Symposium: Popularized Culture, Ritual and the Making of Heritage

08 November 2018

Date: 8 – 9 November 2018

Venue: Meertens Instituut/Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

The central concern of this symposium is to explore processes of popularization and heritage formation and the role of ritual therein. The symposium will be organized in the context of Irene Stengs’ inauguration as Professor by Special Appointment of “Anthropology of Ritual and Popular Culture” at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam.

In a world characterized by high mobility, and in which images, practices and people are taken up in ever-changing constellations of pluralism and polarization, popularized culture and heritage play a crucial role in politics of identity formation. Through the popularization and heritagization of cultural forms and practices, collective sentiments are shaped and performed in ways that are difficult to map or envision. Along which national, religious or cultural boundaries such sentiments unfold, or how and when certain forms and practices are taken up and become popularized are challenging questions. This symposium aims to address these issues by focusing on the role of ritual and ritualized activities in the creation of affects, the popularization of cultural forms and practices, and the formation of heritage. Consisting of shared sequences of repetitive elements, ritual is an excellent mode of cultural transmission and dissemination, and, as a consequence, of popularization.

To flesh out the multilayered contexts, from local to transnational, in which culture is popularized and heritage is made, presentations are invited that zoom in on what I propose to call ‘high-density events’: all-embracing, momentary events in which the overall elusive processes of selection, mediatization and transmission of cultural forms and practices become tangibly present and, by implication, researchable.

A fine illustration of a popularizing, transnational, high-density event full of ritual is the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Why do people not just in the UK but all over the world find such an eager interest in the castle, chapel, gowns, uniforms, dresses, jewelry and hats, the sermons and speeches, the music, flowers, flags, and the carriage- ride? Such an embrace highlights the significance attributed to each and every ritual element of the event and by implication of their significance for a scholarly understanding of popularized culture. Perceived as royal tradition and national heritage, the wedding makes its imprint on a wide variety of popularized cultural forms and rituals across the globe, to live on in other weddings, fashion, documentaries, drama series, exhibitions and tourism.

Another example, more limited to a national level, offer the farewell ceremonies for the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, which in October 2017 engaged millions in elaborate spectacles. To the eye of the world, the main images were the eventual funeral processions. Thai society, however, was submerged in a veritable ocean of mourning rituals and commemorative activities for over one year. The royal ceremonies as well as each ritual step taken in the preparations were closely followed on websites, in magazines, and talk shows as well as the daily news, with detailed attention for their religious, traditional and heritage qualities. Again, we may ask how to understand the tremendous fascination such events exert, their power to affect a wide range of people, and significantly, the overall importance attributed to their tradition or heritage value.

As high-density events, the examples of the royal wedding and the royal cremation condense three intersecting issues this symposium seeks to address. The first issue is the popularization and mediatization of cultural forms and practices attributed to specific circles, places, groups or persons that become part of the everyday lives of apparently ever more people. Herewith, this symposium calls attention to processes of popularization, a notion preferable to the framework of popular culture. Problematizing normative categorizations and essentialist understandings of culture, the proposed perspective acknowledges that the cultural expressions of any group or class may become popularized, bringing into view the ambiguities, fluidities and tensions that come with any form of popularization. The notion of popularized culture invites researchers to explore how cultural transmissions combine change and recurrence: although always subject to adaptation, creative reworking and reinterpretation, cultural forms are at the same time transmitted as distinctive, recognizable continuities, and valued precisely for that.

The second issue concerns the forming and valorization of cultural forms and practices as heritage. In principle, anything may become heritage: food ways, songs, attires, song-bird competitions, commemorative gatherings, celebrations, television series. Analogous to things, places and practices held to be sacred, no form or practice is heritage by itself. Cultural heritage is always produced, by people, in a context. This raises questions about the people involved, the choices they make and the strategies involved: when, where and how are cultural forms and practices made heritage? In contrast to common-sense understandings of heritage as valuable culture inherited from the past, a focus on the significance of the here-and-now, and the in-the-making dimensions of heritage may help to fathom the embrace of all kinds of popularized cultural elements as heritage.

The third issue addresses the relation between heritage formation and ritual. Rituals (festivals, carnival, religious holidays etcetera) are arguably among the most obvious practices to be regarded as heritage of a certain group or community. Much scholarly work has been dedicated to the study of ‘rituals as (intangible) heritage’. The role of ritual in the naturalization of certain practices and forms as heritage, however, has not received much ethnographic and theoretical attention so far. This symposium therefore proposes to further investigate the processes of popularization, transmission, reification and heritage-making through the prism of ritual. The public, symbolic and expressive qualities of rituals account for their persuasive potential: rituals are experienced, felt and believed, and evoke a wide range of (not necessarily positive) engagements.

In short, the symposium serves as an occasion to explore ‘high-density events’ so as to further probe into the complexities of processes of popularization, heritagization and ritualization. Materializing in an endless (re)production and circulation of images, texts, objects and associated happenings, high-density events are of great significance. Evolving around powerful symbols and emotive material, high-density events may bring into view everyday politics of aesthetics and belonging, bringing into purview relations between nationalism, religion, the role of new media technologies, and the structuring forces of neo- capitalist economics in a world that is increasingly characterized by mobility and diversity.

To study these issues in a comparative perspective, ethnographic presentations are invited on the transmission and transformation of images, texts, objects and practices in the ritual sequences that are part of high-density events, preferably based on thick descriptions.

Examples of popularization and high-density events that come to mind, on whatever scale and in whatever context, include but, of course, are not limited to:

- Abolition of slavery commemorations (The Keti Koti festival, Netherlands)

- Death/funeral celebrations of famous artists (Elvis, Prince, André Hazes, Amy Winehouse)

- Space exploration high-points and their jubilees

- Alt-right (PEGIDA, popular culture pig blood and pork rituals against mosques or Ramadan


- Iconic Fundraising Events

- Carnavalization of public events (mega-sport-events, concerts, festivals)

- Matthew Passion performances (as religious celebrations; as classical music concerts; as

sing-along events)

- ‘Vienna Culture’ (ballroom dancing; André Rieu concerts, Lipizzaner Stallion performances;

Empress Sissi movies and heritage)

- Artists Activist Events (Keith Haring)

- Celebrity Charity Interventions (Het Glazen Huis)

- 9/11 – Ground Zero commemorative events

- Museums (The Louvre - Beyonce/ and Jay-Z video Apeshit; Tropenmuseum -popularizing the


- Themed fairs, parks, and malls (Huishoudbeurs) - Architecture (Skopje, Trump Towers, Berlin Wall)