Polarized Pasts: Heritage and Political Polarization in Europe and the United States

Archaeology Center
Friday, March 1, 2019 12:00 AM
Humanities Center, McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, Department of French and Italian, Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Archaeology Center, Department of Anthropology, IRiSS

This workshop initiates a cross-disciplinary conversation about political polarization and contemporary uses of heritage. At once a concept, an instrument of governance and set of objects and practices, heritage has long been recognized as central to articulations of sameness and difference in building, sustaining and dividing societies. Rather than a mirror to the past, it is a world-making device leaving its own imprint on reality. Over the last decade, political movements on the alt-, hard- and far right have come to characterize their mission as a ‘cultural struggle’. Combining authoritarianand anti-establishment rhetoric with an increasingly hostile nativism, they fuel what Arjun Appadurai has called ‘predatory identities’, claiming that the existence of the majority is threatened by and cannot co-exist with other social categories. In doing so, many have seized on the potential of heritage as a vehicle to display dissatisfaction with the present, becoming advocates of ‘saving our common past’. Meanwhile, voices on the other side of the political spectrum draw on heritage as evidence for unbound identities or a means to achieve social justice, often without scrutinizing the inequalities caused by neoliberal agendas. And so, in the wake of the European debt crisis, the ongoing refugee reception crisis, and growing polarization in US politics, we find historical traditions, monuments and events used as leverage for calls to halt and embrace immigration, to resist and further globalization.

Considering the ceaseless work of ‘past mastering’ – societal efforts to process the guilt and consequences related to dark historical events or periods – recent developments require a focus on ‘present mastering’: to find ways of confronting the pasts unfolding right now, to understand the reasons behind their mobilization, what kind of society they help envision, and their ripple effects on cultural governance. Using the notion of present mastering as a spring board for debate, the workshop draws on unique insights from archaeologists, anthropologists, political scientists and sociologists to identify relevant questions and ways forward.