A critique of the UNESCO concepts of culture
Thomas Hylland Eriksen
In Jane Cowan, Marie-Bénédicte Dembour and Richard Wilson, eds., Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives, pp. 127–48. Cambridge University Press 2001.
In a scathing attack on the classic Herderian—Boasian concept of culture and its dual potential for generating relativism and chauvinism, Alain Finkielkraut (1987) notes that the UNESCO was initially founded in an Enlightenment spirit loyal to the universalist legacy of Diderot and Condorcet, but almost immediately degenerated into a tool for parochialism and relativism. Uninhibited by the possible constraints implied by detailed knowledge regarding the topics under scrutiny, Finkielkraut was able to present a powerful, coherent and, in many’s view, persuasive criticism of the widespread culturalisation of politics and aesthetics in the late 20th century. Arguing that the meaning of culture has slid from Bildung to heritage, from universalistic thought to relativistic anti-thought, his book on "the defeat of thinking" has been widely read and translated over the past decade.
In Finkielkraut’s book, the UNESCO is given a central role as a chief villain (along with social anthropologists, those dangerous purveyors of relativist nonsense). In this chapter, the UNESCO ideology of culture will serve as a point of departure, engaging current debates over culture and rights with the most recent and most comprehensive statement from the UNESCO regarding culture in the contemporary world, namely the report Our Creative Diversity (World Commission on Culture and Development 1995), a document which heroically and often skilfully attempts to manoeuvre in the muddy waters between the Scylla of nihilistic cultural relativism and the Charybdis of supremacist universalism. Much fuzzier, less elegant and less consistent than liberal critiques of the Finkielkraut... [continua]
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