Sunday, June 26, 2011

Question Authority

“The Utility of Discourse Analysis to Heritage Studies: The Burra Charter and Social Inclusion” by Emma Waterton, Laurajane Smith & Gary Campbell. International Journal of Heritage Studies v.12, no. 4, July 2006, pp. 339-355.

In my late teens and early twenties I, like many others, had an assortment of “Question Authority” paraphernalia - postcards, bumper stickers. I was just another well-educated, suburban, middle-class,white male who was sure “the system” with it’s conservative thinking and oppressive whatever needed to be taken down. Now that I’m middle aged I don’t think my ideas have changed all that much but now, rather than spending all my time brooding in my parent’s basement I find myself fixing plumbing problems and watching South Park reruns and don’t really have the energy and enthusiasm to fight the system.

I do, however, think the “Question Authority” line has as much relevance now as it did then, except now I have to acknowledge that I - and I’m going to guess that you too Mr./Ms blog reader - that I am the authority. Being a well-educated, suburban, middle-class,white male means you are part of the authority. Questioning authority is all well and good when authority is some thing out there - but it is so much more important, and challenging, when authority is you.

Questioning one’s own authority requires a deep level of self-awareness and detachment. It requires stepping outside of one’s own world-view to acknowledge that there are other legitimate world-views and, more importantly, questioning your own authority requires the ability to detach from your world-view in order to critically observe and analyze it.

And yes, this curious introduction to a blog post will wend its way to the topic of conversation.

How does the language we use about conservation, and related topics like heritage, reflect our deeper and often unspoken beliefs and agenda?

The authors of “The Utility of Discourse Analysis to Heritage Studies: The Burra Charter and Social Inclusion” investigate the idea of “heritage” particularly as it it used in The Burra Charter: The Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance. To achieve this investigation, they use the technique of discourse analysis.

As I am not a student of discourse analysis, and not particularly skilled in any form of literary analysis I cannot provide an expert’s critique of what the authors are attempting to accomplish. I am, however, intrigued by what they have to say and will briefly report it here.

The authors look at the use of the idea of heritage and state that the literature presents no clear sense of what that word actually means. With this vagueness comes “the prevalence of an uncritical, common-sense understandings of what heritage entails. Smith refers to this as the Authorized Heritage Discourse (AHD) which, she argues, promotes a consensus approach to history, smoothing over conflict and social differences. This representation, which incorporates a set of conservative, if not reactionary, and distinctly Western, social meanings, has become ubiquitous in the public’s understanding of heritage.” (pp. 339-340) (The authors are citing Smith’s Archaeological Theory and the Politics of Cultural Heritage.)

They continue “Smith points out, any attempts at engaging with community, or stakeholder groups must take into account the power relations that underlie the dominant heritage discourse, as they may inadvertently work to discourage the equitable participation of these groups whose understanding of the nature of heritage are excluded from that discourse.” (p. 340)

To paraphrase the previous quote: In order to authentically engage with a larger community in discussion of heritage, you must be aware of, and questioning of your own authority, and especially the language you use to express that authority in that conversation.

I pull out the following three quotes not because I think they speak specifically or solely about the Burra Charter, but because I think they speak about much of western conservation literature.

“The distinctive styling of semantics works to construct objective, factual, and thus seemingly natural account of the conservation process, when it is in reality privileging a particular perspective.” (p. 347)

“Perhaps more importantly, the idea that conservation values of experts might be just another set of cultural values is entirely absent in the discursive construction of this text, and for that matter all texts of this sort.” (p. 349)

“In our view, community participation must hing on the concept of negotiation, not only over conservation and heritage values but also over the very meaning and nature of heritage, so the conservation ethic itself is open to renegotiation and redefinition.” (p. 351)

Authority does not have to be questioned because authority is always wrong, but authority should be questioned in order to bring to light our unspoken beliefs, and to enter into a more authentic dialogue with all interested parties on questions of heritage and preservation.


  1. Could the object we are treating be the 'authority'? Jeff

  2. Jeff, can the object be the authority? Well, possibly maybe. I guess my problem with that suggestion is my limited imagination (and pardon me if I get all hermeneutical). I have troubles conceiving of objects, and their potential authority and power, apart from my conception of them. I see an object, and drawing on the world-view I'm part of, I "decide" what the object is and how it fits into my world-view. To me, saying an object has authority is a bit like saying the bible is the authority. I'm not sure what the bible, and its authority, is apart from my reading of it, and I know that my reading of it is shaped by my world-view.

    I'd like to think there is a plane of existence, for lack of a better phrase, where an object's authority/power can be acknowledged as distinct and separate from the viewers and my impression is that can happen. However, when a sculptor says the rock "told them" what form to carve, my honest response is "How quaint" and "How is it all the rocks you talk to have the same aesthetic sensibilities?"

    If objects you are treating can be the authority then you are a better person than I am (and I honestly mean that) for I fear am too entrenched in my world-view to so openly engage with the physical stuff of this world.