Can the UN preserve intangible cultural assets?


I (admittedly as a member and/or tiny cog of bogey-man #1 in many of these ‘homogenizing globalization’ stories) am always of two minds about trying to preserve cultural artefacts as living entities (the value of the preservation of records of history I’m 100% on board with).

‘Change’ is hardly a synonym for ‘improvement’, indeed the opposite has proven to be true more than a few times; but when you focus on preserving a culture or aspect of a culture as a living entity, you run into the potentially sticky fact that ‘culture’ is something that survives by a process where the old people successfully, by suasion or by force, imprint their mores onto the young people faster than they die. This isn’t always a pretty process, indeed it frequently devolves into reactionary crackdowns on ‘kids these days’ with their noise music, disobedience, disrespectful slang, and utterly unacceptable dress.

How do you draw the line between trying to preserve delicate cultures (without economies of scale) from the onslaught of the Hollywood/McDonalds-industrial complex, ever hungry for new consumers; and actually spending UN money helping the most reactionary elements of a society force the next generation to live in their own image (with all the human rights/self-determination issues that that can raise, ‘traditional’ cultures often having more than a few warts of their own, especially if you are unlucky enough to be a woman or an untouchable or other error of birth…)

It’s undeniable, and ugly, what has been, and continues to be, done in order to ‘open new markets’ for assorted homogenous global material cultures; but it’s also the case that cultural change is a constant thing, and to try to ossify a culture is a direct, forceful, imposition on those within the culture(mostly the young, and radicals) who would change it.


Blame Hollywood if you want, but I’ve noticed Japan is like the US in that they suck up cultural influences like a sponge. Just like English is a hodgepodge of French and German and Latin and Viking, Japanese has tons of loan-words from Chinese and English.

Likewise cuisine - a ramen shop might stand next to a curry shop, next to a Denny’s, with a taiyaki place across the street. Was that Tokyo I just described, or Greenwich Village?


It’s not just Tokyo or Greenwich Village either. While you won’t necessarily find quite that level of diversity there are more different cultural cuisines available in, say, Nashville, Tennessee now than there were twenty years ago. I remember when sushi was exotic and there was only one place in town you could get it. Now there’s the upscale sushi place, the cheap to-go sushi place, and half a dozen in between, not to mention the appearance of Indian, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, and Ethiopian restaurants.

One thing that concerns me is I don’t know how “authentic” these cuisines are compared to the dishes you’d find if you actually visited those countries, or if they’ve had to adapt to new surroundings. People may be lulled into thinking regional cuisines are being preserved even though the reality may be that the pho I’m enjoying tonight is about as Vietnamese as last night’s take-out pizza was Italian. But I think one way to preserve regional cuisines is to export them and extend their range.

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Preserving culture is certainly a delicate balance, especially when it comes to food. If we had “preserved” Italian food from American influence, for instance, they wouldn’t have (and they wouldn’t have brought back to us) the most common Italian dishes like pasta with tomato sauce, pizza or insalata caprese. Similarly, the Japanese wouldn’t have tempura, which has risen from a food of dubious foreign origin in to a form of high culinary art in Japan. Since the invention of the wheel, different cultures have shared ingredients and recipes, and have influenced each others cuisine. We shouldn’t consider that influence the same way that we look at invasive species. In fact, it’s only by sharing recipes that we will conquer invasive species - by eating them!


I’m a huge fan of Japanese food but this seems to completely ignore the fact that what makes it so delicious is that it’s the result of hundreds (and in some cases thousands) of years of bastardisation and adaptation from other cultures.

This comes across like people who rail against changes in language usage; the sentiment is well-intentioned but trying to codify and protect something that exists in as much flux as food or grammar kind of misses the point about what makes them so awesome in the first place.


Yea, supermarket sushi may not be the precise zenith of Japanese culture, but then again, I’ll bet the burgers at their McD’s taste weird and fishy.


Language strikes me as an important comparison. Aside from shifts in use, there are great numbers of languages that have or are in danger of disappearing entirely, and these are living cultural artifacts that people have been trying to preserve. I would think the attempts would be informative if not particularly optimism-inspiring.


One major difference (and perhaps a helpful one for cuisine, if not for language) is that since languages are communications tools (possibly among other cultural purposes; but definitely communication) network effects are a killer. A language that very few people speak isn’t wildly useful, will have slim or nonexistent native or available-in-translation literature and media, can be used to communicate with very few people (who tend not to be the movers and shakers in terms of things like ‘economic opportunity’). It makes linguists sad, and being among the last speakers of a given language must be unbelievably depressing; but the closer to extinction a language is, the less able it is to resist on its own merits as a language and the more it has to rely on people with linguistic, cultural, or other motivations for reviving it.

With something like cuisine, by contrast, it can be very difficult to stop the tectonic shifts in ‘what does 80% of the country have at lunch every day?’; but people seem to adore novelty and ‘authenticity’ at least on occasion and more obscure = more novel = cooler.

This isn’t necessarily much comfort to the ‘preservation means ossification just as it was!’ school, since that desire for novelty frequently turns into assorted ‘fusion’ cuisines and cuisine modifications; but there isn’t nearly the same degree of self-perpetuating doomedness, since rarer cuisines aren’t less useful than more common ones.


Totally stealing this line for my own use.

In terms of “preserving cultural assets” like cuisine (and in support of your point), if it’s written down then why does it really matter? Isn’t documentation preservation? The other thing that makes this fairly nonsense (at least IRT Japan) is that there is both a strong connection to historical tradition and a popular cooking/foodie culture in Japan.

And in terms of authenticity, part of the charm of going to the places that make the things you like is that you get to see how they’re really made and how they really taste. Sushi in Sydney is typically horrendous, unless it’s made by Japanese chefs. Counter-intuitively it’s not because they have some secret techniques, it’s because they use authentic Japanese ingredients instead of the slightly cheaper Chinese alternatives.

For a great demonstration of this go and purchase nori sheets that are made in Japan and also a pack from China. The Japanese ones are paper-thin and will crack with very little effort. The Chinese ones will be rubbery and thick in comparison.

Not sure how the UN can help with food traditions, and what qualifies. Can’t they just pick a few cookbooks and keep them in production? Or have a few made where that is necessary?

Preserving Angkor Wat is going to be a lot simpler than preserving a particular cultural set of norms.

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Jackbooted blue-helmets herding sushi chefs into human petting zoos at bayonet point… True facts.

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