Saturday, October 01, 2005

Robert Albro: Making Cultural Policy and Confounding Cultural Diversity

Making Cultural Policy and Confounding Cultural Diversity
Robert Albro
Cultural Commons

"Managing Cultural Diversity is one of the central challenges of our time."

– United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report (2004)


UNESCO has repeatedly emphasized that diversity is endangered by the ways globalization can encourage homogenization, that is, the specter of a global monoculture where we are all left to choose from the same cultural menu. Having concluded that diversity is subject to scarcity, UNESCO now seeks to manage diversity. The ICH and draft diversity conventions would also complement each other in how to handle diversity – the potentially nonrenewable resource. Understanding heritage as a source of diversity, both conventions task states with drawing up "inventories" of cultural "content" to safeguard by itemizing it, counting it, and listing it. In practice diversity becomes a kind of cultural inventory, which can be added to because cultural "content" is potentially extractable from any context, to be copied, appropriated, traded, or recirculated. Diversity turns into a question of access to the cultural public domain.

This brings us back to the contentious issue of "cultural goods and services" in the diversity debate. I have briefly considered different meanings of "diversity," pointing to transformations of meaning as the diversity concept is restlessly moved from context to context. One upshot is that we see how there is no stable subject or referent for diversity in the policy mode, that is, no "who" or "what." Indeed, as one presenter observed during a January meeting on the draft convention at the Smithsonian, "We don’t really have a policy language for the value of cultural diversity." But decontextualizing diversity could have sobering consequences for understandings of diversity contingent upon a particular context (e. g. territory) for the political recognition of cultural difference in pluricultural societies.

An obvious consequence is that the diversity concept has been harmonized with the market interests of nation-states, implicitly marginalizing the diversity of voices who might advance claims turning on the recognition of cultural differences within or between states, or outside of the cultural marketplace altogether. I have suggested that different UN initiatives coincide in the purpose of reinscribing diversity within a UN legislative and regulatory context. This context of intergovernmental cultural policy aligns diversity with national cultures, with the individual freedom to choose, and with state managed inventories of items understood as resources, which circulate in acts of exchange.

As understood with regard to debates over national cultural industries, diversity quickly comes to refer to a desirable variability or quantity of cultural products. Here the subject of diversity is the "individual consumer," a circumstance promoted by the ways "individual freedoms" are folded together with the "free flow of ideas," in a framework of "cultural liberty." Once cultural expression is taken to be an itemized or an extractable array of resources aligned with choice, it becomes almost natural to conceive of diversity as measured in terms of the greatest range of consumer choice within an ever expanding cultural marketplace.

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