Review of Poétique du patrimoine: Entre Narcisse et Ulysse | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Review of Poétique du patrimoine: Entre Narcisse et Ulysse

Poétique du patrimoine: Entre Narcisse et Ulysse
by Xavier Greffe and Anne Krebs-Poignant

Honoré Champion, Paris, France; «Histoire culturelle de l’Europe» series

332 pp. Paper, 55 €

ISBN: 978-2-7453-5683-3.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
May 2022

If «culture», as famously argued by Raymond Williams, is one of the most difficult words in English, a term like “heritage” is now certainly raising similar problems. Heritage can no longer be reduced to a certain kind of places and objects (libraries and museums), and its history is no longer the privilege of the Western Nation-state, the heir of Early Modern private and public collectors. Countless other types of heritage have appeared, that is created, more popular, more a more borrowed from commercial and mass media culture, but also less limited to material objects, and even the notion of immaterial heritage, involving rituals, know-how, belief systems and so on, is continuously expanding into new and always broader directions. Yet above all, heritage has become a key social, political, financial ,economic, philosophical and ideological issue in today’s “liquid” world, whose values are no longer determined by social conventions, agreements and consensus, but negotiated between individuals, provided these individuals continue to engage in such discussions with each other rather than simply deciding everything for themselves.

Poétique du patrimoine («The Poetics of Cultural Heritage»), co-authored by Xavier Greffe, professor emeritus of economics at the Sorbonne, and Anne Krebs-Poignant, head of research of socio-economics studies at the Louvre museum, is a remarkable publication, which is also of immediate interest for Anglophone readers. The book is, first of all, a comprehensive analysis of cultural heritage as a “cultural form”, to quote another concept coined by Raymond Williams. It is also an extremely well-documented study of cultural practices and policies based on a wealth of examples and the most up-to-date research from various traditions and points of view (the authors remain light years away from an ICOM-inspired take on heritage, for instance). Greffe and Krebs-Poignant systematically combine Anglo-Saxon and continental sources, while also making methodical comparisons between the ways of thinking and doing that explain the differences as well as analogies between US, UK, Europe and other countries (many of their examples address China, Latin-America, and Africa). In addition, the strong historical dimension of the book, a more than welcome innovation in a field that is too generally overemphasizing the “here and now” of heritage questions, demonstrates the changing attitudes to heritage in time and space. Finally, this is also a book with a clear and strong message. What the authors are interested in, is to understand what heritage “means”, that is how we use the notion of heritage to shape our being in the world: heritage is not a way of looking back at the past, it is a cornerstone of our relationship to the world we live in and thus an essential part of our attempts to imagine and build a future.

As the subtitle of the book plainly announces, Greffe and Krebs-Poignant underscore the tensions that characterize all possible aspects of heritage poetics, a term that also stresses the attempt to go beyond the current obsession with heritage as the latest “turn”. The opposition between the two myths of Narcissus and Ulysses is the name they give to the clash between two prototypical attitudes towards heritage: on the one hand, the desire to identify with the past in order to proclaim the universal values of one’s own identity; on the other hand, the willingness to take risks in order to discover new possibilities through unforeseeable encounters with the other. The broader philosophical underpinning of this antinomy is Ricoeur’s analysis of self and identity as torn between “idem” and “ipse”.

The fundamental distinction between Narcissus and Ulysses is then explored from various perspectives. What “is” heritage, and is it a noun, a set of objects and traditions, or a verb, defined by the key concept of “attention”? Which are the actual practices that develop such attention and other types of heritage practices, including in the socio-economic sphere? How can one describe the experiences of those who participate in these practices, be it as members of the public or as representatives of the various categories (politicians, collectors, heritage professionals, donators, technical subcontractors, and so on) who make these experiences possible? How to create, enhance, sustain attention, and what to think of all the obstacles and dangers that block, erode, or discourage it? And last but not least, which is the precise institutional and economic context of heritage, more precisely the very link between culture and economy in the context of heritage?

In all cases, the approach of Greffe and Krebs-Poignant is extremely nuanced, both clearly committed to the promises and social necessity of what they call the Ulysses/ipse model and highly critical of many naïve or vaguely articulated claims in this regard. The economic background of the authors thus helps them question “sympathetic” ideas on for instance the commons, the use of profitable business models in cultural heritage, the involvement of volunteers and other unpaid helpers, or the benefits of internationalization as well as digitization. Poétique du patrimoine usefully deconstructs the ritually repeated belief in the economic spill-over of heritage programs, not in order the reject the importance of sound financial management or the socio-economic importance of heritage, but in order to rethink the one-to-one relationship between heritage and economy and thus to avoid the negative effects of certain legal and economics frameworks that prove harmful in spite of all good intentions, the critical discussion of the public tender system being a good example of these dangers. Particularly interesting is the book’s concern with the difference between the country and the city as well as the complex and sometimes counterproductive implementation of digital technologies.

Poétique du patrimoine, which one can only hope to discover soon in an English translation, has everything to become a reference study in the field of heritage studies. It is by far the most comprehensive work currently available. It is based on relevant international research and its examples are up-to-date. It also has a clear political commitment that manages to establish a constructive link with the economic dimension of heritage culture. And it is written in an exceptionally clear style. One is for instance hardly aware of the fact that the home discipline of both authors is economy.