The early weeks of this fellowship have been devoted to foundations, primarily through establishing a shared understanding of digital cultural heritage, before we begin the more technical aspects of the year. As a result, I’ve been thinking more thoroughly about what “digital” + “cultural” + “heritage” can mean through a rhetorical lens. Of these, “digital” and “heritage” appear the most straightforward in this context. “Digital,” of course, entails the creation, documentation, preservation, or dissemination of cultural materials through technology based on binary data (often through the Internet or web-based tools, but not always, as Dr. Angela Haas writes in “Wampum as Hypertext”). “Heritage” refers to genealogy, as an item, practice, belief or other cultural element is passed down within a community over time. In the context of “digital cultural heritage,” though, both of these terms hinge on “cultural,” which is where things get sticky.
The International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), an intergovernmental organization dedicated to preserving all forms of cultural heritage, has published a useful timeline titled “Definitions of Cultural Heritage: References to documents in history” through its working group Heritage and Society. The timeline is necessarily partial, as a comprehensive record of every definition of cultural heritage would be wildly unwieldy in document form, and prioritizes the anthropological definitions that have informed UNESCO’s conventions on protecting cultural and natural heritage. The timeline also prioritizes definitions generated by European and Euro-American thinkers from antiquity to the present; cultural heritage definitions from the majority of the world are not included. Nevertheless, some useful themes can be gleaned from this summary. Early definitions of cultural heritage focus primarily on artifacts, originating from conceptions of “cultural property” perhaps first used in the 1954 Hague Convention prohibiting wartime looting. Through a series of UNESCO conventions on topics ranging from Landscapes (1962) to Cultural Diversity (2001), “cultural property” has shifted to a more expansive “cultural heritage.”
“Cultural heritage” can then be further subdivided into two primary categories: tangible and intangible. Rhetoric appears to fit most neatly into the “intangible” category, drawing on the oratory roots of most rhetorical practices. The 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage defines intangible heritage as
The “intangible cultural heritage” means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. For the purposes of this Convention, consideration will be given solely to such intangible cultural heritage as is compatible with existing international human rights instruments, as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals, and of sustainable development. (Article 2.1)
I find this definition useful to understanding rhetoric as cultural heritage because it leaves room to recognize that while rhetoric is intangible, it is inextricably bound with the material and social conditions that produce it, even in digital rhetorics. Although technology constraints prevent me from embedding it here (speaking of material constraints), this constellating map of intangible cultural heritage produced by UNESCO is another way of thinking about this. Although “rhetoric” appears nowhere in this visualization, one can follow the connections from “Oral Tradition” to concepts as diverse as cultural spaces, genres of storytelling, and material crafting practices. The question of “culture,” though, is still somewhat unresolved.
An admittedly loose survey of anthropological definitions of culture–with my apologies to anthropologists–reveals a set of overlapping definitions that center on the shared beliefs and practices of a group of people. Functionally, in the cultural heritage definitions provided by UNESCO and other conservation organizations listed in the ICCROM timeline, the groups of people by whom “culture” is produced seem to be primarily bounded geographically and/or ethnically. This understanding is compatible with the rhetorical understanding of culture put forward by the Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab, which describes the purpose of their project as “to emphasize rhetorics as cultural and cultures as persistently rhetorical” by “investigat[ing] and understand[ing] meaning-making as it is situated in very specific cultural communities,” but they also extend their definitions to “any place/space where groups organize under a set of shared beliefs and practices—American Indian communities, workplace communities, digital communities, crafting communities, etc.” Accordingly, in my research interests in online communities responding to fundamentalist Christian misogyny, I take a similarly expansive view of “culture” to mean any group of people with a set of shared practices that are passed from experienced to new members and who recognize themselves as a group, even if the members do not occupy the same geographical space and the “generations” through which practices are passed occur much more rapidly than human life-span generations.
This slightly altered understanding of “culture/cultural” changes my understanding of “digital” and “heritage.” Much of the literature on #DigitalCulturalHeritage assumes that practitioners are applying digital methods to the preservation and sharing of existing physical heritage items, moveable or immoveable, or to the documentation of intangible heritage practices that are practiced in a physical space, such as dance, religious rituals, or speech practices. My interests, however, lie in cultural heritage practices that are born-digital, or developed and practiced already online. These practices are relatively new and belong to many cultural communities, deliberately lowercase and plural, that fall outside or perhaps below the radar of organizations like UNESCO. Indeed, these Internet cultures would almost certainly fail to meet global definitions of “culture,” much less “heritage,” as expressed in these standard definitions. From a digital cultural rhetorics perspective, though, these are viable communities that meet the working definition of cultural heritage used by CHI:
“The legacy of material culture (physical objects) and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations” (a slightly modified version of the UNESCO definition).
As I continue to develop my CHI project, I plan to continue thinking through what “digital heritage” can make possible for born-digital cultural communities, such as the Reddit-based community with which I am conducting dissertation research, and what approaches might be best suited for such a community.