in a Korean commercial:

But you best not be crossing us canucks:

And, to illustrate the confusion that occurs when one word (Korean) can represent a political body, a culture, or a language, here's some of the confusion that occurs when Jew, the religion, and Jew, the ethnic group, get muddled: Jerry Seinfeld's friend converts to Judaism... and starts telling Jewish jokes, and referring to Jewry as "we."

Sidenote: Questions about China

Before we can be sure China is only trying to co-opt Arirang for the sake of taking over North Korea, Baekdusan, and so forth, here are the questions we need answered:

1. what other cultural heritages of China's many other minority groups has China been registering? Has it been at a similar rate to China's registering of cultural heritages belonging to the Korean Chinese in the Northeast? Faster? Slower?
2. are there landclaim disputes or potential landclaim disputes in any of those other places?
3. are there cultural practices being registered in those other places that belong to people who don't exclusively live in China? (for example, the Hmong in South China and Southeast Asia) and has this action been seen by any of these other groups as attempts to co-opt their culture? Has it been seen by the nations that host populations of any of these other groups as intended toward making claims on their territory?
4. Is China only registering heritage in places where it has, or is suspected of having territorial intentions?

The answers to these questions would take research... and perspective; neither were provided in the least by the coverage of the Arirang registration from Korean news sources, but without answers to these questions, we have no idea what to make of China registering a few local varieties of the Arirang.

If China's not bothering with ethnic groups' heritages in non-contested territories (for example, if they're registering a ton of Tibetan, Uighur and Taiwanese heritage, but no Manchu or Yi at all), then we have reason to get jacked up about the Northeast Project. But if China's registering the heritages of other groups at a proportionally higher rate than the Korean-Chinese, there's a possibility China has dragged its feet on Korean-Chinese heritage out of respect for the unique heritages of North and South Korea, and their kinship with the Yanbian Chinese.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

An answer to the I Am Canadian commercials above: Korean advertisers use lots of banal nationalism too... World Cup references always get the hearts stirring.
I'm not sure how I feel about bringing North Korea's most famous dancer into south Korea... to shill phones.

Finally: UNESCO Kinda Looks Like Tools Right Now

After all that, we're finally at the heart of the matter: why the hell are national governments, with their angles and agendas and political ends, involved in preservation of cultural heritage?

And I'd lay this problem at the foot of UNESCO:

Now I have a friend who used to work for UNESCO Korea, who explained to me that governments  have the power to petition UNESCO to register something as a cultural heritage, but UNESCO has to make a decision for or against inclusion on the Big Unesco Lists.

This benefits UNESCO because it only deals with UN recognized bodies, who are familiar with the protocols of dealing with international organizations, simplifying things. Also, because national governments have interests in promoting some kinds of heritages, I'm not sure, but UNESCO might well be benefiting...richly... from hearing the petitions of different nations requesting registration of different cultural heritages. Especially... energetic petitions as they might receive from Korea and China on this Arirang thing, and other such disputed cultural artifacts.

I don't know if UNESCO benefits the way FIFA's governing body um... benefits richly from hearing countries' world cup bids.... but if it does, that explains a lot.

The problem is by putting the power to register heritage in the hands of national governments, UNESCO has put itself in a position where it can become the tool of national governments wishing to promote certain kinds of national images (possibly at the expense of others) through what they choose to register, and what they choose not to register. This leaves the heritage registration process open to being compromised through all the usual agendas, angles and interests that taint every activity of national political parties.

And heritage is too precious and wonderful a thing to put it into the hands of politicians.

Somebody needs to pull UNESCO's leadership out of Paris, and their heads out of their asses, and bring them over to Asia, and show them how, in these parts, world heritage ownership becomes a battlefield for historical disputes, and the building of claims of ownership of regions, and the source of ridiculous pissing contests. In case they aren't aware of it.

More to the point: Why the hell are national governments involved in registering cultural heritages that predate them, and that transcend and predate more recently drawn borders between nations? That's fishy to me, and it undermines UNESCO's credibility when it allows itself to be the battlefield for another Korea/China cultural dispute.

I think it would be better if UNESCO were dealing directly with the people, the societies and groups and artisans who practice the arts being recorded as heritage. Why should China OR South Korea be involved with registering Arirang? Why isn't there an international body for the preservation of Arirang, one where Chinese-Korean, Japanese-Korean, North Korean, South Korean, and diaspora Korean Arirang singers, recorders, writers, and lovers, can get together, and get excited about Arirang? And why isn't that group, which (hopefully) doesn't give a damn about political nation-state ties, the one helping UNESCO get Arirang registered right as a national cultural heritage?

Cultures and Nation-States are not the same thing... but they are confused far too often. This muddy (and/or lazy) thinking is by absolutely no means limited to Koreans, either, so let's not hear any of that in the comments.

Yeah, nation-state governments have deep pockets. Way deeper than historical/cultural groups. But governments shouldn't be curating museums: they should be providing cultural funding without strings attached, so that museums can find excellent people who are better at curation than civil servants. And governments shouldn't have any part in registering cultural heritage with UNESCO, because it taints the entire process if they do. UNESCO should be collaborating with historians, artisans and preservation groups in their project of cultural preservation. 

The best governments can do with culture or heritage is use it for propaganda... and that's a sad use of a cultural heritage. Even sadder than having it co-opted by marketers**. So let's put curation of culture in the hands of those who identify with it, who love it, who would see their precious heritage stay above political posturing or financial interests, and who help it grow, instead of those who would claim to own it, in order to gain politically or financially from it.

**Yes I recognize the irony of saying that after using beer commercials to describe Canadian national identity. But even if Molson Canadian is free to advertise with Canadian images, they shouldn't be the ones contacting UNESCO about heritage registration.

Further reading:
Why Arirang isn't registered.
Why are you telling us Americans don't have a culture, the Korean?
My favorite comment on The Korean's post: Part one, Part two
(best line: Think, for a second, if the French were to claim the Statue of Liberty as a product of French culture - this move would be made even worse if France were rising in its status as a world power, was making similarly political moves around its region, and were a hundred times as big in land, power, and size, and were right next to America.)
UNESCO's website


Jake said...

(Posting in two parts)

I've been following this series with interest great interest beyond the immediate outrage over China's registration of Arirang with UNESCO.

I think you make a lot of great points about the "ownership" (or lack thereof) of culture and cultural products, and it's your commentary on these topics that keeps me reading your blog. But I was dissatisfied by the answer to your final question, what you call "the heart of the matter."

You ask "why the hell are national governments, with their angles and agendas and political ends, involved in preservation of cultural heritage?" It's a worthwhile question, particularly in light of your comments over the relationship between Nations and States, and how their boundaries don't always overlap.

But I think you miss a key point when you blame UNESCO for involving States in the preservation of cultural heritage.

UNESCO, as a political, international organization is necessarily composed of representatives of States. Yes, non-state organizations can become members, but fundamentally its members are States, and so of course States would be involved in the wheeling and dealing of UNESCO's responsibilities - among them registering intangible cultural heritages and whatnot.

Allow me to diverge for a minute for some historical backup to the point I'm about to make.(Forgive me if my specifics below are a bit off, my history can be a bit shaky. But I believe that the main point stands.)

I think that the major revolution of 20th century political ideology can be seen as the steady rise of "the Nation" (as you define it - a group of people who decide they have something in common) coupled with the spread of democratic ideals of self-determination, which brought a (relatively) new political entity, the "Nation-State" onto the world stage.

Look at the 14 points of Woodrow Wilson at the end of WWI (a chief theme of the speech was that political boundaries should follow National ones as closely as possible). Look at the anti-colonial movements that swept through Africa and Asia follwing WWII (and the troubles in Africa following that). Look at the fragmentation of Eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was at the heart of the genocide in Bosnia and the splintering of the Balkans, it's why Afghanistan is so hard to stabilize (less allegiance to the State than their tribe or clan). Look at the civil war in the Sudan (and let's welcome our newest Nation-State to the international table - South Sudan). Heck, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be seen as one long fight over which Nation gets to be a State.

(I realized I skipped pretty much all of the Cold War, but I believe that the ideology of National identification has proved more durable and long-lasting than the ideology of class consciousness. Even the Korean and Vietnam Wars found their roots in throwing off the yoke of colonial oppression for "National" self-determination.)

Jake said...

(Part 2)

So if National self-determination is the dominant political ideology of the 20th century, than it follows that a Nation-State's legitimacy is derived not from the consent of the people over whom it governs, but the consent of the Nation over which it governs.

So to answer the question at "the heart of the matter": The Nation-State, with its angles and agendas and political ends, has a vested interest in laying claim to, and preserving cultural artifacts (eg. Arirang, the Statue of Liberty, baguettes) from which the Nation over which it governs derives its "Nationhood." Any erosion of "National" ownership over these National/cultural artifacts - particularly by a "foreign" power - can be seen by the Nation-State as a threat to its ability to represent the "Nation" and thus its legitimacy - even if the Nation extends beyond the State's borders.

And UNESCO grants them the ability to petition for registration of a particular cultural heritage because UNESCO is made of States, and the States make the rules. Surely it's clear why States would create institutions that further their goals and entrench their interests?

Also, of course the Korean government would get involved in the dispute over Arirang, even though as you rightly point out, nobody actually owns it, and nobody can actually tell people when or how to use it. It's an attempt by a foreign government to claim ownership (however problematic that is) over an indisputed aspect of the "Korean nation" from which this government derives its legitimacy.

From the people's point of view, the inverse holds true. In a Nation-State, the people's political power (in the form of self-determination over the State) is derived directly from their membership in "the Nation." (Look at the plight of minorities the world over for proof).

And so, the Nation has a vested interest in laying claim to, and preserving cultural artifacts from which it derives its "Nationhood." And any erosion of "National" ownership over these cultural artifacts - particularly by a "foreign" power - can be seen as an attempt to dillute or weaken the power of the Nation, and thus its claims to self-determination. (This is exactly what those who express fears about China's Northeast Project believe).

I don't think that this disupte is a cultural one at all (and to an extent neither does the Korean, though he's less clear about that), but strictly a political one. And why shouldn't it be? It's a dispute between two political entities - the government of South Korea and the government of China. Granted, it's over something non-tangible and rather malleable - but so are most other diplomatic disuptes. Boundaries are just lines drawn arbitrarily on a map.

I believe that in a world composed of Nation-States, these kind of disputes over cultural heritage are inevitable, especially between Nations with as much cultural exchange as China and Korea. Before we fought over islands, now we fight over songs.

(Yikes! Sorry it's so long!)

Roboseyo said...

Jake, thanks for your awesome comment(s)

On the one hand, you've given a great description of the way it benefits states to declare themselves the arbiters of cultural symbols, and affiliate themselves with symbols of the cultures of the nations living within their political boundaries...

on the other hand, you talk in a bit of a circle:
Unesco is necessarily composed of states, therefore it involves states in claiming of culture, because states want to be involved in claiming culture, and UNESCO is made of states.

I mean, I think you're totally correct in your description of the political implications of involving political states in the naming and assigning of cultural properties...

and maybe I'm just being a goofy idealist here...

but I wish it WASN'T this way -- I wish that the registering and acknowledgement of cultural heritages were simply recognition of different heritages, and DIDN'T have all these power-politics and issues of governance and allegiance of a state's population tied into it. Of course States aren't going to give up their power to claim heritages, in order to consolidate the loyalty of the people they govern... but my final point was simply that it's too bad THIS is how culture and heritage is being used - as a tool for governments to gain the consent and allegiance of their populations - instead of as something to be cherished and celebrated completely on its own.

On the other hand... if nation-states are on their way out, as obselete relics (and I think they might be), it might be that we'll see a new way of looking at culture and heritage that isn't so tied to national borders - thanks to Youtube and such, those borders are already getting fuzzier in the area of culture, and that gives me hope... though we may just find heritage being co-opted by companies instead of by political bodies in the future. WHich would also make me sad...

i think.

At least for-profit organizations have no doubt about their purpose for co-opting something; politicians are more likely to have hidden agendas.

T.K. (Ask a Korean!) said...

Ok Robo, I waited until Part 4 but I am still not satisfied. I am not sure if I would write another reply post, but here is a brief outline of what I am thinking:

(1) "ownership"

I don't think you sufficiently addressed the challenges against your rather unforgiving definition of "ownership." I made this clear in my post -- "ownership" of Arirang is not the same as "ownership" of a car. But you appear to insist that "ownership" must mean the same thing as "ownership" of a car. And your argument goes to "nobody owns Arirang" because no one can own any song like one owns a car. This is not persuasive.

At the core, "ownership" is defined by "some level of exclusive claim." It does not have to be like owning a car, which is 100% exclusive right of use. It can be more like John Lennon's ownership of Imagine -- recall, no one, not even John Lennon himself (if he were alive,) can prevent anyone from casually singing Imagine. It can be more like my ownership of my family -- it is not as if I can tell my family what to do all the time, but no stranger can barge in and claim membership of my family either.

If you really want to argue that no one owns Arirang, you have to argue that no one can ever have any exclusive claim over Arirang under any circumstance. This is the heart of the problem, not the theories on national government.

(2) The "furniture store" problem

In Part III, you employ the same logic with the concept called "Korea" as you did with the concept called "culture." And the same critique of mine applies there also. You say "Korea" or "culture" are not like "door" or "cat". Ok, sure. But neither is "Korea" or "culture" like "yabadabadingdong" or "flying spaghetti monster."

Concepts do not lose their validity simply because they are abstract. Thinking dies without abstract concepts. People have persistently found the concepts called "Korea" and "culture" useful. Again, as I noted in my post, while the edges of the concepts may be difficult to define, there is no mistaking where the core of the concept lies. The difficulty of discerning the edge does not negate the validity of the concept.


T.K. (Ask a Korean!) said...

(3) Theories on national gov't.

You think a national government (or more precisely, a nationalistic government) is a superstructure imposed upon the "people" who hold cultural heritages.

I think you have it backwards -- which is typical of a North American whose governments did not develop organically, but out of thin air. (In relative terms, of course.) In the rest of the world, people have largely remained stationary. They formed self-governing polities within a certain geographic area based on the pre-existing relationships that dated back for centuries. (If you think national government is a recent phenomenon, the global diasphoric distribution of the people who share the same culture is even more so.) Within each polity, there has been elements of a shared culture.

(Aside: I understand that this is not necessarily true in places like Africa, where national boundaries are imposed by imperialists rather than evolved organically. The incongruence between the boundaries and the natural polities led to numerous civil war and genocide.)

National government is a natural extension of the pre-modern polities. There is nothing "imagined" about it. (You can guess what I think about Anderson's theory.) That a national government has a harder-set edges than its previous iteration does not change its essential function. As a natural extension, it is also perfectly natural for the national government to be the guardian of the polity's culture. In fact, it is the national government's duty to serve as such a guardian -- otherwise, it would not be the representative of the polity.

Nearly everyone in the world except Americans and Canadians understands this. It is a testament to America's influence over the world that America's anomalous understanding of nationhood has the respectability that it has now. But the world is a lot bigger than North America. That's why United Nations -- which is supposed to cover the entire world -- is set upon the premise that nations represent the people. This is why people all around the world -- East Timor, Basque, Northern Island -- long for nationhood, not merely a self-governing entity. And this is why Chinese government is doing what it is doing, and Korean government is upset over it.

Jake said...

Hey guys. Two parts again.

I don't know if I'm beating a dead horse, but I've been fascinated by this discussion, particularly the stuff we've been talking about on National Governments.

To me, the most interesting question of this disupte is whether or SHOULD or SHOULDN'T be involved in the preservation of culture.

I probably should have said this upfront, but I agree that governments shouldn't be involved in the protection of cultural heritages. I think that politics tends to distort (and thus destroy) culture to its own end, namely the preservation or increase of power.

Though I think I'm more pessimistic than you that things will change. You mentioned that you thought Nation-States were "on their way out" and I'm curious - Why? and What do you think will replace them?

I think that as long as we live in a world of where people identify as members of a particular Nation, and that as long as Nations try to achieve some sort of self-determination in a Nation-State, culture will continue to be wielded by governments and politicians to legitimize their rule.

Jake said...

To The Korean - I will freely and proudly cop to being an American (though perhaps not typical since I actually have a passport).

If I understand you (feel free to correct me if I don't), you argue that the State is a natural extension of the Nation - that in essence, the State and the Nation are one. As such, the State has as much of a duty to protect the Nation and it's heritage as it does to protect its borders.

That would all be well and fine except - the Nation and the State are two distinct things. This is not an "American" concept of Nationhood or Statehood - it's what they are. A Nation is (basically) a group of people who identify with each other. A State is the government - the apparatus set up to establish and maintain control over a people and a territory. One is a group of people, the other is a system of coersion. You can have Nationless-States (Afghanistan), and you can have Stateless-Nations (the Basque, Northern Ireland, Tibet). You can have States with one Nation (Korea), or you can have a State with many Nations (China). Nations can exist in one State, or they can be spread out over many different States.

There is nothing "natural" or "organic" about the Korean Government, or the Chinese government, or governments in general. Governments are established, essentially by fiat, and nearly always after some sort of military conquest. They do not evolve into being in the same way that culture evolves: as an "accretive process."

Nations (what you call pre-modern polities), however DO evolve organically, insofar as a culture does. Nations can be defined by a shared culture (in the case of the Korean Nation, the French Nation, most Nations) or by a shared system of political beliefs (as I believe defines - or should define - the American Nation). So once a culture evolves to the point where it's distinct, or perceived to be so by those who practice it, we have a new Nation - whether or not it rules over itself.

People do not "long for Nationhood" - to argue so is to claim that a group of people yearns to identify with each other, but are somehow blocked - a rediculous scenario. Nationhood is self-evident in that if people believe it exists and that they are a member, then it exists. Statehood is not. When China invaded Tibet in the 50s, the State of Tibet was destroyed and absorbed into the State of China. The Tibetan Nation however survived, and continues to survive today.

So, if States and Nations are distinct, then it no longer is a "sacred duty" inherent to Statehood to protect the National heritage. It becomes just something States do, like fighting wars or establishing schools. We've answered the question of Why States do this - to maintain and protect their legitimacy to the Nation over which they rule.

But, you can say, Koreans have asked the State to protect our heritage. And that's fine. But Roboseyo is saying (I think) that there are better organizations to turn to to protect one's cultural heritage than the government. You disagree. And so we're left with the question "Should the government do this?" Which is politics.

T.K. (Ask a Korean!) said...

Thanks Jake. I think this portion of your comment highlights the key difference between our world views:

the Nation and the State are two distinct things. ... One is a group of people, the other is a system of coersion. ... Governments are established, essentially by fiat, and nearly always after some sort of military conquest. They do not evolve into being in the same way that culture evolves: as an "accretive process."

I do not see this as a self-evident truth. In fact, despite your protestations to the contrary, I see your position as a VERY American point of view. Only in colonialism-based states (to borrow your nation/state terminology) like America, Canada, etc. have any experience of the government being superimposed upon an existing populace. In other parts of the world, governments have always existed.

Roboseyo said...

"Only in colonialism-based states (to borrow your nation/state terminology) like America, Canada, etc. have any experience of the government being superimposed upon an existing populace."

Sorry, but this is not just a colonial thing. In fact, you are patently wrong.

Ghengis Khan and Kublai Khan (not westerners, BTW), and Alexander of Macedonia (a westerner, I guess) and Cyrus The Great (of Persia - not a westerner) and the inheritors of their empires all administered large populations that were not part of their ethnic group. and when their empires fell apart, they didn't always come apart along ethnic regional divisions either, but more often in keeping with the ambitions and talents of those who wanted to be the next big cheese.

The history of China's dynasties is a story of conquest and re-conquest of ethnic groups being put under one, and then another ruler that is not necessarily of their ethnic background...see a map of the five dynasties and ten kingdoms period of Chinese history: if all nations only came out of shared ethnic background, China would be a dozen countries.

Meanwhile, Korea had the Three Kingdoms period, Goguryeo's borders were drawn in different places than Koryeo or Shilla or Joseon or post-war Korea's borders were drawn, because while they shared a cultural heritage (in some respects) and a clear linguistic heritage, they were administered politically by different groups.

I don't know how you can say this is a North American point of view (though, given where you live, it's no surprise you hear it from North Americans a lot) when two of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world are China and India, two countries which owe partial debts for the current placement of their borders to Kublai Khan and Alexander The Great. Colonialism drew the map of Africa, and possibly some parts of Southeast Asia (haven't studied it), but conquering nations have been responsible for drawing national borders (if they can be called that) since long before colonial times.

"Governments have always existed" but how did they take command over the areas they governed? Their ethnic groups didn't secrete them.

T.K. (Ask a Korean!) said...

You know, that sentence ended up simultaneously covering more AND less than I wanted to cover. I did not intend to say there has been no history of one polity conquering another. But at the same time, I am not sure where you got the ethnicity discussion from.

At any rate, I would rather not get too far into this discussion since I do not want to rummage through my old poli sci books again just to have a debate over blog comments. (Hate this little box.) And as I said earlier, I don't think that is the most important question at any rate.