Post-national imaginaries: engaging with cultural heritage conflicts from a digital culture perspective

22 minutes to read
Inge Beekmans

When Stone photographed the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul about twenty years ago, a sign at its entrance read: ‘A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive’. (Stone, 2005) Stone used it at the end of an essay about his involvement in the "identification and protection of cultural heritage during the Iraq conflict", as a means to substantiate the choices he had made, for instance when he shared "a selective list of 36 of the most important sites in Iraq" with his national government (Stone, 2005, p. 935).

‘A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive’

Nations — which can be defined as "imaged political communit[ies]" (Anderson, 2016, p. 6) — are deeply ingrained in what we might call our collective  ‘common sense’, even when armed conflicts seem to usher in their potential deaths. Looking at the quote from the Kabul museum that was shared by Stone (2005), cultural heritage and the survival of the ‘nation’ are presented as existentially intertwined. Other publications that engage with heritage conflicts present nations and national symbols as entities that act upon culture, for instance by noting that “The UK, France, Austria, and Spain, all recalled their works [from] an exhibit at The Kremlin. Even the Queen of England joined the boycott.” (Leon, 2022) In this sense, it appears that particularly in periods of 'cultural heritage conflict', cultural heritage and nations have a symbiotic relationship, in which they can both positively and negatively impact and construct each other.

Cultural globalization and digitalization, however, put pressure on the concept of the ‘nation’ (Barbrook & Cameron, 1996; Preston & Kerr, 2001; Jacobs, 2014; Lu & Liu, 2018) and might therefore threaten their independent survival and the aforementioned power they exercise over culture. Thus, inspired by the thought that interesting new views might be developed if the notion of digitalization was added to the interplay between nations, cultural heritage and conflicts, this article — or rather 'thought-exercise' — addresses the manner in which academic publications construct and interpret nations in contexts of digitalization and cultural heritage destruction in order to demonstrate that neither conflicts nor the internet appear to be able to drastically reduce nations' cultural hegemony, as cultural heritage is dynamic, and can be shaped to reinforce authority in various situations and environments — also emphatically online. 

As this article attempts to combine ideas from different disciplines in connection to the practices of multiple partially overlapping actors, it is organized in two parts. First, it discusses various publications and approaches that may help to reveal something about the interconnections between nations, cultural heritage and conflicts. Thereafter, in its second part, it adds digitalization and the internet's (in)famous anti-statist discourse to the mix.

Approaching conflicts and crises

According to Venturini and Munk, controversies and conflicts have a unique potential to reveal knowledge and ideas that are normally hidden (Venturini & Munk, 2021). Comparably, Chilton has argued that crises can produce ‘critical discourse moments’ during which ideologically distorted communication might arise (Chilton, 1988). Considering these approaches towards conflicts and the notion that it is “inevitable that armed conflict will have a detrimental impact on ‘cultural property’” (Stone, 2015, p. 40), it seems reasonable that the destruction and theft of cultural heritage will foreground convictions about its status and values, and about the various actors that are involved.

This is a picture of the library of Leuven in 1914, after it was burned down by German troops.

Whereas Stone’s quote from the Kabul museum connects the survival of culture to the survival of nations, Cichero relates decisions to destroy cultural heritage to the powers and privileges of “States” (Cichero, 2018, p. 1) — the 'political expresions' of nations (Anderson, 2016) —, and Pollard describes how the potential protection of cultural heritage is sometimes negatively impacted by nation-states’ reluctance to implement international regulations (Pollard, 2019). These instances seem to point towards the various and complex interrelationships between nations, nation-states, conflicts and cultural heritage; relationships in which both the survival and destruction of cultural heritage depend on the actions of states, and in which states can either destroy or save their nationalistically imagined selves and others by destroying or safeguarding culture.

The latter observation can be further elaborated in relation to a publication of Van der Auwera, who connects the phenomenon of intentional heritage destruction to the increased emphasis on identity politics and nationalism (Auwera, 2012) and describes how internal conflicts drive opposing groups to affect each other’s heritage in order to construct the nation in accordance with their own national imaginaries. In this sense, Auwera explicates the political dimension of heritage destruction — potentially even indexing the persuasion that nation-states are culturally constructed imaginaries (Volcic, 2008) — and points towards the increasingly negative effects of the connection between cultural heritage, conflicts and nations.

Ideas regarding the connection between cultural heritage and national — or 'nationalist' — imaginaries are of course not new. In Imagined Communities (Anderson, 2016), Anderson skillfully links the emergence of various nationalisms to the construction of shared experiences and languages, and describes how the monuments of oppressed communities can be appropriated and transformed by their oppressors; eventually becoming the (not-so-)new 'state regalia' of colonizing empires. In that sense, Anderson demonstrates that nations don't necessarily need to destroy the cultural heritage of the 'other' to construct their own national narratives. They can simply reuse it — which of course does not entail that the act of re-utilization does not comprise conflict and violence. As nations are indeed imagined, they can just as easily imagine their own connection with all sorts of previously unrelated heritage artifacts, histories and cultural practices. Through these appropriations and imaginations, the nation is instilled with a sense of 'temporal continuity' (Anderson, 1991) and 'common sense'.  

How nations are revealed during heritage conflicts

The centrality of nations and nation-states in cultural heritage conflicts is also reflected more implicitly in other academic publications about heritage destruction. The first actor that is presented in a paper about cultural property protection in Syria, for instance, is described as “newly decolonized countries eager to exert sovereign control over their national cultural heritages” (Brodie, 2015a, p. 318); demonstrating not only the hegemonic role of ‘countries’ in contexts of heritage conflicts, but also the importance of their sovereignty and the ‘national’ dimension in relation to presumptions of control. The fact that the second actor in the text is described as “ex-colonial nations wanting to retain possession” (Brodie, 2015a, p. 318) only reinforces this observation, and indicates that nations are indeed perceived to be the primary entities that act upon heritage in conflict situations. Furthermore, an article by Thomas and Deckers demonstrates that heritage that is deemed sufficiently relevant can also become subjected to ‘top-down’ power regimes in peace times; depicting not only the states’ power to ‘select’ cultural heritage, but also to allocate resources to act upon it (Thomas & Deckers, 2020) — and to use its power to prevent the cultural practices of others.

Heritage that is deemed sufficiently relevant can also become subjected to ‘top-down’ power regimes in peace times.

However, it would be improper to argue that nations are the only entities that play a role in heritage conflicts. International organizations like UNESCO, the United Nations — both “composed of nation-states” (Di Giovine, 2015, p. 84) — and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) collaborate with nations in attempts to prevent the destruction and looting of cultural heritage, often without fully achieving their objectives (Auwera, 2012; Brodie, 2015b; Stone, 2015). It must also be noted that some of the declarations that were produced by organizations like these reflect the idea that heritage communities won’t necessarily spatially coincide with nations and their nation-states, and that these communities should be legally protected as well (Green Martínez, 2018). Texts like these, however, appear to focus on conflicts that might be perceived as relatively stable — in which consideration can be given to dialogue and reconciliation —, rather than on armed conflicts. The persuasion that international law privileges “the state and national interests in its articulation and implementation” (Vrdoljak, 2015, p. 3) further complicates the situation. Evidently, even when nations attempt to look beyond the national level, when the stakes are high, they tend to retreat to the practices Auwera, Anderson, Thomas and Deckers observed.

Dissociating nations and their violent histories

In addition to the earlier mentioned issues (Auwera, 2012; Brodie, 2015b; Stone, 2015; Anderson, 2016; Thomas & Deckers, 2020), the polarity and interconnectedness between nations, cultural heritage and conflicts appears to produce several other uncomfortable effects. For instance, in their efforts to protect cultural heritage during conflicts, heritage professionals are often compelled to work closely with nation-states and their armies (Stone, 2005). According to Hamilakis, these types of collaborations inevitably comprise at least a partial acceptance of the concerned nation-state’s viewpoints, and provide the nation-state’s actions — even if these involve the destruction of heritage — with a lure of legitimacy (Hamilakis, 2009), as nation-states can argue they are coordinating with cultural heritage experts. Hamilakis also notes that, despite the fact that international organizations like The Blue Shield position themselves as independent and neutral, their members have “compromised the independence of their organisations and their own, by collaborating with the invading armies of their own countries, engaging in an illegal war” (Hamilakis, 2009, p. 54). The delicate balance and internal contrariety of The Blue Shield are also reflected in The Blue Shield’s national branches, which position themselves as independent from nation-states, but contradictorily refer to ‘their’ nations in their names — “Blue Shield Denmark”, for instance — (la Cour Jensen, personal communication, 2022), thereby showcasing that, even though there might be no formal connections, there are obvious social and cultural ties.

‘F*** this arch and all the colonial b*****ks it stands for’

Another problem stems from the violent histories of at least some of the nations that are involved in heritage conflicts. The observation that many of them can be labeled “ex-colonial nations” (Brodie, 2015a, p. 318) even affects interpretations by ‘ordinary people’ that are citizens of these nations. A publication about public responses to a recreation of the Palmyra Arch in London that were written on postcards notes that: “Six of the postcards addressed this issue, for example: ‘F*** this arch and all the colonial b*****ks it stands for’ […] The setting, in the UK and, more specifically, in Trafalgar Square, caused some concern. One card commented on the ‘politics of reproducing in London imagery from the Orient’”. (Kamash, 2017, p. 616) The responses demonstrate how the violent pasts of nations penetrate their contemporary practices, even if these are meant to be benign. However, the postcards might also reveal that non-professionals are maybe less inclined to focus on the national dimension, as people made references to “London” and “the Orient” (Kamash, 2017, p. 613), while others mentioned historic regions — “Mesopotamia”, for instance — and remembered historic events — “Mostar in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina” (Kamash, 2017, p. 611), for instance, which is a famous example of cultural heritage destruction (Auwera, 2012). 

This still was taken from a video that shows the destruction of Mostar's "Old bridge" in 1993.

Furthermore, there are also practical reasons why the focus on the national dimension might not be in cultural heritage’s best interests. Threats to cultural heritage often operate across borders — think for instance of the global illegal antiquities market —, and the fixation on specific nations will distract from the needs of others (Brodie, 2015a). The latter is aptly illustrated by Brodie’s answer to the question why “no one is talking about Libya's cultural destruction”: “the international community is focused upon cultural destruction in Syria and […] Iraq” (Brodie, 2015b, p. 212). Brodie labels this issue “Country-Specific Actions”, and argues that the aforementioned international organizations have the ability to shift international focus from bordered nation-states to transboundary categories of cultural heritage artifacts (Brodie, 2015b). Hitherto, however, it appears this possibility has not delivered noteworthy results.

The digitally driven deaths of nations?

Thus far, we might conclude that nations are at least partially constructed through cultural heritage and are therefore highly committed to construct and destruct cultural heritage in their advantage; leading to a symbiosis that encourages a type of national dominance in which the actual protection of cultural heritage becomes subordinate to the survival of the culturally imagined nation. Interestingly, the centrality of nations is perceived as problematic far beyond contexts of cultural heritage destruction and conflicts. The critical heritage studies movement, for instance, has noted that the nation-states’ privileges and control over cultural heritage and the interplay between nations and cultural heritage encourages nations to disregard and erase cultural heritage that does not fit its preferred national narrative, thereby dismissing and impairing particular cultural heritage communities (Hafstein, 2012; Silberman, 2015) — it is worth bearing in mind that a nation-state's positive preferences can negatively impact communities as well (Hafstein, 2018; Thomas & Deckers, 2020). The consequential desire to empower cultural heritage communities — which implicitly embeds the desire to impede others — is also reflected in conventions and texts that focus on the agency of these communities. Think for instance of the Faro Convention, which departs from, amongst other things, a context of conflict in order to position people and communities at the center of cultural heritage, and to imagine a network of interconnected and shared European heritages (Zagato, 2015).

While critical accounts and positions regarding the practices of nation-states seem to become increasingly common in the field of heritage studies, other disciplines and subdisciplines from the social and cultural sciences have a history of approaching the subject even more radically. From the perspective of ‘digital culture’ — a perspective that focuses on “some of the most dramatic and important transformations that are the result of the increasing ubiquity and importance of digital technologies” (Gere, 2009, p. 7) — it seemed even reasonable to wonder whether ‘nations’ and 'nation-states' remain valid entities in globalized societies, and should not simply be dismissed as obsolete reliques from the pre-digital past (Lu & Liu, 2018). This inclination has been part of the internet ever since its initial popular expansion. Already in 1996, ‘cyberlibertarian’ John Perry Barlow started his A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace with the following appeal: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace […] On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone […] You have no sovereignty where we gather.” (Barlow, 1996) Despite the fact that Barlow does not use the words 'nations' or 'nation-states' to address the ‘governments’ he is referring to, other publications have interpreted his use of ‘governments’ as synonymous to ‘nation-states’, arguing that Barlow proclaims the end of the frontiered world of nations through the emergence of the boundless world of the internet (Ludlow, 2001). And so the question arises; if there's a conflict between nations and the internet that is lost by the former, what about cultural heritage?

Barlow proclaims the end of the frontiered world of nations through the emergence of the boundless world of the internet.

It must be understood that, like the idea that the dominance of nations is culturally constructed with the aid of cultural heritage, their perceived redundancy and obsolescence is culturally constructed too. In their famous manifesto The Californian Ideology, Barbrook and Cameron note that: “Information technologies, so the argument goes, empower the individual, enhance personal freedom, and radically reduce the power of the nation-state.” (Barbrook & Cameron, 1996, p. 53) The Californian ideology merges hippy liberalism with profound neoliberal and capitalist persuasions, and its traces can be found throughout the Silicon Valley tech industry. This part of the tech industry has both the global reach and resources that are necessary to reproduce its ideological beliefs, and the explicit intention to do so. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, has described the American tech industry as “one of the ways that America shares its values with the world and one of our greatest economic and cultural exports” (House Committee on the Judiciary, 2020). In this sense, it might be fair to argue that digital technologies are envisioned as potential infrastructures for the construction of US inspired post-national imaginaries similar to the manner in which cultural heritage can be understood as an infrastructure for the construction of nations and nationalisms. However, we might also interpret Zuckerberg's statement as meaning that Facebook and its kindred platforms are like cultural heritage artifacts; meant to be passed along to new generations of internet users while embodying the values and narratives of their creators and producing particular post-national identities. As such, while nations needed to construct the infrastructures and apparatus to spread and embed their cultures, on online platforms, the practical dimension and its ideological content coincide. Virtual post-national culture products exude ideological post-national cultures, and vice versa.

The latter can be further substantiated by again considering Barlow's declaration, as he argues: "Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions. You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces. You do not know our culture, our ethics, or the unwritten codes [...]" (Barlow, 1996). Though there are obvious reasons to critically rethink the assertion that the growth of the internet is 'an act of nature' and the result of 'collective actions', it's clear that the narratives of nations and the narratives of post-nations are cut from the same cloth: the building of environments, collective imagination, language, culture and norms. Similar themes can be discerned in Zuckerberg's Building Global Community, in which he asks: "How do we help people build an inclusive community that reflects our collective values and common humanity from local to global levels, spanning cultures, nations and regions in a world with few examples of global communities?" (Zuckerberg, 2017)

This still was taken from the live streamed hearing during which Mark Zuckerberg described the American tech industry as a 'cultural export'.

Why culturally imagined nation-states are alive and thriving

Together, publications from the perspectives of heritage studies and digital culture produce an image of contemporary political imaginaries that might appear rather contradictory and ambiguous. While some publications that arise from a digital culture perspective predict the end of the dominance of nation-states (Barlow, 1996; Barbrook & Cameron, 1996) — and even indicate there are entities that have the intentions and resources to bring about this end —, other publications argue that nations and nation-states still hold a central position in our worldviews and globalized practices, and that the significance of nationalism in relation to heritage and heritage conflicts has even increased (Auwera, 2012). The sum of this seemingly inconsistent observation might best be encapsulated by the title of a publication that specifically engages with the digital culture perspective on nation-states; “The Nation-State: Not Dead Yet” (Roberts, 2015), which explains that the various publications that heralded the impeding ends of nation-states failed to take into account that nations are not just ‘nostalgic fictions’, but also contemporary imaginaries with a material dimension — nation-states and their territories — that have the ability to adjust and transform themselves in response to their continually changing contexts. The idea that digital technologies were envisioned to produce a neoliberal ‘global village’ that would drastically reduce the breadth of nation-states failed to incorporate the notion that digital technologies can also be utilized to produce and disseminate contrary persuasions. And in these counteracting actions, cultural heritage often plays a vital role. An analysis of the websites of the former Yugoslav states, for instance, indicates that cultural heritage is currently extensively employed to produce national identities online (Volcic, 2008). Though there is an obvious power imbalance, Meta's digital affordances are equally accessible to Facebook, Barlow and the former Yugoslav states, and can be used to share all types of nationalist ideas, despite their embedded post-nationalism.

“the internet has begun to fracture along national and cultural lines” (Turner, 2007)

Considering the combined utilization of cultural heritage and digital technologies, it might not come as a surprise that, according to Turner, research demonstrates that “the internet has begun to fracture along national and cultural lines” (Turner, 2007). Both Turner and other scholars argue that nation-states have managed to appropriate some of the persuasions and practices of the internet and have subsequently been able to partially transform the internet in accordance with their conceptions while partially being transformed by the Californian ideology themselves (Volcic, 2008). The idea that ‘Cyberspace’ would remain free from state interference has been overtaken by a reality in which communities converge and differentiate themselves based on shared cultural beliefs and practices, which are regularly inspired by nationalism, and thus at least partially reproduce the nation and the nation-state.

Yet, despite the fact that the actions of nation-states and other entities are often seen as dominant and impactful, their actions can only become meaningful when there is a community that can be impacted. Academic research, however, has often undervalued the agency of ‘ordinary people’ in relation to the power of nation-states and Big Tech (Burgess et al., 2022). In digital environments, communities are not only entrusted with the production of culture in algorithmic collaborations — which leave plenty of space for human creativity —, but also make up a significant part of partially pre-programmed digital infrastructures through their interactions in a way that might be comparable to the role ‘heritage carriers’ have in intangible heritage networks.

(Trans)national heritage communities online

Thankfully, during the last few decades, new research has emerged that specifically addresses online cultural heritage communities. Bernal, for instance, has described how “Eritreans in diaspora use the internet as a transnational public sphere”. (Bernal, 2006) Her research depicts the online influence of the ‘diaspora Eritreans’ on the construction of a new imaginary Eritrean nation-state — existing parallel to at least one diverging imagined Eritrean community —, and calls for the development of new concepts and theories that deal with the existence of online communities that combine virtual, transnational realities with national imaginaries. A publication about the Croatian diaspora reveals a comparable digital phenomenon, which is described as “creative imaginings of a national space” (Stubbs, 1999). In this sense, the publications demonstrate that the internet is not just a communication tool for nation-states that wish to strengthen their national narratives, but also a dialogical environment that provides ‘ordinary people’ with resources and affordances to share, construct, (re)produce and challenge national imaginaries and the cultural heritage that is used for their nation's construction. 

These online diasporic communities might also remind us of the idea that the internet provides opportunities for heritage communities to exist and meet without the necessity of a shared, physical environment. The discussion platform Reddit, for instance, accommodates a reasonably sized ‘viking’ community, in which Redditors exchange, for instance, advice regarding “Summer Viking Clothes” and translations in the runic alphabet Younger Futhark. But not every online heritage community is as innocent as the Reddit vikings. For example, research has found that there are various online groups that congregate around Nazi heritage and employ this heritage to reproduce fascist ideologies and construct new digital white supremacist networks (Burris et al., 2000). Phenomena like these might be connected to Auwera’s observation regarding the connection between heritage destruction and an increased emphasis on identity politics (Auwera, 2012). Despite the fact that Auwera does not mention the role of the internet in this development, it is difficult not to think of the manner in which ISIS has utilized the internet to publicly display the destruction of cultural heritage (Stein, 2022). Furthermore, the online nazis and Reddit vikings might also demonstrate that contemporary heritage communities regularly entail “relations between people that appear less and less stable and clear-cut” (Rana et al., 2017, p. 980), as it seems increasingly difficult to determine how ‘membership’ of their social groups is defined, and it is reasonable to think that they adhere to other, sometimes even adverse, communities as well (Blommaert & Varis, 2011). 

This is a still from an ISIS video shows the destruction of statues and sculptures in the museum of Mosul.

To conclude: a dialogue between the internet and heritage conflicts

Using the approaches of Venturini & Munk (2021) and Chilton (1988) as a starting point, this article aimed to raise new questions by inserting the notion of digitalization and the internet's (in)famous anti-statist discourse to the interplay between nations, cultural heritage and conflicts. Hence, this article finds that academic research on cultural heritage destruction and theft produces an image of a reciprocal relationship between nation-states and cultural heritage that becomes extravagated in contexts of heritage conflicts; a relationship that partially contradicts some of the ideas that have played a prominent role in the perspectives of digital culture, according to which the Internet in general — and nowadays major tech corporations in particular — might drastically decrease nation-states' dominance. Though it seems evident that the internet has impacted every dimension of society, it is also clear that nation-states, nations and 'their' cultural heritage(s) have had a significant impact on digital technologies and digital culture(s) as well, as their cultural dominance was recorded into online networks of communities that partially comply with imagined nationalisms and partially employ other characteristics to shape and understand their coherence.

As nations, (trans)national heritage communities and cultural heritage are all inherently dynamic, neither conflicts nor the internet appear to have drastically reduced the nation-states' abilities to instrumentalize cultural heritage in order to reinforce its authority in various situations and environments. This elaboration demonstrates that, despite the menacing language of people like Barlow (1996) and the political discourse of Zuckerberg (Zuckerberg, 2017; House Committee on the Judiciary, 2020), Stone’s quote from the Kabul museum (2005) remains at least partially true. In fact, while national governments might nowadays sometimes surrender some of their power to major tech corporations, nations and their nationalisms may have managed to become more alive than ever because of the manner in which their national narratives and culture(s) are reproduced and imagined online. Just like monumental sites and overseas areas in the past (Anderson, 2016), digital environments and their cultural artifacts can be appropriated and instrumentalized, both by nations and by post-nations.


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