Media @ McGill

Guillaume Sirois | "Building the global metaculture: the UNESCO and the narrative of the universality of human culture"

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In November 2011, I was awarded the Media@McGill Graduate Research Fellowship. This award was used to further explore the two key components of my original proposal: the notion of a metaculture and the question of universality in our thinking about global culture. During the last months, I also worked on the elaboration of my dissertation proposal and these two elements have become important buildings blocks of my theoretical framework.

The starting point of my original proposal was the UNESCO’s three lists of outstanding cultural elements deemed to belong to the whole of humanity.[1] These lists constitute a break with one key category of the construction of knowledge about the arts and culture: the classification of cultural expression by their nationality. Traditionally, artefacts are attributed a nationality by considering various factors like the origin of its creators, the territory where it was created or where it is kept or, more vaguely, the socio-historical context in which it was born. This is based on these criteria that corpuses are constituted (e.g., French classical painting, Italian Renaissance art) and that stylistic or thematic features are associated with each of them. Eventually, these works become strongly associated with the nation’s identity and are regularly said to represent it. A first observation of the UNESCO’s lists may suggest that this national character disappears when an artefact is named on the list as it is now said to represent humanity as a whole. An interesting theoretical tool to understand this semantic operation is the notion of “deterritorialization” that emerged in the last decades (Deleuze & Guattari, 1991). The notion was used to understand different social and political changes provoked by globalization, including in the cultural realm. However, in this domain, the notion remains too often underdeveloped. Indeed, many authors simply argue that a deterritorialized culture is a culture that has lost its “natural” connection with a territory (García Canclini, 2010) or simply argue that it is now more and more difficult to link a specific cultural expression to a territory (Papastergiadis, 2000). This kind of applications of the notion overlooks that, to Deleuze and Guattari’s mind, the notion is always dual: when an object is deterritorialized, it is only to be immediately reterritorialized. This seems to be a much more fruitful way to think about what is at play with UNESCO’s lists. An artefact that is selected to be part of one of these lists is, indeed, deterritorialized as national, but only to be reterritorialized as global. Rather than belonging to a limited group of people sharing the same nationality, it now belongs to everybody on the planet. Instead of taking place in a national culture, it now takes place in global culture. However, UNESCO’s lists do not simply erase the national character of an artefact. Conversely, as it is expected of an organisation that is part of the United Nations system, the lists are built around the member-states and each element on a list has to be proposed by a state. Then, elements on the list are reterritorialized for a second time, as national taking place in the metaculture. Instead of having a fixed territoriality attached to them, artistic expressions are now constantly deterritorialized and reterritorialized with regards to the national and the global. Based on this example, I am currently in the process of developing a model with the notions of deterritorialization and reterritorialization at its heart; the model seems to be promising for the analysis of the power relations involved in cross-cultural encounters.

The second element that this fellowship allowed me to explore is the question of universality in relation to the global culture or the metaculture. In my initial proposal, I suggested that the UNESCO’s lists are built on a narrative that relies on the alleged universality of human culture. Indeed, the rationale behind the elaboration of these lists is based on the premise that the humanity is one single community eventually able to share a common set of cultural elements as being representative. Furthermore, the cultural diversity discourse has imposed itself as the dominant international paradigm to deal with cross-cultural encounters in the last few decades. Recent literature on cultural diversity (Gitlin, 1994; Mirza, 2009) suggests that this discourse is a policy answer to the politics of identity (e.g., the claims of various groups that they are being silenced or left out of official cultural manifestations). According to these authors, the cultural diversity framework allows a multiplicity of cultural manifestations to be recognised and to take their place in the global culture. In that sense, it counters the old universalist discourse that maintains that the art world is governed by standards and norms that should be respected. However, following Seyla Benhabib (2002), it is arguable that this understanding only considers one aspect of universalism. Indeed, the political philosopher establishes a clear distinction between the philosophical belief that there is something of a fundamental human nature that forms the essence of humanity and a moral/legal universalism. The former is the basis on which the old universalist conception of art relies when it argues that everybody on the planet, if educated enough, would recognize the most excellent iteration in the arts (mainly the European ones). The latter, by contrast, states that all humans are morally equals and as such are entitled to basic human rights. In the cultural diversity framework, established by UNESCO, all cultures are reputed equal and should be protected and promoted as such. The Cultural Diversity Convention is, in this sense, one important building block of this legal system for protection and promotion of cultures. The UNESCO’s lists also concur with the same goal. However, they are often caught by an old conception of universalism that prefers to bring back European standards and norms to judge what is deemed important enough to be included in these lists. This is probably one of the reasons why more than half of the buildings and monuments that appear on the World Heritage List are situated in Europe.

The elaboration of my dissertation proposal has been strongly influenced by these two elements that I have been able to explore thanks to this fellowship. Indeed, I am now extending the notion of the metaculture beyond the UNESCO’s lists, to include other contemporary manifestations. Instead of only seeing this notion as describing permanent repertoires, I am trying to adapt it to ephemeral events that also gather cultural elements coming from different regions of the world (e.g., Venice Biennale). I have also started to introduce the question of aesthetic judgement into my work, as it is a key component of any discourse on the metaculture. In this new reflection, universalism takes on a whole new dimension.


Works cited


Benhabib, S. (2002). The claims of culture : equality and diversity in the global era. Princeton, N.J. ; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1991). Qu'est-ce que la philosophie? Paris: Éditions de Minuit.

García Canclini, N. (2010). Cultures hybrides : stratégies pour entrer et sortir de la modernité: Québec : Presses de l'Université Laval.

Gitlin, T. (1994). From Universality to Difference: Notes on the Fragmentation of the Idea of the Left. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Social theory and the politics of identity (pp. 150-174). Oxford, UK; Cambridge, Mass. : Blackwell.

Mirza, M. (2009). Aims and contradictions of cultural diversity policies in the arts: a case study of the Rich Mix Centre in East London. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 15(1), 53-69.

Papastergiadis, N. (2000). The turbulence of migration : globalization, deterritorialization, and hybridity. Cambridge, UK ; Malden, Mass.: Polity Press ; Blackwell Publishers.


[1] There are currently three lists of that kind at UNESCO: the World Heritage List created by the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage; the Intangible Cultural Heritage List created by the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage; and the Memory of the World Programme