mercoledì 13 ottobre 2010


Circulation of ideas and artefacts has enormously expanded in recent years, following a worldwide network of communications and exchanges, in which internet – commonly referred to with the symbolically appropriated term of ‘the web’ – plays a major role. There is no longer any place that can be considered isolated from the rest of the world and cannot be reached, via satellite if not by more traditional system of communication. This unprecedented condition of humankind offers unlimited opportunities and at the same time raises equally vast problems.

Before this fundamental change in human destiny, anthropology played the role – at a micro scale – of connecting small, neglected, often ignored societies and marginal groups to the increasingly ‘developed’, ‘modern’ world. The primary role of ethnographic fieldwork and subsequent anthropological analysis has been to build up. through accurate, direct testimonies, an increased knowledge of human diversity. Based on that knowledge was an awareness that this very diversity is a primary, positive value of our species, the sign of our unique adaptability to different ecological and historical conditions.

The time-consuming, scrupulous work of the anthropologist – of transferring and translating social rules and cultural expressions of groups often referred to as ‘exotic’, in terms and meanings more familiar to her/his audience and readers – anticipated, in its own way, intercultural communication, a growing present concern. In a way. That is, predominantly in one way: from the ‘isolated’ to the ‘developed’.

In that direction, anthropologists developed, along with scientific techniques, a moral concern of respect and defence of the delicate matter that was in thei hands, the core of individual and social identity of the group they were studying, and of which they were the self-appointed representatives. Indigenous groups and minorities had little opportunities to check the accuracy of the anthropologists’ narratives, if only due to the linguistic barrier, further complicated by the scientific jargon. To correct this bias, visual anthropologists introduced the habit of returning to the people they had filmed, showing the images and discussing together the accuracy of their representations. This was what Jean Rouch called “anthropologie partagée”, the result being often more a moral relief for the anthropologist than a guarantee for the people represented.

In any case, independently from the support for their representations – be it written, visual or oral -, the underlying question is always: whose story is it? (To borrow an expression used as title for one of his articles by David McDougall, not by chance, like Rouch, also a visual anthropologist and filmmmaker). Are we anthropologists the authors of our narratives, or do we simply expand the knowledge of others’ cultural expressions?

The legitimization of the anthropologist’s work has moved from an initial cultural self-reference , for the sake of our knowledge , to an intercultural mission , to present their point of view. If this is a central concern for anthropologists, the idea in general is not an unfamiliar one. There is a long intellectual tradition and a growing awareness concerning the respect due to cultural differences. In theory, at least, we are all ready to recognize the right of people living in different parts of the world, or coming from there, to follow their credos and ways of life. But the answer to the question we have put before – whose story is it? –is, in fact, more complex than one would expect. In traditional societies, an epic, a ritual, a performance reproduced from one generation to another, a design, material artefacts made following socially established patterns, objects and actions produced and reproduced as codified expressions of religious meanings, aesthetic representations in images, sounds or bodily expressions are all something that the performer, the narrator or the artist does not consider her/his own. Nor does society consider the outcome as an invention, but rather the execution, following certain, sometimes secret rules, of a cultural legacy.
This is what allows us to give to a society the otherwise vague attribute o ‘traditional’. There, cultural expressions central for for reinforcing through time social identities and considered something inherited from the ancestors, the founding fathers or the spirits of another world. They are the authors, the living merely follow the received patterns.

All this seems distant from the present process of globalization and, with it, of intercultural contacts: again, ‘exotic’. But consider an example. In recent years, paintings made by Australian aborigines have entered the art market of the West: mostly made with acrylic colours, often with the ‘dot’ technique. As Fred Myers – an anthropologist that has extensively studied this phenomenon as part of his lifelong research on Central Australian aborigines - explained in a recent article, this is at least partly the curious consequence of the process of assimilation fostered by the Australian government, as a reaction to it, in order to preserve indigenous cultural identity, and partly to the support received by a schoolteacher sympathetic with the Western Desert painting movement.

There is here a complex involvement of different forces: the local artists, the context out of which the artistic movement grew, the local supporters, the all-powerful art market system and its logic of commoditisation of the ‘object’. These paintings are visual representations of what we could call the ‘cultural treasures’ of the aborigines. They are part of a collective patrimony, often intended to be preserved for controlled, sometimes secret, uses and interpretations. Apart for the recognition of the individual artist’s merits and skills – and their consequent right to have a copyright and receive economic compensation for the exchange of the object –, we should answer the previous question by saying that these are their culture’s stories.

In fact, Myers reports the comments of the Pintupi painters: they “always insisted to me that their images ‘are not made up, not made by us. They are from the Dreaming’ “ (Myers 2004:14). For the aborigines, “ the story-song-design complexes of the Dreaming – like the rituals of which they are considered part and like the landscape, which is a further manifestation – are ‘held’ (kanyinu) by various groups of people “ (Myers 2004:5). They are not the autonomous expressions of an individual artist. “Intellectual copyright law may allow compensation for unauthorized use of designs, but – as most supporters of this remedy acknowledge – copyright does not represent fully what is at stake in the problematic circulation of acrylic paintings as cultural artefacts” (Myers 2004:109.

The problem of attribution of authorship and consequent possible rights over images or texts is also raised by Giancarlo Scoditti, an anthropologist that has done intensive fieldwork in the island of Kitawa, Melanesia, focusing on the aesthetic sense of the islanders. “Often, in an oral culture, in order to give force to a certain image [...] its construction is attributed to a superior being, a hero for instance, especially if the image is inserted in texts concerning myths, like the narration of the foundation of a clan or sub-clan, or in poems recited in occasion of a ritual exchange. Once composed, the image is fixed, made sacred. Thenceforth is no longer relevant to detect the name of its author and/or the singer that gave it voice for the first time “ (Scoditti 2003:45) (1). The role of the single artist is recognized as important as that of an interpreter

Scoditti uses the metaphor of a musical performance of a classical symphony in our culture, of a receive “canon”. “It is not relevant to discover who is the canon’s author, but we know that it exists”. (Scoditti 2003:45) (2). Proof of this “hypotesis”, for Scooditti, is “the long series of polychromic tables, kept in various collections of ethnographic museums, that can all be reported to their respective patterns, in turn derived from some fundamental schemes/styles: goragora, nagega, and tadobu”. (Scoditti 2003:46) (3). He contends that “in this case, the author [...] leaves his hand on the polychromic table and to detect his name can be totally irrelevant, because it is already kept in the way he has carved onto the wood the graphic texture. In the same way, the author of a poetic text leaves the mark of his hand in the verbal texture of the work.” (Scoditti 2003:46) (4).

The right over the narration of a myth pass from one generation to another, following the direct line of descent. “The text composed by the First Author, coinciding with the androgynous ancestor founder of the referred clan and sub-clan group, is donated by him to his direct descendants, that were born from him by parthenogenesis :[...] the woman will keep the text in her womb, while to the man is attributed the function to narrate it, and so communicate to the descendants the grounds and reasons for their power [...] At childbirth, the woman donates to her sons, together with life, the vital breath, also the text: in a sort of literary insemination
and an immediate acquisition of the text by the newborns” (Scoditti 2003:67) (5).

From her fieldwork in the same area, the Trobriand islands, Annette Weiner came to similar conclusions for what she called the “inalienable possessions”. “What gives these possessions their fame and power is their authentication through an authority perceived to be outside the present” (Weiner 1992:42).

These are but a few of the many testimonies by ethnologists of local attributions and validations of authorship in traditional, oral societies. As we have seen, this credit is not given to single persons – the narrator, the performer, the artist – since what is at stake is not their personal achievement, but something perceived as coming from “outside the present” and belonging to the whole community. It is through this sense of sharing a unique legacy that what we call cultural identity is built. But we can ask ourselves what or who gives an outsider – the anthropologist – the authorization to play, in a way, th same role of local narrators, to bring to the present the legacy so carefully preserved within well-defined limits of time and space and to diffuse it outside these borders.

From the point of view of the ethics of our discipline, more than from the feeling of contributing to broaden knowledge, I think that this should derive from the intimate acquaintance with local populations through the rite of passage of fieldwork. This is not to go native, but to become a kind of appointed representative, able to play outside a similar role of the local person-in-charge, in a reliable and respectful way, in other languages, in other societies, with their rules. These rules being, for instance, the copyright laws regulating the market of written texts, objects, images and music in our societies.

Nonetheless, we can ask ourselves: who is really the author of Dieu d’eau (Griaule 1948) ? The French ethnologist Marcel Griaule, or the Dogon wise man Ogotemmeli who told him (using an interpreter) the complex cosmology elaborated through ages by his society, in the same way as he himself was instructed before by others of his group? No doubt that Griaule and his descendants had legitimately the copyright of that book: he wrote the text, he put his name on the cover. And correctly in the text he quotes the real name of the person from which he received the narration – the cultural legacy: something that is rarely done in our social sciences, where anonymity, initials and pseudonyms are preferred, due to an ill-placed use of the concept of privacy. Through Ogotemmeli, Griaule became what we have called the appointed representative of Dogon’s cosmology in the Western world, its guardian, relying on the copyright legal system to control the spread of that knowledge outside its proper cultural borders.

The African continent s particularly rich in oral traditions, narratives of myths and local ideologies, and the work of transference done by Griaule is by no means an isolated case. More recently, Jack Goody made accessible to the outside world the monumental myth of the Bagre (Goody 1972) and the scientific endeavour that made this possible is certainly to be entirely attributed to him: at the same time, the myth is the legacy of a culture metaphorically adopted. Or rather, shouldn’t we say that it was Goody that has been adopted by the owners – through spiritual descent – of the myth?

Societies that have a long tradition of writing faced the question of authorial attribution in cases that we may consider having some analogies. But here the crucial moment of the transference from the oral to the written is very far in the past. In any case, no one would consider the amanuenses to be the authors of our most classical, mythical or realistic, narratives. No one challenges the attribution of the Iliades to Homer, nor of the Histories to Herodotus: even if- so the story goes – it all began with a group of people gathered under the shade of a tree to listen to a poet, in the first case, with an audience in an agorà, curious to hear the tales of someone that had been there, in the second.

One could continue, with the Indian Vedas and Upanishads, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and their uncountable different versions, in Java and elsewhere. If we follow this line of analysis, we should logically come to the conclusion that we need to enlarge our frame of thought. We would need to embrace something involving many different people in different roles, a content that can go back to a mythical past, an authorial attribution that includes living beings, ancestors and spirits, and beliefs that are at the same time specific to a group and essential for its common identity. All this may seem exotic, eccentric and, in the end, irrelevant. It would indeed be very far from the logic of the market society we live in, the economic and legal rules that regulate our behaviour.

Raising its voice in the name of minorities and indigenous people, anthropology is used to fight a battle in which its arguments are at the same time weak and strong: weak in terms of the ‘real powers’, strong as a crucial defence of precious patrimonies of humankind. But there is a new perspective, of historical momentum. This brings us back to the beginning of our argument, to the world connected through the web of internet and the impulse of globalization.

We begin to be aware that globalization concerns not only markets and political strategies. The fascinating, if bizarre, metaphor used by ecologists of the wings of the butterfly that, through a chain of consequences can be applied to our cultures, if we reverse the image. The powerful storms of our ever-growing and ever-expanding societies can now much more easily than in the past, wipe out the frail espressions of faraway human beings. This, in the end, would negatively affect us all.

Some indigenous groups have shown a strong consciousness that their common cultural patrimony can become a strong argument to raise their often endangered rights, in a wider social arena: Native Americans in the United States (some in particular, like the Navajo or the Lakota) and in Canada, the Maori of New Zealand. Recognition of their cultural properties can avoid two extremes: isolation in an exotic ghetto, or the disappearance of original, often ancient traditions into a national ‘melting pot’ or, now, in a global homogenisation.

Once again, through its experience, anthropology can offer its contribution. Making its typical long turn outside what is familiar to us, it can come back with a new insight, a global one, that can be useful for us, here. Working at a micro scale, focusing on marginality and least known human expressions, anthropological knowledge can offer a test to the possible generalization of some of our own ideas and strtegies, in an increasingly ‘connected’ world. In the specific case we have focused on here, anthropological experience suggests the use of a broader category than that indicated by the term ‘intellectual property – with its reference to an individual quality – and to think more in general of ‘cultural property’. Cultural properties can be considered as belonging to humankind, as universal, and at the same time being specific to individual social groups with their unique characters and histories. Cultural property can be shared, but it has also to be protected and regulated in its circulation and exchange. Concern for the preservation of the cultural patrimony, as expressed in different societies and kept within their often neglected or endangered traditions, has been expressed by the international community, notably the UNESCO, where a Division du Patrimoine Culturel has been established.

Adopting the anthropological meaning of the term culture, now based on a common understanding, the scope of this ‘patrimony’ has been expanded to include not only what has a ‘static’ nature, like books, manuscripts and artistic images, but also what has been called ‘immaterial patrimony’ (Bouchenaky 1999: 4). This is important, both in terms of widening the concept and in terms of the actions to be taken in order to protect its manifestations.

Under the pressure of the world’s interconnectedness, intercultural exchanges and contacts, further steps are now needed. Ideas and values superimposed from outside about what has to be protected, and how – defining rules and categories – could collide with other societies’ perceptions. These perceptions cannot be separated, within a society, from the actual expressions of which they are but a manifestation. The values encapsulated within these material or immaterial elements are part of that “complex whole” (Tylor 1871) that makes a society’s culture. Thus is what gives them a place and a role, and from there comes the wider meaning of the term ‘property’, when we attribute it to a cultural expression.

At the same time, we have also to consider these cultural properties being part of the humankind’s patrimony. This conciousness becomes more acute with the world’s interconnectedness and the recent, enormous increase of what circulates among people of different societies. The idea of cultural property should not mean that no others than the ones that ‘own’ these expressions – having created or inherited them . can have access to them. But more and more often local groups or individuals see that outsiders take advantage – in terms of money and prestige – from the selling and circulation of original goods and their copies to other cultural expressions, sometimes part of a tourist package. And they ask their share.

Who should set the rules and limits for the access by outsiders to something that usually has rules and limits concerning the members of a group – and who should be in charge of that – is an open question. Certainly it is one that is no easy to answer; one that can, and should, be approached from different points of view. Pure, Western-style commoditisation cannot be the answer. Nor is the even more distorted and contradictory adoption of the logic of the market as it is sometimes used in societies equating cultural value with economic value and therefore giving a price to anything, from a religious object to an interview.

Leaving these questions open to analysis in a hopefully intercultural discussion, we can return to the Internet as a fact and a metaphor. Widening enormously the circulation of ideas and human expressions, giving them free access to people the world over, the web stimulates a new approach to the intellectual immaterial property, to be considered today as a world’s common cultural patrimony, a vital bond for the destiny of humanity.


1. Translation mine. Original text (Italian): “ Spesso in una cultura orale, per dare forza a una data immagine – la cui formulazione ha richiesto la formulazione di più ipotesi e vari tentativi per realizzare la più corretta – se ne attribuisce la costruzione a un essere superiore, per esempio un eroe, soprattutto se l’immagine è racchiusa in testi relativi a miti, come il racconto di fondazione di un clan e subclan, oppure nelle poesie salmodiate per lo scambio rituale. Una volta composta, l’immagine viene irrigidita, sacralizzata, appunto, per cui non è rilevante individuare il nome del suo autore e/o del cantore che l’ha sonorizzata per la prima volta”.

2. Translation mine. Original text (Italian): “[...] non è rilevante scoprire l’autore del canone ma sappiamo che esiste”.

3. Translation mine. Original text (Italian): “La lunga serie di tavole policrome, conservate nelle varie collezioni dei musei etnografici, tutte rapportbili ai loro rispettivi modelli di riferimento, a loro volta derivati da alcuni schemi/stili fondamentali: goragora, nagega e tanobu”.

4. Translation mine. Original text (Italian): “ In questo caso l’autore (foss’anche il semplice incisore che reitera un dato modello progettato da un tokabitamu bougwaœ, maestro-incisore) lascia la sua mano e individuare il suo nome può essere del tutto irrilevante perché ormai è rimasto racchiuso nel modo con cui ha inciso sul legno la tessitura grafica. Anche l’autore di un testo poetico lascia la sua mano nella tessitura verbale dell’opera [...]”.

5. Translation mine. Original text (Italian): “ Il testo del racconto composto dal Primo Autore, che coincide con l’antenata androgina fondatrice del gruppo clanico e subclanico cui si riferisce il testo, viene donato da questi suoi discendenti diretti, ai quali ha dato vita per partenogenesi. Con il nome del segmento di lignaggio e la proprietà della terra l’antenata mitica dona anche il testo del racconto relativo a questi stessi atti fondanti. Lo dona al primo figlio e alla prima figlia, ai primi due distinti di se stesso. Da ora in poi alla donna spetterà la funzione di conservare nel suo ventre il testo del racconto, come all’uomo la funzione di narrarlo per comunicare ai discendenti i fondamenti, le ragioni de loro potere. La donna al momento del aprto dona ai propri figli, oltre che la vita, il soffio vitale, anche il testo del racconto: sarà, questa, una sorta di inseminazione letteraria e una acquisizione immEdiata del testo da parte dei nuovi nati.”


BOUCHENAKI Mounir 1999 Préface. La culture populaire, in Francesco Lucarelli e Lello Mazzacane (eds) L’UNESCO et la tutelle du patrimoine immatériel. Les Fetes traditionnelles – Les Gigli de Nola, Extra Moenia, Nola.
GOODY, Jack 1972 The Myth of the Bagre, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
GRIAULE, Marcel 1948 Dieu d’eau, entretiens avec Ogotemmeli, Editions du Chene, Paris.
MYERS, Fred 2004 “Ontologies of the image and economies of exchange”, American Ethnologist, Vol. 31, Issue 1, pp. 1-16.
SCODITTI Giancarlo 2003 Kitawa. Il suono e il colore della memoria, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino.
TYLOR, Edward B. 1871 Primitive Culture, Oxford University Press Oxford.
WEINER Annette B. 1992 Inalienable Possessions. The Paradox of Keping-While-Giving, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles.

* Paper presented at the General Assembly of the CIPSH (Conseil International de la Philosophie et des Sciences Humaines), Beijing 2004.

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