Let it go – An argument for not defending cultural heritage

There has been a recent reawakening of the cultural debate, finding new relevance in the dawn of heightened immigration of refugees to the EU and the following public and political debates, which commonly occur once the question of national heritage and protection of other cultures is triggered. Though migration and the melting together of cultures has been an ever-ongoing process throughout human history, David Miller notes that it is first in the modern and postmodern age that it is regarded as a political problem, with the state being expected to protect an original national culture and at the same time guarantee it’s citizens the right to live according to their own specific culture (Miller, 2008). The obvious question is what the normative implications regarding different cultures are. On one hand, there are those who hold that immigrants are to assimilate to the cultural patterns of the host society (Miller, 2008). On the other hand, the widespread acceptance of multicultural rhetoric holds that ethnic minorities possess a right to their culture (Song, 2003). These two positions are known to collide and though this discussion is not a new one, we have yet to find a solution. How can on one hand integration into society be achieved in a way consistent with liberal principles of personal freedom. On the other hand, how far can natives be asked to modify their practices and public culture to accommodate the new arrivals? (Miller, 2008). Relating to this discussion are a vast number of issues whose answering exceed by far the format of this essay. Instead, I want to challenge the value of cultural heritage. I will engage this task by establishing an interpretation of the individual subject’s relation to identity, social groups and their usage of history. I will focus on the notion of heritage, not only since the subject of culture is too complex to be analyzed in this essay, but also because the call for preservation of cultures is commonly being legitimized by being rooted in a people’s history. This is also reflected by sociologist Miri Song whose research suggests that a shared ancestry and history becomes ever more important in situations where a group’s identity is threatened (Song, 2003). We can hence assume that a current state of a culture is related to a heritage, which provides values, signifying objects and a self-narrative.


What is the individual subject?

If we want to explore what role cultural heritage plays regarding the identity of a group of people, we ought to understand what constitutes its individual subjects. Martin Heidegger’s approach has been one of the most important narratives in the 20th century about how the individual subject constructs it’s self-narrative. Starting at birth, the individual subject finds itself thrown into an unknown world of which it must make sense (Heidegger, 2006). Whatever the individual’s self-image amounts to is thus a result of it existing in a certain world at a certain time. At this point, we have already denied that the individual has certain cultural feature that it is born with, rather it is but a product of it’s surroundings. Heidegger does however not endorse social constructivism or even determinism. He holds that the individual subject is primarily situated in time, being aware of it’s past, present and future. It’s actions are hence always aimed towards the future, since it is aware of that it is going to exist and will have to make something out of itself (Heidegger, 2006). This in turn means that the individual subject has the potential to transform herself from what it is now to something it wants to become. To Heidegger then, the individual subject is constituted by a process of production, rather than having a fixed essence. What may seem like a consistent self or identity is according to Heidegger merely a result of just this non-existent essence. To make sense of itself and to be able to consistently relate to the ontological world, the subject has to create a self-narrative which renders it’s history a meaningful story and acts as a safe outlook from which the world can be viewed.
Culture in flux
One of the premises a priori which the individual subject encounters in the ontological world, is that it shares it’s world with other people. Heidegger mentions that an authentic individual subject is a mixture of lone individual and social experience. For our purpose, we need not discuss this Heideggarian theme any further. It is only important to notice that the production of a self-narrative always incorporates a social dimension, which has to be carefully balanced with the subject’s individuality (Heidegger, 2006). Miri Song describes this dilemma with examples of the expectations, which are put on members of a certain group to adhere to cultural behavior and which may be at odds with individual authenticity (Song, 2003). It is in this connection between the individual and the social where culture comes into play. Concerning ethnic groups, Song states that they share:
[…] real or putative common ancestry, memories of a shared past, and a cultural focus in one or more symbolic elements which define the group’s identity, such as kinship, religion, language, shared territory, nationality or physical appearance (Song, 2003).

There are thus several instances, which together constitute what is called culture. For our purpose, we will focus on the cultural use of history. I believe, that this will not lead us into fallacy since culture has an intrinsic connection to heritage, influencing values and traditions.
As I have suggested, the individual is constituted by potentiality and is always in a progress of becoming something rather than being something consistent in the platonic sense. If this holds for the individual, mustn’t it also hold for the social groups that consist of individuals? Just as the individual subject, a culture too is subject to a complex and every changing world. Hence, a culture not only consists of many varying positions and is not homogeneous. There are men, women, different social classes and individual differences, many of whom would tell very varying narratives of a culture’s history. Neither is a culture static but always in flux since it must establish itself within ever changing premises (Song, 2003). To Song then, appealing to some authentic heritage is necessarily flawed, because such a notion relies on a static understanding of culture, when in fact cultures are in a continuous process of change (Song, 2003). For instance, even if Turkish immigrants brought parts of their heritage with them to Germany, the cultural identity which is constructed no longer relates to heritage the same way as it does in Turkey, the premises now lie in a different time in a different location. Furthermore, as Miller states, we are today faced with a global culture, which more than ever exposes cultures to outer influences and alternative narratives (Miller, 2008).

Is heritage valuable?
If culture then is something which is always in flux, what value can heritage still hold? Friedrich Nietzsche was throughout his lifetime very concerned with the moral values of cultures and how they change over time. To him, those cultures are to be regarded as healthy, which are able to distance themselves from the past and are thus able to use history for their own wellbeing (Nietzsche, 2005). These people are defined by Nietzsche a historic. The overhistoric people on the other hand have incorporated their history to such a degree that they have become passive and are no longer interested in the possibilities that the future may hold (Nietzsche, 2005).

These two types of people which Nietzsche observes throughout history are themselves products of several ways of applying history: the monumental, the antiquary and the critical (Nietzsche, 2005). The monumental views the past as a standard for what is achievable. These people get their inspiration from important people or happenings in history, which they try to impersonate. The positive trait is that they will often try to create something historically great for the world to come, it may however also be harmful since monumental history stands very close to myth and one-sided narratives (Nietzsche, 2005). What does not fit into it’s narrative is simply ignored. Nationalism for instance to Nietzsche is just this kind of monumental usage of history which has justified several wars and other terrible things (Nietzsche, 2005).
The antiquarian mode is quite and respectfully thankful towards those historical structures, which have led to current existence. These people try to conserve their heritage, identify themselves with the old and recognizable, which provides them with a sense of security and rootedness (Nietzsche, 2005). However, holding on to the past impairs upon the ability to differ between what actually is valuable and what is but junk (Nietzsche, 2005). It becomes degenerative once it no longer is inspired by current existence and merely conserves but does not create anything.
Both the monumental and the antiquary use of history risk compromising current existence and the possibilities of the future in favor of the past. The critical application of history does not share this respect for the past but is fundamentally always revolting against it, viewing heritage as a burden more than an asset. It also holds that the past is not fixed but always tries to change the way the past is viewed (Nietzsche, 2005).

Nietzsche’s three types of applying of history should not be viewed as only de- or constructive. They all have positive and negative traits and their value depend on how history is put to use in different situations. To Nietzsche, we should apply history with the aim to favor life and our future outlook, the mode which he calls historic. What is hence important is to keep reevaluating oneself and one’s culture. Nietzsche uses the phrase “to ruminate” to describe this ongoing process of steadily putting one’s own narrative on trial (Nietzsche, 2005).

New priorities
We have thus argued that no individual subject can be minimized to consisting of some sort of essential narrative. Rather, the individual subject is full of potential regarding what will become of it’s narrative and it is but it’s own motivation to conserve the illusion of consistency which may (re)produce some outward identity. Holding on to some fixed cultural essence would hence reduce the individual to but a fragment of it’s possibilities. It would also disable the ability to ruminate it’s heritage and use it for it’s own wellbeing. The same holds for those cultures, which consist of such individual subjects. Like the individual, they are not only complex, but also not determined and must seek to reestablish themselves in a world that is ever changing. As it changes, so do the cultures and their relation to heritage. This openness of culture and the possibility to use heritage to our advantage is reflected by Miri Song’s observation of how ethnic minorities may break up stereotypes by breaking with or redefining otherwise defining cultural traits (Song, 2003). In a different case, people who have access to several cultures may choose which cultural identity may be more or less salient in different situations, once again using their heritage as a tool (Song, 2003).

As suggested, we have not answered any of the large questions which regard the cultural debate. What I have tried to argue is that some national or ethnic culture cannot have any value that merely relies on the premise of essential truths found in a people’s heritage. Heritage is but a shadow of the past and has no determining effect on any current culture a priori. What is made out of history is always up for grabs. As we have argued, a culture’s history is valuable only in the sense that we can reevaluate and use it to come to terms with the current world. Hence, we ought to keep analyzing and thus remembering our heritage since it contains elements which we one day may rely on, but given that our goal is to make or lives better and to look ahead into the future, it is the critical and reevaluating attitude towards history and culture which is to be protected, not history in itself.

Heidegger, Martin – Sein und Zeit – Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen 2006
Miller, David – Immigrants, Nations, and Citizenship – The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 16, Number 4, 2008, pp. 371–390
Nietzsche, Friedrich – Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben Reclam, Ditzingen 2005
Song, Miri – Choosing Ethnic Identity – Polity Press, Cornwall 2003


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