Article, Volume #55

All is Flux: Collective Memory & the Complex Whole

— by

“Matter… resolves itself into numberless vibrations, all linked together in uninterrupted continuity, all bound up with each other, and traveling in every direction like shivers through an immense body.”
Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory1

Global Culture as ‘Complex Whole’

The establishment of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in 2003 marked a profound shift in the custodial objectives of UNESCO as an organisation and the mechanisms it utilises preserve global culture. Since the introduction of the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (WCH) in 1972, Unesco policy had, to that point, been driven and dominated by a single, concise, and ultimately incomplete mandate; namely, the evaluation and preservation of material structures. The process for achieving this aim was clearly delineated, designed to facilitate unilateral agreement on the complex, high-level determinations of ‘universal value’2 and the ratification of physical objects of into the canon of global heritage. ICH, by contrast, operates from an entirely different and altogether murkier premise: that there are immaterial actions and ephemeral processes that “communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.”3 With no solid, quantifiable matter in which to ground an appraisal of value (universal or otherwise), the mechanics of the evaluative process for ICH operates in precisely the opposite direction to those upon which the WCH principle relies. The global importance of that which is intangible, by definition, cannot be discerned objectively from above. Rather, those for whom it is an integral component of their cultural identity must assert it, organically, from below.

Illustration by the author himself

Though fundamentally different in their constitutional literature, critical to both of these instruments and continuously greasing the wheels of the selection process, however, is the notion of heritage. “Not something that exists someplace out there, waiting to be discovered”, heritage as a categorisation is instead “created in a complex institutional process” to facilitate the bestowal of value on an object or process. It is the attribution of this title that ultimately unifies the contrasting principles of each convention in forging “a fundamentally fictitious past, serving the ends of identity formation through the creation of a collective but selective memory.”4 When applied to the contemporary definition of intangible culture, the implication of heritage is therefore that beyond the conservation of physical entities and the protection of their respective, objective histories, Unesco seeks instead to manifest a process of collective memory formation. 

The intent to create a common identity and a collective memory, predicated on the simultaneous preservation of physical objects and intangible processes of heritage value, consequently provides the core principle around which WCH and ICH now coalesce; the fulcrum for Unesco’s cultural preservation policy. Global culture is now accepted as ‘‘‘a complex whole’ that must be studied in all its manifestations, from its basest material objects to the most sublime, intangible ideals expressed in cosmologies and religious symbolism.”5 Though this cohesive definition has long-since been established and developed in the field of anthropology, its adoption by the member states is a matter of potentially profound significance for the global conception of preservation, the role of architectural objects and the delicate processes that constitute the formation of the collective memory.

Operating as distinct instruments and separated in time by thirty-one years, the ICH and WCH conventions are, in sum, two halves that make a whole. The legal dominion that WCH and ICH collectively engender is therefore all encompassing, facilitating the perpetual protection, governance and management of all aspects of global human culture – both physical and immaterial – in pursuit of Unesco’s desire for “an integral memory that holds together individual memory, collective memory, and historical memory.”6

Physical-Intangible Dualism

Pierre Nora makes the case that “memory is absolute, while history is always relative”7 – in essence, that the formation of a collective memory relies on constant evolution and the critical lens of human perception in the present moment, quite distinct from the archival preservation of an objective and finite history. The shift, therefore, from the protection only of physical objects to the integration of intangible processes in the formation of a collective memory, implies a reinterpretation of the relationship between architecture and its inhabitants. 

No longer cemented in a fixed hierarchy, the unification of WCH and ICH under the banner of the ‘complex whole’ produces a matrix in which the manifest architectural object and the immaterial human actions to which it pertains find level footing – they become mutually contingent in the active process of perpetually shaping the collective memory. They remain fundamentally at odds by nature – a discrepancy, however, that remains critical to their combined operation. The physical objects that constitute WCH are solid entities, retaining a fixed form and geographical location. In this capacity, architectural forms function as what Paul Ricœur refers to as ‘loci’ for the human processes that the ICH convention aims to identify and preserve; the history with which they interact – “it is architecture that brings to light the noteworthy composition that brings together geometric space and that space unfolded by our corporeal condition.”8 These intangible actions, conversely, are liquid: they “neither fix space nor bind time”9; they are flowing and “constantly recreated.”10 This relationship of solid objects and liquid processes is therefore essential to the continuous and dynamic formation of the collective memory – each must retain its principle nature in relation to the other in order to function.

The extent to which ICH and WCH are now integrated within the Unesco literature has even moved some proponents of heritage preservation to suggest that the received hierarchy, in which the lionisation of architectural monuments supersedes the fallible and unstable processes of humanity, be reversed, suggesting that “the tangible can only be interpreted through the intangible.”11 This is not without precedent, given the traditional position of mind-matter dualism in which the internal human experience portends the external, physical world. Henri Bergson stakes this claim in stating that “concrete extensity, that is to say, the diversity of sensible qualities, is not within space; rather is it space that we thrust into extensity.”12 However, this raises an important question concerning the nature of such a duality within the context of cultural heritage. If the liquid, constantly moving human experience is critical to the solid, physical entities with which it engages and the two must necessarily combine in the formation of the collective memory, how does preservation intervene in this process of constant change and evolution?

Liquefaction of Stone

The ICH and WCH conventions are borne of a common precept within the conception of culture as a ‘complex whole’: that liquid human processes and the solid architectural objects around which they flow should, together, be preserved to facilitate the creation of a collective memory and the maintenance of an identity. As such, they are both, principally, reactionary in their constitution; ratified as a consequence of a collective acknowledgement by member states of the threat of imminent erasure. Paramount to the Unesco project, therefore, in addition to the notion of heritage, is continuity; a desire for “prolonged solid stability”13 in the face of disruption and liquefaction. The foundation and future success of the WCH and ICH instruments is therefore inherently bound to the arc of modernity. Presupposing the condition of modernity as being that in which “all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify”, and wherein “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”14, it is possible to gain a foothold in understanding how the two frameworks collectively attempt to galvanise a spirit of reactive cultural resistance to oblivion.

Although this mission seems anti-modern at heart, Unesco nonetheless appears to concede that the technological developments that conspire to undermine or liquefy global heritage simultaneously contain within them the prospect of its salvation. The genesis of the 1972 convention concerning WCH marked an international recognition of the long-held understanding that it was “architecture’s very impression of fixity”15 that made its erasure a persuasive political tool, and that consequently its physical preservation was sufficient to retain the objective histories around which memory systems converged. It was the consecration of architectures as “the touchstones of identity” and the legal manifestation of the understanding that if their corporeal presence was “no longer there to be touched, memories fragment and dislocate.”16 Preservation and the continuity of history it attempted to ensure, therefore, was a material concern alone. 

At the beginning of the 21st Century, however, the axes of liquefaction, continuity and preservation shifted. In tandem with the rapid expansion of global communication networks and the unforgetting archives of information that they generated, Unesco yielded to the digital condition of modernity. Prefigured by Henri Rousseau in Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse, pervasive networks of information engendered the apex of the modern condition; “a perpetual clash of groups and cabals, a continual flux and reflux of prejudices and conflicting opinions… [in which] everyone constantly places himself in contradiction with himself.”17 Moreover, this state of collective disorientation across the digital network catalysed the admission that physical stone, far from presenting a manifest resistance to liquefaction, was now a highly volatile substance. Far from grounding memory processes in physical loci, a fundamentally unstable condition alters the significance of matter to the role that architecture plays in the process of collective memory formation. No longer fixed to stable ground but suspended in a fluctuating matrix, the meaning attached to corporeal objects is open to constant manipulation and reinterpretation according to the prevailing will – their objective histories bound up in a highly selective and politically determined memory process. Paul Ricœur states that in such a state, “the past is no longer the guarantor of the future” and that “this is the principal reason for promoting memory as a dynamic field and as the sole promise of continuity.”18 It is in direct response to the pre-eminent threat posed by the contemporary modernist ideal, therefore, that the convention concerning ICH and the unified conception of culture as a complex whole emerges. Unesco, in effect, accepted that preservation only of physical forms was insufficient in the networked present to ensure the continuity that global cultural heritage ideologically required. Opting, therefore, to transition from the attempted preservation of history to the formation of a collective memory through the definition of intangible human processes was a method by which to facilitate the fluidity of the networked condition, while maintaining an active resistance to its de-stabilising capabilities.

Ossification & the ‘Cult of Continuity’

The aspiration to integrate fluid systems into the Unesco credo was founded on the premise of establishing a collective memory process – one which would ensure the contemporary preservation of global culture as a ‘complex whole’. At present, however, this modern desire remains paradoxically tethered to the classical values of solid, objective history by the twin predicates of the overall mission: heritage and continuity.

When continuity is overlaid on a memory process that is fundamentally reliant on the absolutism of human experience in relation to physical, architectural objects in any given moment, the physical-intangible dualism on which the formation of collective memory relies is de-coupled. In striving to achieve a constancy to the production of collective memory, Unesco fall foul of what Pierre Nora refers to as “the cult of continuity”19 – a supposition that such processes must form an unbroken chain, leaving little latitude for the fallibility of human experience. When the notion of heritage is attached to immaterial and continuously evolving human actions that constitute ICH, the active processes that are perceived to be of value have no choice but to ossify. In effect, “the heritage concept… works only if its performative origin is systematically forgotten or suppressed.”20

As a consequence of the ossification of fluid, human processes and the increased volatility of solid, physical objects in the networked contemporary condition, the essential natures of intangible actions and the architectural loci around which they must revolve are fundamentally changed. Rather than operating in concert with one another to engender a modern process of collective memory formation, the very constitution of ICH and WCH, according to the classical values around which the Unesco preservation mission revolves, rips the ‘complex whole’ in two. 

The definition of Intangible Cultural Heritage and the resources that can be made available as a consequence of its acceptance are of potentially great benefit to the maintenance and perpetuation of global culture in a contemporary, liquid condition. However, until the acknowledgement of the constantly evolving, complex state of modernity aligns with the value ascribed to cultural objects and intangible actions in the mechanics of preservation, the attempt to engrain collective memory formation will only ensure continued disruption, not continuity itself. “Conserving and venerating customs and traditions is useful to life: without roots, there would be neither flowers nor fruit; but… This history knows only how to conserve, not how to create.”21

Rory Sherlock is an architectural designer, writer and educator living in London. He works at OMMX, teaches History and Theory Studies at the Royal College of Art and is a member of Council at the Architectural Association. He co-founded the FOAM co-operative.