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Between universalism and relativism:
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.
Introductory summary
In a scathing attack on the classic Herderian—Boasian concept of culture and its dualpotential 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 thecontemporary 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 type, itwill be revealed that Our Creative Diversity , in spite of important shortcomings, is nonetheless more complex as it presents a more multifaceted picture of the social world. While liberal critics frame the problem as being one of "rights versus culture" (cf. the editors’ "Introduction" to this volume), the "right to culture" is a stronger concern in the UNESCO. Nevertheless, as will be argued,the authors do not explicitly address the possible contradiction between the two approaches, nor do they see "rights as culture" – although they emphasise the value of cultural diversity, it appears largely as an aesthetic value rather than a moral one.
            An intriguing, and ultimately disquieting, context for the UNESCO model of culture is the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss on culturalrelativity and culture contact, which, although peripheral to his structuralist œuvre , has been influential in the UNESCO. The vision expressed in Lévi-Strauss’ programmatic work on cultural diversity illustrates some of the difficulties inherent in Our Creative Diversity. The two pieces commissioned by the UNESCO from Lévi-Strauss, Race et histoire (Lévi-Strauss 1971 [1952]) and "Race et culture"(Lévi-Strauss 1979 [1971]) will thus be invoked below in order to highlight some of the dilemmas associated with a partition of the world into cultures, but central insights from these works will also be invoked against over-optimistic suppositions from the likes of Finkielkraut to the effect that specific local circumstances and politics can be effectively divorced.
            In discussing theserecurring problems (Plato’s Socrates, for one, discussed them with his contemporary relativists, Gorgias and Protagoras), these days frequently framed as communitarianism versus liberalism or universalism versus relativism, there are some real baby-and-bathwater problems which can doubtless be dealt with eloquently and effectively, but not comprehensively, from an unreformed Enlightenment,...
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