Book review: Monumental Ambivalence: The Politics of Heritage by Lisa Breglia

I wrote this book review in 2007 when I was a doctoral student, but due to pressing issues with my dissertation, it was never published. Monumental Ambivalence deserves more attention, as it foreshadowed many of the contemporary debates in critical heritage studies.

MONUMENTAL AMBIVALENCE: THE POLITICS OF HERITAGE by Lisa Breglia. Austin: University of Texas Press. 2006. xii + 242 pages, illustrations, maps, notes, index, $50.00 hardcover, $22.95 paperback. ISBN 978-0-292-71427-4 (hardcover); ISBN 978-0-292-71480-9 (paperback).

Reviewed by Jeremy C. Wells

The diversity of meanings associated with cultural landscapes has long been recognized as both a potential and a barrier in the management of these resources. Interventions that impact heritage resources tend to catalyze people and organizations into polarized positions that can be difficult to reconcile. Our mantra has been to engage “stakeholders” in a discussion to achieve the often elusive goal of consensus. But what if consensus is a myth, that under normal circumstances cannot, in fact, be achieved? In Monumental Ambivalence, Lisa Breglia takes on the task of understanding the meanings of heritage that are charged with the potential of regenerative creative acts from the perspectives of the state, private interests, and indigenous peoples.

Monumental Ambivalence is a multi-ethnographic case study in the Yucatán, Mexico of the Chichén Itzá and Chunchucmil archaeological sites framed in the recent neoliberalist practices of the Mexican state. Breglia’s goal is to uncover the complexity and interaction of ownership, custodianship, and cultural inheritance at two prominent archaeological sites in Mexico. The state seeks to infuse heritage with univocal meaning — heritage as nationalism — while local actors give their places entirely different meanings, often rooted in their decades-long intimate association with a place and given justification through family patrimony. Archaeologists and tourism specialists add their own concepts to this imbroglio of meanings. Breglia refers to this place-specific collection of meanings as “monumental ambivalence,” which she explains is needed because “the workday definitions of ‘heritage’ or ‘patrimony’ simply cannot account for the variety and contradiction evident in how local residents, state officials, archaeologists, and others used (and abused) heritage on the ground” (8).

The creation of heritage is a process of negotiation between various social actors. Paradoxically, while the Mexican state tries to invoke common meanings through legislation, it actually engenders ambivalence by catalyzing conflicting ideas among social actors (31). The intersection of legislation and local social practices is “disjunctive, producing a space of ambivalence between law and territory” (33). According to Breglia, “monumentality strives to erase — and thus assumes the erasure of — ambivalence. But once we begin to look for the fissures in monumentality, we find that ambivalence abounds” (3). Much of Monumental Ambivalence is a search for these “fissures” in order to reveal ambivalence. For instance, heritage for the Maya living in context with the ruins of Chichén Itzá is “a practiced non-acceptance of heritage as a unified, privileged sphere dominated alternately by the state, archaeological science, and the tourism industry” (9).

Breglia’s method is noteworthy for its post-modern foundations based on the philosophies of Henri Lefebvre, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Felix Guattari. Lefebvre is perhaps the most important philosopher for his idea of moving the object of study from the “things in space,” which are the archaeological monuments themselves, to a study of space itself in order to explore the role that “social relations fills in an ever-widening gap in our understandings of the past, present and future of heritage” (25). While Breglia’s work is primarily an ethnography based on interviews and participant observations, she appropriates Foucault’s genealogical method for archival research in order recreate the problems of the past which give rise to “local, flexible, and provisional discourses of cultural patrimony” (26).

The most powerful idea in Monumental Ambivalence is that heritage is a socially-created hierarchy of values within a national, regional, and local culture. Breglia moves the study of heritage from the artifact to culture, or what she refers to as “heritage-as-practice,” which is a “performative, process-oriented enterprise, never teleological, always experimental [that] promotes the sustenance of the ambivalence forming the core and feeding the pulse of the heritage assemblage” (54). Therefore, heritage is not a static concept, nor is it an idea that is somehow physically embodied in an immovable object, such as a building or a landscape. By deprecating issues of time, Breglia is opening up the study of heritage “as a contingent practice situated in actual time and space” (34). Heritage is not simply meanings that come to us from the past; rather it is constructed by culture on a moment by moment basis—it is where we are right now. Any attempt to fix meaning will result in something important being lost; it is better to understand how meaning is evolving rather than engage in the “glaciation of the past” (3, quoted from Foucault).

Like many ethnographic studies, Breglia’s study is translatable outside the context of Mexico and has important implications for how preservationists/conservationists plan interventions in any area of the world. By recognizing that heritage is not univocal, but rather full of meanings, many potentialities avail themselves to those who steward cultural resources. But how can these practitioners provide the “sustenance of the ambivalence” and feed “the pulse of the heritage assemblage”? The key to this answer is in dispelling the traditional idea of consensus and single meanings. Breglia recognizes heritage as a “a particular kind of social relationship, a postmodern search for origins … that references—without being predicated upon—material culture.” The goal isn’t understanding “roots,” but rather understanding “routes”—or how the meanings were created (11). By contextualizing the problems that give rise to meanings in heritage, practitioners can be better prepared to incorporate and reify a diversity of meanings within their work.

Guided by the the concepts espoused in Monumental Ambivalence, conservation practitioners should be concerned about sustaining heritage instead of artificially “preserving” it. The retention of heritage can be thought of as a process of renewing meanings: “Understood as practice, heritage is an endlessly renewable resource, not some ‘thing’ to be extracted from the contexts of its users or locked away for its own good” (13). Therefore the ultimate goal should be to engage in a series of creative acts that renew the “intellectual property” (299) of heritage because the ultimate beneficiary of an intervention is the array of social actors associated with a particular heritage site, not the site itself. The radical idea at stake is that historic preservation should be engaged in the cultivation of meanings, not the preservation of “things.” While the intervention must of course focus on what is done to the object, the designer should be guided by the “ambivalence” of heritage rather than assuming that the object will communicate its true state to the designer.

Monumental Ambivalence can be widely applied beyond its anthropological context to heritage conservation, policy creation, and planning and should be an essential tool for any practitioner faced with the challenge of creating or managing an intervention within an historic landscape. Certainly, ethnographic studies, such as Breglia’s, should be considered a useful part of the planning process before engaging in an intervention. There is a radical difference between holding public meetings, which tend to privilege the meanings of the class in power, to a type of study whose ultimate goal is to understand the emic or insider’s perspective. Now fully informed, the practitioner can move from the fallacious state of consensus to embracing the plurality of meanings created by a variety of social actors and from which the truly creative act of renewing the meanings of heritage can take place.

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