Immaterial Civilization

What is the intangible equivalent of Angkor Wat or the Acropolis? The United Nations wants to know 

A few months ago, during a visit to France, I sat with a friend at breakfast as he scanned the front page of Le Figaro. He read for a moment, raised an eyebrow, and then handed the newspaper across the table, pointing to a prominent item below the fold. According to the article, the Italian Minister of Agriculture, Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, had launched a campaign to have pizza declared, in essence, a World Heritage Concept, under a new program by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. Scanio's contention was that pizza was not simply a physical object but, rather, partook of a higher, existential estate, and ought to be considered as the embodiment of a certain kind of creative genius. As such, he argued, pizza met the criteria for UNESCO's soon-to-be-announced list of "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity."

This initiative came as news to me. An older UNESCO effort is of course widely known: the World Heritage List, begun in 1972 and today numbering almost 700 sites of "exceptional universal value." These are mostly cultural properties (Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, the pyramids, the Statue of Liberty), but they include many natural locations as well (Yosemite National Park, Kilimanjaro National Park, the Great Barrier Reef, the Galápagos Islands). Although one may quibble with some of the selections (the monuments of Neolithic Orkney, fine, but not the architecture of central Dublin? Taos Pueblo but not the mesa-top communities of the Hopi?), the designations by and large seem sensible. The sites gain a certain amount of protection and display their World Heritage status on special plaques.

But why limit UNESCO's validating embrace to the realm of the physical? What about manifestations of human genius that may be ubiquitous but also happen to be intangible? These questions began to weigh heavily on the mind of Koïchiro Matsuura, the director general of UNESCO. Last March, at Grinzane Cavour Castle, in Italy, Matsuura convened an international conclave to draw up final guidelines for the list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. That heritage, as Matsuura defined it, represents a broad expanse of conceptual territory—"an infinity of expressions," including the "language, traditional values, and know-how" of human communities.

Looking all this up, after breakfast that morning in France, I was delighted to learn that the first list of Intangible Masterpieces, chosen by an international jury, would be announced by UNESCO within just a few weeks, in late spring. There were clear indications that pizza wouldn't make the cut (according to Le Figaro, UNESCO had not received a nomination for pizza from the Italian government), but one's imagination could play over a range of other possibilities. What, after all, is the intangible equivalent of Angkor Wat or the Acropolis, of Tikal or the Taj Mahal?

Alas, the list, promulgated at UNESCO's Paris headquarters, proved to be a little underwhelming. Japan's Nôgaku theater. The hudhud chants of the Ifugao people, in the Philippines. The Orura carnival, in Bolivia. The "cultural space" of the Semeiskie people, in Russia. The music of the transverse trumpets of the Tagbana community, in Côte d'Ivoire. And so on. These are indisputably worthy endeavors. But the overall impression is of program listings for public television at 3:00 A.M.

Happily, UNESCO still has an opportunity to inject vitality and ambition into the enterprise. The organization plans to announce a second group of Intangible Masterpieces in the spring of 2003, and it is already soliciting nominations. Some candidates of real distinction may then be added to the list. Here are a few possibilities.

The white lie. Paleolinguists speculate that the first question asked after human beings developed speech may have been "How do I look?" Civilization itself—based on people's living peaceably in groups—became possible when someone figured out that the correct answer was "You look great!" This is one of the core human insights: that a promiscuous and devil-may-care honesty can be a poor substitute for a lubricious glaze of selfless mendacity. The moral status of the white lie, or mendacium officiosum, resists precise calibration, but its social utility is hard to overestimate.

The weekend. Nothing in nature—nothing in mammalian biorhythms or the procession of the heavens—dictates that two days out of seven be devoted to physical relief. And yet here we are, owing in part to the sabbath and perhaps in part to Henry Ford, one of the first industrialists to shut down factories on Saturdays. Leisure is an intangible wrested from the larger intangible of time. "Is it fanciful to propose," the architect and social critic Witold Rybczynski has asked, "that the repetitive cycle of week and weekend is a modern paraphrase of the ancient opposition of profane and sacred time?"

The passive voice. The guardians of language and usage view it with suspicion. William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, in The Elements of Style, stated their opinion of the passive voice (implicitly) in Rule No. 10: "Use the active voice." The magisterial H. W. Fowler's Modern English Usage maintains that the passive voice often amounts to a "pusillanimous shrinking from responsibility." True. But the passive voice wins allies for the same reason that it garners censure. It blows a soft fog across the hard landscape of causality. "Mistakes were made," said Vice President George Bush of the Iran-contra affair in 1986, accepting blame while carefully deflecting it. This is a conceptual space that at some point shelters everyone.

Regular. We all know what the notion of regular stands for, though its meaning mutates with circumstance. Regular coffee. Regular gasoline. Regular hours. A regular customer. A regular guy. The notion of regular is the unacknowledged gyroscope of the ordinary; in a world of eroding values it testifies to a continuing acceptance of certain conditions as normative. "I know I'm not a regular fellow," says a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, "yet I loathe anybody else that isn't."

Phenomenology. Talk about masterpieces of intangible heritage! Phenomenology speaks to an age-old conundrum: whether the thing called reality possesses any objective underpinnings or is in fact merely an illusion. This is the stuff of giddy speculation and dark nights of the soul. Phenomenology offers the reassurance that an understanding of reality is inseparable from what reality appears to be. I know people who have pursued this strategy for years, leading apparently useful and productive lives.

Are these suggestions on a par with the hudhud chants of the Ifugao? Do they meet the threshold set by the transverse trumpets of the Tagbana? If not, then what about irony as a candidate for Intangible Masterpiece? What about mnemonic devices or self-fulfilling prophecies? What about compound interest? The International Date Line? Selective amnesia? Hindsight? Procrastination? Getting water marks off finished wood?

What about the schoolyard taunt "nyeah-nyeah-nah-nyeah-nyeah," some variant of which, linguists say, can be found in many cultures; might this melodic jeering be considered an Intangible Masterpiece? Or the existential condition encapsulated by "okay," a word that has infiltrated nearly every culture? What about the idea of privacy—a newcomer to the repertoire of social sensibility? Or what about the space between things—Zwischenraum, as the Germans call it, a crucial but intangible component of all relationships? What about silence, the most endangered intangible of our age?

Director General Matsuura has been urging individuals and states to begin compiling an inventory of the world's intangible heritage, and I plan to forward my proposals to the authorities in Paris. One question about the winners: Where will they hang the plaques?